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

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A couple of useful mildly passive-aggressive phrases I learned from my dad

These two phrases, passed on from father to daughter (I've no idea where Dad got them from) have been occasionally useful and I thought I'd share them in case others want to adopt them too.

1. To what fault in yourself do you attribute that?
I'm not sure I can really carry this one off as well as my dad (though he annoyingly remains dead when he was alive he was 6ft 2, large, loud and commanding) so I tend to use it more in jest but I leave it to you to decide how to use it :)

Dad probably used it most with jobsworth types. Or people lacking in insight.

2. Well to be fair they're probably not as well-advised as me
This one's good for rebuffing annoying people who tell you that 'everyone is doing X', particularly if they're trying to sell you something or beat you in a game of I Remain Unconvinced. It's not an actual game but I tend to gamify efforts to sell me things.

Here's a bonus one from my mum...

3. X permanently has his/her foot in the stirrup of his/her high-horse 
Funnily enough it's quite possible Mum might have been talking about Dad or me. She used to ring me occasionally with news of Dad's victories against companies that had foolishly tried to rip him off; he was never happier than when a proper fight was in the offing. Honestly my dad used to have the most amazingly protracted arguments (and the weird thing was they were nearly always really amiable) with companies about something failing to turn up, the wrong thing turning up, something needing replaced etc. An awful lot of Mum's, or his, stories seemed to be about vacuum cleaners - our house was like some sort of graveyard for them, a lot went there to die. Companies kept sending them, particularly after they'd spoken to my dad for upwards of half an hour.

Anyway, make sure you don't die by knowing what a failing smoke alarm sounds like or get out of the house and go and see a film in the open air (admittedly this link only relevant if you live in London).

Know when your fire alarm / smoke detector's battery is failing - sound beeps

On three separate occasions in three separate mini supermarkets in London I've mentioned to the person serving me that the high pitched, intermittent "pink" chirruping beep was their smoke detector's battery announcing its demise. Two of the people looked at me blankly (one couldn't even pick it out from the surrounding noise) and the third person told me it always made that sound and that it was the sound of a normally-functioning fire alarm - I mean really! I think next time I might be a bit more persistent.

I'm sure different kinds of smoke alarms emit different kinds of sonic death announcements but here's the one I'm most familiar with. Wouldn't it be great if the British Standards document for smoke alarm beeps kept them the same. Perhaps it does. I hope everyone knows what a failing smoke detector sounds like, it's basically an important warning. I hope everyone has a smoke detector...

Whenever I've changed the battery on a detector it's always made a terrific din and beeps for a bit before settling down, perhaps those beeps are to cue me in to what it sounds like - it worked for me but not the people in the shops.

My mum once rang me when Dad was away asking if I knew what had started beeping overnight and disturbing her sleep. I think she may have ended up holding the phone near to where the sound was coming from (she didn't know it was the smoke alarm and wasn't sure of the source's exact location) and eventually we worked out what it was and she was able to change the battery. 


I've just taken the bus home from Westcombe Park station and waited for the 108 bus going upwards back to the heath. While standing at Bus Stop B I heard the unmistakeable sound, coming from the houses behind me, of a failing smoke alarm. The lights were off and it was late (and no fire!) so I didn't start knocking on doors but I hope someone works out what the problem is.

Westcombe Park station is a lot less welcoming than Blackheath station, particularly as two of the street lights are out - not great when it's quite a steep hill and uneven pavement, anyway...

Sunday, 16 July 2017

I'm a bit skeptical about Ms Courtney's post about the future of homeopathy

Perhaps I shouldn't take the bait but when someone is wrong on the internet (and wrong with such enthusiastic regularity) it's difficult to ignore. If homeopaths restricted themselves to saying something along the lines of "you might feel a bit cheerier after talking to one of us, we're mostly quite nice, but the pills are just a distraction" I'd probably tolerate* homeopathy on the NHS, as an inert placebo. It's the fact that homeopaths promote it as a separate system of medicine that grates, and that some of them promote it as an alternative to real medicine for real diseases that worries.

The homeopathy enthusiast BrownBagPantry has posted the above quote numerous times on her Twitter feed under the #homeopathy hashtag and I thought I'd write up a quick rebuttal and correction of the points within it.

*It's still lying to patients in a rather paternalistic way, but that's an argument for a different post.

"Realistically, the anti homeopathy activists have a minuscule sphere of influence worldwide."
- 'Anti homeopathy activists' probably refers only to skeptical bloggers but it's important to remember that healthcare professionals, journalists, authors, scientists and all sorts of other people have taken steps to warn the public about the dangers of relying on homeopathy and other fake medicines. Many of them wouldn't recognise themselves as 'anti homeopathy activists' though.

The 'sphere of influence' bit is perfectly true of course. We don't particularly need to influence everyone who might consider buying or using homeopathy, we only really need to influence the decision-makers, that is people who regulate it (allow it on to the market, or how it can be marketed) and the people who commission it on the NHS etc. As it happens I'm also a fan of encouraging users of homeopathy to be aware of what it is (and it looks like plenty of people might be mistaken in thinking that it's the same as 'herbal').

I think of the first part (influencing decision-makers) as the meat of what skeptic activists might do and the second part (public) as the background marinade that also needs to be changed. It feels like public attitudes to homeopathy are changing - there are more negative articles about it in tabloid newspapers that, until recently, tended to be more supportive. There have also been a number of high profile stories. However I don't know how much this changes the minds of staunch supporters.

Generally "anti-homeopathy activists" act locally - I don't write to universities in India asking them to move a homeopathy event on their campus but I do in the UK (with a recent success in Birmingham). However we know that people IN Australia tackle local Australian quackery and likewise in other countries. So the 'worldwide' thing is a bit of a red herring. We're everywhere, having local effects, so while none of us has worldwide influence the effect of skeptical activity is felt globally.

"Since Hahnmann's time, these activists' opinions have been unable to stop the manufacture & distribution of homeopathic remedies"
- I don't think we've ever tried to stop the manufacture or distribution. Personally I've no objection to homeopathy products being on sale (this would be like objecting to sugar being on sale), only to the confusing or misleading advice given about what the products can do. There have been isolated examples of products being removed from sale because they no longer have a market license and I think the FDA sanctioned one manufacturer for poor manufacturing practices, but this hasn't particularly been a focus.

Recently homeopathic teething products for babies were withdrawn from sale after links to serious ill-health problems, combined with the discovery that the contents of the products were not as described on the label and had been inconsistently produced. It was the parents of the children harmed by homeopathy that brought the action - I don't know if they consider themselves to be anti homeopathy activists, but the manufacture and distribution of some homeopathic remedies has most certainly happened.

"the private practice & licensing of homeopaths; the schools, universities, organizations and private groups that teach it;"
- well this just isn't true. A number of universities have stopped teaching homeopathy, most recently in Spain, and they're also stopping validating others' courses. Hooray! The evidence base for homeopathy (poor) is also critiqued in UK pharmacy and medical degree courses, and there are critical-thinking modules available for schools that use it as an example.

"the privately and government funded research studies"
- goodness me, if people are still wasting money on research into homeopathy when it's been comprehensively shown that any effects can be explained by placebo then we need to step up our efforts here ;)

"surveys; the publication of books, journals and magazines for public and student consumption"
- I don't think we've tried that much to be honest. A few people have taken one magazine's advertisers to task for misleading content and to get it removed from a number of shops, but no attempt's been made to stop it from publishing. There have been a few examples of looking at getting books removed from sale (not from being published though) including a pharmaceutical society in the UK that still makes them available for pharmacists (!).

"the social media sites that educate curious health care consumers about it, and the cured patients who sing its praises to family members, co-workers, [casual] and longtime friends."
- particularly for Twitter those promoting homeopathy will certainly be met with rejoinders from people who are skeptical of the claims. I've been in work situations where someone has suggested homeopathy and I've certainly taken the time to explain why that might be unwise (I often gave talks to colleagues and members of the public about diabetes research and often talked about the risks of using either herbal or homeopathic remedies).

"The National Center for Homeopathy in the U.S. recently noted that the interest in their website grew by a "whopping 600%" over the past two years."
I emailed and asked them about this and they were unable to confirm, only wanting to know why I wanted to know, which is a bit odd. 600% seems quite an impressive figure so you might imagine they'd want to tell a homeopathy skeptic about it. They said it was something that had been sent in a newsletter to members. I've no idea then if the 600% figure is true but let's assume that it is. But it doesn't tell us if they had only 2 visitors two years ago and that this has just gone up to 14 visitors two years later ;) It also doesn't tell us if they're measuring all visitors (which includes Google indexing 'bots') plus people visiting by accident, or who are skeptics. Nor does it tell us what those visitors think about the information they found there.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (24 August 2015, updated September 2016)

Friday, 14 July 2017

Saved by a fax machine: the most ridiculous error I ever made with a computer

tl;dr version: I stuffed up a computer by mucking about with the regedit or .bat file and it wouldn't start. This was in the early 90s and the only way the company could help was by faxing me instructions to type into a new text file to save on a floppy disk from which I could then boot up. 
Fortunately it worked :)

In the early 1990s I used a computer to control a pump that gently delivered solvents, at a defined rate, into a long thin chromatography column, for lipid chemistry purposes. The column contained a substance which slowed down the compounds in my samples as they passed through, based on a relative attraction to either the solvent or the retarding material (also a little bit based on their size and other physico-chemical properties). This resulted in a complex mixture going in one end and individual components coming out ('eluting') from the other end, for me to collect and see 'how much'. The computer provided a reading of the output based on the refractive index of the eluted solution (eluent), transferring this to an on-screen graph.

At some point something went a bit wrong and my boss suggested I be a bit braver than I had been about fixing it myself so I read the manual and asked people in the computer department. I learned that I had to do something to the registry file, which underpinned the whole functioning. So I did.

After I'd done what I thought I was supposed to the computer wouldn't switch on (well it wouldn't boot up and I couldn't interact with it). My boss agreed that I probably should have called in an expert and I was a bit worried that I'd seriously stuffed up the computer and rang the manufacturer to ask for help. As it was such a long time ago, and as I resolved never to do it again, I've no record of exactly what I did or to which file but I remember 'regedit' and .bat files being involved.

The company said that I'd need to boot the computer from a disk (which I didn't have) so they said they'd fax me a set of instructions - I don't think they had email at that time, though I'm fairly sure that I did (was working in a university), so a fax it was. The fax turned up and the program was pretty short - I went to another computer, opened up a .txt file in notepad, typed in the code and saved it with the appropriate file ending onto a floppy disk. It worked perfectly ;)

I am just recording this small curiosity in the history of me killing computers...

My favourite examples of (what I think is) diegetic switching in film music

As far as I can tell, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, diegetic sound refers to anything 'in-story' - so in a film it's sound that comes from the on-screen environment, eg music coming from the radio that a character is listening to is diegetic but the film's score is non-diegetic.

Sometimes a film uses what TV Tropes calls the "Left the background music on" trope in which what seems to be film score or external source music (non-diegetic) for a film suddenly switches to being in the film (diegetic). This is, as I understand it, a diegetic switch. An example is the start of Shawshank Redemption where the music starts off as being external to the film, and then at about 50s into this clip, internal - as in coming from Andy's car radio.

I've no idea how they achieved this - perhaps it's beautifully edited from two playings of the same song, one through a gramophone and the other through a radio speaker. Perhaps they just manipulated the graphics equaliser to make them sound different - if you know tell me :)

Next up is a scene from Woody Allen's film Bananas in which he is invited to have dinner with the President, an offer which almost overwhelms him and his imagination. As he lies back on his bed in reverie the dreamy harp music that plays over the scene, at 28 seconds, is not as it seems...

In the Shawshank example it's the same song that is rendered slightly differently as the diegetic switch happens but in Bananas the music doesn't change but our understanding of it does. In the next two examples something slightly different takes place. As in Shawshank the music in both these clips does change but the switch seems to have more of an emotional resonance than the one in Shawshank (that's not a criticism of it!). First up is a clip from the West Wing, episode Noel, in which Josh is being taken to hospital by Donna after having a bit of a breakdown and injuring himself.

The segment begins around 1m 40 as Donna shepherds Josh out of the West Wing whereupon he hears a choir in the street outside singing and performing the Carol of the Bells on voice and handbells. At 2m 46 the switch shows him zoning out briefly - accompanied by the music taking on a richer sound with additional instruments - before  Donna's "Josh!" at 3 minutes in brings both him and the now diegetic-again music back to 'normal'. At the end of the clip the music is again 'augmented', and it's gorgeous, though it doesn't have the same emotional punch as the segment in which Josh is briefly caught up in himself. I think there might be a tiny diegetic switch at 1m 57 too when the music starts being audible but we're still in the White House with Leo McGarry, though presumably the music wouldn't be audible for him.

Another example is from the 1996 film Emma in which the protagonist is enjoying a dance but distressed that her friend isn't, having been snubbed by someone she'd liked to have danced with - the main scene starts at 27s in to the clip. In the background you can hear what sounds like a small group of musicians playing the dance piece as the story unfolds. Then the hero of the hour, Mr Knightley, steps up and invites Emma's friend to join him on the dancefloor and at 2m 15s the music swells and is presumably being played by a much larger group of musicians. Again I'm not quite sure how they managed to switch from one to the other and keep the pitch and timing so perfect. I'd love to see it performed live as a 'live to picture' event (where the score is performed live while the film is screened).

The use of the diegetic switch in both the West Wing and Emma clips seems to be doing something else in addition to just switching the locus of the music, certainly changing the way the audience might feel about the story and its protagonists.

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 I actively seek airshows (and YouTube videos on the topic).

The official 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-altitude 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 well-known within that sphere, and enjoyed by visitors.

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? Obviously I wouldn't know if I had false memory syndrome ;)

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." Hmm, not as much fun as I first thought.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bloglovin mysteriously re-using my posts without permission

Edit: 10 May - I emailed 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

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 - 

- 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 "" 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).
"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:

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)

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

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.


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'.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Tall Ships - Greenwich Regatta - Thur 13 to Sun 16 April 2017

A couple of years ago the Thames at Greenwich and Woolwich was filled with lovely ships with masts and sails gently scudding up and down the river, or moored and visitable. Greenwich Centre was a hive of festival activity and I took a lot of lovely pictures. I'm planning on repeating this joyous experience at various times and in various bits of the borough over Easter weekend as we have our Tall Ships festival back again between 13-16 April. Hooray.

Here's a nice picture I took which shows some tall ships as well as a Thames Clipper ferry which I regularly use when travelling by water. If you note the two larger spikes in the raililng, the ferry sits above the 8th to 10th of the smaller spikes between them, next to a red ship / boat.

Tall Ships and a Thames Clipper 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Google Forms - can I customise the notification email alerts? Help needed

SOLVED hooray.

Here's how I solved it, below is the original problem.

I used a Google Forms add-on Email notifications for forms, which has worked beautifully - info and instructions here, and in brief below. To do this with ease I needed to revert to the old* style of Forms, to do this click on the ? mark at the bottom right of the form and choose the 'Back to the old Forms' option.

  • Install the add-on from the add-on page itself (click 'Free', top right), a blank new form will appear which you can ignore and then a pop-up will appear asking you to confirm that it can interact with your account, I said 'yes'.
  • Once it's added you'll have a new field in your Add-ons menu, on old forms it looks like this

On new forms it looks like this, but when I clicked on it there was no sign of the already added add-on, instead it offered me a range of add-ons I could search, hence my disenthusiasm for new forms.

  • Click on it and go through the steps, I left it mostly at the default settings. If you have several forms make sure you give each one a different name so that you can manage the emails when they arrive.
Resulting emailed notification looks like this

*I find the new version very fiddly and unintuitive and spend too much time clicking on all the buttons and options to find the hidden item I want that's explicitly already on the page on 'old' forms. Who needs it.

My original question, now solved.

I have several work-related Google Forms which invite teachers to sign up for various things. Each time a teacher fills in a form their data is automatically stored in a Google Sheet and I get an email telling me that there's a new entry. Someone else set these up and I inherited them when they left.

Up until a few months ago these notification alert emails were useful and informative (image one), but now they look more like the second image, and are useless.

The old style of email notification, with actually useful information in it

The considerably less useful type of email alert I get now

It turns out that it's not possible to set up a notification from the forms only from the sheet - this may be something to do with the 'new' Google Forms as opposed to the old 'Legacy' version. I have been surprised to read various helpfiles telling me that it can't be done when, for months, I've been receiving them - but they mysteriously stopped in November 2016 and I've been trying to work out how to get them back. Now that I've got them I'm not awfully impressed.

I've tried adding 'add-ons' but have got nowhere with them. Is there a simple way of fixing this? I can't believe that anyone would find the info in the current notification emails an improvement on the previous one, surely everyone else is whining about this? Or is it that the person who set it up initially knew something that I didn't and have done some clever thing that I can't replicate.

Monday, 13 March 2017

BBC Radio 4 programme seeks men to talk (anonymously) about erectile dysfunction

I've had permission to post this. My friend Petra (she's the Telegraph's agony aunt among many other cool things) is involved in a BBC R4 programme looking at erectile problems and the programme's producer is looking for men who'd like (well, are willing) to be interviewed - anonymously if preferred.

There are many reasons for erection problems and diabetes can be one of them (long term raised blood glucose levels can lead to problems with blood vessels and nerves in general) which can affect any area in the body including the erectile 'machinery', and so I'm sharing this in particular with diabetes people. People who have diabetes may also experience anxiety over their health and this can be pretty antithetical to enjoying any pleasant pursuit, let alone sexual activities - it doesn't always have to mean a straightforward physical problem.

Here's Petra'a information and advice (covering a range of possible reasons for erectile dysfunction) to a woman whose partner experiences this, and below is the text of her producer's request...

To whom it may concern

I am making a programme for BBC Radio Four looking at erectile dysfunction and erection problems and wondered if you would consider being interviewed for the project. We are looking for men to share their experiences so we can highlight this very common but little talked about condition. If you were willing to talk to us, you would not need to reveal your identity.

The programme is 30 minutes long and will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four in June. It’s presented by Dr Petra Boynton who is a psychologist with a specialism in sex and relationships and works as an agony aunt for the Telegraph. She is experienced in offering advice and support to men and women with sexual problems and will be carrying out the interviews. We are hoping making the programme will encourage men to talk and seek help if they need to.

We are looking for men of any age who have or have had erection problems. We are keen to speak to men who have had problems following health issues as well as those who have psychological barriers or unknown causes for their erection difficulties.
Questions might be:
  • What erection problems do you have?
  • Do you know why it came about?
  • How soon did you seek help?
  • How did having erection difficulties make you feel?
  • How did your partner support you (or not)?
  • In what way did you seek help yourself?
  • What was useful and why? What wasn’t?
  • What treatment has helped?
  • How do you accept erection dysfunction if treatment doesn't work and you don't want surgery?
  • Why do men find it hard to talk and what is key to changing that?
Interviews would take around twenty minutes and would really just be like having an informal chat. They would be pre-recorded (not live) so you could have a chance to retake answers if you were unhappy with what you’d said.

If you have any other questions do let me know. Or if you would like to chat further before you commit to an interview, my email is and my mobile is 07740 565996

Thanks in advance.

Henrietta Harrison
Loftus Media

Monday, 6 March 2017

Things I found helpful when visiting New York from the UK

New York's lovely - I managed not to get lost (unprecedented given I have until this point had no sense of direction, but I seem to be managing with the grid system and the free CityMapper app) and of course there was no language barrier.

1. Insurance
 Once you've sorted out your flights or ship crossing get your travel insurance - it will cover you if anything goes wrong before your trip starts so there's no benefit in leaving it to the last minute. If you're taking laptops and phones you might need additional cover.

2. Esta visa
Next on the list is the Esta visa waiver which costs about $14 - you can pay with a debit card (it implies you need to pay with a credit card but I managed on a debit one) or PayPal. Watch out for fake UK versions (one or two are under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority for misleadingly claiming to be of use). Only use this website -

You'll need your passport number and the address where you'll be staying (eg hotel) but you can also quit the application and return later - keep a note of your application number which is automatically generated.

When you arrive at the US airport if it's your first visit to the US you'll probably be directed through the 'first visit on an Esta' passport check.

3. Flying
I flew with Virgin Atlantic and the option for at-seat charging was an odd-looking small hosepipe affair that required a UK to US adaptor to work, fortunately I had one in my carry-on bag and was able to lend it to someone else who needed one.

If you make the same journey(s) I made you'll leave from Terminal 3 at Heathrow (the Paddington Express train will take you to Terminals 2 and 3 at the same station and you can just follow the signs for T3) and arrive at Terminal 4 in JFK, then reversed.

4. Money
I got travel money from my bank - I'm sure you can find cheaper places to get it but it's super convenient at your bank. With smaller branches you might have to give a few days notice so that they can get the dollars but I got mine from the large one at Strand, Trafalgar Square. While in the bank I also let them know that I was to be in New York on the days of my holiday so that if my debit card was used while there they knew it was likely to be me and not some scammer.

For this trip I also got myself a Credit Card in case I needed to use it but I haven't. Last time I got one was for a cruise holiday where I needed it to pay for incidentals (they didn't go for debit cards).

5. Maps
You can use Google Maps Streetview before you go, or once there, to see what your locality will be like, and make note of subway and bus stops. There's a nice foldable detailed map of the metro system which my hotel gave me - if you're self-catering I'd recommend asking a hotel receptionist for one anyway. I didn't spot any at any of the stations I visited oddly enough. I used CityMapper on my phone to get directions.

6. Local travel
New York taxis are mostly much smaller than London cabs and quite useless for sightseeing. The two I was in were more like regular cars (not the four seat arrangement with a large gap between). You're very close to the glass partition and if you're on the passenger side the chances are high that you'll have a medium-sized TV in front of you advertising crap at you. It's possible to mute the sound at least but there's not much window space to see what's in front of you so a bus is better. But the cabs are still pretty cool.

A weekly Metrocard costs ~$32 and lets you have unlimited subway and bus journeys. You just swipe it and push the barrier. The graphics of the card looks very much like Weetabix.

I was staying in Brooklyn so on the return journey I took the A train going to Far Rockaway or Rockaway Avenue and changed at Howard Beach for the AirTrain to JFK Terminal 4. There's a slow train and a fast one but both seem to go to Howard Beach, phew. I took it from Jay Street Metrotech and this is the CityMapper journey using the web browser version.

8. Mobile phone
Before I left I got my pay as you go phone unlocked so that I didn't have to spend ridiculous sums of money on calls / texts to UK while in the US. If you've got a contract yours probably won't be that expensive but worth checking with your provider before you go. I got a US sim card which let me make US calls only, but I was also able to communicate via WhatsApp and Twitter. It was also my first experience of 4G, having only access to 3G at home.

I was surprised to see, at JFK airport on my return, that there are vending machines that sell pre-paid sim cards with different options, though it turns out from looking at them that my in-shop deal was pretty decent.

9. Software support
I use WorkFlowy for making lists (eg for packing or tasks) and Evernote to record info about my trip. I have sections for flight, travel documents (passport / visa), hotel details and packing. Both sync with my phone. I also tag emails in Gmail and keep them in a dedicated folder (before you leave make sure they've synced / downloaded to the right folder). While here I used CityMapper on my phone and switched cities from London to New York (it automatically recognises if you're in a different city and suggests this).

I also kept an eye on the weather app on my phone which told me that New York was going to be both much warmer and much colder than London, so I could pack accordingly.

10. Paper-based support
I'm naturally fairly chaotic so to impose some order I use a clipboard and draw columns on a bit of paper. A small one on the right is for anything that needs to be done or bought in advance of leaving and I have two larger main ones, one each for the bags I'm packing. I have been using WorkFlowy for so long that I now have a very good generic list of things to pack which I adapt for each trip. Once I've packed an item in the bag I write it on the paper (handy for double-checking I've not lost anything on the return journey). I'm afraid I'm neither relaxed nor carefree about holidays ;)

This is highly personalised to me, but here's the gist of what I packed.

  • Spare shoes (always nice to have another pair to change into if you can carry them, if not a pair of insoles can be nice if you're doing a lot of walking on your visit)
  • Spare pair of jeans
  • 'Smalls' - socks and the like - the longer you're away the fewer of these you can pack as you can wash and dry them. For a short holiday my mantra is 'plenty'. Most of them fit into the spare shoes rolled up
  • T-shirts - if just a few I leave them flat, if more I roll them
  • Leggings / thermals
  • Wash bag (deodorant, nail scissors are useful for all sorts of reasons but best kept in checked in bag unless blades are very small) 
  • a bag to put laundry in
  • bit of A5 paper (A4 folded in half!) with my name, phone number and email address saying who the bag belongs to - handy if it gets lost or there's a dispute ;) 
Sporty people might want to bring gym or pool clothing too. I was dressing casually for a walking around New York trip and didn't bring any smart clothes or jewellery.

Carry-on bag
  • Passport
  • Flight info 
  • Hotel contact details so that I can give it to the taxi
  • Pens / Pencils and writing material
  • Maps of New York
  • Reading material
  • Mobile phone charger, cable and UK to US adaptor
  • wet wipes / plasters / ibuprofen
  • spare t-shirt / underwear in case main bag goes AWOL
  • laptop plus charging cable
  • Snacks / chewing gum / water 
  • headphones
  • currency of country being visited (home country currency is in my pockets until arrival)
  • toothpaste / brush (8 hour flight!)
If you're flying at night-time you might want to bring your pyjamas to change into.

  • Clothes, obviously
  • Keys
  • Coins in one of those plastic bank coin bags for ease of plonking on tray at security 
  • Bank cards / travelcard / keys (moved to carry-on bag once on flight)
  • Phone

Open air cinema screenings - London 2017

Yippee - it's a few weeks before London's annual Open Air Cinema season begins, which means that it's time for my annual Open Air Cinema Screenings in London post. Not many films have been listed yet but we've already had one screening, in February (!) though I'm more of a fan of waiting until it gets a little bit warmer myself. The actual post is an embedded Storify which is regularly updated as new films are published - feel free to pinch the text or embed the Storify into your own site. That way more people will get to know about open air movie options. Think of it as Creative Commons.

Previous editions

Monday, 27 February 2017

Please tell me about any open-air cinema screenings you know of in London

Every year I create a big list of all known (to me, I'm certain I must miss some) open-air cinema screenings in London.

Here's last year's:  Open Air Cinema Screenings in London 2016

I do this by trawling known purveyors of outdoor films, listed below - let us heap praise upon their names - and by googling, and serendipity. Also lovely people sometimes tell me about stuff they've heard of and marvellous Dave from Pop Up Screens always sends me a note, and sometimes a rather handy spreadsheet listing all films, dates and locations.

If you do the publicity for anyone or any organisation that is likely to screen such films please add me to your press list thingy ( Just a note to 'look at this page, we've published our films and more will be added soon' will do but if you happen to have an easily copy and pastable list then that makes things easier. But given that I enjoy hunting for films so much I don't care if you stick them in a non-OCR* PDF and I have to type them out by hand. Sometimes you'll have a mixture of films in London and elsewhere, or a mix of outdoor and non-outdoor - just send them all over and I'll prune out the ones for my list.

Over the last couple of years we've also had (honestly I get so excited just thinking about it) the newer London Free Film Festivals, with several sub-film festivals happening in different bits of London such as Deptford & New Cross, Camberwell. Other than the obviously free 'free film festivals' some of the other films are free too, though most aren't. Some film events are quite event-y and cost a bit more, but you get all sorts of exciting add-ons. I will cheerfully list them all :)

Here's where I look first (not all organisations screen films every year, some are one-offs but I keep them there in case they return) -

• Backyard Cinema (Camden Market) - (
• BFI at the British Museum - no link yet (a couple of years ago I saw A Room With A View in the courtyard at the British Museum which was lovely)
• BP Big Screens (Royal Opera and Royal Ballet) -
• Experience Cinema (from Rooftop Film Club) - (
• Floating Cinema -
• Free Film Festival (London) -
• Herne Hill Free Film Festival -
• Kew the Movies -
• The Luna Cinema -
• More London (Scoop) - and London Bridge City Summer Festival!film/a94rd
• New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival -
• The Nomad Cinema - - London outdoor screenings and also
interesting indoor venues (
• Open Air Theatre (Regent's Park) -
• Pop Up Screens - (
• Rooftop Film Club - (4 venues - Bussey Building, Peckham;
Queen of Hoxton, Shoreditch; Roof East, Stratford, Roof Gardens, Kensington) and Tobacco Dock
• Shuffle Festival -
• Somerset House - ( 4-17 Aug 2016
• Tudor Barn Eltham -
• Underground Film Club (from Rooftop Film Club) -

*Optical Character Recognition - the sorcery that allows some scanned PDFs to be queried textually rather than as a picture.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Not getting homeopathy events moved from universities - can't win 'em all

Summary - despite requests to move or cancel it Birkbeck (University of London) will continue to host an event promoting homeopathy for women's health conditions. Homeopathy is not a valid system of medicine.

Edit: I've not even published this post yet and have only just spotted this phrase which appears in the testimonials (not in the main marketing text, but what do you think testimonials are for) -

"I highly recommend taking the course on Female Diseases, as his presentation will provide a book filled with serious cured cases such as cancers, fibroids, infertility and much more" - emphasis added. It's possible that the addition of that comment is problematic under the Cancer Act 1939.

Universities hosting homeopathy (or any alternative medicine / quackery) events is problematic for several reasons.
  1.  It gives the event the fillip and prestige of being hosted at a respected academic institution (whether or not this is exploited or explicitly implied in other marketing material)
  2. It suggests that the event, or type of 'treatment', is a little less ridiculous than it might be if it had been hosted at Teehee McFunny's Mirthful Comedy Cabaret
  3. Not university-specific, but let's assume that an event promoting an unproven treatment is not in people's best interests and perhaps higher-education institutes might prefer not to give them house-room.
  4. As I'm not a lawyer I don't know if this is piffle (and I only read about it on Wikipedia [see bit on Education act]) but it seems that people can get away with saying things in an academic setting in the UK that they might be less able to say in another setting - possibly this affects academics only not visiting quacks. Though if it affects everyone it suggests that quacks might be able to overclaim for their quackery.
Birkbeck (part of the University of London) is hosting a homeopathy event for 'female diseases'. Presenting at the event is a visiting doctor from India and the event's application form makes it clear it's aimed at homeopaths or student homeopaths rather than the general public. However I think anyone can apply (and since 'homeopath' isn't a protected term anyone could put student homeopath (for example they might be doing a short course at a local community college)), and spend around £200 to attend. That's £200, wasted on this event.

To be fair the event organisers have not made much of the fact that it's taking place at the University of London but the text of the marketing for the event certainly seems at odds with academia.

There is a shopping list of 'female conditions' which include endometriosis, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian disease, amenorrhoea [stopped periods]) as well as things like miscarriage and infertility. Homeopathy is very unlikely to be of much use here.

Because this isn't an advert for a product the text doesn't fall within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority so there would be no benefit in complaining about it to them. However I think it's interesting to consider that - if an advert - the ASA would likely rule against it, because of the mention of serious medical conditions and the implication that homeopathy might be of use to people who have them. When adjudicating on previous adverts the ASA have considered that listing medical conditions may encourage people to forgo appropriate medical advice (bad!). While the ASA don't get a say on this event's marketing it seems a good rule of thumb that if they'd not permit it as an advert it's perhaps not much good for an event at a university.

The event promo ends with "There is no claim here that homeopathy can heal, treat or cure these medical conditions. Homeopathy is used to trigger natural healing mechanisms of the whole person to work better rather than address particular symptoms. These case studies will be used to talk through techniques that were used to lift the general wellbeing of the people concerned." but simply writing this isn't really much use, given that the rest of the page rather contradicts it.

For example "Medical test results are shown before and after homeopathic treatment for most cases leaving no doubt about the changes that have occurred" and the speaker "will encourage you to feel more able to support challenging cases, perhaps even where the experts have given up" - this seems quite close to claiming that homeopathy can heal.

A couple of people on Twitter have contacted Birkbeck about this event (I don't know the outcome of that). I emailed Birkbeck (copy below) to ask them to distance themselves from the event, and while I've acknowledged my hope that it's cancelled I've not specifically asked them to do that. I just don't think it should be hosted at a university.

Recently there was some success in stopping a different event, though I heard about it only after it was all over. Curzon Cinemas had been about to host 'Vaxxed' and a Q&A with Andrew Wakefield (disgraced former medic who is no longer allowed to practice after his role in deliberately falsifying medical data relating to autism and vaccines) but after criticism from doctors and scientists this event was pulled.

There were a few tweets about it and I replied to one that "I am currently failing to get a event for women's health moved from Uni of London (Birkbeck)."

I was deliberately precise in my language of moving not removing or cancelling despite this a couple of people challenged me (nicely, I might add!) asking "what's the reasoning behind trying to get this event cancelled? I mean, aside from it being fake science?" and "[other text] ...but forcing ppl to pull events is a dangerous line to cross", which I hope I've clarified for them, as I'm not doing either - though I'd not complain one bit if the event was pulled.

Trading Standards have previously taken action to shut down events, or venues have pre-emptively cancelled events, where people would have tried to talk about cancer cures (doing so may be illegal under the Cancer Act 1939). Similarly there have been raids on events promoting MMS (a form of bleach) as a miracle cure, including for autism. I don't have a problem with unsafe medical events being stopped from going ahead. Women are not well-served by this event which promotes a form of non-treatment for potentially serious health conditions.

Birkbeck have replied that the event is still going ahead and have pointed me to their free speech policy for their events. It's a good document but unfortunately this homeopathy event is not considered to breach it, so the document doesn't really 'protect' against utter hooey being presented uncritically. This is good news for homeopaths and I'd advise them to host their future events at academic instutions ;)

At some point I'll add a much briefer version of this to the 'failures' section of the Skeptic (activism) successes in homeopathy post and Storify (embedded in the linked post).

Copy of the email I sent to Birkbeck in December

I wasn't planning on blogging about this particular homeopathy event so please forgive me sending it to the press team but this was the first email address available through the contacts page. Twitter has made me aware that someone will be running an event on using 'homeopathy for female diseases', at Birkbeck (address listed on the event page) [link redacted] in March.
Homeopathy is not a valid intervention for any health condition and it's fairly startling that this is taking place at Birkbeck, and that people are charged money to attend. From extensive previous experience of university venues being exploited in this way it's fairly clear this will be framed as a prestigious University of London venue recognising the value of homeopathy.
Please can you pass on my request to whoever deals with room booking and ask them to do whatever is possible to distance Birkbeck from this quack event taking place. In an ideal world the event would simply be cancelled, though being moved elsewhere is usually what happens.
There is a shopping list of conditions that the speaker imagines himself qualified to speak on (doubtful) including fibroids, thyroid problems and miscarriage. This event promotes mistaken and potentially harmful interventions for women.

Many thanks, and best wishes,

Postscript - incidentally the event organisers haven't exploited the prestige at all so I'm wrong on that one, but I am still concerned by the overall 'framing' of the event, implying that a homeopathy event is an appropriate one for academic institution, I really think it isn't.