Month in media – November 2013

Whoops. Yes, it’s two weeks late. Let’s see what I can remember…


Let’s start with the bad news. I didn’t finish any books in November. :( First month this year, I think. Last year was much, much worse, so documenting this actually helped motivate me to read books within a month and not leave them forever like I’m doing now. Sorry, books.

I tried to write parts of my own book proposal, but mainly transcribed old interviews. Also useful, just time consuming. And I didn’t reach 50k words. That may or may not have something to do with the amount of Netflix movies I watched (see below), but could also be related to the fact that I went on two international work trips in November.


Saw Gravity in the cinema in Holland. It was good, but left me a little bit seasick afterwards, because everything was constantly in motion. I guess that’s what space travel is like, too.


Saw Comic Potential, directed by Stephen Willis, who arranges the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra videos (speaking of which – coming soon!). Then during SpotOn I attended both Science Showoff and Story Collider. And speaking of Story Collider, they need your support over at Patreon.

Here’s one of the stories of the November show in London.


I discovered last month (well, October, so two months ago by now) that you can find the actual history of things you watched on Netflix, with the date. And so I learned that in November, I watched another two episodes of Battlestar Galactica before I got completely bored with it. Realizing it bored me, I then also watched the Portlandia episode about people who got addicted to Battlestar Galactica.

Then I watched lots of films the rest of the month – both good and bad. Look, I had a stressful few weeks, and sometimes I can’t handle the difficult fare. Sometimes it’s Into The Wild, other times it’s Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. Also: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (I already forgot what this was about), The Beach, Pretty In Pink, and The Ramen Girl. I really liked that last one. Lots of memories of Japan trip. I also watched The Gods Must Be Crazy, because I had been thinking about it and then found it was on Netflix.


I discovered Just The Tips, which is a hilarious series in which two women recreate craft projects seen on the Internet. This episode is more recent, but you should just watch it all – it’s a quick watch.

Taps, mapped

This year at SpotOn London, we had interactive name badges. If you tapped someone else’s badge with yours, you exchanged name, Twitter handle, and email address. That’s useful if you want to keep track of who you met, but mostly it’s also very, very fun.

According to the data I got from Blendology, the company behind the tappy badges, I tapped my badge a total of 133 times, exchanging information with 71 different badges. 58 of these were unique individuals at the conference, the rest were locations or pretapped Blendology staff.

The Blendology system also keeps tracks of the time you tapped other people’s badges (or tapped in and out of rooms or info booths). Unfortunately the full timeline is only visible online and not in the downloadable file, and there seemed to be a mistake in my times for day one, which were all off by three hours, but after adjusting the times* and manually copying some repeat-taps from the online visualisation to Excel, I got all the correct tap times in a spreadsheet, and the result is this:


Blue is breaks during the conference, orange is a session in progress, green is chatting in the pub, purple is Science Showoff in progress, and grey is the time in between the two conference days.

*I knew that I tapped the auditorium sign every time I walked into the main room, which helped me find the correct times for everything else.


#ukscitweetup on ice


London/UK science communicators – Let’s go skating on the Natural History Museum Ice Rink!

UPDATE: We settled on a date/time: noon on December 15. Buy tickets for this time slot on Ticketmaster. Should this slot sell out, aim for the 11AM one, or just join us for lunch afterwards! (For lunch: meet at the ice rink at 1PM on December 15)

This is super-complicated to organize, because you need to buy tickets for a specific time, because many of us work during the week, or don’t live in London, so this is how it’s going to work:

1) Pick a Sunday Morning from the suggestions in the Doodle poll. Sundays to allow for out of town people to join, and mornings so it’s slightly less crowded. DEADLINE for picking a day is Friday November 22. [DONE]

2) On Friday, I will compare Doodle poll results with ticket availability for the rink. They are already almost gone on December 15th! I’ll pick two subsequent time slots with available tickets. [DONE. Decided on noon on December 15]

3) I’ll announce the final date on here [I just did. See above], on Twitter with #ukscitweetup, and in the UK Sci Tweetup Facebook group that you should join anyway.

4) Then you will RUN, not walk, to the Ticketmaster website and grab a ticket for noon on December 15, or 11AM only if noon is sold out. A ticket is only good for one time slot, but sometimes they let you stay on, and some people might not make it too early, and this guarantees that there’ll be people around for 2 hours. Tickets on the weekend cost £13.50 for adults and £8.50 for students (with valid ID). Time slots are 50 minutes. It’s recommended to be present at the rink 40 minutes before your time slot. I assume this is for skate rental. (There is a group discount for 10+ people, but that’s way too complicated to coordinate for the tiny 10% discount you get and I doubt we can get 10 people in the same slot.)

5) Skate!

6) After the second time slot, we’ll grab lunch in the neighbourhood. If you can’t come skating, you can still join us for lunch! Just join us at the rink afterwards.

Finch and Pea travel post round-up

I’m almost out of places I’ve been, to write about on The Finch and Pea. Don’t worry – I’ll keep writing there, just from a slightly different angle. If you’re not caught up on my science-themed travel posts there, here is a round-up of the ones I’ve written so far:

If you only have time to read some, my favourites are: Museum of Jurassic Technology, La Brea Tar Pits, Biodome, Platypus, John Snow pump, Baldwin Steps, yak, Eden Project. Or why not just read them all?

Scio14 career session

I don’t really have time to think about #scio14 yet, but for reference, here’s a copy of the career proposal that Lou and I left on the wiki. It got accepted, and I’m moderating. (Lou is moderating another session) so I thought I’d dig this out of the depths of the scary big wiki for easier finding:

Discussion: Realistic career prospects for science (graduate) students

Suggested by @easternblot and @LouWoodley

This is not a session about alternative careers. This is about ALL careers.

We already know that not every science graduate student will stay in academia. In fact, that is the minority. But not everyone is going to go into science publishing or science writing either. There is a whole range of careers for science graduates, and there are as many career trajectories as there are science students. So why are graduate students only shown a fraction of careers (researcher, editor, science writer, industry)? Can we make graduate students in the sciences feel confident about their abilities to choose or create their own individual careers – even if they have never met anybody with that job?

In the Geek Manifesto, Mark Henderson laments that only three of the UK’s MPs have a science PhD, but “politics” is never offered as a possible career choice for science graduates. We also regularly complain about a lack of accurate science in films, but rarely tell students that they can become a science consultant in the movie industry. Science PhDs end up as teachers, musicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers.

Let’s be honest and admit that not everybody is going to be “like us” – the attendees of this conference. But as scientists and science communicators, we are in a unique position to be able to reach out to graduate students and show them a more realistic image of what they can expect after they graduate.

Lou and Eva are currently working on a project aimed at graduate students that does just this, but we would like to hear from others how they have advised students with interests different from their own.

Book review: A Matter of Time

In A Matter Of Time: The science of rhythm and the groove, Portland-based music educator John Lamb combines his backgrounds in music, biology, and psychology to explain the science behind concepts we usually take for granted.

It might seem easy to define what a “rhythm” is in terms of time intervals, but in “A Matter of Time” we learn that a rhythm is actually defined largely by how a listener’s brain responds to it. It’s not a rhythm unless someone interprets it as such!

The book is an interesting synthesis of different fields, and shows how music can’t simply be defined in terms of physics, but is a more complex interaction between the music and the listener. Even more complicated to define than rhythm is the concept of groove, which depends on more than hearing alone, and requires a sense of “feeling”, which is largely an individual experience.

The book emphasises the role of the observer in the interpretation of rhythm and the groove, and equally, the book’s medium requires an interaction with the reader: “A Matter of Time” is available as ebook, and makes good use of the format. While it can be read start to finish, it has multiple layers of information in the form of external links to videos that explain concepts in a way that fits the subject matter. Overall, a fun reading experience for an informative book.

Month in Media – October 2013

Lots of things in October! Let’s see if I can remember them all…

I read two Cory Doctorow books that ended up being somewhat similar (at least in setting). Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Makers. I liked Makers, about the possibilities of 3D printing and new, open source, business structures, because it was quite realistic. The characters could have used a bit more…character, though.

I also read The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I thought that perhaps I would recognize it from parodies or from people talking about it, because it is a famous book after all, but I didn’t recognize any of it. Completely unspoiled!

I performed at Museums Showoff on October 1st. It was my first Museums Showoff, and it was very different from the science/geek versions. Very interesting to hear form museums people!

I saw Sunshine on Leith in the cinema in Edinburgh. It’s basically a musical set in Edinburgh, and all the songs are Proclaimers songs. It was the perfect thing to watch on my first Edinburgh trip!

200-glassesWeb comics:
Maki Naro has launched Sufficiently Remarkable, the web comic he made as a finalist on Strip Search (see several Months in Medias ago.) It’s currently only available to Kickstarter backers, but I think it will be public very soon, so just come back later if there’s nothing there yet when you look.

Still watching Battlestar Galactica. I’m at the end of season two now, and I’m taking a break from it.

I also took advantage of being in the US for a few days, with access to the US Netflix library on my iPad, and watched Serenity (which the UK had removed from Netflix before I got a chance to watch it.)

Pocket Trains. Considering I was terrible at Pocket Planes, I thought this would be equally awful, but I figured out how to play and it’s been amusing.

There was more (including a lot of YouTube), but I forgot specifics…

Rebel, rebel


My laptop in 2009

In 2009 I participated in NaNoWriMo. The goal: write a 50,000-word novel in a month. I “won” the challenge, which in this context means that I churned out 50,000 words in 30 days, and that it was as near as a coherent novel as you can expect in that time frame.

I had all the time in the world to be doing this in 2009, because it was the year I was underemployed and freelancing, which meant I spent a lot of time in coffee shops and wandering the streets of Toronto. My novel was about young people in their twenties and thirties, who were all various forms of underemployed in arts and science, and who spent a lot of time in coffee shops and wandering the streets of Toronto. Write what you know.

There was also an extensive subplot related to one of the main characters’ band, and various key scenes set at rehearsals in the basement of someone’s house. A year later I read Scott Pilgrim for the first time. Same thing, even set in the same neighbourhood! The exact same record store gets a mention! I can assure you, though, this is just what life in Toronto is really like. I, too, have spent evenings in friends’ basements listening to their band rehearse, and I dropped off a ton of old CDs at that record store before I moved away.

Doing NaNoWriMo in November 2009 was good for me. Therapy for a year of not quite knowing what was next, and forcing me to sit down and work on something systematically, yet creatively. That same month, I flew to the UK twice for job interviews, writing on the plane to reach my word count. I got one of the jobs, and by early December I knew what I would be doing in 2010.

Since then, I have worked a lot. I do not nearly spend as many time in coffee shops as I would like, and I haven’t lazily sat in the corner of a basement listening to a band rehearsal in years. Lately, I don’t even have time to join an orchestra myself. My life has been nothing but science. There’s no balance anymore.

Balance is important. I’ve talked to many people who are both active in music and in science, and most of them mention that it is the combination of the two that gives them the balance they need to perform in each field. These conversations were part of interviews I did to find out why there are so many people doing both music and science. It’s for a “project” that I have recently decided should be a book. I still haven’t *done* anything with it, though, after getting an initial pitch rejected. I took a Gotham Writers Workshop course on how to write a book proposal, and now I know exactly what to do, but I just never sit down and *do* it, because I’m tired and jaded and always on a plane or a train for work travel or at a social event that I have convinced myself I need to show my face at.

What if I had an excuse. Something to force me to write that proposal. Something like NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWrimo’s guidelines clearly state that your 50,000 words should be a novel, and that it needs to be an entirely new project that you started in November. But the pressure of that word limit, and the sense of community you get from thousands of people participating, that is what I need. I couldn’t be the only one…

That’s when I found it, near the bottom of the NaNoWriMo forums: NaNo Rebels. A group of people who are using the NaNoWriMo interface and community for projects that break the official rules: PhD theses, non-fiction books, academic readers – and book proposals.

So as of today, I reactivated my account on NaNoWriMo, and I will try to reach the 50,000 word goal as a NaNo Rebel, with sample chapters and a proposal and notes from previous interviews. I might not make it – I’m not counting on it – but at least I’ll finally sit down and do something, and hopefully feel better about myself.

Book review: Are Dolphins Really Smart?

Dolphin Balancing BallDolphins! The chirpy, smily poster children of tropical vacations and rainbow stickers, always rescuing humans from drowning or depression, and so very smart – or…are they? This is the question that “Are Dolphins Really Smart?”, by Justin Gregg, tries to answer.

Both dolphins and neuroscience have some associations with the hand-wavy corner of the non-fiction bookshelves, so you may have certain prejudices about a book focused entirely on the cognitive abilities of dolphins. Fear not – “Are Dolphins Really Smart?” takes a far more scientific approach.

And let me just spoil it for you now: Dolphins? Not as smart as we thought, and not particularly smarter than many other animals.

Gregg is a dolphin researcher who has long been aware of the popular image of dolphins as friendly and highly intelligent animals. In this book, he examines how the myth of the smart dolphin originated, and which aspects of it are true. A large part of the book is devoted to the interpretation of animal intelligence in general: Does brain size matter? What does self-awareness indicate and how can it be measured? What does “language” mean for different animals? How useful are such metrics and how can we compare between species?

The end result is a systematic analysis of dolphin intelligence that suggests that while they do show signs of intelligence, it doesn’t quite live up to the myth that dolphins have a near-human intelligence.

This book fits nicely with a more widespread awareness of various forms of intelligence in other animals, like corvids, elephants, or octopuses. Dolphins are no longer the single smart non-human animal, and “Are Dolphins Really Smart?” suggests that we might need to remove the pedestal that popular culture has placed them on.


(Dolphin image by William Warby)

TEDxAlbertopolis – Evolution of the Lindy Hop

2013-09-23 13.47.31TEDxAlbertopolis at the Royal Albert Hall last month was amazing and overwhelming, so I waited a few weeks until after the event to decide what my favourite talk was. There were a lot of great ones. The talk by Jessica Thom about Tourette’s Syndrome was the most popular both at the event and online, and Sally Davies’ warning about the imminent danger of widespread antibiotic resistance was the most important, but I think my favourite was Ryan Francois’ talk about the Lindy Hop.

Before watching that talk, I didn’t know much about the Lindy Hop beyond the fact that it’s a dance. In just a few minutes, I learned that the history of how the dance spread is amazing, and involves both purposeful training to bring the dance to other countries, as well as the internet. The web didn’t just help to spread the dance, though, but it also stripped it of features that had evolved independently in different countries around the world. Watch the talk, it’s worth it, even if just to see the crazy Swedish interpretation of the dance!

2013-09-23 17.29.00

Stitched panorama of the Royal Albert Hall during TEDxAlbertopolis