keeping it short – 84

This one is going to be short, partially because I want to write with brevity and partly because I really do not feel like writing at the moment.

This is a disciplined writer. I would definitely be doing anything else right now. I have just returned from boxing, and my morning coffee is wearing off.

On Friday night, after work, the rest of the lab group and I went for a ‘couple’ of drinks in the senior common room. As all nights that start with a couple of drinks do, this one went well beyond. It has been so long since I have had a hangover that it has manifest itself in a completely different way in which I am used to.

Usually, after a good session, I will get home and have a 50/50 chance of being sick. Then I can’t sleep very well, and all that remains is me feeling very tired until the next night. This time things were different; there was no sick feeling, but an altogether new experience. My brain felt as if it was two or three times too big for my skull. I had never had this sensation before, so it was quite the experience. On reflection, I would choose this over being sick.

As soon as the throbbing head went away, it was business as usual: no sleep. It has been so long since I have had a hangover that the way in which they manifest themselves has changed. I wonder what will happen next time?

As for the day-to-day, this week, I spent a lot of time writing. By writing, I actually mean, trying to write. I am trying to get my first thesis chapter in place. In approximately five hours, I produced a measly 150 words which were of low quality. Just one of those days? I would be the first to admit I don’t have the writers mindset, but what is much easier to admit is that I certainly do not have the academic writers mindset.

I will get through this PhD, I won’t be the worst writer ever to get one, but I now know that I need to go down the more industrial/engineering route as that is where my passions are. It just so happens that they also pay a lot more.

Do you think that it is possible to be a certain kind of writer? Are writers generally good at all things writing, or do people tend to specialise?

Anyway, while I leave you mulling over that thought, I am going to do some coding!

Growing pains – my views on growing an audience

I have noticed that a lot of people have been asking for advice on how to grow their blog over the last few weeks. I am not sure why that all of a sudden people seem to be asking me this.

Maybe I have passed a certain threshold of followers that has given me blogging credibility and people now see me as someone who knows what they are doing?

What I think has happened, is that many people have started blogs in January and seen that it is very difficult to actually get anyone to look at your work. So, they have started to do what any practical person would and are trying to gather information as to how to build an audience.

Well, I will address this again, but only briefly as I have addressed it many times. The first thing you need to understand is that after you put up your post on WordPress or any other platform, there will be a brief window of time where it is visible in a public space – e.g. reader. After this, it gets buried by everyone else posting stuff.

If you are writing about stuff that is of general interest, a post about how adjectives work, for example, there is a chance of getting some traffic via a search engine, but it will be tiny. I wrote about nouns once and now if you type ‘thematically meandering’ into google on the first page is that post – I have no idea why.

Presumably, if that post is high on googles rankings you would expect that post to be viewed more than others: it isn’t.

So, you’re not likely to get many people who stumble upon your blog; you’re going to have to go out and get people!

Marketing isn’t a massive Industry by happenstance. Read their work, comment on it, like and share etc. They may do the same for you, and you can grow from there. What I am trying to tell you is that it is a lot of work to build an audience, and you should probably spend a decent portion of your time marketing.

I attended a course once that was part of a scientific program, it had a lady there talking about social media and influencing – so we could better communicate our work. She said you should spend around 10 % of your time on marketing, and after this year of blogging, I tend to agree.

The Utopian dream of writing a blog post with your coffee in the morning, posting it online and having everyone read it and even make money from it is an utter fantasy! And we should all be embarrassed to have even thought like this.

It is no less passive than any other form of employment, and it is a lot of hard work! Sorry to ruin your fantasy, but isn’t that always the way?

Normal programming will resume next week.

Update: I will add useful links here as and when I find them.

19/8/19 – I have realised that people have been re-posting their old posts. When they appear in the reader feed they often have hundreds of likes and comments. I had no idea how they are doing this until now. They use a plugin for WordPress that automatically re-posts for them. However, there is a way to do this manually. If you look at any of your posts and then click on the ‘document’ tab and look at the bit where it says ‘status and visibility’ you can see when it was published and change it to a time in the future. Then it will be re-posted at that time. Here is a link as to why you might want to do this.

Go here for all your WordPress search engine optimization needs

Fiction vs Non Fiction – 83

For the last couple of years, I have been very good at making time to read. I have read around 40 books in the last year and a half, 95 % of which are non-fiction. When I started reading voraciously, I really enjoyed it; however, I have found that with non-fiction there are diminishing returns as a lot of material is repeated in slightly different ways.

Most of us are creatures of habit, and tend to read about things we enjoy. The problem with this is that over-time you end up reading the same things over and over. I tend to only read around science and finance, with the occasional biography thrown in. Whenever I have tried to read fiction It always becomes an endurance challenge rather than a pleasure.

The books never seem to capture me; I tend to resent them whilst reading them, and I always think that I could be doing something more productive with my time. I persevere with it because it seems that everyone else loves reading fiction and maybe I could enrich my education by reading some decent books.

So far, with the exception of George Orwell’s 1984 that I listened to the audiobook of, I have not found this to be the case. For me, non-fiction is infinitely more valuable. However, I didn’t get to where I am today by giving up so easily. I have decided to give the classics a shot. Partly because they should be good, and partly because they are feely available, and therefore, only a loss of time if I hate them.

There are tons of sites for free, old books if you care to use google, but the one I have used is https://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/. I have downloaded a selection and put them on my kindle.

I started with Ulysses by James Joyce. I must admit that I have got sixty pages in and I hate it. The prose is written in such a way that I cannot believe anyone is enjoying it. The sentences are so verbose that it seems like the author is mocking me. It truly is the stuff of David Foster-Wallace’s wet dream.

I have now switched to ‘A tale of two cities’ by Charles Dickens – hopefully this will be more ‘my kind of thing’. I do not have any criteria for how I am selecting these classics, so feel free to recommend some. I guess my current strategy is to go with the ones I have heard of.

I realise that there is a very good chance that those who are reading this are writers of fiction, so to you I ask: why?

Why do you read/write fiction. For me, reading is a pursuit of knowledge, it is an activity that I have to put effort into to achieve. I wouldn’t say it was something I do to relax as it actually requires a lot of time and effort. Time and effort that I could be using to learn a new skill.

I cannot read before bed if I want to actually follow what the author is saying; at the end of the day I am usually far to tired to follow a story, so I normally do my reading first thing in the morning with a coffee. It is kind of like a warm-up for the rest of the day.

At the moment, other than 1984, I am not sure I could recommend any work of fiction over a non-fiction title.

If you had one book to recommend to convert someone like me to the world of fiction what would it be?

I read a lot as is required by my studies and I have to admit that from what I have read so far, the technical, dry, plotless manuscripts that make up scientific literature rate higher than the works of fiction I have read over the last few years.

Maybe I am just wired differently?

It’s not what you know… – 82

Writing early in the morning for a change. Usually, I am too groggy to write in the morning, but for some reason, I have woke early and feel primed for writing, so here I am.

It is the first week of data collection for a new trial; for me, this is where my free-time gets absorbed as I have to take measurements every 48 hours. The effect of this is that I have to work on Sundays for the next four weeks. It is not too arduous of a task as I would still rather do this than work a regular job. I just have to be more tactical with the activities I do over the one full day I have off.

The majority of the work during the first month of my trial is taking and editing images. I compare the changes In the colour of leaves over time so that we can pick up signs of senescence and degradation before it is perceptible to the human eye. This is easy in theory, but is very time-consuming in practice; with each image, there is a photographic standard of different colours. Each image has slight fluctuations in its colour, not perceptible to the eye in most cases, but still there. I have to go through all the images and adjust them so that the colour is captured the same in each image, which is a significant time sink. However, it is essential if you want to compare the colour accurately.

So far, it is one of the aspects of Image Analysis that I have not managed to automate, if anyone has any tips in this regard I am all ears. Manually editing each image in rawtherapee is quite the chore.

I joined a new club this week, one of the benefits of being at a University is that there is a club or society for anything you can imagine. There is even a lock picking society!

I joined the coding club for my school. I have been learning to code for several years now; initially, I decided to learn to code as a potentially useful skill that would look good on an application form, but it has become much more than that for me now. I am genuinely developing a passion for it, and If I had my time again, I think I would go down the computer science route.

I am hoping that being part of this club will provide new learning opportunities that would be difficult to do on my own. I went to the first meeting, and it was immediately positive. I met a couple of researchers that had built a robot to take images of their work; the only problem they had is they hadn’t figured out how to analyse the images, seeing as I have become pretty good at this an immediate connection was formed and they offered me the use of the robot! It is early days yet, and I can’t think of what I would use the robot for, but I will try my best to manufacture a reason as this can’t be missed!

I consistently dismiss networking as something I should be doing, but every time I engage in, it pays dividends. I would say that it is probably one of the most useful things that can be done with my time, but I certainly don’t enjoy it. As the old saying goes: “it is not what you know, but who you know”. Unfortunately, I find this to be all too true!

I guess the skill is learning which people are the best to connect with, and then turning up.

Pitching to investors – 81

Despite my best efforts to create balance in my life, it has been a slightly rough week. It has been a week where I spent a lot of the time worrying; however, as is the way, the balance was restored at the end of the week when I had a couple of good meetings and phone calls.

Last week I wrote about how I was going to be going to a networking/training event, and I wondered aloud what my feelings were with regards to the point of the event. If I recall correctly, I said something like: ‘It is just an opportunity for students to complain about their studies and for the company to justify their funding’.

I was pleasantly and thoroughly wrong on this count. Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. This could not be more apt for my experience with this training event. Last year it did seem pointless, and this jaded my opinion of the event; this year there was a new approach from the company that was running it, and it was excellent.

We were divided into teams of around six people, and the ultimate goal was to put a presentation together and pitch to a panel of investors so that we could secure grant money – kind of like Dragons Den (I think it is called shark tank in the US?).

For those that don’t know, applying for funding is a significant part of an established scientists job – I assume other industries have the same sort of issue.

We had three instructors helping us put together the presentation; one of the presenters was someone who already had their PhD and had also started their own biochem company. The other two were highly knowledgeable business people that were the ones who give out the grants.

We had to make a business case for conducting some research into ways to reduce water consumption in our imaginary farm. It was based on a real problem that is a major concern in the salad industry. Global warming.

Overall it was a significant improvement over the last time, and to top it off, our group won! It may surprise you, but this is the first time I have ever won anything in academia – that I can remember.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to arrange samples to be sent out to me. Of all the things I do, arranging samples to be delivered is the most anxiety-inducing. Logistics is something I never want to be involved with. It is probably because it is mostly out of my control, and the only way to prepare for potential slip-ups is by assigning a wide margin of error, which is inefficient.

I have been calling my contact for two weeks, and they would not pick up their phone. This was anxiety-inducing as I have a strict window of time to run this trial. The trial takes four-weeks, and I have four weeks until I leave for the Czech-republic for a holiday/conference. So, if it arrives a week late, I will not be able to run the trial and will have five weeks of downtime. This is why I have been a bit more on edge than usual.

However, unbeknownst to me, the supplier I had been calling hadn’t ignored my calls he just didn’t bother responding. So the preparations were being made to deliver my samples, I just wasn’t informed.

One of the most significant differences between academia and Industry is how people communicate. In academia, everyone uses email; the phones remain silent! Whereas, in my experience, those in Industry will only speak to you if you give them a phone call.

When I finally managed to speak to my supplier and he told me it was all taken care of it was a huge relief. Furthermore, I managed to find out the correct statistical technique for some data I have been sitting on and not knowing what to do with. This gave me immense satisfaction because it meant that I could progress quite a bit of work. So, after a tense few days at the start of the week, it all came good, and the mean state of well-being was restored.

Everything seems to work out fine in the end, but thanks to the complexities of evolution we are left over with these unnecessary hormonal triggers.

Cycle complete – 80

I have been writing about my adventures long enough now for events to come around again. On Monday I will be travelling to Birmingham to attend an event for PhD students. It is run by a company called the Knowledge Transfer Network whose motivation for holding this event I cannot quite grasp.

I think the Government has set up a fund for the translation of research to profit; businesses have tendered for a portion of this fund to provide a service where academia and Industry come together. Presumably, as part of acquiring funding for my project, the people who put it together stipulated that the students who receive funding would attend these two-day workshops every year.

From experience, the training at these events is relatively weak, and the primary outcome seems to be students getting drunk and complaining about their studies. As someone who still remembers what it was like to work in a warehouse, I am not one for complaining. These events, for me, tend to be a bit of a distraction as I spend most of the time listening to people complaining about their projects whilst trying to hold back saying something sanctimonious like “poor you, are your diamond shoes too tight?”

Don’t get me wrong; I will still try and get the most from this opportunity, but I have low expectations going in.

I ventured out of my house last night as I was invited to a wine and cheese evening. My immediate reaction upon being invited was one of apathy. However, I spent some time thinking about it and decided to go anyway; I am not yet ready to set aside my ego and become the hermit I am destined to be. It’s not that I am bad in social situations, evidenced by the fact that I do get invited to things, its just that I have no natural urge to want to attend.
This has been a constant throughout my life, to be honest; I can take or leave social-interactions. I much prefer listening to other peoples stories than telling my own – verbally at least.

Before I entered academia, I had a very warped view of how academics interacted. I assumed that at a wine and cheese evening that only contained academics the conversation would be high brow. It is probably television that has given me that opinion.

The reality is academics are people, and people tend to talk about the same type of things; crazy stories from their younger years, bitching about someone who isn’t present (and therefore can’t defend themselves), and all sorts of ‘normal’ subjects. I am sure if I spent the night in prison the same conversation patterns would appear.

I was naive to think that this specific group of people would somehow be different from the rest of humanity. There are differences, and it is not hard to see them, but the overarching themes of the conversation were generic.

In other news, LinkedIn came through for me for the first time since I signed up. I needed to find out some information about a piece of equipment we used in a study. I had previously worked with someone who works for the company that the equipment belonged to, and we are connected on LinkedIn. I gave her a call and not only found the information I was looking for, but she also said that I should contact her when I finish my studies as she would have a job for me!

Of all the aspects of life I like to ignore, networking seems to have the best return on investment.

If you had a secondary skill that you could immediately be better at what would it be?

Statisfaction -79

Here we are another week closer to heat death of the universe. I didn’t really know how to start this piece so I just wrote down the first thing that came to my head that wasn’t complete blogger cliché.

I have spent a lot of time this morning reading blogs about statistics and furiously making notes. You know you’re a geek when you like star-wars, even though 90% of it is garbage, but the true nerd spends their weekends learning the intricacies of some obscure realm of mathematics.

The motivation for pre-occupation with statistics this weekend is because of a course I attended on Thursday. At my university, students on the PhD program have to attended a certain amount of ‘development courses’. In the 1st year I had to attend five courses – I actually attended ten because who doesn’t like free education. In the second year, which I am now in, you have to attend four. I tend to gravitate to anything technical when it comes to these courses, rather than courses such as ‘improve your communication skills.

The course I was on was about using the R-language to produce graphics; it was a full-day course, which is unusual. It was one of those times where the passion for the subject from the statistician running the course forced itself upon you. I was certainly inspired; hence my morning, and most of Friday, learning more about the subject.

Statistics, at least for me, is one of those topics where the information does not stick around in the brain very easily, so each time I come to analyse some data I have to spend a decent amount of time re-learning some of the concepts. I have produced a large document for myself of the main principles, so that I don’t have to start from square one each time. I imagine that this document will be close to my final thesis in terms of usefulness!

I had a bit of a transport related drama this week. My bike broke. I was given the bike so I did not have much concern for the bike itself; my bigger concern was how I was going to get to the university. I got a quote of £75 pounds to repair the bike, and they said that they couldn’t do it for two weeks – this would be very inconvenient. I decided to buy a new bike rather than fixing up, what I can only describe as the, worst bike I have ever owned.

After days of looking at reviews of bikes online I could not decide how much I should spend for what is essentially my commuting vehicle. Ideally I would find something dirt cheap online, but to my surprise I couldn’t find anything. “Where is a stolen bike when you need one” is what I thought to myself.

Luckily, after a long and sweaty walk to campus a serendipitous moment occurred. A cycling charity happened to be on campus offering free services of peoples bikes. They also had bikes for sale that they had refurbished. After £45 had been handed over I now am in possession of an equally terrible, but functional new bike. The utilitarian wins again!