Sometimes, Progress Is In Extremity

I’m not a diarist, and I’m not really the self-confessional type.

Generally, in some capacity or another, I write about heartfelt topics like “quality of evidence”. Very emotional stuff, I’m a big hit with the tweens.

In doing so, however, I have occasionally worked to the extent that I have started to hallucinate.

That work is never on anything that might be ‘good for my career’, of course. I’m a totally different kind of ghoul.

The first time it happened, I was writing my Masters thesis. I saw my dead cat staring at me from the corner of the room. He ran away when I turned my head. He hasn’t been back, but a few other things have. Little flecks, peripheral visions, a few times a voice. I don’t talk about it much.

The below is three separate little things I’ve written, more out of reflex than anything else, when I was strung out beyond all possible belief doing extracurricular work.

You should know this now — they’re not edited, they’re crap. They’re partially unhinged, because they were private thoughts. They’re just retrieved from whatever rubbish state they were in when it occurred to me recently that they might be corralled.

They are also, by degrees, a little incoherent, a touch silly, entirely unnecessary, mostly unfocused, and almost wholly without any external value. I don’t necessarily believe everything written below in them in the cold light of day. I sincerely hope they are not self-pitying. That’s not really an emotion I do. I just get voluble when I’m exhausted, and I write very fast. Before you know it, you have 800 words of hostile gibberish.

There’s only really three broader reasons to throw these into the public record at all, rather than letting them sit in the elephant’s graveyard of my drafts folder.

Reason The First: they speak to the state of mind that you occasionally find yourself in when you don’t just burn the midnight oil as much as hose it onto the combustible parts of your whole life and then light a cigar. I’ve never been a good sleeper, and my extracurriculars have often made it worse. Problems don’t ‘eat at my soul’, they don’t keep me up at night, I just… well, the only thing to say is, I am compelled to continue and I run out of daylight in which to continue, and then it hurts. Maybe that’s interesting out of context.

Reason the Two: perhaps also, on a selfish level, I would like you to know that error detection, as a research area that doesn’t really exist yet, is not fun.

It is a shit of a thing.

It is hard, boring, unforgiving, unpaid, generally unrecognized, potentially exposes me to liabilities I cannot control.

It is extremely capricious. It is unwanted auditing on a tightrope. In many ways I’m totally unsuited to it, and the army of more intelligent and infinitely more responsible people in my life would be better at it than I am.

But, I am the dunce who is compelled. I’ve said this previously — if someone had thought to do this by now, they would have done it. So here we are.

Reason #3: publishing these is also a kind of final abrogation of this behaviour. I can’t do the late-night stuff any more. I have to build resources and a platform to let other people do it themselves. I have to organize projects which allow this to happen elsewhere. We will be talking about this, believe me.

I have to make this into a field, not a solitary activity for someone who thinks Sleep is just a band (AN AMAZING BAND).

Basically, I have to change how I approach this, or I might die.

That’s all the reasons. Now I just hesitate to publish these, I really do. I rarely hesitate.

But: here we go.

I’m Tired

(written, as I recall, in the dead center of Wansink Fever)

I have a normal job, which I like.

I am a postdoctoral fellow. I always thought this was anachronistic (are women ‘fellows’? sounds a bit odd to me) but I can’t exactly litigate it while they pay me.

I have a boss, who is civil and focused and intelligent, which I like.

I howl about the iniquities at the heart of the scientific endeavour, and the death of ruiners, and of lies and corruption, and sometimes he even listens. Sometimes other people listen too.

It’s more than I’m entitled to, honestly. I wouldn’t listen to me right now.

During the day, I go to my job.

Later that day, I start another job that I invented. Or maybe this job just turned up one day. Or maybe I am just compelled to do it. I’m not sure any more.

I do this job for no money, it takes takes ages, and has led some people to resent the fact that I breathe.

My other job is: I go into the scientific literature at large, of which there is an endless supply, and I find problems.

Or, increasingly, people find problems and they bring them to me.

I’m not benighted or downtrodden, I’m not starving, I’m not ill, I’m not getting evicted, I’m not in pain, I have no children, my family is well. It’s like a mantra. You’re fine, my son. Just be middle class and fine like everyone else. I run through these things like a mantra sometimes. You still have your feet you idiot. You still have your hands you idiot.

But I am tired.

God, I’m tired. My bones are tired, and not just underslept. I’m tired of having my motives questioned. I’m tired of getting nowhere. I’m tired of squaring off against a monolith. I’m tired of trying to get people to care. I’m tired of emails that only seem to go one way.

And I’m tired of being told I’m too unhinged, or too restrained. It’s odd to have your motives questioned publicly. It’s infuriating to be simultaneously dangerous and unimportant.

“This trend towards criticizing other people’s work is a blight and a pestilence and it’s ruining everything!”

“But never mind, the authors are junior and stupid and beneath contempt and scarcely worth listening to and what they say doesn’t matter!”

Pick a side, will you please? It’s pretty hard to ruin everything when you have no impact. Apparently I am a Quantum Idiot, simultaneously dangerous and unimportant.

A while back, there was a debate about how many hours a scientist should work in a week. Lifers and weirdos were clinging to the idea that you should pour your heart and soul into science. 60 hour weeks. 80 hour weeks. Put me on a pedestal and recognise my sacrifice, you weak world. You must bleed into your pipettes. You should be an unforgiving discovery machine.

(Did I say discovery? I meant publication.)

Of course, everyone else who isn’t a complete sad case mainlining Adderall and neoliberal-flavoured self-hatred, took a scunner to this. They proudly proclaimed they have normal 40 hour weeks.

I didn’t say a single blessed word. I don’t know how many hours I work right now. A lot. I am compelled and stupid. I do too much background.

And, while I thrash on the surface, the stream moves slowly, and ever-slower. Everything is simultaneously glacial and immediate. Everything is overdue, everything is in the mail, presumably because it’s overdue for someone else.

I am scratching divots into granite boulders with my fingernails.

I am a goddamn fool, and I was better off when all my self-destructive tendencies were invested in a diversified portfolio of beer, heavy metal, and women who drank boilermakers.

Give their money back

(This one doesn’t have a date. I think it’s a year old or so. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a little clearer than the others.)

I live in an apartment building where there is no recycling, and I grit my teeth when I throw away my garbage. Every single time. I throw aluminium and steel cans in the bin. It’s appalling.

I tried leaving them on the stoop — the bottle-pickers come around, pick them up, and return them for the deposit. I liked this solution. I would sort and clean the bottles, and then leave them in a clean bag out the front of the building. Some guy gets a dollar or two, and he’s taking them to the recyc station down the road, which I LOATHE because it takes twenty minutes to recycle two weeks worth of bottles and smells like Satan’s commode. Everyone wins. Building management didn’t tell me to stop, but they did start throwing the bottles away in the regular garbage. I found them round the side with the trash.

Like I said, appalling.

The bottles, that’s why I’m in the data thuggin’ business.

I hate waste. I hate the idea that resources are getting thrown away. I hate the largesse that creeps in, sits down, and buys a microscope. I hate scholasticism. I hate research for research’s sake. I hate putting words in order for no more reason than it is all you know how to do. I love effectiveness, and concision. I love impact as much as I hate impact factors.

It is common for researchers to feel that simply because they find something personally interesting (or, more commonly, that they find a topic personally convenient) that the public owes them money. Of course, the systems we have put in place to give the money away are over-subscribed and ridiculous. But you do hear people say I didn’t get MY GRANT.

My grant. Not the grant. My money. They’re already spending it in their heads. Yes, it’s hard to get, but in what world is every request is justified?

I think of all the pieces of the public that don’t get that money. Potholed roads and underfunded shelters. Trams that leak when it rains. Public housing which these days is probably made of asbestos and spiders. Maybe it’s not a lot of money, but if there’s one place where you can safely stand on your principles, it’s handing out tax money responsibly.

No-one is pro-inefficiency, pro-grift.

Until it’s THEIR grift, of course. Until it’s THEIR data and THEIR project and THEIR compromises. The little ones that sneak in. At that point, they go scratching around under the couch trying to find THEIR principles. I suppose I have some sympathy for people trying to make it, who really need the money, trying to take it.

But when you’re tested, isn’t that the only time it actually matters to have principles? Especially principles like ‘don’t rip off the taxpayer?’

And more than that, I think of all the other scientists who never got the money put aside for science. I am just young enough to still talk to PhD students without losing empathy, and just old enough to (a) watch the cohort of people I remember from doctoral programs hitting a variety of walls erected at a variety of angles, and (b) dip a toe into the immense glad-handing and horse-trading of the lab head world.

Many people who fall away are happy, of course. Maybe it’s not human capital we’re wasting. Educated people get good jobs — eventually. Somewhere. No-one is working as a cruise ship bartender (and if they do, they want to).

It’s scientific capital. Time and money. Training and focus. Built, then tossed. Lots of little Bridges to Nowhere. Where’s Joe Biden now, eh?

There is a titular figure in this quiet and savage fraud. A ‘good man’ (and it IS a man… almost all famous scientific charlatans are men, and even in the present balancing act towards equality they are still overwhelmingly men). Producing a quiet kind of grift, in a quiet kind of way, with other people’s money. Unseen crime. White collar crime. The only difference is I can see your collar through your cardigan.

Your authority, your impressive stare, your carefully curated garbage, your turtleneck, your seminar, your heavy-handed self-promotion, is illegitimate.

You are born to rule on your shabby little thrones.

Maybe you always were like that, maybe it happened. Some are born arrogant, some achieve arrogance, some have arrogance thrust upon them by Nature papers? Perhaps.

Maybe I am born to throw rocks at your pedestal. It certainly seems to have captured my imagination.

The best part is: this is all pre-supposed. I am supposed to be allowed to do this. Science loves stories about itself which contain phrases like ‘frank and fearless criticism’. Science contains formal corrective mechanisms. It’s just that we don’t use them. Everyone is their own horse with their own blinders, running their own race. Please produce as many words about as much deep and consequential thought as fast as possible — now, run, mustang, run!

“What happens when they fall?”

“Well, they give them some oats, then shoot them in the head.”


I give myself permission to be difficult.

I give myself permission to ask questions.

I will beat you around the head and neck with your own principles.

(unnamed rambling)

(recent — you’ll find out soon enough… I left the mistakes in because it sounds as crap as I felt when I wrote it.)

I’m up late thuggin’ again. Indoors on a Friday night. Too tired to thinnk but thinking anyway. Everything smells of plastic and stale coffee, which is actually my skin. My eyes start to itch about 11pm for no reason. Can’t figure out that one. Bought medicated eyedrops, definitely getting old.

No pedestal, no martyrdom. Imagine boasting about doing this. hey everyone, look at my pathology! I’m a shit example to the youth. i was young once, it was awful.

Don’t do this. Learn to knit.

God, I’ve been meaning to learn to sew for four years now.

If someone would pay me to do this in business hours, I’d be delighted. But it isn’t business, it feels like a particularly boring version of trench warfare. Dig a foxhole, throw a manuscript.

I’m not useless or despondent or torn to pieces or suffering, I’m grey. Other people have real problems, I just have a battle too boring to keep on fighting. And I made it myself. it’s like wearing a wet second-hand cardigan.

I can just imagine someone asking me at that point — are you aware that this makes you the arsehole?

Yeah, of course. I’m as surprised as you to find out that I don’t care.

I think of tracking my reaction time, to figure out when I’m too singed to keep burning. I lose ten minutes trying to find an app that will give me raw data access to my reaction time. Trying to figure out the frame rate of the screen. overthinking everything. Fractal rabbitholes appear behind everything.

I should be ranting in a bus shelter at this point.

i’ll be alright tomorrow morning. I wonder if this is killing me. It might be.

This is silly. I don’t have enough youth left to be compelled. i’m old enough now that I see obits for people my age.



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James Heathers

James Heathers

I write about science. We can probably be friends.