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 …

What matters at AUT: requirements

Getting lost often means going around in circles. For me, unless my faith helps people in practical ways, then it is not worth sharing, is it? This post is one I have been meaning to write up for a while…

August 16th, 2018

I spent an hour with two students (who I do not supervise) today who were a bit lost. They were trying to define the software requirements for their final computer development project. It all seemed too big, too scary, too confusing to them. They had been knocked-back by their supervisor when they submitted their first proposal and were going in little circles when they decided today to go “Stop…let’s see if Badger is free….

We found a meeting room and broke each piece of information they had down using Psalm 119:105:

Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light on my path...”.

How does that apply? In Agile Software Development, we teach students that getting the “big picture” for a piece of software is hard, but that it is not impossible if they learn to make sense of it iteratively. They only need to see the next steps and be sure that that they are still on the path (i.e. not off the edges of the path in the mud…).

Once they step forward knowing the first bits of information, they can then flesh-out the next pieces, step-by-step. The lamp does not shine all the way to the end of the road and guess what…it does not need to

I keep a supply of treats in my laboratory for meetings just like this. We chomped through several small Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate Bars, but I think we made a little progress….<smile>

I love this stuff.

p.s. one of the students caught me a few days later… they had re-submitted their proposal and got it approved … I love this stuff..

Letter to my daughter

Friday 1st May, 2020

Hello Michaela,

It’s Friday morning and you just phoned me. You asked how my day was here in this COVID-19 lockdown and I just burbled on about writing and study. When I finished and asked you how your day was going, and you shared your news, you could not see that I was crying.Michaela_02

You got an A for your Master’s thesis ! I knew you ought to get one, but hearing how excited you were just after you received the news this morning started me weeping.

We have proof-read so many theses together over the last few years for other people. Can you remember how many of them received an A? I can only recall two. Far too many times I can remember thinking about what we were reading: “this is excellent writing but I wonder how the examiner is going to respond to it?” We shared the disappointment of the many B and B- grades, how that ended the postgraduate journey of some students. I think that kind of puts my tears in perspective, doesn’t it?

So now, you are able to start planning your Doctoral studies. You already know how different that is going to be. Your undergraduate years were spent writing about what everyone else thought about your topics. Then, during your Master’s, you started to express your own, original research findings. You drew together a few of the threads of ideas that others had missed. Now, when you enter into your doctoral research, the essence is to “..see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought” (Albert Szent-Gyorgyi). The hard part is that most of your work will need to be novel, original. That’s hard, is often tiring, but oh…it’s exhilarating.

Time is going to feel like it is passing differently too. There will be deadlines, yes, but they stretch out over years. You will ask yourself often “why am I doing this to myself ?“, especially after a particularly harsh response from a reviewer on some prestigious journal you are longing to get published in. I love the physicist Niels Bohr’s observation on this journey to becoming an “expert”:
An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field

I’ll be there to laugh with you during those times, there is a lot of coffee still to drink and  no shortage of drafts to proof-read. It will be hard but I know you will thrive. Maybe you will be far away at some English university and I’ll be weeping because I am missing you after a phone call. Don’t worry about that part – if that’s where the journey takes you, I would not have it any other way.

Jane and I already think the title “Dr Michaela Selway” will suit you: you are ready for this. Go for it !!

Love you so, so much,


The Doctoral Induction speech I never gave..

Monday 29th July, 2019

The Doctoral Induction is the first, official function for new PhD students here at AUT. To get to that point, students must have been accepted into a doctoral program and have found one or more supervisors to accompany them on their journey.  Two years ago, I was invited to be a guest speaker, but I never gave the speech I wanted to… Continue reading

Broken cups

Some weeks, you break things. Just don’t let things break you..

Saturday 27th July, 2019

I broke my favorite coffee mug this week. It slipped out of my hand when I was tired.

For as long as I can remember, I have used it to memorize the Periodic Table of the Elements when I take a break from my writing.

While I wait for the coffee pot to boil, I draw the position of each element in the air as I recite them. Now I am past Calcium (20), struggling to remember the name of each element as I pass through the valley of the Transition Metals towards Germanium (32).

I thought about gluing the bits of the handle back together but today I realized that my cup is now the perfect metaphor to express how I feel at the end of this week. It’s been a week where I felt hammered by people and things.

So I filed the rough bits smooth with a rasp from the garage and made fresh tea.

By Saturday morning, I had retreated to the safety of my library, surrounded by my faithful Rockweather research crew.

In postgraduate research, some weeks are like that. Quickly though, you learn the techniques to bounce back. Some weeks you break things, but you no longer let things break you.

Officer Sue

Late shift at the airport can be far more interesting than you might think..

7th July, 2019

Thank you for your feedback and comments – you seem to like stories of my encounters with people. This chance encounter occurred late one night in 2014 …

Summertime, 2014. It is the end of my first year back at university. I was working during the semester break in a car rental company on the outskirts of Auckland International Airport.

Late one evening, at the end of my shift I was parking the shuttle bus in its hanger. When I turned to look out the door, there was an official-looking lady there in a hi-viz coat.

“Hello, I’m Officer Sue. Did you just drive this shuttle back from the Domestic Terminal?”

“Yes, it was my last run of the night. Can I help you?”

“Do you realise you were driving too fast through the passenger set-down area? It is a speed-restricted area and the signs are pretty clear to see.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t notice that I was going too fast. I apologise for that – I’ll be more careful next time.”

“Yes, well you can’t be too careful on-airport. There are lots and lots of …er…passengers and stuff.”

“Yes, I agree. Thank you so much for coming over to see me.”

Officer Sue looked to the side and then down at her boots, somehow awkward.

“Er, thanks.” she said, looking at me. “I really hate telling people off. Don’t get me wrong; people shouldn’t speed. I love my job but I don’t like the telling-off bits. Are you OK with me reprimanding you?”

“Absolutely. That’s fine. You are right to call me out on my driving. I was clearly in the wrong and I really appreciate you coming over to tell me.”

“Really? Thank you..” she smiled awkwardly. “I’m not good at the ticking-off bits, really.”

“I think you did it really well – very politely. Thank you.”

“OK then, I’ll just toddle off then..”she said as she turned and walked back to her car in the darkness.

Over the next few weeks, I saw her many times as I drove to and from the terminal. She always smiled and waved as I passed. Clearly, she loved her job but I always had this nagging thought each time I saw her: she would make a lousy policewoman. I can imagine her late at night apprehending a burglar, asking “Are you OK with me arresting you?” and then letting them go if they objected….


Herschel, Lovelace, Hamilton and Hopper: Women in the Two Ages of Wonder

A new podcast series with the University of Auckland History Society…

Thursday 13th August, 2020

Michaela Selway and I have just published the third episode of our new podcast series for Tāhuhu Kōrero, the University of Auckland History Society blog site. This time we profile the life of Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer of the Victorian Age. The links for all the episodes are below.

I have always been fascinated by the history of science, particularly in the period that Richard Holmes calls “The Age of Wonder“. This was the period from 1726 to 1830 that followed the Late Enlightenment. After Isaac Newton had opened up science with his laws of motion, astronomers like William Herschel gave the public a glimpse of the universe beyond our Solar System.

In this series, Michaela, Kathryn and I look closely at the women who were breaking into this new world of science that, up to that time, had been dominated by men. After the first introductory episode, we will profile Caroline Herschel, Ada Lovelace and then go on to look at Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper in the 20th century.

Episode 1 podcast Introduction and blog post The Enlightenment before the Age of Wonder

Episode 2 podcast on Caroline Herschel and the blog post Caroline Herschel – Minder of the Heavens.

Episode 3 podcast on Ada Lovelace and the blog post Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

Clockwise from the top left – Caroline Herschel, Ada Lovelace, Grace Murray Hopper and Margaret Hamilton.

Iceland: the odd bits

All the strange bits that did not fit into an earlier post..

8th April, 2019

In Norway, one of our guides was called Odd Jonny. His name has stuck in my mind: Odd Badger has a certain ring to it. Now, as we leave Iceland today, here are the odd bits that did not seem to fit into any of the earlier posts.

Elven maidens
We discovered elven maidens twice in Iceland, one on a glacier in a flimsy wedding dress, complaining bitterly to her photographer to hurry up because she was cold. However, this one was the best..

During Medieval times, Iceland converted to Christianity in a near bloodless movement led by the Viking leaders. We passed many, many small historical churches as we drove right around Iceland. However, it was the radical designs of new churches which surprised us the most.

Plumbing worthy of the Tardis
In the Icelandic version of the Hotel California, we found a shower that would not be out of place in the Tardis. Later, in a small guesthouse on a remote farm, we discovered plumbing that could probably trigger time-travel.

The Punk Rock Museum
Reykjavik has its own Punk Rock Museum, complete with its own spartan web site. With a nod to anarchy, it is actually located in the former public toilets in Bankastræti, in the city center. They were honored to have Johnny Rotten himself officially open the museum in 2016.

Health and Safety? Wooden scaffolding? What are you worried about?

I took a close look….there are lots of sharp screws that protrude through the wood. Perhaps that explains the tattered trousers I saw on some construction workers <grin>

The Best Record Shop in Iceland
I had been saving my first opportunity to get to know Bjork’s music until I got to Iceland. Got to do this properly, eh? Lucky Records reminded me of Real Groovy in Auckland. Wall-to-Wall vinyl and a few small shelves for CD’s. Looks like the revolution where we all de-evolve back to using LP records and cassettes is going to succeed after all …

Finally, the first piece of advice we were given when we arrived in Iceland: “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes…”

Reykjavík, Iceland

Iceland is not like Scandinavia …

31st March, 2019

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, 11th October. 1986

See them sitting round the table,
Smiling like thieves.
Nothing in their pockets,
Nothing up their sleeves, ohh-oh.
Just a strange way of working it out.
While the factories back home are churning out more,
Missiles and bombs, enough to settle their score, ohh-oh,
Such a strange way of working it out…

“Reykjavik”, 1986

I remember writing that song while I was playing with my band Kirk in 1986. I was in the middle of my “writing-songs-like-Billy-Bragg” period, very skeptical of either Regan or Gorbachov’s chances of changing anything.

However, the idea of them meeting in Iceland intrigued me. Historians generally agree that while they did not agree on anything significant during that meeting in Reykjavik, what they talked about together ultimately led to the end of the Cold War.

Looking back now in 2019, compared to the way Trump and Putin bang their heads together today, I should have been less cynical. Jane and I are here in Iceland now to explore and the place still intrigues me.

We both completed a course from the University of Iceland last year that introduced us to the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. We got to read the first three major Sagas and understand the foundations of ancient Icelandic culture. Iceland is not like Scandinavia so this is a whole new place to explore.

Iceland feels cold, very cold this time of year … but it’s gorgeous here … this is going to be fun.

Reykjavic to Hotel California, Vic …
Aurorae in Iceland …

Unfortunately, our SUV does not have a feature to shake itself like a dog and throw off all that ice automatically.

BUT – we have this unbelievable fold-out balcony on our second-story hotel room. Now THAT is what I call aluminium joinery…

Kirkenes to Bergen

Discovering the Norwegian fjords

21st to 26th March, 2019

We joined the MS Richard With at Kirkenes to explore the fjords for six days. The Hurtigruten Shipping Company has sailed this route continuously since 1893.

This is not a cruise ship: no casinos, no slot machines, no top-deck swimming pool, dance classes or senior-citizen bingo nights. No, this is a cargo ship that stops at thirty-two ports on its journey and we are just a special class of cargo.

Everyone we talked to was here to learn about the environment and to help us do that, there was a fully-trained team of Norwegians that Hurtigruten calls its Expedition Team.

Expedition Team manager Nihi during an on-board lecture on Norwegian culture, education and politics.

Among the passengers, we met an English parish vicar whose wife works for Pirelli. She explained the chemistry of tires to me in-depth and we discussed how Pirelli has learnt to remove all but one carcinogenic chemical from its raw materials. Later, a production engineer called Matthew would spend long hours with me on Deck 7 discussing factory automation within Industrie 4.0, wanting to know all about software design, telemetry and IEC 61499 function blocks. A recently retired biochemist explained how she started her postgraduate studies at 47, gained a doctorate and went on to teach in her universities laboratory for the next twenty years.

On deck, Jane and I met birdwatchers who, even without their binoculars, could spot a puffin flying among the guillemots and seagulls off the bow. There was only one verbotene subject on-board: Brexit. They were all heartily sick of the whole sorry business.

Each of the excursions we took over the 2,500 kilometers we traveled are worth their own page, but it could take me a while to write them all up. Enjoy !

Into the blizzard at Hammerfest …