8 November 2011

Objects of science

I'm very pleased with myself. Look at all the vintage chic sciencey stuff I have just bought:

Microscope in battered old box plus scuffed up metal ruler and case (featuring weights of metals) for £15. Bargain! Plus, copies of various science books published 1950-1965 for a fiver. Including one called The Century of Science by F. Sherwood Taylor, which has been entertaining me over carrot cake for the last 20 minutes. In a section entitled 'Science at Home', Taylor envisages his future Science-enhanced living space:
"The windows will be air-tight - no, on second thoughts, I will do without windows, whose only use would be to show me a hideously industrialised town... I will light myself with daylight lamps concealed behind translucent panels; a diet rich in vitamin D will give me vicarious sunshine... All my furniture will be dull-finished plastic material and of stainless steel... Cooking proper will be abolished. Food will be bought from the future firm of Prepared Foods, Ltd., who will sell dishes ready prepared for cooking... The food will be fresh and will taste much better than anything home-made... Washing up will be almost wholly avoided by the use of an improved type of paper-plate, charmingly designed and decorated... Their cost will be negligible and after use they will be thrown away. Only the cutlery will need to be washed... My flat will therefore require no regular housework at all."
Ha! It amuses me that he imagined Science would have us all shrivelling in our artificially lit, plastic-encased apartments, eating off paper plates. And that microwaveable ready meals would be tasty.

Anyway, what's all this in aid of? Well, Saturday is open doors day at my office/studio. Everyone else in the building is a *proper* creative, with paintings and stuff. So I'm accessorising my articles with scientific objects, for visual effect.

Okay, okay, it was an excuse to buy loads of cool stuff.

24 August 2011

Einstein's Garden: storified

11 August 2011

See you in Einstein's Garden!

In a week's time I will be somewhere in South Wales, probably standing under an umbrella, trying to work out how to get a juggling chemist, some robotic crows, a social physicist wielding a guitar and a cult musician accompanied by a saw player (sawist?) onto a solar-powered stage with minimum fuss. And if it all becomes too complicated, at least I'll have a stand-up mathematician and a Blue Peter presenter to call on...

Sitting snug between the main stage and the comedy tent, the Solar Stage is at the heart of a well-loved music and arts festival - Green Man Festival - and yet its theme is science. It's the focal point of Einstein's Garden. Not Einstein's actual Garden, you understand, but certainly the sort of Garden the great man would have enjoyed tending to if he hadn't been too busy coming up with the theory of relativity. But it's not just for scientists. I mean, who wouldn't want to see a trio of poets get their tongues around Brian Cox... Okay, that last phrase was ill-advised. But sticking and colouring in are universal joys so get your butts to the Scientists' Crafternoon Tea Party for tea and cake, craftiness and, er, chromosomes. What else?

Everything happening in said Garden will be powered by the Sun, the ferocious pedalling of visitors to Electric Pedals' bicycle installation and a hydrogen fuel cell. And Love. Because every performance, exhibit, workshop and stage construction is the result of many months of hard work by an extremely dedicated and creative team, pouring Love in immeasurable quantities into this project. (Well done all!)

We've persuaded hipster musicians to come camping in Crickhowell and navigated our way through health and safety policy to put live, just-hatched chickens alongside a hydrogen-fuelled 'Omni-Tent'. In the last few weeks, an unexpected outbreak of busted knees, collar bones and hands among crew and artists has plagued my final preparations. Thankfully everyone concerned is expecting a full recovery and all but one will be heading for Wales, and the Garden, come next Thursday.

The programme has been printed, the tickets have been posted and the technical team is poised to wring every last drop of sunshine out of the sky to keep that solar-powered stage chugging over all weekend. Meanwhile, all that's left between me and Einstein's Garden is a frighteningly large number of words - despite my best efforts to finish various articles well ahead of time (who was I kidding?) I'll undoubtedly find myself working till the early hours over the coming week.

But if all those words do somehow magically arrange themselves on the page in the next couple of days, I'll be spending my Saturday afternoon playing an oxygen atom in a theatrical interpretation of the workings of the aforementioned hydrogen fuel cell. So if anyone happens to be in the vicinity of St Andrew's Park on Saturday, do come along and join in the madness - it's for a short film that will feature in the Omni-Tent over the festival weekend.

I'm preparing to spend large parts of next week out of the range of any kind of network - especially considering the pretty much redundant nature of my non-smart mobile phone - so I'll leave you with a Twitter list of all the crew working in Einstein's Garden this year. Some of them are equipped with much snazzier mobile devices than me. Also, my Geek Pop co-host @JimothyBell will be returning to the Green Man FM radio hut for the second year in a row to play science-inspired music, in similar fashion to the Geek Pop Podcast, but with less sitting on the floor of my lounge. I'm informed his show will be streamed live online, but where, I don't know - maybe on the Green Man website? Try that.

Anyway, toodlepip. I'll see you all in a lovely big field of mud.

27 July 2011

Biscuits in zero-G

NiceCupOfTeaAndASitDown.com sensibly notes that space travellers would do better to take new-fangled biscuit spread, rather than bourbons or custard creams, into any sort of zero-gravity scenario. It's the crumbs you see. Big, floaty lumps of biscuit spread will cause less havoc.

"Belgian biscuit baker Lotus well known for their Caramelised Biscuits and Speculoos has found a way of turning biscuits into a spread. This seems to be grinding them up with some vegetable oil, sugar and emulsifier much in the way peanuts might find themselves ending up in peanut butter. The upshot of this is that it tastes almost exactly like Speculoos, just as peanut butter tastes just like peanuts.
"Beyond breakfast I can see this new technology being put to use in two important areas. The first as a new form of biscuit adhesive for making advanced types of birthday cakes. In fact I reckon you could pull off a half decent Jabba the Hut's sail barge sticking on the window shutters with a jar of this stuff. The second and perhaps more obvious use is in the manned exploration of Mars. Biscuit crumbs in zero G during the 3 year round trip could prove quite a problem scuppering the no doubt endless opportunities for a nice float around and a cup of tea presented by 18 months in space."

6 July 2011

Podcasts I will keep on paying for

A shout out for two awesome, life-enriching podcasts that I have supported in the last 12 months:

This American Life with Ira Glass: Sublime examples of storytelling. Will teach any writer a thing or two.

Filmspotting with Adam Kempenaar and Matty "Ballgame" Robinson: Best. Film critiques. Ever. What's that you say about Mark Kermode? I don't even care.

(no, no, no)
Both are free but collect listener donations. Both are so good that I will gladly keep putting my hand in my pocket for them. I barely watch TV any more (why bother when faced with this?) so radio and podcasts are my main entertainment media besides music.

BUT. Is this any kind of a business model for publishers of new media? What if even the best-loved productions can't survive on listener/reader donations? Okay, so This American Life has other sources of funding, but ultimately, it will have to start charging if its listeners don't keep on paying. Filmspotting say they only just cover their expenses.

What if all the podcasts in the world just stop? It keeps me up at night. It really does.

22 June 2011

Molecule haikus

I'm collecting molecule haikus. No reason, other than someone sent me one - about carbon and oxygen - on Twitter. Then someone sent me another. Also about carbon. And another about water. I've posted them below.

"Oh why, Oxygen/did you choose Carbon, of all/Deadly love affair." - @AnneOsterrieder (Plant cell biologist studying the Golgi apparatus.)

"Join me, soft graphite/ Before this world crushes you / Your veins clear like glass" - @martinaustwick (Podcaster, Social Physicist, One-Man-Band, Unicorn Torturer)

"For H2O mix / Two hydrogens and just one / Oxygen. Finish." - @brisandbath_sci (The Bristol & Bath branch of the British Science Association:)


"Humoral response, Molecules collide in blood, Body protected." - @JLVernonPhD (Defender of Science, Molecular Biologist)

Now I want more. So PLEASE SEND MORE (add them in the comments). Thank you, kind people of Twitter.

19 June 2011

M-Shed: how to engage the locals

When I heard that the new £27 million M-Shed - a museum that promises to "tell the story of our city" - was opening in Bristol this weekend, I have to say I felt fairly apathetic about it. Standing right on the dockside, facing the floating harbour, the building itself is colossal, box-like and once housed Bristol's "much-loved" industrial museum. Personally, I never felt much affinity with it. So it was with without any high hopes or expectations that I arrived (with Mr Hayley and a friend in tow) outside the museum doors yesterday afternoon.

Within two minutes of stepping inside the building, I'd been greeted by a smiley lady wearing an M-Shed t-shirt, handed a pencil and a piece of paper and agreed to sketch out a design that I was later to transfer onto one of enormous windows in the stair well. The window was, by this point, already adorned with tens or quite possibly hundreds of visitors' impressions of local landmarks, all carefully inked onto the glass. The impressive view from the balcony at the top of the museum seemed to be a source of much inspiration. Upon staring out of the opposite window, however, I caught sight of the distinctive lettering that spells out 'THE LOUISIANA' and decided to pay homage to the legendary music pub - the venue for early gigs of The Libertines, Muse, Kings of Leon, British Sea Power and Mumford & Sons, to name but a few. Artistically, the result wasn't quite as charming as I'd hoped (pictures of the window itself still to come), but I was gratified by the chance to contribute to this gorgeously skewy piece of public art.

Not to linger on this window drawing, but it was, I think, a stroke of genius by the museum staff. Before I'd even set foot inside an exhibition hall, the drawing had stirred up a strong feeling of connection to my home city. A connection to the building and to the people living in it, with whom I had helped to create this artwork. More than that, though, the invitation to make my mark on the very structure of the building had given me a sense of shared ownership. This, combined with the slightly rebellious pleasure obtained from being allowed to scrawl on a shiny new window in a recently renovated building, left me infinitely more positive and open-minded about the exhibits I had yet to see. And, if I'm not mistaken, the window art was a nod to the street art scene that Bristol is famed for - I appreciated that.

As for the exhibits, well, as someone who has lived in or near Bristol their entire life, it's hard to convey quite how I began to feel as we perused cabinets stuffed with artefacts that related directly to my home environment. The curators had defined Bristol not just by a timeline of historical events, but by its culture, encompassing not only 19th century riots, architecture and inventions, but modern day festivals, clothes designers and film makers. The whole experience was steeped in nostalgia for me. One cabinet contained relics from Ashton Court Festival - until 2007, one of the focal points of city's music calendar - including a torn, paint-daubed festival t-shirt. In another, a stunning, gothic-inspired knitted dress designed by a student at the university where I did my postgraduate degree was displayed alongside more conventional clothing designs from centuries past.

Although many of the artefacts were behind glass, the curators had gone to great lengths to liven up the museum's halls with curious and often playful exhibits. Those that attracted attention included a full-size table and chairs (which visitors could sit at) with place settings and menus representing middle class dinner parties for different eras, a piece of street art covering an entire wall and a computerised exhibit that visitors could use to remix tracks originally recorded by Bristol-based musicians.

At the centre of one hall, we stopped to gaze down through a large opening in the floor. Spread out on the floor below was a map of the whole of Bristol. Now, what's the first thing you do when you see a map of your home town? You start looking for your house, or your school, or your local pub. And that's exactly what about 10-15 people at a time were doing, some of them on their hands and knees.

By the time we reached the bottom floor and I had reluctantly given up hope of finding my house - which was at that time located under a large pram - I was feeling quite emotional. As we emerged from the exit to find the concreted area outside had been turned into a giant chalk board, I resolved to visit again very soon. I could easily have spent several more hours at M-Shed, but in all likelihood, I would have been overcome with nostalgia - and pride in the achievements of my home city. So, I guess, I'm a convert to the new museum. I think that it says much about the culture of Bristol that I had thought would be impossible to convey.

I'd be interested to hear what non-Bristolians think of M-Shed. My impression was that most people visiting on the opening weekend were local people, and for that reason, they were feeling the same closeness to all the objects on display as I was. I could be wrong. But I'm sure that the creative way the exhibits have been designed will also interest outsiders... if not quite so intently.

P.S. I'm not sure exactly what this has to do with science communication (sorry sci commers), but there are certainly some fascinating examples of public engagement here.

1 June 2011

Yes! Look what just arrived!

Gene Code Fridge Magnets from the Open University! Win!
Chromosome-based fridge magnets. Why can't every day be this good?

Einstein's Gardener

As readers of this blog will know, I'm a sucker for anything combining science and the arts, and especially the musical arts. So when I was asked to manage the Solar Stage in Einstein's Garden at the amazing Green Man Festival, I jumped at the chance. My task, basically: to populate a festival programme with nerds. And mostly singing ones.

Well, initially, I admit, my minor successes at... erm... nerd-herding (oh, happy rhyming accident!) at Geek Pop might have made me a bit complacent - "Nerds you say? Ha! I know all of the nerds, all of them I tell you!" The ensuing panic hit just prior to my wedding at the start of this month, when I realised I was about to leave the office for nearly a month - strictly no internet permitted - without having herded all the relevant nerds into my neatly ordered and beautifully colour-coded Excel spreadsheet.

Luckily, other Einstein's Gardeners were on hand to man the spreadsheets while I drank gin cocktails in Sardinia and, following a Bank Holiday Skype-athon and some serious jigsaw puzzling of the schedule, it appears we've pretty much cracked it. And now I think about it... it looks freaking awesome!

Helen and Olly: Answer Me This
Not only have we succeeded in dragging half the nerd population of London to Wales for a (probably wet) weekend, we've managed to persuade a Sony Award-winning podcast team (Answer Me This*) and some hotly-tipped young bands (Marthas and Arthurs, With Love From Humans!) to perform on a barely waterproof stage powered by a distinctly dubious source (the Sun**). That, plus the fact that I've managed to team up Jonny Berliner, Helen Arney and Rishi Nag in the ultimate musical geek-off... all on miniature guitars... And I'm practically salivating. By jove, we've created the hippest nerdfest the world has ever seen!

Anyway, that's my publicity drive over with and now I want to explain why this is important. Because you might not think that I'd consider a muddy field in Wales the pinnacle of my science communication career to date, but let me tell you why I think it *is* - with reference to a conversation I had last week that I've been thinking about a LOT.

The essence of this conversation, which started over a post-honeymoon cup of tea with Julianna from StoryCog (and I'm sure she won't mind me repeating it here), was that in trying to bridge the gap between art and science, science communication (or the science communicator) often seems to creates more barriers than bridges. And I think Einstein's Garden does a good job of avoiding that particular pitfall.

Sometimes, you see, it just seems like we're going about this interdisciplinary stuff all the wrong way. So often, the focus for science communication is on getting scientists to create art from their research, or on providing a kind of scientific consultancy service to artists. As if scientific accuracy lends some kind of greater legitimacy to a piece of art. But does it?

I get where science communication is coming from. Evidence-based is best, right? Right... If you're a scientist. Because if you're a scientist, you deal in Theories and Experiments and Facts, so it seems logical that art about science should be based - like journal papers - on Theories and Experiments and Facts. But artists don't work like that. I mean, I'm probably not the best person to ask what artists base their work on but I'm also a writer and I've written some short stories in my time, and if you asked me what they were based on I'd say sudden wafts of familiar smells; words that fit a rhythm rather than a formula; feelings of nostalgia or déjà vu or sleep deprivation; that sort of thing. It's more about taking the germ of an idea and running with it.

So in my mind, there are two problems with the scientific approach to making art. One is that it ignores all those talented artists who are happily and legitimately making art about science in their usual lovely, haphazard, non-evidence based way. And the other is that if we reduce science-inspired art to handing scientists a paintbrush or a microphone, it's as if we're saying artists aren't capable of understanding science in the "correct" way, or of representing it accurately or fairly. But that's just the point! Who said art is supposed to be an accurate representation? Isn't one of the reasons we make art to provide completely new perspectives? What a bore if it was just frighteningly realistic still lifes and landscapes...

So without getting too deep (yes, sorry about that - I'll stop soon), it's for these reasons that I think it's more interesting to mix up the artists and scientists in one big arty, sciencey jumble and let them get on with it. Who knows? They might learn something from each other.

The non-existent pie chart
Now, the neat thing about Einstein's Garden is that it's grown from grassroots and it's (mostly) funded by people paying to see arts performances, so in general there's no one making a pie chart of the proportion of scientists vs non-scientists performing on my stage. Which in this instance, I think, is good. Don't get me wrong, I've programmed a lot of scientists. But only coincidentally, if you see what I mean. I won't discriminate against a band due to a lack of PhDs - I'm only concerned that they have something to say about the environment, or genetics or robots. Because science is our theme; finding out about it is part of a wider cultural interest, not just an educational aim. And because Einstein's Garden is part of a larger music festival and we're competing for the attentions of those who may have absolutely no prior interest in the subject, the motivation is to programme high quality performances - whether those be music, comedy, theatre, storytelling, poetry or a craft workshop - rather than science projects with some "art" tagged on.

So do science-themed Q&A sessions and some funny songs about particles performed in a field constitute science communication? It depends what you call science communication. If you think science communication always has to involve actual scientists or science communicators or has to teach someone how the Large Hadron Collider works, then probably not. But if you want people to consider science a part of culture in the same way they would politics or music or cookery, then perhaps this is the sort of science communication that is really worth doing.

P.S. Am I being purposefully provocative? Yes. Someone should probably argue with me.
P.P.S. Am I biased? Definitely. I love this project.
P.P.P.S. Here's a MixCloud list of musicians playing Einstein's Garden this year. Have a listen. It's good.

*Although I gather certain members of the Answer Me This team will agree to pretty much anything for half a kilo of Flying Saucers...
**The Sun, as in the celestial object, not The Sun as in the newspaper - that really would be a dubious source.

11 April 2011

My week as a freelancer part II (Colin's week)

After reading my post on Friday, friend and fellow freelancer Colin Stuart (you may know him as @skyponderer) felt compelled to write something in response. I promised to publish it, so here it is. He's gone for a full on blow-by-blow account of his week, which I think perfectly communicates the hectic (but varied and often fun-filled) lifestyle of a freelancer. And for the record, I don't eat *that* many biscuits... cake, though, that's a different question.

Freelancing can be interesting. Let me say outright though that I don't eat as many biscuits as Hayley but I am happy to bet I drink as much tea and my Where's Wally pyjamas can definitely rival her Dangermouse ones.

So I too often get approached to say that I must be living the dream as a freelancer and like Hayley I have never really known another way having taken the leap straight out of uni.

First things first, there are many things to distract you: I am only writing this because I was crowd-sourcing on Facebook (for that read procrastinating) when I saw a link to her blog post on being freelance. I then felt I too could/should write something. Bottom line: you've got to be disciplined(ish).

So, let's get down to it. My week as a freelancer*:

Monday - had the morning off so I could travel back from parent's house having cooked my Mum a lovely Mother's Day dinner night before. NB Being freelance means you can take time off whenever you want, e.g. to be a good Son. Win. Also means you don't earn as much money, or you have to work extra to cover it. Fail. Monday afternoon I had given over to writing my entry for the 2011 Association of British Science Writers Awards. Being freelance means any opportunity for shameless promotion needs to be taken, sometimes at the cost of not doing paid work. Monday = happy Mother, potential for awards victory, zero money made.

Tuesday – It is a rare day that as a freelancer I have a need to get suited and booted. It is either aforementioned Where's Wally pyjama bottoms, or at best black jeans and a shirt. Today was different: today I was going to the House of Lords. Not before a meeting in Central London mind. During meeting another editor emails (seen on my indispensable iPhone) to say he has story for me, am I interested? Whilst still paying attention to the meeting, I reply in the affirmative. He is paying, of course I am. Meeting finishes. Whilst grabbing a quick lunch, read paper editor had emailed over, email lead author to set up phone interview for next day. Rack brains for independent researcher in same field, send email to ask same. Jump on Tube and head to Westminster. Hour and half chatting about new project I am the writer for, as well as the obligatory networking. As a freelancer you never know who you might meet and which purse strings they may be in control of. Two pints in pub with fellow science writer and then home for a lie down.

Wednesday – Also on Tuesday in between meetings, emails to editors/experts and eating scones in the House of Lords, Royal Observatory emailed to say they needed me to cover a planetarium shift on Wednesday morning. Again, they are paying so yes please. Go in and talk to ~150 people about life, the Universe and everything and then racing home for phone interview with lead scientist from yesterday's commission. Oh yeah a kid vomited in the planetarium. Interview lead author of paper and independent expert. Feeling in the writing groove (a rarity when you actually need to write) so bash out two thirds of the news article by 6:30. Buy beer. Watch Champions League.

Thursday – Up early to finish off news article. Words flow surprisingly easily again, copy filed by 10:30am. Had received 2 CD's in the post containing manuscripts for 12 kids science books on the Solar System I had agreed to fact check. Fact check and write corrections for 2 books. Re-read article I had sent, even though I'd sent it and there was nothing I could change now. Sit down on sofa for lunch, watch a bit of TV. Get so distracted by TV and internet that I don't actually move from the sofa for the rest of the afternoon; Jeremy Kyle often robs me of working time. Bastard. Head out to meet girlfriend for night of art galleries and cocktails. NB We're not really that pretentious.

Friday – Girlfriend's alarm goes off at 6:30am because she has a 'proper' job. I have a meeting in Central London at 11am and I am a freelancer, so I set the alarm for 9am and go back to bed. Get up and trek back from North London (she'll come round to South East London one day) to meeting. 90 minutes meeting. Jump back on public transport back to my flat. Write up the minutes of the meeting along with Tuesday's meeting. Get bored. Check Facebook/Twitter. Read Hayley's article. Decide to splurge this out in 15 minutes. Think I should show geek credentials by adding a graph. Whilst making graph, see tweet that my article has gone live. Shamelessly RT. Decide I can't be arsed with graph.***

So there it is. My week in words. Freelancing is definitely a lifestyle choice. There are many things that didn't feature this week that are big parts of the gig. Chasing invoices, never having a proper pay day, weekends not being sacred. Oh and if you get sick you are screwed and giving yourself holiday is tough. But don't let that scare you off. There are many brilliant aspects and if I am honest I wouldn't swap it for the world. For starters the commute from bed, to kettle, to desk is the easiest and cheapest in London. Throw in the fact I am earning more money than I would if I wasn't freelance, that I am in charge of my life (most of the time) and no week is ever the same, I couldn't even been to imagine what I would be doing if I hadn't stumbled into this amazing, if slightly chaotic, existence.

*No wallplanners were harmed in the making of this blog post.
** I take no responsibility for splling or gramatical erors. After all I am not being paid for this.
*** Edit 12/04: Late addition. Some of your uber-geeks out there (*cough* @lewis_dartnell *cough*) did actually want the graph after all. And who I am to deprive them. So here it is: my normalised earnings for the past three years. No prizes for spotting my week's holiday to Greece and when I disappeared to Australia for an entire month!

8 April 2011

My week as a freelancer

I've been getting quite a few enquiries lately from people interested in becoming writers, journalists, science comms people and what have you. Not all of them want to become freelancers straight away, but that does often seem to be the long-term aim. The Dream, if you like.

So I thought I'd put together a quick post describing my week, primarily as a link I can send to the people making those enquiries, therefore saving some of my precious freelance time - you know, for sitting around in my Dangermouse pyjamas and stuff - and secondly, to see if people are any more or less interested in becoming freelance once they've heard some real-life details.

Now, first appreciate that I am writing this in a hurry. It's not paid-for so doesn't (can't) take priority. And to add to that, I have a hankering for biscuits so am aiming to finish this in the next ten minutes so that I can run out to Co-op.

As I told one colleague earlier this week, I am currently scheduled to within an inch of my life. Staring at the bit of paper covered in blue highlighter pen constituting my wall planner, I have one "free" day on the 19th April, which I plan to use for overspill. (I am already way behind on three different projects). Also, because I'm getting married in less than a month, all sorts of jobs to do with flowers and fascinators - that I guess other people get on with in their office jobs when they think no one is looking - have been designated to me because I'm freelance and therefore don't have anything really useful to be getting on with...

So, a recap of my week so far. Monday I spent writing a feature article for Chemistry World, and scouring the internet for entomologists who could act as independent experts for a news article I'm writing - sort of in my spare time, because there's no slot for that on my wall planner...

On Tuesday, I had a deadline for an environmental policy article I had written ahead of schedule, on Friday last week. Still, when opening the article for one last check, I couldn't resist doing another full scale edit. That, as well as the coffee I popped out for mid-afternoon, took another hour out of the time I was scheduled to be writing study guides for an environmental health course. Of course, I made up the time later.

Meanwhile, during my evenings, I'd been trying to stitch a seat cover for a chair. On Monday night, after four hours painstakingly pinning, measuring around foam pads, tacking and swearing at my sewing machine, I realised I'd sewn one of the segments on in the wrong place. I won't go into all the detail of how complicated it was to fix this but on Tuesday morning at 8am I decided (after shunning the gym) to finish the thing just so I could stop dwelling on it. Needless to say it took longer than expected and thus another reason I had to work late on Tuesday. But hey, priveleges of being a freelancer - you get to sew seat covers until 10am if you want to. Just don't expect to be able to do so without feeling guilty.

Anyway, Wednesday, I spent writing my study guides. This was, obviously, punctuated by incessant emails about various other writing/communication projects I'm involved with, invoices left, right and centre, and more of the wedding kerfuffle. Still, by Wednesday evening, I was rather pleased with the amount I had achieved and congratulated myself and Mr Hayley with an inspired dinner of pork wrapped in bacon, mash and apple sauce.

Yesterday, I spent all day writing emails to artists involved with Einstein's Garden at Green Man Festival, for which I am the manager of the Solar Stage (a stage powered by the Sun - in Wales... I know!). Oh and at some point I had a nice conversation with science writer Stuart Clark about a new space-based track he's written with his band the Neutron Stars. (Yes, he writes books, he writes songs, he's soooo prolific). We'll be releasing it on the next Geek Pop podcast, which I'll be co-hosting with fellow freelance sci commer Jim next week. That's not on my wall planner either.

And what about today? Well, I did actually go to the gym. I typed up a transcript for an interview before 9am. I wrote a news article - the unscheduled one - and I just finished this blog post. All by midday! Hoorah! Now for those biscuits...

23 March 2011

The month of not setting unachievable goals

This April, I have vowed not to set unachievable goals. I will not plan to work ten hour days. I will expect to take at least an hour to deal with the most pressing of my emails every morning. I will go running three times a week and no more. I will definitely not give up drinking coffee. I will probably not blog.

And this is all in aid of what?

Well, first of all, I'm getting married in May, and am trying to avoid breaking out in hives in the run up to the big day. Secondly, though, as a response to this thought-provoking piece of literature on behavioural norms and why they are nigh-on impossible to change.

Actually it's been something of a chain reaction set off by a conversation in the pub last week (isn't it always?). I was trying to claim - probably rather over-zealously - that it would be as hard for me to give up my 11am coffee as it would for a smoker to give up their 11am fag break.

Then, yesterday, in the process of some research on the subject of public health, I stumbled across the aforementioned literature. It argues, quite sensibly, that in health education, providing all the relevant information about the harm that a particular behaviour may cause "does not necessarily lead to a change in health behaviour". Quite right. Otherwise, we'd be a nation of smoke-free, caffeine-free, tee-totaling, salad scoffers.

(Also, slight extrapolation, but it's the same sort of argument that's used against the one-way, "deficit" model of science communication, which neglects attitudes to scientific issues and focuses only on addressing knowledge gaps. Interesting, if slightly off topic).

The paper also touches on the importance of setting realistic goals for behavioural change. It's referring to nurses changing the behaviour of patients, but as a general principle it's something I think is useful to understand: changing the way people behave is tough. Changing drugs (with exceptions) or physiotherapists or your location in relation to a pub/mobile phone mast/nuclear power station might be simple - in theory, at least, if not in practice. But changing the habits of a lifetime is easier said than done.

Worth remembering, I think, when reading or writing about interventions (or policies) that aim to radically change behaviour.

Anyway, in a vote of solidarity for "setting realistic goals" I will be devoting April to achieving no more and no less than I do every other month.

Ref: Whitehead, D. and Russell, G. (2004). How effective are health education programmes – resistance, reactance, rationality and risk? Recommendations for effective practice. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 41, 163-172. DOI: 10.1016/S0020-7489(03)00117-2

24 January 2011

Rediscovering The Lorax

Yesterday, as I was surveying the contents of the new CD/DVD/book store in town, I happened across a hardcover copy of Dr Seuss' children's book The Lorax. All I could remember of the story were the truffula trees and some sort of vague environmental message. But I remembered loving it and decided, on impulse, that I had to buy it.

The sales assistant joked that I had "a serious night of reading" ahead of me. Well, I don't know about "night" - it did only take 15 minutes - but it was the best book I've read in I-don't-know-how-long. The Lorax beats The Forever War (which I've been crawling painfully through for over a month now) hands down. And that's supposed to be a science fiction classic.

The Lorax may be a children's story, but it's also "serious" storytelling of the highest order. Seuss' joyfully poetic writing...
"I am the Lorax," he coughed and he whiffed.
He sneezed and he snuffled. He snarggled. He sniffed.
"Once-ler!" he cried with a cruffulous croak.
"Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke!"
carried me right through to the end I knew was coming in one beautiful, imaginative burst of narrative. Without any of the tortuous mind-battle to continue reading I often experience with inferior (adult) fiction - as if reading a book, whatever my response to it, is good for me.

So honestly, if January is getting you down - which it is, according to BBC news - curl up with a good children's book. Read it out loud; as if you were telling the story to an *actual* child. This was easily the most entertaining, most uplifting thing I'd done all month. Medicine for the soul. And bloody good inspiration for some proper storytelling if you've any writer-ly inclinations.

21 January 2011

Epic beginnings

Well, I've seen some epic beginnings to scientific papers in my time, but this one takes the cake. Writing about legal rights in relation to quarantine during a potential influenza pandemic, Belinda Bennett kicks off the discussion by re-telling scenes from José Saramago's Blindness. And I quote:
"In his book ‘Blindness’, José Saramago tells the story of a city struck by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’... Those who are blind are placed in quarantine in a disused mental hospital, with food delivered to the main entrance three times daily. Inside the hospital, the ugly side of humanity is revealed as the strong take control of the food supplies and assault the  women. Beyond the hospital walls, the epidemic, initially a trickle of baffling cases, spreads to affect the whole city until, finally, soldiers no longer maintain the quarantine and the blind leave the hospital. The story follows a small band of people as they venture back into the city, led by one woman who still has her sight. Through their experiences, we see the chaos of a city where all social infrastructures have broken down and people do their best to survive in their new grim reality."
To be fair, she does go on to point out - on the following page - that the social disruption caused by a flu pandemic would be "considerably less", but, well... yikes! Is this an appropriate way to introduce the issue? I mean, it's attention-grabbing. You might at least read the rest just to see what the hell she's going to say next. But it's a little frightening, to say the least. It's pretty much like saying "When the apocalypse comes..."

Has anyone else come across an epic beginning to a scientific paper? I'd be interested to see others referencing fiction, and particularly science fiction. And what do we think about the "epic" approach to writing papers?

Bennett, B. (2009). Legal rights during pandemics: Federalism, rights and public health laws - a view from Australia. Public Health, 123, 232-236. DOI: 10.1016/j.puhe.2008.12.019

12 January 2011

A brief musical interlude

I know I usually blog about science and science communication, but since this is about technology, I feel legitimate in squeezing this in here.

I've recently read a couple of articles about the state of the music industry and the rise of digital music.

A transformed musical landscape -

State of the indy music industry looks rosy, so why all the doom-and-gloom about music?
 - Cory Doctorow (BoingBoing)

Given that only yesterday I was Skyping Spotify lists to a friend and sharing them on Facebook, I can't pretend I haven't bought into the whole digital music scene. But I still feel the same nostalgia as Manzoor about record shops.

After a particularly meagre pre-wedding Christmas this year, myself and Mr Hayley headed to Fopp in Bristol and, in about an hour, spent most of the money we had saved DIYing our Christmas presents. But wow, it felt good. I left the store triumphant with a stack of shiny new CDs and all the pleasure of combing through the lyrics and artwork to look forward to.

Three of the albums I bought were ones I'd previously downloaded (and paid for, I might add) - thus, the record industry is actually making more money out of me than pre-digital era. These were three albums that I'd grown to feel I needed on my shelf, in physical form, and not on a stark white CD burned in iTunes. I don't like flipping through a CD storage wallet. I like to be able to run my finger along the spines of my CDs, all neatly organised by genre on the shelf next to my sound system. (Call me a geek, but... well, I am.)

Don't get me wrong: I do use iTunes, MixCloud, Bandcamp, You Tube, Spotify and the rest - all the time. But the possibility that in the age of the iPod, we'll see the demise of the album is one thing that really does make me sad. As much as I've been enjoying arranging our favourite tracks into a four-hour long Spotify list for the aforementioned wedding (when I could have been organising flowers, photography, invitations... and about a hundred other things we haven't even started on yet), I also value the lesser known tracks on every record - they're all part of the journey.

That afternoon I rejoiced in slowly and carefully peeling the plastic wrapping and price labels off my new babies, and then scrutinising the photos, illustrations and credits in the artwork. This is all part of the ritual. It's just not the same waiting for a bunch of digital files to drop into your "purchased" folder. I've even been known to buy two physical copies of the same album - one for playing, one autographed and never played... until ten years later, when Mr Hayley went rummaging through my CD collection without my consent. Well, I can tell you, he didn't know what hit him when I discovered the (previously) unplayed version stuffed in his glove compartment.

Anyhow, I only meant to post those links, but it seems that when it comes to music I can get carried away. Have a read.