Toilet.

April 19, 2007

I’m sitting in the office and, as per my usual body rhythm, nature is calling me to partake in some sitting-down toilet-based action. I make my regular mid-morning trip to the toilet. It’s a convenient, healthy, time-efficient way of taking a pre-lunch break.

The toilet nearest to my office has not been decorated in over 20 years. I flick the light switch; the solitary light above buzzes and blinks into action. The bleak fluorescent light bounces off the stark gray wallpaper, gray linoleum floor, and gray ceiling. The wallpaper has cracked at points, exposing old wallpaper designed to look like tiles. Presumably the old wallpaper was put up in the mid 60’s when these buildings were taken over by the fast-expanding University. Sheets of toilet roll lie on the floor, and hard green paper towels overflow the bin by the door.

I look down. Here I have a toilet seat covered in multiple yellow blotches and a couple of short, thick black hairs.* I grab a handful of toilet paper and scrub thoroughly; I’d rather not sit down on someone else’s piss.

Sitting, I stare in front of me. Across the toilet on the gray wallpaper, somebody’s drawn a penis. As is typical, they’ve drawn it all wrong — if it were real, it’d be too long and thin to be useful to anybody, much like Barbie. It’s funny how our perceptions change in relation to scale.

Some things are common ground across many parts of the human race, certainly across the Western world: toilets are difficult to keep clean, and the walls of gent’s toilets will be adorned with phallus-like imagery. This amuses me. This is a toilet at the heart of a world-leading University, in a department doing very strong research, way above-par teaching. We are attracting lots of money, business relations, students, and staff. Yet there it is, evidence that even academically inclined people are still human: the drawing of a penis.

* Toilet seat etiquette is always a tricky subject (though I suspect that the only solution is for everybody to return both the toilet seat and lid to the down position, thus forcing all to use the toilet as they want, and return it to a neutral state afterward).

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Ordinary.

March 20, 2007

I’ve spent years now buried in an academic environment. I enjoy it. I’m enough of a nerd that I naturally bury myself in abstract ideas and play with them until I’m satisfied. I then get really bored and have to find new ideas to play with. I always notice though that I’m not of an academic background. I’m not naturally a part of this social elite. I don’t share the same humour, I don’t like the same activities or pass times. That’s fine by me, but I do wonder what it means for me, for my life, as a whole.

I grew up in a fairly average household. Money was not always readily available, and such things as a new TV were often an extreme luxury. I was truly lucky one year that my birthday and Christmas were combined to present to me my first personal computer. I’m neither the son of academics nor well paid professionals. Few in my family have any degree at all, but I’ve got two and will complete my third at some point in the future. I’d go so far as to say I’m fairly bright, but also that I found my niche early in life.

Even back at school, I built up a strong collection of friends and teachers who acknowledged my technical skill and natural intelligence for some types of work. But through all this, I never properly connected with the “nerds” at school. Given my other interests, you’d think I would have connected with them easily. I did try things like Warhammer 40k, Magic: the Gathering, etc, but I never really got these things. I could play, but I was never passionate about them. Through all this, I maintained a core of “normal” friends, if there really is such a thing as normal. You know, friends who were more into music and girls. That’s what I wanted to talk about. It’s what I thought about in private that led me on a different path than most.

I’ve worked in some fairly low-end, blue-collar jobs over the years, and they were really fun. Difficult, hard work, painful, stressful-like-academics-don’t-understand, but above all else shared with people in the same position. The sense of team, the sense of camaraderie, was astounding. These were normal people. They openly looked at the porno mag somebody “found” on their way to work. They joked about bodily functions. They got annoyed when the can machine gobbled their 50pence and they didn’t get their can of Coke (or got excited when it produced two cans for the price of one). They got annoyed by real things, and were amused by real things. Real life. They carried real life with them, no matter where they were.

Yet people in academia, and presumably some other professions, aren’t like this. In professional circles, people don’t dare allow real life in. And you know what? The conversation in these environments is often pointless, staid, and fucking boring.

To this day, I truly enjoy the company of friends outside of work. Real people, real life problems. Friends who work in call centres, bars, hotels, estate agents, etc. Actual jobs, generally doing actual things. I would have much more fun going to a gig with a friend who isn’t afraid to let go and enjoy the experience, than the colleagues who go running together. I enjoy people who are happy to have fun, rather than feel the need that they have to be achieving something at all times. I don’t give a damn how far my colleagues ran last week. I do care that the guys on stage in front of me can’t play for shit, but somehow the energy and emotion in the room transcends that. The things that matter to us shouldn’t be about achievement, they should be about emotion.

I have a constant internal struggle with all this stuff. I understand normal people better than I’ll ever understand an academic. To this end, I deliberately don’t live in the upper-class portion of this city, I don’t drive a car, and I always take public transport where possible. And yet my thoughts occupy an academic space without effort. So, which world do I fit into? Writing papers, reviewing papers, working on and building abstract concepts: these are all easy things to do. They might be difficult to get right, but they’re easy to do: I only have to think and type, and can generally take breaks when I please. That’s different from 13 hours of customer interaction, hard labour, walking, standing, aching feet, sweating, rushing, keeping things together, and grabbing a quick 20 minutes for a snack if you’re lucky. Doing real work is something that I miss.

These thoughts were crystallised by my previous post. The perception of many will be that the ex is holding down a low-end, low-pay job, and that any trained monkey could take her place. But so many people spend their days sitting in an office pushing paper around, not contributing to the world in any way, and often not doing anything that directly affects another human being. So, I ask you, whose job is more important?

I felt like my job meant more when I was pouring beer. I know that the job was certainly way more difficult. And yet it pays less because it requires less mental abstraction.

Review.

March 15, 2007

What makes a good peer review? Most people don’t know. That’s a shame. Is anybody actually taught how to perform a review of a paper? Or is it that there are enough venues these days that reviews get handed out to sub-par reviewers? Or that there are so many submissions that people don’t have the time to complete the work?

Certainly one of the biggest failings of academia is the understanding that everybody does everything. Here’s your pile of tasks; complete them for yesterday, 9am! Academics are forced into a “jack of all trades, master of none” situation. Jesus. Let people specialise! Why can’t the guy who really enjoys doing research and reviewing papers do just that, allowing the guy who loves teaching to shoulder more of that responsibility? So many smart people aren’t that smart. Being truly smart sometimes makes my brain hurt.

Inadequacy.

March 7, 2007

Part of my job involves reviewing papers written by my group for basic errors (grammatical or spelling) or more difficult, often subjective, flaws (ordering of sections, incoherent “story,” etc). You would think that people who had completed their PhD would be able to get the former correct, and the latter mostly correct.

Unfortunately not. I so often find myself correcting basic errors or changing words around to sound more “professional” in other people’s papers. These are people who are meant to be ahead of me in terms of career development by a good few years.

Sigh.

Sparring.

March 6, 2007

One of the fun parts of working in academia is being correct. I work on a collaborative project between two Universities; one here in Scotland, the other being in England. The two halves of the one group are roughly the same size.

Part of the problem with collaborative projects in academia is that the two halves generally have their own agendas, their own goals, and very little to tie the two halves together. Without shareholders, or deadlines, or profit margins to worry about, the two halves may even let months pass without communicating. There is no big push for a final product, there’s no need to have a deliverable at the end of the day. The only “product,” if that’s what you want to call it, is the output of papers. Everybody’s citation count is boosted, and the amount of junk available in the literature is increased. I feel bad for the resulting affect on the signal to noise ratio, but this is quite simply how academia works.

Now and then, one half of the group attempts to gain the upper hand by refuting recent work by the other half. It’s funny, really, because I’m generally quite good at punting back a response on the group’s mailing list that puts them firmly back into place.

Saturday night’s email, and I’m often disappointed when they see fit to work weekends, initially appeared to be well worded, structured correctly, and offered a good argument. Unfortunately, their argument was flawed.

The mail attempted to suggest that my recent work was not as thoroughly researched as it should be, and that it didn’t solve one particular scenario. My response, however, was quick to point out that my recent work did manage to cover all the salient points, and my solution fitted the requirements perfectly. My solution but does not solve all problems, but only because there are problems that the project as a whole never intended to solve. (Anyway, an overbearing solution is most likely not possible; if it is, it would take much longer than we have to find it.) My favourite part of my response involved deftly pointing out how the existing architecture (as a whole, not this one segment of the project) solves the specific argument perfectly, without any alteration whatsoever, and that the problem is actually not related to my work, but to theirs. It always feels good to pin them down and stop them from spinning out another layer of unnecessary abstraction.

It’s annoying being correct all the time, but them’s the breaks.

In error.

February 28, 2007

I work at an institution with a strong worldwide reputation. Because of this, I get the occasional email from interested students looking to study or work here. Most of these go straight to the trash, for two reasons:

  1. I am not in a position to handle these requests.
  2. If they emailed me, they didn’t follow the instructions on the website.

These mails generally don’t look like spam. (Is there such a thing as academic spam? I suppose there must be…)

Here is the mail I received today. I’ve copied the text verbatim aside from removal of identifying information, marked by [square brackets]:

APPLICATION FOR SUMMER INTERNSHIP 2007 Dear Sir

I,[name], take this opportunity to express my interest in
pursuing my summer internship during the year 2007 in your institution.
I am currently a student in 6th semester of 4 year Bachelors of Engineering
in COMPUTER SCIENCE at the INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT,[location] which is regarded as one of THE BEST INSTITUTE of the country and is known for it’s rigorous training to able individuals in different engineering sciences.

The summer internship (for duration of around 2 months
i.e. june 2007 – august2007) is a part of our curriculum.
Besides this the summer internship from an esteemed institution like
yours also helps us in our future endeavors.

Due to my willingness to pursue such an opportunity in your
prestigious institute I am prepared to bear all the expenses on my
own. Though any kind of financial help is most welcome.

Besides this I recognize myself as keen,ambitious,hardworking and
sincere person.I have always enjoyed taking up tough and challenging
problems be it academics or in other spheres and have always stood upto
the expectations of my parents, teachers and seniors.

I assure you that with my utmost sincerity and hard work I would be able
to add value to any project I am associated with.Kindly find herewith
my resume for your review and kind consideration.I would be willing to
provide you any other details that you may require.

Lastly,I would like to thank you for giving me an opportunity to
express myself.

Sincerely,

[name]
[address]

And, yes, he did attach his resume (UK: C.V.). His references appear to exist, his course choices indicate a fairly average course content, his exam marks look to range from average to excellent, and he does appear to have a life if his extra-curricular activities are anything to go by.

I really do wonder why he emailed me rather than following procedure outlined on the same webpages he must have retrieved my email address from?

*delete*