Society in lockdown

With the humanitarian disaster aside, those of us in lockdown have an unusual view of society. Where I live, there are several supermarkets and busy roads, so when I look out of the window, it is usually an endless parade of yuppiemobiles. Now, with all the unessential jobs being closed, I can see modern society in its purest form.

When I look out of the window, I see a trickle of vehicles, the occasional dog walker, and people exercising — sometimes I am one of them. It goes without saying that I prefer things this way. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if we were still able to visit family and friends, it would be almost perfect in terms of lifestyle.

As someone who is due to enter back into the world of work in approximately one year, providing my PhD doesn’t get extended, which it probably will, I am not exactly thrilled at the prospect. Not because I don’t like working, I spend most of my day at my computer working on various projects, but because I know the dilemma is waiting.

The dilemma? Take a job that pays well, an office job that really shouldn’t exist and should have been replaced by software years ago, but is still in place to help justify all manner of resource-blackholes. I am thinking of something in finance, middle-management, sales or marketing here. Or, I do something that is socially useful and remunerated far less for e.g. researcher.

My overriding thoughts for a while have been: “why haven’t the increases in technology over the years, reduced the number of hours we need to work?” We moved from the fields to the factories, and now to the offices with importance degrading at each step.

We still need to work as much as if we were in the fields. Most office jobs require us to be on-call and act as if we are busy 100% of the working day. We have spread out the work, by padding it with lengthy stints of wandering around the internet and becoming Walter Mitties. Let’s wake-up from this collective stupor, do the things that are important and spend the rest of the time working on something we believe to be important.

Hopefully, there will be some form of transformation in society from the current crisis. Maybe we should start paying people with essential jobs as if they were essential. Why is there an inverse relationship between relative importance to society and compensation?

Probably lots of social and historical reasons that I don’t understand!

Well, there are my ramblings from inside the lockdown 2020. I hope those who celebrate Easter have a great day! I have already eaten one chocolate egg whilst writing this—time for a dose of government-mandated physical exertion.

The University is closed for the foreseeable future

We are in unprecedented times – I really mean it this time! The university has been closed; as a PhD researcher, this presents somewhat of a challenge. Many of you will be in a similar or worse situation, and I hope all works out well for you – I am confident it will.

Due to the way the finances work for my studentship, the money was paid upfront, and therefore my wages are ‘guaranteed’ until the end of the studentship, which happens to be almost one year from now. Consequently, I am luckier than most in that although I have lost my primary place of work for the foreseeable future, I can still work from home and not have to worry about money in the short-term.

But how will an academic cope with social isolation? Well, fortunately, I have been doing my part for social isolation since I decided to do a PhD. Ninety-percent of my time is spent alone, writing, analysing-data, or working in the lab. Being an introvert is helpful in a situation like this, and my mother has always said that ‘I enjoy my own company’.

So, for me, the pandemic has changed very little about my life. The most significant change is that the gym is closed, and the kick-boxing society is on hiatus. I suspect I will get extremely proficient at press-ups over the coming few months! Also, it might be the time to get into yoga – my shoulders will thank me.

How long will it last?

I was speaking to my supervisor as she drove me home from the university for what could be the last time? She said that they are starting to think about re-opening the university in September or even January 2021! Because of the large volume of people that congregate at universities, I suspect it will be one of the last places to return to normality. Therefore, I am in this for the long run!

When I asked her how she thinks the shut-down will affect her students (me and three others) who will graduate in ~ a year, she said we would get extensions. My first reaction was, please no! I like the student lifestyle, and it is a privileged position, but I need to do something else. I am someone who gets bored with anything after several years, which is why I will never master anything.

My life for the foreseeable future will involve lots of writing. Academic writing to be precise. Maybe the silver lining to this pandemic is that I will be forced to improve my writing. Either I will improve my writing, or my ability to procrastinate.

The mid-term future has become much more cloudy than ever before, with no one having any idea of how society will change. We will be talking about this time for decades to come.

I wish everyone who reads this the best of luck, and I have been pleasantly surprised out how we have all acted in this crisis – apart from you panic buyers!

Digital cleaning – 95

For the last three months, my computer has been performing very poorly, and I have been spending many a weekend trying to figure out why. Well, I have finally fixed the problem, it turns out there was an issue with my cooling, after several minutes of the computer being on it had reached 100°C – which is better than my kettle. To avoid completely burning itself out the computer, it saves itself and reduces its performance.

If you don’t know this is happening and have never seen the consequences before it can be quite hard to diagnose. I reinstalled windows, changed the GPU, and doubled the amount of ram all to no avail. If only the computer would tell me it was limiting to performance due to it being too hot it would have cost me a lot less time and money. I am not worried about Skynet taking when my computer can’t even tell me it’s overheating.

Anyway, it is always satisfying when you have been working on a problem for a long period, and eventually, you solve it. One of the good things about doing a PhD is that my resilience when it comes to problem-solving. I haven’t yet developed a robust system for problem-solving, which may help in adaptability for different types of problem. Still, it does mean it is slower than it perhaps could be. Concerning pc repair, my new favourite tool is ‘openhardwaremonitor‘. It tells you what every single piece of hardware is doing and is great for diagnosing problems.

At the university, things are starting to wind down for the holidays. In practical terms, it means that I only have two weeks left of the year (Yes, this was written in December) in which to complete the experiments I planned to. I am confident I won’t get them all done, but I will get into a position where everything will be completed by the end of January.

If I had it my way I would work a little longer this year as I am in a flow state where everything is going well at the moment, but the equipment at the university is very expensive and temperamental, and it isn’t as easy as just switching it off. It is a big operation to shut down all the machinery, and a coordinated effort is required. Because of this, we can’t just work when we want, when our machines switch off, so do we.

Wishing you all a happy New Year!

It is the end of the year by date, and I thought I would wish everyone a belated Merry Christmas and a happy New-Year.

I have been spending some time away at the parent’s house, and purposefully ignoring everything that is part of my ‘usual-life’ which includes this blog.

For me, 2019 has been a year in which there have been a few significant events in my life, one of which being the purchase of a property, and yet it feels as if it has been a year of ‘getting on with it’.

I am in the middle of my studies, and my life is locked in its current state for another year and a half. Then the familiar turbulent lifestyle where one must attend interviews for work, that in all honesty, we would rather not.

‘Money can be exchanged for goods and services’ is no longer a valid answer to, ‘so why do you want this job?’

I am looking forward to the next year, although I am expecting more of the same. It is 2021 where things will get interesting!

Anyway, I wish you all the best, and thanks for reading.

Democracy and bending the rules – 96

We had an election here in the UK yesterday (yes this was written in December). Because of this, I have been reflecting on why we, as a society, tend to vote against our best interests. I used to believe that it was because people were ignorant and therefore easily tricked into voting against their interests.

I no longer think this is as significant a factor as I used to; I now believe that it is the aspirations of people that are causing potentially poor decisions to be made.

In the UK we don’t really have an ‘American dream’ to aspire for, or so I thought. Perhaps we do, maybe we want to be those classical Tories who go to Eton college and then to work in the city.

Like our working-class American cousins, most of us are closer to being homeless than we are to being wealthy, and you would think our voting would reflect that. Instead of admitting that we may not be middle class and voting accordingly, we vote for the party we want to be a part of rather than the one that might help to get us there.

I know I am the odd one who bothers to look at the manifestos of each party and then decide who to vote for based on the one that ticks the most of my boxes. I won’t tell you who I voted before. Still, seeing as I am in academia, it might be easy for you to guess if you know the direction academics tend to vote.

Speaking of academia, I am working much more than normal at the moment so that I can meet the relatively arbitrary deadline of finishing all of my experiments by Christmas. This includes working in the lab both days of the weekend, which is not advised. Not for any reason other than there is no one around to help you if there is an accident. A sensible rule that is not always headed.

Technically, you’re not allowed to work alone in a lab alone, although I would imagine not a lot of work would get done if this was enforced. You do have to have to use your initiative and disregard the rules on occasion, there are often people coming in and out of the lab, so the risk is quite low. However, this is not true on the weekends.

Sometimes you have to break the rules?

Contentment of Perseverance – 94

An avocado, apple and a banana walk into a fridge. As part of my research, I am looking at how things degrade in the consumer environment. By consumer environment, I mean a refrigerator. I will be capturing the colour change of various salad products; then showing the resulting time-lapse images to ‘consumers’, so we can find out when people will and will not eat the product. Then we will be able to predict how long the shelf life should be based on the rate of colour change.

That is the simple explanation anyway.

Here is my test video looking at things that change colour quickly!

Each second of video is 2.5 hours in real-life. One of my collegues sugested I submit this to the tate modern. All I need to do now is think of a pretentious title. How about: Contentment of Perseverance.

Producing a system capable of this is something I would have never predicted doing during my studies, seeing as I have no background in computer science or electrical engineering – or tinkering for that matter. You would think taking a time-lapse video inside a fridge is as simple as putting a camera inside a refrigerator and pressing go. The kicker is that the light needs to be only on when the image is taken, as firstly, the light is not always on in a refrigerator, secondly light will affect the product that is being studied (as light affects plants).

Put the light on a timer? That would probably work as long as the clocks on the camera and timer are synchronised. Instead of trying to figure this out, I linked up the camera and light to a computer, and then the computer controls the timing of both, which keeps them in sync. A fraction of a second drift may cause problems over the 2-3 weeks I need the time-lapse to last for, it would be a disaster of the last portion of the time-lapse was pure darkness as the light did not come in.

By building this system, I have learnt so much about electronics, and I believe I could see myself as a tinkerer In future – where is my shed? It’s much more fun learning how to make things yourself rather than buying things pre-assembled. I come from a line of tradesmen and engineers, so I guess this finding is not so surprising. However, I do feel as though I should have done engineering rather than food science. Looking back, it does seem rather strange of the younger me chose to study food and nutrition.

If you could do it all over, what would you change?

Although I believe that if I did it again, I would do something else; I also know that this type of thinking is illogical due to the fact I have already done the thing I said I would do differently – hindsight.

The great restorer – 94

One odd side-effect of being a student that I did not anticipate is the financial efficiency that I have had to develop. For me, this has developed into a habit of fixing and maintaining things myself rather than paying other people or buying new items.

I spent four hours today changing the bottom bracket in my new (to me) pride and joy, a mid-1970s Puch Alpine bicycle that I bought for £45 from a local cycling charity. The bike is old enough to be my father. Of all the things I own, I think it may be my favourite, and I can’t quite express why I like it so much. <Insert Image>. Something is satisfying about keeping kit running that has been a work-horse for, I assume, several people before me. Although, whoever had it before had very ugly handle bars, I have since changed them for much prettier matching brown leather ones.

Vintage puch alpine road bike

Last-weekend I repaired the battery on my iPhone 5s, and now it works better than ever – and it only cost me £10 and some time on YouTube. I have been tempted, and very close to, purchasing a new bike and phone over the last few months when they both had failed me. But for some reason, it now has become amusing to me to see how long I can keep them going. I have started to notice people make nostalgic comments towards my phone when I get it out, which is interesting – it was released in 2013.

When it comes to technology, especially phones, it seems that anything older than five years is museum-worthy. In fact, my previous phone (the iPhone 3gs) was in the science museum of London a few years ago when I was visiting. I had one in my pocket, and everyone found the moment when I pulled it out for comparison hysterical.

More than merely saving money, which I must admit is a nice perk, I also get to learn things by fixing my stuff, and for me, this has become a hobby itself. It is a win-win situation when you try to fix something; you’re ready to replace it anyway, so if you break it trying to fix it you’re at no loss. If you fix it, you save yourself some money that could be put to better use.

Fixing the things you have rather than purchasing the latest version of that item may be a subversive act in 2019 as consumerism is considered a pillar of morality. Anarcho-punks of the future will be those that can wield a soldering iron, huffing on the fumes of the rosin liberated from the flowing solder. When that time comes, as a contrarian, I will be forced to innovate and turn towards consumerism.

If I put half as much effort into my writing as I did my bike, I might have got much further through my thesis and produced some half-decent content for this site. But, alas, the time that I will be happy to call myself a writer is ahead of me – not too far I hope, Ideally before the end of my PhD, but having said that it would be typical for this time to come long after it was necessary.

I wish everyone an enjoyable Sunday, is anyone doing anything exciting?

On not being a sell-out – 93

This one is not going to be related to my escapades as a PhD student as I have something else I would like to write about.

It is something that I have been thinking about for a few years, but I have not had my thoughts gathered sufficiently as to explain them to you until now – I hope.

I still do not know if there is a word for this phenomena, so perhaps you can let me know. It is the idea of taking advantage of those less savvy than yourself for your own personal gain. I wouldn’t say that it was exploiting, but approaching that kind of idea.

We all do it to some degree, if we sell something we rarely do it at cost, we add on a margin. This type of capitalisation is not precisely what I mean, there is more of a moral component to what I am thinking of.

The main arena for the kind of behaviour I am thinking of is marketing and PR. I first noticed in the music industry. Take a look at any famous band, and you will see that they have an anti-establishment vibe to them, yet regularly will appear in commercials selling things.

I recently saw an advert for Beats headphones – I can’t think of a brand trying to be more mainstream – which used Billie Eilish as the model. I don’t know much about her, but from what I do, she presents herself as very alternative. So when you see her in an advert for beats headphones, you may sense an abundance of inauthenticity. The younger me would not have noticed this, but I am starting to see inconsistencies like this more and more.

Essentially my question is if you can, should you exploit your unsuspecting followers/fans/fellow humans for your own gain?

After all ‘there is a sucker born every minute’.

Should I exploit the suckers?

It feels as though everyone else is.

It almost feels as if it would be a subversive act to not ‘sell-out’. A pursuit that never fails to be undervalued.

There have been many instances where I have seen ‘influencers’ point their audience towards a website, that they have been paid to promote for their followers to get scammed. One apology video later, after taking large sums of money from the suspect paymasters, and the whole ordeal is forgotten about.

Rinse and repeat. The sheep are being fleeced etcetera.

Politicians used to tell lies to try and make the data fit, they don’t even bother doing that any more. They just say what they want and deal with the minority of people calling them out, mainly by dismissing it as fake news.

So as a someone who is relatively tech-savvy, it would be easy for me to exploit all of you – those reading this.

The question is… Why shouldn’t I? After all, everyone is getting away with it.

There are a lot of people, it would seem, that are happy to take things at face-value and do not think on it any further.

Should the ‘strong’ pray on the ‘weak’?

Anyway, use the offer code ‘SlowDegredationOfOurMoralFibre’ for ten percent off of that thing that the person you look-up to has and therefore you need.

Moving house – 91

This is the 91st entry into my weblog, since starting this in October 17 I have only missed a few weeks. Most of those that I have lost have been in the last few months. I’ll be the first to admit that my levels of motivation for writing and my PhD, in general, are at an all-time low.

It’s not that I have been spending my time lying on the sofa watching TV. I have been enjoying my life and probably spending too much time on other projects. I only have a limited supply of motivation, and I am spending too much in other places.

I don’t feel too bad about this as whenever I speak to other students or ex-students, and they always say there is a slump around the second year. I sometimes wonder if I am too relaxed with my job, but there have been points where I have been stressed and working hard, so I think that on average everything is going fine.

I have also been distracted by buying a new house, well when I say house I mean flat, and when I say buy I mean get a mortgage for 40% of the total value of the property. I am not that bothered about getting on the property ladder at the moment; renting is fine by me. But my partner wanted to, and I am relatively indifferent, so we are buying a flat! What this means is that we have spent a lot of time signing documents and scraping money together.

Luckily, over the last several years, I have become financially savvy and frugal. So for my part, I didn’t have to move much money around for my contribution to the deposit. I suspect this is part of the reason as to why I am not that bothered about the situation.

To me, the worst part about all of this is the actual moving process. I have only moved twice before, but the effort has exponentially increased each time. This is because we tend to move to slightly larger places each time and the amount of stuff we accumulate increase (by we I mean my partner); therefore, the number of things we have to move increases.

As a student, I am expecting to move at least a few more times as I settle into a career, so it is quite difficult to see this new home we are moving to as anything other than temporary accommodation.

I am looking forward to a fresh start with my working environment; this is probably the best part. But now, my partner has started packing up the room I am in so I must go and help.

The institutionalisation of I – 90

I have not been very active on here for the last few months. The reason for this is that I have had next to no motivation to write.
I have spent a lot of time on a website called Kaggle, which is a website for competing in data science tasks. So, it is not as if I have been idle, it’s that I have picked up a new hobby, and writing for this blog has slid to the bottom of the list.

Changing passions every few years is the modus operandi of my personality. Would I choose this trait if I had the choice? No. The reason being is that I tend to get good at a lot of things, but never master anything. If I could just stick with something long enough to learn it, then I would probably much better financially. One sure-fire way to get paid well is to be an expert in a domain. I imagine most people are like me and enjoy lots of different things, and never become a master at anything, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

Speaking of other things, I was recently asked if I would like to join a site that was setting itself up as the audio equivalent of YouTube. They asked if I wanted to audio versions of this blog. I find the idea quite interesting, I would still have to write to make scripts, but I would also have to get good at speaking. Something that I don’t do a lot of!

What are your thoughts on having an audio version of a blog?

Although my motivation is almost gone, I will continue with this blog. I am now about half-way through my PhD and feel as if I cannot stop now. I will drag myself over the line. Hating your PhD by the end of it is a time-honoured tradition and who am I to break with tradition.

I have signed up to work in the Universities call-centre for one day next week. The job is to accept or reject students to the university based on their A-level results. I have never worked in a call centre before so that will be an exciting experience!

What I have realised after signing up for this is that I am somewhat institutionalised. Turning up at a particular time and staying in one room to the end of the day isn’t something I have had to very much in the last five years. During my studies, I have been fortunate enough to do what I want when I want. So long as the project progresses and the work gets done, no one asks questions. The thought of going to an office to work seems alien to me. When I leave academia, I will be aiming for a job that allows working remotely and flexibly. Turning up to a certain location for a set period of time seems very antiquated to me now, and I wonder how I put up with it before I became a student.

I can see why people tend to stay in academia now, you do become institutionalised in some sense.