Life outside the thesis

There’s something about writing a thesis that really narrows down your focus. You forget that other topics exist.

I do find my subject interesting, and I enjoy doing the reading and then working out the connections and contradictions between what people are saying. While I am doing that my mind feels open and I search for other sources to read (though I still have to narrow down my reading to what is relevant).

But when I come to write it up I feel like I’m in a box, sorting through scraps of paper like a jigsaw puzzle. And I’m not able to leave any lying on the floor as it will make a mess. You forget there is a world outside the box and that you should keep searching for more material. As you try and figure out the best structure to fit everything together you feel the need to try and use every bit of information you’ve found. Then at some point you realise you’ve spent ages trying to make some information fit the scope of the research and you question why you were trying to mould it at all.

My light-bulb moment, if it can be called that, came from a book and TV show. Both of them contained something I found interesting and that I wanted to go and find out more about. It made me see that all my energy had been concentrated on my thesis. Yes I find the subject interesting, but I do actually happen to have other interests, other subjects that I would like to learn more about. It sounds obvious, but I had actually forgotten that over the past month or so.

And I don’t think it’s been good for me, so I need to go and re-expand my horizons. Go and learn something else and stop brooding over the thesis. It doesn’t need to take over, just provide an extra place for stray thoughts to dwell. A change is as good as a rest after all. 

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News and the Future

Just two quick thoughts on pieces of news that I read recently, and I should say that I am not particularly informed on either of them – so they are just musings.

One is the whole protest over fracking – which is great and I’m glad it’s being so widely heard. But from what I read in the news the reason given usually seems to revolve around spoiling the scenery and damaging the environment. And yes, the impact on the environment is a good reason to protest against it.

But for me, when I first heard about fracking, the main thought was why are we going to such ridiculous lengths to get our fuel. In purely energy terms the return on investment is so small. Instead of going after harder-and-harder to reach fuel sources, effort should be put into reducing demand. To reduce our need and dependence on the fuel in the first place.

That is my main opposition to fracking, yet I have not seen it reflected anywhere. Perhaps this is because concentrating on spoiling the scenery and damaging the environment is more likely to rouse support. Looking at our lifestyles and their effect is still not particularly appealing to most people. Yet that is really the crux of the problem. In some ways it goes back to the idea of Common Cause again – you can use the means that will rouse the most support for your goal, but there is more to consider than that.

The other piece of news was about the HS2 high-speed railway link to the north. And I think this thought came to me because I read it straight after the article above. Without knowing much about it I have so far been vaguely opposed to the scheme. The cost, the disruption and destruction to people and landscape, the need, and was it just because rich business people wanted to reduce travelling time.

But – if I am for a future that involves less cars and more public transport, should I support the scheme? The article contemplated the possibility of the scheme being abandoned, and my thought was – would it mean that more roads were built instead? I have no idea if that would be the case, but I would support a railway over roads. I know there are a lot more intricacies than that – but it was a case where a gut reaction came against the demands of a value – in quite a sudden way.

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 This relates again to the idea of frames in communication – again – and what is being conveyed or understood through certain words.

I was watching a TED Talk by Jackson Katz about gender violence being a male as well as female issue. It was an interesting talk, but what I’m relating to is a small part near the beginning.

Katz talks about the images or connotations certain words invoke – in this case race, sexual orientation and gender

What is interesting is that they usually invoke the minority group – they only bring to mind a small part of the whole. Race means non-whites (in the west as least), sexual orientation means LGBT and gender usually implies women. The majority are missed out, as though whites have no race, being heterosexual is not a sexual orientation, and men are outside discussions of gender.

I found it interesting because it’s true (well, it is for me at least), but it’s not something I’ve ever thought about before. Perhaps it occurs because the words are most often used in relation to issues that involve the minority? If that is the case, in being so used the frame of the word has evolved. Its connotations are being created and affected by use. I suppose that is the evolution of language and it is probably largely unconscious. But it does seem to impart quite a high responsibility on the users, to not abuse words.

Well, Katz talks about it being due to the dominance of the majority group, and that using words in such a way allows them to keep their control and power. To keep themselves out of the discourses that do involve them, but allows them to keep the status quo.

I did English Language at A-Level, I’ve forgotten how interesting I find it.

(I found the talk through the Guardian’s top 20 TED Talks. It’s a good place to begin exploring the vast amount of videos they have – or I found it helpful at least). 

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Values and Frames

A long and probably complex post about connections my mind has been making.

I don’t watch live TV, I use catch-up instead, but sometimes I do end up catching adverts. Because it happens so seldom I find it interesting to watch them, analysing and judging them, rather than trying to ignore them. The McDonalds ones often stand out. I find them sly. They take positive emotions or values and connect them with their products or portray themselves as the solution to common circumstances. There’s just something different about their attitude compared to other adverts.


This resonated because I’ve been reading the brilliant Common Cause report, and it says something similar. On p. 19 it says that a business, such as McDonalds, just wants to sell hamburgers, and in doing so the business doesn’t care what values they are affecting or strengthening. What their adverts are doing is taking ‘intrinsic’ values, such as companionship and well-being, and connecting them with ‘extrinsic’ ones, such as image, fitting in and consumerism. It is clearly not positive that the latter should be used to strengthen the former.

The report is aimed at civil society organisations, but what it’s saying is interesting and relevant to everyone. It talks about the various values that people hold, and the way that campaigns and marketing targets these values. What Common Cause is interested in is how these values are unconsciously shaped or affected by what happens around us, since the values we commonly see are the ones we attached greater importance to. The Common Cause report argues that these relationships should be more widely understood and used explicitly, in order to bring about common, positive and beneficial change.

I also found aspects of the Common Cause report related to aspects of Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ in my previous post. The report says that when the relationship between various values held is plotted on an axis (with extrinsic <> intrinsic and physical self <> self transcendence) the relationship is similar across countries, even if the priority attached to values is different. People then feel rewarded when they act in line with the values they hold. This similarity and difference relates to ideas Gladwell has on cultural legacy and its effect.

Common Cause (p. 30) quote an observation about life-goal directed activity, which says that values affect the choice of activity, the effort put in, how long people persist and how they feel afterwards. But the answer to these questions can depend as much on the society as the person. Gladwell shows that what is considered a normal amount of, say effort, can be affected by your cultural legacy. This means the commonly understood frame of ‘effort’ or ‘work’ is different depending on the country. If the national frame of ‘work’ for one country means many hours, then that is considered normal. In another country the concept of ‘work’ may mean shorter and more flexible hours.

Therefore, similar priorities to similar values may be held – e.g. hard work – but the result can be different. These people will all feel rewarded when they have worked hard, but the product may vary. This is not something Common Cause touch on, but it is the alternative way of looking at things that Gladwell is trying to advocate.

There is also the fact that Gladwell’s need to understand cultural legacy, whether to adjust for it or simply recognise it, is similar to Common Cause’s need to be aware of and understand frames so that they can be worked with and used for change. Briefly, this also reminds me of a report I read a while ago for an essay, which considers a 21-hour working week. I wont go into it, but one point it raised was the many barriers to enacting such a policy. It concludes that while a 21-hour week cannot yet be a reality the report serves to open conversations and debates about the role of paid and unpaid work. What the report hopes, then, is to slowly adjust the common frame and cultural legacy attached to work.

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This is outside the intended focus of the blog, but I had to include it because the book is so interesting. It was lent by a friend, and I thought it would be one of those self-help type books, telling you how to be successful and reach your full potential.

It’s nothing like that.

It’s trying to change your perspective. To show that outliers – those who achieve, or are already, something out of the ordinary – are created from a set of circumstances that allow them to achieve what they do.

Gladwell shows that as well as hard work – the traditional narrative for success – there is a lot of chance and luck involved. Where each small advantage over others begins to build up, until outliers are able to reach the level they do. There is also what Gladwell calls cultural legacy, where the characteristics and history of society play a role.

It’s very hard to summarise the points of the book without writing an essay, but this is an attempt to convey the gist. Don’t read it if you don’t like spoilers. Even if you don’t mind them, go and read the book anyway, Gladwell conveys his ideas much better than me.

The birth date of sports starts plays a big role in getting them selected for specialist training. Most people who succeed have the opportunity to put in 10,000 hours/10 years of training and practice before they get somewhere. Having a high IQ helps, but you only need to be intelligent enough, i.e. reach a certain threshold. You need to have practical intelligence as well, to cope with the real world, and usually your family background gives you this. The timing of your birth within history can be significant.

Cultural legacy is strong, overlaying personal characteristics, and these can be inherited from many generations ago. Language and cultural perspective can give advantages in areas. But sometimes your background can pose problems. Being able to understand and work with this cultural legacy means negative aspects can be avoided or improved.

The book doesn’t teach you how to become a success but it does make you look at the world differently.

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Socio-Technical Theory

So today, after my self-assigned break, I began reading for my thesis. I started with behaviour change theories and the PlanLoCal resource pack from the Centre for Sustainable Energy. I went to one of their workshops a few weeks ago.

One paragraph caught my attention – not for my thesis, I just found it interesting generally. It was about socio-technical theory. It was very short and didn’t go into much detail, I’ll have to go and dig up some more about it.

It talks about how the social and technical aspects of lifestyles are integrated and mutually reinforcing. The example it gives is working patterns, and how they mean shopping is done in bulk once a week (Although it doesn’t comment on whether this leads to the dominance of supermarkets, or whether the dominance of supermarkets and their distance from home is what makes one large shop easier). Anyway, it says buying lots of food at once then means a car is needed, and then fridges and freezers to store the food for longer. Then apparently microwaves are needed to warm up or defrost that food.

What I find interesting about the theory is that the patterns and habits of our lifestyle are based on one aspect influencing another, and that technology is there to accommodate for and assist this. Then I thought about the above example in relation to myself. We turned our freezer off about a year ago because we basically weren’t using it. Partly that’s due to the diet we eat (lots of veg), but also because we live near a street where we can buy everything we eat from local shops. Our shopping is done about three times a week (or more) rather than once, so we don’t need the freezer to store things for later. It also means we don’t need and don’t have a car (other reasons involve things like living in a city generally).

Admittedly I am a student and so can go shopping during the day –depending on when you return from work the independent shops might not be open. But the mini supermarkets will be, although they are not as good as being able to support independent shops. So if there were more local shops around would people shop more but with a smaller quantity, waste less food, use cars less, turn freezers off and so save energy?

Who knows? It wouldn’t be as simple as all that anyway.

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Cycle City

The amount of bikes and cycling in Amsterdam is amazing. Even better than Berlin. And they’re so relaxed about it.

Nobody wears helmets, not even the kids. And you could take so many photos of the different ways people cycle. On the phone. Riding pillion. Holding hands. Wheeling a bike alongside. Kids and dogs carried in many different ways. Holding flowers or a table in one hand. Shopping on the handlebars. Instruments, skateboards and prams carried in baskets.

The infrastructure is geared for public transport, or at least all transport seems to be seen as equal. Trams, cars and bikes have a lane each, and only the really narrow roads don’t have a designated cycle lane.

Also, the lanes are double width, which makes so much sense. Many cycle alongside their friends chatting, or the fast can overtake the slow.

Bikes are everywhere. Tons of them in the cycle lanes and the sides of each street are just one long line of parked bikes – whether there are racks there or not. Apparently in the city there is one bike for each person (and also many littering the bottom of the canals).

Basically, cycling is just so normal and easy it’s great. 

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