Digitally downsizing

Hello.

I haven’t done this in a while, so bear with me as I try and remember how this ‘writing for edutainment’ thing works. I, as I am sure most of you are, am still in some variant of a lock-down. You won’t find me complaining about it as it has a net benefit to me, I get to sit at home and focus on learning, and it is difficult to get me to attend virtual meetings/conferences as the social pressure is non-existent. Bliss.

Of course, it goes without saying that my social skills are regressing, but they are degrading in line with society, so I am still ‘relatively’ normal. The only thing that my life is missing is the occasional trips away with family and friends. I hope you all are holding up well.

For my work, I am at the point where I do not need to be in the lab, although it would improve my results anything I do in the lab now would be the icing on the cake. I am currently writing up results and running an online survey. The online survey will form part of my thesis in combination with some of the practical work I did in 2019. I expect the survey to conclude in a week or so, and then it is just pure writing until the end of my studies, which is just under a year from now. So naturally, my tendencies will ensure that I do not get it finished right until the deadline and chip away at it slowly rather than work hard and get it done with plenty of time to spare.

I am lucky that I decided to invest in a high-quality chair as for the foreseeable future, I will be spending most of my working day in it, with the occasional break for food and exercise.

Warning: completely off-topic rant incoming. 

As I have been spending more time online, I have noticed something that I previously had not. What I have noticed is that because of the fact that people understand there is an algorithm at play deciding what content you should see. People have taken to producing content that serves the algorithm and not you.

For example, do a search for any given topic. If you exclude Wikipedia, you’re likely to find a page full of listicles and other such sites that offer ‘hacks, tricks and tips’. I don’t want to see your SEO optimised garbage; I want an essay by someone who is informed on the subject I am searching for. 

Is Google the search engine we deserve? Do we only have limited attention that only allows us to learn things in 5, or preferably 3, simple steps?

As is stated in Goodheart’s LawWhen a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Because people adjust their behaviour towards the target, and it stops being useful. This happens with everything: GDP, exams, search engines, reviews etc.

Maybe the un-optimised internet was better? 

I have also noticed that the layout and styling of a website are highly correlated with the quality of content within. The more effort that has gone into making the website look nice; the less effort has gone into the content. It goes without saying that there are exceptions. 

Admittedly, I fell into this trap to when I first started this blog. Now I have become much more minimalist with my approach. Whenever I look at other peoples personal sites, of those people whom I respect, almost always they have the most simple sites imaginable. 

This type of approach is very much in line with something I have been implementing over lock-down. I have been changing all the software I use to programs that follow the philosophy of doing one thing well, rather than many things averagely. It also gives me an excuse to learn new software which is obviously a bonus. Strangely the music I listen to has become much more minimalist also; fewer complex melodies and lyrics and more repetitive electronic beats, I find it has improved my concentration slightly.

Anyway, it is time to get back to work. I hope all is well in your part of the world!

Currently reading: Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Learning to learn

Do you remember when facts and knowledge were valuable? Maybe I am remembering a society that never existed, which is quite likely, but I always thought that pathological liers were prohibited from significant stakes in society. Looking at politics, this is clearly not the case.

I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been writing for months straight now. I am certainly in a rut. The other day, during some routine procrastination, I realised that I haven’t put enough thought into the process of learning. Maybe if I had spent some time figuring out how I learn best, I would have saved myself a lot of time over the years. I do appreciate the irony of only thinking about how to learn mere moments before finishing with formal education, but as they say, the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago and the second-best time is now.

The first thing I did when I realised I should focus on the process of learning is head on over to Google Scholar and searched for research on learning. However, prior to that, I wrote down my opinions on learning, and my thoughts were essentially this.

“The only thing I know that works is committing time to the thing I am trying to learn. Very rarely do I set out to learn something and understand the key principles from the start.”

Learning to code is a good recent example, I have been learning for the last five years, and I am only now understanding key principles that if I had understood them from the start, I would be a much better coder by now. I looked at the key principles, read them and tried to understand them, but I had no domain experience at that time so the ideas didn’t become organised in my mind in a manner that could be useful.

Whilst researching how people learn, one of the most repeated ideas I came across is the idea that the difference between novices and experts is how the information is organised within one’s brain. Novices can remember facts, but experts have ideas organised in such a way that they can relate ideas to other ideas and see patterns where a novice cannot.

Broadly, two things define an expert from what I have learnt, A large body of knowledge within the subject, and crucially, the knowledge is organised around important concepts.

As far As I can tell, time is the most important factor in all of this, and whenever we decide to embark on the discovery of knowledge, we should prime ourselves to understand that it will take a lot of effort to get to where we want to be. Often, I find myself getting frustrated as I don’t pick things up quickly, but the hubris of thinking like this should be more embarrassing than the failure to grasp perceived simple concepts. Why should I be able to learn things quickly? At all other times, the acquisition of knowledge has taken years. What I should do when this situation occurs is reflect on the long-term impact of learning, but this is often hard to do once you’re already annoyed.

The thing I have learnt about learning is that I should try and be mindful whilst engaging in it to try and understand concepts a bit more before moving on, but ultimately know that it is just about putting in effort over a long enough time.

I wish I could make an article saying here are the three tricks experts use to learn things fast. But there are no shortcuts, and there is no single best way to tackle a problem; otherwise, all schools around the world we are exactly the same.

For me personally, I have added some notes to my daily to-do list that remind me to focus on the process more than the outcome. Hopefully, this will stop me from wandering so much.

The best way to become better than someone at something is to have spent more time doing that particular thing than your adversary — that is the secret.

Here are some further reading if you’re interested in the topic.

A book on learning

Points I got from this book:

  1. Pre-existing knowledge: ‘the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe’; ‘Research on expertise in areas such as chess,history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter
  2. Active learning: ‘To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:(a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.’; ‘But knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient’

And here is a technical post about how memory is formed.

Are there any educators out there that have anything to say on the topic, or anyone that has developed a strategy to learning and progression? Please share your advice.

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!

What does it feel like to be published for the first time?

Yesterday, I found out that the paper that I am a co-author on has been accepted for publication. This is my reflection on what it is like to be published in the world of academia.

Sent to production‘. Those were the words that signified the paper we had submitted had was accepted. As someone who has not experienced this before, I was very underwhelmed by the phrasing.

‘Your contribution to science, and therefore, humanity has been moved to the production line where, in an increasingly automated and mass-produced world, it will be packaged in a format that will extract maximum value from the consumer’.

Is there anything we humans can’t turn into a commodity?

I am still one of those naive, ‘young’, ‘scientists’ who is bewildered by the world of scientific publishing. Why are we putting a pay-wall between the results, that took considerable financial resources to obtain, and the consumer, who may get value from it?

I sense that in the near future everything will be open and available for all, not only because it is the right thing to do and the technology exists for it to be possible, but because open access articles get three times more views.

Does it feel good to be published?

In this case, it feels relatively neutral. Here is why.

Firstly, the paper was rejected from the first journal to which it was submitted. From following academics on Twitter over the past few years, this did not surprise me. It was reviewed by a couple of ‘peers’ at a particular journal. We, the symbolic ‘we’, changed a couple of things and submitted it to a different journal and were again judged by some ‘peers’ and it was accepted.

So, it does feel somewhat random as to whether or not you get published. I have developed an attitude that likens peer review and publishing process to that of the weather.

Being annoyed that your paper has not been accepted is a bit like being annoyed at the weather for raining on you and feeling as if the weather had decided to single you out. I am rather even-handed about the whole thing – if it gets published, fine, if not, also fine.

Secondly, I did not write the paper. Although I did an equal share of the work, I did none of the writing, and as a consequence, I do not feel that connected to it. Furthermore, the work was completed in 2018 and subsequently has not occupied my mind for quite a while. It is ‘nice’ to see that the work has reached its logical conclusion, but at the time of doing the work, I did not care about publishing I just liked the idea of doing something I had never done before. So now that is has been ‘approved for production,’ the feeling is relatively neutral.

Thirdly, the work was not directly related to my PhD; it was more of a side project. Because of this, I am not sure that it will go in my thesis and therefore may not help me in obtaining a PhD. Although, I will try my hardest to shoe-horn it in and use it. As, technically, I am a published author, and that shows that I have done something of merit. I would be ecstatic if this paper meant that the PhD is ‘in the bag’, but that is not the same as being happy about being published.

I cannot yet link the paper as it has only just entered production, but when it rolls off the production line and enters the showroom, I will be sure to attach it here.

I have since learnt that ‘production’ is where it gets edited and formatted in the particular style of the journal, which makes sense I suppose.

I wonder if writers of fiction get the same notifications from publishers.

‘Thanks, Mrs Rowling your submission ‘Harry Potter and the ….’ has been moved to production and the product will be within all major retail outlets by the next holiday period’.

Before writing this, I thought it would be relatively rare to publish a paper, but according to this article , there is more than 20 million of us in history. Also, with literally millions of papers being published each year, and many more left in draws and filing cabinets, it is not that interesting.

So, how does it feel to be a published author?

For me, it feels okay.

Two years of blogging – part 2

This is a follow-up to the post I made last week a couple of weeks ago, which was about my experience of blogging over the last two-years.

In this post, I hope to collect my thoughts on how I would like to improve going forward.

My overall aim is still as it was when I set out – to get better at writing. This goal is not as all-encompassing as I thought it was when I set-out. It is not specific enough, and I need to define my goals a little more precisely. 

I am interested in the technical details, such as whether or not word ‘x’ is a conjunctive, determiner or just a plain old adverb. These are things that I look-up, understand, and then forget what category a word qualifies for. I don’t think I will become a better writer for this. Still, I do believe that breaking the rules while understanding them provides more opportunities.

I would like to write less about me and what I do and more about my thoughts on life, and its intricacies. In doing so, I hope that I will spend more time on the writing and ultimately learning more from it – both the writing and the subject of the writing. 

I noticed that with my limited time, writing about my week had become the path of least resistance, as all it required was me to have a working memory. At the start of my PhD, this was okay as I was quite interested in my field. However, as most people do, I am now bored with it and have caught myself going through the motions, waiting for the day I can move onto something else. 

In terms of content, I intend to write about whatever I want to explore in more detail. I will only talk about my studies when I feel as if I have something interesting to talk about. I will be the arbiter of interesting. 

In short, I will:

  • Keep trying to understand the fundamentals.
  • Spend more time writing, which may reduce the frequency of posting.
  • Write about more varied subjects.

Where do I see the blog going, and do I have any goals for it?

I have no goals or expectations for this blog.

For a while, I have been thinking about moving to be self-hosted on WordPress.org. Not because I believe there are any specific benefits. I think the technical know-how that may be learnt will be valuable. 

I want to experiment with audio. In moments, I have caught myself reading someone’s piece and wondering what the voice of the person who wrote it sounds like. Did the voice in their head transfer to the page?

Do you have any thoughts or guesses as to what my voice sounds like?

Two years of blogging – part 1

It has now, well almost, been two years since I started publishing my ramblings on this blog, and on this occasion, I would like to engage in some reflection.

I started writing short articles in an attempt to improve my writing. After several months of doing so, I thought it would be a good idea to get some peer review by posting them online.

I thought that it would also help to fill some space on my CV if it was to become successful. Therefore, when I started this blog, my vision of success was to get better at writing to meet a standard that would be worthy of scientific publishing. And build a skill for my CV.

Although I have not published anything yet, I have been informed by my supervisors that the writing is now acceptable, and I need to get it finished, so in a way, I have been successful on that count. What I didn’t expect when I started was that I care so little about actually doing the scientific writing that the skill I set out to sharpen is diminished. 

So, that Is why I started to the blog what have I learnt along the way?

At the start, I was obsessed with details that I no longer concern myself with. 

  • A logo and branding. I don’t think this is something anyone should be too concerned about, it is a distraction.
  • Statistics. How many people are reading the things I have made, and how can I improve this?
  • What shall I write about? I still think about this a lot.
  • Meta-blogging.  SEO, guest posts etc.

Addressing all of the above points in a couple of sentences to someone new to blogging. 

My advice is, focus on making the posts as easy to read as possible. I don’t mean the writing, I mean the entire blog. Make sure, when you look at the page, there is as little clutter as possible. 

Keep it simple concerning branding and images – less is more.

Other than that it is a matter of producing content that has value to someone. Tutorials are great. 

For increasing your view count, you should consider increasing your post count. My record views in one day were when I accidentally posted two posts on the same day (~550). 

Above all, though, I have to say that you need to go out and get your readers. It is rare unless prompted that someone will find themselves looking and your content.

Going past the first 3-6 months of writing where everything was new and exciting. Blogging became a routine, just like exercise, it was a necessary part of my week that needed to be completed, and that is pretty much the way it has been for the last 18 months.

I write my piece, schedule it and then got on with all the other things I do. Fortunately, because of the fact, I had written around three months worth of posts before I started putting them online. It was easy for me to be consistent with uploads. However, especially in the last six-months, the buffer I had built up has been slowly eroded, so much so that I am now writing in real-time. So everything you see from now on that is written by me, will be hand to mouth, or hand to webpage?

I think the successes I have had so far has been down to my consistency, I genuinely believe that if you last more than a few months with your blog, you’re in the upper echelons. Because of the minimal barrier to entry, it is easy to start up a blog on a whim, and soon after, when you realise it is hard to attract viewership, easy to quit. 

I do not have much motivation to keep this blog going as it does not do much for me, but for some reason, I do feel compelled to keep at it. I think the prospect of some unknown additional benefit turning up at somepoint, hangs in the back of my mind like an embarrassing memory. So I continue. 

For those of you that have been going longer than me, why do you persist?

For those of you that are interested in statistics, probably the newer bloggers, as I know, I was. This site has a total of ~10,000 followers, 85,000 views from 124 posts over two years. Each of these posts has an average of 600 words. I have also gained 100 twitter followers from this blog. 

The traffic is definitely increasing year on year. However, these are still rookie numbers that would make literally double figures in terms of income. I do not know how these stats relate to other blogs as I have not really spoken to any other bloggers about this. Seeing as I put maybe three hours a week into this blog, I suspect that if you were dedicated, you could certainly do a lot better than I have.

I would guess that like me, this is something you do on the side of your side project. And I certainly could not commit much more time to it than I do at the moment – well it’s not that I couldn’t, I choose not to.

C O N T E N T

I thought the idea of writing about my studies would be interesting when I was a person who knew nothing about my PhD. But I do not find it that interesting, to be honest. 

I will speak about where I want to go with my blog in the future, but as a primer, it involves less about what I do and more about things I am interested in. 

I think I will post about what I do on a fortnightly basis and to fill in the gaps I will write about things that interest me. I may even dabble with some audio! It would be interesting to hear what you guess my voice is like as most of the people who read this are from the USA.

Overall, I thought I would have more to say after two years of blogging, but I to my surprise, this is it.

Anyway, if you have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment down below. Or, if you would like to contribute, go here.

Otherwise, see you soon (figuratively speaking).

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?

%d bloggers like this: