Monthly Archives: August 2008

Whirlwind week

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It has been a crazy week. I had a PhD meeting with my supervisors on Wednesday, in which I was told my recent work constituted material for potentially 2 papers, that my work was progressing at a phenomenal rate and that once these 2 papers are done I will have broken the back of the thesis. WOW. I then got talking with a modelling officer at a coffee break who offered to help me get some code running on the parallel computing facilities. Then on top of all this, I think I may have successfully re-written the simulation algorithm I’ve been using and it now produces 100,000 events in about 10 minutes, as compared to 6 hours! I am running comparison tests to ensure that it is producing statistically similar results, but I’m quite optimistic about it. This will all hopefully mean I can forge ahead with analyses relatively unhindered by heavy computations.

The meeting was my most successful thus far. I am at the happy stage of work where I am so familiar with all or most of the relevant concepts and am so far into it that I can converse about it with relative ease. I felt like weeping with relief upon hearing that my output is now of PhD quality – the output of my ideas and my investigations. I’ve been lucky to have discovered some things that could only be found by poking around in the data, trying things out.

The meeting established for all of us what stage I am at. The funny thing is, while my response to this information goes something like, “At last! I’m achieving something!”, theirs seems to be more like, “Already?!” It turns out the thesis is supposed to be about 3 papers’ worth of work. So to be apparently well on the way to 2 of those at the start of year 2 is to be doing pretty well for time. It now seems as if I have been labouring under much-too-high expectations of myself.

This has spurred me on to continue more boldly. There are still things I want to understand, puzzles I want to get to the bottom of. If it takes me longer or is more challenging than I would like, I will have to remember that I can afford to adjust my expectations, and go easy on myself. That is the biggest challenge of all.

They have always spoken positively about me, and as I’ve said before, I’ve generally taken it with a pinch of salt. (Not sure why, when I know they are honest people.) But I can’t realistically disbelieve this, because they wouldn’t joke around or be flippant about the thesis and what should go into it. Still, it doesn’t seem real, and I can still envisage all these interesting results crumbling and disintegrating when I start to dig a bit deeper!

While I have certainly been on cloud 9 this week, it has occurred to me that I still haven’t learnt the concept of balance. My view of myself is still diverging into one or other extreme – severe incompetence, or brilliance. This feedback was wonderful but perhaps it’s just feeding that part of me that needs to be outstanding just to feel acceptable. The problem with that is that there is room for me to think, “What if I just got lucky this time? What if I can’t continue to deliver at this level?” and to think that anything less than this will render me unemployable (a not entirely unfounded belief).

I’m not sure whether I should concentrate on believing I really am very capable, or on not minding whether I am or not.

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Enslavement to high standards

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From a recent Guardian article:

“By almost any standards, most people born in Britain since 1960 have won the historical lottery. Although the financial circumstances in which they are raised remain an unfair determinator of how their lives will likely turn out, they have not had to fear invasion or TB and are far less likely to be killed by a car. But what has happened is that decades of relative peace and prosperity have turned a people who anticipated the worst into a population that expects the best.

“So a mid-air explosion on a plane in which not a single passenger is lost or injured is treated as a catastrophe, and hospital boards are dragged through the courts by cancer patients denied another few weeks of drug-driven life. But both of these reactions come from living in highly privileged times, in which survival is perceived as a human right. Those who determinedly invoke lost golden ages should be forced to say whether they would choose to board a flight now or in the 1960s.”

It is gratifying that someone else (other than me) thinks our expectations culturally are now too high. Fairly recently there was a TV programme in which we were invited to feel sorry for a young family who “couldn’t” live together because they were unable to get a mortgage. In reality it was their refusal to rent that was keeping them apart.

Waking up and realising how privileged we are is not as easy as it sounds though, when we are constantly being fed expectations that are impossible to meet; endless TV programmes parade the rich and successful around in front of us, looking for their second home in the countryside or abroad. I remember when I was younger there were a lot of holiday programmes on TV. Now it’s all about buying property abroad.

Post-credit-crunch house prices drops have been reported mainly in very gloomy tones, often questioning whether the government should do something to stop it. Hardly anyone seems to view it as an inevitable and healthy correction to the market. The people who stand to lose most are the ones who’ve invested the most. Recent first-time buyers may struggle with increasing mortgage costs but I think there are a lot of ways to save money that people don’t even think of. But I think people don’t think they should have to. That’s the point.

I think quality of life is increasingly being impaired by chasing material expectations. Yes, we are living with much higher standards these days, but our enslavement to those standards is making us less happy. It takes an incredible independence of will to resist that, which I have certainly failed to do lately. I will quote from a couple of the comments on the article.

“A flexible insecure job market means that you can’t put down roots, requires ridiculously long hours and you may never know when you may be out a job.

“A still over inflated housing market which basically means that many people under age of the 35 may never have their own home, and many may never have families. A fall in house prices will crash the economy, putting people out of work whilst panic measures by the government are likely to stoke inflation and erode money saved as a deposit.

“The debt of many graduates is more than the annual salary of their first jobs.

[…]

“Rising rates of childhood behaviour problems and obesity, are pretty clear indication that people aren’t happy. Especially in the UK where children have the worst lives in the developed world. It is ridiculous to say childrens lives are better than 40 years ago.

“Inadequacy of pension provision means that if you live as if it is a Golden age now, you will live and die in chronic destitution.”

“Expectations have improved enormously since the sixties, running ahead of the status quo at an ever accelerating pace so much so that people feel worse off !!!!!!!

[…]

“Likewise with our growing sophistication and access to expert information, why is the gap between what I will call the moral opportunity and moral delivery ever widening? The failure of the G8 Conference last week to deliver its previous promises of aid to Africa and its failure to agree to dismantle trading arrangements that imposed tariffs unfairly disadvantaging the Third World are abominations. We all know better than we used to what is going on and the economic processes that affect it, but too little is done even so.”

Sorting out my head

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I have been on a bit of downer ever since I got back from holiday really. My thinking has become very rigid and negative again. This seems to be what happens whenever I start to feel incompetent; I spiral into a depressive vortex.

The essence of it is that I see the world as a hostile place where I am unfit for survival and quite disconnected from it – downtrodden, left behind. My requirements of myself become higher as a result of this pessimistic outlook, and hence the distress at not meeting those requirements.

There are certain characteristics I feel are inherent to me. The tendency to be discouraged easily. The inclination to focus on details rather than the big picture and therefore not to feel generally knowledgeable about or engaged with my work area. Perhaps my mental state is best managed by picking an appropriate type of work (I don’t know what that is). But I ought to be able to learn how to avoid the spiral into the vortex. I mean, when I’m in that place I find myself believing things I don’t really believe. Wanting and needing things that aren’t in line with my best values – I was never materialistic. Crushed by apathy, I haven’t the energy for faith; I would opt out and give up if I could. So I need to put some effort into working out how to curb that tendency.

I really dislike being this way. But in some cultures it’s viewed as absurd to even question your self-worth. A large part of this is probably a culture of competitiveness and overvaluing achievement. I will try to remember that.