ONE ATHEIST’S CHRISTMAS

Christmas is a very different time of year for me, compounded by the fact that as well as not celebrating it, I don’t have anyone to spend the day with. I don’t object to the festivities at all; it’s great fun, and I enjoy spending time with my friends and getting involved in the celebrations. But it doesn’t have any meaning for me beyond that, and I’d actually like to work on Christmas Day (which I sort of did, with a token piece of university study).

In the below (almost certainly staged) Twitter exchange, it’s not so much the predictable retort that got me thinking, it was the original question.  Why shouldn’t I be able to work on Christmas Day?  At least one other person in my office feels the same way, but we have a mandatory Xmas holiday, in which the workplace is closed.  Of course, some people do work over the holidays but it’s viewed as a major chore (because apparently work at all other times is not a chore?).  And so little is open or operational on Christmas Day that if you want to make it a normal day, it’s just not possible.

probably fake tweetSo what about my day?  And what about my Christmas in general?  As for most people, it began long before the 25th.  I attended five Xmas dinners and parties before we even finished work for the holidays.  I’ll be attending more parties and doing Christmassy stuff for the rest of the holiday, as well as the all-important New Year do.  But Christmas Day was mine alone.

I started the day with some volunteer work – I figured that seeing as I wouldn’t be celebrating the day, I’d do something for people less fortunate than me.  I spend Christmas alone through choice, but the day isn’t always a good one for many people, alone or not.

I finished work early in the morning, so I got some well-earned sleep until 2pm.  I didn’t feel bad about wasting half the day in bed because, hey, the day is mine to do with as I please, and I have to sleep at some point.  After this, I had a hearty breakfast of crisps and Wagon Wheels, and set off on an epic walk.  I probably did about 10 miles in all, with a pit stop halfway for a Christmas Curry.  A pretty good Christmas dinner by my reckoning, and I didn’t have to cook a thing.  Thank goodness there are still kebab shops open on Christmas Day (they said they were doing a roaring trade and opening up on the Thursday – the 25th – really suited them as they could gear up properly for the weekend).

When I got home, I started my evening watching videos on YouTube.  My favourite channels are TEDx Talks and The Atheist Experience. Then I decided to get off my butt and do some chores (but not too many, it’s Xmas Day for crap’s sake!).  During my mini tidy-fest, I cleared out my wardrobe and realised that I really need to buy some new trousers:  everything is too big – hurrah!

Then I did a tiny, tiny bit of my Literature Review.  But it all counts, right?  The day was completed by two hours of Fallout 3, accompanied by vodka and orange, and the odd cup of tea.  Now if that’s not a perfect Christmas, I don’t know what is.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 3 – PERCEPTION OF RANDOMNESS

My next foray into research volunteering involved a visit to the clinical psychology department. I was being tested for my ability to perceive randomness. As I had expected, human are rubbish at this, but I did get to talk a little about why this is and what people typically perceive as random.

I was first shown a number of 20-character long sequences, made up of ‘H’s and’T’s, to represent the results of a fair coin being tossed. I was asked to rank these in order of how random I thought these appeared. After evaluating the sequences, I then moved on to a computer task. During this test, I was firstly asked to generate a sequence that I thought looked random. I did this by typing ‘H’ or ‘T’ in a 200-letter long sequence.

Then things changed, and I viewed a 200-character sequence broken down into blocks of five letters.

I was then asked to repeat the computer exercise, but by creating forty 5-letter long sequences instead of one huge 200-character long chain. My behaviour in relation to the representation of randomness changed between the two tests. One of the measures that the researcher was considering was the number of times I changed between ‘H’ and ‘T’ – the more changes, the less random overall.

 

As is typical for many of the research volunteering opportunities at Manchester University, I was rewarded with a £10 Amazon voucher for my participation.

BEING BUSY VS. BEING CHALLENGED

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of working on a team that’s understaffed.  The company was taking on more work than we had people to perform it, and we were all stretched way beyond the limits of time and sanity.  I was already allowing my studies to suffer because of the pressure to work longer hours than is reasonable, encroaching on the time that I should have been spending at university.  But I felt a strange sense of satisfaction at being just that little bit too busy.  My brain needs stimulation, and in that role, the work just wasn’t very intellectually demanding.  The juggling of many repetitive tasks provided a breadth of work that sort of replaced the depth of a more engaging research project.  Sort of.  It was a poor substitute, but it was what I had to work with at the time.  Churning, not learning.

That sort of thing’s not good for me, and it’s not good for my projects. I didn’t expect to still be working at that level 15 years after university, with less responsibility than I had in my mid-20s. Sure, someone had to do it, but I felt that my ambitions were being overlooked. I was rushing to complete a thousand trivial deadlines, with none of them getting my fullest attention. My drive and enthusiasm for my work dwindled to the point where I was really just paying the bills and looking for an exit strategy. Academia has a terrible reputation for being harsh and non-meritocratic, but it’s my best hope of actually finding work suited to my abilities and being taken seriously.  And, in the long run, it’s where my heart lies.  It  doesn’t matter whether it’s me or anyone else who’s having a boring time.  I believe people work best when they’re achieving things for themselves.  Being emotionally invested in the work gives more reason to succeed, both individually and as a team.  This report from Kingston University Business School covers a lot of the things I’ve identified in my own life, and I hadn’t even read it until after I’d started writing this post (amazing coincidence, huh?).  I’d recommend you read the whole thing, especially if you’re an employer.  It’s based on evidence collected by the Kingston Business School Engagement Consortium, and an analysis of previous work in this area.  Although direct interviews with employees on the topic of engagement at work are rare, this document references around 40 other studies.

I want a challenge, and I want to take calculated risks.  If I  find that  my work feels really ‘safe’, I’m not innovating and I’m not doing myself any justice.  I grew up in a family with very low aspirations, and as a result I loved attending school – where I knew I would find that challenge my brain craved.  If I find things too easy, I get lazy, and I’m really worried that might happen to me.  It’s one of the reasons I write here – I’m looking to write more and maybe do this to earn a crust if I get the opportunity.  I’d love to stay in academia, but be a science communicator / journalist.  Independence, baby.

HSE REGULATIONS ON WORKPLACE TEMPERATURE

When I was at high school, a legend prevailed that if the temperature fell below a certain level, then you got to go home.  We never did get to go early, no matter how frosty it got in that hellhole. But is there any truth in this?

The answer is: yes and no.

In terms of the pupils, there aren’t any rules governing the permissible temperature range. For the grown-ups, who are classified as workers (what the hell did they think the students were doing all day?), they are covered by The Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 1982. But even then, it’s not clear-cut. The Act says that employers must make their workplace ‘suitable’ in order to meet the health, safety, and welfare needs of everyone in their workforce. So how do we define suitable?

There is no official definition of this term. When designing a heating system, the parameters are selected based on guidance documents and confirmed in the design brief by agreement with the Client. Suitable can mean different things in different contexts. The HSE advises that sedentary workers should normally not be exposed to ambient temperatures lower than 16C, and manual work should not take place in environments cooler than 13C.

What about the upper limits? I haven’t been able to find a defined figure for this. The HSE provides guidance on thermal comfort and the avoidance of heat stress, which is complex and not easily remedied by applying a blanket figure. With predicted climate change, it is likely to become a greater concern for employers in the coming years.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 2 – HEALTHCARE CHOICES

My first time as a test subject took place sometime in November 2014.  As mentioned in a previous post, I sign up for research volunteering opportunities for the incentive offered, but also because it’s kinda fun and interesting.  And I assist others in their research, which is a noble aim and all that.

The first study was to do with the perception of risk in healthcare choices. The person whose study I was involved with recently gave a talk at an event I co-organised (more about this later). Anyway, the researcher was interested in the way that patients perceive the benefit and risk associated with participating in breast cancer screening programmes.

I was presented with information in various formats, including the cost to me to attend (this was assuming a publically-funded healthcare system, and so only included things like travel cost and inconvenience), the risk of getting a false positive and attending for unnecessary treatment, and the chance of the test detecting an actual cancer that needed treatment.

I was shown a number of screens for different options, and asked to evaluate my preferred testing choices. After I had completed the exercise, the researcher told me a little about what they were using the data for, and how when healthcare choices are made in the UK, the reliance tends to be on the clinician, and the effect of decisions made by the patient has not really been looked at. While patients do not prescribe their own medication, or select appropriate treatments, they do make choices about whether to attend screening, or to continue with a form of treatment, or to follow the doctor’s advice.

After the study we spoke about this, and other related topics, for about an hour.  This was a really cool experience because not only did I get to participate in, and find out about, exciting research happening at the University, I got to meet somebody really interesting and have a properly intellectually stimulating chat.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 1

Below is a link to the Research Volunteering page on the University of Manchester website.  Here, researchers post surveys and opportunities to take part in studies undertaken by staff and postgraduate researchers at the university.

 

http://www.studentnet.manchester.ac.uk/volunteer

I’ve taken part in one study (for which I was compensated with a lovely £10 Amazon voucher), and I’ve applied for lots more.  I find it very exciting to be a part of new research.  My participation will contribute to someone’s Ph.D, and it might influence future technology.

All of the projects first have to be run past the University’s ethics committee, and any medical research also has to comply with NHS regulations. I’m going to be submitting my own request for a research survey soon, and I’ll let you know when it’s live.

MANCHESTER ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHERS – WHAT IS KNOWLEDGE?

I previously posted about one of my trips to Chorlton to engage the locals in debate at the Manchester Armchair Philosophers group.The group is set up for people to discuss topical (or not) matters, and while many people do have a lot of knowledge about formal philosophy, the idea is that anyone can attend, and just discuss the topic from their own viewpoint. I always learn something here, and go away with something new to consider.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to always come to the same conclusion, because many of the people who attend come from one area and have similar backgrounds, but topics like this really open up the conversation because it’s something relatively unpolitical and it draws a lot on individual experiences. We’re similar, but we’re not all the same.

So a little expansion on the question.  Here is how it was introduced to the group:

“Do we Know What Knowing is?
 What is a fact?

Socrates said “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat”, “I know one thing: that I know nothing”.  Was this esoteric false modesty, or an insightful articulation of the human condition?

When we say we ‘know’ something are we merely expressing the strength with which we hold something to be true, or is there more to it than that?  Can we ever truly ‘know’ anything?  If there are limits to what we ‘know’, how does this affect our justification for acting on our beliefs?”

The discussion was really interesting, and we could easily have gone on past our allotted one hour.  One of the attendees wrote up our team’s findings, which you can read here on Bubblews.

An aside: I had an interesting chat with the organiser of tonight’s debate downstairs in the main bar.  This is one of the highlights of the philosophy group: after the more organised discussions, we head downstairs to chat even more.  Sometimes we continue to discuss the topic, sometimes we’ll talk about something completely different.  But it’s always interesting.  Anyway, our conversation was about my Ph.D research topic.  And through a series of random connections we came up with an idea for a new avenue of research that I could explore.  This reminds me of advice that the Associate Dean gave us during the introductory lecture for new students: that we shouldn’t only speak to people just in our research group.  We should speak to students from all over the University, because great ideas can come from unlikely connections.  Collaboration is encouraged – maybe we could solve more of the world’s problems if only we’d talk to each other.

PEOPLE IN ARCHITECTURAL & ENGINEERING DRAWINGS

In many architectural drawings, you’ll see people added to the plans to give an idea of scale, or for a visualisation of the soon-to-be-finished product. Here’s one that I found on a plant room section. This buxom lady is maintaining a generator, but she quite clearly isn’t wearing the correct PPE. No sign of hard hat and visi-vest or gloves, and those shoes really aren’t suitable for use on a building site.

architect model (2)

Reminds me of the “nightclub” set of people blocks that went around the office a few years back, which included 2D images of people being drunk and generally misbehaving. A similarly wonderful set of people can be downloaded from bibliocad.com, in the form of these table dancers. Despite not having an awful lot of spare time, it appears that the draughtspersons know how to use it wisely.

autocad blocks

DEAR DIARY

When it comes to personal organisation, I have a very traditional way of doing things.  Or, more honestly, a totally disjointed and ill-thought-out way of doing things.

I have a iPhone, Outlook calendar, Facebook events schedule, Meetup calendar, volunteer work rota and BGG event listings.  None of which are synced with each other, or with the two paper diaries I own.  And this is where my most recent bit of trouble began.

I cherish my old-fashioned paper diary.  It comforts me to write down important appointments, and it is deeply satisfying to cross things off of the endless lists I scribble down in there.

I had recently transferred my outstanding commitments from the end of last year into my brand-new 2014/15 academic diary with a heartfelt sense of pride. I’d begun to add items from my many online calendars, and I was feeling super-organised!
Then disaster struck: I lost my diary.

It’s been this way for about three weeks now, and I’ve finally admitted that it is now “presumed dead” rather than simply “missing”.  So what’s the next step for me?  Sync all my calendars? Embrace the Apple way of life?  Not a chance; I’m off to WH Smith to get myself a new paper diary.

POST SCRIPT: Here’s the rather snazzy Letts 2015 diary that I purchased for £9.99. And here’s the original academic diary that I subsequently found 10 minutes after returning to the office with my new one. Gah! Diary

Fortunately said retailer was willing to refund me when I explained my predicament.  Shame they’re not as responsible in their purchasing choices (yes, they had it on sale in my chosen branch – looks like I’ll be switching to a different newsagent).