Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Stranger - part three

To wrap up these catch-up posts I have more good news, this time involving interactions not with computer programs but with people! Shocking, I know, right?!

Last Friday I actually stayed at uni for our departmental Happy Hour in the evening. It's a fun concept involving suggested contributions to a drinks money fund, much imbibing of alcoholic and other beverages, and extensive merrymaking. I got to spend a fun few hours with my fellow PhD students, learnt the names of a few more people, and shook a bit of the rust off my sociable side. The next evening I met up with them again, outside of uni. A major development!

I am a hermit. I admit it. My closest friends have been the same bunch of (wonderful) people since I was 16. I don't remember it being particularly difficult to make friends with these individuals. It just sort of happened - very naturally. I do remember putting in quite a bit of time when I first went to university, trying to meet people. This resulted in a handful of (equally wonderful) people that I became close to. It is these two waves of friends that I feel most comfortable around - they laugh at my jokes, you know.

From my second year at university, through my MSc and so far during my PhD, making new friends has just not been on the agenda. I have become set in my reclusive ways. Getting old also probably has something to do with it.

I'm quite happy being a hermit. Sometimes it gets lonely though. Especially when going through hard times adjusting to this post-graduate research environment. It's been very reassuring to have people like my office-mates and fellow supervisees and other PhD students. It is comforting to surround myself with these people, at least every once in a while. I will be leaving for Cyprus in a couple of weeks and will be away from this environment for several months. I think I will miss this new group of people.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Stranger - part two

I am happy to report that my GIS installation issues have been resolved. Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm not having issues with using the program. I realise that not everyone knows what a GIS is, although the fact that the Cyprus authorities have just begun using it widely basically means that it has been in worldwide use for at least two decades.

GIS stands for Geographical Information System, and can be defined in many many ways. The way it has been pitched to me is as "a system for capturing, storing, checking, integrating, manipulating, analyzing and displaying data which are spatially referenced to the Earth." Basically, we're talking about a computer system and software that uses spatial (that is, geographical) information to carry out data management, analyses, and stuff. It's an extremely powerful tool that can be used in all sorts of ways by all sorts of people for all sorts of things that have to do with space: location of particular features, geographical patterns, where and how things change, where do certain conditions apply, and the consequences of all the above.

To do anything like that, of course, you need to know how to use the software. And I am such a newbie. I have gone through tutorials and am currently attending lectures to introduce myself to GIS, but I am still lost in this program. So much is possible! But so little of it is accessible to me. It feels like only experts can work with GIS. It's a Catch 22: you can't work with it unless you're an expert, but to become an expert you need to work with it. Fortunately, a GIS For Dummies book is soon to be published.

Actually, what I really need is a For Dummies guide to the particular software I'm using. Until this materialises, I am forced to keep trudging. At the moment I'm having to deal with numbers that don't add up, as well as a bird dataset that is full of zeros. A zero is non-data. A zero does not mean that there was nothing to record. A zero means that nothing was recorded. The zero is about the worst thing to have to deal with statistically. Curse the zero!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Stranger - part one

I must apologise for taking so long to post since my last entry. Quite a few things have happened in the last couple of weeks: both work and play. I think the most sensible strategy to catch up is to break the news up into easily digestible chunks. Enjoy

On the work side, I have to admit that I never did finish that document on bird survey methods. It was actually impossible for me to do it in time for my supervisor to take a look at it before leaving for Cambodia, and after clearing it with him, it took a back seat on my to-do list.

I should get it done soon though! Writing up my project proposal properly was actually very rewarding. It had been a long time since I'd done any writing and it felt good to have a reason for reading papers. So far, my reading has been undirected and I would feel as though I achieved nothing from reading - the information would just go in through my eyes and out through some back door. But having to produce a document with a specific aim, based on that information, meant that what I was reading was being processed.

And, success! My supervisor called me before leaving for Cambodia to tell me that through my writing I show signs of intelligence. Again, I'm not sure exactly how I'm supposed to take this. It doesn't take much to impress this man. I still haven't decided if this is because he has very low expectations of me or because he's making an active effort to boost my (recently non-existent) confidence.

Anyway, he seems to have newfound hope that I am the right candidate for this PhD. However, the biggest test of all will be the field. I am still very scared about this. But there's nothing left to it now. I just have to go ahead and do my best.

In the meantime, the coal tits are here =)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Lunch break

My ambition to be more sociable is being pushed more and more to the background. Yesterday I walked past a couple of fellow PhDs who tried to lure me to the coffee room for a spot of lunch, but I declined on account of work. Today I am eating my sandwich at my desk. I predict my keyboard will become its own crumb-fed ecosystem very soon, if it hasn't already.

I am currently working on a review of bird survey methods to go in my project proposal. The whole thing needs to be done by tomorrow so that my supervisor can have a look at it before he goes to Cambodia to visit another one of his PhDs.

As I must get back to it now, I leave you with a picture of a long-tailed tit, a species I realise I haven't referred to yet. They're adorable! Like little fluffy popsicles.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Slow day - Slow week

There's only one day left in my first week "back at work" and I feel like it's been going painfully slowly, on purpose. I didn't decide to keep a slow pace, it just happened, but as a result of pretty conscious decisions. I don't actually feel like I've procrastinated much - I've been quite productive overall, but it's mostly things that, really, I could've taken care of in the evenings after work (eg. filling in forms and jumping through admin hoops, investigating ways of dealing with my annoyingly partitioned laptop hard-drive, organising my USB-stick and ultimately deciding to buy a portable external hard-drive to make things easier and as an extra safety net).

Is it a bit strange that I'm referring to my PhD as "work"? It should really be "research," but I honestly don't really feel like I'm doing much of that yet. It's like I have this idea in my head that the real research will happen in the field. That's where research happens after all, right? From a more rational point of view, that's a load of bull. I should be planning so hard for my field season! What are you thinking, Christina?! You've got data to analyse, bird songs to learn, and survey methods to try out! What are you doing faffing around?!

I wish I could answer myself... Well, it'll be a new week soon - I'll make up for it.
Okay, I just set myself up for wasting more time tomorrow. Doh!

Right, enough of things I'm down about! What am I happy about?

Well, the first thing is that I managed to get myself out into the cold last night to go to the gym. It took me a while to get going (my subconscious inertia is really quite remarkable) - which basically meant the gym instructor with the key to lock up was waiting for me to finish my stretching at 10:30 last night - but I did it! And it was goooood. I only did half an hour of intervals on the recumbent bike and then 3 sets of my favourite core exercises with only half the weight I was used to last summer, but I figure I'll get my form back before I get properly back into strength training - the last thing I want is to injure myself a few weeks before field work season!

Another thing that makes me smile at the moment is reading Stephen Fry's autobiography (Moab Is My Washpot). As a person who's only been living in the UK for a few years without a television (except the last 3 months), I only recently began discovering who Fry was through a few random episodes of Q.I. I've also watched a bit of Jeeves and Wooster on TV recently, but I am unfamiliar with the joys of Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Then I got on Twitter (I'm still not sure why, although I blame it entirely on a certain geneticist) and subscribed to Fry's tweets. And now I'm getting to know him - indirectly. It's great fun, although sometimes it can get a bit much - he writes how he speaks so reading this book it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Finally, it was good to see my fellow supervisee and office-mate today. We had a good rant about our supervisor, and about "work" and field work and our significant others (in a good way of course!... not that I have any hope that he's reading this) and stuff. It was good. Maybe at lunchtime tomorrow I should make en effort to see my second supervisee and my other fellow Environmental Sciences PhDs. After all, come mid-February, it'll be at least 4 months before I see them again.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Monday blues

The first day back at work in 2009.

It was snowy outside when I woke up. The whole day was pretty leisurely. Didn't even go to the office - had to wait around for a man to come fix my cooker, and then had a meeting with supervisor at his house.

The meeting went alright. He seemed pleased at my progress, limited as it was. He's either underestimating me, or is trying really hard to give me a confidence boost. I suppose either is better than disappointment.

Learnt a new bird today: the Redwing. It's a type of thrush. Typical winter visitor apparently.
Over the last couple of days I've also been learning that Goldfinches sound a bit like tiny machine guns when they sing... Okay, it's a weird association in my head but if it makes the sound stick then I'm keeping it!

Other than that I've been wrestling with this GIS program I'm trying to install on my laptop so I can take it Cyprus with me. This is the second day I've been struggling with it thanks to Vista. I think it's now time to ask for some expert help.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Back to reality

A New Year has begun - at least according to the Gregorian calendar - and it's an excuse to pretend to start afresh. I'm not going to make any formal resolutions, because I'm more likely to become depressed than a better person according to these people, but I know what they are in my head.

I had a lovely break for the holidays - it was good to slow down and not think about the things that make me anxious for a while. I'm not sure if going away was such a good idea though. I have six weeks before I go back to Cyprus for my field work. I'm dreading it. But there's not much more I can do from here: it's just a case of going out there and practicing my methods for real.

I am so glad that I didn't take a more exotic PhD topic! On the one hand, tracking tigers with camera traps in Sumatra would be unbelievably cool and an incredible experience, but on the other, I'd now be facing the prospect of at least six months in a jungle, with no running water or the possibility to communicate with the civilised world! And I'm terrified as it is about doing field work on my own in Cyprus!
I'm such a coward.

PS.: If anyone has any bright ideas about learning to identify bird songs please let me know.