Category Archives: PhD

Shock news: rocks are old!

The NYT reports that a stone wall, dating somewhere between the late 1600s and 1760s, has been found during excavations to create a new subway line. It’s thought to be a remaining part of the Colonial defence structures from that time, probably used to protect the settlement from sea-based attacks using cannons and known as the Battery (some records show that the walls were manned by Duracell bunnies, and rumours suggesting that those records are written in my hand are all lies).

This obviously poses a problem, because a 45 foot wall of archaeological interest right in the path of your very expensive subway is always going to slow things down. I can’t say for sure, but in the UK we would measure, photograph, and record it as much as possible, then put a hole through it where it needs to be; if we didn’t know about the wall for centuries then the data will be preserved and overall there will be a gain. This is the most sensible option and has been suggested, with a twist, by the people on the project: ‘One idea the authority floated was to remove a three-foot-long section of the wall to be preserved elsewhere, and then go ahead with the excavation.’

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting massive flashbacks to a Sheryl Crow lyric: ‘They pull up all the trees and put them in a tree museum’. Sometimes historical items only really make sense in context. How about moving Stonehenge to central London to make it more convenient for tourists to visit? It’s nice to know that the wall is there, but it loses all meaning when you move it somewhere else. Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, summarises the strangeness of this attitude:

“If these stones are able to be reused,” she said, “it would be wonderful to be able to actually touch this history.”

Yes, shock news indeed; stones have been around for a long time. How many generations would it take before the surface of the stones would be worn down by tourist hands, leaving nothing of the original workings? So instead, it would likely be in a cabinet, and then you have created a strange relic: ‘Come See The Original Stones!’ The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about the idea of simulation, suggesting that natural authenticity is being replaced by icons that represent authenticity. These icons simulate the properties of the original object or experience but repackage it out of context so that it loses its meaning. A wall only has meaning when it is in the place that it was built, because that is the defining feature of it, so by removing it from that location you get a distancing from the original purpose; it becomes a symbol of an old wall.

Perhaps I’m misjudging Warrie Price, maybe she means that it would be good if the stones could be put in as part of a new building, which is a different activity. Reusing them as a part of a wall, not as part of an exhibit as is suggested by the article, adds to their meaning rather than subtracting from it. They become a part of the continuous history of being, repurposed into an ongoing historical narrative. Yes, their value as a building material is equal to others, but the meaning of the stones is added to by their reuse rather than subtracted from by being placed out of context. In other words, a wall that is no longer a wall is just a pile of stones, and we already know that rocks are old.*

*unless everything was created 4000 years ago by a supernatural/alien being, of course.

Organising your ideas when writing

I had a meeting with my tutor yesterday to discuss the first draft of my conclusion chapter of my thesis, and he liked it! This is a big thing for me because it’s the first time that I have ever submitted a first-draft of a chapter and he’s come back saying it’s fine.

Writing a PhD thesis is about many things. You have to be saying something new about your material, but that was never the problem for me. I tend to come out with a torrent of ideas that put new spins on things, the issue is organising them into a form that other people can follow. Usually this process of organisation takes several drafts before it finally coheres into something that is well-structured. For me, writing a thesis is about learning how to structure your ideas.

This time, when writing my chapter I went back to an old method I used back when I was doing my degree. I wrote my ideas out in my usual fashion, moving between topics in a way that felt natural to me, until I had reached a little below my target word count for the chapter (ten thousand words in this case). I printed it out, sat down with a pencil, and read through the whole thing, numbering the paragraphs and writing a few-word summary of what each paragraph was about. I then turned this information into a list of topics.

By looking at the summary of each paragraph it became far easier to see what overall points and patterns I was making in my writing. I then reorganised the paragraph-summary list until it was neatly grouped by subject. I then cut-and-pasted the paragraphs into their new order using the numbers that I had previously written on the hard copy. All that was then left to do was to ensure that they followed together by adding linking sentences and occasionally editing references to previously earlier points that were then made later in the chapter. The result of this process is a long piece of writing that has been organised quite quickly and efficiently into sub-headings that build into a coherent whole.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a grip on all of your ideas, but any task can be achieved if you just break it down into smaller pieces.

Unspeak: something a little bit academic?

Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy (a very enjoyable book about computer games US link UK link), is working on a new book called ‘Unspeak’. The word is apparently a trademark, but with a bit of luck he won’t sue me…

Anyway, it’s all about ‘decoding the unspoken assumptions in public debate’. What this means is that he’s taking statements from public figures and interpreting them into plain English. This, a common satirical tool, has been done before but he does it very nicely on the fine line between humour and agression. Definitely worth a look if you like something a bit more thoughful on the web.

US link UK link

Here’s the official blurb about it:

Unspeak is language as a weapon. Every day, we are bombarded with those apparently simple words or phrases that actually conceal darker meanings. ‘Climate change’ is less threatening than ‘Global Warming’; we say ethnic cleansing when we mean mass murder. As we absorb and repeat Unspeak we are accepting the messages that politicians, businessmen and military agencies wish us to believe. Operation Iraqi Freedom did more than put a positive spin on the American war with Iraq; it gave the invasion such a likeable phrase that the American news networks quickly adopted it as their tagline for reporting on the war. By repackaging the language we use to describe international affairs or domestic politics, Unspeak tries to make controversial issues unspeakable and, therefore, unquestionable. In this astounding book, Steven Poole traces the globalizing wave of modern Unspeak from culture wars to the culture of war and reveals how everyday words are changing the way we think.

‘Sounds interesting. Although I don’t think ‘unspeak’ did turn up in Orwell’s 1984 it certainly wouldn’t have been out on place in there.

Circlefish – a new game

Circlefish Flash game

It’s simple to play, just use the arrow keys to guide your dot and collect the numbers in the right order. If you hit the wrong number you have to start again. It’s as easy as that… In theory!

As always, if you like it, please pass the link on to friends or forums you’re on.

Have fun!

It seems that there might have been some problems with a password protection system interfering with my shop but that should be fixed now, so if you tried buying something before please pop back and give it another go.

Additionally, if you dislike Paypal, I’m in the process of getting full credit card facilities set up so people don’t have to use Paypal anymore. That’s a few weeks away yet, but I thought I’d keep you posted.

While I’m here, don’t forget to start shopping trips to Amazon .com and from the search boxes on my site! Thank you!


Right, I’m off to work on the introduction to my thesis for a while. It’s the last chapter I’ve got left to write. It’s very exciting to at last be so close to finishing!

Ouch – Southampton University is burning down

Well… It was burning down. One of the science blocks was destroyed yesterday after a fire spread through the building.

Southampton University has a global reputation for its computer and science research, with a lot of the UK’s best work happening there. Currently the fire is not being treated as arson but some kind of accident.

I feel so sorry for the people who were studying there. Now I’m nearing the end of my PhD I’m backing it up all over the place to make sure that I stand the best chance of not losing anything, but I would hate to think what it must be like for the students there to have lost so much of their work… It’s not just work though, it’s a whole piece of your life. The important things are there: no-one was hurt, everyone is still healthy and in full working order, but a PhD becomes a huge part of your history. To put it into terms that are more easy for a non-academic to associate with, to lose five years of research would be like losing all photos and movies from that time.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning too that Southampton University is very closely affiliated with the University of Winchester, where I’m studying, and I’m pretty sure it will be them that award me my PhD when I’m done. This fire doesn’t effect my work at all, but the shared loss of other researchers is still a strong emotional event!

More from the BBC.

Woo hoo! Good news about my PhD

My final thesis is going to consist of five chapters: an introduction, a conclusion, and three chapters making up the meat of the thing. Today I had a meeting with my main tutor and he confirmed that the final one of those three chapters is ready! Yay! I was particularly pleased because it is by far the longest of the chapters, weighing in at a hefty nineteen thousand words compared to the other chapters of around thirteen thousand. To have that much text that is ready for submission all in one chunk is a great relief.

I’m really excited because this means that the heavy theorising is out of the way. The conclusion chapter is coming along well, and I’ll have the introduction to do after that, but the end is very definitely in sight!

Advertising treats us like we’re sixteen

I came across an interesting term today while writing part of my thesis: ‘Aspirational age’.

This is a marketing term that indicates advertising to one age group can have an impact on a wider range of ages. By targetting 16-17 year olds they get those that are younger and long for percieved maturity and older people who long for the time of youthful freedom and health (even if these are false ideals).

I find this especially interesting, because the whole idea of teenage years being any different from any other time is a relatively modern concept, only really coming about with rock’n’roll in the twentieth century. Is it a coincidence that advertising was really getting into the swing of things at around the same time? We invent a concept of freedom, tell people they have it until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, then tell everyone else that it was the best time of their life to market products to them.

It’s a Möbius strip of marketing logic, and I find the idea fascinating!

‘Aspirational age’ definition here.

The importance of applying consistent rules in a thesis: A Brit Professor defends Intelligent Design

The irony of this is that his basic premise has a flaw.

Last night I went to a discussion up at my university about the final presentation of PhD theses. I was told about the worst-case scenario of a thesis. This happened to a young mathematician. Imagine spending at least three years, often several more, working on a hypothesis, writing it up, and analysing its meaning. In maths everything is laid on a solid foundation of calculation and then you work upwards from there. At the end of your studies you present your thesis, its read by a committee (aside: I like the word ‘committee’, it has three double-letters in it :)) and then the committee gives you an interview, called a viva, about your study. This usually takes about an hour, although some places don’t restrict this and the viva can go on for up to six hours!

This mathematician had chosen his review committee, and things were looking good; however, the chairman fell ill and unfortunately had to be replaced at a late stage. The new chairman walked into the viva, pointed out a flaw in the maths on page five and the whole thesis was decreditted and it failed.


So, do you remember I mentioned a little while ago about there being a trial in America where a group of parents had taken a school to court because the school wanted to teach Intelligent Design theory as a legitimate rival to the theory of evolution? A British sociologist professor has testified in defence of ID claiming:

that because scientists have inferred the existence of a designer from observations of biological phenomena, it should count as scientific.


As much as this is a lovely idea, using the same logic as ‘it’s art because it was made by an artist’, it’s just not an accurate statement. This is the same as the mathematician’s mistake on page five: if their basic assumptions are not good science then anything built of them still is a victim to the initial difficulties in logic. Assuming that complexity can only be explained by supernatural phenomena/aliens is not a scientific proposition because it is fundamentally unverifiable. The argument ‘X did it, therefore it is a product with X’s attributes’ is acceptable for art where the product does not have to maintain conformity with rigidly logical rules and deductions, but that’s just not the same for scientists. A scientist could claim that the internal organs of a duck in flight transform into helium, but that wouldn’t make it good science; the proposition that some scientists like the idea of ID and therefore ID is scientific is a classic page five mistake.

Swedes are nosier than Brits & virtual identities


Another gem from The Register for you.

Almost two-thirds of Swedes secretly read their partner’s SMS messages

Almost half of British women, 45 per cent, owned up to secretly checking their partner’s messages, compared to 31 per cent of men

I’m not sure what any of this proves, other than I find pointless surveys interesting. I’ve never secretly checked anyone’s SMS log, and frankly the idea had never even occured to me. I figure trust breeds trust. It’s a strange world where people will go to bed with people that they don’t trust, where mobile phones are considered to be better representations of a person’s true self than the words they say to you. The world of digital identity is something that is appearing all through mainstream people’s lives with modern technology and no-one is noticing a thing. I’m really not sure if I like that or not… Somehow I feel that maybe we should have a more integrated identity, so we don’t need to be someone else online, in text messages, on the phone, in emails, on forums, etc.

Maybe we just need more honesty. Ann Kaloski wrote an essay in 1997 called Bisexuals Making Out with Cyborgs: Politics, Pleasure, Con/fusion in which she looked at the way that virtual identities mean that sex-play online may be, for example, allow heterosexual women to have sex with other women, but those other women may be a man pretending to be a woman. There were two things I found very interesting in the essay, firstly that people usually didn’t actually care what the physical sex of their partner was, only their virtual sex, and secondly that many people found that their online personalities gave them confidence to be more assertive in life. I don’t have time to get into the full details of the meaning of these findings, but they certainly gave me something interesting to ponder on.

What’s involved in doing a PhD?

I thought I might give you some background on what a cultural studies PhD course is like. There are two main things to know:

You pass or you fail all on one piece of work, a thesis that (at my university) can be a maximum of 70,000 words long

Your thesis has to be ‘an original contribution to your field of study’.

That might not sound so bad, after all, saying new stuff shouldn’t be too tricky once you’ve got to know your topic well… Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Firstly you need to choose a topic to write about. To begin with everyone always picks something big and exciting. This is because 70k words sounds like a lot and you want to make sure that you can fill the space. Your tutors, if they’re doing their job, will tell you to pick something smaller. And again… And again… Until you end up with a tiny fragment of your original idea. You will probably be immensely annoyed by this point because it will often have taken you at least a year. You then need to put this all into 500 words on something called ‘Form 1’.

Form 1 was actually created in Macedonia in the third century B.C. as a device of mental torture. It requires you to say in a tiny amount of words the equivalent of the way an acorn shows potential for becoming an oak tree. It will seem impossible, annoy you intensely, but finally you get it done.

In the UK system (I don’t know about the US one) you will begin on an MPhil/PhD course. If you are a full time student you will then have about three years to complete your course, if you are part-time you have up to six. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. I went for part-time and, due to the PhD taking up many hours each week could only work part-time too. I started website to keep my artwork ticking over, then started selling T-shirts on it to try and make some money to keep the site costs covered and hopefully buy me some food (the profit thing didn’t really work, but at least it kept the site online). So, if I hadn’t done the part-time course I wouldn’t have this site. Like I say, there are advantages in both approaches. If I’d done it full-time I’d have finished a couple of years ago and could now be getting on with… doing something else.

So you begin writing down your ideas and grouping them into chapters. I started out with a plan for seven chapters of 10k words each, then six of about 11k, now I’m on five of 12k each, and that’s going to be an extremely tight fit… Those tiny ideas that you never thought you’d be able to say much about just stretch out into the distance in a cultural studies thesis. You focus on creating your ‘original contribution to your field of study’ and then hit a snag.

You find out that while you are supposed to be ‘original’, you’re not really allowed to be ‘revolutionary’. Every idea you come up with needs to be carefully placed in the context of pre-existing debates. You’re welcome to mix in lots of sources, from pop-culture to ancient philosophy wherever it’s justified, but you must always be referencing ideas that have been worked through by many other people before you. Finding a way to do this and still be original is very much the core of a PhD.

Any idea in modern culture is like a fractal picture. You look at it from a distance and you see the main features of the image and think you understand it all, but the closer you get, the more that you realise that everything you knew before was just a larger structure with more complexity beneath and between it. Move closer and you see this again, and again… This isn’t really the way if you are doing a science PhD, where you really can go out and find something new, but in a cultural studies PhD you are often filling in the gaps where other people have missed things.

That’s the funny thing though: you might think that, with the history of literature and philosophy behind us, there wouldn’t be many gaps or a lot to say about them, but there really is, and the closer you look at those gaps, the more detail you find. Suddenly that idea that was only going to be a quick thought on the fourth page is still being discussed ten pages later and you’re considering whether it should have a chapter to itself…

Anyway, after a few years you get to present a portion of your work to an MPhil upgrade committee. They look at your work, interview you for about an hour to discuss your ideas and then decide whether to make you a full PhD student or not. In my case I gave a great interview but my chapter had too many ideas in it and the writing style was too dense, so they asked me to resubmit six months later… Yep, there goes half a year in the blink of any eye. Time really does fly.

I’m now approaching the end of the course. I think I’m coming up for the five year mark at the end of this year. Five years… That’s a long time to stay at one job. Can you imagine working on just one essay for five years? Thinking about one thing every single day for five years? People wonder why my animations are a little odd, and so I present you with item of evidence number one: doing a thesis drives you slightly mad. I don’t think that anyone who is truly in their right mind actually does a PhD. You have to be a little odd for it to sound like a good idea to start with, but by the time you’ve finished you are then the world-expert in your field of study. Seriously, I know a lot more about William Gibson’s books than is healthy for anyone, and I am probably one of the most knowledgeable people on his works in the world. That level of obsession is bound to make anyone a little cuckoo.

Once you’ve done a PhD you’re never the same again. That which does not kill us makes us stranger, and perhaps there are few legal things in the world that warp a mind like doing a PhD; however it is something I’m very proud of. I’ve worked very hard on it, and I will be delighted when I’ve finished, but that twisting of the mind to deconstruct the world into the tiniest details sticks with you even when you’re not looking at something related to your studies. You get so accustomed to looking in the cracks of ideas and theories that you cannot go back to accepting reality the way that you would have before.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, it’s very hard work, and drives you more or less insane, but if you can do it then it is also deeply satisfying. There is a high you get from finding a new concept that just can’t be fully described. I guess it’s a bit like finding a hidden key and unlocking a mysterious door, suddenly a whole new space is open before you and you know that few if any have seen these things before. It’s those moments that make a PhD course worthwhile.

The precedence of authorial comments

This week I managed to pick up The Matrix box-set (UK link) (US link) for a very good price indeed. I’ve not got the second and third films before, despite really enjoying them, partially because of the price, but also because of the lack of commentaries.

I really like director’s commentaries, they really convey a lot about how the creator views their work. John Carpenter tends to give terrible commentaries that are nonetheless quite entertaining, the Lord of the Rings commentaries are very good… Anyway, a good one will usually give you some insight into the ideas that a director was working with.

For the Matrix films the Wachowski brothers in the box-set didn’t do the commentaries themselves, instead they get two philosophers (who like the films) and three film critics (who don’t) to do two commentaries. Their reasoning for this was to give a balance of interpretation. They say that when they talk to people about what they think that the films mean that those people then accept that interpretation unquestioningly. Maybe that is the case for most people, but not for an academic.

Why should the creator have any more of a valid view of their art than a theorist? Certainly they know what they were intending to do, but art is an act that manifests itself through the expression of countless levels of the conscious and unconscious mind. It may be that the imagery that gives a painting, film, music, or game such cultural resonance is something that the artist only casually included as background detail or for the sake of style.

For example, next time you watch the Charlie’s Angels movie (UK link) (US link), look at the use of rubber, shiny outfits, and blood. Rubber and reflective black materials are associated through Freudian symbolism with the eroticised feminine, specifically excited reproductive organs. Blood carries similar symbolism, indicating menstruation. Now look at the film and watch the points at which the bad guys are defeated. Their outfits become dusty or they have only at that last moment begun to bleed. For a film that is supposedly about feminine empowerment it seems odd that it is at the point of indication for barren femininity or extreme feminisation that the characters become vulnerable, suggesting that the apparent feminist discourse is undermined by a wider patriarchal symbolic structure.

It’s highly unlikely that was intended and the director would most likely tell you that it’s not there, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a valid view. I would have loved to have heard what the Wachowski brothers thought they were doing so I could compare it with my own ideas of the cultural resonance of their imagery, but instead we get the interesting, but distanced, views of philosophers, and the babble of film-critics who demonstrate how jaded they have become with things that are just fun (it might sound like I’m saying they’re jaded just because I like the films, but try listening to them and see if you don’t think it too!).

What’s the difference between a cliché and a knowing observation of filmic principles? It’s all a matter of perspective really, so I just wish we could have heard what the brothers would have said, because at least that would have given us the opportunity to ignore them if we wished, rather than currently where we don’t have that choice.

‘Drafting done of chapter’ and ‘I’m still skint’

It’s a smidgen over 12k words, and I’m very pleased with it. In the end I decided when to stop by thinking ‘oo, that would make a good conclusion sentence’ then chopping off everything after it. This also leaves me with a rather tasty set of five pages of quotes left to put into my introduction chapter. Hurrah! I’ve now got a long weekend of editting to do, to try and get the grammar up to scratch… Which is pretty time consuming, but at least the draft is written.

In other news: I’m going to be remaining skint for a little while yet. There were high hopes for getting the Little Goth Girl merchandise picked up in the US, but it seems that due to all the problems with trading with China (where it’s made) no-one wants to commit to anything. Bah humbug.

I don’t think I have the time to do this until I finish my PhD, but I may well be reopening my onsite-shop and selling the merchandise myself. I get quite a few emails from people in the US, so there are definitely nice people over there who want these things, but getting it to them is proving rather challenging. If this does happen it most likely won’t be until the new year, so don’t go holding your breath if you’re among the people that this affects!

Too much information!

After all that time spent using the Mind Manager software I was very well prepared to finally begin writing my thrid chapter of my thesis this weekend, but now I’ve hit a problem: I’m actuallly doing a bit too well on the chapter at the moment!

I was planning on putting down about 400 words for each subtopic and stringing them all together, but I’ve only got the first three done and I’m nearly 3000 words… I’ve no idea how I’m going to fit it all in.

It’s funny. I always thought that the max limit of 70,000 words was going to be really hard to reach, but I’m finding that with the right kind of preparation it would probably be really easy to shoot way over that. I was going to write seven chapters of around 8,000 words each. Then it became six chapters of around 10,000 words each. Now I’m on five of around 12,000 each and I can’t cut down the numbers anymore!

I had about 24 subtopics to write about for this chapter. On the current state of things, I could easily write around half my thesis on this one chapter topic alone!


Still, it’s nice to be stuck with too much to say rather than too little!