16 April 2008

Book Meme

So there's this thing called a book meme...

I obviously wasn't paying attention in blog class, but apparently these memes are all over the net. As far as I was concerned, a meme was something Dawkins came up with to explain cultural evolution - and, oh dear, that sounded so pretentious. Very bad science communication.

I won't try to fashion a better explanation of meme than Dawkins himself. So here he is: "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."

Book memes then. From what I gather, it's a kind of game/way of showing off your literary prowess to the blogosphere. The idea behind most of them seems to be that you take a random section of a book that "just happens" to be sitting on your shelf and post it on your blog. My Dawkins excerpt, for example, wouldn't count because I selected it for a specific reason. (Although it did serve the purpose of showing off my literary prowess - if you rate Dawkins, that is).

Probably the best way to explain this is just to do it. So... I stole this book meme from Niobe at Dead Baby Jokes, and it goes like this: Pick up the nearest book (although in my case The Selfish Gene is actually right next to my keyboard, so I'm going to cheat and pick something else), turn to page 123, count down to the fifth sentence on that page and post the next three sentences. Simple. Here goes then.

"It is still too early to say whether or not a malaria vaccine is a real possibility. Malaria research is not, however, just about drugs, vaccines and bed nets. One successful programme in Kenya is examining how local shopkeepers dispense anti-malaria tablets and whether their effectiveness in the web of malaria control can be enhanced through education."

Hmm. Not as successful as I'd hoped. For a start, page 123 had a picture on it, so I had to go to 124. And despite having picked up a sci-art book, I seem to have landed us with some pretty heavy issues. Never mind. Perhaps we've all learned something.

Oh, and to "transmit" the meme, you have to tag someone in your blog post. Captain Doug, my fellow blogger... you're It.

12 April 2008

Small People and Survival

I visited the Science of Survival exhibition at the Science Museum in London a couple of days ago. Primarily for academic reasons, but also because I was hoping to extract myself from the swarms of small people on the main museum floor. Unfortunately, nobody explained to me that the exhibition room itself was mostly inhabited by a particular type of person - namely, small persons.

It was probably my own fault. I purchased my ticket before the giant cartoon characters guiding the way to the entrance loomed into view. Still, £6 is £6, and I was determined to undertake some serious critical evaluation. My apologies to one member of museum staff who got an impromptu grilling.

Now, I should stress that in general I'm a fan of innovative communication methods. But when innovative equals touch screens and flashy lights I get a bit twitchy. All very entertaining, for the small ones, but as Mr. Impromptu Grilling himself said, "Oh, it's engaging, but whether they learn anything is another matter."

Science of Survival has big ambitions. Once you get past the (actually quite misleading) title and the cartoon characters, you realise that what it's really trying to do is tackle the rather complicated issue of the future of our planet. But I'm not convinced many of the small people realised this. They were far too engaged in catching virtual pizza slices (jabbing buttons) to understand how this related to the population crisis and global poverty.

On paper, it must have looked like a great idea. Four characters, cleverly designed so that each kid would identify with one of them - Eco is the outdoorsy sort, Tek is the geek - and their virtual city, for which visitors are asked to design eco-cars and houses, and choose energy and water sources. Everything you do is stored on your visitor card and at the end, you plug it in to see how your ideas fit into the 'future city'.

Yes, on paper, it must have looked like the last word in public engagement - and a lovely example of two-way dialogue. And even in practice, if you take this thing seriously, you'll learn a lot. My problem is that nobody is taking it seriously. It's just somewhere you can take your kids to entertain them for an hour. According to Mr. Grilling, most parents were doing a pretty bad job of explaining the underlying issues. "It's really left up to us to do that." That's all very well Mr. Grilling, but there are only two of you and you've been standing staring at the wall for the past 15 minutes...

In any case, it's likely that any kid with an up-to-date games console is going to be distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of games on offer at Science of Survival. I noted that most small people were making their way through the different sections - relating to water, food, energy, transport etc - at quite a pace. Perhaps this was partly due to the lure of the 'future city' - and the fact that Eco, Tek and co. kept spoiling all the fun by jumping in to tell the kids why none of their answers were right.

I'm in total agreement with the virtual ones. There are no right answers when it comes to the saving the planet. But try telling that to a seven-year-old who has just built a snazzy-looking, virtual electric car and painted it orange. "Nice idea, kiddo - no petrol fumes, but you're going to have to build a nasty big power station to make your electricity. Tut tut. You can't win where the environment is concerned." Stuff that, thinks kiddo, computer games are about winning.

Maybe all this touch screen malarky is just no substitute for real hands-on and having someone explain it to you. A friend who works as an explainer recently vowed to wage war on touch screens. His words: "Why not just stick it all on the internet and make room for something more interactive?" I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree.

I should probably mention that there were also several sparkly glass cases housing eco things such as toilet-top sinks. They were labelled in very small print at above head height - if you're a
small person, that is. But nobody, not even the tall people, was really bothered about those.

10 April 2008

This one has been bugging me for ages...

What's even more annoying than the Apostrophe Catastrophe itself is the fact that they actually punctuate it correctly on their website!

I'll never eat there, I swear.

4 April 2008

Time to buy stuff

So it's the end of the tax year tomorrow. And being a freelancer, this means, as far as I understand it, that I should spend whatever money I have earned this year on things "for business purposes" so that I have less tax to pay.

My accountant informs me that large pieces of equipment, such as computers, and cars (and houses - darn it) are out. New computers are apparently permissible, but I could only claim on 40% in the first year, which is, quite frankly, rubbish. So I'm left in a bit of a quandary. When does something become sufficiently large/important/expensive so as to be conspicuous in the eyes of the Inland Revenue?

What if, for instance, I decide to go out and buy enough printer cartridges to keep my printer happy for a decade? Actually, scratch that - what fun are printer cartridges? It's always much more exciting to wait until the poor thing is squeezing out the last drops of ink and I'm up against a deadline so tight I can barely breathe before shelling out for a new one.

I already bought a new microphone and a stack of paper. What else does a writer need? Think, Hayley, think.

What about investing in some fancy equipment that transcribes interviews automatically? No, I'm never going to find that down Maplins on a Friday afternoon. Or how about some folders and a few of those scented, sparkly pens... Wait, what is this, year nine?

Okay, maybe I need to think a bit more creatively. I could sign up to every science communication/journalism/new media conference going and charge the travel expenses to my business account...

Bingo! Google informs me that the University of Texas is hosting a whole summer of science communication events. Brilliant. And of course, to save money on flights, I'll have to stay out there until September.