By Cezara Pastrav,
Back in spring I was looking at my event schedule for the next half a year, discovering that I had a SAF21 training camp/workshop in Manchester and a conference in Toulouse a month apart, and feeling the bitter miserly part of me squirm at the thought of how much it´s going to cost to fly from Iceland to the continent twice in four weeks. Such a deplorable use of financial resources, really. And when you´ve spent years in computer science and work on a project about the conservation and better use of finite resources, suboptimal situations like this are like an itch you can´t quite scratch.
Sometimes you wait them out.
Other times you end up doing two secondments back to back.
I am one of the few ESRs in this project whose main concern is agent-based modeling, so it was natural to do a secondment at the Manchester Metropolitan University because this is where Bruce Edmonds is.
At that point I had been working on a number of versions of the same model of the Icelandic coastal communities for a couple of months and had implemented about 10% of any of them. I like agent models of social systems, I really do. The field is old enough to be rich in examples you can draw on, and there are a few guidelines to help you build a model of your own, but young enough (and dealing with systems complex enough) for the stranglehold of established methodologies to be blissfully absent. Working is this field makes me feel very much like a kid left unsupervised in the candy store.
But there is such a thing as too much candy. There were so many models I could build I was starting to lose track of what I was actually trying to achieve. It was high time for me to find my way back to a more productive frame of mind, and I was hoping Bruce would give me some insights, advice or a really stern talking to – whatever works on wayward modelers, I´m not picky. Bruce did something far far more painful: he gave me one week to sort through the hairball of model parts, half formed questions, disconnected knowledge bits and hazy goals my research was turning into, and give a presentation on what I was doing and wanted to achieve during the PhD.
Here´s some advice for when you´re stuck in your research: go to someone you find intimidating to the point where every time they talk to you your brain gives the „abandon ship“ signal and you find yourself staring at them while trying to remember which part of your face words are supposed to come out of. Then explain to them what you´re doing and why you´re stuck. I managed to get most of my ideas sorted out during that week, with the help of Kristinn Edvardsson – who is my collaborator on the model, and had joined me for a week-long secondment of his own. We spent the week haunting the university classrooms, scribbling on whiteboards, drafting and redrafting the models over and over until they made sense. Well, mostly.
When I wasn´t busy drawing whole mazes of diagrams or secretly wondering whether it was too late to consider a career as a goat herder, I spent time with the other ESRs. I talked to Luz about her work on data visualization, and to Lia about the model she´s building, and to Shaheen about his text mining. We went out and had excellent food and drinks and discussed the upcoming Brexit. After the results were announced, we discussed building a bunker in Iceland in case Trump gets elected president too and the world really goes down in flames.
Then I said my goodbyes and boarded a plane to the Netherlands.
There is a reason I chose to split my time between Manchester and Utrecht instead of spending a month at either of them. My supervisor, Frank Dignum, is at Utrecht University, so Utrecht should have been priority number one. However, I spent a year and a half in the Netherlands before going to Iceland and learned one very important lesson: you don´t go the Dutch without a plan, not if you want to keep imagining you can do better than a goat herder in this life. So I stopped in Manchester first, and then went to Utrecht confident I could make the most of my time there.
Which turned out to mean learning exactly how much my knowledge and understanding of normative agent models approached zero. Frank met with me so we could talk in person, as opposed to Skype and emails. I used this time to pester him with rapid fire questions about normative models, and he used it to paint a vivid picture of how much I would need to learn before I could develop one of my own. To this day I go over his style of explaining things trying to figure out what sort of sorcery allowed him to utterly demolish my idea about how much I thought I knew (along with some ideas I had that never saw the light of day as a result) without putting a dent in my confidence that I am nevertheless capable enough to build a model worth something. I must learn how to do it myself one day. Right after I learn how to properly model norms.
Samaneh, Frank´s other ESR who´s also hosted at Utrecht, was present for most of the talks, and was the one to point out after one of the meetings that wow, I ask a lot of questions. I was hit by the sudden realization that while Frank and Samaneh were going about their day with unflappable calm and the precision of a well-oiled mechanism, I was going about it with the composure of a rat on cocaine, one coffee cup away from actually twitching in my seat. I tried to tone it down in public so I´d fit in better with the place, but behind the closed door of my office, talking to Samaneh about how norms resemble RPG structure, and how to combine our models into something grander, and how to set up a participatory modelling stage in Iceland, the rat got to run free. Luckily for me, under all that calm, Samaneh is a lot more enthusiastic and excitable than you´d think so we got along pretty well.
I also used the time in Utrecht to run away to Brussels for a weekend and meet my father and some friends, and remind myself that I used to have a life outside my PhD. A Belgian waffle and some conversation that is about anything other than ongoing and future research go a long way towards restoring someone´s morale.
At the end of two weeks I said my goodbyes and boarded a plane to France (I suspect a lot of my stories will end like this by the time I´m done with this project), and thus ended my two summer secondments. I´ll probably do a couple more in a few months 🙂