Friday, November 20, 2009

Auntie Em is a Pushy Middle-Class Constituent

My local MP, Mr Simon Hughes, will be recieving the following from me (thanks to the awesome Write To Them site.) Because this is going to lead to stupidity like this. (EDIT: I want to make it clear that Simon Hughes is not part of the problem! I'm writing because I'm hoping he will be part of the solution.)

I know I should have rung too. Blame my computer-scientist/academic introversion...


Simon Hughes MP
North Southwark and Bermondsey

Friday 20 November 2009
Emma Byrne

Dear Simon Hughes,

I am writing to express my concern about several measures proposed in the Digital Economy Bill, particularly those that allow for secondary legislation to change the Copyright, Designs and Patents act.

These amendments would allow the secretary of state wide ranging powers to define new penalties without parliamentary scrutiny. They would also allow the secretary of state to hand over investigative powers to bodies such as record companies and film distributors, again with no parliamentary oversight. Such powers are exceedingly troubling, as parliamentary scrutiny is essential if legislation is to have any chance of being effective and proportionate.

I have no confidence in the business secretary's understanding of the domain he is seeking to legislate. This proposal comes hard on the heels of the unworkable "Three Strikes" proposal, that would compel ISPs to suspend accounts suspected of file-sharing. This proposal is unworkable on three counts:

It is unjust: the proposal assumes a one-to-one relationship between users and computers whereas in reality most internet connections are shared. This would lead to collective punishment, where a household, business or even a whole town[1] is disconnected from the internet.

It is unworkable: many wireless internet access points are only weakly secured. Illegal downloads may be carried out without the knowledge of the bill payer [2].

It is unenforceable: again, the relationship between users and computers is not one-to-one. A user whose internet access is suspended by one ISP is still free to access the internet via public hotspots, connections in their place of work or education, or pay-as-you-go mobile "dongles."

As an academic computer scientist I consider these proposals to be breathtakingly technologically naive. I hope I can count on you to subject these proposals to the scrutiny they so desperately require.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Byrne


Friday, October 16, 2009

"Welcome to Southwark. Fuck you."

We just bought an ex local authority flat in the London borough of Southwark. This means that the local council are the freeholders and we are the leaseholders.

I know that dealing with councils can be a world of hurt, and that Southwark has a pretty awful reputation in this area, but I never expected the hell our first two weeks is turning into.

Things began well enough. A form from the council tax department on our first day addressed to the new owners. "Good," we thougt, "that saves a phonecall, even if there is a BOLD, CAPITALISED threat of legal action if tge form isn't returned in 21 days. A little heavy handed but heigh ho."

I've also spent the last few weeks chasing the repairs team to sort out the communal lighting, which needs a bulb changing. I finally got an answer today. It was about a completely different flat with a completely different problem, but hey, 10/10 for being able to send an email (eventually.)

what I didn't realise is how much *better* they are at sending lettters. Second class. In a postal strike. We arrived home tonight to find this cheery missive:

9th October 2009

Service Charges

I refer to the above matter and advise that there are substantial service charge arrears on the above-mentioned property.

Should we fail to hear from [you] within 7 days of the date of this letter [tomorrow. No, today now, fuck] the Council will commence forfeiture proceedings without further notice to you.

Yours faithfully


Home Ownership Unit

Which is why I'm awake at 4am, trying to put visions of bailiffs and barristers and locksmiths (oh my) out of my head.

"PS Welcome to Southwark. Fuck you."

[UPDATE] David has been to the council offices this morning to deal with this in his extremely reasonable middle-class way*.

The ex-owner has now cleared his arrears. However, because Southwark Home Ownership Department haven't received information from another department (the department of pointlessly holding shit up?), we don't officially live there yet as far as they are concerned. So they can't write to tell us that the account is clear, or tell us what our service charges will be.


* "I am trying to solve this with you on a person-to-person basis in an entirely reasonable way. If that fails I will, entirely reasonably, consult your management. If that fails, I will, still in an entirely reasonable manner , consult whatever ombudsmans** are relevant to the matter in hand. After that option is exhausted, I will then, in an entirely reasonable and fair way, put the matter in the hands of my lawyers."

**Ombudsmen? Only the truly middle class know - upstarts like me give ourselves away by mispronouncing these shibboleths.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Auntie Em gets vertigo:

David has just taken delivery of a 1TB drive at work. We wondered how long it would take to read a TB disk full of (uncompressed ascii) text. Here are our back-of-the-envelope calculations:

1TB =
10^12 bytes =
8 * 10^12 bits =
1.14 * 10 ^12 characters [1] =
1.9 * 10^11 words [2] =
950,000,000 minutes[3] =
1,806.22 years [4]

[1] Assume 7 bits per ascii character (using the basic subset of 128 7 bit characters)
[2] Assume an average of 6 characters per word
[3] Assume a 200 wpm reading speed
[4] That's reading 24*7*364.25 But give yourself an 18 minute break to account for the accumulated leap seconds

As of May '09, the US Library of Congress has accumulated 100 TB of data. I'm assuming that's not all ascii text though

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Just had my mind blown...

by this passage in Numbers are associated with different types of spatial information depending on the task van Dijck, Gevers and Fiasa

"When patients neglecting the left side of perceptual space bisect physical lines, they typically shift the subjective midpoint towards the right. Similarly, when indicating the midpoint of a numerical interval (e.g. what is in the middle between 1 and 9?) they overestimate the midpoint (e.g. 7)."

(Emphasis mine!)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Time to get me another doctorate:

From the Southern Evangelical Seminary this time!

This is the D.Min. course. You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500- to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God -- for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) develop a Sunday-school lesson plan based on the book Understanding Intelligent Design (worth 20% of your grade)

Wow - no research, no critical thinking and no pesky originality needed. With a coursework submission date of August 14th I could be a double doctor by September I'm sure. If I could just fight down my gag reflex long enough!

UPDATE: tee hee - it gets better. From the takehome exam:
This exam is open-book, but you must limit yourself to the six books read in class.

Excuse me - I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Fun with Digital Projectors

I first saw this video of Peter Greenaway's projection onto Da Vinci's "Last Supper" about a year ago. I'm still astounded by it every time I see it:

Then today I saw this projection by Apparati Effimeri on the side of the Malatestiana castle in Cesena, Italy. Have a look at 2'15" and 3'30". Pink Floyd video much?

Monday, July 06, 2009

"So obviously far from any known terrorism profile"

Lord Carlile's otherwise encouraging review of the anti-terrorism laws contains one rather odd finding.

According to the Guardian

"The latest police figures show that ­117,278 people were stopped under section 44 in 2007-08, of whom 73,967 were white, 20,768 were Asian and 15,218 black."

Lord Carlile points to these stop and search statistics as evidence that some people are being pulled over to 'balance the books.'

"I have evidence of cases where the person stopped is so obviously far from any known terrorism profile that, realistically, there is not the slightest ­possibility of him/her being a terrorist, and no other feature to justify the stop."

He describes his own experience of stop ans search "sinister" and "intimidating" and told Radio 4's Today Program:

"I'm a grey-to-brown-haired white male, I'm 5ft 10 ins tall, looking extremely conventional."

Neil Lewington is another chap that fits that description. On the 29th of June he was arrested on an unrelated matter (abusing a train conductor) and turned out to be carrying "viable, improvised incendiary devices," to target "non-British" people.

The police are now warning that the is an increased threat of right wing bombings after "England’s largest seizure of a suspected terrorist arsenal since the IRA mainland bombings of the early 1990s."

Lord Carlile's position, stop and search is ok as long as it is targeted at those who "look like" terrorists, is nonsense on the face of it: you can't tell by looking who the terrorists are. One of them might well be a "grey-to-brown-haired white male... 5ft 10 ins tall, looking extremely conventional."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Protest is not a criminal offence...


'The report describes the policing of the G20 protests as a "remarkably successful operation"... "Aside from a few high-profile incidents, the policing of the G20 protests passed without drama," say the MPs.'

I'm sure they went on to add that the 1930s were a "remarkably peaceful decade. Aside from one high-profile incident, the decade passed without drama."

Oh frabjous day!

Someone I greatly admire really likes something I did.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

All artsy-caftsy like...

I finally finished my SoFoBoMo book. I decided to take the text of Cory Doctorow's essay Snitchtown, which, as with all of his work, is released under a creative commons license.

The SoFoBoMo website limits me to a 15MB upload, and the compression algorithm in Preview squashes the file rather brutally from 44MB to <1MB, so I'm also sharing the larger version here.

All the photos are available under an attribution, non-commercial, sharealike licence here.

For my next trick, I plan a new embroidery project. Keep in mind the fact that the last embroidery I did was my counted cross-stitch "buggy BASIC" sampler for the UCL CS panto. This time I plan to stretch myself a little.

For a long time I have been in awe of the drawings of neurons Santiago Ramón y Cajal, painter, gymnast, blower-up of shit and neuroscientist. See, for example, this observation of a Purkinje cell from a cat:

Kitteh can has new-ron...

"Kitteh can has new-ron..."

The thought of trying to do this as counted cross stitch makes my toes curl, so I spent a coupla hours yesterday making myself a transfer with a hot-iron transfer pen.

I ended up with one good transfer on canvas. I also have one ok-ish spare that I'll happily give to anyone else at the intersection of the sets "textile nerds" and "neuroscience nerds"[1]. See here for details.

[1] This makes the rather bold assumption that this set is not a singleton...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Someone at the Telegraph is an illiterate moron

University of Leicester Press Office:

"Promiscuous men more likely to rape"

Daily Telegraph:

"Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists"

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester.

And yes. It's the same study. Nice gender-reassignment job in the headline there.

Full disclosure: I met Richard Alleyne during my fellowship at the FT. He was intelligent, friendly and supportive of the fellows. I remember him confirming the advice that a story should always lead with the "what the fuck?" Bizarrely, he seems to save the "what the fuck" until the end:

Using a sliding scale of sexual coercion from one to 27 where one was being allowed to enter the women's house to 27 being rape, they assessed how far men would go before "calling it a night".

Many men admitted they would go to within a point of rape before realising the girl was not interested in sex.

As a result, I'm really hoping that the egregious slant in this piece is the result of an editor's butchery. Because seriously. Yuck.

Oh yeah - and the sub-editor that wrote the sub-headline? Lying shithead. Let's review:

Daily Telegraph:

"Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester."

University of Leicester:

"Alcohol, however, had the opposite effect than predicted, with participants more likely to coerce women who were sober rather than drunk."

Yup. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, Telegraph. Well. Fucking. Done.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Offences, Criminal and Disciplinary

Imagine wanting to publicly criticise the government (tricky I know...). Now imagine being told that you couldn't do so unless you consented to be photographed and videoed whilst doing so. Imagine too that the people carrying out this overt and intimidating surveillance took steps to conceal their identities. Imagine further that, when asked to identify themselves, the photographer's associates grabbed your throat, tied your arms behind your back and wrestled you to the floor before locking you up for four days.

West Yorkshire police officers, carrying out "Forward Intelligence" at a climate change demonstration did exactly this to Val Swain and Emily Apple on the 8th of August last year. What is more, they videoed themselves doing so. The two women locked up for four days before being released without any charge. Now the Guardian has the FIT's own video of the incident and serious questions are being asked[1].

The officers in charge may wish to refer to the annual review of anti-terrorism legislation recently completed by Lord Carlile QC, whose [PDF] report said:

"It should be emphasised that photography of the police by the media or amateurs remains as legitimate as before, unless the photograph is likely to be of use to a terrorist. This is a high bar. It is inexcusable for police officers ever to use this provision to interfere with the rights of individuals to take photographs...

"Police officers who use force or threaten force in this context run the real risk of being prosecuted themselves for one or more of several possible criminal and disciplinary offences."


[1] Unfortunately they're being asked of the Independent [sic] Police Complaints Commission. The same IPCC that, in conjunction with the City of London Police, issued a series of "move along now, nothing to see here" press releases anout the death of Ian Tomlinson after an assault by a policeman.

The same IPCC that had to do a reverse ferret over whether or not there was CCTV footage of that policeman assaulting Ian Tomlinson shortly before he died.

The same IPCC that tried to put and end to the Guardian's investigation of that same event by complaining that the paper was "doorstepping" Mr Tomlinson's family.

"The deputy editor-in-chief who met him declined and pointed out that the Tomlinson family at that moment were in another part of the building, talking to Paul Lewis, the reporter who had driven the story, and publicly thanking the paper for its help." (Nick Davies, The Guardian, 27 April 2009.

The investigation into Ian Tomlinson's death is now being lead by the IPCC.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Art is theft

And there are plenty of photographers leaving their cookies on the windowsill to cool[1].

The Guardian has a series, My Best Shot which showcases photographers' favourite works, accompanied by a short article about how the photo was taken.

I love Thomas Joshua Cooper's picture. It joyously breaks the rule about using an object to give some sense of scale. I can hardly tell if this is a crystal under a microscope or a mountain seen from a helicopter. The ambiguity makes me tingle.

Likewise the PhotoSynthesis blog showcases some of the best science photography on ScienceBlogs, with a different scientist curating each month. April was the turn of molecular entomologist and keen photographer Alex Wild. These photographs document some previously unseen behaviour: flies mugging ants for their food. And there are some stunning images in this essay on the dangers of anthropomorphism in science photography.

[1] This crap metaphor courtesy of high octane dental painkillers. Sorry...

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Magic Fountains, Barcelona.

I don't care if it is cheesy. The son et lumière at the Montjuïc Park Fountains made me very happy indeed.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Barcelona Champions League Victory.

We were staying in a hotel just behind the Placa Catalunya and to managed to experience the joy of the final achievement of Barcelona's historic "Triplete" (winning the domestic league, the cup and the Champion's League).

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

No, not Eurovision, though equally baffling and capable of inducing eyestrain. The VSS annual meeting, and the Neural Correlate Society release the results of the Best Visual Illusion contest. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Robot Scientist meets the press

I am writing this at lunchtime on Thursday but can't post 'til midnight because of the embargo (ah Clive, how well you trained me!). The Robot Scientist paper comes out on the Science website tomorrow, and in the journal soon after.

My former colleagues at Aberystwyth have been busy giving interviews and being filmed/photographed for the last couple of days. There's a science wire service I'm still subscribed to after the BSA Media Fellowship and I'm really excited, because they've just put out the first comment I've seen from someone not on the team!

I can't wait to see the coverage tomorrow. I have no idea how well the story will be treated - but I did suggest a headline for the press briefing paper: "Robot Scientist beats humans to new knowledge" so I hope that angle gets covered, rather than robots to put scientists on dole/cure cancer/kill everyone with GM yeast.

Using AI, knowledge about the domain and a lot of lab automation kit the Robot Scientist managed to discover (for itself) the previously unknown function of 12 genes in brewer's yeast. The robot starts with some knowledge about the yeast metabolism and is allowed to design experiments on yeast with genes knocked out. It uses what it learns from those experiments to design another set of experiments, then another, until it finally figures out what the gene does.

With more than 6,000 interesting genes in yeast alone, that would take humans years: the robot can run 24/7 (in theory) and run thousands of experiments in parallel. If the robot just did those experiments combinatorially, that would still take more years than we're likely to have left on this planet - so the AI for hypothesis generation and experiment planning really comes in handy!

The paper.

UPDATE: My favourite writeup is this from Clive Cookson at the FT. It's sober, well informed and distills what the work really achieved. I'm defnitely buying a copy of the pink 'un today!

One of the best writeups so far, from the land down under: Sydney Morning Herald

MSNBC also has a pretty good take on it.

Auntie Beeb has done a good job too.

And my personal favourite writeup from a blogger.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The G20 Climate Camp

After following the G20 news on Twitter most of the day I decided to stop off in the city to check out the Climate Camp.

It was a peaceful, relaxed and cheery affair. There was a heavy and visible police presence, though they were largely good humoured. One or two even consented to be hugged by some of the protesters. I'm sure I even saw one smile.

It was heartening to see charities, churches, trade unions and other random people come together for the cause of getting climate change back on the agenda.

St Ethelburger's in the City, in the middle of the climate camp, shows its support

Just outside the riot police were massing:

It seems they were just waiting for the working day to be over, and interested bystanders and lightweight participants like me to have left the area. Twitter is abuzz with news that what was an entirely peaceful and well-run camp, with tents, a compost loo, a commissary and a medical station has been overrun by the riot police in a little under a few minutes.


I should have known that violence-junkies like this never go disappointed:


I underestimated the resolve of the campers. They have refused to be provoked, and through the twin powers of peaceful resistance amd samba music they are holding firm for now. Wish them luck.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Florida Stone Crabs: An apology

I travel on my stomach: I've never been to a country without learning how to ask for something I've never eaten before[1]. On my recent trip to the US I tried the local delicacy[2]: the Florida stone crab claws.

They were delicious. I must have looked like a slavering monster wrenching the all-too-easily identifiable limbs to pieces before devouring them (sharing a table with a vegetarian always alerts my to my deficiencies in both moral and actual fibre.) It never occurred to me to ask what they did with the rest of the crab.

Watching QI the other night, I found out. Apparently the stone crab can lose its claws and they grow back: a feature that stone crab fishers exploit. Apparently it is recommended that they leave the crab with one claw so it can defend itself against anything that wants to eat the rest of it (how thoughtful!)

This made me feel worse than if my crab had been rapidly dispatched and popped in a pot: some poor maimed crustacean was shuffling around the Florida seabed whilst I nommed its no-longer-appended-appendage.

I now feel even worse: research by Queen's University Belfast has found that the stone crab's hermity brethren can feel and remember pain. Which means that there's a good chance my poor claw donor saw the net coming and thought, "Oh no. Not again." Only in crab, obviously.

Florida stone crabs: I'm sorry. I hope the claws are growing back nicely. If you'd like me to come and open some oysters for you, I'd be happy to help. It's probably no comfort but you were delicious.

[1] Most surprisingly delicious thing I've had - stuffed pigeon in Egypt. Most amazing street food: brik in Tunisia.

[2] yes, they have them. Stop sniggering my judgemental European friends.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Auntie Em gets a stylist?

I used to have a good hairdresser (Scottish Ruth, with the broken central heating, where did you go?) but in the three years since I last saw her I have had maybe two haircuts that I've liked. Now, OK, I only get my hair cut every two months (rather than the magazine-mandated six weeks) but that's still approximately 16 hair cuts to which the response was "oh well... it'll grow out."

I was bemoaning this to friends who have very good hair a few weeks ago and one of them advised me to get a stylist. I balked at this because, living in London, a stylist to me is someone takes 10% of your month's salary to do what the hell they want to your head. Because obviously they're far better placed to know what you want than you do: they're stylists goddammit. And they're all based in these scary salons that make me feel like that bit where Julia Roberts goes shopping in Pretty Woman, but without the warm glow of self-esteem that apparently comes from having borrowed a rich punter's credit card.

Eight weeks have rolled by since the last trim and it's time for a haircut. I've decided I'm bored of growing it: I've been trying to look professional and sober in a premature gesture towards possibly becoming a lecturer, and really it doesn't suit me at all (the hair and, possibly, the career plan.)

I know the style I want - I accidentally got it by some fluke a few years back but have lost the sole photo of it. It's best described as "messy" but that doesn't seem to be enough to go on. Google image search wasn't helping: one more picture of Reese Witherspoon with her artfully tousled frikkin red-carpet locks will kill me. I have a life, not a personal hairdresser. These are not the follicles we're looking for.

In a flash of inspiration, I realised that I was looking in the wrong place for my hair. The style I have in mind doesn't live on top of a Reese or a Drew or a (shudder) Paris. It lives on top of a Satoko or a Satomi. I finally found the hair I want on a jRock site. Please promise you won't laugh:

(Yes, I know, that's not a real person.) It took some finding. Google image searches for "Cute Japanese woman hair" without at least moderate safe search on should not be tried except in the most liberal of workplaces!

But who do I trust to transform my serviceable but dull bob into something Tokyo stylee?

Well, I work in Hendon, North London, home to a sizable Japanese diaspora. There's an Asian hairdressers on the opposite side of the dual carriageway from my tube stop. So, braving rain and underpasses, and rehearsing last night's freshly learnt Japanese grammar under my breath ("watashi no kami koto dekimasu ka?" Is my hair possible? Can you cut my hair?) just in case [1], I took a deep breath and went into a new hairdressers. I even, instead of just making an appointment, asked if I could have a consultation first (oh brave new world!)

Tan - who is from Malaysia and speaks perfect English (to my disappointment - all that practicing for nothing), sat me down and did that "wafting the hair about through his fingers" bit that I (used to) believe was purely to establish the "me hairdresser, you client" dynamic. But no - he told me why that style wouldn't work with my hair and how to change it so the bits that I like would work with my hair.

So I go back on Friday for a two hour appointment. For which I am being charged the princely sum of 25 quid. (For overseas readers (and other non Londoners), that's probably as cheap a haircut I've had in London since I moved here.)

I'm not promising photos - unless it goes really well - but watch this space. Auntie Em may yet have a good hair day!

[1] There's a Sushi restaurant next door where Japanese is pretty much exclusively spoken. I long for the day when my Japanese is good enough to use in there. Free conversation practice!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace day 2009

My heroine of science: Maggie Aderin, for her extremely cool work, and her desire to tell the world about it.

I first saw Maggie Aderin on one of Adam Hart-Davis' programmes (a quick Google tells me it was "The Cosmos, a Beginners' Guide") and I was blown away, not just by her knowledge and eloquence, but by the passion she was prepared to show for her subject.

It's an open secret in UK science that public engagement is often seen (at best) as a distraction from "real work." At worst, it is written off as a substitute for being any good at your job. And yet here was a practicing scientist that was prepared to be as ebullient as Adam Hart-Davis: professional enthusiast.

Dr Aderin's CV proves that public engagement and scientific achievement go hand in hand. She has a doctorate from Imperial College and has been a Senior Project Manager at Sira, Managing Director of Science Innovation Ltd and a space scientist at Astrium Ltd, the European Space Company.

Maggie Aderin is my heroine for Ada Lovelace day 2009 for her commitment, not just to her own research, but to the next generation of scientists. As a member of the same generation, I'm happy to have her as a role model too. Happy Ada-day Maggie.

See the full list of Ada Day posts here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Or "light up the Doctorow-signal"

So the great firewall of Australia was an epic fail. Now the Oz government wants to go after the links instead.

Yup - Aussies linking to "banned" sites are being threatened with massive fines ($11,000 AUS per day).

Now I'm as rabid as the next reader of the British tabloid press when it comes to wanting to flay the people making and hosting images of child abuse. Slowly. From the feet up. But this isn't what the watch list is about. Or at least, that's never what it stays about for long:

"[Wikileaks] has also published Thailand's Internet censorship list and noted that, in both the Thai and Danish cases, the scope of the blacklist had been rapidly expanded from child porn to other material including political discussions."

Asher Moses, Sydney Morning Herald, March 17th 2009.

The first Aussie site to be threatened with a fine was a discussion board. Why? Because one of the posts had a link to an anti-abortion website. The next big target was Wikileaks - added to the "do not link" list because it hosts "a leaked document containing Denmark's list of banned websites."

Does the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) have no idea how the Internet works? I bet that within six clicks from your favourite auntie's blog you could be at most of the sites on the Internet that would make you wish you could claw your own eyeballs out (including, but not limited to, Conservapedia.) Whether I want to be or not, I'm part of the big network of pointers that makes the web work.

If ACMA doesn't realise that this plan is unworkable then that's some breathtaking incompetence on the part of a body whose whole reason for being is to understand communications networks. If the ACMA dosn't care that the plan is unworkable then they are using bullying tactics to achieve something that they know could never be achieved through legislation and the courts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Macaques teach their babies how to floss

PLoS ONE, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Where else can you read about research as diverse as the discovery of self-medicating behaviour in caterpillars and the differences in brain activity when telling apart reality from fiction (I'm going to read that one properly and write it up on the serious blog, which has not been updated in ages.) What is more, PLoS articles are FREE - to anyone with an internet connection - no matter whether you're in a university or a web cafe, whether you're in Cambridge or Cairo. Hurray for open access.

And hurray for good dental hygiene. A collaboration between researchers at Kyoto and Ubon Rajathanee Universities studied monkeys that live around the Buddhist shrine of Prang Sam Yot in Thailand. They found that the macaques had learnt to use human hair as dental floss. Not only that, monkey-mothers repeated the "flossing gestures" significantly more often when observed by their monkey-babies than when not.

The length of the flossing episode didn't vary between the infant present/not present conditions. The authors therefore argue that the change in behaviour doesn't result from the mother being distracted by the presence of her infant. Rather the increased repetition of the flossing gestures (reinserting the hair and repeatedly "snapping" the teeth) is intended to demonstrate how flossing is done.

Doesn't it make you proud to be a primate?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

I get worms

Living with the world's most ridiculous balcony (26 foot by 9 inches) makes gardening a challenge. Last year I found the answer to my composting needs at least: vermiculture or "worm composting". It nicely combines composting with the joys of pet ownership.

I bought a nice, dual tray wooden bin from Southwark council. It was made from reclaimed wood, by a project to provide training to homeless people. It also eats tofu and reads the Guardian.

Sadly my worms didn't make it through the sub-zero temperatures we had over winter so I'm having to restock. I've just bought myself a couple of hands-full of Dendrobaena Venita to get started again.

Last year they ate their way through all of our vegetable scraps, several torn up newspapers, umpteen crushed egg shells and the contents of the hooverbag, leaving behind a box full of fantastically rich compost. There is no smell, and the worms are photophobes so as long as the lid is closed at night they don't escape.

I'll be using the castings to propagate another batch of the pleasingly prolific "Tumbling Tom" that I grew last year. Whilst the dwarf squash and courgettes were lovely they have too much desire to spread themselves about so I'll be sticking mainly to salad greens, herbs and tomatoes. I may try some pea canes again too. And of course this year we have an olive and a lemon to take care of too.

Perhaps Green Butterfingers would swap some worm castings now for an aubergine later this summer?

Update: I just got email: my worms are now in a parcel winging their way via recorded delivery. Let's hope there's no repeat of last year when the box broke in transit and the parcel sat at the reception desk all day. Thank goodness for the timidity of worms.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Martini Garden

It was one of those ideas that seemed to emerge from the collective mind, rather like the "blackboard dining table" we made: David's aunt bought us a small olive bush for Christmas. That's nice, we said, but where's the rest of the Martini?

All we needed was a lemon tree, a juniper bush, some assorted herbs and spices and we'd be set.

Unfortunately we live in a flat with the world's most useless balcony: 26' long but only 12" wide. The garden remains conceptual, unless we manage to find a central London flat with a more generous patch of outdoor space.

It turns out, however, that wedding anniversary number four is "fruits and flowers." After a lot of (metaphorical) digging I managed to find a lemon tree that is dwarf in habit but will actually fruit in the UK. I was skeptical on this last point, but when the tree was delivered it did indeed have some fruits still on from last year's growth:

Cheesy pseudo-tinted (or pseud-y cheesy-tinted) photo.

So happy anniversary to David: here's the next installment of the Martini Garden, and to many more years of joy. At least we can season our own drinks, even if we can't make them from scratch!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An open letter to Lady Greenfield.

You're supposed to be a neuroscientist. That means you can't just go around asserting things.

Yours sincerely,

Frustrated of London.

P.S. "Perhaps the next generation will define themselves by the responses of others." Really? How shockingly novel. I molded my personality in a social vacuum.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

News Tweet

I knew that Twitter was the first source of images of the Hudson River Landing (go Sully!). What I hadn't realised was how many news outlets now have a breaking news twitter feed of their own. Here are some edited highlights:

The main BBC news op has a breaking news only feed, with headlines and links to the stories on the BBC site. Currently runs at about 3 posts a day.

Also from the BBC, my morning listening, the Today Programme has a tweet-feed. They seem to post a handful of tweets a day, not all of breaking news. Some are trails for upcoming packages, others are links to Today Programme material on the BBC website.

The full list of BBC feeds can be found here.

Reuters is for serious news junkies only. Updates every couple of hours or so.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a very busy breaking news feed too, with updates around hourly. They also cover some fantastic UK news stories - like this one: Drunk British soldier crashes tanks. (Note the plural of tank. Support out troops, because they're too drunk to stand up by themselves.)

The FT has a finance news feed that seems updated roughly hourly until the desk closes around midnight. They also have a tech news feed which is frequently but irregularly updated.

CNN has a feed for breaking news only, that seems to be updated no more than once or twice a day.

NPR have a feed that covers breaking news, trails for programs, discussions with users and, at the last glance, an apology to the Internet at large for describing Unix as "a system computers use to define time," (See replies around 7.58pm Feb 13th - Eek!)

I'm not sure which, if any, of these I'll follow. I think I still prefer pull rather than push news. What I really want is a twitter feed filter/aggregator that will allow me to see tweets from these feeds only when they are relevant to my interests. Or about drunken tank-thieves.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Spring is here, spring is here [1]

A few weeks ago my balcony boxes looked like this:

A few days ago they looked like this:


I must start propagating my edible stuff for this summer. Nothing too big as we may still be moving flat sometime and I don't think I can transport my 4' wigwams of peas very easily. And I must sort out a seed swap with Green Butterfingers.

[1] "Life is skittles and life is beer":

(Sorry David - the annual bout of singing is about to begin!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Dress Code:

Or "Why do academics dress as if they're attending a blind man's funeral?" [1]

I was recently talking to a fellow post-industrial academic about the parlous sartorial state of many of our colleagues. This discussion took place at conference that, in places, was a sad little symphony in beige and polo-shirt.

On the strength of my visits to international conferences, the US academic uniform seems to sit more on the side of "business casual" (shudder) than in the UK. However, in the UK there's a definite split between the old and new universities: old universities preferring the worn, the stained and the 100 years out of date, newer universities favouring the US-style smart casual. Both seem designed to say "my mind is on higher things": in the case of the old universities it's the writings of Thomas Aquinas or the finer points of Brane cosmology. In the new, it's about being "student centred," "professional" or (horror of horrors) "replicating the corporate environment".

In my current post, I'm surrounded by "Biz Cas" (described by Corporate Apparel Blog as "The rebellious younger sibling of traditional corporate attire" - *snarf*).

Business Casual by thenickster

It's quite tempting to adopt protective camouflage - but I bounce between a new university (my post) and a self consciously old university (hereafter SOU) for a number of ongoing collaborations. I'd need the powers of of the mimic octopus to blend in, even if I wanted to. At work it's notable if someone's not in business casual, in the SOU I am still getting stick for the one time I showed up to a meeting in a dress. I should point out that the dress was more like this:

than this:

What's a girl to do?

I first faced this dilemma in industry and it can be best illustrated using the characters of the (much underrated, honestly!) IT Crowd. I had just come from running my own business, so started out by dressing pretty much like corporate droid Jen. I was never comfortable dressing this way, and my closest colleagues all dressed rather more like Moss or Roy.

(Parenthetically - I wasn't actually using the IT Crowd as my "Vogue" or "In Style" I promise - Graham Linehan was still making Father Ted and Black Books at this point!)

I had a number of problems in finding a style I liked:

  1. I couldn't quite carry off dressing as one of the boys as one look at my outline would be enough to convince anyone that I'm not one of the boys.
  2. At the time I hated my height - I didn't wear high-heels until my mid-to-late twenties as I couldn't stand the constant feeling of looming over people. I'm over that now, though I still try to radiate a non-threatening vibe.
  3. The internet did not have half so many cool t-shirt stores as it does now. ThinkGeek shipped overseas (just) by then but boy was that expensive.

Sometime in the last few years I've settled on wearing jeans worn with "stylish yet affordable boots" (thank you Whedon for that meme!) plus a jacket with a t-shirt or sweater underneath. The jeans and boots emphasise the fact that I could step over a farm gate without a run-up. They also ensure that, in a department in which most of the women are in admin roles, I don't look like an administrator. And they say "I still act as if I'm at SOU. I may go back there sometime. Treat me accordingly. (Give me good research time!)"

The jackets say "I am making some attempt with my appearance - I am wearing at least one item that requires advanced garment-care techniques." (For those not in the know, advanced garment care includes dry-cleaning or, indeed, ironing as far as I'm concerned [2]). Plus they're great at playing down my more distracting features.

By which of course I mean the t-shirts... honest. The t-shirts are neither more nor less than a portable (literally) shibboleth. A visual "handshake" that works across a room. If you know why I'm wearing a t-shirt with an old blue police box and some statuary angels on then there's a good chance you and I will be friends.

Despite the occasional day in a dress, what I wear still feels a bit like a uniform, and is no less of a badge of belonging than business casual or "antiquated slob". But at least it's not camouflage: it's closer to aposematism if anything [3]. And it looks a heck of a lot better on me than beige slacks and a pastel-coloured polo shirt, doesn't it?

[1] Actual question from a dear friend's husband. My momentary outrage died when I considered some of my colleagues. Not the one with the excellent collection of hats. Nor the one with the shirt with the very subtle cannabis sativa pattern. Nor, indeed, the one that's just been in Esquire. But most of the others.

[2] I read recently that there is a word in Japanese that translates to something like "Sweater Girl" or "Cardigan Woman" which means a woman that is too busy with her career to iron. I now can't find the source of this information, so I have no idea what this word was or even if it is apocrypha. Shame - 'cause it suits me down to the ground!

[3] Thanks to David for introducing me to the word "aposematic". For years I've wanted a word that meant "opposite of camouflage" or "the animal equivalent of Doctor Marten boots and a mohawk".