Archive for the ‘procrastination’ Category

Administering a rebuke

December 14, 2013

In which Dr Aust has a small whinge.

As I’ve been struck by one of the annoying Winter viruses, and every bit of me is aching, I have been exempted today from fatherly duties taking Aust Jr to play football (soccer for any US readers). I shall take the opportunity to post a small grumble that I penned in a cathartic hour or so yesterday evening.  It relates to the ever-rising tide of online tick-boxing that laps around the feet of all professions these days. Would be interested to hear if any other readers (readers?) have similar stories.

One of the things that has added tremendously to the general irritations of working as a University academic this last decade has been the decision that vast amounts of administrative form-filling should now be done online.

This is routinely justified as ‘more efficient’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘more transparent’, though a cynic might say it mainly serves to shift the burden of record-keeping off administrators and onto academics. Not that that then leads to a decrease in the number of administrators required, you understand. You seemingly now need twice as many of them to nag all the academics, by repeated and increasingly insistent email, to fill in the latest ‘e-form’.

Anyway, being a miserable old ***!*, I tend to the view that it is not my job to fill in e-forms that I don’t know how to fill in, and would thus have to spend ten or twenty minutes, first of all finding – “It’s on the Intranet”, you are told –  and second, working out how to fill in.

It seems to me I should just be able to tell the administrator the information by email.

They want it on the form? They can fill it in.

The other point here is that the administration folk use said e-form system, which after all is THEIR system, designed by them, about fifty times a day – so they can do it in a trice. Getting me to do it – which is some cases I might have to do once a year or even less- is an utter waste of (a lot more) time. [Of course - have you spotted? - now it is my time, and not admin's. So they come out ahead. Funny, that.] This is because, even if I used the system before, there is no way I will remember how a year or more later. So I have to take the same amount of wasted time as I did LAST time re-learning it.

Comments on these lines end to be met by references to ‘the regulatory environment’  or responses to the effect that ‘the system and forms are self-explanatory’.

Right.

Coincidentally, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme the other day featuring a bloke whose job is to read, on a computer screen, the ill-formed and mostly illegible addresses on those envelopes that the Post Office’s character recognition software can’t decipher. He can do thousands of these an hour, according to the programme. This, it was made clear, is because it is what he does all day and he is consequently the Ninja-Style 96th Dan Grandmaster of said task.

I wonder if the Post Office have ever considered getting random other people in their organisation, like, say, the folk that maintains their computer network, or the van drivers, and telling them that it would be much more efficient if they did the character recognition job instead, but only for an hour once a year each?

Answers, as they say,  on a postcard.

Anyway: yesterday’s example of eAggro:

A few weeks back, I agreed to be Internal PhD Examiner for a PhD Thesis. We have arranged a date for the viva in January.

A few days ago I got an email from the student’s supervisor.

‘Can you put the viva details into eWatch [our online in-house version of the NSA for watching over the progress of graduate students]?  We’re getting flak from the admin people.’

I wrote back, not unreasonably, I thought, as follows:

‘Haven’t a clue how to use eWatch. Do admin have an actual, y’know, email address?’

Lo and behold, I next received an email from an Important University Person bearing their title ‘Institute Postgraduate Research Director’, or something like that.

“I have attached the Guidance Notes for Examiners. It has the links and detailed guidance on the exams process.

You should have received this with the request to act as Internal Examiner.”

I looked. On the 3rd page of the ‘Guidance Notes’, I finally found the right bit. It said I could log in to eWatch with my University username and password. Well, that seemed straightforward, at least. And there was a clickable URL. Brilliant.

I clicked. Hopefully, if somewhat warily.

The following screen appeared:

——————————————————————————————–

Access Denied

Return to previous page

You do not have permission to access this page.

Page security is managed through GWE role membership. If you think that you should be able to access the requested page then please use the contacts information for the relevant GWE service to request that they add you to the appropriate role.

———————————————————————————————-

I hardly need add that nowhere was the abbreviation GWE explained. If you can work out what it means, I dare say you are probably an administrator.

Anyway, I decided to ‘role’ with the punches and leave it until after the weekend. Or later. ‘Role’ on the Christmas break, say I.

(Y)ear-ily quiet

December 31, 2011

It’s been a considerable while since I posted here (even by my laggard-ly standards), so I thought I would use the end of the year – and a real kidney stone of a year it’s been, all in all – to reassure any remaining loyal readers* that I have not joined the choir invisible, but am merely lurking. Blame ‘blog fatigue’, among other things.

I don’t know how many of these who are still visiting are users of Twitter (anyone care to confess?). Anyway, given my seemingly ever-diminishing attention span, Twitter is probably the best place to follow my abbreviated (if inevitably rather repetitive) rantings. Should you be so inclined, of course.

Meanwhile, while wondering what I could possibly write about today, I found myself re-visiting my last year’s predictions for the year ahead. Or rather – what I thought I could predict with a fair degree of certainty would still be true on Dec 31st 2011.

When I did this, I was slightly surprised to find that almost all of them were broadly correct.

Indeed, some of them were depressingly accurate.

Perhaps most depressingly, I predicted that:

‘The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms”

Well, not a difficult prediction to make, of course. But I have to say I really am profoundly depressed by what is now being proposed – which seems far too likely to be a form of asset-stripping by the big private multinational Healthcare Cos that have been assiduously dripping their syrup into the ears of politicians of all parties, and their advisers, for the last decade and a half. I was reading this article earlier today, and it was – is – very scary.

Getting back to the 2010 year’s end predictions, the major exception to their correctness is the one about Jr Aust #1 losing interest in Harry Potter – though her interest did wane a bit though the Summer, when it was displaced by a taste for the adventure stories of Enid Blyton (sic). However…after we were all compelled to watch some near-interminable programme of Harry Potter movie highlights this afternoon, I think we can conclude that, though Jr Aust #1′s Potter-ism seems to be of the relapsing-remitting type, it is definitely chronic.

Talking of the sprogs, I continue to be given regular lessons in Karmic Payback by Jrs Aust #1 and #2. Jr Aust #1 achieved the goal of out-talking dad around the age of four, and for the last couple of years has been out-arguing me too. By out-arguing I mean talking over me, refusing to admit she could ever possibly be wrong, never giving an inch, indulging in casuistry of Jesuitical deviousness, continually shifting the goalposts, and retaining the final sanction of storming out of the room still loudly insisting she is right.

Mrs Dr Aust and I continue to hope this prefigures a well-rewarded future as a lawyer.

(Though reading that again, I’m slightly worried that it sounds like the rhetorical repertoire of most politicians)

Until earlier today, though, Dr Aust had usually managed not to be verbally outsmarted by Jr Aust #2 (formerly Baby Aust, but as he is now three and a half that doesn’t seem all that appropriate a handle any more).

As I was saying – until today.

When we were having dinner earlier Jr Aust #2 insisted on doing all his eating whilst lying on his back on his chair with his feet (none too clean feet, I should say) on the table.

Naturally I told him to get his feet off the table.

“No feet on the table at dinner”

I said in my sternest paterfamilias voice.

Upon which he lifted his feet until they were hanging some foot or so above the table, in the air, propped on the side of the table.

He simultaneously fixed me with a triumphant look and said:

“Not ON the table”.

After Mrs Dr Aust managed to stop laughing, which took some minutes, she noted that New Year’s Eve 2011 would live in family history (infamily?) as:

“The Day Dr Aust was Out-Lawyered by BOTH his children”.

*Sigh*

Happy New Year All

PS Should you be of a celebrating mind (as opposed to collapsing into bed in the next hour or so), I should also add:

“And the same procedure as every year

————————————————–

*The visitor stats do suggest that a few regular remain. For which thanks.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’ve clearly precipitated something.

June 10, 2011

In which Dr Aust stalls for time. Again.

It has now been two full months since anything new has appeared here. Sorry.

Like many bloggers in such a situation, I feel a bit, well, guilty.

As usual it is hard to pinpoint an exact reason for the barren spell – well, other than that I haven’t written anything, of course. Busy writing for other outlets (a bit); busy marking exams (some of the time); a new hobby (I’ve been re-discovering some of my adolescent enthusiasm for chess – anything for a new way to procrastinate); easier to comment elsewhere than to buckle down to something extended (definitely); other people cover stories first so it isn’t worth posting on them (certainly true); the feeling of repeating myself (very definitely)… and finally the Summer, which means the children are not usually in bed until somewhere towards nine, after which I find it hard to muster up the drive to blog. Or to do anything very much apart from slump in a chair with a beer.

On the other hand… there are still a bunch of three-quarters-, two-thirds, or even half-finished posts kicking around on the hard drive. it would be a shame to let them languish there forever – assuming I can find them at all. And perhaps the drive to blog goes in cycles. I see, for instance, that the excellent AP Gaylard, one of the original BadScience blog-derived skeptical crew, and renowned for his forensic dissections of the evidence (or lack of) for complementary therapies, has returned to blogging after a long absence and is now cranking out meticulously researched stuff at a punishing pace.

Anyway, what has brought me back to the keyboard this time?

Well, two things. Or three.

The first was the just issued Mea Culpa.

The second thing is an idea.

Yet another of the likely reasons for my reduced blog activity is that some of my ideas now end up on Twitter – which has the advantage of being much more immediate than blogging, and only requiring 150 characters at a time. Since I probably fire off at least one tweet (and probably considerably more – *cough* ) per day, I have been thinking about setting up a permanent archive of them here – perhaps on a weekly basis.

Talking of ‘regular features”, any long term readers still hanging on will perhaps remember I did a David Colquhoun-style occasional diary for about a year, before it too bit the dust. A Twitter archive might work a bit like a diary, only with the advantage that the material already exists, and would only need to be cut and pasted onto a kind of blogpost. I suppose that might even salve my guilt at not blogging enough, which might in turn get me fired enough to do the occasional proper blogpost. That is, it might be easier to blog, if I didn’t feel pressure to do it. I know that doesn’t make sense, really, but there you go.

So what do we think? Twitter archive? Yes/No ? Trial run?

And… the third thing.

All bloggers, of course, like comments and emails. I got a nice email the other day from occasional reader Nick Kotarski, who pointed me to a very funny site I hadn’t seen before, Despair.com, and particularly to their “Demotivators” range.

Now, you will recall that I have been a bit snarky in the past about tedious motivational language, and the kind of trite sloganising with it that is so prevalent in modern life, including the public sector. Despair.com subvert such stuff quite nicely.

I have been checking out the ‘Demotivator’ coffee mugs in particular, and I think the one that says:

Retirement: Because you’ve given so much of yourself to the company that you don’t have anything left we can use

- might be just the thing for my long-serving research collaborator who is taking voluntary early retirement from the University this year, just shy of sixty, to do some voluntary work and (he says) “learn dry-stone walling”.

It might also appeal, perhaps, to the Jobbing Doctor and Dr Grumble.

Nick did tell me there used to me a despair.com mug that said:

Customer (Dis)Service: Because we won’t be satisfied… until YOU’RE not satisfied

- which is also very apt, especially if you have ever travelled on Virgin Trains in the UK. But I can’t seem to find that one.

Finally, one of the curses of the modern workplace in both the private and public sector is the experience of having the consultants in. Consultants are, in the immortal words of Scott Adams’ Dilbert (though I am paraphrasing slightly):

“People who are way too smart to work for your employer…

You can tell this because, when they do come in to do your job, they ask you how and then do it exactly the same as you would… but they get paid twice as much.”

Now, some of my friends in the University had some dealings with the consultants recently (no names to protect the innocent), and of course I hear many stories about consultancy from my friends in industry, in the NHS, and even from a couple of my university mates who have ended up in consulting. So I was particularly taken with the mug that summarised this thus:

Consulting: If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

I don’t think anyone who has had any dealing with the consultants could doubt the truth of that.

Getting the bird

January 11, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders language and its obscurities.

You lookin' at my bird?

One of Dr Aust’s current nightly rituals is reading a bedtime story to one, or both, children.

This evening we were reading a story – one of this charming series – which contained the word:

“budgerigar”

This reminded Dr Aust of an event, over a dozen years ago now, which exemplifies the problems with language (and perhaps also cultural differences) that can turn up unexpectedly in Universities.

The story concerns an exam sat by our undergraduate medical students some time in the mid to late 1990s. Back in those days we academics used to, as they say, “invigilate” all the exams ourselves. Nowadays we have special people – often retired academics – who do this, and the word “Invigilate!” instead tends to conjure up for me a vision of someone casting a spell in a Harry Potter book. But in those days, we would be there ourselves to hand out the exam papers and terrify the students with dire announcements about the consequences of cheating, or inadvertently having any notes about your person. Then we would spend a few hours patrolling the exam room trying to look grim and/or spot students with suspect programmable calculators.

Next, you need to know what sort of exam it was. This was what we called a “Case paper”, in which the students were presented with a short medical case history. The idea was that they should try and figure out what was going on, first trying to recognise so-called “cues”, and symptoms, in the history, and then suggest what kinds of tests or investigations they would order.

The particular case in this exam paper involved a man called “Mr Polly” (sic) who kept budgerigars. The birds actually appeared in the first line, which went something like:

“Mr Polly was devoted to his budgerigars, and kept several dozen in a shed at the back of his house. They were his pride and joy.”

Now, you need to know that the word “bird” appeared nowhere in the exam paper, though “budgerigar” was in there several times.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

A student stuck their hand up.

Dr Aust hurried over. Students sticking their hands up in exams are not unusual, since requests for extra paper, or to be allowed to visit the toilet facilities, were a regular part of invigilating then and doubtless still are. Of course, a minute or two after the exam started was a little bit early.

Dr Aust asked the student what s/he wanted.

The student replied nervously “I don’t understand this word”.

…And pointed to the word “budgerigar”.

This put Dr Aust in a bit of a quandary. He was a fairly junior academic at the time, and was not one of the people who had actually set the exam paper, so he didn’t really feel he had the authority to just tell the student that a budgerigar was a small bird. Scanning the paper, Dr Aust hunted for something else that might offer a clue. His eye fell on a passage more or less like this:

“One day, Mr Polly felt short of breath and a bit faint – walking up the stairs was an effort. Nonetheless, he was determined to attend to his budgerigars. Whilst cleaning out his aviary, he became dizzy and breathless and collapsed. His wife found him and called an ambulance”

Dr Aust pointed at this last sentence and whispered to the student:

“This sentence should help you. Look at this word. he said, underlining the word aviary.

The student, who judging by appearance and accent was clearly from outside the UK, looked panic-stricken.

“I don’t know what that word means either” s/he said.

Which is an object lesson, I guess, in being careful what words to use. And in what settings. Especially settings where it is difficult for people to ask clarifying questions.

The story does have a happy ending. After a few words with the Senior Examiner who had set the paper, we decided to make an announcement to all those in the exam hall to tell them that a budgerigar was a small parrot.

It turned out afterwards that several other students had been equally flummoxed by “budgerigar” and “aviary”, though most had not put their hands up.

Over the years I have sometimes wondered if any of those flummoxed students, now doubtless many years qualified in medicine and quite possibly GPs and consultants in the NHS, have ever again encountered the words “budgerigar” or “aviary”.

——————————————————

PS Mr Polly’s complaint, which I dare say all my medical readers will have guessed, goes by the common name of “Bird Fancier’s Lung”, and is a form of extrinsic allergic alveolitis or hypersensitivity pneumonitis (more here).

PPS Language and comprehension is, of course, an issue in many settings in academia, and more so in medicine. Dr Aust has always (he hopes) been reasonably good at spotting – mostly from the non-verbal cues – when people working in his lab did not understand what he was saying, and adjusting his language accordingly. Not everyone does, though. One eminent Professor I knew was famous in the Department for fixing non-English-native-speaking research assistants with his most gimlet gaze and then saying, in his slowest and loudest voice:

“Do. You. Understand?”

The joke was that he often did this to people who came from cultures where to admit that you hadn’t understood the Great Man’s pearls of wisdom would be a terrible source of shame, and also a grave slight to the Eminent Professor. Thus the unfortunate subordinate would nod meekly, and the Great Man would depart satisfied that he had got his meaning across. Whereupon Dr Aust and the other more junior lab people would explain to the quivering research assistant what the Prof had been saying.

A slightly different problem arises for doctors who work in countries where the language is not their native one. Apart from just the language, they have to cope with regional accents and dialects. In the UK they also have to cope with the British talent for slang and euphemisms.

When Mrs Dr Aust first arrived in the UK to work as a junior doctor in a North West England-shire hospital, she was presented with a glossary of “local terms that your patients may use”. The list ran to a fair few printed pages. I suspect it may have had some similarities to the Yorkshire one here, which was discussed by the august British Medical Journal a while back.


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