I love Dr Inger Mewburn‘s The Thesis Whisperer blog. When I was doing my PhD there was nothing like it, and although it tends to focus on thesis writing I think it’s equally relevant for early career academics who still have a lot of reading, writing and publishing to get done.
“Reading like a mongrel means you forget about chapter order, reading the introduction or checklists to help you do proper ‘critical reading’. You scan the text rapidly, use indexes, the search function, Google books or whatever and go straight for the bit that you absolutely have to know and leave the rest for later. It isn’t pretty, but it works. I think the key to reading like a mongrel lies in knowing what it is you need to find out…When I am feeling overwhelmed I try to identify the exact problem I am trying to solve, or the missing information I need to find, and write it down in a sentence. I put the sentence on a post it on my computer monitor so I don’t forget. This is surprisingly effective at keeping me focussed.”
Step one: spend less time at your desk
“If you give yourself the whole day to write, you will spend the whole day writing.”
Step Two: remember the two hour rule
“[M]ost people only have about two really good, creative writing hours in a day…So writing new stuff should be almost the first thing you do when you sit down to your desk.”
Step Three: start in the middle
“Once you have planted the seed, just start adding on words around and over it – this builds a chunk. Don’t worry about where it fits yet – that’s a rewriting problem.”
Step Four: Write as fast as you can, not as well as you can
“The surest way to slow the process is to worry too much about whether your thinking is any good. So give yourself permission to write badly.”
Step Five: leave it to rest… then re-write
“Carving off the excess crap in the editing process will reveal the 1000 words of beautiful substantive text you are after.”
I own all of LyndaBarry‘s books and I’ve read them all, like, hundreds of times. I totally love them and think she is totally awesome. Seriously.
I was first introduced to her work in the 1988 documentary, Comic Book Confidential. She was one of very few female comics artists represented, and I was impressed because she told stories about girls that were really funny instead of really pathetic. (Spending time in Marlys’ world is still one of my favourite things to do.)
But it wasn’t until 2002′s One Hundred Demons that Barry’s work hit me on a visceral level and became relevant to my research. The book gathers seventeen influential demons from Barry’s childhood and adolescence, like “Girlness” and “Hate.” Barry calls this kind of storytelling “autobifictionalography” and it was the first time I think I really understood that there is a productive, evocative, telling space between fiction and non-fiction.
The second revelation came with 2008′s What It Is and 2009′s Picture This. Both are ‘how-to’ books, the former on writing and the latter on drawing, but they are also, and sometimes even more so, ‘why’ books. They are about creative experiences, and how even the most “non-creative” people always already have them. They represent, to me, the triumph of everyday creativity and the polar opposite of elitist (professional?) art and design.
Writing this now, I wonder why I don’t cite Lynda Barry as often as I cite, say, Sarah Pink? Both have taught me how to tell stories about my research, but I give formal (i.e. academic) credit to one more than the other and that’s just not cricket. (Sorry Lynda!) I’ll definitely correct that in the future.
I’ve been looking at “farm to fork” food traceability in an attempt to articulate how “grower to garment” wool traceability is similar and/or different. (Don’t get me started on what either has in common with surveilling, er, tracing people…)
“Food is as fundamental as it gets. And our relationship with it has changed with every year. Just ten years ago, most consumers were focused on eating a diet low in fat. Biotechnology was extremely limited in its application and considered somewhat dangerous. And few people knew what organic meant or why it mattered. Today, the picture is one of heightened challenges. Food prices are soaring. Shortages have sparked unrest the world over. The threat of salmonella poisoning prompts the recall of millions of U.S. eggs. And every year, ten million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases. At the same time, consumers are hungrier than ever for information about their food. They are better informed about nutrition and more aware of the environmental and societal impacts of everything they buy … With innovative digital technology and powerful solutions, IBM is making sure food is traced properly as it passes though an increasingly complex global supply chain. IBM is also making that food heartier through biological research. The future of food starts today.
Pet food. Lettuce. Peanut butter. Baby food. Milk. These are just some of the high profile recalls we’ve seen in the last year. Consumers worldwide are worried—and rightly so. Is their food safe? And where did it come from? One solution is track and trace technology, including 2D and 3D barcode and radio frequency identification (RFID). This allows us to track food from “farm to fork.” And now government regulations and industry requirements for quality and traceability are driving food producers worldwide to provide more detail on products. With an increasingly global supply chain, that detail must be comprehensive and reliable. And with that detail, companies can realize added value as well, such as a streamlined distribution chain and lower spoilage rates. In fact, consumer product and retail industries lose about $40 billion annually, or 3.5% of their sales, due to supply chain inefficiencies.”
People who read this blog are well acquainted with my interest in pervasive computing and sheep, but I’ve been working on a smaller project for a few years and this year I want to turn it into something more substantial.
I’ve been thinking about it as technologies of menstruation, but I think that menstrual machineries is much catchier, and actually more in sync with what interests me. Machines comprise any number of devices that turn, shape, mold or finish things, and machinery refers to the machines constituting a production apparatus. Menstrual machineries, then, comprise all the devices (material and social) that produce menstruation, and by extension, the menstruating woman.
A quick look through the Museum of Menstruation will give you a sense of the incredibly rich visual and material culture associated with menstruation throughout history, and existing cultural histories range from the academic to the popular. But I find myself imagining something more along the lines of a catalog of machines: absorbing machines, collecting machines, cleansing machines, relaxing machines, etc.
One of the reasons I find menstruation so interesting is because it makes me wonder about inconspicuous consumption; the $13 billion a year feminine “hygiene” industry produces vast amounts of materials that are effectively hidden from (public) view. Rebecca Ginsberg published an interesting 1996 article on the topic: in “Don’t Tell, Dear” she explains that the consumption of tampons and pads does not lend itself to expressing identity or status as clearly as the consumption of other products because their use is expected to be as discrete as possible. These acts of discrete consumption put women into particular relationships with their bodies, as well as offering other people particular ways of understanding the menstruating woman.
The “Aisle 8a” episode of animated sitcom King of the Hill does a brilliant job of showing how uncomfortable certain people can be around menstruation, even if it only means going down the feminine “hygiene” product aisle at the local store. And, indeed, any time I’ve lectured on the topic there have been men who expressly tell me that 1) they are uncomfortable with the subject, or 2) the subject is inappropriate for public discussion. I’m fine with the first–all sorts of things make me uncomfortable. But the second quite offends me; I don’t like the idea of shrouding biological processes in mystery and I don’t like the idea of censoring people’s everyday experiences. And it’s that last point that drives this project for me.
What form does this story need to take in order to discourage people from dismissing it out of hand?
“When the precious metals are reduced to the nanoscale (a nanoparticle is one billionth of a metre in diameter) they scatter light in different colours with silver appearing as yellow, peach, pink and purple and gold producing a range of brilliant hues. That means textiles in many colours can be created without using traditional—and mostly synthetic—dyes, adding to the sustainability of the innovation. Repeated testing by Drs Kelly and Lucas has shown that the gold and silver are bound to the wool with an ultra strong bond making the textiles totally colourfast and ensuring they do not fade in light or with repeated washing. In addition, the textile products incorporating silver nanoparticles have strong anti-microbial properties meaning they resist bacteria and pests, like moth larvae, that live in carpets. They also reduce the build-up of static electricity.”
Pretty exciting fibre science, to be sure. But I’m also completely fascinated by how it taps into broader cultural values. When NZ merino wool is already a high-prestige brand, the addition of precious metals only further stresses that quality. Drawing on the 100% Pure NZ brand, the fashions last night were introduced with terms like “pure merino,” “pure gold” and “pure luxury.” And sure enough:
“The initial target market for the golden wools is high end fashion accessories, fabrics and floor coverings. While it is around 100 times more expensive than wool coloured with organic dyes, there is interest for niche applications such as scarves, exclusive apparel and luxury carpet for residences, hotels or super yachts … ‘It’s had enormous market acceptance from the start. “Wow” is what people from across the wool industry say what they see what we are doing to add significant value to the New Zealand wool clip’.”
There’s a lot about the marketing strategy that deserves unpacking, and I think I’ll add a section to the paper I’m writing on NZ merino branding. In terms of sustainability, I understand that moving away from traditional (esp. synthetic) dyes is a big deal environmentally, but I don’t know enough about the process to know if the product isn’t automatically implicated in the environmental and health issues associated with gold mining. I mean, the gold has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it? I’ll definitely have to follow up on that.
I’d also like to talk with them about working with designers, and how they understand the connections between science and creative practice. For the fashion show they worked with final year students from Massey University Fashion Design, and Greer Osborne won the fashion show competition with her “ready to wear look inspired by the New Zealand environment and in particular the merino wool product.” Dr Lucas was quoted as saying “It’s been fantastic getting creative minds on to exploring the possibilities,” but I’d be surprised if she thought that scientists weren’t also creative. I’ve always been fascinated when artists and designers say that scientists (or other academics) aren’t creative, as if creativity belongs to some professions (or people) and not others. I know plenty of scientists who object to that characterisation and, when the description is reversed, just as many creative practitioners who do not appreciate being told their work lacks intellectual or experimental merit. Surely the boundaries are much blurrier than all this suggests! For example, the MacDiarmid Institute asked researchers from around New Zealand to “enter the most interesting images from their work in a competition”–which effectively put creativity in the hands (or eyes) of scientists–and then the best images were put on display in The Art of Nanotech exhibition. Sure, “interesting” might not be the same as “beautiful,” but it is just as much a part of creativity or creative practice.
In any case, I’ve got loads more to think about now and I hope to arrange some time with the chemists before classes start up at the end of the month.
I’ve been looking for historical NZ fiction that takes place on farms or includes sheep, but the setting and/or topic don’t appear to have been very popular. (Stories of small towns abound, however, often in a dark gothic tradition.) Taking a break from my searches, I remembered some brilliant Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.
The cartoons are part of a long tradition of anthropomorphising animals, with added allusions to labour relations as Ralph and Sam punch in every morning to do a full day’s work. As the foreman, Sam’s job is to protect the flock from worker-Ralph’s constant attempts at theft and harm. In the cartoons from the 60s I love how Ralph uses new technologies to beat Sam to the clock every morning but still never gets the sheep; I also love how they go home each night before going back to the same thing again the next day. It’s an endless cycle of nature and culture, rank and file–mundane but serious stuff, beautifully drawn with lots of gags.
But all this makes me wonder if humour (not irony) should drive our Counting Sheep scenarios. I posted earlier about how Country Calendar spoofs can be really good at this, but I’m also really wary of what happens if it’s done poorly. For example, in their discussions of critical design Dunne and Raby warn:
“Humour is important but often misused. Satire is the goal. But often only parody and pastiche are achieved. These reduce the effectiveness in a number of ways. They are lazy and borrow existing formats, and they signal too clearly that it is ironic and so relieve some burden from the viewer. The viewer should experience a dilemma, is it serious or not? Real or not? For critical design to be successful they need to make up their own mind. Also, it would be very easy to preach, a skilful use of satire and irony can engage the audience in a more constructive away by appealing to its imagination as well as engaging the intellect. Good political comedians achieve this well. Deadpan and black humour work best.”
But what if humour is only an element in a broader genre? Take soap operas, for example. Some people feel compelled to distance themselves from such “low-brow” forms of culture, but regularly engage in, and thoroughly enjoy, stories and gossip about the everyday lives of their friends, co-workers, neighbours, etc.. Academics have long argued that soap operas work as social binders and provide ways for viewers to formulate personal opinions and identities. But let me bring this back to sheep: I recently read a blog post that has stuck in my brain like you wouldn’t believe. UK-based ethical knitwear designers The North Circular occassionally post updates from the flock’s shepherd, Ernest, and this is the kind of story I’m talking about:
“July seventh, sheep are all clipped finally! All except for 6, that is, who will have to carry on sweltering until the ITV film crew can get here to film. It was pandemonium. These were all the frisky ewes who have just had lambs. I was up at 5am, gathered them all in a pen. Dave the shearer arrived and then it started raining, classic, the only rain to fall in 3 months. Clipping was abandoned and shearer went home saying he would be back when it cleared. Let the sheep back into the pasture. At midday Dave the shearer said he was coming back, as the sun had now made an appearance. Could i catch the sheep?!? if only. Izzy called to ask if she could come with the film crew – managed to politely says not a good time. Next thing, the shearers wife called Izzy, she wasn’t happy – no she was absolutely furious -the three of us, shearers wife, Dave the shearer and I had been running circles round t’ fields trying to catch them fer very long time and Dave the shearer was on the verge of walking off, shearers wife thought he was going to have a heart attack. Bit woolly if you ask me but, I put the film crew off, they want wildlife episode not soap opera drama! Shearers wife raged at Izzy, Do you have any idea how naughty your sheep are, how absolutely impossible they are to catch and handle?! you should come and see my flock, see how good they are, so you can compare your wild ones to them! We visited Dave the shearer this afternoon sheepishly bearing his cheque and a box of fruit and vegetables. All was forgiven after a few strong brews!” [emphasis mine]
First of all, this is is a good story. But here’s the most interesting and important bit for me: Ernest knows what story ethical wool marketers and media want to capture, and it isn’t what actually happens on the farm. The real story, and what I think is actually the better story, is full of humourous mishaps. Nature, as NZ’s brand suggests, may be 100% Pure but it’s not 100% cooperative. Sometimes it rains when farmers want to be shearing, and that reality makes for all sorts of inconvenience. But if we tell the story of that “failure” instead of waiting for a “perfect day” then we learn something about people as well. First, we learn that nature and animals are always already apprehended by, and through, people. We learn something about social interaction, like relations between farmers, business owners and mass media. We also learn about relationships between people and animals, and between men and women. We even get glimpses of shearing as seasonal and migrant labour, as well as competition and reciprocity between farms. These are the stories of wool production worth capturing and sharing. They can deeply affect or move people, and the foibles remind us that we are part of the story. I’m not convinced these stories do the same because I’d argue that people actually want “soap opera drama” more than “wildlife episode” or sterile quality assurances.