Even though I’ve not been very good at updating easternblot, I’ve been diligently writing science travel entries for The Finch and Pea. I hope you’re reading those, because I just wrote an amazing one to go live tomorrow. (Spoiler alert: it’s set in Eungella National Park.)
Bit late, but I have had NO time to blog last month. April was busy and stressful and I had sinusitis for half of the month with lots of headaches and other crazy symptoms. So, I only read 1/4 of a book, and just a few articles (as in “newspaper or magazine” not “journal”) but I watched a lot of movies and shows in various places. I don’t remember all of mindless stuff I watched, and this is only a selection.
Started watching Firefly for the first time ever. I know! I’m so behind… It’s awesome, and I finally get what everyone was so excited about ten years ago. And I’m just realizing something: is this show the source of “shiny” meaning “cool”? I’ve used that a lot and I did pick it up from people who watched Firefly… Was it a strange adjective when the show came out? Watching it now, it doesn’t seem that odd.
I also watched a few episodes of Numb3rs. I’ve seen it before, and I even vaguely recognized some episodes, but I very quickly got bored with it again.
Airplane and hotel movies:
Travelled to Boston in what turned out to be a very strange week to visit the city. I was there for work, but in the plane and with the lockdown situation I did manage to see some films. I saw one additional film in the hotel, but I forgot what it was.
Fright Night. Kind of a terrible movie, except for David Tennant’s scenes. Before his segments, I didn’t even realize the film was supposed to be sort of funny – it was just plain bad.
Hello Harto. Hannah Hart from My Drunk Kitchen is touring the US in an RV and is doing her cooking show from other peoples’ kitchen for the next couple of months. But my favourite part is the “vlogfessional”.
Stripsearch. Standard elimination-challenges-until-one-left reality show model, but all competitors are web comic artists and/so there’s a lot of drawing and silliness. Discovered the show on Twitter via one of the competitors, Maki, who is still in the running, and doing awesome.
Things I read:
Yeah, this section was so pathetic last month that I’m not even going to separate it into books and other things.
Article about coffee that my dad mailed (in the actual physical mail). My dad sometimes mails me random articles with no further explanation. They’re always food-themed. Last week, I got a Dutch magazine article about all the crazy kinds of coffees that now exist. I like the illustrations.
Pure. Started reading this book, about a guy in 18th century France who gets a job as engineer at a creepy cemetery in Paris. I started this when I had sinusitis and couldn’t think properly, so I may need to restart it now that my brain is working again, because I have no clue what’s going on.
New York Times piece about Diederik Stapel. Stapel plagiarized his famous psychology research, consistently, until he got caught last year. This is an article about him that made me cringe because I could identify so many points where he could have easily stopped, or where someone else had doubts but didn’t act on them.
I saw the IgNobel tour in London. I found the programme on my coffee table yesterday, but I had actually forgotten all about it. This was the day I had really bad memory loss (which I later learned was because of sinusitis). I did things throughout the day, but then couldn’t remember doing them. There were emails in my outbox I didn’t recall sending. I looked at the date on my phone screen and it seemed like it couldn’t possibly be April 4. And looking back now the day is actually very memorable, because I was aware that my memory wasn’t working properly. I managed to make my way to wherever the IgNobels were, and I remember who else was there, but I can’t recall any of the research stories that the performers told. (I do remember finally learning who’s behind @bedtimebot!)
Did not listen to much this month
But I did submit my parts for the next Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video, and that should be out soon!
Easy puzzle or simulation games are pretty much the only thing I can do when I’m sick and/or stressed out, so there was a lot of that in April, mainly Candy Crush and Tiny Tower on my iPad.
It was easiest when I was sick and didn’t want any food or drink anyway.
It was hardest when I started a new job and walked past six coffee places on my way to work each morning.
The strangest thing that happened was developing headaches with migraine auras. I’ve never had those before, and didn’t even know what they were. It happened a few times when I was off coffee, and I thought that drinking coffee would make it better again, but I’ve now had non-stop headaches and on-and-off auras for the past three days, during which I drank one or two cups of coffee per day. I don’t think it’s related at all. There’s probably something else wrong. (New hypothesis: Possible dehydration because my new flat is MUCH dryer than my Cambridge house, and because I may be drinking less liquid now that I’m back from a million tea to two coffee per day, so I’m drinking all the water now. All of it.)
The most noticeable change that I didn’t anticipate was feeling less grubby and grimy without coffee. Apparently coffee makes me produce sweat and oil and it’s really kind of disgusting. I was drinking too much of it, though, so keeping it down to one or two cups per day instead of four should do the trick.
I also saved a lot of money by not being tempted to sit in coffee shops. I went a few times, and bought tea or hot chocolate, but there was less of a drive to take coffee (shop) breaks. That was the thing I missed the most, though. I like sitting in public with book/iPad and a cup of coffee. It’s just not the same with tea.
Finally, I overcompensated with tea and chocolate. Every time I wanted coffee, I had tea instead, and I suppressed caffeine cravings with sugary chocolate bars.
Would I quit coffee again? Only if it gets out of hand again, but I think I have a grip on it now.
Along the way: Day 1 (headaches. Science: Caffeine content in various drinks.) Day 2 (cranky) Day 5 (starting to get the worst cold in years) Day 7 (Sick. Science: a coffee video.) Day 13 (Science: caffeine in mental health implications) Day 18 (Still sick. Science: Spiders on caffeine) Day 24 (Starting to miss coffee. Science: bees use caffeine to find flowers) Day 34 (My first ever migraines. Science: caffeine and migraines) Day 41 (Science: caffeine protects agains the onset of Parkinson’s disease.)
A big change for me starting this month: I’m now taking the tube to work. In Cambridge I had to cycle everywhere, and as a result I didn’t read very much. My first month on a tube and I read three and a half books:
Het Feest van het Begin – Joke van Leeuwen. A Dutch book by an author whose specialty is quirky childrens books, so I was somewhat bracing myself for this (after the terrible adult novel by JK Rowling) but it was actually really good. It was the same style as her kids books, which I love, but just covered more complex and serious topics.
Casper the Commuting Cat – Sue Finden. Read this in Dutch. I don’t know if it was the translation, but it was exceptionally boring. I only skimmed the last few chapters. I like cats and cute stories, but it just wasn’t engaging at all. She kept talking about her other cats, who had nothing to do with the story at all. Maybe I have cat fatigue after spending too much time online.
The Geek Atlas – John Graham-Cumming. Still browsing this. It’s a massive list of science and tech destinations around the world. Interesting to me because of the series I’m writing over at Finch and Pea.
Saw Broken in the cinema. It’s very good. Arthouse fare, so don’t watch it if you don’t like that. It reminded me of Swedish movies.
Yesterday I noticed that Christopher Sykes uploaded a complete Feynman documentary, which he made, to YouTube. I tweeted about it and that’s still being retweeted. Here it is:
Rewatched almost all of Arrested Development seasons 1, 2, and 3 in preparation for SEASON FOUR! So exciting. It was the fifth time I watched some of these episodes, and I still discovered new things! It’s so awesome.
Speaking of new seasons, the new Doctor Who came out on Saturday, so I obviously also watched that.
I can’t remember everything I saw, and most of the things I read or watched were for a particular purpose, but here are two things I came across last month that are worth a look.
To this day: An animation about bullying. I’ve been told I also need to watch the TED talk of the same poem, but this already had a lot of impact. I’ll watch the talk later.
I did watch Amanda Palmer’s TED talk about crowdfunding. I’ve been thinking about crowdfunding (in art vs science) a bit lately, so this was very interesting.
Things on stage:
Lost Lectures, Geek Showoff, Litmus Test. All within a week of each other. I spoke at Geek Showoff, so maybe that doesn’t count as “media consumption”, but I listened to everyone else!
This is why I needed to be in a city again: to go to things like this.
I downloaded Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes (from the same company). I like that the games don’t force me to add friends to progress in the game, but it’s still the same setup as so many other games, where you start an action, and then wait for a couple of minutes or hours. This is SO annoying. I like simulation games, but I want them to be playable within the time I have available, not whenever the game has decided I need to take action.
Less than a week to go until I’m drinking coffee again. I miss it so much! I’ve noticed some upsides of not drinking coffee: I’m less panicky, and sweat less – both probably related to caffeine’s effect on adrenaline release. But I’m also slower – I can’t do multiple things at once as well as with coffee – and I had those weird migraines I wrote about last week. I also really miss having easy access to a drink that switches my brain on in the mornings.
Some of the benefits of caffeine are not even obvious immediately. Just over a decade ago, I was writing a literature summary as part of my masters requirement in pharmacology. I picked a topic that sounded interesting, and spent a few weeks digging through papers to write a review. The topic I chose was “New drug treatments for Parkinson’s disease”.
The thing with discoveries in science is that you need to be in the right place at the right time, and a lot of that is luck. I was never lucky in research, but this one time, writing the Parkinson’s literature report, my timing was perfect. While I was doing lit research, a new study came out that suggested that caffeine was able to prevent the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine! Of all the drug treatments I was researching, this newest one was definitely the coolest. It was not in any of our course material yet, and my oral presentation on the paper was the first time several of the professors in the department heard about it. I won an award for this literature review at the time, thanks in a large part to this lucky timing, but now, a decade later, the effect of caffeine on Parkinson’s is well-known.
This experiment on mice didn’t come out of the blue. Before then, people had already noticed that Parkinson’s was less common in people who drank coffee regularly. The mouse study was just a way to figure out how it worked. Caffeine blocks the A(2A) adenosine receptor, and according to this study, that’s the mechanism by which it helps prevent Parkinson’s.
Since this study, lots more evidence has been found that shows that caffeine protects against Parkinson’s disease. Recently, one study even suggested that coffee can work as a treatment as well. At three cups of coffee per day, Parkinson’s patients were relieved of some of their symptoms.
So for all the jitters it causes in healthy people, caffeine seems to have the opposite effect on Parkinson’s patients. And if you drink coffee regularly, in moderation, your chances of even getting Parkinson’s are significantly reduced.
And this is just one of the reasons why I could never quit coffee for good. Continue reading →
Remember when I mentioned interactive art projects as one of the things I missed when I was in Cambridge? I now walk by an installation every day, on my way to the tube station.
A Million Minutes is an arts initiative in Archway and Finsbury Park. New projects have been showing up in a shop window close to Archway tube station every few weeks. Yesterday, there was something new.
Pens on string dangle in front of the shop window, and passers-by can leave messages.
I stopped twice, yesterday morning and tonight, and both times the installation was unattended. Yesterday morning a girl walked up as I was taking photos, and signed her name on the window, but lots of other people did read the instructions.
Here are a few of the wishful thoughts that people wrote on the window yesterday and tonight. It’s interesting to see the different interpretations of “wishful thinking”:
“I wish that everyone could have amazing super power”
“everyone to be happy & it to be sunny”
“I wish the US arms trade would stop destroying our world”
About once every week, I see or hear scientists wondering what LinkedIn is actually for. They want to know what to do with it, or how to use it.
You don’t do anything with it. You sign up, you update your info when it changes, and that’s it.
Not everything has to be non-stop action and engagement and social and by-the-minute status updates. Sometimes it’s just useful to have a place that has your most recent work info, and your email address, and an address book of people you’ve worked with that you might want to contact again.
The best way to describe what I use LinkedIn for is a filofax. There are work contacts in there who I don’t normally talk to, and who I don’t want to add on Facebook. They move around a lot. They start new jobs. I lose their email info. Years go by, and suddenly I want to ask them a question for work. LinkedIn has their latest email address.
I don’t log in to LinkedIn regularly at all, but I started a a new job recently, so I was a bit more active than usual. These were my last few LinkedIn interactions:
Searched by location to see if I knew people in Boston, because I’m going there soon for the first time in my life. I discovered that some people I went to university with in Amsterdam are now there, so I emailed them
Talked to someone about my new job after I changed my profile info, and discovered that they might be able to help me out with something work-related.
Received two other messages from people who saw that I changed jobs, one of whom I forgot to email before I left my previous job and whose email address I no longer had.
These happened within a month, but normally months go by where I don’t use LinkedIn – and that’s fine! I don’t use my physical address book very often either. That doesn’t mean it’s useless.
If you never change jobs, and your work contacts don’t change jobs, and you and they are all very good at keeping your email address books up to date, you probably don’t need the extra help. But my main job is talking to people and my Achilles heel is forgetting to update email address books, so I find LinkedIn useful, because people update their OWN info.
One other good reason for scientists to set up a LinkedIn profile, especially for people with unique names, is if you don’t have your own website, and you’re applying for jobs. Google yourself and see what comes up. Your Facebook page, the website of a lab you left three years ago, and archived results of sports events in which you didn’t even win. LinkedIn pages consistently come up very high in Google results, and they give you a chance to represent yourself online in a way that you want. Sure, you can use other sites for this, but LinkedIn has the advantage of being familiar to people who Google you.
I don’t need my LinkedIn profile for that reason, because I have lots of blogs and other pages that I have control over to represent me online, but I have recommended other people to set one up if their Google results look unprofessional. LinkedIn bumps down your athletic track meet results from high school, and old archived message board discussions about 90s TV shows. (If you find that archived thread about Charmed – that’s TOTALLY someone else who just happens to have my exact name and who has never used the internet again after that, OKAY.)
Of course my examples mainly apply to scientists. I would not recommend it to an artist – those people need a personal portfolio to be their top Google hit, not a third-party site. And I’m sure a lot of hardcore business people would laugh (and recruiters would cry) if they found out that I was only using LinkedIn as a self-updating address book. And if you don’t want to use the site at all, that’s fine too. But don’t sign up for LinkedIn expecting it to be Twitter or Facebook. It’s just entirely different. It’s not as social and interactive as you think it should be.
If you’re on Tumblr, consider following the MusiSci tumblr, which I haven’t been promoting very well. It’s a place to put all the things I find about scientists and musicians (or more broadly about science and music) that I don’t get around to writing full-length blog posts on.
The coffee experiment is getting more interesting. When I was sick, I started having weird flashing lights in my field of vision. I thought it was related to being sick, but it happened again after I was otherwise completely better. Googling a vague description of what it looked like, I found this. The animation on that page is exactly what it looked like. Argh. So apparently I have migraines now. I hope this is related to coffee, which I suppose I’ll find out when I start drinking coffee again. (Meanwhile, I don’t get headaches, just the weird vision thing, so it’s fine until then.)
I tried to find some papers about coffee and migraines, but there doesn’t seem to be much consistent information. Apparently caffeine and the first few days of caffeine withdrawal are both a trigger for migraines, but caffeine is also a treatment. It’s complicated, and depends on the amounts of caffeine and types of migraines.
Today is day 24 without coffee. I miss it so much. It’s actually worse again now, after finally recovering form my cold. Or maybe it’s because I now work in the middle of London, and pass about ten coffee places in the few minutes walk between the tube stop and the office. So much coffee, so close… I have two coffee chains’ loyalty cards in my wallet begging me to come back and get a discounted coffee. But I’m past the half-way point of my self-imposed coffee-less period, and I’m sure I’ll be able to hold on another three weeks.
Meanwhile, my plan to blog caffeine science in this period was made extra easy by caffeine be prominently in the news this week. A study in Science described how caffeine from nectar of coffee and citrus plants helps bees to remember the plants, and encourages them to visit more flowers of the same type of plant.
In mammals, caffeine improves mental activity by blocking adenosine receptors. When activated, adenosine receptors pass on signals that say “relax”. Caffeine undoes that. In the hippocampus area of the brain, caffeine uses this mechanism to improve memory formation. Bees don’t have a hippocampus, but they have an equivalent area in their brains called Kenyon cells. The researchers showed that caffeine activates Kenyon cells in bees in the same way as it activates the hippocampus in mammals. In other words: it’s biologically possible for caffeine to help memory formation in bees. But does it?
To put the bees to the test, the team trained individual bees to associate the scent of flowers with a mixture of sugar and caffeine. The sugar level was the same for all mixtures, but the caffeine concentration varied. Three days later, bees that were given low doses of caffeine were able to remember the flower far more often than bees that only received sugar.
Coffee and citrus plants use caffeine as a sort of customer loyalty card for bees. Just like the coffee cards that I carry with me, it serves as a reminder to return to the same chain – or type of plant, in this case.
This research is surprising, because until now it was believed that the main reason that plants produce caffeine is to repel insects, and caffeine is toxic to bees – and other insects – at high concentrations. Of course bees are the kind of insect that a flowering plant would rather attract than repel. Plants don’t decide how much caffeine they produce, but in this case, caffeine levels are low enough that they don’t repel the bees, and happen to reward them in the process!
Wright G.A., Baker D.D., Palmer M.J., Stabler D., Mustard J.A., Power E.F., Borland A.M. & Stevenson P.C. (2013). Caffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator’s Memory of Reward, Science, 339 (6124) 1202-1204. DOI: 10.1126/science.1228806