living and learning

Friday, 26 February 2010

After the car

After the car (Dennis and Urry, 2009) was supposed to be a good read - I picked it off the reading list intrigued by its premise, title, and refreshing cover art. Of course, the main reason was because I hate cars. Their bulk, their smell, their mind-boggling inefficiency. What, a tonne of steel and non-renewable energy plus 4 m2 just to transport a chap comfortably from A to B?! Not that I condemn car owners or anything; car ownership is, nowadays, directly linked with mobile citizenship. From the book itself:
For example, the whole notion of American society, its suburbs, urban strips, and mobile motel culture, is based on a car-based life. Cars have become literary and visul icons, representing the 'on the road' liberation of individualism, exploration and experimentation. Cars are more of a right than a responsibility. (p.37)
The argument is that we can't live without cars, climate and resource concerns continue to threaten this, so society must undergo a system upgrade to cope with the lot. Very promising so far - in fact I couldn't wait to devour the whole book in one sitting!
This chapter thus examines the changing climates of change surrounding transport and energy and how they may be engendering a new system that will be 'after the car' and hence could entail a lower carbon future society, albeit one which is by no means a simply positive future. (p.3)
Bold emphasis mine. You could probably start to see why I got put off after a handful of pages: the thinking is brilliant, but the language is so clunky and florid that it serves more to confuse than to clarify. At times it can get downright boggy, and require mammoth effort to stay on track.

The take-away moral write clearly and efficiently, ye book authors!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Grapevine 10

'I don't understand the economics of air travel...'
- Matt on cheap air tickets

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Alternative methods please

I confess I'm slightly scared of qualitative research. Something about interviews and ethnography fails to garner my trust - the general woolliness? The Hawthorne effect? Or perhaps it's just that I haven't done enough homework?

Anyhow, I've been swayed by grounded theory lately. (Apologies if this has been brought up in lectures before; it clearly didn't register!) Unlike the familiar 'literature → hypothesis → data → analysis' model, grounded theory ditches the preliminary preparations, and starts with 'data'. Ideally, you would simultaneously collect and code your data (eg different answers to one question in the interview), until you get no new responses. Then you would group your codes into categories, and use these to build a theory.

Ok I'm not entirely sure how this works (or whether it's even plausible with limited resources), but the 'no pre-research literature review' appeals to me greatly. In spades. And it's not about laziness either - the literature review stage simply comes later in the process. I mean, you don't want your preconceptions to influence your data do you? You want to be as objective as humanly possible, and that's going to be quite hard when you've devoured the opinions of everyone else in the field. Charlie happens to have an anecdote of a student who kept getting bad results in his data analysis: it turns out the results were only 'bad' because they didn't fit in with his knowledge of the subject. 'What's the point of studying what you already "know"?' quipped Charlie.

But then there's a drawback. Books on research design, our own department, and the dissertation plan provided by DARG all suggest that you 'plug your dissertation into existing literature' - can't guarantee that will happen with grounded theory. Besides this there's tonnes of criticism out there, which I really don't have the energy to read right now. Perhaps its obscure status in the undergraduate world is the best testimony? Hmm.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Grapevine 9

'Say we plot my salary against teaching hours, and then cheese against teaching hours...'
- Charlie's desperate attempt at explaining residuals

Monday, 22 February 2010

It's that time of year again

You wake up on a dreary Monday morning and round the usual corner and...lo and behold, the concourse is decked with ragged bits of cardboard! This can only mean one thing - yep, it's union election week.

Forgive me, but I find the whole thing quite ludicrous. I mean, you are swamped with choices, you don't know these people, and you probably haven't had the time to read all their agendas. What you definitely will see is
  • their name (some gems: Jolly, Bird, Sharples),

  • their slogan ('World peace and free kittens', anyone?),

  • their friends' artistic skills (or lack thereof), and

  • the extent to which their friends will harass you on Facebook (just kidding).
It's a far cry to what we expect of them once the campaigns are over.

Now I'm very curious as to how this works out. Does your personality/credentials/agenda even hold any significance in the whole shebang? What's the most important thing in a union election? Can cardboard cut-outs make or break a deal? We could send out some questionnaires and draw up a multivariate model to work it out. Let's see...y = total votes, x1 = attractiveness of agenda, x2 = likeability of name, x3 = artistic talent of get the idea.

Hey look here we have a great dissertation topic! It's potentially valuable, has existing literature, and totally won't break the bank. Any takers? I'd love to read the results. :D

Grapevine 8

'What you want is something that you can tell your mum.'
- Charlie on effectively explaining statistics

'QUAL, or QUANT??'
- Matt's little quiz on research methods

'Google "citizenship test".'
- Debbie on perspectives of national identity

Friday, 19 February 2010

Grapevine 7

'In the old days we would just put them on the noticeboard.'
- Steve on sign-up sheets and MOLE

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Quantitative vs Qualitative

Three things I learnt today:

1) Quantitative data can include all sorts of things, not just the obvious 'data-looking data'. (Thank you Charlie for reminding me this!) Questionnaire data for example can be translated into numbers and analysed with statistics.

2) Choosing the right research method can be a minefield. We frequently misunderstand the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods (as demonstrated above, aargh) and tend to think of them as equally legitimate ways of approaching a question, when in reality they have entirely different purposes. A neat example: psycho-social adversity & asthma morbidity and care. Quantitative research would best address how the two are related, while qualitative research would best address 'narratives of illness in which "causes" and "associations" work as rhetorical moves', whatever that means.(Silverman, 2007)

3) The first rule of ice skating: let go of the railings:)

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Grapevine 6

' don't spend ages measuring maps or anything, unless you like that sort of thing...'
- Matt on transport diary

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Research day

Every geographer in our department has a research day: an uninterrupted day dedicated to research, sans teaching obligations.

It's a pretty well known philosophy - think Google's 20% rule, and Atlassian's FedEx Day (so named because you 'deliver something overnight'). Naturally I had to ask Charlie what the fuss was about.

Research day started way back in the 90s, he revealed. The reasoning was that funding was tight and steeply ranked, and universities were assessed by research quality, so research was vital to a university's long-term health. Eventually it got so important that it became an contractual obligation for all lecturers (bar those with rare 'teaching contracts'). Furthermore, it determined your chances of getting a promotion. In response the department implemented the idea to secure research output...sounds wonderful right?

The big question is: does it work? Charlie had a few things to say about this. For one thing, he already finds time to do research every day, so there isn't the time and concentration issue. For another, research day is never uninterrupted! 'Never??' I asked incredulously. 'Never,' he grins, 'there's always one thing or another that you've got to take care of.' Oh crap, might I add.

So to Charlie it isn't that big a deal. I wonder what the other geographers have to say? Hmm.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Creature Discomforts

The identity lecture today introduced two discourses: essentialism, where focus is on the fixed, stable physical body independent of the mind, and non-essentialism (aka the social constructivist approach), where naturalised differences may be viewed as socially constructed. Debbie gave a fine example of this: black children are more likely to underachieve in school due to the attitudes they are exposed to, rather their inherent abilities. (Relevant posters in the GB E-floor corridor.)

Since identities can be constructed and malleable, you can't really blame people trying to change them for the better. One example really stands out...

Ever seen Creature Comforts? You know, those short vox pop clips that feature plasticine animals commenting on their everyday lives? Well the same stop-motion team has produced a brilliant campaign called Creature Discomforts for Leonard Cheshire Disability, in an effort to change our contrived notions of disability. See the site for more:

Grapevine 5

'That worked so well last year...'
- Charlie on live demonstration of a multivariate model
NB 9 volunteers were arranged according to height, shoe size and parents' height - a neat regression plane should have emerged, which unfortunately didn't happen.

'What inspires you to go out there and do research and write stuff non-stop for 12 months??'
- Matt on dissertation topics

'Subconsciously you're performing certain identities with certain people.'
- Debbie on identity

Friday, 12 February 2010

Grapevine 4

'Digital cameras record raster data.'
- Steve

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Resource hog or not?

'If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, "Well, now that's a bit of a tall order..."'
- Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island

Bryson is, of course, talking about driving, given the appalling state of American public transport. Europe is widely considered to be 'greener' than North America, but I was still pretty shocked at the way the other side of the pond stood out on the ecological footprint chart:

This, and the United States chickening out of the Kyoto Protocol, and the 'who is to blame' question takes on a whole new light. I suppose they don't have a choice really, seeing that their economy, culture and very identity is all interwoven with the word 'consumption'. I was watching the Big Bang Theory (an American sitcom set in Pasadena, California) and kept noticing such details: huge piles of take-away boxes after every meal, no shops within walking distance, cars and motorcycles the only forms of transport...

Just what does an ecological footprint this size translate to?

Behold, this nugget I bookmarked a while ago:

(Source: New Scientist)

The chart shows the number of years we have left of certain resources if consumed at a rate of 1) today's global rate, and 2) half the current US consumption rate. I'm assuming it's aimed at an American audience. Notice how 2 is always lower than 1. Perhaps it's attempting to point a finger in that direction too? Food for thought, yes.

Grapevine 3

'It's one thing to be here, another to be here and awake.'
- Matt on unholy 9 o'clock lectures

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Who are you anyway?

Social Identities and Difference.

The first thing that comes to mind: Facebook. Ah yes, the product of our times. Nearly everyone has one, and some even have two - I for one also use the nearly identical Chinese version called 'Xiaonei'. Now everyone knows that a while ago FB did away with the old privacy settings and introduced confusing new ones. I'm talking about that little lock icon which lets you limit readership to 'friends', 'networks', or, heaven forbid, 'everyone'. And then there's the ubiquitous 'friends lists' feature that lets you further control who sees what. 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas' they say. As a very consistent soul (I've gone by the same pet name for 14 years) this isn't terribly relevant to me, though I can see how it could be useful. Professional and personal contacts are best kept separate. Different levels of intimacy demand different treatment. In-jokes are best shared with insiders. (By the way this is probably the best place to mention: I'm not interested in ‘shitting, shaving and shampooing’ either. Eww.)

The whole idea of 'geographies of subject formation' is very confusing. I've yet to make my way through a tenth of that entry - something to work on in the next few weeks for certain. Aaand to finish off this lame post, here's something that the word 'identity' reminds me of...

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
        flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
        went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
        bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

(Hughes, 1921)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Through the looking-glass

I'm currently reading a serendipity find called A very short, fairly interesting, and reasonably cheap book about qualitative research (Silverman, 2007). The title's a bit of a mouthful, but this slim volume certainly lives up to its name: it's 159 pages long, written in a flowing conversational style, and...I've no idea about the price, sorry. It is also unabashedly biased, as the author points out in the introduction - he forsakes objectiveness and scope for interest, inspecting fundamental issues in qualitative research that textbooks gloss over (eg the dreaded 'so what??' question). It is a refreshing change from the steady guiding hand we are used to - looking for stimulating perspectives about the mechanics of qualitative research? This is a great place to start.

Grapevine 2

'Stats doesn't have to be scary!'
- Charlie

Monday, 8 February 2010

Statistically speaking

Statistics. The mere mention of the word is enough to send shivers down many spines. I too was apprehensive at first, but eventually decided that the alternative was slightly more unpleasant. The result is my semester opening with a morning lecture on 'socio-spatial analysis' (aka GEO231, or simply 'that statistics module').

An introduction to the module, an amusing demonstration involving volunteers (*cough*), and a recap of GEO152 later, a very obvious but nevertheless essential nugget of information was revealed:
Socio-spatial analysis tackles what first-year statistics cannot.
I know. 'Tis annoyingly simple, but this is what the whole module is about really - going beyond prim, two-demensional datasets into the chaos of Real Life Situations Where Variables Are Abound. And with any luck, we will learn to make them variables behave.

I must say...I'm glad I chose GEO231!

By the looks of things, this module promises great potential. Let's see where it takes us.

Grapevine 1

'What better way to start the semester than with a blizzard?'
- Charlie on the weather

'Advanced colouring-in'
- Meg mocking geography

'The race for that 12.10 one starts now.'
- Matt on a coveted workshop timeslot
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