Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wouldn't it be nice?

In the online grad student support group I belong to, we post each day to detail the goals we set for ourselves, whether or not we achieve them, and to discuss other research-related struggles and questions. We comment on each others' posts, sometimes just with brief encouraging comments; other times with more detailed advice, helpful links or suggestions for new ways to approach our problems.

And I've been thinking lately about how awesome it would be if supervision followed this same model.

Imagine if you posted every day to a blog chronicling what you had been working on, what you were struggling with, and what you wanted to work on next. And your advisor could comment to encourage you, make suggestions or point you in the right direction when you were getting lost. If you had to post at least once daily, that would be huge motivation for working on your thesis every day.

Then, if your supervisor had to comment on every post, that would force them to be more supportive, remember who you are, and they would also have a much clearer idea of what you were going through with your research (especially how much of your work each day did not lead to productive results, so that they wouldn't give you That Look when you had only a few pages of new work to present at a face-to-face meeting).

Hah, better yet, imagine if your supervisor had to be equally accountable with posts about his/her own research! The best discussions I've had with my supervisor have been when she has admitted she is struggling with something in the book she is writing, and I've been able to use that as a jumping off point for talking about problems with my dissertation.

Now you might argue that this would be too time-intensive for supervisors. But this strategy could replace face-to-face meetings almost entirely, so that you'd only really have to get together to discuss draft chapters, and (be honest here) how often do you have one of those? The few minutes a day that it took for your supervisor to read your post and comment wouldn't add up to more than the one hour per week that supervisors are expected (at our university at least) to be available to their students for meetings.

And an unexpected bonus: if you have the sort of scary supervisor who is likely to be unsupportive and make mean comments, you'd have them in writing to show people if you needed to make a formal complaint.

Well I think it would be an improvement anyway. Online interactions are so much less difficult than real life conversations.

Is it obvious I have a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow?

This can only turn out badly

In my fridge door, next to each other, stand two jars of the same shape and size. They even have the same colour label. One contains a yummy lemon spread that I like to put on my toast. The other is full of crushed garlic.

Any bets on how long it will be before I have a really surprising breakfast experience?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Styley gets kicked out of a pub

Suckiness is...

When you have two hours between a class that finishes at 5 pm and a choir practice that starts at 7 pm and you really need food, but don't have any on you.

So you join your friends who are going to the pub, and start looking forward to a nice hot pub meal, but when you get there, you find they don't start doing dinner until 6 pm and you are starving now.

So you survive until 6 pm on a large beer, which you are sipping very slowly to make it last, and when the clock hits six you go to the bar and order a meal.

And get IDed. (For ordering soup.)

And you hunt through your wallet, but all you have on you is an expired New Zealand driver's licence.*

You go back to your friends outside, and one of them reminds you that you dropped your university ID card loose into your bag on the way out of the office. So you return to the counter, but they won't accept a uni ID even though it has your photo and birthdate on it, and even though it agrees with your expired licence that you are nearly a decade older than the legal drinking age.

So you go back outside to finish your beer, soupless and hungry. Your friends look shocked and are considering walking out in protest.

"It's okay," you tell them. "They were nice about it. And kind of embarrassed. As long as I don't order anything else, I don't exactly think they are going to follow me outside and tell me to leave the premises."

And then you turn around. The barmaid has followed you outside and is telling you to leave the premises. She waits. Hands on hips.**

So you ask your friends to guard your drink and to order your food for you, while you rapidly cycle home, calculating that you can be back with your current driver's licence by 6:45, leaving just enough time to eat fast and get to choir.

[Cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle cycle]

You return to find your friends have staged a boycott of the bar in solidarity with you*** and buggered off home. Your soup is nowhere in sight (nor is the money you left with your friends to pay for it), your beer (which you had only drunk 1/4 of) has been taken away, and there's no one left to drink with anyway.

Suffice it to say that choir practice is not happening for me tonight. (I do, however, see chocolate in my future.)

* I keep my driver's licence in my car. Which was at home. I've never needed it (or considered that I might need it) for ID purposes before.

** They were nice about the whole thing at first, though. (Until I asked if I could finish my beer before leaving. Then they got snarky.) And I don't blame them for IDing me. People often think I am younger than I am (although they usually pick me as being over 18, at least!). And once they have IDed someone who can't produce ID, they obviously can't serve them anything. But I think it was a bit much to kick me out entirely. If they had been raided by the police, I can't imagine the police could prosecute them for having a 26 year old on the premises without ID. The police would never have been able to prove that the bar staff had IDed me, and the bar staff would have been within their rights to say that they hadn't needed to ask for ID because I looked to be in my mid twenties.

*** I'm guessing here. Or maybe they all got IDed too. (Though, I'd like to see them try and ID the elderly monk who was with us.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Access to books/breathable air: the choice is yours

A large number of the books I use live in the basement of one of the campus libraries. I spend a lot of time down there.

For some reason this sign, posted on the wall of said basement, always makes me slightly nervous.

(Note the date at the bottom. They aren't working very hard, are they?)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Too stupid to own a library card

I just put in a recall request at the university library for a book I need that is out on loan.

Five minutes later I walked past my bookshelf and guess what?

The good thing is that I now know who has the book.

Crimes against language

Exemplar One: Crimes against the Greek alphabet

(Unless, of course, this hairdressing salon actually is called Snigma.)

Exemplar Two: Multiple crimes against foreign alphabets

Okay, maybe this one is supposed to be an Å, in which case you would have to pronounce the word to rhyme with "store-bought", especially in the actual intro to the programme where the first A has a circle on it too. Or else it is supposed to be a lambda. In which case:

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A post that won't self-destruct

In case you are wondering about the S-themed party last night...

we went as skivers.

About an hour before we were due at the party, it turned out that Geekman wasn't looking forward to it, because he hates dressing up, and I wasn't looking forward to it, because there wasn't likely to be anyone I knew there. So we skived off to a café instead and spent the evening drinking coffee and talking about the possibility of life on other planets.

I think it's a good sign that after eight years together, we'd still rather spend the evening in each other's company than going out with other people.

Let's play hairdressers!

Because Shrinkykitten has sometimes claimed (on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) that I have exciting hair, I thought that today I should make her delusion come true.

Oh, okay, it was actually all about finding new ways to procrastinate instead of going to the library, cleaning the house, and all the other sucky Sunday morning things I should be doing.

So I played with exciting hairstyles instead.


Too bad I'm too shy to wear my hair like this in public.

(This post will self-destruct in 24 hours.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

I drink it because it's pretty

Lady Grey tea. It has cornflowers in.

My life's so interesting. Don't you wish you were me?

Last night I spent the whole night dreaming about reading blogs.

Anastasia had posted to say she had been kidnapped by aliens. And Shrinkykitten was contemplating the deeper significance of knitted scarves. Those were the interesting bits. The rest of the dream(s) consisted entirely of me pressing "refresh" on Bloglines 98 million times.

I think I need to have a cut-off point where I stop reading blogs at least an hour before bedtime.

Friday, August 25, 2006

It's my accent, isn't it?

I just had this conversation with a faculty member I ran into in the hall:

He starts by saying something I don't quite catch.

"I'm sorry?"

"I said 'hello, StyleyGeek'."

"Oh. Sorry. Hi."

"You're all wrapped up warm."

"It's cold today."


"I'm expecting so, anyway."

"Really? You're expecting snow?" To someone nearby, "Styley says it's going to snow!"

"No, so. I said 'I expect so'."

"Oh. Right then. How are you today, anyway?"

"Damp." (My hair was still dripping from the rain I had just cycled through).

He gives me a slightly baffled look and, with the air of someone humouring a slightly dangerous psychiatric patient, replies, "Well, I hope you are more 'alive' later."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mixed messages

Geekman just received these two birthday presents from his parents. We think they are trying to tell him something, but we aren't entirely sure what.

There's a word for what you're doing, and that's not it

"Do you want to go to bed?"


"Or should we watch an episode of something first?"


"Are you even tired? Because I'm not. But it is 11 o'clock."


"We could always go to bed and read for a bit."


"You're agreeing with everything I say!"

"I'm agreeable!"

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Home, home on the lake. (Where the deer and the antelope roam.)

Last night we opened a bottle of wine from a local vineyard that we had been saving for a special occasion. It was a most excellent wine, but I have to take issue with the label on the back, which was either written sometime in the dark ages, or by a copywriter who has never actually visited this part of the country.

Beautiful? More like tragic.
Mysterious? Well, okay, I'll give them that.

Do you know what the mystery of Lake George is? The mystery, my friends, is where the fucking water went to.

(Yes, those blobs in the middle are sheep.)

Behold ! I show you the world's most expensive banana

Yes, that was the cost of one banana.
No, I wouldn't usually buy them at that price.

But it was Geekman's birthday, and he wanted a banana. So (among other things) I bought him one.

Strawberries would have been cheaper*. (So I bought some of those too).

Bloody hurricanes.
Bloody import restrictions.


* which is especially insane considering it is the middle of winter.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Parrots, parrots everywhere
(and not a wing to eat)

Today on my way home I spotted a gang gang cockatoo. This was very exciting (to me, but you can be excited too, if you feel like showing solidarity), as I have only ever seen one once before.

He looked me in the eye and made a noise like a squeaky door.

"Why are you always on your own?" I asked him. "Other parrots hang out in pairs."

"On my own?" he parroted. "Nonsense. I have a family."

"I don't believe you."

"Look behind you!" he screeched. "That's my mate. Isn't she pretty?"

"Why should I believe she's your mate?" I asked him. "For all I know, she's a random chick you pointed out because you didn't want me to think you were a loner."

At that, he cocked his head at me indignantly, and swooped down, coming so close to my head that I could feel the beat of his wings on my face.

"What was that for?" I asked.

"For being so rude as to doubt me," he squawked, his crest raised in indignation. He landed next to his mate. "Now do you believe she's with me?"

But all of a sudden my attention was caught by a squawking and a chattering coming from my right.

"Look at me! Look at me! I'm prettier than they are! They're just boring and grey! I'm all pretty in pink! Look at me! Look at me!!!"

"I don't think so, Galah," I answered. "I see you every day. But those gang gangs over there are really something special."

I turned back to my orange-crested friend. He was looking pleased with himself.

"If you really like me better than those guys, I'll show you a secret."

The gang gang made a series of his loud creaky door noises and from all directions around me the trees began to rustle. There was a swooping and a squawking and a landing and a shuddering, and when I stopped covering my face, I saw he'd been telling the truth about having a whole family.

It seemed my new friend was not a loner after all.

Screwed with a ten tonne screwdriver

I recently found out that the last time anyone new was hired in our department was 1971 (when they hired ScaryLecturer).

This doesn't bode well for the cunning new solution to all our problems that Geekman and I had hatched: to stay here for ever and ever and ever and not let them make us leave.* Geekman might still be able to persuade his centre that he is invaluable, but I'm thinking that the odds of me of getting a job here are probably worse than, hmmm... let's say 1971:1.

Now you might think that there's always the chance that some of the current people in our department could retire (or die). Unfortunately, there are only two people I can think of who might be likely to do so, and one of them, although she has been here forever, is officially only a visiting fellow so has an office but no salary, while the other is funded entirely by her own grants. This means that even if either of them left, it wouldn't free up any funds for a new hire.

And if, by some miracle, a new position does become available anytime, well, ever, there are 35 years' worth of graduates hanging around in temporary teaching positions or admin jobs, waiting to pounce. Somehow, I don't rate my chances very highly.

I think I need a plan B.


* We're still working on the details.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Yes, I walk around with my eyes closed. Why do you ask?

Despite having been at my current university for two years, I was completely unaware until today that this building existed.

I don't think I even realised that we had a school of medicine. I'm sure it's a very good one (although I suspect the architect may have been drunk) -- I've just never been over this side of campus before. And somehow didn't notice that this building dwarfs everything around it so entirely that you can see it from my side of campus.

The medical students even get a very upmarket (read: overpriced) café where they sell the same things you can get elsewhere on campus, but with fancier ingredients and at three times the cost. If you find yourself with a spare week's worth of lunch budget, however, I highly recommend the mediterranean-garlic-pinenut burger thing,* even to those of you who (like me) naively thought that spinach was not a vegetable that would benefit from deep-frying.


*Comes with the entire Mediterranean, lightly toasted in garlic and lovingly smothered with pine nuts. Or something.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Good words deserve new meanings

Geekman: "Did you get much work done today?"

Me: "I wrote another 1500 words, and I sorted all my notes into my new folders."

Geekman: "1500 words? That's like a whole day's work. You're very... auspicious."

Me: "Auspicious?"

Geekman: "It's such a good word. I don't think we should restrict ourselves to only using it in the right context."

Somebody suggest something!

Geekman and I have been invited to a party next weekend with the theme "S". So far, we have come up with the following costume ideas:

  • Scientists (but since most people going are from the physics dept, we aren't going to be the only ones who've thought of that possibility)
  • Slave and slave driver
  • Shiny sequiny sparkly people
  • Slut (Probably only me for that one, unless we can find an extra man and go as a slut sandwich)
  • Sisters (Geekman in drag! Whoohoo!)
  • Something not starting with S (Don't think about that one too hard or your brain will go all melty)
  • Surgeons (Potential for lots of fake blood here)
  • Something surprising!
  • A Swede and a StyleyGeek (i.e we don't dress up at all)

Any better suggestions?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Stage fright

My traffic for the last few days has spiked to about four times my usual daily average (thanks mostly to the mention on Inside Higher Education), and it has me paralysed like a possum in the headlights of impending popularity. (Don't you love how that simile makes me the cute fluffy animal and you guys the ones in the SUV? Way to alienate your readers, StyleyGeek.)

Now, it's fun having you extra people around (even if I casually insult you), and the promise of statistics, dear statistics (read: seeing how many people had nothing better to do while I was asleep than read blog carnivals) is an excellent incentive to get up in the mornings.

But it is also giving me performance anxiety. Because you are so much better and bigger than other readers I've had before, and I don't know what you could possibly see in me. Sometimes, you know, I worry that I might not give you as much pleasure, or last as long as other blogs you have known. I mean, of course I'm experienced and all, and... no, I'm not implying that you've been round the block or anything, but...

Maybe we could just cuddle up for a while and page through the archives? Until I'm feeling a little more comfortable with the whole situation?

If you loved me it wouldn't matter.

You do love me, right?

Search and rescue? You've found us. Now go away.

Our house is being vibrated by helicopters. They are flying around and around in circles. And being chased by cockatoos, who seem to have gone all territorial now that it's coming up to spring.

If you have never seen a cockatoo trying to attack a helicopter, you should come round to our place and have a good laugh.

Friday, August 18, 2006


It's one of the 12 baby hedgehogs just born at Edinburgh zoo. (Photo from BBC news)

Let's take a poll

When booking a flight that someone else is paying for (because you are broke and they felt sorry for you), how appropriate is it to spontaneously add on a whole extra leg so that you can also go visit some friends on the other side of the country on your way home?

A. Not appropriate.

B. Not appropriate.

C. Not appropriate, and if the person paying for your flight is StyleyGeek, she doesn't want to be your friend anymore.

Water restrictions are taken seriously here in Australia

(Yes, the fence goes all the way round. Yes, the only way in is padlocked.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

'Fumbling' is the appropriate word

Speaking of photos,* I once again disqualified myself from true geek status today by way of sheer technological incompetence. And it involves photos. (Hence the topicalised participial phrase.)

Because, you see, I was trawling through my own blog archives, marvelling at my reflection in the pond, when** I suddenly noticed that all my photos were missing. All of them!

In the next 30 seconds I came up with all sorts of explanations, mostly involving Blogger and exceeded file space and/or general screw-ups (but some involving aliens holding my photos ransom for reasons unknown), and I went all sorts of colours of crazy and miserable and just generally pissed off.***

It took me ten whole minutes of teary clicking through old photo posts to realise that I had -- wait for it -- AdBlocked my own site.

Don't even ask.


*Well, okay, we weren't, but I posted one yesterday, and that counts, right?

** To make the analogy work here, I should really say, "when I reached out and suddenly fell in", which doesn't work at all well when we are talking of archives. Although, how cool would that be? Falling into your own archives?

*** But this time of the month, pretty much anything that happens is guaranteed to turn me exciting shades of angry. In the last few days, for example, I have been pissed off at my bicycle, the computer, Geekman (entirely unfoundedly), broccoli (don't ask), Geekman again (this time moderately foundedly), John Howard (entirely foundedly), and that weird orange foamy stuff that collects around the plug-hole in the bathroom sink. Some of them (including broccoli) have even made me cry.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It thinks it's spring, but it's delusional

Because if it was spring, I wouldn't be this cold.

While I have your attention...

I'm going to make the most of all my extra grad student visitors today and extend an invitation to join our online grad student support group. Shrinkykitten has a few more details about it here, but in brief, it's a private blog where we write about our current dissertation-related goals, give each other support and try and keep each other accountable for progress being made.

We would like a few more members (but don't want there to be so many that people get lost in the crowd). So if you are interested, send me an email, and I'll get back to you within a few days. If we get huge numbers of people wanting to join, though, it may be that we have to take the first comers only.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Ist Monthly Carnival of GRADual Progress


As this is the first Carnival of GRADual Progress ever, I haven't limited it to recent posts but have included some oldies as well.

Hunting and gathering the following posts from around the internet, I was struck with how much of what is written about grad student life is extremely depressing. I'm a little concerned that this carnival might send you all off to slit your wrists -- I guess the best to hope for is that reading it can also have the effect of creating a sense of shared experience (a trouble shared is a trouble halved and all), or maybe give the evilest of you a few moments of schadenfreude. And sometimes it just helps to know you aren't the only one who's struggling. But so as not to turn this entirely into the Carnival of Doom and Despair, I made an especial effort to sprinkle some happier (or even just neutral) posts into the mix. If you have particularly depressive tendencies, you might want to skip the first three or four: I promise they get cheerier after that.

But you don't want to hear me waffling on forever, so I declare this carnival officially open! Stop stuffing your mouths with candyfloss and hotdogs (it'll just make you feel sick when you go on the ferris wheel), and get to the reading!

The agony...

Flossie, from Stepping on Acorns, nominated Dean Dad's post on the wisdom (or otherwise) of going to graduate school. As she points out, it's too late for most of us, but reading it might help remind you of why you are here and what you want to get out of it all.

In case you are tempted to believe that Dean Dad is exaggerating the hardships of grad school, you might want to read this post, where Hopeless Academic compares research to a hell, "where satan deposits me in thoughts of proteases and nucleotides and SNP's and colloids and lasers". Hopeless Academic also shows he has time between lab meetings to be political in this submission.

Parts-n-Pieces writes about a couple of feelings we can probably all identify with: the fear it won't be good enough and the feeling of being an imposter, with some interesting ideas about finding a model of how to be a dissertation writer.

Holly, on Field Notes from an Evolutionary Psychologist also writes about the difficulties of being a first generation graduate student trying to find models of how to be in academia. Her question in this post is how you can get published in grad school if you don't have the sort of supervisor who lets you 'ride their coattails onto the royal road of publications'.

The PhD Explosion confronts the widespread acceptance that grad students will end up feeling suicidal and makes the radical suggestion that maybe this means there is something wrong with the system. On a less bleak note, the post on other people's reactions when you tell them you are doing a PhD is also well worth a read.

...and the not-all-that-bad, really...

In case reading about other people's struggles is starting to make you dwell on your own, the following few posts might work as a bit of an anxiety antidote.

With the benefit of hindsight, Collin Brooke from Collin vs. Blog reminds us that dissertations don't have to be good. They only have to be good enough.

Chris Uggen points out that even if you fail an exam, it doesn't mean you won't be a good professor.

And despite what we've all heard about the shrinking academic job market, Minor Revisions shows it can be done. I'm going to quote a whole passage of her post, because I find it soothing when the panic starts to build:

It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t find a job after grad school. After a period of panic where I was terrified everyone had realized I suck, I had a nice batch of interviews, followed by a good group of offers, and picked what was clearly the best one in the right area. I make enough money, work with delightful people, and can pretty much do what I want with my time.

Admittedly most of these 'antidote' posts are by people who are no longer graduate students themselves. But maybe that is a good reminder that some things that seem like big deals right now might not look so terrifying a few years down the track. (Or, you know, that the world has got a whole lot nastier since these people were at grad school. Whatever.)

...and the ecstasy (Yes, you thought that wasn't coming, but I fooled you)

All the same, some current grad students seem to be having a good time of it. Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast has a post about being in love with your research, reminding us that when things are good, they are very very good.

And Stewgad at Pretty Hard Dammit writes about what it's like to really own your dissertation.

The hilarity...

If you're still not having fun yet, Ranjit Warrier at The Warrier's Kraal is bound to make you laugh with his signs you are spending too much time in the lab or his post on what would happen if virologists could name movies. He's not someone you would want to go through airport security with, on the other hand.

... and the ingenuity

If When I manage to complete my dissertation, I know it's all going to be thanks to the tips, tools and tricks I nicked off other people's blogs. So here's a brief catalogue of some useful strategies I've stumbled across lately.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast recommends some unexpectedly low-tech tools.

GTD Wannabe has a helpful post on personal experiences in implementing the GTD system as a grad student.

Earth Wide Moth at Indexical Thinking gets thinking about the usefulness of indexes.

If you've ever struggled with the tension between wanting to keep your partner informed about your PhD progress (or lack of it!) and not wanting to answer yet another bloody question about how the thesis is going, Pretty Hard Dammit has a suggestion for a stress-free compromise (and it wins extra points for being based on a scene from Buffy!)

Aunt B. at Tiny Cat Pants isn't a grad student herself, but I found that her Free Advice for Academic Authors is equally applicable to dissertations.

The soon-to-be

Let's now take a few minutes to step into a daydream about the (maybe not so distant!) future and look at a few posts on finishing and beyond.

First of all there are a few useful posts on how to get finished.

HistGrad at Eating an Elephant writes about How to Finish a Dissertation in Two Easy Centuries (Part I and II).

ScienceWoman at On being a scientist and a woman also has a post on finishing up in reasonable time. While some of her suggestions are only relevant to North American Readers (classes? comps? prelims?), there's plenty of more general advice -- also in the comments.

Over at this site, on the other hand, you'll find a whole heap of suggestions for how to avoid graduating. After all, some of us are here because we like PhD student life: why would we want to leave?

If you do want to finish on time, but aren't sure what you need to be doing when, here's a useful calculator to help you work it out.

Porkorama at Dissertation Hell tells us about the final step: the oral exam. This is a horror story with a moral ("Do it or don't do it, but don't just stand there suffering!").

Finally, just in case you are about to make it out of here in the near future, Dr. Mom has a comprehensive list of what needs to go into a faculty application package (thanks to ScienceWoman for the tip-off).

Many thanks to everyone who submitted something, or who pointed me in the direction of something that deserved submission. Huge apologies if you submitted something and I somehow missed it. Please let me know if that was the case and I'll tweak the system (or my brain) so that it doesn't happen again. Hopefully the next month will bring many more submissions from people who didn't know about the carnival until now.

... and the cup of tea.

I'm off to make one, anyway. Won't you join me?

Which part of, oh, ANY OF THAT, didn't you understand?

Visiting speaker (who has just asked to use my photocopying account to copy handouts, a request I had to decline because grad students have a copying limit and I'm nearly at mine): "Thanks for finding me someone whose account I could use. Are you joining us now for morning tea before the seminar?"

Me: "No, I'm really busy and would like to get a few things done* before your talk."

Visiting speaker: "Well, if you aren't coming for coffee, would you mind taking these and stapling each copy at the top left? [hands me her huge pile of handouts] And there's a mistake on page three: just cross out the first word on each one."


* And yes, I am now blogging instead of doing any of those, but that's not the point. It's just not. Okay?

Monday, August 14, 2006

StyleyGeek pretends to be a real blogger who cares about news and politics and stuff

Since BBC news is watching me, I might as well make the most of the attention and marvel out loud (in a metaphorical, online sort of way) at two new bizarrenesses.

(1) What is with the "What could be in the news during the next week" column? In my humble* readerly view, if it hasn't happened yet, it isn't news. It's weather forecasting. Or horoscopes. Or rune casting. But not news. Have patience, people! Wait until it happens and then report it. Otherwise you'll just have to repeat yourselves.

(2) On a less ranty note, I was sitting at the gym the other day on one of those horrible cycle machines which have TVs all lined up in front of them, and was pleasantly surprised to see that instead of Oprah or South Park repeats, I was just in time for the BBC World News Headlines. So we get the lead in and (presumably) music and all (no earphones). Followed by...

A five-minute-long screenshot of the BBC world news website.

I'm all for encouraging people to get their news online instead of from TV, but isn't the whole point of online news its interactiveness? Which is not exactly a quality that a screenshot has all that much of.

On the other hand, it is probably an excellent way to save money. So I'm thinking we could all incorporate this strategy into our teaching. (Think how proud of us our departmental budget monsters would be!) Rather than actually giving lectures, we could lock the students in a room with the readings projected up on the wall. Instead of tutorials, we can take relevant online discussion board posts and show them on a screen at the front of the class.

Tell me, am I on to something here?


* Okay, we all know that any time anyone says "humble" when referring to themselves, they mean exactly the opposite. So yeah, read this as, "[...] in my megalomaniacal 'the world revolves around me' readerly view [...]" because clearly that's what I really wanted to say.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The generational divide, or why my family thinks I have a boring life

My mother has threatened promised to call tonight.

So I was making a mental list of what I can tell her about when she asks how I spent the weekend. The problem is that I don't think she will be able to identify, let alone identify with, any of the things I could mention:

  1. I blogged. (My mother doesn't know I have a blog. I doubt she even knows what a blog is.)
  2. I collected some posts for the Carnival of GRADual Progress. (See note to #1.)
  3. I read an article called "Parataxe, Hypotaxe et Corrélation dans la Phrase Latine" [Parataxis, Hypotaxis and Correlation in the Latin Phrase] (Let's just pretend that was a helpful translation, okay?)
  4. Geekman and I installed a different distribution of Linux on my university computer. (My mother is uncomfortable with the idea of using Firefox as a web browser because she "likes Windows better".)
  5. I memorised the pronominal system of Middle Egyptian. (Do I even need to comment on this one?)
  6. I designed a computer program to randomly suggest combinations of the contents of our fridge, in the hope of generating ideas for exciting new sandwiches. I wanted to design an evolutionary algorithm in order to evolve the perfect combination, but got stuck at the point where I needed to create a metric to measure goodness of sandwich.
I think I'll just tell her we went for a walk.

Old people are Not Like Us

At a reading group on Friday that I am no longer going to be specific about* (as Googling for this topic seems to have been the way several people I know have found this blog), it was suddenly brought home to me that I don't represent the average demographics of the group.

Someone was soliciting annual fee payments for an organisation that some members of the group belong to, and it was suggested that everyone pay in advance for the next four years, since this apparently makes it easier for the organisation. Now, as you might expect, there was huge objection to this, but it wasn't for any reason I would have predicted.

Because it would put a financial strain on people's budgets?
Because they weren't sure they would want to stay members for the next four years?
Not quite.

But I think a request for clarification that came from one of the members gives an indication of the problem:

"Will any money left over be paid to my estate?"


* But if you care, I've posted about it here and here.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The world's a big place with some odd people in it. Amazing.

Although it is apparently an appalling blog cliché, I love to read other people's posts about the Googling weirdness that brings people to their blogs, so screw it, I'm going to write another one myself.

Best of the last two weeks:

what can a koala do

something neat about strategic thinking

what did you do this weekend <- are you asking Google? Because I expect it just sat there and helped people with their searches.

squirrels in my addict

too much cuddling koala <- Do you think this one is looking for help for an addiction?

king parrot trap <- If I knew who you were, I'd report you

can parrots eat pencils? <- And you.

Friday, August 11, 2006

My friends now despise me and it's all Shrinky's fault

Since the only one of the commentators to my post about Mission Impossible III who claimed to have seen it said it didn't suck,* I went.

And was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, Tom Cruise doesn't do anything for me, but the action was actiony, there were enough explosions to keep Geekman happy, the plot had enough twists to keep it interesting, and the dialogue even had some clever moments.

Standing around afterwards with friends, and hoping to score some sort of celeb-watching cred, I plagiarised quoted Shrinky's comment about Tom Cruise's partner in the film looking like Katie Holmes.

All of them, without exception, replied, "Who's Katie Holmes?"

* Hey, syntactic processing memory, you can suck my complex sentence! (See, I could write action movie dialogue, too.)

Technology can't keep up with me

I don't know about you, but I almost never use the thing on my browser that you are meant to type URLs into. I'd say that at least 90% of the time, I use Google (for things I don't know I am looking for), links (for things that people tell me I should be looking for) or bookmarks (for things I obsessively stake out multiple times a day). I certainly can't think of a single instance in which it would be quicker and more convenient to type in a URL.

So how come the URL-typey-in-thing is located in the centre of the toolbar and takes up most of the space, while the Google search box (if you are using Firefox and even have one) is hidden off to the side all scrunched up?

Ideally, I want the Google box to be where the URL-putter-inner is and the URL-thingy itself can go hang.

Anyone want to design me a custom-made browser?

Update: I've been fiddling around with the toolbar options and it seems you can put the Google box on the left of the URL-thingy, but you can't change their relative sizes.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

In other news

Because sometimes I like to explore my human English heritage, I'm going to talk about the weather.

I just looked at the daily temperatures for the last few months and you know what? On Tuesday we had both the coldest night this winter (-6 C, or 21 F) and the warmest day (18 C, 64 F).

What is with this country?

Mission Impossible III tonight

How much is it going to suck? Even bearing in mind that it is free, should I bother going?

Opinions before 7 pm, please!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I have bike!

Not quite a new one, but new to me. I stole it bought it from Weekend_Viking with a vague promise of money changing hands at some point. (He claims to have mafia friends, so this is a debt I should probably pay.)

Three special features that this bicycle has that my old one didn't:

  • Working brakes
  • Gears
  • Wheels that stay attached to the bicycle when going over speed bumps
I've upgraded!

He reads too much science fiction

We censused last night, along with (I suspect) most of the rest of the country. I love filling out census forms. It's like a multiple choice test where I know all the answers! Plus, it makes me feel like I'm important in someone's grand scheme.

I think there's a person in our house who needs to work on his question interpretation skills, though:

In the box for "ethnic heritage", Geekman wrote "human".

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It seems that I'm a fake

In light of some recent discussion in our little corner of the blogosphere (that I'm too lazy to hunt down links to) about the nature of words like "intellectual" and "academic" and how we describe ourselves to other people, I submit, for your interest and amusement, this brief conversation from yesterday.

"Good morning StyleyGeek."
"Morning." I hurry past, not wanting to get stuck in conversation with this person whose head is so far up his own arse that he has a permanent crick in the neck.
"I hear we have a scholar in the department this week." The word is said in awestruck tones.
"Huh?" (Don't we have around 20 scholars in the department all day every day?)
"You know, our visitor."
"Oh, you must mean X, our visiting speaker for tomorrow's seminar."
"That's right. From Harvard, I hear."
"Well, it's nice to have a real scholar around the place for a change."

And with that, and a final throat clearing, he disappears into his office.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Stealth learning

I've recently been forced to return to doing some reading in a subfield of linguistics that I have tried to avoid for the last two years because it is just. too. hard.

My memories of reading this stuff in the past are of struggling and struggling to make sense of things and always feeling like I am missing a huge piece of background information -- like I walked into a surrealist play half-way through the final act without any prior knowledge of the subject matter. Worse: the final act of a surrealist play in a language I don't speak.*

But today I was finally forced to look at this area again and it makes perfect sense. It's easy! And it's the missing link for a section of my thesis.

Somehow in the past two years, without actively trying to, I have acquired the necessary background to understand this material.

Hooray for research degree side effects! Hooray for StyleyGeek's brain!


*I had that experience once. It was about as much fun as it sounds.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Where'd New Kid go? Is she coming back? I miss her already!

StyleyGeek goes to party: gets cold


In this paper the author will argue that parties held during winter when the outside temperature is less than minus two degrees (28 F) should not be held outdoors. The addition of a small brazier can improve matters, but if there is only enough wood to last an hour or two, and/or so many guests that only a tenth of them can fit huddled around the brazier at any given time, the brazier's presence may lower rather than improve morale.

Allowing access to an inside room is thoughtful behaviour on the part of the hosts, but it should be noted that leaving the windows and French doors wide open all night is likely to bring the room down to the same temperature as the outside area.

In conclusion, the author explains that while she enjoyed the pizza and is still recovering from the extremely alcoholic punch*, it took her 45 minutes upon her return home to stop shivering and return to something approximating a normal human body temperature.

* "So what's in this punch, then?"
"Well, it started as pina colada, but the bowl was only about a third full, so we added the rest of everything we had in the liquor cabinet, and other people have been pouring in some of whatever they brought with them."

Saturday, August 05, 2006


I have a favour to ask youse.

In case you haven't seen the website for the Carnival of GRADual Progress lately, I decided to hold the first carnival on 15th August. Now I don't have a problem with making the first one consist almost entirely of posts that I have stumbled across myself rather than actual submissions, but that does mean that I'll probably miss a lot of good stuff.

So it's actually two favours:

  1. If you come across any posts about grad student life during your browsing over the next week that you think are submission-worthy, please let me know (via one of the ways described on the Carnival website).
  2. A little publicity for the carnival on your own blogs (a post? a link to the carnival website in the sidebar?) would be most excellent, since you probably all have larger readerships than I do.
I have no doubt that it will get some momentum of its own after the first couple of rounds, but for now, the more publicity there is, the better reading will be coming your way on the 15th.

* Which is one of those words that, when you look at it all by itself, doesn't really look like a word at all and sends you running dictionarywards to check its spelling.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Up with the birds

I came in to university extra early today. As I sat down to work, though, I heard a noise from the pavement below my window: Clatter clatter clatter clatter! In fact, it was exactly like the sound of claws skittering over paving stones. Coming closer and closer.

So I opened my window and looked down.

It seems that someone was confused by my early arrival when he'd thought he would still have the place to himself.

Observation on last night's movie
(The Da Vinci Code)

I've probably said it before, but it's still true. It's always a bad sign when the audience cracks up laughing at the emotional climax of the film.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Doomed before I begin

I'm going to a course today on how to get a postdoc.

It's probably an ominous sign for my future prospects that I've been trying to get into this course for a year, and the eight times it ran during that period it was booked out within an hour of opening for enrolment.* Each time it was advertised, I'd send them an email, and receive a reply saying that they had already had hundreds of other students enquire and I was too late.

Perhaps this is the first lesson for postdoc applications: get used to that feeling.


* Most courses for postgrads at our university take a couple of weeks to fill up, if they ever do.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The AIU: "More Better Education"

I love the website of the Australian International University (slogan: "More Better Education"). It's a spoof of my university, which has an extremely similar name and has recently been trying to attract more international students.

But whether or not you know my university, you'll probably find the site is an amusing satire on academia in general.

Here's an excerpt from their "Staff Strategy" page:

At Australian International University we have no staff. We are a revolutionary, management only university. By cutting out staff members completely, we have reduced our costs to a market-leading level, enabling us to provide our clients with world-class price point options.

All lecturer and tutors at Australian International University are SSP’s. SSP stands for “Subcontracted Service Provider.” The utilisation of SSP teachers keeps costs as low as possible for us. We can then pass on these cost savings to you, our valued clients.


Incentivisation is an important part of motivating our SSP’s. The Australian International University has found that for an SSP, the fear of losing one’s job is a powerful incentive to lower one’s hourly rate. We believe in regularly providing incentives to our SSP’s in order to improve performance and service delivery.

Here at AIU we are also very proud of the fact that our management staff have absolutely no academic experience. Our management team have all been recruited because they come from management, marketing and entrepreneurial backgrounds. We guarantee that none of them are tainted by any experience of pedagogy. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach,” or words to that effect. Except for our SSP’s, all management staff at AIU are able to “do.”

And from the 'International Students FAQ':

Q4. I worry I don’t speaking so good English, actually?

A4. No worry, mate. We don’t speak good English neither. But your father is good businessman. He has $100,000 in cash? He can pay your education? No worry mate. You already speaking our language very good. Don’t worry learning more English classes. No necessary. No worry. Mate.

Q6. My friend he go already to AIU. But he say he can't understanding what lecturers saying. What if I can't understanding them too? How I can learning proper?

A6. No worry, mate. We don’t calling them “lecturers” any more at AIU. We calling them “SSP” this mean “Subcontracted Service Provider.” If you have problem with you can't understand your SSP, you tell us, we fire him. Your father our number one valuable client. We don’t offending your father. He important man, him. SSP is very “pretentious.” This is special word - mean think he very smart. But if so smart, why he SSP? If he more smart, he is being manager or marketing man. Not stupid teacher.

Q8. Normally I don’t understanding English very good. How come I understanding everything you say? How come you so clear?

A8. Because we writing all questions and answers in this FAQ.

I also recommend the page explaining the Latin mottos of the various university services. I'm thinking of adopting the main university motto as my own:

Rapacitas Bona Est

Progress through procrastination

I've wasted significant time online in the last couple of days searching for and installing some of the software suggested in the comments to this post at Bitch PhD. (The irony has not escaped me.)

You, on the other hand, can be grateful, since I am going to pass on the little sparkly gems of my hard-won wisdom (having cleaned the mud off first and polished them lovingly with a soft cloth), in order to save you from the drudgery of surfing around for yourself.

Most highly recommended are: the Invisibility Cloak plugin for Firefox, the method suggested here under (2) for banning particular sites, and the cunning use of Adblock to filter out your own personal time-wasting nemesiseseses.

I'm now using all three of these solutions, plus Temptation Blocker to disable Internet Explorer entirely (I use Firefox for all my work-related internet use). While each of these programs is easy enough to disable independently, switching them all off is a little too much effort to go to unless I'm really, really desperate.

No, don't thank me. I'll just get all shy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Geekman explains the universe

or StyleyGeek gets someone else to do her blogging for her. (Do you think this strategy would work for my thesis, too?)

In the comments to a post below, there was a discussion of a public lecture that was recently given on the topic of supersymmetry. Morton T Fogg missed the lecture and made the request that someone explain the lecture in one or two sentences. Miss M then fingered me as "a real live physicist" (as opposed to a dead one, I can only assume) and suggested I have a go. So here I go.

At the lecture the speaker didn't really say a lot about supersymmetry itself, and didn't really explain what it was when he did. This is understandable, since it was a public lecture, and he had to first cover a lot of physics background before he could even start talking about supersymmetry. It's also hard to get lay people excited about supersymmetry since it's really abstract. Still, he gets my admiration for even trying.

So here's my explanation of what supersymmetry is, assuming a moderately scientific background.


That was a five minute pause where I stared at the screen without writing anything. This is going to be difficult. Geekman adopts a lotus position and attempts to focus his chi.

Right. At the most fundamental level we know about, everything physical can be sharply divided into two classes with nothing left over. This division is normally made at the level of elementary particles (which are particles that appear to be absolutely fundamental and indivisible, i.e. not made up of anything else), but since everything is either one of these elementary particles or made up of collections of them, this division also applies to macroscopic objects.

The two classes are called bosons and fermions, and they have very different properties. Some of these properties are pretty abstract and don't make much sense outside a quantum mechanical analysis, but there is at least one property that has obvious, understandable consquences for everyday life: Bosons are friendly, fermions aren't. You can put as many bosons in the same place at the same time as you like; with fermions you can only have one in one place at any given time.

As you may now have guessed, practically all the stuff you see around you is fermionic. If you try to walk through a wall you will quickly become aware of this. You, the wall, not generally happy being in the same place at the same time. Feel free to try this at home - it's a very cheap and educational physics experiment, and probes fundamental properties of the universe.

Something that is bosonic, on the other hand, and is noticeable in everyday life is the photon (photons are particles of electromagnetic radiation). Light, radio waves, X-rays and so on all pass happily through each other without any problem.

Geekman un-adopts the lotus position as he's getting cramp, but tries to hold on his chi in case it proves useful.

Now, the next thing you have to know is that physicists like symmetry. A lot. A lot lot lot, even. If there's something asymmetric about their equations (making them ugly), they'll often stick in extra terms just to make them more symmetric (and elegant or beautiful), even if there's no justification for it. Amazingly, more often than not, these extra terms, in the fullness of time, turn out to actually be correct and describe extra stuff in the real world. The universe appears to like symmetry too. Good universe. Pretty universe.

I've used the term symmetry a lot, so it's probably time to explain it. There are all sorts of symmetries, and the ones that are most familiar to people are geometric ones. If, for example, I rotate a square through ninety degrees, it looks unchanged. Similarly if I reflect it though a diagonal and so on. But what does symmetry mean when applied to equations? Well, the same sort of thing, really. It means you can apply some transformation to one of the variables in your equation and the equation is still valid. One example might be if you take the solar system and move every object in it a metre to the left. The solar system ends up shifted but behaves exactly the same. This is equivalent to taking your equations that govern the movement of matter in a gravitational field and adding a constant to the variable denoting the position. If your equations don't still work after this change they don't respect this particular symmetry. The beauty about seeking symmetry in equations is that you can use symmetries
that are a lot more abstract than the obvious spacial ones.

So, that's symmetry. Unfortunately we have this sharp dichotomy: bosons and fermions. Distinct, different, not symmetric. This makes physicists twitchy. Is is possible, they ask, to change the standard equations of quantum mechanics so that if we turned fermions into bosons the equations would still be correct? The standard equations don't respect this symmetry, but it's possible to construct equations that do, and they are indeed much more elegant. Beautiful, even. And if you look at these equations, you see they predict a whole lot more elementary particles that we haven't seen yet. If past history of physics is any guide, the fact that we have altered the equations to obtain beauty and seen new forms of matter predicted strongly suggests these new forms of matter actually exist.

That's the abstract motivation. Symmetry and beauty in the fundamental equations that describe reality.

There are a number of other motivations, but they're kind of too abstract to describe here. Suffice it to say that making our equations supersymmetric removes a number of inconsistancies in quantum mechanics, and it also appears to be required to make string theory work.

So, there's my quick and dirty description of supersymmetry for non-physicists, although it ran to a lot more than the one or two sentences requested by Morton T Fogg.

A dissertation is just a really long blog entry, right?

I've been remarkably productive (for me) the last few days. All the same, I've started to notice ominous signs that I may be spending more time and effort on blogging than on my thesis:

  • I used to spend the time cycling from home to uni planning what I'd do on my thesis that day, and the time travelling home (over-)analysing what I should have done differently. Now I spend it composing imaginary blog posts.
  • I keep coming up with ideas for photos and images I could put in my thesis... if it were a website instead. I want to apply a pretty template!
  • My supervisor just pointed out that the section headings in my latest draft are 'amusing, but kind of random'.
  • And worst of all? Three times today LaTeX barfed when I tried to compile my files, thanks to me having typed in html commands by mistake.