Monday, 31 October 2016

A cure for Imposter Syndrome

Most of you will probably be aware of Imposter Syndrome, even if you've never heard it called that. It's one of my specialist areas. It's that sense I have that I'm winging it, just about managing to maintain a facade of competence and knowledge, a gossamer thin veil being all that stands between my devastating ignorance and discovery. The conviction that everyone else knows what they're doing and all it would take is one wrong step, one mis-placed word, one stupid question to reveal that I am completely out of my depth, unqualified for the job I do, undeserving of my position.

I spend my life working with very, very intelligent people, the kind of people who say things like "well, as I recall, the thermal energy of an atom is about a fortieth of an eV, so we can approximate the mean free path as..." over lunch. The kind of people who assume that everyone works out the orbit of the moon from first principles. In their heads.

I don't spend my whole time tip-toeing around, waiting for the penny to drop amongst my colleagues, and for them to finally realise that the emperor has no clothes and that I am in truth just a rather bewildered muppet. But the thought is always lurking there, just under the surface, waiting to pounce. Always ready to whisper in my ear, "you're not good enough you know, and any minute now, everyone's going to see through you for the fraud that you are."

Just recently though, I've begun to feel a little less like an idiot. A little less as though my incompetence is hiding behind a thin veneer of technical jargon, flung around like confetti. 'What could possibly be the source of such a huge step forward?' I hear you cry. 'Has PhysicsBear experienced a profound metaphysical shift in self perception, suddenly allowing her to see her own abilities in a realistic light?' you might clamour. Not exactly. What's actually happened is that I've been attempting to train two new employees to undertake a few of the testing jobs that have traditionally fallen to me.

Back in the mists of time, my boss trained me to do these tasks. My boss possesses a terrifying intellect, and has a bewildering mix of enormous arrogance, and total lack of self-awareness that allows him to "know" that he's always right, while simultaneously assuming that he's no brighter than anyone else. His approach to training me rather reflected that view. He had me sit with him while he undertook the task in question, and thereafter I was in charge of all subsequent tests. If I had a problem, I could consult him, but received rather short shrift if the solution was something that I "should" have spotted. It was a bit of an extreme approach, but I swam instead of sinking, so I suppose one could say it worked.

Recently the task of passing on the wisdom earned through my years of experience fell to me. And being a little more generous than my boss, I spent a considerable amount of time explaining what to do, how to do it, why we were doing it and what could go wrong. I provided a powerpoint presentation on the subject. I handed over examples of test documentation guidelines that I'd written in the past. I ensured my trainees were equipped with lab books and pens, and I recommended they take notes of what we were doing.

And so we tested our first piece of equipment, together.

A month rolled past and another, identical, piece of equipment required testing. I handed the job over to my newly-trained engineers. And was greeted with blank looks. I suggested they refer back to their lab books. I was informed "I didn't write any notes. I thought I'd remember." I was somewhat vexed. I went through the tests again, though Firm Words Were Had on the importance of note-taking.

It was not long before another two, identical, pieces of equipment needed testing. Again, I encountered blank looks, a complete, overwhelming absence of understanding of what we were trying to do and why, randomly incorrect attempts at undertaking the tests and (finally) a failure to complete the test sheets, despite assuring me they'd been completed.

And I am simply left thinking... I was never this useless. I didn't require telling half a dozen times. I didn't expect to be spoon-fed every step of the way. I was capable of listening, absorbing information and learning from it, quickly. I am finally, completely and utterly convinced that I was never this useless.

So there you go. If you want to feel an enhanced sense of self-worth - employ people more useless than yourself. But be prepared to accept a significant rise in blood pressure as a consequence.


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Confrontation avoidance

Occasionally I have quite strong opinions.

Sometimes I have a tendency to froth and rant about my opinions.

Every now and then I become positively vehement in my opinions.

Unfortunately, I have a woeful inability to cope with other people having different opinions to my own. I can (more or less) cope when people on the internet disagree with me, though at least once a day BigBear is forced to say "don't read the comments...." to me, as he spots me perusing The Guardian website. And sometimes he has to wheel out the big guns.

What I really struggle with is having very strong opinions on something, and then discovering that a friend or relation has the outrageous temerity to hold a different opinion. You might think that this gets me riled up, and ready to start proselytizing, hovering and waiting to pounce with my killer arguments and persuasive rhetoric. You might think that me and my opinions are desperate to convert others to the rightness of our ways. You would think wrong.

Just recently I have discovered that a friend holds a diametrically opposing view on a socio-political matter. And instead of being happy to discuss the subject, or stand up for my own viewpoint, what has actually happened is that I have become fearful and anxious. I have lain awake at night worrying that she will no longer want to be friends with me, or that I will start an argument that irrevocably damages our friendship, or that my firmly-held opinion is in fact indefensible and not only this friend, but scores of others, will start backing gingerly away from the crazy-lady in the corner. I feel slightly sick and definitely panicky at the thought of the next occasion when we see each other - will the subject come up? Will she mock my views? Will she ignore me? Will she treat me with disdain? Are other people talking about the crass stupidity and ignorance of my outlook behind my back? Am I going to become a social outcast?

Do I think these things because this is how I treat any friend with a different opinion?


Do I think these things because this is how friends with different opinions have ever treated me?


Do I think these things because I'm an insecure mess who's capable of holding a strong opinion right up until the moment someone questions it, and then I want to run away and hide just in case everyone hates me after all?


This is what it's like to be me.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Not bad for an old woman

Yesterday I completed the Cambridge Town&Gown 10k. And I managed to break my own personal best, putting in a time of 56:35, which I'm still very pleased with. I also finished 64th in my age category, out of 178, which is surprisingly respectable.

I set out more or less convinced that I wouldn't manage to do so, having woken sniffling and sneezing, with an upset stomach, and gazing out of the window at the lashing rain. It may be that the two paracetamol and the phenylephrine I took before the start helped to overcome the pain that usually kicks in. So now I'm running on performance enhancing drugs...

I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account of this run, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I've done that once, and I wouldn't want to bore everyone. Secondly I didn't really notice where I was or what I was doing, so it would be hard to describe it all to you. I'm pretty sure my oblivious state was not down to the performance enhancing drugs. I think it was two-fold. Firstly, I'm sufficiently familiar with the streets of Cambridge that I ran round without really looking at anything. Secondly, there were over 1300 people running, so until at least the 7km mark I spent most of my time trying to steer my way round and between people - trying not to run too close to a pair of heels in front, trying not to be drawn into running faster or slower than I wanted, trying not to get jostled by over-takers. After 7km, the crowd had thinned enough that all I was really concerned with was finishing.

I do have a few observations though...

  • Perhaps it was the rain, or perhaps it was a symptom of everything that Northerners claim about Southerners, but running round Rochdale was a lot more friendly than running round Cambridge. There were people out in the streets, cheering us on, children high-fiving us, friendly banter amongst the runners, marshals and spectators in Rochdale. In Cambridge there were wildly disinterested students, utterly perplexed tourists and a wide variety of normal people completely ignoring us. At least nobody tried to run us over in Cambridge, though there was a luxury coach helpfully parked in the middle of the route up Kings' Parade.
  • Water bottles may be irritating to carry once you've realised you didn't want one after all, but they're a lot easier to grab, hold, and drink from than a poxy little plastic cup, which mostly leads to water all over your hands, face and the floor. Given it was raining, this didn't make much difference.
  • Maybe it's a north-south thing again, or maybe it's a small-race vs big-race thing, but the Cambridge 10k had a lot more aggressively competitive, pushy runners in it. Given that the overall winner has run for Team GB, perhaps that's not a huge surprise.
And now on to my major topic. The goody bag. That's right. At the end of a race, you get a goody bag. Though this was only my second race, I've seen enough of BigBear's goody bags to know the form. There's a bag (!) containing a finisher's medal, a t-shirt, a bottle of water, a snack of some description and occasionally the odd other thing.

And thus it was:

A bag

A t-shirt

A medal

A random snack

No, I didn't take a picture of a bottle of water. You know what one looks like, don't you?

I'm eating these now. They're quite good.

I confess there was also a different cereal bar, with yoghurt and cranberries and other tasty stuff, but I ate it while waiting for BigBear and LittleBear to collect me, and I haven't treasured the wrapper just to photograph. It was definitely tasty though.

So there we are. A reasonable selection, and rather more snacks than BigBear usually gets. Except that wasn't all. Next out of the bag was the mystery item:

Why should I love my age?

What's this all about? Did I get a special bag only for forty-something year old women looking rather as though they don't love their age? It looked as though there was just one heap of bags, but I was a bit tired and bewildered after crossing the finishing line.

10km runners are the target market for Lancome?

This is getting more surprising. I really must have stumbled upon the table of bags for tired-looking women of a certain age mustn't I?

Youth Activating Concentrate?

Oh dear. It's not just gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. It's anti-scientific, over-priced gunk for women who've been told they have to look younger. Seriously, did they give this to everyone, or were they singling out the particularly haggard women? Fewer than half the runners were female, and even fewer than that were in the demographic who are accustomed to being told they need to stop looking their age and start trying to look twenty (or more) years younger.

How did an event that is all about using your body, celebrating your fitness and strength, and pushing your physical limits end up effectively taking sponsorship from a company who peddles the exact opposite? Who tries to convince women that being healthy, fit and strong is not enough, that what you need to do is look young. Never mind that twee "love your age" tag, what they really mean is "we think aging is an abomination that needs treating with expensive products". Sod that, I'm eating the crisps instead.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings

So here we are, back at swimming again. It's been a while since I've written about the stresses of swimming or eating, so it was about time wasn't it?

LittleBear is still having swimming lessons, and still loving it. He's turned into a proper little fish, and has even coped with multiple changes of teacher without batting an eyelid. Which is great. It does also mean his current teacher is completely oblivious to all our early trauma. Which is probably great.

Today, towards the end of the lesson, the new teacher decided to get the children doing a straddle jump into the pool, to keep their heads above water. They'd already swum across the pool underwater and dived to the bottom to collect a weight, so this was not exactly at the daunting end of what they'd been doing. But it was new. And LittleBear is not fond of new. As the first child attempted this new undertaking, LittleBear stood shaking his head slightly, hands clutched together, muttering, "I don't think I can do that...". As the second child jumped, LittleBear took a step backwards, away from the edge of the pool.

And then it was LittleBear's turn.

And not knowing any different, the teacher called him forward, told him what to do and simply expected him to do it. And he did. Not only did he do it, he did it beautifully, arms outstretched, legs astraddle, head remaining completely above water. He was delighted with himself.

Then it was time to climb out and get warm and dry again. LittleBear trotted over to me and said, "I feel... so.... so... so... excited with myself for doing something I've never done, I almost feel like crying!"

Which is possibly the most adorable, emotionally-literate, tear-wellingly gorgeous thing my precious boy has ever said. I'm not sure if I'm more proud of him for doing something he'd never done before, or for being so able to express his feelings on the subject.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The perils of bad design

There's a really important element to good design. It's one that might seem obvious when I point it out, and yet seems to escape a surprising number of designers. That important element is understanding how your design will be used. That's right, for a design to work well, it needs to work well when it's used. Pretty simple huh? And yet so many everyday objects fall foul of this.

A couple of days ago, LittleBear and I opened up a pack of cards. We'd already been playing Gin Rummy and Patience with a real deck of cards, but LittleBear found a children's pack we'd acquired somewhere along the line, and wanted to play with those. They had jolly pictures for the court cards after all.

Inoffensive enough at first sight...

It was only when we opened them and I had a proper look that I was filled with utter rage. Rage at the idiocy that would allow these cards to be designed, produced and sold. I've turned into Mean Mummy and informed LittleBear that we are Not Allowed To Play With Them. I can tell you're thinking they must be pretty outrageous aren't you? You're wondering if they have something strangely pornographic or perhaps racist on them? Nope. They are simply not fit for purpose. They have been "designed" by someone who has seen a deck of cards, but has never actually played a single card game in their life. Let me show you...

All the cards. Can you spot a problem yet?
I'm expecting BrotherBear and GrannyBear, as fellow card-players, to have a reasonable shot at spotting the issue here. For those of you who didn't have quite such a mis-spent youth* as I did, I'll show you what happened when I dealt a hand of bridge and fanned it out in my hand.

What cards do I even have?
It might now be becoming clear what the problem is. For a start, all the numbers are written in black. Not black for spades and clubs and red for diamonds and hearts. No. Black for everything. But worse that that, is that there are no suit-indicators below the numbers, except on court cards. So with 13 cards, I can only say with certainty that I have the five of clubs, queen of spades and king of hearts. The others? Could be anything. This is what I had to do to be able to see my cards:

My hands are not big enough for this game
A particularly egregious offender is the Ace, where you need to expose the centre of the card to find out what suit it is. Seriously, who would do this to the Ace of Hearts?

Black writing and no suit-mark in the corner
And, for the record, here's what that same hand of cards would have looked like with a proper deck of cards:

Clear, succinct, unambiguous, compact

That is good design. That is design that understands how a hand of cards is held, how they are used, what the important features are. The children's pack? It's a travesty, bearing a vague resemblance to a deck of cards. It can't actually be used properly. And there's no excuse for it. The manufacturing costs of printing a bad design are no greater than printing a good design. This isn't a case of costs being cut at the expense of functionality. This is simply a case of bad design. And I won't have it in my house. Sorry LittleBear.

* According to letters written by my mother, the trouble with playing pontoon/vingt-et-un/blackjack with me aged 4 was that I had a tendency to win the bank and was then terribly slow at dealing the next hand. Aged 4. I almost feel I'm letting my family down in not having taught my son to gamble before the age of 5. Almost.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Art and science

My LittleBear is a very literal, very fact-based little boy. Stories are not his thing. "Fact books", ideally about dinosaurs, are where it's at. He flirts with other branches of science, but palaeontology is still his first love. And now he's started at school, and is having to adapt to the idea that, just perhaps, there may be other things to learn at school than just palaeontology. The good news is that he's absolutely loving it, and bounces home every day full of enthusiasm. And tucked into his bag every day are various pieces of "art" or writing that he has undertaken. And I'm continually tickled by his choice of subject matter.

Naturally, the overwhelming majority of pictures are dinosaurs. And of those, the overwhelming majority are pictures of Spinosaurus. For those who haven't been undertaking a rigorous indoctrination in late-Cretaceous carnivores, Spinosaurus is the largest carnivorous dinosaur ever to have existed*, and therefore holds top spot in LittleBear's heart. A typical depiction of a Spinosaurus has splendidly exaggerated teeth:

Spinosaurus with butterfly

LittleBear doesn't always draw dinosaurs, in fact one of the early pictures to come home seemed  somewhat underwhelming on first inspection...

Practicing circles?
... until, that is, LittleBear explained it to me. At which point I thought it was considerably more awesome than the Spinosaurus picture (which, being a doting mother, I already thought was pretty awesome). Starting from the left...

"That's the sun Mummy, and then Mercury is the little one, then Earth and Venus are the same size, then Mars and then Jupiter, which is the biggest, and Saturn has rings. Is it Uranus or Neptune next? It's Uranus and then Neptune. And then I've put Pluto there, because I think Pluto is still a planet, and they're wrong that it's not. And that's just the nose of the tenth planet there, that we don't know about properly yet."

And then, after a short pause, LittleBear exclaimed in some distress "Oh no! I missed out the asteroid belt!"

The solar system!

For those of you who are temporarily (or permanently) thinking that

(a) my son is some kind of freak or
(b) I am some kind of freak and
(c) I beat random science into him from an early age or
(d) I'm making all this up

He isn't; I might be; I didn't; and I'm not.

On the other hand, if you want to know how or why LittleBear knows this stuff, I do commend to you a CD of music by They Might Be Giants called "Here Comes Science". Not only are there lots of brilliant, child-friendly, relatively accurate songs about science, but they also come with a DVD with fantastic, funny animations. And by listening to and watching these so many times the whole family knows considerably more about such subjects as the composition of the sun, the order of the planets, evolution, states of matter and the circulation system of the human body than might be considered strictly normal or necessary.

And it is courtesy of this particular DVD that LittleBear took it upon himself to execute this next piece of art:

Yes, that's right, he made a sterling attempt at recreating an image of the double helix of DNA.

I think I'm looking forward to his first parents' evening in two weeks time. Though a little part of me is already cringing inside wondering what exactly the lovely Miss H thinks of him, and by extension his parents.

* According to some scientists, and only when considering total length. There's no arguing with LittleBear on the subject however.

Footnote: If you really want to explore the intersection of art and science, you should check out some of the stuff my friend Siân is doing.