The stranger with the blue umbrella ..

My friend Asanthika Imbulpitya got caught in the Auckland rain yesterday morning on her way to AUT University. She wrote this piece later about the kindness of a stranger with a blue umbrella who stopped to help her…

Monday 30th May 2022

I’m not usually the one to write stories, and I’m not particularly good at it, but I felt it was important to remember this at least for myself as a memory.

The day in Auckland began with heavy showers that were expected to turn into thunderstorms (that’s Auckland in the winter for all of you!). It was such a horrible condition that I wouldn’t have gone out except for the meeting I had. I stepped out with my broken umbrella, a jacket that had seen a couple of Auckland winters, and a coffee mug in the other hand.

It was a 15-minute walk to the university, but with my luck, and in classic Auckland winter form, it began to pour after only five minutes. In my head, cursing my existence, clutching my mug (even in my sad state, I only wanted to rescue the coffee!) I was waiting to cross the street when I noticed a shadow in my peripheral vision. I turned to find a stranger holding his blue umbrella for me with a smile because I couldn’t hear anyone talking.

Blue Umbrella – Ewa Czarniecka

Despite becoming wet himself, he shared it with me till he took a different turn. When I finally expressed my gratitude, all he said was, “We are all human, no problem!” I kept thinking to myself, “Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be?” This world would be a better place if we all took a moment to remember that, despite our differences, we are all human.

Dear stranger, thank you because of you I went to my meeting a little less soaked and with a heart full of positivity!

“Blue Umbrella” by Ewa Czarniecka

The right tool …

What matters at Rockweather: research teaches you to use the right tool for the problem …

Tuesday 25th January, 2022

My library here at Rockweather has a near optimal air flow from the far side of the house. However, that cool air is, by definition, delivered by the wind. Hence doors slam a lot…

All that study during my doctorate has taught me one thing; you need to think until you understand what the real problem is. Then you need to find and use the right tool for the job …

So, since that is a physics problem, we need to apply an appropriate physics solution. I sought advice from the most authoritative physicist in history after Newton. Thank you Professor Richard Feynman … your solution works perfectly and I think you would have approved.

Beyond and Beneath – Looking ahead …

Looking ahead, what is …

17th April 2021

A few years ago, I wrote down two questions before meeting with a friend for coffee. He is one of the most creative people I know, a designer and an engineer with a wicked sense of humour.

The questions had been turning over in my mind for awhile. Over coffee, he took each question and shared honestly how he felt about them. It was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent, one-on-one with a friend looking ahead …

They are very simple questions:

Looking ahead, what is:

  1. Your most interesting or exciting thing to look forward to (preferably on the near-term horizon) ?

  2. What is your greatest challenge or difficulty facing you now (or approaching on the near-term horizon) ?

Since that time, I have shared these same two questions with many other people. Some I knew well, some were new acquaintances. Almost every time, the questions have guided us through some fascinating discussions.

Sometimes, they open up some painful places that were ready to talk through. More often, they have made us realise just how many opportunities were in front of us. In this time of change during COVID-19, when nothing is remotely “normal”, we all need to think more creatively and optimistically about the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Recycling in Sweden …

Sweden and Norway are BIG on recycling …

25th December, 2017

Norway and Sweden are big on recycling. In Luleå, each grocery store had a plastic bottle drop-off machine called a panta that you could return packaging to before you entered the shop. Rather than give out cash, each machine would print a receipt that you could later scan at the checkout and get a discount on the total. It seemed to work so well.

I watched people arrive with big bags of drink bottles and then go in to do their shopping. I later found out that there is a linked supply chain where manufacturers participate to recycle plastics they manufacture. In 2016, it was estimated that Sweden recycled 84.9 percent of its aluminum cans and plastic bottles. That was a total of 1.8 billion items or an average of 177 per person per year. The pay-out when you return a container ranges from one to two krona (NZ$0.17 to NZ$0.34).

On Christmas Day in Oslo, Norway, Jane and I felt like Burger King for Christmas lunch. Like Sweden, the Norwegians are also into recycling but I could not help noticing that people seemed to take their spoons with them after they had eaten. No wonder; they looked big enough to use as snow shovels ….

Pomodoro and Coffee

Research and lockdown sometimes feel remarkably similar …

17th December, 2020

New Zealand went into several different stages of lockdown during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. However, for a student like me, not much seemed to change. Being sent home to … er … keep doing research … was not really much of a change or a burden.

Please do not misunderstand me: I realise how hard it was for so many people with changes to their routines and income. This pandemic was a disaster in every sense. However, in the midst of it and in the intervening months following our release from lockdown here in New Zealand, I have seen examples of how people around me thrived. I saw all sorts of creative approaches for how to figure out what the “new normal” was supposed to look like.

One approach that has worked for me for a long time is called Pomodoro. It is a technique that helps me focus on a task for a set period of time, take a controlled break, and then resume without losing the flow. My pomodoro time during a typical day looks like the program below:

If you are not a coder, just try reading it as plain English. The first stage is about getting organised. Retreat away, turn off all interruptions (Facebook, Instagram, my smartphone, email, WhatsApp, … you get it …). Coffee is essential. OK, so tea works but not as well …

I find a pomodoro length of sixty minutes works for me. Some people find twenty or thirty minutes works best for them. Experiment until you find out your optimal work-chunk size. Then, the loop starts:

drink coffee … read … think … code … write … rewrite … refactor the code ….

Keep doing that until the interval is complete. No sneak checks of social media or email. That’s cheating. Believe me, unless something out there is on fire or one of your children managed to flush a sibling down the toilet, it can wait. Your creativity is allowed to take precedence.

Sometimes, my daughter Michaela and son-in-law Luke lend me their dog Axl Rose for company during the day. He loves these cycles since almost every pomodoro cycle involves a quick walk around the block for us if he is here. He quickly settles into the rhythm; dogs just get this stuff instinctively.

It’s not complex. The secret is to figure out how not to break your concentration and stay in the flow. I only take a short break each cycle. It is often in those breaks, walking, making fresh coffee or letting Axl chase the neigbour’s cats out of our garden, that I see solutions to problems that I could not see sitting at my desk.

Over the last few years, I have taught this technique to a lot of my students. Give it a try! This YouTube video is a great introduction to Pomodoro.

The video mentions that background music without lyrics can be helpful. YouTube has this great collection of the Best of Chopin you can try.

Memory upgrades

Never underestimate the power of a small bear with a good screwdriver …

December 13th, 2014

Everything was running just a bit too slow around here, the end of my first year at AUT. Eclipse clearly needed a bit more room to wriggle so I had a talk with Luke, Bottomly and Jeremy.

Bottomly nodded wisely, got out the Rockweather credit card and went hunting at PB Tech on-line.

A serious memory upgrade to my system began along with the sound of screws getting dropped into the innards of the machine. These are the times I just let the experts do their thing while I make them coffee.

Never underestimate the power of a small bear, a good screwdriver and a strong expresso …

Exam time

At a university, sitting an exam is not the hard part; sometimes it is harder to get your exam paper and marks back …

November 23rd, 2020

I had a most interesting time at the AUT University exam hand-back on this day back in 2013. It was the end of my second semester here and I had taken four papers, three of which had final examinations to sit.

I talked to the Nice Lady who was on the door at the Exam Hand-Back room. “Hello, my exam number is shown as ‘Not available‘ on your list over there. When is the next hand-back time?”

“There isn’t one …”

“So…what happens next?”

“I do not know…which paper do you want back? ” So I showed her the paper number and she said…. “No, you are wrong. That ‘Not available‘ does not mean that.”

“Ohh .. So what does ‘Not available‘ mean then? Is my paper not available yet?”

“But it does not mean that …”

“Right”, says the very confused Badger..

She had me sit down and fill out a Yellow Form. I went into the Hand-Back room and sat where she told me to. The Nice Lady came over and took my form. … sat there … sat there … still sitting …

About five minutes later, the Nice Lady came back and asked me why I was still sitting there. I politely explained that she had taken my Yellow Form but not given me my exam paper yet.

“Oh”, says the Nice Lady. “I filed your form.”

“Ahh … OK … so what happens now?”

“Um…not sure.” In my obvious ignorance I asked: “Well can you possibly get it out of the filing? Surely you filed it in alphabetical order?”

“No, these are exam conditions…I am not allowed to do that.”

“What? This is not an examination, it is an ‘exam hand-back’. I understood I was supposed to come here, do what I was told and receive my examination script back. I cannot change anything, only check the adding …”

“What was your paper number?”

“It is a six-digit number. It is Algorithm Design and Analysis. It is in the bag you asked me to leave outside the room. I cannot remember the exam number, but it is on the list on the door outside.”

“Then you will have to go outside and fill in another form …”

The obedient Badger went outside and filled in Yellow Form Number Two. Ten minutes later the same Nice lady on the door asks “Why are you back?”

“Please don’t ask …”

Again, I went in, sat down, gave the Yellow form to the same Nice Lady just like I did the first time … sat there …sat there … finally …got my exam paper

I took my phone out to add up my marks.

“Stop – You can’t use your phone in here” says the Nice Lady. “This room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”

I put on my best stern Badger face: “Today, this is not a phone. Today, it is a calculator. I am using it to add up my marks … “

“I repeat, this room is under exam conditions. Put it away or you will have to leave.”


I passed …

Alchemy and lemons

It’s your choice what you do with the lemons or Pak’n Save trolleys that irritate you …

Saturday 21st November 2020

Over the last month I have been camped in my library, writing the final academic journal paper for my doctorate. The view from the second story here is beautiful, with the white-noise of the wind as the only sound for hours at a time …

The days pass uneventfully, page after page gets written, rewritten and then rewritten again. I have learnt how to plod …

It was all pretty peaceful until some ‘inconsiderate person’ (President Trump might describe them more colorfully as a ‘loser’) abandoned a Pak’n Save shopping cart outside my house. We are a long way from the nearest store.

For a few days, it just hung around outside, blown around in the wind. I was intrigued how something constructed out of holes could catch the wind like that. Finally, it got blown over during a gale and just lay forlornly in the kerb.

Jane phoned the store but they showed no interest in retrieving one of their assets. That irritated me even more than the ‘inconsiderate person’ who had created the problem in the first place.

By Saturday afternoon I had had enough of moaning about it. Sometimes life is a lemon. That either makes you sour or do something to change things: I chose to take a walk with the trolley. As I passed hedges and gardens, I noticed for the first time just how many other trolleys had somehow escaped their servitude. Maybe there is something like the Underground Railroad that allowed American slaves to escape during the 1800’s going on here, where trolleys get together and escape in the dead of night. Was I really doing the right thing returning it to its Master ?

I reunited the trolley with some of its other bedraggled and rusting companions on the edge of the store car park.

With a silly grin on my face, I walked back home. Along the way, I came across a bin of free off-cuts of wood being offered outside a factory. Sticking out were the perfect pieces I needed to finish a shelf in my library. Maybe all this doctoral research is teaching me to become an alchemist: I think I just learnt how to turn lemons into timber.

I love this stuff …

The view from outside the hole looking back in …

In the darkness of World War II, Winston Churchill wrote “If you are going through hell, keep going…”

Sunday 15th November, 2020

After one of my conference or journal papers is accepted for publication, I take an evening or two to tidy up all my research notes and bind them into a folder. Perhaps it is for posterity: I don’t know. Either way, most of my research notes are hand-written. I love the feel of paper, my pens, pencils and steel rulers.

This evening was more like therapy, perhaps a sort of closure.

This journal paper was written from a place in my doctoral journey that was darker and lonelier than anything I have ever experienced before. The three volumes of notes that chronicle this time are the story of what it was like to get lost and know that you were lost. It is a view from outside the hole looking back in …

The paper started as the literature review that drove my PGR9 Confirmation of Candidature. That is an examination where a doctoral student’s research plan is examined and approved if it meets the required standards. A doctoral student then becomes a doctoral candidate. The research and writing for this paper commenced on 10th May 2017, a few months before I went to Sweden. Somewhere along the way, it turned into a Systematic Mapping Study, possibly because that type of literature review somehow became “fashionable”. It then drifted off to finally become something that was “informed by a Systematic Mapping Study..” when it was first submitted to the Journal of Systems and Software in November 2018. I was getting lost …

On March 14th 2019, we received a sound rejection by the editor and reviewers. They questioned so many aspects of the paper, but their feedback was the tongue-lashing I needed. The core problem I already knew I had was that the study was reporting nothing of interest. The field of fault diagnostics is so diverse that it is almost impossible to discern trends or patterns there. That is not what a mapping study is supposed to report; we had nothing of significance. I had disagreed with the decision to support our analysis with ISO 25010 Quality Attributes, but as a student under supervision, I went along with the advice I received.

During the re-write after the rejection, which took over a year, I fought my way back out of the hole. I pushed hard for the evaluation this time to be based on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level categories, something that made much more sense to me. This was my research and I learnt how to own it and push back graciously. I had also loathed the Elsevier LaTeX template we were given by the editors for for the draft version. It has a horrible layout and awful citation formats that even my co-author Professor Stephen MacDonell queried. So, I pushed through harder and found a much better Elsevier template, a more beautiful document for my tired eyes.

Exactly a year to the day after the first submission, we submitted again on 19th November 2019. You can see emails from Roopak and Stephen in these volumes, the frustration they felt with me and how much the writing was holding back other important research. Roopak stood by me, always creative. Stephen remained ever-encouraging, often helping to identify and tame the “elephant in the room” that lay at the core of the paper’s problems.

The acceptance of the paper by the editors on 25th March 2020 with only minor revisions was to break this drought. Looking at the final published version you can see how beautiful the paper looks. As I write this on 15th November 2020, the paper has been downloaded and read 53 times. That is such an encouragement.

Would I write a literature review like this again? No, never. If I did, it would have to be done totally differently. I love the background literature reading and writing I craft for my journal and conference papers, but would I ever do a survey paper like this again? I hope not.

I came to university to write about the things I was learning to build, to report the original (and hopefully novel ) research we were doing. I found the task of surveying the research of others to be soul-destroying, day-and-night, month after month. Mapping all their minutiae, counting their often tenuous trends, that’s not what I signed up for. Without my Christian faith, this paper could have driven me down a horrible one-way path that I might not have made my way out of.

My usual cry of “I love this stuff” was silenced for a long time by this work. Outwardly, I kept cheery, still loving the hours of teaching and working alongside all my colleagues and friends at AUT. However inwardly, the writing of this paper killed something precious.

Was it worth it academically? Yes: the literature review is still a rite-of-passage for all doctoral candidates. Is it a good paper now? Yes, it is a contribution to my field that is accepted by my peers, reporting results that I can stand by and defend.

Was it worth it emotionally? Yes: but in future would I ever let one of my students get into such a hole and be so broken for so long? Heaven forbid: definitely not. Was it a fault of my supervisors? No, definitely not because I have to own my own research. This is my journey and I am responsible for how it is walked. They cannot walk this or write this path for me.

Do I love this stuff now? Yes, it is a paper to cherish, a battle fought not well but fought to the end. That quote from Winston Churchill lifted and sustained me so often. During the darkness of World War II, he wrote: “If you are going through hell, keep going…”

So true.. and now I love this stuff again….

The view from the trenches with my faithful Rockweather Crew …