Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Here it's onlt 8.30 in the evening and it's all over (bar the landslide). I've never seen a race decided this early. It feels like 1997 all over again (but early).

McCain has made his concession speech and we're still waiting on Obama. I don't think anyone expected this to happen this early.

David and I helped get out the vote today - the excitement was palpable then. Now it's through the roof.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - final week

Last week I learnt that it is very difficult to get a science story in the papers, particularly in the FT, when western capitalism as we know it is in meltdown.

It's a shame, cause I had a really nice piece on some solar paving slabs ready to go. Heigh ho.

I did get 800 words on hydrogen in an energy supplement and Clive let me have the weekly science briefing again.

Everybody else, on the other hand, has been incredibly busy. The buzz here last week was amazing - I heard so many snatches of conversation on stairwells and in the canteen that only made it into the news hours or even days later. It felt like being very close to the coal face.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What Reiss said

A separate post on this as the pillorying of self described "evangelist for evolution" Professor Michael Reiss seems to have made it out as far as the USA.

He did not say creationism should be "taught" in any sense. He said that biology teachers should be better able to deal with it when pupils (almost inevitably) raise it as the world view that their parents have instilled in them.

I was in the telephone press conference on the night before Reiss's talk. I didn't see the debate and I didn't join the face to face briefing he had. However, from my recollection of the telephone briefing (which I didn't tape or take notes on, unfortunately) he made it quite clear that he isn't advocating the teaching of creationism in the sense of "Suggesting that non-science/anti-science concepts should be specified as a course objective in science classes."

He stressed in the press conference that he's coming from this from the point of view of an ex biology teacher and, he stressed, definitely not a creationist.

Teachers have very little time to devote to the teaching of evolution, thanks to the nature of the UK science curriculum. Often, when that lesson is reached, biologists find themselves not teaching biology so much as engaging in theological wranglings with students that hold creationist views.

As Reiss said in his briefing notes: "The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one... A student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught."

He made it very clear that he is advocating that teachers should not feel the need to to "correct" the views of children who, for many and complex reasons,are not about to give up this world view as a result of a 50 minute lesson. Rather the teachers should use the time more usefully to make sure that the students get a real understanding of what the theory of evolution is.

He went on to say: "depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body... if questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works."

Prof. Reiss was simply saying that it would be helpful if biology teachers had a better answer than "No - you're wrong" when children raise creationism. Compare the FT article, with the Guardian one. Heck, even with that little word "about" the Daily Mail has managed a more accurate take on Prof. Reiss's position. The Telegraph article also sounds like it came from the same press conference I attended, even if the headline doesn't.

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - week two round up

Last week went by incredibly quickly, with days starting early and the nights going on until late. Here are a few of my things I learnt:

The press briefings varied dramatically along two axes: the novel vs. the not so novel science; and the articulate vs. the not so articulate scientists. The nadir probably came at the briefing in which one of the speakers took a journalist to task for using the word “level” in the way that 99% of the population would understand it, rather than in the more technical way that the speaker would use it. The journalists may not be subject experts but they are experts in communicating with that 99% of the population that you will never reach.

The journalists from all the major news outlets were sharing the press room and the buzz was fantastic. I’m struck by the high levels of knowledge and intelligence on display from each of the news outlets. If you gave me a transcript of the questions asked by the journalists from all the major newspapers (plus the BBC) I wouldn’t be able to tell you which journo asked which question. It’s only when you get back in the press room that the differences between the outlets becomes apparent. I heard one writer, from a paper that will remain nameless, saying “can you get me a picture of a crying child.” There’s an outside chance he was kidding.

The differences are sometimes “non-trivial”. As with the two very different ways that the words of Michael Reiss were reported:

Creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons, according to a leading expert in science education.

Teachers should be open to discussing creationism in biology lessons.

I missed the debate but was lucky enough to be in on the telephone press conference (which I'm pretty sure Randerson missed) in which Prof. Reiss gave his views. He was quite deliberately refusing to use the word “teach.” So whilst the second opener lacks some of the punch of the first, it hasn’t caused a (largely undeserved) shit storm.

Most of the journalists are incredibly generous. In such a competitive (and shrinking) sector as science journalism, I didn’t expect to find so many people prepared to share their advice and experience.

You can’t live on free canapés.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Auntie Em goes to Liverpool

Press room - BA Festival of Science, Liverpool. Tuesday PM

To say that I'm finding it hectic here would be like saying that the Titanic found icebergs a little inconvenient. Each day begins (painfully early) with a series of press briefings. Each afternoon is spent writing these up to file by 3p.m. The rest of the afternoon is spent preparing for the next day's briefings. The evenings are spent at receptions with open bars. Tonight I dine courtesy of the Diamond Light Source.

The deadlines are even shorter than back in the office, and every day so far has seen me have two pieces on the go. I've started to slip back into academese once or twice, because (ironically) I'm just not getting the time to read newspapers. I read Clive's article from yesterday to remind myself what I aspire to.

I schedule a one-to-one with the president of the Royal Statistical Society this afternoon. He is generous with his time, with a presentation a matter of an hour or so away. The meeting isn't until 2 and I have to file at 3 so the article is 80% written with some spaces for quotes. Clive suggests some extra things to find out and away I go to my first interview.

I can hear the click striking for the end of another day. The rain keeps falling - the Atlantic ocean is trying to claim Liverpool from above. The press officers order taxis to take us to tonights drinks. When, in academia, would such frivolity be allowed, for the sake of an adverse climate? I could get used to this.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate (End of week one)

10a.m., Science Media Centre, Albermarle St

I'm attending a briefing on organ donation. A group of experts believes that the plans to change to an "opt out" law are based faulty reasoning as well as being ethically questionable. I go along a sceptic and come away with serious food for thought. I listen and learn as the experienced reporters lob questions at the end.

Afternoon, FT Headquarters

Back at the office I try to pitch the transplant story to the UK news editor as a long-ish policy piece but space is, as ever, short and there is nothing that makes the story particularly timely so I'm given 400 words to get the main ideas across. I run to 800 and have to cut back significantly. With Clive's help I end up filing 590 words - 190 words over my brief. It's the first time I've overfiled. Is this end-of-the-week lack of discipline or a measure of how strongly the arguments have shaken my view. Either way it's not my decision, it's the editors and it's my job to write to the brief, not to what I wish the brief was.

I pick up a copy of the UK edition in order to clip my science briefing. A weekly column of about 500 words, and Clive has let me write it myself (with his good guidance). It pales into insignificance next to his piece on the LHC. I'm a long way from writing as cogently.

Clive helps me file three stories for Monday - one UK science, one world science and the transplant piece. I'm not sure which, if any, will make it but watching Clive make deft changes is an education in itself. I learn how to cut an ugly sentence full of numbers, and how to make the introductory sentence pithier. I wish I could bottle what I'm learning now.

Amano Cafe 4.30p.m.

With everything filed I leave the office to read some briefings for the next week. I've also had an offer for a story that Clive is interested in. I ring my source and clarify the scheduling. I advise him not to launch anything next week as a) most of the science journalists will be in Liverpool for the BA science festival and b) both the LHC and GOCE are launching on Wednesday next week.

I share what I know about the rhythms of science news: like the days on of the week which the major journals' embargoes expire and the days that are easier to fill. It feels strange to be giving advice to someone who in every other respect is more intelligent, more experienced and much more knowledgeable than I am. It's nice to share.

Tomorrow I head for Liverpool for a week of festival goodness.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - part four

Wednesday, 9a.m., Amano Cafe, London Bridge

David and I check the paper over breakfast in a cafe. It's there, my first piece in print. It's a nice feeling, seeing it in black and pink. I let Nigel at the BA know that the last of his media fellows for this year has finally got her wings.

Wednesday, FT Headquarters

I finish the Friday briefing, having chosen, with Clive's guidance, three stories that I think go well together: one serious and worthy, one serious and "wow"-y and one fluffy (or feathery) animal story. I decide to leave it until tomorrow to submit just in case something even more interesting comes up.

Clive submits my long piece for the upcoming special supplement - it was the first piece I started writing, way back on Monday. It seems a lifetime ago now. The piece goes off before I can tinker any more.

I see a piece on the wires that looks very FT. It's international, so would have to be pitched to the world editor. And it's coming out on Monday, which means it will be jostling for space with pieces from the BA Festival. I decide to do 350 words on spec and see how it goes.

In the afternoon, Clive introduces me to Jan Dalley, the arts editor. He leaves me to pitch an arts piece that I really want to write. I have prepared well for this, but I'm surprised at the conviction with which I speak - anyone would think I knew what I was doing. Jan agrees to the piece and finds me some potential space in a Saturday edition coming up. I allow myself a discrete fist pump on the stairs and hope that no-one saw my Tim Henman impression.

The afternoon is spent finishing a piece on some lovely research that has reconstructed the sound of an epigonion, an ancient Greek instrument, lost since antiquity. I listen to the recordings of it playing Dufay and Monteverdi while I write the piece. It's an amazing feeling, hearing something very few people alive have yet to hear.

I file the epigonion piece, tinker some more with Friday's briefing and leave at a very civilised time.

Thursday, 9.30 am, Bakerloo line. En route to the BA Festival Press Launch

I set out in very good time, having seen that my epigonion piece has made it online at least. Things go downhill from there. The homing pigeon takes over and I leave the Bakerloo line two stops early, as if I were going to my real job. I have to wait five minutes for another Bakerloo line. When I get to South Kensington station I find that the same homing pigeon instinct has deserted me. I now can't find the Dana centre. I realise I'm at the wrong end of the wrong street when I reach the V&A. When I arrive Sir David King, the president of the BA, has already begun his briefing. A bad start.

The press conference is very interesting but I find myself wanting to ask research related questions rather than interesting news questions. It's hard to switch off that way of thinking. We pick up A4 sheets describing all the events for the coming week. They fill a carrier bag.

A taxi-ride later

Back at the office, Clive helps me sell my on-spec piece to the world editor who is working Sunday for Monday. I have an extra 100 words to play with. We also discuss the pieces that will be written for the UK pages from the festival press conferences today. I'm given 400 words, and a specific angle that's of interest to the FT readership, for that.

I file Friday's briefing, nothing will come up that I could add in time now. I finish my extra 100 words for the world story and start jotting the outline for my 400 words. It's time for lunch.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate - part three

Day 2: The Financial Times headquarters. 10a.m. - editorial meeting, in which we learn about the HST.

The morning editorial meeting: Lionel Barber goes through the previous day's paper with the editorial staff, discussion what worked, what didn't and what there should have been more of. I learnt that stories which pass the HST[1] should definitely be in the paper. I also learnt that there is a very long list of FT offices around the world that can be reached via video-conference equipment built into the conference table that looks like the bridge of a very stylish Starship Enterprise.

I was given a tour of the building by Patrice, one of the editorial assistants. The operation is much larger than I'd expected, with staff to fill the UK, online, USA, Europe, Asia, Middle East, Weekend and special editions.

11.30a.m. Birds do it, Bees do it, Traders on the LSE do it.

Clive has my first assignment for the daily edition. It's about a study on that most fundamental preoccupation: sex. I email my go-to sex researcher for a quote, along with the author of a related study from earlier last year. I get excellent quotes from both of them.

Getting quotes from the author of the study, on the other hand, is more difficult. He's out of the office and has apparently got the impression that neither he nor his co-authors can speak to anyone (including journalists) until the embargo. Unfortunately there's more information I need before I can write the story: a graph appears to be mis-described in the uncorrected proof of the paper I've been given and I want to check that the problem is just with the label and not the data.

I call the media relations person at the journal who is helpfulness personified. I mention the difficulty I'm having getting the information that I need and she tells me she will contact the author directly and get back to me. I get the impression that this is not the first time she's had this conversation.

3.30p.m. Filing time

I've finished the piece, working on the assumption that it is only the label that is wrong. Clive shows me how to submit via the Méthode system. I watch as it disappears from my folder and lands in the UK News feed. A few minutes later I see the UK News editor open it and start making some changes.

Moments later still an email arrives from the author of the study, confirming that the mistake is in the label and thanking me for finding it before the article is released. I'm happy to have helped, and even happier that the article says what I thought it said. My article is safely put to bed.

4p.m. - Ooops

I breathe too soon. One of my sources asks me to change their affiliation. I have to ring the news editor to see if the changes can be made. Another lesson learnt - changes are much easier to make before you file!

6.45p.m - getting the jump on tomorrow

I start looking for stories for Friday's science briefing. I find some stories about the other kind of birds and bees. They might get nudged aside by weightier pieces on cancer or the brain though. I intermittently check Méthode to see if my piece has been spiked but there is no news by the time I leave. I'll have to wait until the morning to see if the piece made it.

[1] HST - the "Holy Shit" Test. Such as Abu Dhabi consortium buys Manchester City? Holy Shit!"

Monday, September 01, 2008

Auntie Em Joins the Fourth Estate (Part Two)

Day 1: FT Head Office, One Southwark Bridge. 11am.
I arrive early. It's a mark of my nerves that I arrive a almost 15 minutes early, despite the fact I live only ten minutes away. I go in and sequester myself in the bathroom (thank goodness for sympathetic receptionists) until it's time to meet my editor.

Clive Cookson immediately puts me at my ease. A desk is waiting for me, a password has been set up. I have my own FT email address and access to the Méthode news management system.

I already have an article to write: 800 words for a supplement coming out soon. I'd say more, but I've just met this beast called the embargo and I'm seeing its footprints everywhere. I'm not saying anything about anything that's not in print yet, just in case.

The FT Canteen, around noon
Clive makes introductions and I tout myself around for any more writing that might usefully be done by me. I'm invited for coffee with Clive and Andrew (the other science reporter - there were three, but science coverage is being squeezed everywhere). Andrew is just back from his holidays and an AIDS conference. Hearing Clive fill him in on what he's missed is very useful for me - I get a recap of a month's events at the FT.

I still have the first day at school feeling and, as we leave, I glance around the panoramic windows of the canteen to try to spot my flat. There's no place like home, there's no place like home. I feel very disorientated as we descend to the section marked "specialist writers"

One Southwark Bridge. Early afternoon.
Earlier, Clive handed me a folder of material he has compiled over the last eight years or so on the topic of my first piece. It's extremely useful, though I'm glad I'd already done my prep. by reading up on the subject this weekend. It helps me make short work of the reading and by lunchtime I have a stack of useful notes and an outline. Questions are sliced into two categories by the invisible blade of a deadline - on the one side, the questions I can find an answer for quickly, and on the other, the questions I'll ignore.

At lunchtime Clive shows me how to find the door nearest to Borough Market. It's nice to be on familiar ground, though I'm further disoriented to find that the entrance to one of the world's best known financial newspapers is through what appears to be a cul de sac of late 20th century low rise flats. Finding my way back on my own I was sure I'd made a mistake and was about to claim asylum in someone's living room when I found my temporary home again.

The afternoon's rhythm is broken by a power surge which knocks out everyone's computer but mine (beginners luck) and a fire alarm (caused by the initial surge). On my return I find that I don't like what I've written and begin again.

By late afternoon I have 750 words, but I'm not sure how many are any good. Clive reads it through and points out several places where my writing is stilted, overly pedantic or just reads too much like a journal paper. He likes the overall structure though. The two parts I liked least are the two parts Clive likes least too (to the extent of showing me how to temporarily erase chunks by using the software to strike them out). With about 50 words to play with and a much clearer sense of what I should be doing I spend the next hour and a half finessing what I've written.

Bincho Yakitori, Oxo Tower, 7pm
I meet David for a celebratory dinner. The strangest thing is that, in retrospect, doesn't seem strange at all. It has been a total immersion baptism. Clive's willingness to put a piece entuirely in my hands and let me run with it simultaneously humbling and confidence building. I've met previous fellows that have worked for Clive and they both said they'd had the same great experience.

I feel incredibly lucky: not all of my other fellows have had the same opportunities in their placements. Some are in broadcast outlets and have had to spend much of their time learning how to use the equipment; some are in weekly outlets; some are in print outlets that have too many science correspondents fighting for too little space on the page. I am incredibly lucky, not only to have this fellowship but also to be placed at the FT.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Auntie Em joins the Fourth Estate (Part 1)

Day -5: I've just received a phone call from my editor (that still sounds incredibly strange... "my editor") Clive Cookson at the Financial Times. He's suggested an article that he wants me to write for an upcoming special edition on the environment and climate change. It's all starting to feel very real.

In a few days I will start my BA Media Fellowship at the Financial Times. Each year since 1987, the BA and assorted hosts give a handful of scientists the opportunity to spend a short time working in broadcast or print media. The lucky fellows get some hands-on experience of science communication to a wider audience. I'll be spending most of September on my placement, and will write about my experiences here.

Given that repeatedly watching "His Girl Friday" doesn't seem to be adequate preparation, I thought I'd prepare with an interview.

Emma Byrne, from the Financial Times interviews Emma Byrne of Middlesex University, about the BA Media Fellowship:

EB(FT) Why did you apply for this fellowship?
EB(MU) "I am, and always have been, passionate to the point of being anti-social, about science in general and Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Cognitive Science in particular. I have only just started to realise that this may make me slightly odd. I learnt a salutary lesson about this when trying to explain some of my research to a PR person who actively wanted to promote what we were doing. I found that I couldn't explain to her why "robots doing science" was exciting. I mean. to me it's quite obvious that "robots doing science" is exciting, but to other people it may be (at best) irrelevant or at least not as interesting as robot butlers and flying cars. At worst, the thought of robots doing science may seem more terrifying than GM foods and 'Grey Goo' combined. I was mortified that I didn't know how to communicate the awe that I feel to other people, or at least not in a way that would cause them to be awestruck too."

EB(FT) Isn't it more important to get on with the research, communicating with other scientists in related fields. Why take the time out to play writer for a month.
EB(MU) "You're right of course (and strangely attractive too, I notice). Time is short and my primary job is research. But if I can't answer the most basic questions about my work "why are you doing this?", "what do you hope to achieve" at a level that everyone can understand then I'm lacking an essential skill. Firstly, I'm paid for (at the moment) out of government research funds. People have a right to a better answer than "I'm not sure I could get you to understand" when they ask about work that they've paid for. That should apply to all civil servants by the way."

EB(FT) What do you want to communicate to people outside your field?
EB(MU) "Specific findings aside, I'd like to start with the fact that science is important - hugely, all pervasively important. The products of science have given us most the benefits and many of the calamities of the last couple of centuries and there is no sign of that changing. Many people who would die before admitting they'd not read Hamlet exult in their ignorance of, say, the evidence pertaining to the theory of evolution. This terrifies me. How can they join in the discussion about these great changes when they are proud to be on the periphery? We need to change the misconception of science as sterile, specialist and remote. At its best research is pursued out of joy and curiosity and passion and its results should belong to the whole of society.

"Secondly - I'd like to address the huge problem of "method blindness". No child should leave school without at least a rudimentary understanding of philosophy and the scientific method. We seem determined to instill in our children the idea that arguments from authority are ok. They're not: at best they're a handy shortcut when you don't have time to do the research yourself. We need to do some consciousness raising, to show people that in science the only authority is the data: not your supervisor, or the Nobel prize winner down the hall, or your priest/rabbi/imam, or your president or king. If the data contradicts them all, tough."

EB(FT) So will the FT be full of your pro-science polemic then?
EB(MU) "I should think not. I'm not sure what proportion of the FT audience suffers from method-blindness, but the FT has extremely good science coverage so the readers have plenty of scientific roughage in their diet. I hope to be turning out 400 - 800 word stories about topics of scientific interest. You may have noticed that I have a tendency to be somewhat unnecessarily circumlocutory, one might almost say I verge on the prolix from time to time. If one could get a word in edgeways, one might anyway. The discipline will be extremely good for me. Telling people: what is known; what is contentious; how we know the difference and why it's interesting, all on the back of a fag packet. So the next time someone asks me why robots doing science is cool, I will be able to give them an answer. In 400 words or less."

Emma Byrne (MU) becomes Emma Byrne (FT) for four weeks from the first of September.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I don't get American Politics

The two logos of Obama - one of these you may have seen, whilst the other looks a little bit like something in Revelation (allegedly).

First some context: In a giant leap backwards to the middle ages, millennial fever is big in the US. In a Gallup poll, 70% of respondents believed in the existence of the Devil. That number has been rising, from around 50% in the 1990s to around 68% in the 2000s[1].

70 million copies of the Left Behind books have been sold in the US. In these books a charismatic politician, Nicolae Carpathia becomes president of Romania due to his intelligence, charisma, knowledge of international affairs, sane-sounding policies to unite the world in peace. But wait! Nicolae Carpathia is none other than... the Antichrist.

There are already several odd people out there who are pushing the Obama/Carpathia "comparison".

Some seem to have genuine concerns which makes me want to take them by the hand and give them the history of millenial cults from Roman times till now.

Others deliberately use the comparison between an antichrist figure from popular novels and Obama, who was calling for peace and cooperation whilst in Berlin. And this is why I don't get American politics - the arguments aren't about who has the best plan for the economy, the successful ending of two overseas wars, the protection of US interests. No, it's about whether one of the nominees looks like a fictional Antichrist (I know - tautology).

Mike has (rightly) complained that I lumped him in with the sadly deluded. He and those like him know exactly what they're doing - they're using a specious comparison with a widely known hate figure to groundlessly tarnish a candidate in an election. "Look everyone - Obama is a successful politician. Carpathia was a successful politician (though fictional) and you wouldn't want to vote for someone like Carpathia would you. He was the Antichrist."

Mike's comparison is based on the fact that Obama seems to be, well, statesmanlike as far as I can tell. That he's had the audacity to visit countries outside the US, to be well educated, to speak foreign languages - these all, obviously, make Obama a bit dodgy. Not on their own, you understand, but if we can make success seem like a bad thing by tying the "Carpathia" tin-can to it's tail, well, let's just see that dog try to run now, eh?

If it were just the blogosphere that would be one thing. No-one on the internet has the duty to promote meaningful political debate. But the politicians themselves have a duty to campaign on issues that mean something to their constituents. Or so you'd think. But now the McCain camp has joined in the name calling and is blowing that dog whistle for all it's worth. A professionally made campaign video aired in the last few days was supposed to look like a satire (all be it of New Yorker Cover unfunniness). But with fonts and imagery taken directly from the Left Behind cover artwork, and a very odd choice of the old, barely used, not widely recognised Obama "presidential seal" logo, Time Magazine thinks there may be more to this than meets the eye:

"The seal, which features an eagle with wings spread, is not recognizable like the campaign's red-white-and-blue "O" logo. That confused Democratic consultant Eric Sapp until he went to his Bible and remembered that in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, the Antichrist is described as rising from the sea as a creature with wings like an eagle."

"Mara Vanderslice, another Democratic consultant, who handled religious outreach for the 2004 Kerry campaign, agrees. 'If they wanted to be funny, if they really wanted to play up the idea that Obama thinks he's the Second Coming, there were better ways to do it'."

[1]Interestingly, the percentage of those polled who believed in the devil reached 68% in May 2001, before the 9/11 attacks. It has remained consistently high in the Gallup polls since that date.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Serious time...

The new job is taking up any frivolous time[1] but I did make a serious post today.

[1] Half an hour a day on ICHC, FailBlog and Go Fug Yourself is not frivolity... no it's not.

Friday, July 25, 2008

M=F in (high school) maths.

At secondary school I had a maths teacher confidently (and regularly) claimed that no girls should be in his (the top) set. The fact that I and a handful of other girls were in his set was an anomaly that he couldn't explain. He *could* explain the other, larger handful of girls that asked to be moved down a set - they were no good at maths, of course. It couldn't bet that they were fed up of being singled out as freaks and failures by this abrasive character.

At the end of my second year of GCSEs, in a class of over 30, only five girls remained. I'm sure the other teachers were good, but dropping a set in maths was a disaster. You see at that time (possibly still?) there were two papers for maths: a lower and a higher. The higher paper could lead to any mark from A-C or fail (iirc) whilst the 'lower' exam capped your possible mark at a C. I think this was a hangover from the old 'O'-Level/CSE divide, which had only been abolished a year or two ago. [Edit: I've just found out that this ridiculous system still exists so there are essentially 3 maths exams with a narrow band between cap and ceiling - how discouraging, knowing the school has put you in for an exam you can get a maximum of an E-Grade in (that's got to help with revision). And how terrifying (I remember this feeling) that if you don't get an A*, A or B (A,B, or C in my day) then you fail outright. Is this peculiar to the Maths GCSE? What is the rationale?]

At my school, only those in this top set were entred for the paper that allowed you to get a grade above C. No matter what your potential, if you were in any other set you were only entred for the 'lower' exam, which capped your possible mark at a C. So of my year, there were only five girls (of a cohort of about 100) that could possibly get a grade greater than a C.

I'd like to think that this is good news. That sexist bastard maths teachers will have to bow to the evidence and treat all their pupils according to their skills, not their sex. Sadly, the same results were shown in a study 20 years ago - and whilst I'm old, I'm still young enough that my maths teacher should have been aware of them if he's been a half way committed professional.

As it was I got an A grade (A* hadn't been invented back then). Not only that, I won an honourable mention from the exam board. I shared the school maths prize with my friend James. My maths teacher took me to one side and told me that he'd vehemently opposed 'his' maths prize being given to a girl, hence the share. He also told James, one of my best friends, that I'd only been given the prize as a token gesture - despite my commendation from the exam board.

At that point my heart was broken. I always liked maths because you're on the safe ground of being able to unambiguously prove something. You know when you're right. However it seemed that my results should have unambiguously proved that I was enough of a freak to be a girl who could do maths (oh yes, I bought the girls can't do maths stereotype too - I just longed to be an exception). At that point I gave up on maths - I couldn't bear the humiliation and the though of two more years fighting my way upstream was more than I felt capable of.

Despite excellent maths and science grades I took French and German (two very honourable and serous subjects) and Business and General Studies (what was I thinking). It wasn't only my maths teacher - old fashioned views about "girls subjects" (easy) and "girls jobs" (few) put me off too. To this day I regret, no I'm *ashamed*, I don't (officially) have A-level maths. And that I still think I caouldn't do it, because I'm a girl.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"The Ever Increasing Need for Alternative Viewpoints in the Modern World"

Would you like your woo with a side order of genocide?

Karadžić's website is still up. For a real WTF? moment, take a look at his "10 favourite Chinese proverbs".

Friday, June 27, 2008

Entomology corner

Sorry for the haitus - I've been off finishing one job, planning to fake it as a science journalist and getting a new job.

Today it's entomology time:the bees may be disappearing (So Long and Thanks for All the Flowers?), but Texans have the charmingly named Crazy Raspberry Ant

They can't pollinate worth a damn, but they can kill computers. Actually, according to Tom Raspberry, the pest control expert for whom they were named, the ants ruin computers by creating shorts:

"I think they go into everything and they don't follow any kind of structured line," said Rasberry. "If you open a computer, you would find a cluster of ants on the motherboard and all over. You'd get 3,000 or 4,000 ants inside and they create arcs. They'll wipe out any computer."

Scott Solomon, "The Explainer" at Slate explains how the ant's own communication system compounds the problem:
"When an ant is shocked or electrocuted, it releases a chemical alarm pheromone that attracts its nestmates, triggering a cascade that results in a buildup of dead worker ants that can cause further problems for electronics."

As of May last month the ants had already caused problems with a chemical plant, a sewage station and several fire alarms. The have also been spotted at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Normal extermination methods don't seem to work on these particular ants - each colony has multiple queens, all of whom have to be eradicated to kill the colony. What's more, the ants seem to be channeling Henry V and will use their dead fellows as a bridge to avoid pesticides.

Little is known about this ant at the moment. The are thought to have arrived in Texas in 2002, possibly via cargo ship. Texas A&M PhD student and urban entomologist Jason Meyers is now the world expert on this species. I just hope he's backing up his computer.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Auntie Em eats the fruit (veg) of her labours

Today I made my own lunch:

This is a radish from my balcony allotment. See how pretty it looks in my salad:

Sadly the rest of the salad was bought, but my balcony allotment is coming on:

The closest windowbox has carrots and radishes galore - or will do in a couple of weeks. The furthest one has two squash seedlings, two courgette seedlings, some nasturtiums and some rocket. The big wooden box is my wormery, courtesy of Southwark Council, St Mungos and CRISP. On top is my propagator, in which I'm nurturing some staggeringly vigorous tomato seedlings and various herbs. Behind is an Ikea step stool I used to use on the boat to get down into the galley, treated with leftover paint and yacht varnish (also from my canal days), which I'm using as a potting bench/two level plant stand.

It's a wee bit smaller than Green Butterfingers (of whose allotment I am significantly jealous), but it's not bad for the world's most useless balcony (26' long and 9" wide).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Gramineae is not necessarily more verdant over there...

My entire professional life, and all of my postgraduate scholarship has been in a male dominated field (MDF). It's not without its perils - the possibly older, definitely wiser Female Science Professor has a depressing litany of the kind of bigoted fuckwittery that goes on above my paygrade in her particular MDF. In the main though, I've had to deal with far less overt sexism in the academic version of this MDF than I ever did in industry. Sure, there's still wayyyyyyy too much of this, and the odd well meaning suggestion that this constitutes a viable alternative to childcare. But in the main the sexist ass-hattage seems to be limited to those with an evolutionary psychology bent.

Now over to my friend P, in a particular Female Dominated Field (FDF). The friend, the field and even the institution will have to remain unnamed for now, as legalities may be about to ensue. I was in P's office the other day, in the FDF department of Nameless Big University (NBU). P's colleague popped her head 'round the door, visibly choked with emotion. P disappeared for 30 minutes or so and came back far from gruntled.

Turns out that P's colleague has just come back from maternity leave, and has asked to discharge her role part time. It's a research role so some mix of part time and home working is usually possible. Not only has the (female) head of the FDF rejected her application for flexible working, she's actually increased the number of hours that she wants P's colleague to be in the office. She has to be visibly at her desk from 10-6 every day.

To put in context - academics are not in front of their desks 9-5. I for example am writing this from the members' bar in the Southbank Centre with a nice cup of Earl Grey and my Macbook Air - ain't life grand? No other academic in the department has set hours of presence, as far as P knows.

Now the refusal to consider flexible working/a job share/part time hours is bizarre enough. Yes, everyone wants papers and grants written yesterday, but an experienced head of group should understand that the best insights aren't written between 9 and 5, aren't written at your desk and certainly aren't written when you hate your job. Keeping good researchers productive is 90% of this person's job description, and it appears that she's failing dismally at it.

Making a new parent's terms and conditions more restrictive beggars belief. It seems like P's colleague's is being pushed into quitting. But there's a name for that: constructive dismissal.

So MDF may not be perfect - but FDF is not without it's problems. The sisterhood is a myth.

Monday, April 28, 2008

For my next trick...

I am going to learn how to do needlework/quilting/appliqué so I can make myself a wall hanging of the stunning "Structure of the Mammalian Retina" by Santiago Ramon y Cajal (multifarious name, multi-talented guy):

Beautiful, isn't it?

I've been investigating some techniques and I think some stitches from this excellent dictionary of stitches will be in order. I plan to use 28 count linen, couching for the axons and dendrites, satin stitch for the braces and maybe the bases of the rods, and appliqué for the various nuclei.

I know I have some extremely craft-talented readers and I'm hoping I'll get some very useful advice. Know any better techniques? Have some thread/fabric I can have? Already turned this beautiful diagram into your own work of art? Let me know, please!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

Auntie Em runs 26.2 - all the way.

I did it - neither rain, nor hail[1] could stay this messenger about her duty. I ran a steady pace the whole 26.2 miles[2]. No stopping, no walking, no sneaky trips to the loo.

The start was great, and running through Charlton in the sun was lovely. I made a conscious effort not to think of the miles ahead. Spent some time chatting to ClaireyS from the Realbuzz Marathon Forum, which was lovely and helped the minutes fly by.

My Mum's giant banner was a very welcome sight as I left Greenwich - next time[3] everyone is to have something to wave as spotting faces in the crowd is impossible!

Rotherhithe was miserable, despite the great crowd support, as I couldn't find David in the crowd through my rain soaked glasses. I had spotted that Rotherhithe tunnel was closed and so knew I wouldn't see him at mile 13 either.

Tower Bridge was great. I knew it from training and know exactly how long and how much of a slope it is, so I paced myself perfectly and it was the first place I really noticed myself pulling ahead of people.

Going out on the Highway was very intimidating. Seeing people coming back, looking exhausted, gives you a salutory preview of effect of the miles to come. The messages from my friends and family on my iPod were essential. I hadn't seen anyone since mile 7, and I didn't expect to see anyone again until at least mile 17. I felt very lonely. Suddenly hearing a friendly voice tempting me with visions of what to expect at the finish, singing, or, best of all, simply saying "you can do it", was the only thing keeping me going.

Mum's Giant Banner was a beacon in the darkness at mile 17 - I knew the freezing cold rain was sapping my energy levels, as was the pace. I managed to yell at my brother "Tell David - Jelly Beans" as I ran past. Knowing (hoping) I'd find David at mile 22.5 with some much needed sugar meant I could guzzle my Gels much sooner than I'd expected.

Coming back on the Highway it started raining again. I started to forget which mile marker I'd been through and my mind was really shutting down. I had no idea of anything except the need to keep going. Then the rain and hail started. As I passed the Shelter cheering point I searched like mad for David and my heart sank when I couldn't see him among the rain-ponchoed cheerers. They yelled "Emma, Emma, Go Emma", I cried back "David, where's David?" Thankfully he was a few yards downstream and I'd slowed enough to pick him out.

I remember my nieces looking very wet and bewildered, my friend Michael looking concerned, my sister in law tearing my jelly beans open with her teeth, and how badly David's coat squelched as I grabbed a very quick hug. I think my brother in law shouted something encouraging as I tore myself away to keep on for the last 4 miles.

A short time later, the lack of windscreen wipers on my glasses made itself felt. Unable to see clearly I plowed through a very deep puddle. I ran the rest of the race with about a quarter inch[4] of water in my trainers. Immediately my feet began to blister and I knew I'd be in trouble for the rest of the run.

By the time I reached London Bridge I'd resorted to counting backwards from 100, shouting at myself, chanting, anything just to keep going. I knew at this point that if I stopped I'd never get going again.

We came to the long underpass. Runners only in here, no crowds, the perfect place for an Epic Fail. I felt my bottom lip trembling. I was about to stop and have a good cry when I heard someone behind me yell "Oggie Oggie Oggie". With the steadiest, loudest voice I could muster, I joined the 100 or so runners in the tunnel with an "Oi Oi Oi".

"Oggie Oggie Oggie!"
"Oi Oi Oi".

I was alright again. I could see the rain sheeting down at the end of the tunnel, but I plowed on.

"Land of Hope and Glory" on the iPod, Waterloo Bridge in sight but so far ahead. How many bridges between there and Westminster? I honestly couldn't remember, despite all the training runs and the years of walking the South Bank.

Running up the Embankment I was searching for the final Shelter Cheering Point and, I hoped, my assorted family. Having my name on my vest for the crowd to see came into its own. "Come on Emma", "You're looking great Emma", "Nearly there Emma", "Keep going Emma". I wanted to thank each and every one of them: though each and every one of them brought me that little bit closer to tears I don't know how I would have gone on without them.

I passed the Shelter cheerers - couldn't spot my family. By this point my legs were weighed down by how far my heart had sunk. The climb to Westminster looked impossible. Suddenly I heard "Spatulaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!" My brother - running alongside me on the other side of the barriers. He stayed with me for what must have been a good 300 yards. The distraction was enough to get me up the slope. One more right turn and St James's Park would be in sight. I'd be nearly home free.

I saw someone with Pix on their vest, who I assumed was Pix from the forum. I ran over to say Hi and wish her luck. More distraction, a few more yards. Then one more push. At the edge of the park I thought of the Breakfast Jog the day before, and Col from the forum saying "you'll get to this bit tomorrow and laugh". I didn't laugh, but I did smile for the first time in about six miles.

Birdcage walk is longer than I remember. I ran it so many times in training, but it never felt this far. The signs start counting down from 800 yards. As you wheel past Buckingham Palace (invisible through the crowds) a gantry informs you that you've got the final 365 yards to go. The sun had broken through the crowds some time before but this was the first time I really noticed. Nothing else reached me as I put down my head down and willed myself over the line.

As I crossed the finish I spotted the cameras and thought of my Aunties who'd be watching and waiting. I straightened up and put my hands in the air. Just stay composed until you're over the line - don't fall to pieces where they might see.

I carried on for 50 metres or so over the line, as good etiquette dictates. No desire to cause a pile up. Suddenly staying upright is the most important thing in the world. I can't see where I'm putting my feet. Huge racking sobs come from nowhere as I try to make my way to the ramp where the timing chips are removed. Joy, relief but mainly exhaustion. I have, it seems, nothing left.

A hand on my shoulder. A marshal steadies me as I climb the ramp. "It's okay, you did great". We exchange a few words about his marathon in 2000. It's enough to bring me back to the world outside the narrow confines of my head, where I've lived for the last two hours, trying to convince myself to ignore the pain, ignore the cold, ignore the urge to stop or even slow. It's a relief not to be alone anymore.

The last two hours of my 4hr50 Marathon were more mental than physical. I know I could have enjoyed it more if I'd taken it slowly, spent time soaking up the atmosphere, treated it as a nice trip around London. But I wanted to see what I had in me. I'm glad I did.

I couldn't have done it without the support of all the people who sponsored me, emailed me, made messages for my iPod or cheered on the day. Thank you all.

My Result:

I say, with not unjustified pride, I am a Marathon Runner.

[1] Nor, probably, glom of nit.
[2] 42.16km for my continental friends.
[3] Yes, really.
[4] Half a centimetre. Which is too much.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Auntie Em Prepares to run 26.2

Of course all the preparation is really over - the months and miles are behind me now and there's only the day itself to negotiate. I'm carb-loading like someone who has heard the Atkins Diet is about to become a legal requirement. Sweet potatoes are my new friend - a welcome break from the monotony of pasta, and very tasty baked.

Tonight I have plans for a bowl full of pasta and an appointment with The Doctor. Tomorrow? We dine in the Mall!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Auntie Em gets Expo(s)ed

It's all getting very real - today I registered at the Marathon Expo.

It wasn't too busy yet:

Though there was still a queue to pick up the number and chip. Can't imagine what it will be like on Saturday.

I dropped by the Realbuzz lounge and met some of my fellow runners who've been gee-ing each other on in the forum. I, rather optimistically, have the sign below:

I also had a massage from the University of Middlesex Sports Rehabilitation students. This takes place on a completely open stall, I really wish I'd worn shorts, but I feel very limber as a result.

I have the kit bag and my number - all I need now is to eat lots and lots of pasta, and get to the start on time.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Auntie Em has Marathon Monomania

4 days left until the big day and the Marathon is consuming a worrying proportion of my thoughts. I go to the Marathon Expo tomorrow - pick up my number and chip, get my name on my vest and hopefully get loads of freebie running stuff.

I'm convinced I have shin splints/an ear infection/an inability to remember how to get to Greenwich on Sunday. I just want to get on with it now.

My Marathon obsession is even spilling over into my Vision Science reading - though it is a good excuse to trawl through the archives for fun results on effort an perception. There's a review of a fun paper on David's and my "serious" blog here.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Auntie Em Tapers

10 miles in the sunshine - so much nicer than last week. A simple looping course with as much climb as you can get in Zone One. Through the deserted City, up the Angel, through Kings Cross and Euston and down through Covent Garden, past the Marathon store. Got a frisson at the sight of the countdown clock reading 13 days, 20 hours and some.

Nothing to do now but avoid injury, sleep well and maintain my fitness for a little under two weeks. This time 14 days from now there will be blisters and aches, pizza and champagne and an enormous sense of achievement. And Shelter will be at least £1,600 better off.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Auntie Em Runs 20 - in the snow...

My last long run - I planned a valedictory 19 miles before the taper. I hung on 'til the Monday for the extra day of recovery and in the hopes that the weather would improve. Ha Ha:

(Photo from Mahesh F on Flickr)

Still - I managed 20.33 miles - 1.33 miles beyond my target, and in to the mythical >20mile zone:

You can see the speed fade away at the end - I was going about 30sec per mile too quick at the start (in an attempt to stay anything like warm) and about 20sec per mile slower than my target at the end. One more Gel would have helped - it seems that a lot of energy is needed to keep warm in those conditions! I'm impressed that I didn't resort to using my Oyster Card.

Here's the somewhat astonishing route. You'll need to zoom out a couple of times to see it in all its glory. It's amazing how much of London you have to cover in order to run 20 miles!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Auntie Em runs 15 - badly

Today was a nasty one: the iliotibial band is playing up again, and I've ruptured a tendon in my right foot.

The second half of my run was agony - and not helped by police cordoning off two sections of my route. I don't know where last week's half-marathonner has gone, but she didn't come out to play today.

Retail therapy this afternoon, with a trip to Decathlon for some compression leggings, some rebound insoles and a patella strap:

I have a 17 miler planned for next Sunday and a 19 after that - then the taper begins. I'm hoping that with a lot of rest, some massage and my new kit I may just make it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Auntie Em Runs 13.1: the Milton Keynes Half

It was sunny, with a refreshing breeze. Network Rail did their level best to ensure I didn't get to the start on time (thank goodness for chip timing). After being told by my sports masseur to consider dropping out, in order to save my knee for the big one I decided to start out slow and steady.

I suffered a few twinges around half way, but could tell that the strengthening exercises seem to have ironed out some of the irregularities in my gait. The course was largely flat (with a few short but sharp climbs towards the end - thanks!) and it's nice running with a field instead of dodging wandering tourists and sleepy commuters.

At about 10 miles in I saw David, and I started to realise that not only was I going to finish this, but that I still had plenty in the tank. At 11 miles I encountered some entertaining climbs and - although my pace dropped right off I do remember passing quite a few people who just seemed to blow up on those inclines. From 12 miles on I raced all the way home.

I came in with a time of 2:08'36", which is an average pace of 9:50 per mile. I also recorded a personal best time for my last mile (8'48"). From which I can only conclude that I haven't been trying hard enough in my other long runs :)

My (detailed) Nike+ record of the event is here and my official race result is here.

It's still not to late to sponsor my marathon, which I'm running on behalf of Shelter.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It should be Band...

or, I'm down but not out.

I've spent the best part of the last fortnight walking like this:

Anyone following my runs on my little Nike+ widget down there and to the right would have noticed a worrying drop off in my activity of late. I've had a nasty flare up of my illotibial band - which I didn't know I had - due to a sudden ramping up of my training distance (blame the joker who thought it would be helpful to tell me that getting past 13 miles is a huge psychological burden, or blame me for jumping straight up to 16.5)

With some very boring cycling, some swimming and pilates and a couple of very painful massages I'm starting to get back on my feet and still aim to do the Milton Keynes Half this weekend. It's funny how 13.1 miles doesn't seem at all daunting anymore (I've run 14 with a nasty injury, and in a none too shabby time too!). I'll post next week to say whether my hubris was short lived!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Zotero, my dear-o

Y'know those relationships that start with mild curiosity, build through overwhelming passion and develop into slavish devotion. I'm having (another) one of those, and it's with a Firefox plugin called Zotero.

I've never been an Endnote user, and have thus far done all my academic writing in LaTex. The joy of a handcrafted .bib file is hard to beat and yet, and yet...

When there's an icon in Firefox's address bar inviting me to save the bibliographic data for the page I'm on. When the related PDF will be spidered and saved locally, more often than not. When individual entries, or whole sets of entries can be exported in a handy report (which, happily, makes me look very productive to the paper lovers out there). When my husband discovers the M$ W*rd plugin that allows you to use Zotero to build your references automatically...

I still love LaTex - WYGIWYW[1]beats WYSIWIG any day. But I know I'm fighting a losing battle trying to get my current (social sciences) and future (neuro scientist) colleagues to share the love. And so, it's over to Word I go. Don't get me wrong, Zotero will make a .bib file for me too, but it's an enabler, and my path to the dark side is paved with Zotero's good intentions.

I love Zoreto madly, and the fact that it is promiscuous enough to play with the proprietary boys (Word), as well as the kookie, indie crowd (LaTex) just makes me love it all the more.

Zotero: I know true love asks for nothing, but on the day you let me change which fields you add to those fantastic reports you give me, I will swear undying love to you forever.

[1]What you get is what you want