Comment policy

This is only a draft policy, because I noticed I got some spam comments. How exciting! I must be on my way to become a real blog. So. If and when this blog gets more traffic, there will be a more extensive comment policy, but for now it is quite simple.

  • I moderate all first comments. If I like it, you’re good to go, although I will keep an eye.
  • Don’t spam my blog. All spam is marked as spam (which seems to have the consequence that all further comments by that commentator are automatically marked as spam – handy!) and results in an immediate ban.

Does cutting down on Facebook make you more productive?



A couple of weeks ago, Facebook finally got on my nerves to the extent that I cut down a lot on the time I spent there. Considering how much time I used to spend on Facebook, one would imagine that I now have seas of time to spend on other things. My book! My blog! Job applications! I would get so much done! Not so. Often I can be found with the computer in front of me, not on Facebook, not even actively browsing the net, just randomly staring. Bored.

Facebook has left a gap. Filling this gap with something more useful is not an automatism. I still find myself switching between windows, looking for distraction. The distraction is just no longer there. I have found several new blogs to read in the meantime, though. Obviously, becoming more productive, streamlining my life is not as simple as turning off Facebook. I doubt this will go automatically, so I am experimenting with a variety of methods. Currently I have a mental list of three or four things I want to do each day. Practical things. Two are housework related (today I want to do laundry and I really should hoover) and the other(s) will be something else. I am trying to get to a point where when I notice my attention is waning, I will do these other things that also need doing, rather than browse the internet. I’m finding it really hard! I am finding it hard to notice when I am no longer paying attention, and even harder to then snap out of it and start doing something again. There is no easy solution to this problem and I don’t even quite understand what the problem is yet.

Cutting down on Facebook did give me more time. Now I just need to use that time.

Social welfare and foodstamps

There’s a thing going around on Facebook, one of those endemic pictures with text that Facebook is so full of these days. “If you can afford beer, drugs, cigarettes, manicures and tattoos, you don’t need food-stamps or welfare.”

But really, it could be found anywhere and indeed it is found almost everywhere. It is repeated as a maxim in a variety of phrasings and very few people seem to realise how dehumanising it actually is. So I want to talk about it a bit, take it apart a bit, and look at the underlying attitude, if it stands up to scrutiny.

Before I start taking it apart, I should point out that I have had the privilege never to have been really poor. Although my family was by no means rich, we could afford our food, new clothes and although it was by no means luxurious, we usually went on holidays in the summer. I grew up thinking that if money would be tighter, you would just have to cut some more. You might have to go for the even cheaper stuff, get clothes second-hand, watch the special offers even more carefully, and, indeed, maybe forego the little luxuries of life, such as a beer with friends, or a hair-cut. Not a problem, right? That’s not what life is about, is it?

There are two problems I have with the attitude expressed in the maxim above and indeed in my own younger self’s attitude. The first is that as soon as people lose their job (or get out of school and can’t get a job), they suddenly are no longer seen as people who can make decisions for themselves. They no longer have the right to decide what to do with their own money. Yes, that is right, their OWN money. All this nonsense about tax payers paying for the people on welfare is just that, nonsense. If you are paying tax, then you are paying insurance in case YOU end up without a job. The people who are on welfare now have paid that insurance themselves too. They have EARNED that welfare. They have WORKED for it. No, not everybody. Some people come right out of school and can’t find a job. Some people are unable to work for other reasons. And some people are lucky enough to have a job for most of their lives. Would you WANT to be unemployed?

Which brings me to point 2.

Let’s tackle beer and manicures first, because they are easy.

Remember how I said that I thought it would be easy to forego life’s little luxuries? Well, it isn’t. I am still by no means poor, but I have had to forego those little luxuries. I have had to say ‘no’ when people asked me out for a drink, because I couldn’t afford it. You know what that does to you? It isolates you. You know what isolation does to you? It makes you depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? Being unemployed. And no, the alternatives for social interaction are not plentiful. Most social interaction will involve food and drink. So of course you fork out money for a beer (or a coffee). What else are you going to do, sit at home and feel sorry for yourself? Well, yes, there is that, but I will get to that.

The manicures? Fill in any other thing that makes you, personally, feel beautiful. Oh, that doesn’t cost anything? Really? That hairbrush doesn’t cost anything? Deodorant? Face cream? Shampoo? A haircut? I’ve got gorgeous hair. Well, when I get a regular haircut, I do. Haven’t had one in nearly a year now, so it hangs and basically looks dead. I don’t feel particularly beautiful when I look in the mirror. Maybe you are not very much into the beauty/styling thing, maybe you are. But everybody needs to feel good about themselves and for most people that involves their looks to some extent. Not feeling good about yourself makes you depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? Yeah. Also, the cost of a manicure? You can get one for a tenner. That’s less that a haircut in most places.

I’m not too much into tattoos, but my friends tell me it’s a beauty thing, so the same arguments go.

Now, drugs and cigarettes. I am not sure what makes me angrier. That attitudes like these try to dehumanise people by taking away their rights to socialise and feel beautiful, or that they just blatantly ignore the fact that addictions are, you know, ADDICTIONS. You can’t just turn the switch. “Oh, am unemployed now, guess I should stop smoking / doing drugs.” Also, being unemployed is stressful and scary and painful and depressing. Not the right time to give up an addiction. Perhaps  most importantly, addiction is an illness. And no, it is not even an illness that you bring upon yourself. I am not completely up to date with the research (hey, you can’t be up to date with all the research), but I do know that it’s a neurological illness that means that your brain’s reward system is decidedly off (ever noticed how some people are way more prone to addiction than others? Yeah, that’s why). Natalie Reed explains this way better than I could here, here and here. So basically, as a society, we are compassionate towards people with all sorts of physical and mental illnesses and disorders. We’ve even begun to catch on that psychological illnesses are real, but when it comes to addiction, we’re still saying “get over it.” That’s wrong. That’s inhumane.

Being unemployed can make you seriously depressed. You know what else makes you depressed? The constant judgement of people around you. The people who should support you, the community to which you belong, the community to which you thought you belonged. Until you became unemployed. Then, all of a sudden, the community decided it knew exactly what you should be doing. It took away your power to decide what to do with your own life and imposed social sanctions if you dared to keep that power in your own hands.

You see, welfare and food-stamps are, or should be, there so that people, families, don’t have to reach that poverty line in which even the little luxuries have to be foregone. Welfare isn’t just there so that you can tether around the poverty line always clutching on for dear life. They are there so that you don’t have to do the tethering, so that you can live.

Taking people’s power to make their own decisions away is inhumane, judging people for their own decisions is inhumane, deciding that people cannot, should not be social or feel beautiful, judging people for their addictions… These things are dehumanising. What’s worse, they are dehumanising the very people that are already struggling with their sense of self-worth because they are unemployed.

In 20 minutes a day, my thesis got written

A large part of my thesis, both the research and the writing, got done by allowing myself to work just 20 minutes a day. You can get a lot done in 20 minutes and you sure as hell get a lot more done if you work for 20 minutes than if you agonise for 6 hours about the work that you haven’t done and should have done.

There is a persistent image in academia that everybody else works for 6, 8, 10 hours a day, bogged down in books, concentrated, getting a lot done. Especially when you just start as a grad student this can be overwhelming, because it seems to be the expectation. The fact is, most people can’t spend hours on end at their research. This isn’t even because you have a ‘good’ excuse, such as that after an hour of intense reading your brain just needs a break (although this is true), or that you really shouldn’t be staring at a computer screen for long stretches of time (although this is true, too). No, the reasons for these are what we would generally consider ‘bad’ excuses.

• We get bored. Even if you love your research until the very end, like I did, most of the actual work is likely to be incredibly boring. Making lists. Reading articles by the guru in your particular field who really needs an editor. Hunting down references. Collecting data. Even the writing itself is mostly boring. Until you have a moment of, this, THIS is interesting, exciting, this is what you are doing it for. This is what you want to tell all your friends about. Suddenly the hours fly by. Maybe even a whole week flies by. Two weeks! But those times are rare. Most of it is the boring stuff. And so you get bored.
• We get distracted. I do think that Facebook is a big culprit here, but I am pretty sure that our predecessors got distracted before the advance of Facebook. No, let me rephrase that. Before Facebook? There was always an exciting book to read, a computer game to play. Oh, and I should really tidy my office, hang the laundry…
• Hard work is just that, hard work. You’re in a PhD program because you’re smart and since you’re smart it is likely that education up till now has been something you did because you enjoyed it or something that you didn’t really pay much attention to at all, because it just happened. I have colleagues and have had colleagues and students who knew better than their teachers, who never really had to study, who could start last-minute on an essay, who did their learning for fun, not because they had to. A PhD doesn’t work like that. It’s work. That takes a while to get used to.
• You think you suck. The impostor syndrome (read especially the references given under ‘notes’) is a real thing and particularly prevalent in highly educated people and then again in highly educated women.

I don’t understand how procrastination works, but procrastinate we do. And then we feel bad for procrastinating, so rather than actually doing some work, we spend all our energy walking around in circles, around the work, avoiding it some more. Which is why I allowed myself to just work for 20 minutes a day. After those 20 minutes? I was free as a bird to do something else. In 20 minutes a day, my thesis got done.*

*Disclaimer: In the last couple of weeks before submission, I had to up it a bit to, say, 20 hours a day. I also went a bit crazy. But still, it got done.

A Review of ‘The Great Penguin Bookchase’

I recently had a very special occasion pass in my life and one of my friends celebrated by giving me The Great Penguin Bookchase game. “The family board game for anyone who loves books.” Sounds like a great game for me and most if not all of my friends. And it is. Let me tell you about what I love about The Great Penguin Bookchase and what I don’t love so much about it.

The Great Penguin Bookchase is based on Trivial Pursuit. If you don’t like Trivial Pursuit, keep reading anyway, because neither do I. In fact, although I love games in general, Trivial Pursuit is not a game you will ever see me play unless it is under duress. This is not because I generally lose, although I do. It is because the game is too random for my tastes. There are an enormous amount of questions about topics that I have absolutely no interest in and consequently no knowledge about. No knowledge = guesswork for the answer = randomness. I don’t mind a certain amount of randomness, or chance, or luck in games and in fact you will happily see me play games that are (almost) entirely based on say the roll of the dice. The difference is that those games don’t have the underlying idea that you win based on knowledge. You win or lose based on luck. Fine, let’s play with luck. Trivial Pursuit is based on knowledge, it is based on knowledge about topics I have mostly no interest in, so I don’t particularly like the game.

So I like The Great Penguin Bookchase because it is about books and I do have an interest in books, right? Well, yes and no. Let me tell you a little more about the game.

Like Trivial Pursuit, The Great Penguin Bookchase is divided into categories. In this case, each category relates roughly to a genre:

  • Children and fun
  • Arts and science
  • Mystery and crime
  • Plays and poetry
  • Sci-fi and adventure
  • Classics and modern

The board is similar, although not identical. You cannot go all the way round and the categories are kept together. That is, all the ‘Children and fun’ are in one section, all the ‘Mystery and crime’ in another. They aren’t mixed. In fact, the only way to get from one category to another is to go back up through the middle and back down again. The rules are pretty similar. I am not going to point out all the similarities and differences, because after all, this is not about Trivial Pursuit.

So here’s how you playThe Great Penguin Book Chase. You throw two dice, you end up on a colour, you answer a question. If you get a question right, you get a book. Yes, a book. This is pretty cool. The books have actual titles too and no two books are the same. In the mystery and crime section, you can choose between, for example, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, ‘The Woman in White’ or ‘Hannover Square’. You put the book in your book case and it’s the next person’s turn. Every second square is grey and titled ‘award or sentence’. You end up on one, you pick up an ‘award or sentence’ card. They can be good, bad or neutral. You gain a book, you lose a (or several, or all) book or you move a couple of places. Then, there are the library space, the bookshop space and the book corner space. In the library, you get to borrow (i.e. get) books (depending on age, kids get two, adults one), in the bookshop you get a book, and in the book corner you get any book that has been left there (by an unfortunate player who lost one due to an ‘award or sentence’ card).

So, what do I love about The Great Penguin Bookchase? Well, obviously it is about books. I am relatively well-read, so I don’t have to feel like the complete idiot I usually do when playing Trivial Pursuit. Each colour covers two genres and they are brought together in such a way that although they are related, there is still a good chance that you might know more about the one than the other. So even if you are not particularly interested in sci-fi, you might have read your share of adventure novels. You may not be well read in modern literature, but you might know your classics. That is not my only or even main reason for loving it, however. There are still plenty of questions I cannot answer and have to guess, so that element of chance is still there. It just doesn’t annoy me as much. And the reason it doesn’t annoy me as much is because Penguin took that element of chance and added to it with those ‘award and sentence’ cards and the bookshop. This game really is partly about knowledge and partly about chance. Making the chance aspect this bit larger also means you can play it with those who aren’t particularly well-read because they can still get their books. Last time we played it, I got almost none of the questions right and still got two book cases full (yes, you only need one, no, that didn’t stop me. Your point is?), before I eventually hit the finish.

Another great thing is that it can last as long or as short as you want it to. The simple version as I just explained it generally lasts us, two players, less than half an hour. But if you want to make it longer, and more frustrating, you can make yourself lose books very easily (every time you get a question wrong, for example).

Now for the things that I don’t love as much. First, unless you alter the rules, it could take you a very long time to end up on the finish point (in the middle). Enough to end up with another book case full, if that’s your thing. Or lose all your books again, if you want to be really cruel about it. But, you know, you can alter the rules for that and solve it that way.

The really frustrating thing? Whoever wrote the questions has no idea of interpunction. Commas and quotation marks are especially lacking.  This is a game aimed at book lovers. No, not everyone who reads books will care about punctuation. But many of them do. The lack of it grates. Also, you read these questions aloud, so these errors are not just the bane of the grammar Nazi’s life, they actually hinder game play. You want examples? Here are some examples.

Oh, the first example brings out the rarer issue of grammatical errors:

  • “What is an Printer’s Devil? ” (the article an should be a in front of a word beginning with a consonant)

Not a particularly grating one, but still:

  • “What is the name of the gardener in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies?” (titles should come between quotation marks – this happens all the time)
  • “In the Tale of Squirel Nutkin what is the owl called?” (the quotation marks as mentioned above, and maybe a comma before “what”? Also, I would change sentence order.)

Where the lack of quotation marks actually causes ambiguity:

  • Whose birthday is known as Inventor’s Day in Argentina?

I did not have to search long for these errors. In fact, I quickly read through about 20 cards or so.

Now, I know that my writing is not free of errors in grammar, spelling or style. But guess what? My writing has not gone past an editor. Although I do try to edit myself, any writer knows that true editing needs to be done by a foreign eye. How did this game ever get past an editor? Does Penguin not have editors? Have the questions in this game not been extensively proofread? I really hope that when the next version of the game comes out, this will have been rectified. Several of my friends are excellent editors, I can recommend them.

Don’t get me wrong, I do recommend this game wholeheartedly to anyone who loves books. The game play is excellent, the questions are interesting and fun and if you pay attention, you can learn a lot from it too. Fix the writing and we have a great game.

Welcome to The Laughing Linguist

Hey there and welcome to The Laughing Linguist. I am a newly-minted PhD who is trying to make her way in the big world by writing about things that matter to me. Obviously, I love languages. I am also fascinated by science and always want to know how things work. Oh, and I have Opinions. I have been told I rant well and should really start a blog, so here I am. I will have things to say about social justice and social welfare, bad books and good games, hopefully finding my place in academia and anything else that catches my eye. I also foresee a category of ‘things I wish I knew about running a website before I started it’. I intend to work out a regular posting schedule, but my work is unpredictable both in actual timing and in quantity, so there may be more or less intense weeks.