How to research your own PhD — inspired by Scott Young’s ‘Ultralearning’ — Part I

Introduction

I came across Scott Young on the Learning to Learn course taught by McMaster University & University of California San Diego. This was a course designed to provide strategies and the latest research on learning techniques. Young was featured for his work at completing an MIT degree without going to MIT, and in 12 months rather than four years.

He now makes a career out of his entrepreneurship and his latest book is called Ultralearning.  It’s a fascinating read, exploring how people learnt a lot, effectively, and, at times, quickly. He provides case studies and strategies on how to do the learning as well.

Ultralearning: A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self-directed and intense.

I find it inspiring.

Techniques, strategies and perseverance are some of the most important components to learning and excelling. Often, however, these are expected to be somehow ‘internally’ discovered and for people to be born smart. Fixed intelligence is one of the most harmful myths out there. Luckily, more work on neuroplasticity and the growth mindset has shown that people can learn and excel once they know how.

Young shows us ‘how’.

I’ve always wanted to spend my life studying but education is unaffordable in the UK for me in my circumstances. I want to learn from home, at my pace, around my child care, full-time work, and social obligations — and in English.

The main part of this process is learning. I want to learn more about a subject and in great depth. However, the learning part is about methodology. From what I understand, from my years as a social researcher and a one-time PhD student, the process of gaining a PhD is really about learning how to research.

It’s about discovering the following:

  • How to review the literature,
  • Find the best research [most appropriate] methods, and
  • Investigate a topic in a robust way, and
  • Demonstrate that you have contributed to knowledge in your field.

Which topic

The first part of the equation, at which I have failed so far, is to find a topic.
Some I have recently been researching and have found interesting are as follows:

  • Scrutiny in local politics
  • Austerity and the way it has allowed CICs and religious groups to gain control of public services
  • Local literature and how it represents its region
  • Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches

My favourite so far is the latter one: ‘Propaganda and local media; coverage and scrutiny of the local council in relation to the mayor’s dealings with the churches’. It also seems to include some of the other topics as well so that’s even more interesting to me.

The Bristol mayor’s involvement with the churches is a subject I have already written about and which has been ignored by the local press. It is almost certainly newsworthy if public money or officials are involved.

Which field

The second question is within which field would this research lie?

Some of the ones I could see fitting in are as follows:

  • Propaganda studies,
  • Local politics,
  • Ethnography,
  • Human geography,
  • Politics –social capital and rational choice theory– and
  • Communications

One suggestion given to me on how to discover further research and where it sits in which departments, was to search Google Scholar. It’s a simple idea but an effective one. Considering that my topic is –temporarily– the affect of the local media on scrutinising local politics especially to do with religious involvement, I searched for “local politics uk media”.

One of the results is “Who Cares about Local Politics? Media Influences on Local Political Involvement, Issue Awareness, and Attitude Strength”. The authors are from the Communications department at Cornell University. The article is about US politics but I’m just looking at which department and research field is appropriate, so the geographical specifics don’t really matter at the moment.

One tip I picked up from Helen Kara, professional researcher, in her book about how to do a PhD was to assess the abstract, introduction and conclusion in order to discover whether the article would be a useful one.

This seems a useful strategy to me for now so I will stick with it.

Literature Review

Another tip was how to work on a literature review. The first time around at PhD research, I saved all my references in an Excel spreadsheet. I also used Zotero for addition of references straight into my Word documents.

I am familiar with Zotero but I last used it over a decade ago so was a bit dubious about whether better facilities were available. Kara mentioned it in her book recently so that seemed to be recent enough to at least make me give it a go. I downloaded and installed it.

I have added the article about local media from Cornell in and was reminded quite quickly of how simple Zotero is to use.

When or if I start with the Excel spreadsheet, I can use it through Google Docs and add a link.

Assessment Criteria

When Young did his MIT degree in a year project, he had criteria by which to assess his level of completion, and access to resources.

In relation to resources, I can probably get access to them at the University of Bristol or University of the West of England libraries. In relation to criteria, however, I will have to do some more reading about what will be required.

Some books to explore:

[End of Part I — TBC]

In the following parts, I intend to explore how to assess criteria for a PhD; Research proposal; Time limits or at least some plan on how to structure my time; …

New pattern: Brexit Socks for leavers and remainers

Whether they stay or go, this socks are sticking together

As March 29 2019—the original Brexit day—came and left with no resolution as to what would happen, I thought the best way to work out some of my limbo angst was by making a Brexit sock pattern. One sock has 27 stars and the second sock has 28, reflecting the UK’s desire to leave and remain.  The pattern is simple but it stands out in the soft colours of the yarn.

The yarn is a one-off vegan yarn that I dyed just to have something to play with. I can heartily recommend Scheepjes Catona 4ply yarn, however. And plenty others will do just fine.

This sock is knit from the cuff down, all-in-one. A simple star repeat as a zig zag made makes up the design. Each sock has a slightly different zig zag pattern. The first sock starts with five rows between each star and then gently decreases to three rows between each star. The second sock has the same beginning as the first one and then keeps going with five rows between each star past the heel turn. It then decreases to only one row between each star. The two zig zags mirror each other.

Use code Brexit at the following link for 50% off for the next three days https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/brexit-socks.

Or feel free to join my mailing list for a free choice of any one of my patterns. https://mailchi.mp/f24f9c775b6a/zanetto

Review: Toy Story 4 — spoilers

 

 

** Spoilers ahoy for both Toy Story 4 and Remains of the Day — Look away now **

The Toy Story 4 plot is a mixture of Remains of the Day and the Empty Nest Syndrome.

The story begins with a flashback to nine years previously when Woody has to choose between protecting and caring for his child, Andy, and love. At that time, Andy was young and still needed Woody who was the ‘favourite toy’, as the cowboy says in the movie.

However, time has passed and his new owner is more interested in playing with other toys. She prefers a cowgirl to a cowboy and Woody has to examine whether loyalty alone can sustain him as he is rejected and kept in the closet.

Woody used to be the leader of the toy household but now he can no longer claim that accolade.

Bonnie is set to begin kindergarten and on orientation day he sneaks into her bag — even though no toys are allowed — and helps her when she is all alone. He takes trash out of the bin to give her material to fulfil the creative task the tiny people are assigned. Bonnie creates Forkie, a combo spork and accessories who identifies more closely with being trash than being a toy.

We then see Woody in his parenting role as he has to spend sleepless nights babysitting Forkie and keeping him out of the bin. As the family and toys –including Forkie, the new ‘favourite’ toy — go on a roadtrip, Woody finds himself chasing down Forkie on a highways as the new trash/toy has leapt out.

Once he finds him, he helps Forkie see his new role in life as something warm, safe and secure for Bonnie. Woody can’t be that for her so he has to help her find it elsewhere.

In a second-hand store, full of antiques, Woody spots something that reminds him of Bo Peep, his true love; the woman he sacrificed for Andy. In that store he finds a doll who has been pining for the perfect life — the one she would have if only she was perfect and could finally gain the attention and love of the little girl whose grandma runs the store. To capture Harmony’s attention, Gabby needs a voice box since hers is defective. It’s something that Woody has.

More importantly though, the voice box is the link between the toy world and the human world. Gabby thinks if she can just communicate with the humans, they will love her and take her off the shelf. Woody realises by the end that his last connection to linking back to the human world — his voice box — is probably not going to help him.

Ultimately, toys gain their identity from belonging to someone; to children. That is their entire purpose. Or so it seems.

Woody doesn’t need his voice box to communicate with other toys. And the Lost Toys, the ones without children to watch over or care for, are proof that we can survive on our own. We can choose our paths.

Woody’s last decision will mirror his first one: does he choose his own happiness or his loyalty. In the first decision, he doesn’t really have a choice because he is nothing without a child. His identity as a toy (or as a parent) is tied up with his loyalty.

By the time he decides again, the loyalty is no longer beneficial to his identity. He won’t die without it — the Lost Toys have shown him that — and he isn’t of any use to his children anymore (one is at College and the other prefers the cowgirl Jessie).

Remains of the Day is heartbreaking because when the butler has to choose between his service or his personal life, he later realises that he was holding on to the wrong idea of loyalty.

Woody’s empowered choice shows us that there is life after parenthood; which is really the subtext of the book. We raise our children and then when we can do no more, we trust that the community we’ve given them, and the structures we’ve put in place will serve them well.

And then we pick up as individuals and carry on.

 

Knitting Politics: a method — TBC —

The picture of C.D.N.-N.D.G. Mayor Sue Montgomery, the borough mayor of Montreal knitting her way through a council meeting has now gone viral. She knits in red when men speak and in green when women speak. Her knitting is tapered and starts narrow but gets quite wide. I’ve read since her initial tweet that the ratio is around 80:20 men speaking, to women speaking.

As a knitter and a social researcher, this got me thinking. The first thing that occurred to me was that I had to try it myself. I am already a local politics enthusiast and so knitting my way through a Full Council meeting sounded like a brilliant use of my time.

I decided to even cast on by gender colour. Bristol City Council had/has a woman Lord Mayor and the casting on began with pink. I chose stereotypical colours to make the choices immediately visible.

Problems

Within a few rows, I encountered a methodological problem. Switching between colours after knitting for a while, meant that yarn was crossing the material all over the place; also, garter stitch meant that the previous row’s colour [once a change occurred] showed up on the next row.

This impacted the design of the project in three ways:

  1. The colours were not isolated so it was difficult to determine who spoke when, in small clusters of stitches. People would have to speak for a long time for it to be visible.
  2. The material is very ‘messy’ and making it into any kind of blanket or shawl would be almost impossible.
  3. Yarn would constantly have to be cut or moved around, and it was slowing down the knitting and wasting yarn.

I realised that knitting the colours together would not be a useful method. I suspect that the mayor was turning a row every time a new speaker began, or a different gendered/sex speaker began talking. However, this limits the use of using knitting to measure differences.

Method 1: Fail

I had also decided to make the knitting into squares so the narrow and wide parts of the shawl did not give misleading impressions on length of time spoken. This is one of the criticisms of pie charts — because of their narrow points and wide edges, it’s difficult to measure differences between categories. Bar graphs from the same axis are the best way to compare, in some situations.

Squares would also mean I could make a blanket at the end of say, a year’s worth of meetings.

An alternative I would like to also do is use different colours for different political parties, but one weakness to that method would be my lack of knowledge as to who is in which party. I recognise some politicians but not all. Would the Lord Mayor/chair have a different colour? Non-politician / city council people speaking, such as at public forum?

For now, gender [cis/trans] seems the easiest way to practice this.

 Method 2

I decided to try a new method. I would have two sets of needles (same size – 4.5mm) , two balls of yarn, and I would knit two separate squares. I would pick up either the male or female knitting set each time someone spoke.

One limitation to this might be that it could be cumbersome to have both sets at full council, in the chamber; or at home, next to wherever I was watching the council meeting.

One slip knot was tied on each needle to begin.

Each square would be 20 sts long and therefore the number of sts could be counted and measured at the end of the year.

This approach worked much better.

The red yarn was used whenever a woman was speaking; the yellow yarn was used whenever a man was speaking.

The evident, as in ‘visible’ conclusion is that women spoke more than men. Which seems perfectly acceptable.

However, another methodological problem appeared. The two yarns were slightly different in weight and texture. The red yarn has tighter rows with few gaps in between. If these two square-ish materials were to be measured in inches or centimetres, the result could be misleading.

Also, when the speakers finish in the middle of a row, I have so far knit to the end before turning and casting off. This is for practical purposes in order to make sure all the squares/rectangles can be joined at the end. I feel it

Method 2: almost successful

Method 3

Same size needles; same size and weight and type of yarn; CO as the speaker speaks, two separate knitting projects; Bind off; join.

Once all the squares for the year are knit up — and this can be done in retrospect too since the full council webcasts are available — I intend to conduct chi-square tests for how many stitches are expected according to the gender balance in the chamber, and whether reality signficantly differs from expectation.

Will we be able to reject the null hypothesis of: the length of time people speak in the chamber is unrelated to gender?

Method 3 seems to account for most issues with the research method. Note the difference in clarity between knitting both colours at the same time and separately [see image].

Both are approximately the same length of time.

Some further thoughts:

Should every speaker be counted to ascertain the numbers for the chi square test, or is it sufficient to note the ratio of attendees at the meeting? For example, there were a number of councillors at Full Council on 21 May but not all of them spoke.

Full Council: 19 March 2019 [3:54:57]

Full Council: 21 May 2019 [1:48:37 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr18SL88dxI&feature=youtu.be]

List of attendees.

Conclusion from meeting 21/05/19

Of those expected and present, there were 50 men and 45 women, which means there were 52.6% men in the chamber: Of speaking time, men spoke for 40.9% of the time.

Data: 50 men (52.6%); 45 women.

men 18×20 =360 sts (40.9%) ;women= 26×20 =520 sts;

The chi-square statistic is 46.25, which gives a statistically significant result. More women spoke than expected.

— TBC —

Secrecy, the Western Harbour, transport, and billions in development

The Local Plan is currently open to the public for consultation:

At the Central Library the previous week, a young man, looking all suited and polished and very approachable, stood in front of a Local Plan display board. I went over to take a look.

I told him I was interested in seeing the part about the Western Harbour, and he opened the plan up to the relevant section, and showed me the relevant page.

“So where will all the high-rise towers be built,” I asked him.

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He assured me there would be no high-rise towers at the Western Harbour, just a reclassification from industrial use to high-density urban. No planning applications exist for high-rise towers. The area had been used for warehouses and industrial purposes, and those were no longer needed so it was time change the usage.

When usage changes from say warehouses/industrial to residential, every few years, people who owned land that couldn’t be developed, suddenly get a windfall as their land multiplies in value.

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75% of the land at the Western Harbour is apparently owned by the council. Who owns the other 25%?

Much of what is happening has been shrouded in secrecy so we don’t know much.

Even the term Western Harbour was announced in secrecy last September when the mayor went on some visits:

The [leaked] brochure the mayor took with him overseas on his tour includes the first mention of the Western Harbour, currently known as Cumberland Basin. Bristol City Council claims [it] “is one of the most desirable development locations in the UK”.

The nice young man at the library told me that it would be too expensive to maintain the road system at the Cumberland Basin so it will be redesigned. He didn’t mention that with it gone, there would be potential for over 1000-3000 homes.

So roads & transport are a priority.

One of the first and perhaps only pieces so far to discuss the future of the Cumberland Basin was the following one on Bristol24/7: The Future of the Cumberland Basin.

“With 75 per cent of the land already owned by the city council, […] The residential elements alone hav[e] a gross development value estimated at more than £1 billion.”

The big issue is roads.

“Unless you solve the traffic issues, you don’t have a project,” said Kevin Slocombe, head of the mayor’s office who has also been working closely on the Western Harbour project. “And you would not develop that site with the existing infrastructure.”

“The transport options have to come first,” Slocombe added. “You cannot even imagine the scale of the development unless you get rid of those roads. That opens up the scale.”

Which may explain why the mayor’s head of office & Colin Molton also sit on the Bristol Transport Board. As covered by Kate Wilson in the Bristol Post:

“The two representatives [the council can nominate] are Colin Molton the interim executive director of growth and regeneration and head of the mayor’s office Kevin Slocombe.

“Mr Slocombe has no transport role as part of his brief but when asked why he was on the board as well as the mayor and what he would bring to the role, he refused to answer saying he didn’t see the “relevance” of the question.”

It seems that billions worth of investment and development rely on how transport and infrastructure is decided in Bristol. Despite the council now establishing its own housing company, the development is possibly geared to being done privately:

But the Western Harbour itself looks likely to be financed privately, with that Argos catalogue of a Bristol Investment Brochure giving investment opportunities that, in Rees’ words, “develop firm and long lasting investment partnerships with you that deliver for the people of Bristol”.

Further information about the progress of work on the Western Harbour has been gathered together at the following website: http://www.bristolnpn.net/current-topics/cumberland-basin-western-harbour/

“The stakeholder group is pressing for early community involvement in this development but so far, only a single meeting with members of the mayor’s office in June 2018 has been held.”

It’s beyond me why there’s so much secrecy. The brochure had to be leaked before the residents of Bristol knew what was for sale, and the councillor of Hotwells & Harbourside has little information.

Mark Wright told the growth and regeneration scrutiny commission:

“Why do we have to keep dragging every bit of information out of the council on this?

“It’s not usually quite so secretive about the reports. People are wondering what was in the brief.

“It wouldn’t normally be the case at the scrutiny committee a year after this started with us asking ‘where’s the brief, why can’t we see the brief?’

“In this case, all we keep hearing is the mayor has an amazing idea and then we have to keep dragging out the information.”

From the minutes:

It was confirmed that there were 10 options being drawn up and all of them would be available for the public to view.

Members asked what types of schemes were being drawn up. They were informed that the company were given a free reign.

A Member commented that they felt it was difficult to access information about this project and that in their opinion officers were being unusually guarded about it. It was agreed that the feasibility project brief would be provided to the Commission Members and would also be up-loaded onto (link: http://Mod.Gov) Mod.Gov for members of the public to see. ACTION: for the Western Harbour project brief to be sent to the Commission Members and uploaded to the meeting webpage.

See the following piece from Local Democracy Reporter Adam Postans about the goings on and complaints at the Growth and Regeneration Scrutiny Committee.

The following document is the project brief to Arup: Project Brief for Cumberland Basin feasibility study.

I have put in a freedom of information request to try to access a copy of the report that has long been promised to scrutiny and councillors but has yet to make an appearance.

The 20 Worst Polluted Places in Bristol

The 20 worst polluted places in Bristol 2017

 

The 20 worst polluted places in Bristol 2017

 

NO2 µg/m3
(2017 annual average)
 
% above legal limit

 

1 Parson St. A38 East 67 67%
2 Ashley Road St. Pauls 65 63%
3 Colston Avenue (The Centre) 63 58%
4 Anchor Road 62 54%
5 Newfoundland Way 61 53%
6 Bedminster Down Rd (Ashton Motors / Plough PH) 58 46%
7 Galleries 57 41%
8 Parson Street Bedminster Down Road 56 40%
9 York Road 56 40%
10 Top of Brislington Hill 54 35%
11 Three Lamps 53 32%
12 Stokes Croft 52 31%
13 Stapleton Road Heath Street (M32) 52 31%
14 Merchants Road Hotwells 52 30%
15 Bath Road (Arnos Vale) 52 29%
16 Parson St (Bristol Scuba) 51 28%
17 Whitehall Rd / Easton Rd 50 26%
18 Victoria Street 50 25%
19 Horsefair 49 23%
20 Gloucester Road (Bishopston Library) 49 23%

[Source: Hotwells and Clifton Wood Clean Air Group]

The cancelled Bristol arena is costing the city £12m

The cancelled Bristol arena that is not being built is costing the city £12m.

The 2019/20 Budget shows that money has been found from reserves to cover the costs. Ordinarily, the costs would have been funded from the capital stream of the budget; the part that deals with capital costs for things such as buildings and investments. The revenue stream deals with costs like libraries, and cuts, like those to libraries.

In the Resources Scrutiny Commission report we have the following comments. There is no mention of costs incurred due to the arena in this year’s budget:
8. Arena Funding

Members wanted to understand what the revenue impact of not going ahead with the arena at Arena Island was and to know what the interest savings were. Officers confirmed that £2.5
million per year is being saved.

 Members were keen to understand more about the differing land values for the site
depending on the eventual use but were told it would be valued at the time depending on
the scheme. Members were surprised that such calculations had not already been carried
out by officers utilising the various different possibilities for the land use.

 Members requested to receive further information in due course about the alternative
business cases that will be submitted to the LEP Board for the now unused £53 million.

In the Resources Scrutiny Committee Report, (p.14) however, there is the following chart that shows £12m of arena costs have reverted to the Revenue budget because they can no longer be treated as capital.

The Revenue budget is explained by the council as follows: ”

Before the start of each financial year, we need to set a budget for our day-to-day expenditure. This is called the Revenue Budget and is the amount of money we’ll need to provide our services during the year, taking into account grants we receive from the Government. Examples include staff salaries, building maintenance and the costs of running council vehicles.”

It is from this budget that the £12m was paid, the one that impacts staff salaries. The council drew money from reserves to meet this cost.

We know that from 2020 onwards, we are on our own and almost all our funding from central government will have gone – meaning the city’s services will be almost entirely dependent on council tax, business rates and income we can raise from other sources. By this time, responsibility for funding key services will have effectively shifted from central government to local tax payers.

We know, as the budget tells us, that by next year, there will be no central grant left and it will be local tax payers who will be funding key services. This is no time for spending Bristol’s money on projects that are not being built. It is also not the time to be losing £53m of funding that would have gone into the arena from the LEP.

All Budget reports can be found at the following page with all the reports and appendices.