Friday, 30 December 2011

What's The Harm?

According to a report in The Daily Telegraph (Tuesday 27 December 2011), acupuncture has failed to cure an unruly teenager and the hapless youngster has now received a second ASBO (anti-social behaviour order).

It will come as no surprise that the local Youth Justice Service agreed to pay for a course of acupuncture (at £45 per session), which of course is at the public expense. Let's not forget that after more research than this ridiculous healing modality actually deserves, no evidence has been found that it actually works (beyond some placebo effect in some conditions).

Now you might say, "Well, wasn't it worth at least trying? Isn't it worth trying anything?"

Not, I would argue, something that simply Does Not Work. Changing behaviour for the better is never easy, and lots of techniques which have shown efficacy will not work for every individual case. I have no objection to these being tried if it means avoiding custodial sentences, especially for the young person.

But acupuncture...?!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Property phrasebook

  • "Deceptively spacious": pokey and insubstantial

  • "A wealth of period features": pokey and shabby; may have glued-on exposed beams, purchased from B&Q

  • "Needs some updating": the whole place is a wreck and may even smell

  • "Internal viewing highly recommended": it's not quite the dump it appears from the outside

  • "Sought-after location": by the police

  • "Cozy": vanishingly small

  • "Manageable garden": a minute patch of grass with a couple of hanging baskets

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Things you don't see anymore...

  1. Schoolboys with short trousers

  2. Mostly thin people in the street

  3. Rag-and-bone men

  4. White dog shit

  5. Huge mobile phones

  6. Separate compartments on trains

  7. "Ladies Only" compartments on trains

  8. Guards on London tube trains

  9. Coppers doing "point duty" with those white, pull-on sleeves

  10. The Radio Times only listing BBC programmes

  11. People looking at what's around them instead of at their mobiles

  12. Toddlers walking rather than being chauffered around in those awful buggies

  13. "City gents" with bowlers and tightly-furled umbrellas (always black)

  14. String bags (why not?)

  15. Those old metal dustbins which were always emptied once a week - and worked!

Monday, 13 June 2011


Now several days since I have been able to access the internet on my laptop. Finally went through the challenge of phoning Orange yesterday. Call took 50 minutes or so. Very helpful and patient as I scrambled around on the floor looking at the Livebox etc.

Diagnosis? Everything seems to be working fine, so must be the browser (IE8). Now I have to somehow find/get another copy.

Now several days later. Internet still doesn't work, so this (among other things) has forced the belated decision to finally buy a new laptop. This, at least, is a relief, though I am still to be convinced that the laptop is the source of the internet problem.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Good behaviour!

It's just past 5:30 in the morning in the leafy suburb of Highfield, Southampton. I have just witnessed an extraordinary sight. Outside the hotel is a temporary traffic light. A cyclist stopped at the light, dismounted and walked the bike past the roadworks on the pavement! Bear in mind that there was no one about to see this good behaviour. Yet the cyclist did the right thing.

Bit of a contrast to the bastard cyclist who ran into me in Exhibition Road in London last week, going the wrong way in a one-way section.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Where is the evidence?

Been thinking a lot lately about the relative importance of evidence and reason. "Evidence-based" is a frequent and much-valued adjectival phrase. It's easy to see, however, that because some hypothesis is evidence-based, this does not make it valid.

Without the application of logic and reason, both the methodology and the interpretation may be deeply flawed, leading to a fallacious hypothesis.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Computer says "yes"

I've heard of computers doing this sort of thing before. Here's the proof. Obviously confused by the surname 'Baron'.

One's upmanship

Not to be outdone by the arriviste Middletons (recently media-whipped for "exploiting" the wedding on their Party Pieces webshop), one has decided to offer the plebs one's own selection of tasteless tat.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The ducks are deafening!

I feel like I'm eating an elephant. Have complained to a learned society that they may have dished out a fellowship to a local quack. But a clever google search has revealed that this is happening a lot. Quacks need "qualifications". And are quite happy to pay for them. This has actually depressed me.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Customer Service!

During all the hoo-ha surrounding the fees proposed for UK universities, there has been distressingly little comment on the perception of what universities are for. In my view - can I be alone? - universities should exist to advance knowledge and understanding through research and through dialogue between researchers. At our best universities (now called "research-intensive"), this process is still, one would hope, at the heart of their hopes and endeavours. Of course, the undergraduate population is important to them. Otherwise whence would come the researchers of the future? But the undergraduate population is a mixed bunch, bringing a range of personal motivations to their undergraduate career which can include:

  • a desire to learn and understand a subject in depth

  • a need for a reflective period between adolescence and adulthood where new friendships and new experiences broaden their outlook

  • a need for a degree for their chosen career (medicine, engineering, geology)

  • a desire for a degree in almost any subject, because the degree has become a gateway to almost any job above shelf-stacker or burger-flipper (though a degree might even help here!)

  • everyone else is doing it

  • not knowing what they want to do in life, and the university experience both delays the decision and helps the decision

  • if they don't have a degree, they are a failure

In the past, only about 8% of UK school-leavers went on to higher education. It was challenging to get a place at a university (and back then, the universities were all "proper" universities), but if you could demonstrate the intellectual potential and the sufficient motivation to see a degree though to the end, you did get a place - and you had your fees paid, along with a (just) liveable maintenance grant. You felt privileged, even though you had shown you were worthy of the privilege.

You were indeed privileged, and valued the chance to have contact with and be taught by some of the finest workers in your field. These workers - lecturers and professors - were principally researchers. Some of them were brilliant teachers, some were abysmal, most were adequately average at teaching. If you happened to have a lecturer who was rubbish, you went and "filled in the gaps" for yourself, or you stopped behind after the lecture to talk to them until you did understand what they had been saying. You took the rough with the smooth.

You also fully accepted that you were responsible - and you alone - for your performance. You could muddle through and get a third. You could apply yourself and get a respectable lower second. You could work very hard and get an upper second. You had to be exceptional to get a first. Exceptional.

This has now changed. Grade inflation means that anything less than an upper second is deemed hopeless. Merely "good" students are getting firsts. A first is the customer (student) expectation, involving simply token effort on their part. "Failure" to get your expected first can therefore only be the fault of the university, if you have applied yourself. Bad teaching, inadequate tutorials, lack of "pastoral care". The list is potentially endless.

Following the fees increase to (let's face it) £9,000 per year, the demands for undeserved firsts can only increase, and universities will have their valuable time and resources eaten up with specious complaints and appeals from disgruntled students who, years ago, would have been delighted to enter the job market with three good A-levels, which had cost them nothing and were obtained three years earlier in life.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Frog and the Scorpion

Once upon a time there was a Clegg and a Cam. One sunny day, the Cam thought he would like to cross the river, but, alas, he could not swim. Happening upon a Clegg who was basking in the spring sunshine, he said, "Oh Clegg! I wish to cross the river, but alas, I cannot swim. Would you let me ride on your back?" "You must be joking!" quoth the Clegg. "You would sting me and I would die." "Not, so!" cried the Cam. "Why would I do that? We would then both surely drown!"

Convinced, the Clegg permitted the Cam to climb upon his back and they both embarked on their crossing. In the midst of the waters, the Cam stung the Clegg. "Woe!" cried the Clegg, in some pain, and wanting some music to cry to. "You have betrayed me and have surely killed us both! What caused you to act thus?"

"Why, it's my nature!" declared the Cam, as they both sank beneath the rippling waters of the Thames at Westminster.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Why the royal wedding is in my diary...

It will be an excellent day to go on a trip somewhere nice. No traffic. Streets empty - apart from the rare street parties.

We did the same when Charles and Diana got married all those years ago. A lovely, deserted day in the wilds of Norfolk.

However, I guess I wish them every happiness on the basic, human level.

Things you can do with a microwave

1. Have a light-show by microwaving metal objects
2. Use it as (yet another) kitchen clock
3. Put stuff on it
4. Clean it
5. Clean it again
6. Use it as an excuse to buy microwave cooking accessories you'll never use
7. Cook food

Sunday, 3 April 2011

An unbiased survey?

Buried in the "Yes2AV" website, is this survey:

I voted "No" in passing, and will do likewise in the election on 5th May.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Monday, 28 March 2011

Stardust - or Bulldust?

Why is Brian Cox allowed to piss our licence fees up the wall as he uses every known exotic beauty spot on earth as a backdrop to (on average) two sentences? It's all in the name of the Public Engagement In Science, they would say no doubt. But for there to be any true "engagement", the public needs to make some effort, too. Not just lie back and be entertained by pretty, soft-spoken conglomerations of stardust.

Of course, it ceases to be entertainment when, in order to support some quasi-religious interpretation, Cox starts talking about things he clearly knows nothing about, or at least has not reflected upon. I have heard at second-hand (because I can't bear to watch) that he has asserted that the Cambrian Period was life's "Big Bang". The observed explosion in the fossil record about 600 million years ago is an artefact of preservation. Animals had then evolved hard body parts which are far more easily preserved in rock than soft parts. The explosion in the fossil record is not the same as an explosion in life. Organised and complex organisms have been around for an awful lot longer than that. I have been privileged to find and see for myself large marine fossil stromatolite mounds in Archean rocks in southern Africa, which are dated to something like 3,500 million years before present, or - if you prefer - say about 3 billion years before the Cambrian Period.

No "Big Bang" in the Cambrian then.

Stick to what you know, Professor Cox, or at least have the humility to discuss your assumptions with those who know better - and that, in this instance, includes even a piece of pond-life like me.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Census Day 2011

Not only have we "lost" an hour because the clocks have gone forward, we are about to lose another filling in the census form. The only people to really use the data for "targetting expenditure" are marketing consultants who will ensure I get more "targetted" crap through the post. Yours truly, Mary Smith, wife of Person 1.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

They have been warned...

...and will be reported if they don't heed. Can you spot the criminal offence (in the UK)?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Spring at last!


This link will take you to a dizzying list of available courses, which will make you rich:

The irony comes towards the end of the list:
Reiki [I, II and III]
Autogenic Training
Spiritual Healer
Crystal Healing
Wicca Craft Witch
Yoga & Meditation
Critical Thinking

My italics!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

"The Voyage of Charles Darwin" BBC 1978

Have just finished watching again this wonderful series. Stunning in every way, not least the Darwin "voiceovers" which reveal the workings of his outstanding mind, shot through with questioning and logic.

The reviews posted on line here are certainly worth reading.

Monday, 28 February 2011


A word cloud of this blog to date. Courtesy of the excellent Wordle.

Hmmm... Am I getting the emphasis right?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Making a start

After the initial joy and excitement of the first couple of weeks of a PhD, many researchers discover that much of research is just a slog.

The first bit of slog is the initial "reading" phase, when you seem to spend every waking hour grappling with journal papers which - you realise - are not written with entertainment in mind. You will probably have started on some papers and textbooks recommended by your supervisors before launching out on your own, usually by following up some of the many references and citations you see.

These days, much of this work is done on-line which certainly has its advantages in terms of sheer convenience and easy access. It also has its pitfalls, including the constant temptation of instantly flitting from reference to reference, citation to citation, until you think you might go mad. Not to mention googling, wikipedia, and general knock-about fun.

Your jobs in these early months are these:

  • read, learn from and question the literature
  • develop a research question of your own which will form that "significant contribution to knowledge" at the heart of the PhD
  • plan your early-stage research

That last point indicates all the stuff you could be making a start on when you get jaded with the constant reading.

Here are just some of the things that go into those early-stage plans:

  • what resources - physical and financial - will be required for the first investigations?
  • from whom may you need permission for access to data and/or property?
  • do you need ethical approval for any of your studies? If you think you might, get this underway at once. Getting such ethical approval may take longer than you think.
  • how much time will each of your studies take?
  • how many samples will you need for statistical significance?
  • what might go wrong?
  • what equipment or instrumentation will you need?
  • will you need visas if your studies involve travel?

Combining the hard intellectual work of reading, drafting a literature review, and developing a research question with the less intellectually demanding - but still vital - planning work, is a much more refreshing way to work and allows you time to think about your research away from the library (physical or on-line!)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Looks like a wet walk to work!

Today we shall be working on managing a PhD. Please note: you cannot strictly speaking Project Manage a PhD, for subtle reasons I shall make the subject of a future post.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Found one!

A double page from a field notebook dated 22nd July 1995. A Yorkshire quarry.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Notebooks are human...

...and don't need batteries! I must try and find my PhD field notebooks sometime.

PhD Field Trips

Yesterday I was somewhat surprised to discover that it was possible to download my thesis in full from the British Library website. So I did. Didn't even cost me anything.

I looked at the extensive Appendix which contains graphic logs and detailed descriptions of all the sections I had visited, from Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye, all the way down to the south of France.

Then I did something a bit sad, I suppose. I added up the total thickness of sections logged, measured and described, bed-by-bed, contact-by-contact - centimetre-by-centimetre. Sections thus logged in the cold, rain, heat. Sections logged halfway up a hill or quarry face. Sections which play peek-a-boo among tides and seaweed and boulders. Sections which seem barren of the necessary fossils needed to date them.

It came to a whopping 900 metres! Don't let it ever be said that research students are only continuing their education to avoid a Real Job.

Those 900 metres were only the observations and data. Then I had to make sense of it all and draw it all together into an argument supporting a thesis statement.

PhD research involving not only the intellect but the tough, gruelling labour and hardships of field studies are not to be lightly dismissed as a job avoidance tactic. Mind you, it was fun at times...

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A recommended Kindle read

Very useful, whether for browsing or reference. Clickable Table of Contents. Master one a day and you will cover the lot in 6 weeks!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Lines on the leaves

The train I was on yesterday had one failed engine and one that could have failed anytime. One wonders how one might feel if one heard this announcement while sitting on a plane... Not quite as sanguine, I would think.

Tomato Sauce

This is an interesting technique which you may find works for many tasks:

I don't think you can apply it for everything you do in the PhD, particularly high-level stuff like methodological design or complex interpretation of findings. But it may be something to have "in your toolkit" when you have a mid-level job to do that you can't seem to settle down to and perhaps keep putting off.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Power of Negative Thinking

A classic "motivational" approach is based on rewarding yourself for good behaviour. "If I complete this task, I'll:
  • have a chocolate bar
  • buy that new app
  • give myself two hours off to watch a DVD"


It seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? This, after all, will reward and therefore encourage positive behaviour. But you may have noticed that the thought of the reward becomes in itself a distraction. One corrosive strategy for getting your reward is to avoid doing the job long enough to, for example, pass a deadline. Then you reward yourself anyway because you need some comfort for yet another personal failing. Then, of course, you are in effect rewarding lack of effort!

What works much better for many people is instead to imagine the consequences of not doing the task. Then, when it is completed your reward is not some tangible goody, but a feeling of relief, achievement, eliminating a worry. There is no way you can get - or cheat your way to - this reward unless you complete the task.

Try it.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

What a broken metatarsal taught me about the thesis...

I shall not bore you with the history of my broken foot.

What you may find interesting is the conversation I had with the consultant.

Consultant: "And what is your occupation, Mrs Patient-With-A-Fractured-Fifth-Metatarsal?"
Me: "Well, I work with postgraduate students, mostly PhDs..."
Consultant (brightening up at the prospect of Not Talking About The Boring Fracture): "Oh, really? Tell me more!"
Me: "Blah blah blah... " followed by a few comments on the importance of critical thinking.
Consultant: "I'm a PhD examiner."
Me: (Impressed silence)
Consultant (beaming at me): "I keep on saying, Where is the evidence?!"

[There follows a few minutes' lively exchange between us. I begin to really like this guy, who has modelled his manner on James Robertson Justice in the Doctor movies.]

Me (quite a while later): "About the foot... I've brought along a spare shoe. Can we saw this bloody plaster off?"
Consultant (dictating into a machine): "I recommend removal of the plaster as this lady clearly needs to get about the country. To see again in six weeks."

So there we are. Straight from the horse's mouth: Evidence, evidence, evidence.

Cloudy Words

A word cloud made from the post below on cleaning avoidance.

Wonder if this would work with a longer piece like a journal paper...

Try one yourself at

Mind you, if you don't want to add to your long list of displacement activities - DON'T!

Things you should never leave home without...

  1. A notebook
  2. A pen to go with it
  3. A recording device (most phones these days)
  4. A camera (again, most phones these days)
  5. A cheese sandwich
  6. Money to buy a coffee to go with the cheese sandwich
  7. Your house keys

How to avoid cleaning

You know the feeling. There's that report to be written, and it makes sense (doesn't it?) to work at home, away from all the distractions of social interaction (moaning) with other researchers, the worried look on the face of your supervisor, and the mental paralysis that seems to beset you when you sit at your desk in the postgraduate office.

OK. Up, healthy breakfast of porridge and orange juice ("not from concentrate"), so you've made obeisance to the gods of woo rather than commit the "full English" sin.

Time to start. But first check the rolling news, to make sure it's still rolling. Ten quick minutes to top up your "well-informed" quotient. Not for you the trap of daytime TV.

At the desk, and it's just after 10. True, it's a whole hour after the rest of the population starts work, but then you've read somewhere recently that the first hour in most offices is pissed up the wall with the ritual moan about how crap the public transport system was this morning and endless repeats of the phrase, "Leaves on the line..." followed by a cynical laugh.

You begin. Open the file. Read what you wrote last Friday. Don't like it. Change the font to see if Garamond renders your draft magically superior to anything else you have ever written - or even read. It doesn't. Funny... You thought it was pretty good at close of play last week. You start. This section is going to be all about how and why you chose your research methodology. "Because my supervisor bloody well told me to," rumbles the inner voice, but you can't write that down, can you?

It doesn't matter what you may be writing. It could be tough or easy stuff. All that seems to happen is that you stare at the blank screen and hate your life. With an inner shout of joy, you remember that you have to wash up the breakfast dishes. You embrace this thankfully as the "real reason" that you can't concentrate. You wash the dishes and while you are forming an explanation for the reluctance of your most aggressive scourer to do anything more than slip ineffectually over the porridge remnants in the saucepan, you think of just the perfect words for the first paragraph. You think you'll remember them when you are back at the desk. You can't.

Maybe, you reason, if I do some more cleaning, more perfect and elegant sentences will form themselves in my mind. You clean the whole bloody place. End of the day and nothing has been drafted, but your place is surgically clean.

Cure: accept reality. Your first attempt at any draft is bound to be a bit rubbish. Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter at all.

As long as you get your thoughts organised, just write anything! As long as it's to the point. And when you've written it, stop. You'll go back to your draft in a couple of days and make it a lot better, but probably never quite reaching your ridiculous standards of perfection.

A masterpiece of understatement