Monthly Archives: March 2009

A better day

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A good day (well, a better day… everything’s relative). Despite waking up feeling like my head was clamped in a vice, and the itching which still won’t stop.

My fear that someone is intercepting my mail was abated this morning by the arrival of several items I’ve been waiting a long time for, including my prepaid foreign currency cards – these are replacements for the first ones that got lost in the post. What a relief.

I also managed to order business cards thanks to a suggestion from my brother yesterday, which was an idea I’d given up on because it seemed too complicated to get it done by the university.

And now, I’ve created my talk in PowerPoint. It is 9 slides long (plus a concluding slide I’ve yet to do); once I’ve practised it I will be able to tell whether to add more. I have more in mind, so that’s good. I’ve done a nice little animation which I am quite pleased with. HUGE relief since I had a total blank yesterday while trying to plan it out.

I am still in mental torture, wrestling with my will, struggling even to sit still and keep my mind on the work. But I am somehow making progress. I wonder if I will always feel this way about things that are this hard. It can’t be psychologically healthy. My friend suggested hypnotherapy yesterday. I think it sounds like a great idea, one that I will look into.

Scenes from Malawi

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Malawi is an enchanting country. The scenes below are pretty diverse… from swamps to mountains, muddy pine forests that reminded me of Scotland, and beachside backpacker resorts on Lake Malawi. As the seasons changed so did the colours, from vibrant green and brick-red mud in the rains, to pale, scorched shades of yellow in the dry season. For being so densely populated it is remarkably rich in natural beauty. People are everywhere you go, and are generally warm-hearted, courteous, eager to help you, eager to even just talk to a foreigner and find out what you are doing in their country and to bestow good impressions of Malawi onto you. While their readiness to put themselves in a white person’s shadow is an uncomfortable reality of post-colonial Africa, on the occasions where prejudices were broken through I was able to interact with people in what felt like a more genuine way than ever really happens in Britain. I found their laid-back, uncomplicated social style tremendously liberating. That’s how it was supposed to be, I think. After six months there it felt like home on my return from a trip to Zimbabwe.









A blast from the past

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I’m still turning over new leaves at a rate of one per day. I’m still waiting for computer code to finish running, which means not much progress on the paper. I printed my poster though.

I did find several hours for something kind of fun today though, which was converting my 35 mm slides from Malawi 1998 into digital images. I’ve been wanting this for ages; not having a slide projector meant I couldn’t really look at the slides, and at one stage I was considering paying to have it done, but the university has facilities for doing it yourself and is open in the evening. I will now spend the remainder of my evening posting a few interesting ones on the blog!

I shared this little house in Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, with 2 other volunteers. It was on the compound of the boarding school I was teaching at. The hot water was solar-powered and excellent. The electricity was temperamental (several electrical items burnt out) but generally on. It was great, actually… I had no idea what to expect and was glad it wasn’t a mud hut. 🙂


The school was off this main road out of Blantyre and I used to go and catch minibuses into town from there. It doesn’t look like it’s anywhere near a city, does it?

I don’t really know why I’m posting these except I guess everyone likes to see photos, and I like to reminisce… I must be getting old! There is so much I could say about my time there, in many ways I was braver and more confident than at any other time in my life. I went through every emotion under the sun, in extreme measures. The experience changed my perspective on life for a long time and I look back on it as having made me a better person, at least for a few years. But I won’t recount it all now… I’ll just let the photos tell their story. Next up: scenes from around the beautiful land of Malawi.

Doing a PhD makes you feel stupid, and you're supposed to like that

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If anyone is curious to know more about what doing a PhD is like, you might like to read this little article in the Journal of Cell Science.

“One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big
discoveries.”

Playing with the mind

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It’s been a day where negativity has beaten me into the gutter. Again.

Just now I saw this blog post and watched the video lecture in it. It described an experiment where subjects had to solve a problem. Some of them were told it was an IQ test. Some others were not told this, and were given chocolate. The ones that were given chocolate solved the problem and the ones that thought it was a test of their intelligence didn’t. Moral of the story: chocolate makes everything work out.

Seriously though, the point was not about chocolate but about being in the frame of mind for the task at hand. He seemed to be saying that you need to be happy and relaxed, not anxious, to be able to be creative and come up with new ideas. To be able to get straightforward work done productively however, you need a bit of anxiety (e.g. a deadline). And just like that, it all makes sense. I am in a spiral of anxiety, which is not helping, because what I’m doing right now needs me to be creative.

I don’t think there have been many tasks in this PhD so far where anxiety has been helpful. And yet there has been such a lot of anxiety. In many ways it was far worse in the beginning – the days of regular crying in the toilet over whether I’d made a terrible mistake trying to do a PhD. Things stabilised out a bit after a while, but now that I’m writing for journals and preparing presentations for conferences, terror has struck me to the core again. I think my understanding of what constitutes “interesting research” has become more restrictive, and I expect more of myself, feeling the pressure of the passing of time… and so the uphill struggle has steepened again. But it never helped to feel this anxious in the beginning, and it doesn’t now.

So maybe in working out this poster I should create a comfortable and happy space to do it in. Maybe it should involve paper and crayons, on the floor; calm background music; the wearing of pyjamas; bare feet; chatting things through until they make sense (with myself most likely); and of course… chocolate.

Cold light

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I have been unable to sleep in lately. After a long winter of struggling to get out of bed in the morning, I now seem to be regularly wide awake and compelled to get up by 8am, even at the weekend. Maybe it’s the light.

Today the sunlight poured into the flat, and I felt warm standing in it. Up until recently the sun didn’t get high enough in the sky to peer over the building beside us. I pulled open our old tenement flat’s sash windows to freshen the rooms from winter’s staleness.

Google told me the current temperature was 9 degrees C, but in my wishful thinking I was convinced it must be warmer than that. It wasn’t. There was a bracing wind and only a faint promise of warmth in the sunlight when we went for a walk. Still, the crocuses looked pretty.

After sitting on a bench in the meadow for long enough to be uncomfortable, the sky grew grey and threatening and we headed back. We hadn’t reached home when the hailstones started. This is what it looked like from the window of the flat.

Winter clearly still has some life left in it.