Back to list All Articles Archives Search RSS Terug naar lijst Alle artikelen Archieven Zoek RSS

alison in wonderland

Fiscal win

Never have I called the Dutch tax office – or any tax office, for that matter – and felt that I’d won. Until today, that is. Despite having left the country three years ago, I was still being taxed by the Belastingdienst. I’d been dreading making the call, though, because as everybody knows, the tax office always wins. But i...

Write or Die

Write or Die is a truly genius app. Its aim is to fight writer’s block by simply not allowing you to indulge in it. There are three settings. If you stop typing, the Gentle setting will politely prompt you to start again, the Normal setting will trigger an unpleasant sound until you keep going and, finally, the Kamikaze setting will actually ...

Fanatical positivity

I’ve been running some brain experiments recently. No, I’m not a neuroscientist – or a serial killer – I mean on my own brain. I’ve had to give a lot of talks this year, and I used to be a nervous public speaker. Not any more. It’s all about brain manipulation by way of fanatically positive thinking. Whenever a n...

The sun is always shinier

This week’s devastating-news-slash-first-world-problem: I got my towns confused on Yahoo Weather and it turns out next week’s conference location is not going to be 30 degrees plus but instead 11 and raining. I’m off to Santiago de Compostela, which, you will note, is in northern Spain. And no, I didn’t get it confused with ...

Statistics: making lives better

Recently, the quality of my life significantly statistically improved. For the scientists out there, that’s not a mistake – I don’t mean ‘statistically significantly’. What I mean is: a new statistical technique entered my life and now my life is better. And when I say ‘my life’, I mean my PhD, by which of ...

The Bahn and the bazooka

Germans seem to shy away from heavy weaponry these days. A few weeks ago I caught the train to a conference in Freiburg, where I was giving a talk and presenting a poster (yes, both – sigh). Before I left, the man in the print shop showed me two types of protective cases to stop my poster getting crushed. If I was going to America, he warned,...

Sociopaths and scholarships

In the news in Britain last week: with measles (mazelen) taking hold in Wales, public health authorities are urging everyone to have their measles vaccination, and fast. In response, the ‘antivaxxers’ have again started shouting about how the vaccine gives you autism. Here’s the thing – no, it doesn’t. Just no. Antivax...

The PhD can wait – because North Korea won’t

I have a thing for books about wacky countries, and North Korea is getting weirder by the minute. Nothing to Envy I just could not put down. It tells of a doctor who crossed the border into China and, lost in the dark, found herself in a peasant’s dog kennel. She could not believe her eyes: in the kennel was a bowl of white rice. For the dog!...

Home sweet home

I’m migratory. I can’t spend long in one spot; all too soon I get ants in my pants and I need a change of scenery. So every day, I pack my bag, make my lunch, and head off somewhere to study. First stop: the university library. I arrange all my things just so and settle down to work. But then I get cold – where’s that breeze...

When cats become croissants

We all have our favourite forms of procrastination. But I am irritated when people post links on Facebook to artsy-fartsy, New Age-style fluff. Like those pictures urging you to repost them if you support nurses or love your dog. Less still do I condone films of bear cubs cuddling up to pandas, or that man catching a string of ducklings as they fel...

‘Christ fucking shit merde!’

You know how in high school there was always someone cooler than you? Unfortunately, in graduate school the tradition lives on: someone, somewhere, will always have a cooler research project than you. The thorn in my side is a London researcher with the alarmingly titled paper ‘“Christ fucking shit merde!” Language preferences for...

But it’s good for us, right?

Last week the late-night talk show Pauw & Witteman had a segment on language policy. Usually I can’t watch things like this. Watching journalists (or worse, politicians) try to talk linguistics makes me throw things at the TV. After all, it’s thanks to journalists that I’m known – among a niche crowd, admittedly – ...

Call it research

Here’s something I’ve failed to mention in this column so far: doing a PhD is fun. At least, mine is. And at least, at the moment. This week’s task: looking for uses of English words and phrases in Dutch pop songs. It’s the opposite of looking for a needle in a haystack; you may as well ask what Dutch artist doesn’t us...

Relax!

Chill out, said the New York Times this week. Under a headline that shouted ‘Relax! You’ll be more productive’, the article said two things that made me happy. The first is that naps really do work. The second? More than a few hours of serious brain work per day is too much. In the 1950s, researchers discovered that we sleep in ni...

Miniaturised weapons

Last night I was two metres away from a man worth $7.5 billion. I was at a talk by Eric Schmidt, former CEO and now executive chairman of Google. And unlike your typical academic, he was happy to take questions. So what did go wrong for Google in China? “I negotiated. We lost”, he said. “Can I be more blunt than that?” The f...

I am the Brain

PhDs are full of ups and downs. Some days, it goes like this: Oh. Dear. God. I am the stupidest person alive. This is the worst PhD *ever*. The next day, it’s all: OMG. This PhD is amazing. I am AWESOME. Happily, today is one of the latter. I met with my supervisor, having handed in a chapter draft. I thought it was good work, and that is wor...

In love

I was given some lovely Christmas gifts. One was a pair of metal squares for poaching eggs, so that they come out precisely the same shape as your bread. (Because heaven is a perfectly geometric breakfast.) Another was an 1100-page book called On politics which promises to take me on an informative yet lively journey from Herodotus to the present d...

Overly honest research methods

Lying about your research methods to get a journal article published? Not okay. Telling the whole truth? Probably not your best option either. Twitter geeks will have noticed last week the explosion of tweets under the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods. Here are some things you DON’T want in your manuscript: ‘Samples were incubated for exact...

All worked up about relaxing

I spent New Year’s Eve surrounded by corporate and academic types with three degrees each and New Year resolutions like ‘I’ll make partner, take over a bank, publish a monograph, cycle the Alpe d'Huez and sponsor a dozen Burmese orphans’. This was not conducive to my own 2013 goal, which was, for the second year running ...

Sunburnt and full of prawns

It may be the jetlag talking, but it seems my country is 0.18 points better than yours. Because let’s face it, the Economist doesn’t lie. In its where-to-be-born in 2013 index, the Economist measures ‘which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life’. Australia comes in 2nd place, beh...

The party must go on

Some things I am very good at. Plausibly avoiding my PhD supervisor for months on end. Spending as much time fiddling with bibliographical formatting as doing actual research. Pottering about with programming languages. This year I even learnt to ‘do statistics’ (read: locate people who are prepared to do my statistics with – for?...

That time of year

The end of the year is fast approaching and it’s busy busy busy. Druk druk druk. You know you’re too busy when you start to feel like the Dutch word for ‘busy’ is infinitely more – ok, twice as – economical as the English word, since it has half the syllables. When you start to scrap all non-essential tasks. Laun...

Meta-analyses

Let me tell you about something that drives me nuts. I had to go to a lecture today called ‘How to give a lecture’. This wasn’t a problem in itself: in fact, the idea of going to a lecture on lectures – a meta lecture, if you will – rather pleased me. But you know what I really wish? That professors who were born three...

Collective crises of confidence

I’ve been diverted by politics lately, so it’s time to get back to something I actually know about. Isolation, confusion, crises of confidence – the usual hallmarks of a PhD. The good news is, you’ll find a great deal of empathy among your fellow PhD students. Even those in completely different fields – in fact, especi...

Science is the real winner

The real winner of the US election? The social sciences, according to Slate magazine. Voter preferences are often obvious: Alaskans and church-goers tend to vote Republican; African Americans and Harvard grads are likely Democrat. But others seem to be sitting ‘on the fence’, and are therefore assumed to be undecided. The Democrats real...

The glorious living museum of socialism

Step right up, ladies and gentleman, come and see, the great, the glorious living museum of socialism! While Obama is vilified in the US for wanting universal healthcare, the Dutch ‘conservative’ party VVD is cutting deals that could see high income earners pay 24 times as much for their monthly health insurance than those on benefits. ...

Hold your stupid head up high

When they say you’re stupid, you must ignore them. Sir John Gurden, who this month received the Nobel Prize for his research on stem cells, came dead last in school biology. According to his teacher, his dream of being a scientist was nothing short of ‘ridiculous’. What’s more, research published in Science this month shows ...

The face of misogyny

Australia and dictionaries: two things that don’t often make world headlines. But the prime minister, Julia Gillard, launched herself into the limelight recently with an impassioned tirade against the opposition leader, Tony Abbott: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man”, she raged in parliament. Abbott is ...

PhD students: excellent at failure

Two and a half years. That’s how long a PhD would take, I think, if only it didn’t involve so much other stuff. Writing papers, giving presentations, marking essays, general schmoozing; all seeds you need to sow if you want to get an actual job later (for which your PhD – which at the time seems like Your Whole Life – is jus...

Best re*ards

You know that moment when you write an important email to a bunch of important professors, and instead of ‘Regards’ you end it with ‘Retards’? And then, not realising it, you press send? And then, precisely because of the fact that you are an über pedant, you look in the sent box to make sure it sent right, and on a whim you...

Quantum geekdom

My brain exploded this week. Two words: quantum computing. I learnt about it in Simon Singh’s The code book: The secret history of codes and code-breaking, a goldmine of geekdom. In quantum mechanics, when we don’t know what a particle is doing, it can be doing everything possible simultaneously, and only when we observe it directly doe...

What I haven’t done

Summer’s gone, as are all my hopes for it. Run a half marathon. Clean my room from top to bottom. Learn to cook something involving an intact piece of meat (I can cook, but specialise in curries. Steaks and roasts terrify me.) Prepare a presentation and work on a journal article. Get more sleep. Watch the latest season of Flikken Maastricht, ...

A thousand little pieces

My dissertation is in a thousand little pieces. Chopped up in bits scattered all over the floor, in a state of massive restructuring. I read notes that I took two years ago which seemed vitally important then, that now aren’t even in my field. (Psycholinguistics? What was I thinking!) I move the introduction down, bring the conclusion up, tur...

The switch

A driver is taking a famous professor to an important lecture. ‘I’m sick of this lark’, says the professor. ‘You’ve been at all my lectures. How about you give this one?’ And so the driver climbs on stage, clears his throat, takes a breath, and knocks the socks right off that lecture. Now for question time. Up ge...

Election fever

I’m in favour of coffee shops, lenient penalties for criminals and rampant online copyright infringement. At least, according to the StemWijzer. With 30 propositions to agree or disagree with, the StemWijzer tells you which parties best represent your opinions. To be more precise, I think closing coffee shops turns soft drug users into social...

Our lazy brains

Now and then, an intellectual heavyweight will write a weighty bestseller that we all have to read to keep up with the hip academic crowd. Thinking, fast and slow is one of those books. Written by the Nobel laureate and Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, it basically says our minds have two systems. One is slow and deliberate; the other fast, ...