Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Taking the turnip challenge

I have recently been involved in responding to a tender to build a scientific instrument. When I say "recently", what I actually mean is that I've been dealing with this tender for the past THREE YEARS. Because everyone likes a nice bit of government bureaucracy* don't they?

Initially I prepared a quote for the researcher. He had a small fit when he saw the price and insisted he could make the same thing cheaper himself. I politely suggested that in that case, he should do just that. Funnily enough, he didn't decided he could do it himself. Instead, we proceeded with technical negotiations about just what was required. And then... it turned out that the price had exceeded some magic threshold and the whole project had to go to public tender, and we've been stuck in that morass for some time. I've even had legally dubious communications direct from the researcher "instructing" me in the correct answers to provide to the purchasing department. I have ignored them.

I've been trying to think of way to explain the frustration I'm having with this particular tender, without descending into obscure technical jargon, and I think I've come up with a reasonable analogy. Obviously, what we actually build are mass spectrometers, but just for now, I'm going to pretend that we make cross-bows. And we also make the arrows, and the targets, and a camera. And we absolutely promise our customers that if they set the cross-bow up exactly as we tell them, and position the target exactly where we tell them, and set up the camera to watch the target at just the right distance, and load the arrow exactly as we tell them, then when they fire the arrow it will hit the bullseye of the target, and the camera will capture the result.

Sometimes, though we don't like to do it, we sell only part of this whole set up, and we let the customer supply the remaining part of the equipment. Our rule of thumb however, is that this Never Ends Well. In this case, the customer is supplying both the arrows and the camera. And they are refusing to place an order for our cross-bow unless we guarantee that their arrow will be seen to hit the bullseye of the target. But they won't tell us anything about their arrow, or their camera. It might be a man standing three miles away with an iPhone. We've offered to lend them our arrow and our camera and prove the cross-bow works. But no, they want their arrow and their camera. And I'm refusing. Because, while they might make a perfectly balanced, beautifully flighted arrow, they might try and use a turnip. And I'm not promising anything about turnips.

You might think I'm exaggerating about the turnip, but I've been caught out too many times with the things our customers have "forgotten" to tell us until it's too late....

... like the customer who didn't mention he was going to put our instrument in a helicopter** and take it to the top of the Jungfraujoch.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he was going to install our instrument inside the Arctic circle and wanted an installation visit there.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the entire instrument would be disassembled when it arrived on site and then rebuilt inside a lead-lined box through holes no larger than 60cm across.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he needed the entire instrument to operate at 200 degrees Celsius.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he intended to analyse Uranium hexafluoride

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would need to run in the back of a van being driven along pot-holed roads**.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would be installed in a hospital and needed to meet medical electronics standards***.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the thing he was asking us to do was widely accepted as being impossible****.

There have been far too many occasions when the psychological equivalent of a turnip has been lobbed our way for me to believe in the non-existence of a turnip in this case. So I'm digging my heels in, and seeing what the wheels of bureaucracy do. So far, each revolution of the wheel is doing what a wheel does, and returning to the starting point. I've now been asked to make promises about the performance of a turnip three times, and I've said no three times. Your move Mr Turnip...



* In this instance, not our own government, another government that has really, really, really mastered bureaucracy.

** As a general rule, precision scientific instruments are not built with sufficient shock absorbers to withstand travel. We now always ask our customers if the instrument is going to be moved around.

*** We found a way round this. Medical electronics is a huge can of worms.

**** It remains one of the high points of my career that I did it anyway.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Living the dream

I don't think my LittleBear is unique among five-year olds* in his desire to win at all times. He does, however, take the importance of winning to extreme levels. For instance, yesterday morning he was to be found sobbing into his Shreddies after it was revealed to him that Burnley had lost 4-0 to West Brom on Monday night. Truly, these are things of great import. His selection of teams that inspire this level of interest/distress is perverse, to say the least. Firstly, and dearest to all the Bears' hearts, is Burnley. Then comes Hull. Because there's a really big aquarium in Hull. Then Liverpool, though LittleBear can't quite remember why. Then Leicester, because they won the League last year, and LittleBear hasn't quite grasped that past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In addition, LittleBear quite likes West Ham because they play in the same colours as Burnley, and Chelsea because they keep winning and he's a glory hunter.

We have a couple of episodes of Match of the Day recorded, and LittleBear likes to watch and re-watch them, warning me in advance for example that Hazard will score first in Chelsea's 5-0 drubbing of Everton. Because he seems confident that I haven't been paying attention on the previous thirteen viewings. And he's right. I use Match of the Day as a good excuse to drink a cup of tea and read my book. And I can do a fairly convincing "oooh, really?" while doing so.

The next step from gazing, rapt, at highlights of real matches is obviously to not only re-enact them ourselves, but to act out matches with even better results.

So I present to you a match played between Burnley and Manchester United at Old Trafford**. Due to limited resources, both sides played reduced strength sides.

Tom Heaton, Andre Grey and Sam Vokes for Burnley
David De Gea, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for United

I think we can all agree that the resemblance to their flesh and blood counterparts is astonishing:

Burnley

Manchester United

And I'm delighted to report that Burnley beat Manchester United 10-1.***

I'm not entirely sure that a life supporting Burnley is going to sit well with a desperate need to see his side win all the time. On the other hand, it's possible that following Burnley will help remove his expectation of victory and thus be a Good Thing overall.


* I think I failed to mention LittleBear's fifth birthday last week. We could now open a Lego shop.

** A note for my foreign readers. The sport in question is soccer, dear to the heart of many Englishmen, and particularly the one I married. Old Trafford is the home ground of Manchester United, until recently the dominant team in English football.

*** For the record, since 1968, Burnley have only beaten Manchester United once, and that was 1-0. LittleBear's imagination and aspirations are nothing if not impressive.
 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A conspiracy of rubbish

Not a conspiracy of actual pieces of rubbish, though looking at the state of the house, it wouldn't surprise me to find that the detritus scattered across every surface has actually become sentient and is starting to gang up on me. Just a conspiracy by the world to have a series of minor, irritating, vexing occurrences take place, any one of which wouldn't have been a problem, but taken together are going to push me over the edge.

Thing 1
Some time ago, our stupid shower door fell off. I managed to temporarily patch it back together, but it's once again dangling by hope, limescale and the slenderest bit of a screw. So, I bought a new door, tracked down a tradesman, and got it all organised. And then the tradesman had a heart attack, poor sod, and quite reasonably isn't going to fit the shower door. So now I have had to do the thing I hate twice and find a replacement tradesman.

Thing 2
I finally, finally, finally, managed to gather together enough gumption to ask around and find a babysitter, and was all lined up for me and LittleBear to meet her tonight prior to her first babysitting session tomorrow, thus allowing BigBear and I to go out. Together. She sent me a message this evening to say her car had broken down and she couldn't come, and sorry.

Thing 3
I parked in the church carpark to collect LittleBear from school today, as is the system. I parked in a marked bay, beside another car. The other car was on the end of the row, next to a nice green expanse of grass. When I returned to the car with LittleBear, I was harangued by the woman with the other car for parking so close to her she couldn't get her child in. I apologised and said I'd merely tried to make sure there was enough room in the carpark for everyone as it's always crowded and was told I should have been more considerate towards her. Right. Because she had completely unfettered access to one side of the car, and there was enough room on the "too close" side for me to get in and out without even noticing the cars were close together, but apparently I was incondsiderate.

Thing 4
I took LittleBear swimming, about half an hour away, along The Road From Hell. The we came home, back along The Road From Hell. And then I found I'd left my handbag at the swimming pool, so back we went for another hour on The Road From Hell to collect my handbag and return home.

Thing 5
My boss has decided he wants to change the way the instrument I'm building is controlled. After I've finished building it. After the components and wiring for the next 4 copies of the instrument have all been built. So I've spent three days attempting to work out how to reconfigure the metres and metres and metres of wiring loom to achieve the desired effect without having to remake all the cables.

The outcome of All These Things is as follows:

Thing 1 - new man coming next Wednesday to fit shower door.
Thing 2 - Piglet stepping in to the breach to babysit. Hooray for lovely friends!
Thing 3 - attempt to learn equanimity in the face of other people's arsiness. Fail and spend the next few weeks parking elsewhere to avoid slightest risk of meeting arsey woman again.
Thing 4 - totally my fault.
Thing 5 - I've done it, but I'm still irked.


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Broken electoral systems

I will probably, possibly write something about the US election at some point, if I can get beyond the concept of the Orange One being future President. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the electoral system that got him there. Not about the people who voted, or why they voted or didn't vote, not about the rights and wrongs of anyone's opinions or choices, just about the mechanics of the system.

As I understand the electoral college system in the US, the intention is to ensure that the sparsely populated states receive some "attention" from the campaigning candidates, and their concerns and views are not neglected while all campaigning is focused on the more populous seaboard areas of the USA. Which, on the surface, sounds like a reasonable idea. Except when you stop and think about what you're saying, which is that lumps of land deserve an equal chance to be consulted, regardless of how many people live on them.

Here's an example of someone suggesting that lumps of land need to be heard:


As far as I can make out, the author of the text on the above image believes it would be unconscionable to live in a "gray zone" and be out-voted by the people in the "blue zones". Except, half the US population live in those pretty blue bits, and I can't quite see why huge swathes of prairie, mountain and desert need more of a voice than 50% of the population. People need to be punished for living in densely populated areas?

It's a good and worthy ideal to ensure that, particularly in such a large and diverse country, different geographical areas receive their own representation that reflects their differing needs and interests. That's why Senators and Representatives are elected to represent their constituencies. That's why the US has a significant amount of power devolved to State level, with Governors and State Legislatures, and a more modest level of power at Federal level. The President, however, is the head of state. One man** to head the country. And there's no honestly justifiable reason why every vote cast by every citizen should not hold equal weight.

Instead, however, you end up with the current situation, where considerably more individual human beings voted for the losing candidate than the winning one. In fact, you end up with the situation where, had 53,447 people spread across three states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania) voted differently, the outcome of the election would have been different. That's less than the population of Lowestoft*.

Stats taken from Politico

Wisconsin:
   DJT 1,409,467
   HRC 1,382,210
   Difference 27,257 votes
   EC votes 16

Michigan:
   DJT 2,279,221
   HRC 2,267,798
   Difference 11,423 votes
   EC votes 10

Pennsylvania:
   DJT 2,912,914
   HRC 2,844,705
   Difference 68,209 votes
   EC votes 20

If 13,629 voters in Wisconsin, 5,712 voters in Michigan and 34,106 voters in Pennsylvania had voted for HRC instead of DJT, she would have taken all 46 available electoral college votes in those states and won the election. (And I am aware that there were also states, such as Colorado and New Hampshire that HRC took by a narrow margin, which would have gone to DJT with the change of only a handful of voters).

Now, obviously, before the election, nobody actually knew that it would be these three states alone, and so few voters, who would spell the difference between one candidate and the other. But everyone knew that there were "swing states", everyone knew that there was no point campaigning in the safe red or safe blue states. So the electoral college system, far from ensuring that every citizen is a focus of the presidential campaign, and is considered and targeted, instead ensures that a small sub-set of the population is the focus of all the attention, and vast swathes of the country basically don't get much consideration. And, it doesn't matter how large the majority is in a "safe" state, that isn't reflected in the outcome. The fact that HRC took two and a half million more votes in California than DJT doesn't change the number of electoral college votes she received. She could have won California with a majority of one person, and she'd still have received all 55 EC votes.

As with the British system, which I've complained about before, the electoral system for president of the USA is demonstrably broken. It is disconnected from the concept of fair representation of the people.

Just like I'm now labelled a "Bremoaner" by a subset of gloating, sneering Brexit-voters who think objecting to anything is simply whinging and not an exercise in free speech, I'm sure there will be those who will tell me that everyone knew the rules before the election, and that DJT won by playing the system, and to shut up and stop whinging, and that it's too late to complain. The supremely arrogant DJT is already adamant he could have won the popular vote, he just didn't bother trying since he didn't need to. To (mis)quote Mandy Rice-Davies, "well he would say that, wouldn't he?"

It won't come as any surprise to you to discover that I disagree. It's never too late to complain. It's never too late to point out injustice and stupidity. It may be an irrelevance when it comes to the election that has just occurred, but that shouldn't mean everyone should just shrug their shoulders and say "yeah, the system's shit, but it's our shit and we're sticking with it". Why should anyone accept a broken system that allows a minority to elect a president?*** I can see why it might not have been a priority to change the system of the Electoral College up until now, as it has largely managed to reflect the popular vote. In fact, only five times in history has it failed to do so - in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. So, for 112 years it wasn't perverting the will of the people. And we all know here in Britain that "the will of the people" is sacrosanct.


I'm not an American. I have no say in the political structure and systems of the USA, but I can and will point out that arcane electoral systems, like the Electoral College and our own First Past The Post system, are quite frankly a bit rubbish, and unless we, the people who are governed under broken systems, demand change... it's not going to happen.


* I have nothing against Lowestoft.

** Let's be honest, it's always been a man, and at the current rate, that's not going to change in a hurry.

*** Obviously, the minority are likely to be perfectly happy with the status quo, and then say things like, "you didn't complain before, did you?" Which is enormously constructive.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Blowing my own trumpet

By now, any regular readers here will recognise the general format of this blog. Broadly speaking I either tell you how lovely LittleBear is, or I reveal the darker recesses of my own psyche, or I rant about something (consequential or otherwise). That pretty much covers it doesn't it? Well, today we're taking a departure from our normal schedule to bring you breaking news from the frontiers of science.

Today I received notice that I have been elected a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

Slightly modified certificate

According to Institute of Physics, being a Fellow is:

"A mark of peer esteem. A sign of significant contributions to physics. A demonstration of impact on your field. Fellowship of the IOP indicates a very high level of achievement in physics and a significant contribution to the profession."

That's me, that is.

I am, actually, inordinately proud of myself for having achieved this. I was sponsored by two of my long-standing customers - Professor A, head of atmospheric chemistry at Very Good University, and Professor C, head of molecular physics at Even Better University, both of whom wrote glowing testimonies for me. I've spent the last 18 years working with, for and among academics, all of them more highly qualified, on paper, than I am. And now I finally have the trump card, the letters that say "I've reached the top of my profession. I am as good as you. I may even be better than you". And, what is more, there are only about 180 female Fellows of the Institute of Physics, which puts me in a pretty special group. It may not stop the self-doubt or defeat the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, but it's certainly going to help me hold my head up high and know that a panel of some of the most senior physicists in my country have assessed me and found me good enough to join them.

This also means I am now entitled to adorn my name with the letters "FInstP". And on all those countless occasions when I wear academic dress, I am now allowed to wear a different kind of hood, and a gown with fancy cuffs. Which will come in handy.

To quote a Young Person that I know, "You go girl!"


Saturday, 5 November 2016

From day to day

This started out as a particularly fine example of my very best Misery Blogging. But I hadn't quite got it finished to my liking yesterday, when I shut the computer down. And today, it doesn't seem to reflect my life very well, despite being a very heartfelt and honest evocation of my feelings for most of the week. And that in itself seemed like a worthwhile thing to notice. So, herewith, two days, separated only by a reasonable night's sleep, treacle sponge with custard and a lovely husband.

Yesterday
Every drive to work this week, and every drive home again, I've wept.

Every drive to work this week, I've dried my tears as I crossed the car park, smiled at my colleagues and got on with the day.

Every drive home from work, I've dried my tears as I've walked to the school gates, smiled at the other mothers and got on with the afternoon.

I'm tired.

I'm sad.

I'm overwhelmed.

It's everything and nothing.

Things that really don't matter at all, and things that matter more than anything.

Things that are figments of my own imagination, products of my woeful self-esteem, and things that are painfully real, and present, and scary.

I'm scared of losing a man I love, who has been my father figure since my own father died. He's sick, though not as sick as he was. He's a long way away, though not as far as he used to be. And his current symptoms are too painfully similar to the ones that took my own father in the end that in the darker moments of the night my mind finds it hard to see a different outcome, no matter how different reality looks during the day.
 
It's slowly but surely dawning on me that the work project I've been driving forward since its inception is coming to a head, and all the things I've missed, mistakes I've made, details I've forgotten and poor decisions are coming home to roost. I am not ready to deliver the first prototype, let alone the set of five instruments required. And other than occasionally sticking his head out of his office to tell me I haven't done what he wanted, by boss has taken a totally hands-off approach. So I'm in it on my own. And despite the fact that today, one of my favourite customers (a very senior government scientist) decided he also wants to buy one of these new machines I'm making, my boss still informed us that he didn't think the machine was ever going to be a success. Which was a really morale-boosting vote of confidence.

I'm stuck in my little world of self-pity again, convinced again that I am tolerated but not liked. Certain that everyone else exists in a whirl of friendship and camaraderie of which I am not a part. Feeling isolated and alone in a crowd. Watching people swirl around, laughing and talking while I gaze forlornly around, managing a half-smile of recognition or perhaps a nod and a "hello". Or perhaps I do speak, and I wear the outgoing, jolly mask to prevent anyone seeing the fear of rejection in my eyes. And I am fulfilling my own prophecy as usual, by not reaching out to people, not speaking up to those who I'm sure would listen. Instead I'm trapped in my tongue-tied world, only being brave enough to commit my fears and anxieties to the computer screen, and not to a living, breathing human being. Is it any wonder I feel like an outsider when I position myself outside normal, human, emotional, interactions?

Today
LittleBear and I cycled into the village this morning, to go to the Co-op, the pharmacy, the library, the greengrocer and the butcher. Because we live in the awesome kind of village where all those things still exist. And we kicked our way through the autumn leaves, because our village is full of big, beautiful, majestic trees.

And we met some friends in the library and had a chat. Because we've spent enough time living here and tootling around that most occasions that we go out we bump into someone we know.

And we popped in to the cafe and shared a giant slab of chocolate cake and read a library book (about dinosaurs) together. Because we could.

And because I was feeling a bit weary and a bit run down after lunch, I had a lie down on our bed with a cup of tea and my book while my bears played and read books together downstairs, and neither of them thought this was unreasonable.

And we had a lovely big roast dinner in the early evening before going to a friend's house so LittleBear and LittleFriend (and us!) could watch some fireworks in their garden, because neither of them really want to go to a big, noisy, cold, long display in the middle of the village. And those same friends, plus others, are coming here tomorrow evening so that we can do the same thing again, but in our garden. Which probably means I actually have friends, who actually like me, and actually don't mind spending time with me.

And tomorrow we're going to spend the day with Piglet and her family, going to the local aeroplane museum, which will mesmerise BoyPiglet and LittleBear. Though apparently I am to expect BoyPiglet to lecture me at length about the aeroplanes as his affinity to military aircraft is akin to LittleBear's feelings about dinosaurs.

Today I have a good and happy life, with a lovely family, living in an idyllic village populated by friendly, welcoming people. I just couldn't see that yesterday.


Monday, 31 October 2016

A cure for Imposter Syndrome

Most of you will probably be aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you've never heard it called that. It's one of my specialist areas. It's that sense I have that I'm winging it, just about managing to maintain a facade of competence and knowledge, a gossamer thin veil being all that stands between my devastating ignorance and discovery. The conviction that everyone else knows what they're doing and all it would take is one wrong step, one mis-placed word, one stupid question to reveal that I am completely out of my depth, unqualified for the job I do, undeserving of my position.

I spend my life working with very, very intelligent people, the kind of people who say things like "well, as I recall, the thermal energy of an atom is about a fortieth of an eV, so we can approximate the mean free path as..." over lunch. The kind of people who assume that everyone works out the orbit of the moon from first principles. In their heads.

I don't spend my whole time tip-toeing around, waiting for the penny to drop amongst my colleagues, and for them to finally realise that the emperor has no clothes and that I am in truth just a rather bewildered muppet. But the thought is always lurking there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce. Always ready to whisper in my ear, "you're not good enough you know, and any minute now, everyone's going to see through you for the fraud that you are."

Just recently though, I've begun to feel a little less like an idiot. A little less as though my incompetence is hiding behind a thin veneer of technical jargon, flung around like confetti. 'What could possibly be the source of such a huge step forward?' I hear you cry. 'Has PhysicsBear experienced a profound metaphysical shift in self perception, suddenly allowing her to see her own abilities in a realistic light?' you might clamour. Not exactly. What's actually happened is that I've been attempting to train two new employees to undertake a few of the testing jobs that have traditionally fallen to me.

Back in the mists of time, my boss trained me to do these tasks. My boss possesses a terrifying intellect, and has a bewildering mix of enormous arrogance, and total lack of self-awareness that allows him to "know" that he's always right, while simultaneously assuming that he's no brighter than anyone else. His approach to training me rather reflected that view. He had me sit with him while he undertook the task in question, and thereafter I was in charge of all subsequent tests. If I had a problem, I could consult him, but received rather short shrift if the solution was something that I "should" have spotted. It was a bit of an extreme approach, but I swam instead of sinking, so I suppose one could say it worked.

Recently the task of passing on the wisdom earned through my years of experience fell to me. And being a little more generous than my boss, I spent a considerable amount of time explaining what to do, how to do it, why we were doing it and what could go wrong. I provided a powerpoint presentation on the subject. I handed over examples of test documentation guidelines that I'd written in the past. I ensured my trainees were equipped with lab books and pens, and I recommended they take notes of what we were doing.

And so we tested our first piece of equipment, together.

A month rolled past and another, identical, piece of equipment required testing. I handed the job over to my newly-trained engineers. And was greeted with blank looks. I suggested they refer back to their lab books. I was informed "I didn't write any notes. I thought I'd remember." I was somewhat vexed. I went through the tests again, though Firm Words Were Had on the importance of note-taking.

It was not long before another two, identical, pieces of equipment needed testing. Again, I encountered blank looks, a complete, overwhelming absence of understanding of what we were trying to do and why, randomly incorrect attempts at undertaking the tests and (finally) a failure to complete the test sheets, despite assuring me they'd been completed.

And I am simply left thinking... I was never this useless. I didn't require telling half a dozen times. I didn't expect to be spoon-fed every step of the way. I was capable of listening, absorbing information and learning from it, quickly. I am finally, completely and utterly convinced that I was never this useless.

So there you go. If you want to feel an enhanced sense of self-worth - employ people more useless than yourself. But be prepared to accept a significant rise in blood pressure as a consequence.