Niall’s virtual diary archives – Wednesday 5th May 2010

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Wednesday 5th May 2010: 5.00pm. Rather like in the last entry, the last three months feel more like six! Which I suppose is probably a good thing in a way, but I do feel quite tired-in-a-way-sleep-can't-cure sort of way. Right now I am on a three day break from working on the extended Applied Research Associates contract in order to catch up on all the many, many things that need doing (writing this entry being one of them), and I must admit to looking forward to contract completion at the end of May. With me being as busy this past three months as I have been, I haven't progressed much with the website shop and the content filtering boxes are still lying in stock untouched. At this rate of progress I may just have to sell them on eBay at a loss seeing as I start my next Masters in Autumn (but more on that shortly).

<rant mode on>

I will also say now that I am appalled at how it is still impossible in 2010 to contour flow text on a webpage around two side by side images on the same page. Even by using the old "CSS position absolute and use invisible divs to block out the space" trick! It works with one image, but not more than one where it will cause the second image to go too high and get overwritten by text because the browser calculates absolute default coordinates for absolute things before adjusting them for floats. In other words, the top image's divs consume space which pushes the text lower than it ought to be, and it doesn't shove the second absolutely positioned image down along with everything else because the second set of floats interfere with the first set thanks to the block elements in between. And you can't just add an offset because the amount of shove required varies according to screen width, so you'd need some javascript to calculate it for you. Gee, isn't that just great!

So I fell back how you'd do it in the 1990s by manually splitting the images into horizontal sections and then floating them to the side. Slicing images sucks, but at least we don't get text being overwritten. Even then the stupid CSS box model shows itself, because the source HTML specifies that they ought to be side by side. Are they side by side on YOUR web browser right now? No! CSS can only float things of equal height to both left and right at once, so above you can see it drops the left hand image so it's just above the bottom of the right hand image, so where the HTML says side by side you're getting the left one next to this paragraph instead. It's a shame really - with HTML5's new canvas element we finally can programmatically access arbitrary images from javascript within the browser, and then reflow the text on the fly - as indeed the jQSlickWrap jQuery plugin does. But javascript is just as hamstrung as anything else by the broken CSS box model and to avoid the same problem above it would still have to manually offset it whenever the page was resized.

Why they don't just add the CSS "float contour" property already is beyond me as it's been a proposal since 1996, then this VERY common problem of wrapping text around non-rectangular images would be finally fixed. But hey there's standards for you .

</rant mode off>

So, that was much of my month of February. Around the start of March I got a phone call from social welfare who informed me that I had reached the end of yet another processing queue, and that very shortly I would be processed and finally I'd get my dole including nine months of backpay. Could I supply him with a letter from UCC indicating when my studies finished? Sure I said. He then asked if I'd had any work in the past nine months. I said a few hours here or there, not much. He asked me to send him a list of what hours and when, so I did.

Well seeing as it is now May and coming up to the one year anniversary of when I applied for the dole, I guess me being honest was a bad move because obviously I have got myself stuck into yet another processing queue and who knows when I now might exit that. It's actually become a non sequitur now because you no longer make any assumptions as to when you might get it, so I have stopped borrowing money off anyone other than Megan for the simple reason that I no longer have a clue as to when I will be able to repay. I even managed to repay my sister her amount actually, though God knows how I'm going to raise the tuition fees for the Masters in Research I intend to start in September.

Ah yes, the MRes! I spent a large chunk of March and April preparing various formulations of this online funding inquiry for the John Templeton Foundation and other grant making bodies in which I (or rather my proposed supervisor) requests approx. €50k to fund the research part of my intended PhD which is entitled A study of the strategic and policy implications of modelling organisations using the Maximum Entropy Production Principle (MEPP). The hope is to reach the second stage of funding application which we'll find out at the end of this month - the IFQ stage has a 90% rejection rate on its own, so if we get to second stage we have a 50/50 chance thereafter of moving forward. The research component is scheduled to start from Sept 2011, and yes it would be in Helsinki in Finland as there is an expert in the topic there called Arto Annila who has gone far beyond the pale in helping me out so far.

So what happens between now and then? Well, I got me some research methods to get yet another bit of paper in, and it's currently looking like the Masters in Social Research Methods with the University of London External system which is the original distance degree programme having started all the way back in 1858 under Royal Charter. Their system is quite unlike the Open University's in that they hand you a reading list and then you turn up for the exams in May in which you sit exactly the same exams as their normal full time students, and the entire lot are marked together so there is no chance of being treated more favourably. Unlike the OU which very much spoon feeds you, with the London External system you're on your own. Their failure rate, needless to say, is rather high but the lack of spoon feeding appeals greatly to me.

So the theory goes as follows: if I get the PhD funding, then I complete the training examinations of the MRes but stop short of the thesis, thus earning me a Postgrad Diploma and then I finish next summer and am ready to go to Helsinki. If I don't get the PhD funding, then I carry on with the MRes thesis and I get me my third Masters degree which, as the MRes is ESRC recognised, will allow me to jump straight into the OU's PhD programme without having to take their research methods training which sucks down three years on its own. Either way, Niall gets his PhD by 2013 whereupon he will be the sombre age of thirty-five! And, weirdly enough, I'd actually be one year younger than if I'd got that paid PhD studentship at UCC last Christmas!

So, so far so good for my primary resolution of 2010! All that PhD stuff took me up to the middle of April as the submission deadline was the 16th. This schedule was not helped by needing to visit the North with my sister as we annually do at Easter whereupon we discovered that Grandpa's house needs quite a bit of maintenance doing which is hardly surprising considering, so I'll need to zip up there for a few days this summer. Furthermore, ARA came back with a further contract at the start of April which at the time, to be honest, surprised me because I thought they were going to let it slide. Given my other time pressures at that time, I had no choice but to politely ask that they wait until the end of April, so after the 16th I took a day or two to do things like mow the lawn and other necessities, and then I launched into a fairly gruelling seven day week to try and get a first alpha to them by the end of April - which I succeeded in doing. Weirdly, when I submitted my invoice to them last Monday I realised that I had only worked a cumulative total of just seventy hours (i.e. 8.75 days) over fourteen days, which at the time felt impossible as I was utterly exhausted.

I guess that's because in a normal job in the Anglo-Saxon world most workers only work half the time unless there is something like a conveyor belt forcing their pace. This is why in France they have such high marginal work productivity, because if you only spend thirty hours at work then you still work more or less the same as you do in the Anglo-Saxon sixty hour week. The difference of course is that in France you pay them much less as they spend much less time at work, so you get fuller employment and a population who isn't too knackered to kick up fusses and get upset about stuff which is both a good and bad thing. Much of Management theory is all about finding supposedly new ways of getting people to sustainably work even 1-2% harder, and whoever finds even a statistically significant sustained productivity improvement will become the next management guru earning millions in consulting and speaking fees.

In my mind, in the knowledge industry at least, there are very, very few workers who can indefinitely sustain more than four hours of actual work a day each and every day. I have noticed a huge amount of people faffing around, or browsing the internet, or simply walking around the office in a slow moving but giant loop talking to anyone who will listen, or doing anything to look like they are being productive when they're not. Even in high end finance, a lot of what is presented as work - a very good example is client meetings where you're all dressed up in fancy suits - is in fact faffing around and yet another way of marking down time. I bet that if you added up the time which actually contributes to the bottom line, you'd find a fairly universal ceiling of an average of four hours per day in any knowledge industry.

I have noted that I am hardly alone in making this observation. It appears to be particularly noted in computer programming, and it is also well known that the number of hours you can sustain drops as you age up to the point where there isn't much point being a computer programmer anymore. Still, the management ethos of the Western world has no formalised conceptualisation of any of this yet, and it still treats knowledge workers as some kind of atypical factory worker which must be specially mollycoddled, but otherwise driven to schedule and treated as a readily substitutable unit just the same. My PhD research topic is intended to begin the development of "an Econophysics of Organisation", so perhaps using such modelling tools as MEPP we might enable managers to some day be a bit more sophisticated in their approach to knowledge based organisations?

Well we can but hope I suppose. Anyway, I have a raft of academic papers to wade through next, so I shall be off. I hope that this entry finds you all well and happy! Be happy!

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