Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Can anyone help me find this letter to the editor from 1987

This post is inspired by wishing I was at Hay Festival for Letters Live which I enjoyed very much last year, but Hay is a bit too far if you're coming by public transport by yourself. The letter that I'm after, sent to an editor for publication rather than to a person per se, might not make much sense unless you know the context - but find out for yourself by scrolling to section 4 if you don't want to read the background :)

Background to the tale...

1. Low-flying noisy military aircraft
Although I didn't pay a great deal of attention to it at the time, being mostly away at school or living in North London, during the late 1980s there were apparently a lot of military aircraft making a din in otherwise peaceful rural areas such as the Lake District. To be honest had I been aware of it I'd probably have enjoyed it as I'm very warmly-disposed towards large noisy military aircraft and relish the Chinooks that occasionally zip around Blackheath and Greenwich and actively seek airshows, and YouTube videos on the topic.

The line at the time, and presumably today, is that pilots need practice flying at low altitude but as I understand it relations between the public and the military have improved somewhat and low-alt flight times are published in advance and the public can comment etc.

2. My mum's collection of amusing cuttings
My mum used to cut snippets from newspapers and magazines that amused her and she'd share them with me when I was home for the holidays. I just remember laughing myself silly (pretty much my default position truth be told) reading through her collection which she taped onto the pages of a blue school exercise book (buggered if I can find it now though, it was full of cartoons such as this brilliant one, on Irish Dancing, by Ed McLachlan and Norman Thelwell's gentle mocking of a snowed-in fat farm receiving a helicoptered 'care package' - "Thank God! It's the lemons.").

One of her cuttings was Evelyn Waugh's letter to his wife which we used to read to each other regularly, doing all the voices. Here Geoffrey Palmer reads it perfectly -



3. Mathias Rust landed a small aircraft in Russia in 1987
In 1987 (in fact I've just googled it and have been delighted to discover that it actually happened on 28 May 1987 so this post is ridiculously well-timed as its 30th anniversary is tomorrow, genuinely hadn't realised that!*) Mathias Rust landed a plane in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Totally illegally. Biiig trouble. For everyone, not just him: "His flight through a supposedly impenetrable air defense system had great effect on the Soviet military and led to the dismissal of many senior officers".

*Incidentally Evelyn Waugh's letter was sent on 31 May (1942) so this whole post seems favoured by good timing! 

4. The Letter to the Editor
In 1987 I think my parents would have been taking either The Times or The Telegraph so I suspect the letter would have been published in that, though it's also possible that a friend or relative could have sent mum the letter from somewhere else as her collection was 'known' within that sphere.

Although I've not had sight of this letter for at least seven years (haven't been able to find mum's blue book since she died in 2010 annoyingly) I remember it very well - at least I think I do! - and have included what I think the text is below. Can anyone confirm?

SIR, may one enquire as to how many hours Mathias Rust spent screaming through the Lake District at low level in a multi-million pound plane before he was able to penetrate Soviet airspace so successfully? Les Stennet [can't remember his location though].

I thought it was a brilliantly pithy letter, though my feelings tend more towards being in favour of jets screaming through anywhere I might happen to be...

5. Post-script, from the Wikipedia page on Mathias Rust
"While doing his obligatory community service (Zivildienst) in a West German hospital in 1989, Rust stabbed a female co-worker who had rejected him. The victim barely survived. He was convicted of attempted manslaughter and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but was released after 15 months."



Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bloglovin mysteriously re-using my posts without permission

Edit: 10 May - I emailed support@bloglovin.com and asked them to remove my blog, which they appear to have done. Thank you Bloglovin!

------ Original post ------


If this post appears on Bloglovin please know that I didn't authorise it and am trying to get my content removed. I've emailed support@bloglovin.com

Oooh I'm a little bit annoyed. Bloglovin has reposted all of the posts from this blog (going back to 2013), under a different URL, with a 'frame'. For any given post the entire text is there (I really wouldn't mind if it was just a paragraph or two with a 'read more' link that came back to this blog, as is usual with RSS scrapers). Apparently, despite this frame thing I get all the benefits of visits and analytics - but I don't really want my stuff published in this way, and no-one asked. I had to go on a bit of a hunt to find that FAQ as I assumed it was at the end of the page... they have that godawful endless scrolling so more crap (I mean my excellent posts) kept appearing.

This seems rather like taking liberties with what I'd hoped this blog's RSS feed would be used for. Short of shutting down either the RSS feed or the blog I'm not sure how I can stop it.

Here's what my blog looks like on their site. Granted it's rather nice, I'll give them that. And I have 3 followers...

Were you to click on any of the posts you'd be taken to a link like this -

http://frame.bloglovin.com/?post=5618773817&blog=6409739&frame_type=blog_profile 
or
http://frame.bloglovin.com/?post=5550415765&blog=6409739&frame_type=blog_profile

- and the entirety of the post. All the links on the page point correctly to this blog (or wherever I linked them to) so that's not the problem, On further checking it seems that while all the links on the page point to my links if you hover over them, if you actually click on them the "frame.bloglovin.com" overlay remains], I just find it quite weird that my content has been hijacked in this way, with a different web address and my content placed within a frame that links to other similarly-framed posts on my blog and completely unrelated blogs. I don't really like it and want it removed.


If you click the large X it clears the panel of other posts (I have to admit I really like that format, god I'm so annoyed with their nice layout while they pinch my content) and the link reverts to my blog. But it's perfectly possible to read my posts there without ever visiting here. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter as this blog has no advertising on it so it's not possible to make money from it, and I'm apparently not losing any views / analytics. But I'm just miffed about having my posts repackaged in this way. Thrrrppp :-รพ to bloglovin. Mutter grumble. Take my stuff down please.

I see I'm not alone in finding this an irritating way to 'reach an audience'.


I've no immediate plans to take legal action myself though (I've never had to do so when asking people to take down content that's been reposted without my permission) but I suppose the next escalation level is to rename this blog to something that is deliberately disrespectful about bloglovin ;)



Sunday, 7 May 2017

Wondering if birds have perfect pitch

On my way to Jury Service (fun!) a couple of weeks ago I wondered if birds have perfect pitch. They certainly seem to repeat their songs at the exact same pitch and I wondered if they can easily transpose a song as most humans can*.

I asked my friend, colleague and fellow DorkbotLondon-goer Dan Stowell who works at the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at QMUL. He's an ideal person to ask because he co-created an app (Warblr) which 'listens' to birdsong and suggests what species it might be and he also convened the Listening in the Wild 2015 conference on "Animal and machine audition in multisource environments" which I attended and enjoyed.

Dan's replies to my emailed questions are in black italic text, mine in a sort of pinkish russet.

Do birds generally sing their tunes on the same starting note, or can they / do they occasionally transpose?

Same note. Birds are MUCH less interested in "relative pitch" and transposition as are humans. The evidence suggests that in many cases, we hear things as being identical-but-transposed, but birds hear them as different. (The evidence is a bit patchy though)

Do you know if lyrebirds' mimicry also includes the same pitch of whatever they're mimicking?

I don't know! I believe it's the same.

He also pointed me to a recent paper "Animal Pitch Perception: Melodies and Harmonies" by Marisa Hoeschele.

Lyrebirds have an incredible ability to mimic all sorts of everyday sounds and there are amazing clips on YouTube of them doing this. I first came across these birds thanks to one of David Attenborough's BBC programmes. The bird was doing an impression of chainsaws, the sound of which rather poignantly heralds the diminution of its habitat! At the time it didn't occur to me to wonder if the lyrebird was singing the chainsaw tune at the same pitch as the actual chainsaw, but now I'm curious. I'd have to assume it was the same pitch but would be happy to hear from anyone who might know. Possibly I'll come across a recording of what the lyrebird hears and its impression of it.

Wolves, however, I'm marking down as not having perfect pitch, thanks to this^ YouTube video in which they join in with an air raid / flood warning siren by having a bit of an off-pitch howl.



A while ago I came across this video of a two year old Chinese boy who can easily recognise which digit in a telephone number is dialled from just its sound. Each digit, when pressed, emits two different tones (basically a chord) because of the dual tone multi frequency signalling system in use - I don't know if these two-tones / inherent-intervals are easier to recognise (would I, as a person without perfect pitch, ever be able to do this?). Also Chinese speakers might find this sort of thing easier anyway (I understand that perfect pitch or pitch memory tends to be more common among native speakers of that language than compared with native English speakers) because Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch matters to the meaning.



Hopefully the thought that perfect-pitch-eared people might listen in and know which number you're dialling might encourage people from switching off annoying key tones on their phone.

**********

I suspect this train of thought (pondering birdsong's pitchness) probably emerged after having heard Far Side of the Moore on Radio 4 which was a sweet and amusing radio play about the launch of Patrick Moore's career as a television presenter on Sky at Night.

One of my favourite people, Tom Hollander, played Moore and he 'got' his voice and mannerisms perfectly. Quite uncanny. Tom also did an amazing portrayal of Dylan Thomas, and seems to be really rather good at that sort of thing.

At the time of writing there are about two weeks left to hear the whole programme on iPlayer / catch up though I think this 3min clip is permanently available.

I'd previously wondered if Tom has perfect pitch, based on my friend sending me a Vine video of him whistling the Hanna tune and finding it was exactly the same pitch as the one used in Hanna. I'd struggle to whistle the theme at the best of times (Tom has whistling form, I do not) but I'd certainly not get the exact pitch even if I did hit some of the notes. If someone has perfect pitch are they in a better position to hear, and 'get', the sound of someone else's voice? Presumably there are actors who don't have perfect pitch (and I've no idea if Tom does!) who've done a fantastic job of getting someone just right, but I wondered if it was a useful thing to be able to have / do.

Things I want to do now
1. Teach lyrebirds to whistle this Hanna tune
2. Teach lyrebirds all sorts of other stuff, but recorded at slow speeds so their playback is a bit spooky




*According to a YouTube video I watched people with perfect pitch might actually find it harder to transpose a song because they have such a strong sense of absolute pitch and struggle a bit with relative pitch, whereas the rest of us find that mostly quite easy once we have a starting note. ^Feel free to judge me for getting evidence from YouTube videos :)



Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Homeopathy is hardly exactly escaping the NHS 'ban'

It's Homeopathy Awareness Week next week or as we in the snark community have it 'Homeopathy Bewareness Week'. Don't get taken in by their lies ;-)

Actually homeopathy's already been having a pretty interesting week this week.

First, plenty of people noticed its absence in the list of things the NHS is considering not paying for anymore. Second, considerably fewer people noticed that the NHS has kinda already considered this, by paying less and less for it each year anyway.



There are two sums of money at issue
  • the amount spent on NHS England prescriptions for homeopathy - less than £100,000 (see blue graph below) for 6,821 prescription items (red graph below) in 2016
  • the amount spent on the wider infrastructure for homeopathy (staff, buildings etc) - apparently about £4m to £5m in 2016

In the mid-1990s the NHS in England spent upwards of £800,000 on homeopathy for 170,000 prescription items. This has dropped precipitously over the years, as you can see from the informative and entertaining graphs below.

Picture credit: Nightingale Collaboration, used with permish :)
Version for homeopathy fans
Well done! You began the year on 1 Jan 2016 with not a single homeopathy item prescribed but ended the year with a whopping increase to 6,281 items prescribed - an increase on a par with infinity.

Where was I...
I don't have the breakdown for the non-prescription costs, estimated to be several million at the moment. It's great that the prescription costs are dropping but we may still be wasting millions on this non-treatment on the NHS.


Although homeopathy wasn't mentioned in the first raft of 'things to consider banning' it will indeed be included in later considerations, according to Julie Wood's tweet below (she's the Chief Executive of NHS Clinical Commissioners).

https://twitter.com/NhsccJ/status/847794271512080386
"Homeopathy is in the overall £400m of spend identified - currently not in
first wave of 10 products for review but this is an ongoing project"

In other words, skeptics are pushing at an open door. We're not really trailblazing the decline of homeopathy on the NHS, it's happening anyway. Perhaps we've contributed to the changing mood though - for example newspaper reports now seem less likely to champion it and more likely to laugh at its improbability.

Unsurprisingly the magazine 'What Doctors Don't Tell You' (they don't like me much) have regurgitated the misinformation ("Homeopathy escapes the NHS cuts") and also managed to add in another error at the end ("The Swiss health authority has announced that homeopathy is effective enough to be included among therapies that can be claimed under health insurance plans..."). The Swiss have done no such thing and explicitly acknowledged that homeopathy was unable to provide evidence of efficacy. However, bafflingly, they are continuing to reimburse its use in health insurance but only if administered by a doctor, so there's that I suppose.



Background reading on NHS prescription costs
Every year the costs of prescriptions in England are published. Skeptics, being amused by the drop of homeopathy spending on the NHS have kept an eye on the cost for each year, going back to 1995 (info is publicly available).

Prescription Cost Analysis, England - 2016 [NS]
Publication date: March 30, 2017
Prescription Cost Analysis, England - 2016: Data Tables [.zip]
The [NS] means a publication that is within the scope of National Statistics, the lack of a [PAS] next to it means that no Press Announcement is Scheduled.
NHS Digital Publications calendar April 2016 - March 2017
NHS Digital Publications calendar (future)
 
Background reading on Swiss health authority and homeopathy
The Swiss rejected homeopathy as a 'treatment' that could be reimbursed in 2005 however lots of Swiss people voted for it in 2009 to be included, among some other ineffective treatments. The health authority requested evidence of effectiveness but eventually admitted defeat and surprised everyone in 2016 with this announcement:
"In a statement released on Tuesday, the interior ministry said it had come to the conclusion that it was “impossible to provide such proof for these disciplines in their entirety”.

They will thus be treated on a par with other medical disciplines, when it comes to health insurance.

The ministry plans to continue allowing reimbursements of treatment costs by compulsory health insurance, provided they are administered by certified medical doctors." 

Bad news for homeopathy fans though, it will continue to be scrutinised...




Monday, 3 April 2017

The Imaginary Maritime Science Festival - what would you have in your perfect science festival?

"It is a bright sunny evening: the sea reflects a thousand glowing colours, and, in a minute or two, I shall be gliding on its surface." Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents by William Beckford

My thoughts are never very far from boats at the best of times and this only increases when I'm waiting for the ferry home to Greenwich, North Greenwich or Woolwich (I like to vary things a bit). While I was waiting for the Thames Clipper ferry home I jotted down, on my phone's 'notes' app, a bit of a brainstorm for an Imaginary Maritime Science Festival. Bagsy Festival Director, obviously. 

Over Easter (April 2017) Greenwich and Woolwich (not sure about North Greenwich) will be hosting the Tall Ships festival 2017, the last one (in fact the first in Greenwich / Woolwich) was in September 2014 so I'm assuming these tend to happen about every two years or so in future. Tall ships are quite large vessels with masts and sails and they look gorgeous and afford many photography opportunities. Some are static, some waft gently on the water. People can even board them. Most of them are, as far as I'm aware, entirely modern ships rather than re-enactments but they look totally re-enactment-y. I think some of them will sail up and down the Thames with visitors on them.

Image from page 142 of "The boy travellers in Australasia : adventures of two youths in a journey to the Sandwich, Marquesas, Society, Samoan and Feejee islands, and through the colonies of New Zealand, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, and

On land there are also other entertainments, last time there was woodworking and all sorts of stalls. Plenty of bunting. But I wondered about the science. Just up the hill from the water's edge there's Greenwich Park which contains its very own National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory Greenwich. They'll be open over the festival and they have lots of cool stuff to see and do as well: http://www.rmg.co.uk/search/site/tall%20ships

Here are some of the talks, film screenings and other events that we'll have at my #IMSF (Imaginary Maritime Science Festival unless someone else is using that hashtag in which case it might be #IMSF2019). I might have got a bit carried away, but fortunately the Assistant Festival Director will be there to rein me in ;)

Maths and knots
I went to a great interactive talk ('The Mathematics of Knots') at the Orkney Science Festival in 2015 which featured mathematician Dr Julia Collins from Edinburgh University and knots expert Mark Shiner of Stromness Nautical School. We got to play around with bits of string and tie some knots too, it was ace.

Linked activities: flexagons (Martin Gardner's maths puzzles, hexahexaflexagons also used by colleagues to teach computational thinking concepts and graphs / maps (mathematics))

Image from page 213 of "Boat sailing in fair weather and foul" (1903)

Communication
Flags and semaphore, Morse and telegraphy (laying cables also pretty cool).

Flags 
Edit 28 May 2017 - I've just worked out that these flags spell out "Welcome Aboard" with the flags for 'aboard' nearest to the viewer and part of the 'welcome' message cut off. You can check this for yourself on Wikipedia's page on the meaning of the International Maritime Signal flags.
. The flags have very different meanings when not displayed in this format, for example the L flag (third one down on the further-away bunting, it's a yellow and black check) means either "The ship is quarantined" when in harbour, or "You should stop your vessel instantly" when seen out at sea.

ICS-flags

The one below is from 1902 and uses some of what are now number pennants for the letters.

1902 International Code of Signals painting


Film screenings
Obviously Longitude which is about Harrison and his clocks, possibly Titanic / Poseidon Adventure might be pushing it a bit.

Medicine and diSEAse (see what I did there)
A talk from the James Lind Alliance on his C18th randomised controlled trial for scurvy which suggested that citrus fruits were a good idea. Someone might also talk about A Day in the Life of a Ship's Surgeon which I'm expecting to contain a fair bit of amputation-related gore (or in which I learn that it was mostly splinters from wood). Perhaps a bit more gruesome might be talks on recovery from drowning, and 'mammalian diving reflex' - I'd certainly encourage everyone to read 'Drowning doesn't look like drowning'.

Sounds
Submarine sonar beeps, radar, that anti-pirate sound device that you can blast unpleasant sounds with. I might widen it a bit to include other sounds you might hear at sea including whalesong and the loud sounds made by shrimps. Foghorns too (Sarah Angliss wrote up a lovely event in celebration of the decomissioning of the Souter Foghorn).

Life on board ship
Practising staying upright I imagine, among other things. This lends itself to multiple comparisons - different types of ships and modern versus ships of yore.

Boatbuilding
Ye Olde Ships involved a fair bit of wood, and the right type of wood at that. What makes some wood better than others. You probably won't be surprised that I went to a lovely lecture on different types of wood, as part of an economic botany course a few years ago. Modern ships seem fairly metallic. I don't know if a great deal of metalwork has ever been done ON ships, but I suppose other than the ship itself the largest lump of metal is probably the engine or the anchor.

There was a lovely Ray Mears programme from a few years back in which he and a friend created, from scratch, a birch-bark boat - made from the peelable bark of the birch tree. In the UK we can peel birch tree bark too but it's paper-thin and doesn't lend itself much to boat building.

Navigation
Astronomy - when I went on a 2 week cruise a couple of years ago I entertained myself beforehand by looking into getting one of those sextant deelies and a big book of what to do with one. It turned out to be a bit more involved and fiddly so I didn't follow it up but I'd love to learn how you point something at a star, look up something in a book and declare that it's 9.32pm on Tuesday the Umpteenth of Month 1739 or something like that. Polynesian navigation seems extremely interesting too, I'd like to hear how different cultures found their way around and home again.

Image from page 206 of "The history of mankind" (1896)

Definitely want talks on longitude, possibly accompanying the film screening, also accuracy. Plus GPS and satellites, and how you can keep an eye on ships around the world with things like Shipfinder. Tides are also probably fairly important! And the Moon.

Power and movement 
Buoyancy - a notable thing about ships is that they float, when all's going well, and go forward at impressive speeds. Engines are pretty interesting, propellors, steam, those wheel things. Sails (shape, catching the wind - which leads me to wind power more generally, and wave power).

Desalination / recycling
On-ship water can be re-used.

Military
Talks from the Royal Navy / RAF on how they land aeroplanes and helicopters on aircraft carriers and take off again. That's a bit clever.

After 43 years supporting Royal Navy RFA Gold Rover departs Portland for the final time.

Trade routes
Other than probably not being at war with Spain over Gibraltar people use ships to explore and trade, not to mention un-fun things for whales (whaling for oil!). In Greenwich we have the lovely tea clipper called the Cutty Sark which zipped around the world collecting tea and probably other stuff too. There's a fantastic film called City of Ships from 1940 which looks at the produce coming in to Tilbury Docks near London - that would definitely be in the film screening strand.

>Piracy
Even if only for the opportunities for dressing up and saying 'Aarrgh' a lot. Maggi Koerth-Baker's article on actors taking on the role of pirates for a museum exhibition is absolutely brilliant. The actors did so much research. A great read: Real history from a pretend pirate. My favourite pirate, Stede Bonnet, wasn't very good at it. At the Tall Ships festival this year someone will be dressing up as Pirate Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. No sign of Cutler Beckett, alas.

Great Sea Voyages
Darwin... Cook... people who did the Grand Tour by boat.

Social and cultural
In addition to a 'day in the life of' there's also sea shanties, carving scrimshaw, experiences of people left behind, plenty of sea related poetry, other traditions. Maritime mythology... mermaids and whatnot.