Friday, 14 December 2012

Thesis doodle pad, version 85J

I happened to stumble across this thing recently. It's a rough, informal list of things that this guy reckons help the process of research in general, no matter which field you're in, probably. And of course such a broad guideline is going to miss quite a lot, but it still seems sensible, mostly. The bit about keeping a record of all your thoughts really struck me, because I've been saying that for years. Not doing it for years, but saying it. And I really should have been doing it instead. (For more clarity about my field of study, development studies, see this post about my career goals.)

So now, after 5.5 years of trying to draw up my master's dissertation proposal, what have I actually got to show for it? Certainly not a single complete proposal. I've changed topic several times, sometimes because I felt a question was not as feasible or worthwhile as initially hoped, sometimes because my supervisor shot it down. The stress of real life has also gotten in the way a lot of the time, but who doesn't have that excuse, to some extent? And then there was the really stupid obstacle of  the University of Johannesburg not allowing library or online journal access to you until your proposal is accepted, which makes it hard to write the proposal in the first place. I'm not sure how any other post-grad gets around that, but I eventually had to borrow login details from someone I barely know and who isn't even studying anything remotely related to anything I've done, but who was fortunately very kind and generous. I'm just worried because I don't know when that person will finish studying (really, I barely know a thing about them) and their login will be deactivated out from under me.

So it's been going slowly, which I didn't expect after my honours degree, where I showed up on day 1 and due to a miscommunication, hadn't been told I needed a topic already prepared for my mini-dissertation, but just spit out a great one on the fly before anyone could notice I was winging it. I looked at the internal organisational problems of Alzheimer's South Africa, and my research was completed weeks before anyone else in the class was, it was longer than anyone else's, and it was the only one to get a distinction. It all just came so easily, which has made the master's process seem weird and uncomfortable, especially when former peers have rushed ahead of me to finish their M's already. (Incidentally, Alzheimer's SA didn't really take in any of my practical recommendations, and I think they've suffered for it.)

Changizi's recommendation to record everything seems wise. So, while I do have a fresh idea or two that I'll mention at the end, it's probably a good idea to at least remind myself of what's come before. Plus, if anyone else wants to steal one of my ideas for their own research, go ahead. I'd appreciate an 'inspired by' credit in your paper and maybe a copy of it too, but otherwise feel free. Better they get some real use by someone who'll appreciate them more than I have, hoarding them all to myself.

But it's not so easy, since I didn't exactly keep an ideas journal. Some of these things I had to dig out of old emails. Some I had in documents scattered all over my PC. Many were posted as notes on Facebook to solicit feedback from friends (which will still be nice to receive here!). A couple were even written on papyrus scrolls, either scribbled when I was bored at work or manically scrawled in the middle of the night on my ex's unfurnished lounge floor when inspiration and insomnia struck at the same time. Those are all reasonable media in their own way, but I think it would help to have a central repository too, somewhere to compare and regurgitate and cannibalise and Frankensteinify older ideas into new ones. As Changizi points out, it's a messy process. So that's what this post is for: Regurgitation.

Everything below this point follows Changizi's advice to not worry about messiness and looking silly. Some of it is a silly mess.

Old Ideas
I've put them in as clsoe to chronological order as I can manage, but there was definitely a lot of jumble and confusion. The format for these is:
(rough title) - (reminder to myself of where I've got my original notes)
(quick summary)

1. Using mercenaries for serious development work - FB
Looking at how to use mercenaries (or private military contractors, which is not exactly the same thing) for serious development work in warzones and other areas of high danger, instead of paying them to kill people. Always seemed like an interesting idea, but probably still a bad one.

2. Some vague notion that social interaction could be modelled in a pseudo-fractal way - email?
Not really sure what my idea really was, just remember that I had it, and thought I'd better include it here to be thorough.

3. Critical thinking as a development tool - HD
Don't think I had a very clear idea back then of exactly how to marry the concept of critical thought/skepticism with development studies, so this would have been more of a general exploration of the possibilities. (See also New Ideas section.)

4. Something to do with improving TEACH SA and/or science education - FB, email?
The organisation that got me into education has a great general plan, but after serving with them for the better part of a year, I felt there were a lot of specifics that needed serious improvement. And since I felt way more comfortable as a development dude than as a teacher, I felt I'd be far more useful fixing the organisation for them behind the scenes, than teaching on the front line. Most of the initial admin team left around the same time that I did, and none of the new people (few of whom I'd ever met) had any interest in what I had to say. Attempts to make the idea less specific went nowhere.

5. Development triage - HD
A neat little idea, probably nowhere near enough to fill a whole dissertation, suggesting a formal system for prioritising development projects in a manner similar to emergency medical triage.

6. Where are development ethics learned, if at all? - HD
Another medicine analogue, inspired partly by the realisation that I almost failed dev. ethics in first year, don't recall covering it in any later year, and was having to sit and think really hard for myself about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour. And if I, having officially studied this shit, was still struggling, what could be said about the many (the majority?) of people in development-relevant jobs who hadn't covered it at all?

7. Mars colonisation - FB, paper, my brain
I absolutely, definitely want to look at how a human colony off of Earth (presumably on Mars, but wherever) could be run, from a dev. point of view. The engineering side seems to have no shortage of people looking into it, but the most anyone's looked into the socio-political side seems to be found in science fiction novels. (And if they're to be believed, then we need to be prepared for the New Boston Horse Party, which is a very obscure joke that I refuse to explain.) I think there's a lot to work with here, plus it has the interesting wossname that, because we can look at a potential space colony in relative isolation, free from many of the usual Earth biases, it may reveal some interesting new thoughts that could be adapted for use on Earth that might otherwise not have been thought up at all - compare with how social experiments by colonists in the "New World" eventually fed back into Europe. However, I really, really want to do a super-extra-fantastic job with this one, it can't be a dinky little fluff-pamphlet, so I think I'm saving it for my PhD.

8. The Case for Limiting the Role of Faith-based Organisations in Public Development - FB
I think this grew out of the dev. ethics concern: Large numbers of faith-based organisations get into development work, often with no expertise at all, and often with very misguided standards. Inevitable when you're willing to throw evidence out the window and just make shit up, and possibly quite an important thing to regulate. Would be hard to sell in SA, where separation of church and state is sometimes quite thin.

9. Proposal for a Standardised System for the Assessment of Homes by Volunteer Inspectors - HD
The first full development document I'd written since finishing honours, not really intended for my master's, I got really excited at the time that I was finally doing what I put years of study into, in this case for the benefit of Alzheimer's SA again. They have a problem where they keep a list of care homes to put people in contact with, but have no mechanism for checking if the home is really suitable and safe for people with dementia. And every now and then, on of these officially "suggested" homes would pop up in the news for being seriously incompetent or negligent or dangerous. I thought I'd come up with a workable partial solution to this, but once again, Alzheimer's management ignored me completely (got cross with me, even). So I toyed with passing the idea to another organisation or incorporating it into a thesis, but never did.

10. Instinct vs. rationality in development studies - FB
Poorly-framed idea that there are probably a lot of things we do and assumptions we make in development projects that are shaped more by animal instinct than reason and evidence. Similar to what's already well known about cultural biases butting into development planning, except that if it's something all have in common, a human factor, then we're much less likely to recognise it as something that doesn't necessarily have to be that way.

11. Informal education groups - paper?
Linking back to idea 4, it seemed to me that formal government schools currently have way too many problems to expect to get most people out of them with the education they deserve, so why not supplement them with something more informal, a system where kids and interested adults who missed  a decent childhood education of their own (there are plenty) can gather where and when it suits them to just learn, not get marks or formal qualifications. I realise this will be of limited use to the current generation, but it would help keep the next generation from having parents too ignorant to help them learn stuff too. For some reason, I drew a parallel in my head between these groups and street committees. The obvious main problem is making sure each group has at least one person competent to teach the material (or at least spot when and why the others are getting it wrong), but a shortage of teachers is already one of the problems with formal schools.

12. Correlating science education and democracy - HD, Google Docs
A fairly straightforward hypothesis: Science requires good critical thinking skills. Being an effective democratic voter requires good critical thinking skills. Surely a society optimised for the one role should be pretty good at the other, right? And if so, which way does causation go, and what confounding factors are there? Also, what practical considerations can be drawn from all this? Tricky to measure with much precision.

13. Something to do with overpopulation?
I think it's a really important topic and would like to do something about it, but have no idea what thesis I'd build around it. So instead I've just been randomly taunting parents all year.

14. Crowdsourced dev. solutions - paper
Might be numbered 7.b instead. As a smaller, sub-thought, much more recently, it occured to me that the initial small batch of Mars colonists would have to do all sorts of very technical stuff themselves, all the time, without relief, and couldn't be expected to be experts in everything, so they'd need a lot of experts back home. And instead of having one dedicated agriculture consultant (for example), it might be better to just throw their known concerns and problems into a public forum, to let many minds contribute a little each. Hopefully the net result would be a better idea than one mind alone could have come up with. Similar system could be used for sorting out problems on Earth, presumably more in isolated rural areas.

New Ideas
1. Making the SA/Gauteng skeptics functional
There's arguably quite a lot of need for more skeptical activism around here, and there are quite a few people here who identify themselves with skepticism. It should be easy maths to make the latter solve the former, and yet hardly anything actually happens. We have our pub meeting and our park meetings, which are great fun, but we don't exactly do anything? Or do we? Perhaps our members individually are having a positive effect, which is made possible by the informal group support. Or maybe we really are just a bunch of online loudmouths. Or some mixture. Maybe a formal organisation or organisations would make us more effective, or maybe it would just get in the way. Many people have said they'd like to see us do more (more of what, exactly?), but it's always very vague and seldom comes from a foundation of much more than hunches. Surely the skeptics, of all people, could appreciate a bit of self-examination?

Add to this:  Gender divide and sexism. FB group 2:1 male:female members, but usually 6:1 or worse commenters. G+ group 2:1, worse commenter ratios. Problem of men using SitP as dating service.

Internal conflict: Good for threshing out ideas and debating shit, but makes some uncomfortable (some say gender distinction there?). Conflicting need for skeptical training area vs. skeptical relaxation area.