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three-thesis-tips

06 November 2017 03:41PM IRL

I'm pretty sure that I'm among the last of my friends to do a thesis, but that's not going to stop me from handing out some good old-fashioned advice.

Here are three things I wish I'd known when I started:

1. Write everything down.

One of the characteristics of a solo research project is that almost by definition it's far too big for all the details to fit in your head. I used a combination of an A5 hardcover spiral-bound notebook, and Microsoft OneNote, and almost every bit of my thinking happened in one or the other.

Not only is it good for helping you think, but being able to look back at all those thoughts later is a lifesaver when it comes to writing the thing up. There were several times I wished I'd done something at an earlier point in my research, only to flip back and find out that I had, in fact, done that very thing. So get yourself a notebook, and use it.

2. Don't underestimate your data.

Especially if your research involves people, because people are messy. I think I declared myself 'done' with my data three or four times before I actually finished it. Each time, I'd turn around and try to use it to answer my questions, only to find that it wasn't quite in the format I needed, or that I hadn't collated something I had planned on using, or that something in my labelling system was ambiguous or inconsistent.

I thought it would take me four weeks, while I worked on other stuff in the afternoons. It ended up taking more like two months pretty much full-time.

essentially this.

3. Maybe don't work?

I'm really torn on this one. On one hand, having some income to pay for things like food and rent is nothing to be sniffed at. On the other hand, especially with a casual job, I felt like as soon as I got a decent amount of momentum going for my week's work, I had to head to work and change gears again. It's less about the time, and more about the constant context switching.

Then again, some weeks I think I might've needed that gear change. It was nice, sometimes, to check in to a job that I knew I could do well, and have an excuse to leave my thesis stuff behind. And again, that's pretty specific to a casual job - if I'd had something else project-based that I was working part-time on, I think it would've driven me around the twist.

So that's what I wish I'd known when I got started. Some of it sure seems like it's stating the obvious. I might even have been told some of it by friends. If you did, and you're reading this now, I'm sorry - I guess I just needed to make my own mistakes on this one.

All that said? I think I did an okay job at not going crazy. I kept my thesis pretty compartmentalised and didn't let it take over my life. And I think at least part of that is that I figured these out earlier, rather than later, and left myself time and space to make those mistakes for myself.

I guess that's the meta-advice here. A thesis is a self-directed learning experience, not just about your topic, but about how to keep yourself astride a project that's far too big for you and is moments away from throwing you off. Give yourself tspace to make, and learn from, those mistakes, and you'll have a much easier time.

Heck, you might even enjoy yourself.

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surplus gothic

02 September 2017 12:14PM Writing

The Land Rover is broken, and you replace the parts. The land rover is broken, and you replace the parts. The land rover is broken, and you replace the parts. Is this the same car you were driving when you started?

Your canvas is how you express yourself. There is canvas on your car. There is canvas over your head. You live and die by your canvas. Perhaps if you had bought less canvas you could afford to eat. You live and breathe canvas. The canvas is on your skin and in your lungs. Your canvas is your canvas.

A friend claims to have seen colours that nobody else has. Colours that aren't khaki. Colours that aren't tan. You laugh. We all have that one strange friend.

There is a kayak in your house. Nobody knows where it came from or how it got there. One day it vanishes, replaced by a stand-up paddleboard.

You freeze-dry your meat. You freeze-dry your peas. You freeze-dry your coffee. You freeze-dry your friends. It's for their own good. They will last longer, that way.

The camp fridge hums. The camp fridge is cold. The camp fridge is not plugged in.

You wash the mud off your gear. Aeons pass. Civilisations rise and fall. The sun expands to engulf the earth. The universe slides towards its inevitable heat death. You continue washing.

The kit fills your balcony. Then it fills your shed, and your parents' shed. Slowly, it fills your mind. Then it fills your shopfront. Then it fills your customers' arms, and so the contagion spreads.

Inspired by Jess, who lives under me, and Lochie, who lives with me.

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Masters Thesis: ORIGINS

03 August 2017 07:35AM IRL

About halfway through last year I was giving a presentation at work.

It was a run-through of our draft, to get approval from some folks higher up the food chain. We were talking about plants on board the international space station, and all the weird and wonderful stuff they might be used for in the future. In particular, we were looking at some plants that had been genetically modified. Whenever the plant was having to cope with something unusual, to change its chemistry to adapt to less than ideal circumstances, certain genes would be activated - and the plants had been modified so that the genes for a green fluorescent protein stolen from jellyfish would activate with them.

Basically, whenever they were stressed, the plants would glow.

Right now, this is being used as part of a research project, to help figure out how plants adapt to life in space, but we used it as a bit of a launching point to talk about the idea of biosensors. Perhaps one day, we said, like a canary in a coal mine, plants that glow when they're unhappy could be astronauts' first warning that something in their environment is wrong.

At this point, a particular member of our test audience raised their hand.

"Could we not talk about plants feeling happy or sad, please?"

This struck me as an odd nit to pick, but I changed my language for the rest of the presentation, talking rather dryly about stress responses and gene activations instead.

And for some reason this stuck with me. It was obvious to me that this talk was much more lively, much more accessible, when we talked about plants as if they had feelings. As if they were characters in the story we were telling. If I was being asked to stop, surely there must be some good reason behind it?

Fast forward about six months. I'm sitting in my supervisor's office, and we're talking thesis topics. We're tossing up between 'something about fake news and science' and 'something something career pathways in science communication', when a thought that'd been turning over in my head somewhere deep below the surface floated to the top unbidden.

"...or, there is this one thing I've kind of been wondering about."

So that's my thesis topic: Anthropomorphism. Treating things that aren't human as if they are; as if they have hopes and dreams and feelings and agency. What does that do to us, as an audience, when it's used to talk and write about science? Does it lead us towards misconceptions, towards sticky misunderstanding about the way the world works? Does it help people engage with a science story, when its topic seems a little more human? Or does it, perhaps, do both - and if so, when, and for who, does it do each?

It's a big question, and I'm only addressing a tiny sliver of it - but hopefully, that tiny sliver is enough not just to get me a masters degree, but to actually make me a better communicator as well.

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Fractured Cortex

18 June 2017 06:44AM IRL

The problem, fundamentally, is one of trust.

Almost exactly two years ago, Microsoft Corporation acquired 6Wunderkinder GMBH, and to be quite honest with you, that should really have been the first big red flag. Microsoft kill things. Big companies kill things. They buy them because they want the IP, or the team, or the users, and once they've sucked them dry, they shut them down.

It's now 2017, and the app they bought is being shut down in favour of building something identical but slightly worse using the Microsoft technology stack. Which would be fine, if that app didn't comprise a literal component of my mind.

To call Wunderlist "an essential part of my workflow" is an exercise in understatement. Others have written about the idea of outboard brains, external thinking tools, the metacortex. They've existed ever since… well, ever since writing was a thing. Ever since we were able to store knowledge outside our own mind, we've been offloading it. But outboard brains that can think for themselves, not just remember? Those only really started happening in the last thirty years, and they only really became workable in the last ten with the advent of ubiquitous smartphones.

The fact is that these days we all have one of these - you just don't realise it until someone rips it away. Or, perhaps worse, tells you that they're going to take it away but won't say when.

As I said. The problem is one of trust.

I use this external mind because in some sense I don't trust my internal one. I needed that deep, unshakeable trust that Wunderlist was going to be there tomorrow in order to offload the contents of my mind there today. It doesn't matter that the service is still running and still better than almost anything else around - the fact is, I don't trust it any more. I can't put my faith in something that I know is going away. Believe me, I have tried. I have tried to cajole myself into keeping it around. "Appreciate it while it's here," or "Use this time to properly research an alternative." None of it works. At the worst possible time, halfway through a thesis, I find myself just completely at sea.

So there are two factors at play here. The first and most pressing one is to get my life back up and running again. I don't need a perfect system, but I do need one - because right now I'm just flailing madly and hoping that everything that needs to happen still happens. And that's 100% not a sustainable way to operate.

The second factor is that I don't just want to solve this problem for now. I want to solve it for all time. This has happened to me before, and my response is always the same:

I make it impossible for them to ever hurt me again.

Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game

This is why I host my own blog, and my own RSS reader, and my own file sync. It's why I pay money for email and web hosting in an era where saying "I pay money for email" makes you sound like a relic from the 90s. But there's no fixing this. There's no open source, self-hosted, paranoid-hippy versions of these apps. You either sit there playing your cello while the good ship Wunderlist steams headlong towards an iceberg, ruptures catastrophically and sinks into the icy depths of the Atlantic, or you suck it up and pay fifty bucks a year for Todoist. Who, admirably, have an excellent attitude to this kind of thing.*

That's it. You've really got no other choices, at least none with any level of trustworthiness behind them. And certainly none which actually give you control over your data.

Which is ridiculous. Because when you get right down to it, all these apps have to do is keep a goddamn list safe.

Is that really so much to ask?

*You know, aside from the fact that they'd then be holding my brain to ransom.

Audience participation time

I know I don't normally do this kind of thing, but I'm curious. What do you use? How do you run your life? How do you keep track of what's going on? What's your system? What, when you get right down to it, would you be lost without?

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Six Fun Things to do with your new Fidget Spinner

14 June 2017 10:31AM Wut.

So you rescued a fidget spinner from the lost property box at work? Here's what to do with it.

Sanitise the heck out of it

Because seriously, it's from lost property. You have no idea where that thing's been.

it's like a tiny water wheel.

Spin it the wrong way

You know, it's not immediately obvious from the design of these things how you're supposed to spin them. If those outside bits had been just solid weights it might make a bit more sense. As it is they're bearings that you can't quite hold and that don't quite work when you try to spin using them.

questionable spinning technique there bud

Have an earnest conversation with a young person.

At this point, you should try to be approached by a kid. Any sufficiently hip youth will recognise you as one of their own, and make respectful eye contact. If they're bold enough, they may even strike up a conversation about how many spinners they have, and why they like them. Keep them talking for as long as you can. You may glean valuable insights into the current zeitgeist - or you may just be talked at for 10 minutes about their collection, and then challenged to see how fast you can spin. Both, perhaps, are equally valuable insights into the youth of today.

Film it in slow motion, just because you can.

I'm fairly certain that this has already been done, but what's the point of having a high-speed camera on your phone if you don't use it every once in a while.

120fps crushed into a 15fps gif. good job.

Investigate refresh(/frame/cycle) rates.

With those little holes in the bearings, you're basically holding a zoetrope. Or some kind of reverse zoetrope, perhaps, that takes seamless motion away from the things around you and shows you that the world you live in is a constant mass of flickering that you never sense. Bonus points if you noticed this on your own during #4.

yes, this was actually spinning

Recapture your misspent youth by re-enacting the hit TV series Beyblades

If you have a fidget spinner, and your friend has a fidget spinner… well, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that just about all you can do together is have a conversation about it, because there is no interesting way for two spinners to interact. There's certainly doesn't seem like there's any way for them to duel to the death, although if anyone has any suggestions on this front, please let me know.

two spinners enter. two spinners leave

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