Posts Tagged work
For a long time — since I was around 13 — I’ve enjoyed creative writing. The form has varied over the years, from poems to short stories to novels, but one way or another, writing has been part of my life for a long time.
Over the tail end of my doctorate, creative writing inevitably dropped out of my life (along with music, hiking, cooking, free time and happiness ) — writing a thesis requires a special level of dedication. But even before that intense writing up phase, there was a distinct drop in the amount of time I devoted to creative writing.
I’ve now been in my new job for a few months, and — having completed the banalities of settling in and learning my way around — I’m in a position where I have a little time to myself once again. But I’m still struggling to return to writing, and I wonder why.
Here’s one theory:
Now (and during much of my PhD), I’m carrying out a much more creative day-job than was the case when studying at school and college, or doing an undergraduate Computer Science degree. In the summer after my first year studying CS, I couldn’t do enough creative writing. I’d spent a year learning lots of very cool Computer Science things — formal methods, computer architecture, data structures and algorithms — it was all very logical. Most of what I wrote was code! A few tasks required producing prose, but they weren’t the emphasis (and what prose I wrote was generally concise, concerning logical matters — no real creative leaps).
Of course, I would passionately argue that there is creativity in computer science and software engineering — but when learning the fundamentals, it’s all pretty logical and straightforward.
By the end of that first year at university, I was desperate to let off some creative steam, which is why over that summer I wrote most of my first novel: the process itself was challenging, but finding the time and energy was not.
I wrote two further novels as an undergrad, although as I advanced through the course more interesting and creative problems emerged and my creative energies were dissipated a little more.
Now it’s completely different. My job is about thinking creatively: planning and conducting experiments, and of course writing them up and disseminating the results. There are non-creative components (the role of comms chair of DESIRE’11 springs to mind!), but really I have to be creative in some way or another every day.
Which I love.
But maybe that’s why I’m less enthused about writing lately: my job requires creativity, and (although I hasten to point out my publications are not fiction!) I write a significant amount of prose day-to-day, too.
I suspect there’s another factor. When I was an undergraduate, I was part of a creative writing group that met regularly. The social aspect was pleasant, but there was also real value in having a prompt to get on with writing! Now I’m in a Dutch-speaking country, working at an engineering-focused university: it’s not surprising I haven’t found a similar group here.
A third factor: time! I work pretty long days. By the time I’m home from work and have sorted out dinner and the like, time is getting on and my energy levels are low.
So, factors are a creative job, lack of a writing group, and less free time. If anyone else has run into this, or can think of other facets, I’d love to hear!
I had the pleasure of attending the above event last week. It examined the careers and ongoing professional life of PhDs, inside and outside academia. It included four plenaries, which each took two successful PhDs from a given area (history; sociology; natural science; drama), one of whom had stayed in academia and one of whom had gone into industry. There was a very broad selection of speakers – and of doctoral students – with great discussions.
It was fascinating to have the chance to talk with people carrying out PhDs in areas like art and drama – how do you examine one of those? (Well, I have more of a clue than I did before.) This was not a CompSci conference: people didn’t use their laptops during sessions!
There were negative and positive themes throughout this event. Points were made about the frustration of imposed processes which stifle creativity and innovation, and the lack of investment here in the UK compared to other countries (e.g. Germany). On the other hand, there were fascinating life stories on hand, and an enormous range of diversity and openness. ‘Serendipity’ was an often-used word, and ‘don’t over-plan your careers’ was said more than once!
The opening keynote was given by Tom Docherty, an English professor at Warwick. He talked about how we have lived through the age of mechanical production and are now in the age of digital production, and ranted at great length about how we value form above content. For example, we have all seen the Mona Lisa, whether we’ve been to Paris or not – we get an aesthetic impression of its form, but don’t see the work right there in front of us, in context as the result of a historical process. Similarly, he talked about how we disconnect from stuff in the news (e.g. a dying child in Gaza) and instead look at situations in terms of how they’ll play out (say, the consequences for countries in a conflict).
Similarly, he ranted about how lecturers are expected to fill in data on the aims, objectives, goals of a taught module – and not just go and teach it. How many PhD students have courses about managing their PhDs, structuring their time? A lot of us. But that stuff is nothing to do with the content of the PhDs!
He ended by saying that we have lost the visceral experience – we experience what we think we ought to experience, not the thing itself – how do we respond to that dying child in Gaza? How do we grieve? (Personally, I’m not convinced about all of this. He says we aren’t free to experience things as they are, but were we ever? And does this not, on some levels, just boil down to over-thinking things and “head vs heart”? He is, after all, a PhD talking to a room of PhD candidates.)
Anyway. Enough on the opening keynote.
Other things which came up were discussions of issues faced by female academics (you know the stuff – bringing up families etc – though also a point about how there is a need for the token woman on committees, which can leave us over-stretched – this resonated!). Also a point was made about inequality, not in terms of promotion and pay, but care-giving: how many husbands might drop a job to care for an ailing mother-in-law? How many wives would do likewise? Hm.
Student presentations were in parallel streams, ten to a group. I heard about visual deception in cinema, the effects of downhill walking in the elderly, implementation of policy… see how broad this conference was? Heard an utterly fantastic talk on the Battle of Mersa El Brega in 1941 – the speaker just came to life and told us a story – I forgot I was in a presentation, I was there with the speaker in 1941. Fab!
I gave my own presentation after a walk around the grounds (which were so “upper class English” it was unbelievable: of course, we were a stone’s throw from Eton and Windsor Castle). I worked really hard when putting it together to make it accessible to non-techies, and I was really pleased that I appear to have succeeded in this. I had loads of questions, and at breakfast the next day an artist from RCA and then a cinematographer separately grabbed me to talk some more. Win!
Of course, the Q&A session following my presentation was very broad, reflecting the audience. I was really surprised to be asked by the historian, “How on earth will you write this up?” He felt it would be incredibly difficult because my work is currently in two halves (which will later, with luck and hard work, mesh together), and thus I can’t write a linear document. This hadn’t struck me as anything of note at all – perhaps a reflection of how different approaches to PhDs can be.
I was delighted to meet a fellow CompSci at the conference – by the strangest coincidence, our research areas overlap. He’s looking at online social networking, what makes some profiles popular and things like this. There was an interesting discussion following his presentation on the ethics of data collection (the data’s grabbed from the ‘net – he isn’t getting consent from the profile holders), what data mining means (clearly not a topic which many in the room were well versed in), how it can be used. Anyway, we two cheated the interdisciplinary nature of affairs by talking CompSci over dinner – CHI, hypertext, coding languages. Tee hee!
The final plenary was given by the drama people, and was very interesting. Topics included the power of the actor to create something which isn’t physically there (think invisible walking sticks), and to bring to life the (perhaps ambiguous) written word. Actors and research: how some love to research a role, others hate it and fear the research will constrain or confine them. Discussion of the obligation to publish in academia, and how that can lead to lots of second rate stuff, rather than rarer but sparkling gems. Great points about how academic research requires a rather introverted state of mind, but teaching and attending conferences demands an extroverted approach. Impostor syndrome as a consequence of always questioning everything.
The penultimate speaker discussed Nietzsche, including a quote which resonated with the opening keynote – “life in things is truer than any theory about things”. But PhDs inherently involve engaging with the theory of things!
Clearly, this conference produced a lot of food for thought. It was really refreshing to go and talk to such a broad set of people, and I found the exercise of explaining my research to such a group very valuable indeed. Good times!
Edit: a summary report by Cumberland Lodge may be found here.
Brief work update thing
How is it 2009 already? What happened to 2008? What happened to this week, for that matter? It doesn’t feel it should be Friday already. Then again, I spent all week focused on rewriting a paper, with a conference deadline tomorrow. At least, it was tomorrow until a few hours ago… they just extended it to 30th January. It’s just like PhD comics, it really is!
Never mind: the paper is done.
This month is paper-tastic. Having finished that one today, I now need to write another for hypertext. Next month, I write my (delayed) mini thesis. Fun times?!
On EngDs changing
I received an interesting email or two back in mid-December about how EngDs are being run. EPSRC have been revising the number and nature of EngD Centres, apparently to extend the model to a broader range of disciplines. (Southampton seems to have always been unusually broad in its implementation of the EngD.) From October this year there’ll be 44 ‘new’ centres for doctoral training (CDTs) – I am sceptical about the ‘new’ part, given that Southampton is one (actually, three) of these, when it can already be described as such a beast.
So there are going to be a bunch of ‘Industrial Doctorate Centres’ (IDCs), which are basically EngD centres, and a bunch of ‘Doctoral Training Centres’ (DTCs), which will offer four-year Masters/PhD courses. Are you loving the acronyms yet? Anyway, the good news for Southampton is that we have successfully bid for an IDC in ‘transport and the environment’, and also for two DTCs in web science and complexity. Winning the IDC is particularly cool, as apparently only a third of the original EngD centres remain – so this reflects rather well on our own EngD programme.
On a personal note, these changes don’t really affect me at all. All current REs (Research Engineers, or EngD students) are funded through to the end of our programmes, and the operation of the current EngD won’t change.
So the head of my research group has been encouraging us to update blogs and maintain an online presence. I used to update this pretty often, then it all kind of fell over towards the end of last year. On reflection, I suspect that this is due to a sequence of important non-work events, such as getting married…
I last updated nearly a year ago. What’s been going on?
Well, I picked myself up and got back to work, with rather improved health. As I mentioned in my previous post, the viva for my lit review went well. I was particularly pleased that my future research ideas fitted well with IBM – definitely an important goal to meet.
Work-wise, I’ve been looking at two threads in parallel. The first involves pervasive messaging, and considering ways to use existing IBM technologies to ‘translate’ messages between various modalities of communication. The second is to do with examining the functionality offered by social technologies, particularly with an eye to figuring out exactly what’s going on when you browse a site such as Facebook – what is the experience offered? To which (if any) real-life experiences is it analogous? Ideally, it’d be ace to ‘deconstruct’ this experience as Dix does in his paper on Christmas crackers. Long-term, I want to pull these threads together to look at how (if at all) it is possible to ‘transpose’ web-based social experiences to novel, pervasive technologies.
Next up is the mini thesis, the midpoint of my degree. In this report I need to explain where I am, what I’ve achieved and (importantly!) where I’m going.
On the side, I’ve been doing a bit of innovation work with colleagues at IBM – a couple of patents have been filed, now, and some bits and bobs are in the system. Patents are, in some ways, analogous to publications within academia – it’s great that IBM encourage employees to spend some time thinking about unusual and novel things at work.
Less fun is submitting papers to conferences whilst ensuring you meet company rules and regs – IBM are (understandably) very protective of their IP, so I have to ensure any papers I want to submit to a conference are given legal and technical sign-off before I do anything with them… which generally means I need them ready at least a week before any deadlines. That isn’t always terribly convenient! We’ve made it work so far, though
IBM in general
I’m onto my third first-line manager since starting at IBM, but that seems to be relatively normal – people move around a lot. For me, the role of my first line is relatively simple: really it’s about sorting out admin stuff. My industrial supervisor, Andy, hasn’t changed,which is the main thing!
What the heading says. Of course, there’s a difference between making an effort to write a one-off blog entry when prodded by the head of your research group, and regularly updating anything. It’d be cool if I get back into this, if only because (as my supervisor Dave has observed), writing posts can be useful for straightening out thoughts on particular topics. We shall see…
Long time no update. So, a bunch of health problems jumped on me very soon after my previous post on here; I don’t have much to say about the Hopper conference, as I pretty much missed all of it. The good news is that I’ve been back at work for a fortnight now, and all is going well.
I had the viva on my lit review back on 11th. It went really well! The examiner seemed happy with my report, and I think the discussion of where to go next went extremely well: I’m very excited about all the possibilities. It’s funny: I started off looking at assistive tech for learning, particularly for students with issues such as dyslexia. Somewhere along the way, my direction altered. I’m really intrigued by how different generations/cultures approach and use technology, and how we can use techs to help ‘unusual’ (i.e. non-standard, maybe elderly or disabled) users, particularly socially. (Wendy asked me to put my lit review online, so if you’re interested by this stuff, it is here: you’re probably better off just chatting to me, though!)
I read a fantastic paper today, which is here. It’s all about the design of assistive technologies for use by elders, and discusses the importance of aesthetics. I’ve always felt that interfaces are key (I have been known to say that the smartest, most fantastic technology is useless if no one can use it), but the paper explains this far better than I ever did, particularly with regard to assistive technology for the elderly.
It looks at how the perception of your abilities affects those abilities, and how devices can cause feelings of shame and powerlessness. For example, it describes a woman who resisted leaving her home once wheelchair-bound, due to embarrassment about this; she therefore lost social ties, became more isolated, and engaged in far less physical activity. (Compare a wheelchair with the motorised scooters you see the elderly zipping around in. The functionality is pretty similar, but the image is utterly different.)
The paper concludes that you can’t assume elders will use an assistive technology just because they need it: if it makes them feel embarrassed or incapable, they may avoid it even at the expense of independence or social interaction.
It’s been a bit of a mad time since I got back, but I’ve finally go a mo to blog about the Anita Borg Scholarship retreat…
So, the event ran from Thursday afternoon to midday on Saturday. I got NDAed, so I can’t go into depth, but in brief:
Had an uneventful journey; being met at the airport by a taxi driver
was particularly nice! As was the hotel. It’s a Swiss stereotype, but
everything really was clean and quiet! Zürich is a beautiful city.
Thursday night involved a meal out, and a talk by a woman from the
Mountain View offices, all about women in computing, and computing, and
how exciting our field is at the mo (it’s true!). She also touched on
what it’s like to work at Google. The meal itself was lovely, as were
the other finalists; I really enjoyed getting to know them, and hope to
stay in touch.
Friday was a long day, with plenty packed in. After a breakfast
buffet, we headed to the Google offices, and started with a tour; the
NDA apparently covers this, too, but I will tell you that these offices
We had a welcome talk from the director of engineering, who
discussed how Google are currently opening offices all over the place,
the variety of nationalities in the Zürich offices, and the particular
focus of work in Zürich.
The next talk was about the scholarship, and how it started in 2003
when Anita Borg died. This is the first year that it’s run in Europe.
The next talk was techy, on algorithms for web search. I shan’t go
into detail, but it covered ranking, eliminating near-duplicate pages,
and load balancing. I enjoyed it very much, though it was super-mathsy
in the middle!
Next up (this was a busy day!), a career panel; this was mostly
focused on what it’s like to work at Google. I think ‘intense’ and
‘fun’ might both be words to cover it, from what I can gather! Like
IBM, they allocate some of your time to cool (appropriate!) projects of
your choosing. Good call! They aren’t so much up on part-time work, or
working from home – having seen their culture, I can see why. It’s all
about being around with your team, as far as I can tell.
After lunch was another talk, on geo-web stuff; Google Maps, My Maps, Mapplets, the impact of these technologies… all very good.
The next workshop was on women in careers, which did what it said on
the tin; a discussion of how companies can attract, and retain, tech
women. I agreed with the observation that there can be too much
emphasis on the ‘women in computing’ thing. Maybe we just want to do
our jobs without a fuss being made?
Next we headed to the other set of Google offices in Zürich, for
their TGIF event, which was relaxed, fun and had a real sense of
community. Here, I chatted more with one of the scholars, and was
astonished to discover that whilst doing her full-time PhD, she’s
bringing up her two year old child, with her husband is currently
living in Canada! I was really inspired; I’d just assumed that no woman
would have a child during a PhD. She was really relaxed and happy
talking about her child, which was lovely. Good on her!
This session also included a really touching video about Anita Borg. I’m glad they showed it.
After all this, we head out for a very nice evening meal, in a
super-lush restaurant. Lots of interesting conversation, including the
discovery that it’s illegal in Switzerland to to wash your car or hang
out laundry to dry on a Sunday. Genuinely illegal, as in you get fined
if you do it!
Saturday marked the close of the event, with a great big brunch in town.
All in all, it was an amazing (if exhausting) day or so. My fellow
finalists and scholars were a vibrant, smart and wonderful bunch, and I
was very well looked after – I had a great time!
I’ve been marking first year Computer Science coursework, this weekend – software engineering. It felt very odd to start with! I took a while to get into the rhythm of it, not having done this sort of thing before – working out how much feedback to give, what tone to take, and so on. It’s somewhat frustrating when they misunderstand, or somehow just don’t see, questions.
The first couple took an hour to do, as I had to refresh my memory about UML, and generally get the hang of it all. After those, though, I was zipping along!
I received a couple of emails today about the Anita Borg networking retreat. (Still looking forward to it!) A quick query, and I discovered that yes, Google are happy to book my return flight a few days later. Their plan was to return me to my country sometime on the Saturday afternoon, but I think I’ll ask for something coming back on the Tuesday afternoon; that gives me nearly half a week to explore. Yay, exploring!
(I must brush up on my German. I gather that the Swiss accent is very different, so I’m not sure how much it’ll come in. Still! It’s nice to make the effort, and I’ve been meaning to go back to my German for a little while.)
This EngD business is pretty awesome. I get the opportunity to do a
bunch of MBA modules at the University, and this week I had my first
lecture in business ethics. It’s the lecturer’s first time running the
course, and I was very impressed!
The lecture lasted for not quite four hours. We started off with a
set of slides, and a few discussions – why business ethics, what sort
of issues might we touch upon, etc. Then a 50 minute BBC video about
Corporate Social Responsibility. (I was a bit dubious at this stage:
slides plus a video? Feels like we aren’t being given too much
interaction, here.) However, the video was good, and after a quick
break, Leo Martin of Good Corporation (the ’star’ of the BBC’s program) showed up. He’s an excellent speaker, and we had plenty of time for questions.
We finished with a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ type exercise: split into
about eight groups, each being a different petrol station. During each
round, we’d compete with one other group, and had to choose whether to
maintain high prices, or drop them. As a CompSci, I’ve covered
prisoner’s dilemma a zillion times before: but there’s something very
different between hearing about the game theory, writing code to do it,
and actually being a participant.
I applied for Google’s Anita Borg Scholarship a couple of months back – and today an email dropped in saying that I’m a finalist!
This means that I’m off to a networking retreat in Zurich at the end of May, with other finalists and various Googlers. Exciting, no?
In the meantime, I have a couple of phone interviews for the actual scholarship. Getting that would be pretty amazing, but I’m not going to think about it much; I don’t know what the other finalists (read: the competition) are like, or exactly what it is that Google are looking for. The Plan: be myself on the phone, and don’t worry about the scholarship. Whatever happens, I’m attending the event in Zurich – and that’s super!