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.


March 16, 2007

I don’t get Twitter. I just don’t. I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I don’t get it now. I probably won’t ever get it. Clearly, I’m not down with the cool kids. I’m not the only one who doesn’t like it.

I do see a certain nicety in knowing what people are doing on a moment-by-moment basis, but it’s pure novelty. People like information, people like to know what other people are doing. It’s natural, then, that we quickly attach ourselves to something like Twitter. But I do think interest in Twitter will wane.

Why? Mainly because it actually does take a bit of effort to take part in something so fleeting. To keep Twitter going, you have to have a sort of a dialogue. It’s main target seems to be the office crowd. People sitting bored at their computers waiting to see what their other bored friends are up to. It’s a semi-real time system, and nothing else.

So, kids aren’t going to attach to it all too well (character limit? lack of themability like myspace or bebo?). Professionals may take an interest, but will eventually lose interest (they’ll be busy at some point, and at that point it’s easy to drop unnecessary tasks to never think of again). Honest-to-god adults who still communicate face-to-face obviously won’t have any interest in Twitter at all. The only people I see who might carry it are the people sitting in doing admin in offices or call centres. And, to be horribly crass and condescending, they probably don’t have the motivation to continue pushing their thoughts to Twitter. They’d rather just update their bebo every couple of months with new “drunken pics!!!1”.

I honestly believe that Twitter is the fad of 2007. Remember the Hamster Dance? Oh yeah. This is Hamster Dance, Web 2.0, minus annoying tune and hamsters.


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.


March 9, 2007

Attached to International Women’s Day, just passed on Thursday, Cisco have launched F_email.

Now, the F_email scheme is apparently aiming to improve the tech skills of women in some nations which might not traditionally be thought of as “tech rich” nations, or indeed nations where more traditional values still hold onto societal roles. If done in a “gently, gently” manner, this certainly isn’t a bad idea.

So why then is it labeled as it is? Isn’t even the very name of this scheme tremendously condescending? To me, it screams “you’re different, but that’s okay. We’ll help you out. We’ll give you the extra help you need to achieve what the men already can.”

I’m sure Cisco means well, but I really don’t think something like this helps.


March 9, 2007

I’m having one of those days where I know I have lots of work to do, but how to actually do it escapes me right now. Sigh.


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.



February 27, 2007

I’m absolutely drooket. It’s not stopped raining all day. Who’d have thought such a short walk for lunch would have attracted so much water?


February 23, 2007

The children scream in the playground. I cringe as the high-pitched screams of innocent happiness run through me.

Cars roll past on the street. Horns honk, startling my fragile body.

The security man at the train station stomps ominously back and forth, his footsteps like a kick-drum in my mind.

The train crawls along. It’s cramped. It’s warm. Claustraphobic.

The white office light and the brightness of my screen make my eyes bleed.

The janitor whistles his way around the building. I plug in my earphones and turn the music up.

I wait for the paracetamol and fruit juice combo to kick in. I’m not as young as I once was.

Having a life.

February 22, 2007

Having a life is difficult. Some things are easy. Things like going to work; choosing your mode of transport to work; what to eat for lunch; what to eat for dinner; when to do washing. These things demand your attention, and so are easier to do than ignore. After all, what else are you going to do? Starve to death? Wear last week’s underwear?

I work in an environment which offers total flexibility with my hours. I don’t mean flexitime, I mean I work as many hours as it takes to get the job done. Nobody but my own conscience watches the clock. I have no working hours stated in my contract. In calmer times, this is okay. It’s not too difficult to dictate an 8-hour day to myself and stick to it. But sometimes the work takes over.

You might think you want 100% flexible hours, but believe me, you probably don’t. I’m not naturally an early riser. That means I tend to arrive at work around 10am, still wishing for another half hour in bed. When I leave work is often an open question.

To build a life around this is often difficult. It’s easy to declare Saturday and Sundays as days off, but for the rest of the week it’s all too easy to take work home. This way, work easily spills over into the evenings.

It’s difficult to construct “hobbies” or “interests” around this sort of schedule. It’s difficult to meet new people when you’re working all the time.


February 19, 2007

Academics, and academics-in-training, are some of the most argumentative people on Earth. Often, they lose track of why they’re arguing. They do it just because. This is true mostly of the Londoners I work with. Some of them would argue black was white.

Sometimes it would be nice to be able to work on something without having to justify every single tiny step. In the interests of time and sanity, it would be nice sometimes to decide to use a piece of technology without too much justification because: a) we need to use something; b) it doesn’t matter which of the related technologies we use; and c) it’s a waste of my time to conduct a full literature review to arrive at the non-conclusion I arrived at prior to starting. Sometimes I just want to get something done, and the act of getting that something done is an issue of technical merit rather than academic merit. Annoyingly, academics only allow irrational reasoning to support their own position, not anybody else’s.

It is, however, nice when I write something that they have trouble tearing to shreds. Most of my work is pretty solid, but there’s normally a hole or two I’m glad they find. I tend ever closer toward perfection this way.

However, every now and then, I put something together that just makes sense. They can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s a good feeling, because I just know that they want to find something wrong with it. Recently, one of the team went so far as to suggest that a graph should not be included in a paper because he didn’t understand it. Hmm. Gee, I didn’t think that’s how these things were meant to work. Perhaps you’d like to switch salaries?