Friday, December 19

Do the heads of the research councils think the oompa loompas do it?

Sometimes, to someone working as a researcher in a University, it can appear that those who have designed and run the system haven't actually set foot in a University for many decades. One aggrieved researcher writes in the Guardian about how most of the people who do research aren't actually included in the RAE assessment.

One line, where he complains that a potential PI said that they liked an idea of his for a project, but that he wouldn't get a post if it was funded, rings true. I've been involved in a number of applications where a referee has complained that our choice of a PhD student and a postdoc to do most of the work is a "missed opportunity" for more training - i.e. that a postdoc doesn't need research opportunities, only creating more PhD students matters. Not that there's a direct route from PhD student to lecturer - instead there's the slough of postdoc.

Sum them up together - there is the strong impression of a view that postdocs do nothing worth considering. PhD students are here to be trained, PIs are here to create research. That we're the ones who do the research a lot of the time is irrelevant - research and publications cannot even be considered in an RAE if a permanent staff member isn't attached to it.

A very good postdoc I've worked with for a number of years has just had her final day today. She has fled into industry (and one that is fairly credit-crunch proof as well). Arguably, she hasn't fled research - she's escaped academia to be able to continue as a scientific researcher. If she'd stayed in academia, she'd have had to become a lecturer - paid to lecture, judged on research, but actually doing bureaucracy first, teaching second, and no time to actually do any research yourself. But you can hire someone else to do it for you.

Thursday, December 18

Who says the Swiss don't have a sense of humour?

Credit Suisse has got itself in trouble with its shareholders, who blame the bonus-heavy bankers for tanking the share price.

The bankers seem to have managed cleverly to have a system where they get huge bonuses for themselves, no matter how inept they actually are. So the investment bankers are still due big payouts. Credit Suisse has set these bonuses this year to be part of a bonus fund, which is linked to assets with a notional value of 5bn Swiss francs.

That's notional. These are the credit-crunched mortgages and debts - potential value, nothing at all. But then again, if they haven't produced any wealth (magically, from nowhere, as they claimed to do) they shouldn't have the bonus anyway...

Friday, December 12

US car makers

It's like watching British Leyland all over again.

The BBC is reporting that the Senate bail-out for the US car makers Ford, GM and Chrysler has failed after the United Auto Workers (UAW) union refused to cut wages next year to bring them into line with their Japanese counterparts.

The union must be believing that the three companies will linger on until Obama takes over, and then they can get what they want.

But that'll just leave them needing another bail out, and another. The US taxpayers aren't going to like the idea of subsidising inefficient companies to pay their employees more than the going rate, either.

The danger for the union is that if they keep demanding pay better than the Japanese companies give, they'll end up either as many of the British Leyland employees did - with no job at all, or working for the Japanese anyway.

The car industry is over-supplied, and based on the perpetual churn of new products to the consumers - the former is impossible to maintain, the latter may turn out to have been a late 20th century phenomenon that cannot hold as strongly any more. I suspect that Ford will survive, Chrysler is doomed - the question is what will happen to GM?

Tuesday, December 2

Happy pills to let you sleep

Now, I know from past articles that the BBC can be - particularly when it comes to "Health" articles - strangers to the concept of the proper processes of science. And in all probability they have jumped at the combination of press release and Lancet article to hype something up beyond what it deserves (i.e. it might work a bit in some cases, and won't be on the market for years anyway)

But on the other hand... a pill to cure jet lag would be such a nice thing to have...

Thursday, November 27

Not modern, nor penta.

The Olympics still has a somewhat strange mix of sports, where multi-millionaires in some sports go through the motions with thoughts of more important events to follow, while others grab golds and smash records, then go back to shop-worker wages.

One event that continues to exist purely because of the Olympics is the increasingly misnamed Modern Pentathlon. Originally created as an updated idea of the Greek Pentathlon, it is often said that it was supposedly meant to demonstrate the skills of a military officer. First held in 1912, events a couple of years later showed that these were very outdated skills. Having been distinctly non-modern for a century, it is now arguably no longer a pentathlon either, as they're combining the running and the shooting. The random drawing of horses at the last Olympics appeared to make it a bit of a lottery (although I got the impression the women coped rather better with the horses than some of the men did). I suspect it's a sport that has its place in the Olympics guaranteed by its history of being invented by Baron Coubertin, but it's also in danger of not getting shown on the TV unless either a) one of our athletes might win it, or b) it's as funny as the horses that refused to jump were.

Either way, it's still not as silly as synchronised swimming.

Wednesday, November 26

As you sow...

Hilariously, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is claiming that teams are fouling United's Cristiano Ronaldo so often referees think the winger is diving.

Um. This is not a chicken and egg situation. Ronaldo has dived so regularly that referees became suspicious, and gave the defenders the benefit of the doubt when Ronaldo hits the deck.

That's the benefit of the doubt, not carte blanche, of course. It's probably not surprising that Ferguson waited until after a match where the defenders had become too blatant, with one of them sent off as a result, to make his complaint.

None the less, if strikers realise that regularly diving will result in them being tackled more without repercussions for the defenders, hopefully this will result in a few less strikers hitting the deck without being touched.

Monday, November 24

Ecclestone's F1 Imperial overreach

F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone is still fantastically rich (even if his decision to put his wealth into the name of his tax-exile wife turned out not to be such a smooth move)

But while he has been readily abandoning the traditional base of Formula One for the allure of new tracks (ones that'll pay him huge wadges of cash), it appears he's forgotten to ensure that the new venues are actually, well, popular. China, who started paying large amounts of money to host F1 a few years back, are now having second thoughts on the grounds that the Chinese themselves don't appear to care. In the credit-crunch era, they may not be the only rich but fair weather friends F1 has.

Don't forget your prime purpose

Any large organisation will develop a large support infrastructure. This has its dangers. For example, the central bureaucracy can start running things for the benefit of the central bureaucracy - the accountants are on tap, rather than on top. For an organisation that can't go broke - e.g. a university - this puts in a danger of forgetting that the main purpose is to educate and to research. If the educators and researchers are put second best to image and publicity, short term gain will become long term pain. I can sometimes be heard grumbling about a lab that has single glazing rather than my desired double glazing because changing the window during the refurbishment would have "changed the external appearance of the building". I don't see this as a reason not to go ahead - the purpose of the building is to do research. The central authorities did - presumably this is an image and appearance thing, ahead of research efficiency (and energy efficiency - there is a breeze in my office (similarly benighted with single glazing) with the window closed. How much energy is wasted heating this room?)

Reading the NY Times, there are much larger illustrations of this - the US Ivy Leage university, Rutgers, has spent millions trying to become a major power in college American Football.

Now, it is not that Rutgers American football team has a large budget that is the problem. If this budget was raised from the gate receipts of people who want to watch the team, and from TV revenues for broadcasting the team, then I would have no problem with them spending this money on the team, even if that results in the team coach earning more than the professors (although how many professors would swap their tenure for the instability of a sports team manager?). This money has come from the sports fans, and so can be spent on giving the sports fans what they want. I don't see it as a necessity that income from this should be taken away and given to research any more than income from filming soap operas should be taken away and given to cancer research, except via standard taxation.

It is not even that they're spending money on something other than pure teaching and research - extra mural activities are an important part of many a students time at universities, and many employers look very favourably at the appearance of a sports team on a graduate's CV as a demonstration of commitment and team work. It is that this is *all* about image, and not about education. How much more education does the average player get on a college American football that has a winning record? How much more benefit could that money do in keeping tuition fees down, budgets up, even in supporting a much larger number of students in less high-income sports (e.g. rowing, swimming, athletics) or student theatre, music, art etc?

This can't be defended as education of rounded students. It is because someone in a big office has decided they want to see Rutgers name up in the top flight of college football. But he has forgotten what a college is for.

Google search box predictive text update

Yes, I should be working. Instead I'm mucking around on the internet. The joys of 21st century life, eh?

Anyway, to update a post from a month ago - Three changes to the list:
j - John McCain, having been beaten by Barack Obama, is now being beaten by Ms Jennifer Hudson. Whoever she is, plenty of people are googling her.
k - The mysterious-to-me Kelly Blue Book has been replaced by Kohls. Which is also mysterious-to-me.
l - Limewire (obviously something internet) loses out to Lowes. Which I guess is probably an American shop of some sort. Perhaps Kohls is also. Tis the season to go shopping, even though you have no money any more.

Unsurprisingly, the President-elect is still dominating the Os, and will continue for years - particularly if the likes of Southwest Airlines, Skype and Sears continue to fail to displace Sarah Palin.

Vulgarity and offensiveness

One of these random thoughts that strikes me occasionally:

The BBC is currently apologising about everything, particularly to people who are disgusted at the vulgarity and offensiveness of BBC programmes they didn't actually watch/listen to at the time, but now they've heard about it are outraged at the vulgarity and offensiveness of them.

As these people actually in some way must enjoy being offended to have sought out the vulgarity that offended them, there must be some who not only enjoy this but also have the (im)maturity to admit to it.

What if these people got together (say, on Facebook) and started an organised complaint that some BBC programme was neither vulgar nor offensive and they, as licence payers, demanded to be offended immediately? Could they get the BBC to apologise for that too?

Tuesday, November 11

Phoenix will not rise again

The BBC report that NASA have declared the Phoenix lander to be silent, presumed dead, having lasted two months longer than its expected three month operating period.

Having not heard from it since the 2nd of November, NASA are scaling down operations, while listening in just in case it has more surprises in store. With no power to supply warmth, the cold of a Northern Martian winter will break the solar panels and electronics.

Phoenix was a resurrection of the Mars Polar Lander, the original of which was lost near the South Pole.

The other NASA stalwarts, Opportunity and Spirit, are still going in the relatively balmy equatorial region.

Wednesday, November 5

Google search box predictive text

The Google search box on the Firefox browser has predictive text - not sure how much of that is remembering what I've searched for before, as opposed to the current default (appears to be google world rather than UK only, but I suspect there is some UK weighting), but I thought I'd note what some letters bring. Some will stay the same for years, others show that this is updated fairly often (and will hopefully change very soon now)

So you have the internet royalty (Amazon, Ebay, Google) the new internet royalty (facebook), the US powerhouses (is craigslist even in the UK?)

a: Amazon - internet royalty, unsurprising. The second place of Argos makes me think there must be a UK weighting to these results, though.
b: Bebo - I've vaguely heard of this, perhaps its for a younger audience
c: craigslist - American powerhouse, I think
d: dictionary - one of the few English words to win
e: ebay - internet royalty
f: facebook - new internet royalty
g: google - figures
h: hotmail- clearly not dead yet
i: imdb - not exactly internet royalty, but clearly doing well to beat itunes
j: john mccain (mccain doesn't even appear on the m list)
k: kelly blue book - I've no idea what this is. Or indeed many of the other entries that appear under 'k'
l: limewire - as above, no idea
m: myspace - the tawdy network site, unreadable to anyone my age
n: next - the retail chain or the English word I wonder?
o: obama - Mr President-elect - no surprise there (Barack Obama is sixth in the bs)
p: photobucket - photo hosting. 'Palin' hit ninth, which I suspect is not largely due to fans of the dead parrot sketch
q: quotes - a small field, and won by a non-trademark.
r: runescape - I suspect it's a game.
s: sarah palin. Oh please let this be temporary.
t: target. I think this is a retailer.
u: utube. Are there really that many people who don't know it's "youtube"?
v: verizon wireless
w: wikipedia. Internet royalty, despite the flakiness of some of its entries
x: x factor. Make it go away, please.
y: youtube. For those who can remember the spelling.
z: zipcodes. See, I said it was American.

The US dominance of google searches is clear - of the big hits, only one that I'm aware of started outside US territory (imdb - technically the bit of Panama that john mccain was born on was US territory or he wouldn't have been able to stand for president)

Tuesday, November 4

Time to vote?

According to the BBC's live feed, Barack Obama appears to have taken about 16 minutes to cast his vote. While careful consideration is a plus in a politician, this may be taking things a little too far...

Wednesday, October 29

Music to resuscitate to

The story about the Bee Gees "Staying Alive" has been going around for the past couple of weeks, to the extent of cropping up on a popular news quiz on the BBC.

The NY Times article on the topic has a little more information than the BBC article I first read about it in. Those studying the idea - find a track that is sufficiently well known and has the right beats per minute to match the suggested chest compression rate - clearly had added a third requirement, which is applicability.

Or, to put it bluntly, if someone *has* to sing along while trying to resuscitate you, the Bee Gees "Stayin alive" at least gives a more optimistic slant on the chances of their success than Queen's "Another one bites the dust" does.

The great intellectual conspiracy

In what can hardly come as a surprise to Republicans, that intellectual Obama has been endorsed by a total of 76 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, Physics or Medicine.

Of course, as the Republicans don't appear to be in favour of wasting time and effort on careful consideration, investigation and study and prefer the fast action that is only possible by going with gut feelings - how can you be a DECIDER if you'll change your mind just because mere facts and evidence suggest you've made a colossal mistake - then they'll hardly be bothered by this 76-0 lead that the Obama campaign has in some of the greatest scientific minds alive.

And yes, this is my business. I'm in the free world, and Americans can't say it's not my business if they're going to keep using this "leader of the free world" line.

Monday, October 20

Stormy Weather

Why exactly is the BBC's weather forecasting so bloody awful?

OK, British weather isn't the easiest thing to predict, but given that there's been a great big giant band of rain slowly crossing the country all day, to be continuing to say it'll be dry in Nottingham is just complete rubbish. It's been chucking it down for hours.

Plus I'm also annoyed at myself for not going into town on Saturday and buying the rewaterproofing spray I need to get my waterproofs waterproof. D'oh.

Too much slime, even for a pitbull?

The Rovian slime machine has already proven far too much for Colin Powell, who has thrown his weight behind Obama, and John McCain himself has shown his discomfort at some of the negative emotions stirred up by the Republican Party campaign.

So who's the latest to express disquiet at Republican tactics... Sarah Palin.

Um. When the "pitbull in lipstick" starts second guessing the smears, it appears that even the Republicans have realised that Republican tactics are rather unpalatable to the US public...

Thursday, October 16

Throw them out.

Here's a simple test for UK political parties wanting my vote - do they agree to this:

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

It appears the Labour party does not.

Italy deems the future to be too expensive

Italy has decided to take from the Universities to fund the bankers. In practical terms, the subjects that will suffer most are those which require a large number of support staff - in other words, technicians in the research labs.

Italy suffers distinctly in that research staff there are civil servants rather than appointed by the Universities themselves, and the past decade has seen almost no permanent recruitment. Instead, the labs are maintained by short-term contract staff. In Italy, these are nicknamed precari, acknowledging the precarious position of such a post.

Now they want to get rid of thousands of them. This is no way to run research. Italy is already well behind the likes of France and Germany in research expenditure per GDP. This will not help. I hope the Italian government enjoys the whooshing sound of Eastern European countries overtaking them.

Astroturfing forums

Now, I'm a cynical sort, so I may be prone to seeing things that aren't really there, but I tend to find that when I'm searching the web for comments on a product, I can often find forums that I find suspiciously eager to declare their love for one particular brand. While some brands are able to gather fanboys who will declare their love of the product of their own genuine fanaticism for it, others are otherwise so functional (e.g. a waterproofing spray) that you can't imagine them inspiring devotion.

So when I find a forum that discusses a brand only in the most worshipping terms, that uses the full product name repeatedly, and that links and promotes their website at every opportunity -

"BRANDNAME have a great competition on their website (link)!"
"I went to the BRANDNAME website (link) and registered straight away!"
"BRANDNAME is great!"
"BRANDAME is a friend, and it's a companion, And it's the only product you will ever need"

etc (alright, that last one is from a Tom Waits track), it doesn't look like the grass roots devotion that some brands have inspired, it looks like the astroturf of a company trying to fake it. And now I'm not going to buy their product either.

Thursday, October 2

MTV gets rickrolled

Broadcasters who let the public vote for who wins awards often come up with a problem - the public just doesn't take them as seriously as the broadcasters think they should.

This trend ranges from BBC Sports personality of the year (which has also had rumours of Aussies voting for non-winning Englishmen to avoid ones who beat them getting the nod) to the religion section in the UK census getting the Jedi vote out.

Latest victims are MTV, who have found a surprise nominee for best ever act in their latest pointless vote.

Tuesday, September 30

A gay politician is still a politician

This is the sort of non-joined up thinking that makes me unsurprised that politicians let the economy get in such a mess.

The BBC quotes some Tory that Gays 'have a duty to vote Tory' - because apparently Cameron has stopped the party from selected only straight white men, but also because homosexuals are 'net contributors to the taxes because they don't have children'.

Right. And they all top themselves at 65, do they? While you don't want too many children - this country is currently in an environmentally unsustainable mode, and more people makes that harder to fix - you do want there to be a certain number so they can run the services and earn money that pays your pensions once you've retired.

Wednesday, September 17

Beats the face on Mars anyday

The human brain is great at pattern recognition. One problem is that it is so good, it sees things that aren't there. Apart from a dirt track, there's not a lot at the coordinates of 50.01,-110.11 that isn't natural, but...

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Gone to the dogs

The Kennel Club is getting a bit sniffy that the BBC dare broadcast a documentary to suggest that the Kennel Club's rules are not good for dogs.

The Kennel Club being - in my opinion - deluded about what they are doing (they think they are doing the right thing, but they're not) have even accused the BBC of being "biased against dogs".

Rubbish. The Kennel Club are not dogs, dogs are not the Kennel Club. One can be very pro-dog indeed and disagree with the Kennel Club.

You only have to look at photos of what the Kennel Club's ideas have turned the bulldog into. It's hardly a surprise that there could be health problems there. In the wikipedia article on bulldogs, it states that the Bulldog Club "In 1891 the two top bulldogs, Orry and Dockleaf, competed in a contest to see which dog could walk the farthest". How would a modern bulldog compare to the average mongrel in that contest?

Monday, September 15

Sir Tim looks at his creation

As the creator of html and thus the World Wide Web as we know it, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is entitled to a certain paternalistic view every now and then. Particularly when he has a point.

The web is a great means for exchanging information. This does not mean that the information is right. TBL was talking about the bizarre popularity of the claims that the Large Hadron Collider could produce a black hole that would swallow the Earth - he also highlighted the MMR myths, which have led to a resurgence of measles (and thus caused actual physical harm). He didn't mention climate change, but could easily have done - the web has a very different ratio between acceptors of the mainstream view : sceptics : flat out deniers than the science community has.

In practice, I'm not sure how the labelling would work. The Corporate Interests lobby in the US has shown time and time again its ability to set up seemingly academically based institutes to push their own interests. They'd be a danger that this could easily go the same way.

Thursday, August 28


The Guardian has a regular series of entertaining/nitpicking criticism of Hollywood history films - or rather, points out how Hollywood doesn't really make the effort. Sometimes they've changed things because they think it'll make a better story - or at least a simpler one for their audience - other times... well, it's hard to know what they were thinking. Take one problem with Troy, listed in the latest article - the makers had banged on about their authenticity, but as the article says

it's hard to see why you'd go to the trouble if you're just going to fill the marketplace with llamas.

I imagine a historian has much the same problem with "historical" films as I have with "science" fiction films as a scientist - they use real thing utterly incorrectly just because they can't be bothered.

Tuesday, August 26

The Real McHoy

Every time I see a news article about this man, I just like him more. If he's not offered a knighthood, they'll be trouble...

His point on sports is particularly important - if Scotland wants to be independent, it has to be ready to be independent, which means funding everything.

Although having said that - if Hong Kong still gets its own Olympic Team, do you still have to be an independent country to have your own NOC?

Tuesday, August 19


Well, I was always told it was bad manners to gloat. But then this is sport, and they are the Aussies, so I have to say - how's your big words now?

It appears that when the the British track cyclists, they win.

Great Britain - 7 golds, 3 silvers (all in GB 1-2s) and one bronze.
Australia - 1 silver.

Brett Lancaster, Crocodile Dundee, Dame Edna Everage, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Kevin Rudd - can you hear me Kevin Rudd? Your boys took one *hell* of a beating!

Never mind, you still have cricket, rugby league, and women's swimming as long as it is a less efficient stroke...

Sunday, August 10

The Welsh Wonder

I have to say, I'm absolutely delighted at Nicole Cooke winning the gold medal in the women's road race. A bit annoyed I missed the finish - I'd been rowing and got home just in time to turn the TV on to be greeted by the UK national anthem. And although cold, wet and hilly conditions are probably what a Welsh cyclist does best in, there's no denying it was a well deserved win - and the first Welsh gold medallist since 1972.

Tuesday, August 5

Surprising news from down under

Far from the stereotype of the lager swilling Aussie who keeps reminding the English that the Aussies are better at sport because their cricket team won one of the two most recent Ashes series*, the Australians do actually have taste. In coffee, at least.

*They're also better at Rugby League, Rugby Union when it isn't a World Cup year (i.e the year that matters), swimming, and.. er... probably some other Olympic events you can pick up medals in that Britain hasn't also targeted.

Sunday, August 3

Vaughan calls it time

Having lost his form, and lost to South Africa, Michael Vaughan has seen what he needs to do - not just be "rested" for a match, but stand down as captain.

Here's hoping after a break he makes a speedy recovery to form - England needs an elder statesman with the ability to bat as well as Vaughan has in previous years.

Friday, August 1

Smart pick, or lucky guess?

Whether it's because they do actually know something, or because even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, the England cricket team selectors have actually managed to somehow recall someone and appear to have got away with it.

Collingwood, despite looking awful in the first innings, has got a 50 in the second. God knows how he's suddenly remembered how to bat, but it's exactly what England needed to prolong the agony have any chance, albeit very, very small, of levelling the series.

EDIT - Blimey, he's gone on to get a century. With a six. Who'd have thought he only needed to be dropped for one match to get his form back? Wonder who they should try that with next...

Thursday, July 31

Random things you learn on the web #2

A Shih Tzu can get so excited its eyes pop out.

I mean, really, why continue to breed such a stupid creature?

Would getting absolutely stuffed be good for us this time?

I'm sure a couple of years ago I was looking forward to seeing Michael Vaughan return - now I have to say I feel I'd be glad to see the back of him. Yes, he was good once, but your ability can disappear fast at the top level of sport, and his appears to have completely deserted him with the bat.

But more to the point is that reading a lot of the press, there seems to be an unpleasant air about the whole thing. Selection seems to be a "pick your mates" type of thing, almost like being back at school. If you're not quite in the inner circle and your form dips you get dropped for a while (Strauss) or apparently permanently (Hoggard), but if you are, you can be straight back in without having to prove you've remembered how to bat (Collingwood). It almost makes me miss the days when the selectors would panic after a defeat and haul in whoever was doing well in the county game at the time.

The dropping of Broad for Collingwood seems bizarre. I could see the point in dropping Broad for a batsman in form - arguably, Broad has been lucky, as if he was really that good he should have been scoring in the county game too. I could see the point in dropping Broad for a bowler in form - Broad hasn't been taking wickets, and England need to bowl South Africa out to win, or at least avoid humiliation. Collingwood is out of form. Broad is in form - his Test average is far higher than his county. More to the point, Collingwood is really struggling with the bat, it's not like he's scoring fluently then being a bit unlucky, while Broad has been attracting plaudits for his batting. Yes, he's not a Test number six. Not yet, anyway. But Collingwood sure as hell isn't playing like a number six either.

So this leads me to the though - how much of this is the fault of the coach and captain? And is getting absolutely stuffed for the rest of this series enough to force them out?

And they'll pay for this how exactly?

Perhaps it is my pessimist tendencies, but I've been reading the news reports on falling house prices for some time with a "I said so" feeling. Particular sensations of smugness emanate in that I've been shown to have been right when so many of the pronouncements of people who actually work in the industry have been shown to be utterly wrong. While I'm not normally in favour of people's gut instincts and "it stands to reason, dunnit" arguments trumping those with expertise in the field, when the experts appear to be lacking an explanation for why something has suddenly changed for ever (in the housing market case, how can people with a large amount of personal debt already afford to suddenly spend far more on a mortgage without increasing their income), I do have to wonder if they really know what they're talking about.

So here's a rant about some witless reasoning going on in this quote from a BBC News report:

But the National Housing Federation said that it was expecting house prices in England to rise by 25% by 2013.

It said that the number of new homes being built was not keeping up with rising demand as a result of people living longer, getting married later and getting divorced more.

How? How can they rise 25%? Who will have the money? I could afford another 25% per month expenditure, but I'm just about the only person I know who can. The banks won't lend more than they were lending last year, as they've realised that last year's lending was unsustainable. Living costs will have gone up hugely. Wages won't. So seriously - how can house prices go up 25% without people being able to pay 25% more in mortgages? Answer - they can't. People living longer won't mean house prices going up, it'll mean more poor old people unable to pay their heating bills, and more rich old people occupying family sized homes that young couples can't afford to buy - so they won't start a family. Marrying later? Well, they'll be sharing and renting instead, because they can't afford to buy on their own. Getting divorced more? Well, they'll have to move to a smaller house or get a lodger, because people who could only just cover the mortgage on one property between them aren't suddenly going to be able to manage one each. And the people they appear to think are going to be able to suddenly pay all this extra money are the young, the very old, and the newly divorced!

Perhaps the fact that an organisation called the National Housing Federation can come up with some patent rubbish is an indicator of how we managed to get in such a mess to begin with...

Wednesday, July 30

Banks. Don't you just hate them?

Tried to pay off my credit card online today. I couldn't log in to the server as it was going slow (all the other websites I tried to access today - fine).

Chances of them accepting this if I miss the payment? None whatsoever.

If they expect a penny of taxpayers money to bail them out for their credulous greed in the mortgage markets, I'll be protesting to my MP. Mind you, he's probably given up all hope of lasting past the next election already.

Tuesday, July 29

Nationalised mortgages?

Latest news on the mortgage crisis (i.e how can banks that don't have any money lend it to people who can't afford to repay it to allow house prices to continue rocketing up because "there's demand") - the bankers solution appears to be a partial nationalisation of the mortgage market. Blimey. You wouldn't have thought they'd be in favour of nationalising it.

Except... the bit they seem to want to nationalise is the risk. I bet they've still got the potential profits as privatised.

Sunday, July 6

Green and Pleasant Land

One thing I like about England is that we very rarely get weather conditions that would be viewed as remotely severe in other parts of the world. The occasional winter storm can be pretty nasty, but in general, the weather conditions are simply mild.

Compare the average US news story on tornados to a British one - like this one from BBC News.

It reports that a funnel cloud was seen over Lancashire. Yes, that's right, it didn't even touch the ground. Was it a big one? Well, they quote the Met Office in the story...

If this funnel cloud had touched down it could have badly damaged a tree or a shed roof.

Tuesday, July 1

The Prisoner

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling…. We want information. Information! INFORMATION!"
"You won't get it."
"By hook or by crook, we will."
"Who are you?"
"The new Number Two."
"Who is Number One?"
"You are Number Six."
"I am not a number — I am a free man!"

Don't mess this up, ITV. For pity's sake, don't mess this one up...

Sunday, June 22

The power of FUD

There are plenty of people out there who like the status quo - largely because their current power relies on it - and who will view those who would change the status quo as their enemies, even if a change is necessary and indeed inevitable.

So it's a shame to see that one group of these people - those who wish to give the impression that scientists are divided over anthropegenic climate change, or that scientists are somehow much less trustworthy than the market and big business *coughsubprimecough* - seem to still be having rather a lot of success.

This is a bad thing because, of course, reality isn't democratic. You can't change the laws of physics, or their complex interplay, just because you don't like them or understand them. And a lack of action now will make things worse later.

Thursday, June 19

Too many academics?

A letter in today's Nature magazine suggests one solution to th ecurrent UK grant funding problem - less academics.

universities currently have the freedom to over-staff and are rewarded for doing so under the present system.

Uh... really? Are we really over-staffed (uh.. I mean in the teaching and research positions, not the central facilities)? If so... who are the buggers who aren't doing anything, and why can't we get them to take on the surplus work of those who are working overtime to raise funds, do research, write courses, mark, etc. etc. etc.?

To me, it would appear that problem would be not that there are too many academics, but that there are too many members of staff at universities who are meant to justify their existence by research activity when they actually have to spend much of their time teaching. A greater acceptance and acknowledgement of the role teaching has in universities is perhaps required.

Wednesday, June 18

Royal Bank of Scotland to customers - you may now panic

The Royal Bank of Scotland has looked at the state of the world's markets and declared - the sky is falling. Yep, the market's belief that it can create wealth and fortune just because, hey, it's the market! has been shown to be a load of steaming gubbins, and the artificial bubble they've created is about to burst. Down go the stocks, down go the shares, hide in money and hope you don't lose your job.

If I sound remarkably callous about the whole thing, it's because I'm in one of the jobs that actually does create future wealth and fortune, albeit not for me. Research scientists actually do enable the development of genuine new products that people will want or even *need*. You know, like ways of generating and storing energy without hoping Russia won't shut down their pipelines. But the market madmen have taken to believing that they are the ones who create wealth. Fat lot of chance getting them to declare that they've caused the crash, though.

Hich released!

Hicham Yezza, the University of Nottingham employee and peace activist ludicrously arrested on anti-terrorism charges, then re-arrested on immigration charges when even the government realised the anti-terrorism charges were so ludicrously stupid that they wouldn't manage to make them stick, is finally out of detention. Granted bail following an immigration hearing, Hich now gets to defend his immigration status by due and proper process, rather than fight against fast-track deportations and paranoid knee-jerk terrorism charges.

Money where your mouth is

Nice to see some people value education - I mean really, really value education.

Cambridge colleges do like their alumni. They're not, on average, as generous as Ivy League alumni are in the US, but they do tend to supply a fair chunk of money. New Hall College, part of the University of Cambridge, are particularly delighted with one of their old girls, though. Ros Smith, after graduating, began working with an IT consultant called Steve Edwards. They later married and set up a company that is now a world leader in telecom billings systems, Geneva Technology. Smart people. They sold out in 2001 (see what I mean by smart people?) and although their shares, assuming they held onto them, will have taken a dive since, the Times estimated their net wealth as 70 million pounds.

Well, make that 40 million. They've just given 30 million pounds to Ros' old college. As "New Hall" was the name of the college while it waited for a donor, this is a big enough gift to rename the college. In this case Murray Edwards College - Murray being the late Dame Rosemary Murray, who originally founded the college in the 1950s.

Things that continue to puzzle me in no particular order

No particular order to this, just observations of long-running things that I just don't get:

#1 - I continue to be puzzled and perplexed as to how exactly gay weddings undermine marriage in a way that Las Vegas does not.

Tuesday, June 17

MCC says excitement is OK

English cricket, despite being the inventors of Twenty20 cricket, has a reputation for being old fashioned, conservative and backward thinking. As the conservators of the laws of cricket, they certainly should maintain the historical strengths of cricket that has made it a successful sport in parts of the world. But it's also good to see that they are looking to how they can expand these strengths to broaden the interest in cricket around the world.

Take Kevin Pietersen's switch-hitting - changing from a right hand stance to left to face the bowler, and hitting him for two sixes by doing so. Some would complain that this is unfair - against the spirit of the game. After all, the bowler has to inform the umpire how he will be bowling, and can't suddenly change hands halfway through his run-up.

The MCC, however, have ruled sensibly. It's a tricky but exciting tactic, and within the rules of the game.

I'm aiming to go to a Twenty20 match next week, and I'd be interested to see if anyone gives this tactic a go. I'm sure they'll be plenty of batsmen practising it in the nets this week.

Saturday, June 7

Tories in more sleaze accusations

...Except this time, I'm not sure it's fair. Conservative Party chairman Caroline Spelman is on the receiving end of accusations that she was wrong to use her MP's parliamentary allowance to pay her children's former nanny. She says the money was for the secretarial work the nanny carried out, even though the nanny says she didn't do much.

Here's the thing though - why shouldn't a working mother MP get a full allowance for the costs of a nanny in the first place? After all, politicians are meant to represent women as well, so if this was set up perhaps it would help the male-female imbalance in the job.

Thursday, May 29

Free Hich protest

Yesterday afternoon saw a protest by staff and students at the University of Nottingham, in support of staff member Hicham Yezza, who is due to be arbitrarily and rapidly deported for no good reason at all - they say immigration irregularities, but he had a court case scheduled for early July to hear that, so why rush this forward? This is following his arrest for having a document on his computer that was published by the US government on their website. Some might suggest his deportation is revenge for making the Home Office look stupid.

Despite pouring rain and occurring during exam time, over 500 staff and students turned out to the protest, which included a speech from Alan Simpson MP, who described the arrest as a "dreadful cock-up", and that if the terror legislation of the government continues "we would live in a society where we fear each other and that is what the treatment of Hicham and Rizwaan actually demonstrates."

Photos of the protest
Press release from the campaign website
BBC News Online

Tuesday, May 27


I'm a scientist. I've probably said this before, if anyone reading this hadn't guessed already.

One problem with being a scientist by profession - and a research scientist at that - is that your job may well involve doing things that you think you're good at, but that only means you're not completely useless at (as we've only just worked out how to do it at all).

Which means you can spend two days on something and fail utterly. As I have done. So I'm rather annoyed right now.

Hicham Yezza

You would think that the Home Office in the UK would be a little more careful to not act like some Ministry from George Orwell's 1984. But no.

Earlier this month, someone at the University of Nottingham had a panic when they saw a document on Al-Quaeda on the computer of a member of clerical staff, and called the police. The police arrested the staff member, one Hicham Yezza, and the student who had passed on this document to Mr Yezza for printing.

The document came from the US government. Their website. It's apparently available from Amazon as well.

Not that this stopped the police holding them for six days, and repeatedly describing the material as illegal. Then, once they discovered that the legal case didn't have a leg to stand on, they decided to deport Mr Yezza. Quickly - by the 1st June.

Local MP Alan Simpson (showing why he's one of the few Labour MPs who will actually be missed after the next election) has already protested this one, calling it "arbitrary deportation with no right to a proper hearing."

I've seen no explanation from the Home Office why they feel the need to deport this man so quickly, particularly since he was already due to contest immigration charges in a court of law, and had a hearing date set for 16th July. Other than that the Home Office have been made to look like scaremongers, and want a victim in revenge.

Friday, May 23

Beware! Factoids!

It can be quite astonishing the life that some factoids - things that look like facts, but aren't what they appear and can easily be shown to not reflect the more complex story - continue to survive and thrive.

Current ones circulating wildly include:

Polar Bear numbers are increasing!
This is sometimes more accurately described as Polar Bear numbers in a number of populations are larger now than they were in 1960. Even more accurately, Polar Bear numbers in some populations, which recovered well after we stopped shooting them in an unregulated fashion, now appear to be under stress with climate change considered to be a significant factor. So what appears to be good news for the polar bear is not. So in short -
Polar Bears - cheer up, at least we haven't started shooting you from aeroplanes again!

No climate change since 1998!
Oh dear. Weather is what changes from day to day, month to month. Climate changes over a longer period. In the middle are cycles such as El Nino, which affect global temperatures on a short term period. There was a particularly strong one in 1998, which was significantly the hottest year on record. The years since have all continued to rank among the hottest on record.
Weather and climate are not the same thing!

Not all scientists agree with global warming - look at Bjorn Lomborg!
Anyone with a PhD can call themselves a scientist, it doesn't automatically make us right (hell, if it did, it should be a requirement for standing for election...). Having said that, the vast majority of scientists, and the very, very vast majority of scientists working in areas involving the climate who aren't employed by Exxon, agree that global warming is occurring, and is probably anthropogenic in cause. Including Lomborg - he just disagrees with most what we should do about it.

Jetlag - turns out I was doing it right all along

I've not actually had that much problem with jet lag in the past - certainly not as much trouble as I've had from working in a dark lab all week. Looking at a BBC News article, perhaps I'd inadvertently been protecting myself from jet lag while travelling.

"... simply avoiding any food on the plane, and then eating as soon as you land, should help you to adjust and avoid some of the uncomfortable feelings of jet lag."

That's easy to do. Food on planes is awful, and I'm too un-nerved by my utter dislike of plane travel to consider the state of my stomach until I'm back on firm soil...

Monday, April 21

Call yourself a geologist?

You get some really daft people managing to get stories into the media. Fundamentalist Christians in the US are very good at this. Not to be left out, some twit claiming to be a geologist has managed to have their declaration that Mecca time should replace GMT because Mecca was in "perfect alignment to magnetic north" get reported by the BBC.

He's clearly not a geologist, as any *real* geologist knows that Magnetic North moves. Currently by about 41km a year. It moved 1100km over the 20th century. I'm not an expert on Saudi Arabian cities, but I'm pretty sure that Mecca doesn't move around the desert anywhere near as much (and it'd have to move rather faster than magnetic north, given that the fixed point on the circle, the north pole, is much closer to Magnetic North than it is to Mecca).

Also - and I haven't bothered to work out exactly, but there's probably a nice Great Circle mapper on Google somewhere - the great circle that passes through wherever Magnetic North currently is and the North Pole will also pass through a number of other places. At a rough guess from looking at the map, I'd be pretty confident that a Great Circle that passes through Mecca and the North Pole is going to go pretty close to both Moscow and the west coast of North America. So - why Mecca time and not Moscow time? Or even Hollywood time? At least we'd know when the latest TV shows will appear on the internet...

Or what if they mean a line where magnetic north and true north are the same? Well, this is a complex beast, due to local effects, but again, one such line passes through the US - from Lake Superior and across the western panhandle of Florida - and another through Europe - in 2000, this ran pretty much slap bang through Copenhagen (you know, the place with the cartoonists) and nowhere near Mecca.

Thursday, April 3

Cricket in the lost nation

Once upon a time, the English ran the game of cricket. The time had come for the game to expand beyond three Test playing nations, and the then Imperial Cricketing Council made its decision - not for arguably the best of the non-Test playing nations, but for a side that wasn't a nation but a confederation of parts of the Empire. So the West Indies, then a white-dominated side, started playing Test cricket, and the US didn't.

Perhaps if the Americans had been let in they would have continued to play at the high level - you could imagine the Ivy League universities fielding teams, with top players from Philadelphia and New York also making the Test side. But the fear of the ICC that if the Yanks were let in they might take over may well have helped the sport slide into obscurity in the US.

Fast forward eighty years. Eric Goldstein, chief executive for school support services and overseer of the sports programs for the Department of Education in New York decides to add a new sport to the official public school leagues, one that will appeal to the large Asian and Caribbean immigrant community - cricket. He expects four teams to be possible. He gets fourteen.

Story in the NY Times

Thursday, March 20

Surf your music

OK, I'm probably about four weeks behind the curve on this, but when I popped up to visit my brother a couple of weeks ago he showed me this new little game that cost all of ten dollars (under a fiver in real British money) - Audiosurf.

So. Thanks bro, I'm now addicted to a computer game for the first time in years. The dangerous thing is it panders to my past devotion to short action computer games (as I wasted many an hour on the Commodore 64 in my youth) and music (as I spend many an hour listening to now). So I've been experimenting finding tracks that are interesting - and that give me a chance of being in the top ten in the UK at least. My favourite so far:

Nantes by Beirut - the Balkan influenced instruments and backing give the track a tricky bouncing feel which makes a fairly folkish style tune into a surprisingly fast round. And of course, it's a damn good track.

Ani Kuni by Madeleine Chartrand - really obscure 1970s French-Canadian version of a traditional (Huron?) song - so obscure I'm the only one to have played it in the game at the moment, so I'm the world champion at it - but the combination of native american influenced drumming and chanting with western European psychedelia makes quite a track. When the guitar kicks in half way, everything speeds up insanely...

This is what happens when physicists start drinking...

A surprising amount of science communication and collaborative agreements gets done in bars at conferences. Sometimes the side effect of this leaks out when scientists deviate from the dry terminology. So this week, Nature has an article with the phrase "exotic electroweak penguin contribution" - apparently, to a drunk physicist, a modification of a Feynman diagram looks like a penguin. A bit.

I should admit that I like the idea of quarks having a flavour. Makes things a little more poetic, somehow.

Friday, March 14

Hold on.. cricket! He's playing cricket! Why didn't we think of that?

So, it seems the recent additions to the England cricket squad have shown the more established players what they're meant to be doing. Damn. Now the England selectors will think they know what they're doing. Since their most recent changes - Ambrose as wicketkeeper, Broad instead of Harmison (well, duh) and Anderson in (instead of the unfortunate Hoggard) have apparently worked, at least so far, they'll probably assume they are now doing a competent job as selectors. Whether this means they'll then decide that their choice to stick with Strauss (now really, really out of form with the bat, even if he can field) is right or not remains to be seen. Oh well. Strauss will probably now scratch out just enough (30, say) that they'll keep him. Pity England can't use him as they did Gary Pratt in the 2005 Ashes...

Oh, and Vettori - hasn't had the pitches to do much with the ball so far this series, but he's clearly more than earning his place as a batsman alone. England could do with an all-rounder like that again...

Over-representation in the media?

Chimps, it appears, are in a lot more danger in the wild than people think they are. The problem is that public perception of them is often that they can't be that endangered as, well... they're on TV. All the time. Largely selling us stuff. And even the American Association for the Advancement of Science thought this was a good idea until they were told otherwise.

While in the UK the major chimp-related adverts were the long-running PG Tips series, and they have now moved over to a woollen simian who was previously the only successful thing about ITV's digital efforts. However, advertising executives worldwide can't resist monkeys. Look! They're monkeying around! Hahaha!

As a recent letter to Science, signed by some of the most notable primate researchers, points out:
"In movies, television shows, and advertisements, chimpanzees are often depicted as caricatures of humans, dressed in clothes and/or photographed in contrived poses "

Using them in adverts is not just demeaning (and old, hackneyed and unoriginal) - it also helps threaten the future of chimpanzees in the wild. Because if the public don't think they're in trouble, there is going to be less pressure to save them.

Wednesday, March 12

Daft names - men's fault?

An article in the NY Times suggests that the number of extremely bizarre names may be reducing as women now have more of a say in the name of their offspring than they did in the past.

“I can’t tell you,” Mr. Sherrod said, “how often I’ve heard guys who wanted their kid to be able to say truthfully, ‘Danger is my middle name.’ But their wives absolutely refused.”

There is a long history of men giving their children very, very silly names that reflect their father's viewpoints. Nicholas Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon appears to have coped relatively well with this, becoming an MP and a founder of the London fire brigade.

The article includes some really odd names. You can sort of understand the arty types who think that Heavenly Hirani, River, or Moonunit are good names, but Goblin Fester, Cheese Ceaser and Leper Priest? Seriously?

A commonly reported English tradition is the father who wants to name their child after the members of their favourite football team. Although when it comes to silly names and sports, probably the worst is the Canadian ice hockey team from Port Moody, who decided the "Port Moody Fog Duckers" was a good name.

Friday, March 7

It's like the 1990s again

Feeble England, feebly struggle their way to - well, a long way behind their opponents. This sort of performance is bad when facing Australia. The Kiwis are rather less given to over the top gloating, but to be blunt they're not as good as the Aussies, so it's probably worse. And the Kiwis are weakened by defections/retirements to the Twenty20 games in India in a way that England aren't.

Admittedly, Daniel Vettori is very good. But it appears he probably doesn't have to be on top form to look very good against this England team. I went through this in the 1990s, why do I have to go through it again already? Can't we just be decent for a few more years?

Wednesday, March 5

Old rower?

Having hit 35 and joined the Veteran squad at my rowing club, I'm facing the Vets Head rather than the Head of the River Race for the first time later this month.

So I'm not sure whether to be happy or feel slightly inferior at the news that one of the rowers in the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race on the 29th March will be - 36.

Great Attenborough moments

Last night, the BBC broadcast the last new show which has the irreplaceable David Attenborough going out into the wild to look at animals. Not sure how the BBC are going to follow this - I suppose they have an array of wildlife presenters rather than Sir David, but I fear it's going to be more of the "get someone with a good voice in to narrate" rather than get an expert (e.g. Bill Nighy on Meerkat Manor)

Anyway, this is just an excuse to post a link to a favourite bit of Attenborough footage - the Lyrebird.

footage from BBC Worldwide on Youtube. It just gets more astonishing as it goes on.

Bacronym of the week

First in a series of one... Bacronyms are very common in science and industry, where you invent something and then try and think of a tortured phrase to describe it that gives a clever acronym.

A report on the BBC News about the invention of a method for cleaning water, using a byproduct of the whisky distillery industry, is a good example of this. The researchers at Aberdeen University, tipping the hat to the contributions from the Glenfiddich distillery, have given their invention the tortured title "Device for the Remediation and Attenuation of Multiple pollutants". Ugh. Sounds horrible. Why would they use such a horrible phrase? Because the acronym is then... Dram.

Tuesday, March 4

Symonds breaks the rules. Good on him.

Normally, I'm very sniffy about the Australian's aggressive on-field demeanour - I don't like their style of sledging, which all too often seems to be more abusive than wind up, and some of their appealing is almost like, well, the sort of thing you'd think footballers would do. I shudder at the horror of it.

So, anyway, Andrew Symonds, in the latest ODI against India (which India won) has disobeyed the players' code of conduct, which forbids physical assault of a rival player, official or spectator. On the face of it, this sounds like a really bad thing to do the suspension for an infringement can range from ten ODIs to a life ban.

Except it should be noted that the spectator was an Australian man in a state of undress. Yes, they clearly do still have streakers down under (the 1970s are over, people!). Symonds floored the fool with a shoulder barge. To which I say, good on him, and hope he isn't charged.

UPDATE 5th March: It appears the ICC and Queensland police view Symonds as being perfectly within his rights. The streaker was fined A$1500.

Friday, February 29


Netscape Navigator is, it seems, about to bite the dust.

The venerable old browser (in internet terms, anyway) will no longer be supported by its now parent company, AOL, as of tomorrow. They have recommended Firefox or Flock instead.

(nostalgic music) Oh, I remember the first graphical browsers. Mosaic came out while I was a masters student at Warwick, with Netscape Navigator following shortly on - fortunately, Warwick's all night computer room had both unix and PC rooms - I didn't like the way the PC monitors rapidly became adjusted to hide what you had on the screen, so I made sure that I used a well visible computer at all times - at least it meant I didn't have an urge to wash my hands when using the keyboard if I wanted to browse this new web thingy for an hour or two (poor student, no TV, couldn't afford to start drinking at 5...)

Wednesday, February 27

Did the earth move for me?

Surprised to be woken up on my birthday (as in, about one hour in) by the distinct impression that the bed was shaking. Since I haven't had anything to drink, this makes me suspect it might be an earthquake.

Except I'm in Nottingham, England, which doesn't normally produce earthquakes you can feel. So if it was one, it would be quite a strong one by English standards. Wonder if it was real, or did I imagine it? Guess I'll find out later today. After some sleep.

Addendum: looks like it was, as I've noticed although the BBC has nothing on it yet, the two most read stories appear to be old ones about earthquakes in England. So it looks like people have been woken up, turned on their computers, and searched for something.

Tuesday, February 26

There's that number again...

Quite often in the history of physics, and science in general, a scientist has pointed out some strange coincidence and noted that this may indicate something. Sometimes other scientists later come up with an idea of how this could be the case, and a way to measure it, and thus we get another peek into how the universe works.

Reading in Nature News, astronomers have noted that the very large number 10^122 appears to show up rather more often than you'd expect. The author of the recent papers, Scott Funkhouser, suggests that an equation that explains this number's presence comes out if you have a universe of ten dimensions, seven of which have shrunk away leaving the other three observable.

Apparently, this isn't numerology, as there are only a limited number of ways you can put together the basic parameters of the universe and get just numbers. Interesting to see if this cosmic coincidence number can lead us to new insights.

Monday, February 25

US political cartoonist is too patriotic. Oh, what a suprise.

The web is a good thing for enabling you to read foreign newspapers - you don't have to be in the US to read the NY Times, for example. I do have a tendency to go for the political cartoon section in newspapers, as it gives a quick visual snapshot of the way at least one person (the cartoonist) is thinking. Most US cartoons are, it has to be said, utter dross. Even the ones who I normally think of as quite good can get it spectacularly wrong sometimes (in my opinion, anyway).

Take Pat Oliphant's recent effort in the NY Times . In a patriotic tivvy about the spouse of a candidate not saying she's been proud forever of the US, he has the political giant of the past (portrayed as a giant) lecturing this miniscule minnow of today about how far the US has come.

Mr Oliphant is utterly wrong. "How completely this country has turned itself around"? Rubbish. It's like saying you should be proud of a man the moment he stops beating his wife. He doesn't have to just stop beating his wife, he has to respect her fully. So saying that African-Americans are in theory legally equivalent to whites isn't enough, this has to clearly be the case in practice as well. And my outside view of that is that I'm hardly surprised that someone from the African American community could fully believe the US is in general over its wife-beating equivalent stage when it seems possible that an African American could be elected president. Perhaps part of the reason it took the US so long is that too many Americans are too patriotic - they love their country so much that they won't criticise it, or tolerate criticism from others. But sometimes it's your true friend who warns you your breath smells.

Friday, February 22

Science journal reviewer anonymity at risk

Reading the latest issue of Science, I was annoyed to see that the anonymity of reviewers for academic journals could be at risk. I suppose it's fairly inevitable that this is a US legal case that's causing this.

In this case, Pfizer are engaging in a fishing exploration to try to find some more evidence to support them in a case that claims some of its products cause cardiovascular and other injuries. The case uses a number of papers published in the scientific press. So Pfizer want to look through the confidential files of the New England Journal of Medicine to see if they can get any other hooks to hang their defence on.

In the aim of winning the case, they'd be quite happy to sacrifice the anonymity of reviewers. Most infuriatingly, they claim "The public has no interest in protecting the editorial process of a scientific journal". The impartial process of science journals is very much in the public interest - and indeed, as Science points out, Pfizer are regularly quite eager to submit papers to science journals when they make their products look good.

Thursday, February 21

England retain the Ashes

No, I'm not in lala-land, I'm talking about women's cricket. Where, unlike their male counterparts, the England team are capable of going to Australia and winning. Perhaps the England men could learn a little about not making excuses and just scoring more runs than the opposition...

Also on the women's cricket front, I noticed the BBC news report that South Africa's women won their latest match, against Bermuda, quite easily. Easily being 'knocking off the runs in under an over'. Although, one has to say, given that the two sides between them scored only 28 runs, that 20 of them were extras suggests perhaps both could do with a bit of line and length practice.

Wednesday, February 20

Targeted advertising

Sometimes I wish all these fears about companies knowing so much about you could be a little more accurate, then perhaps they wouldn't be annoying me with repeated, inaccurate adverts.

As someone who is currently single, I haven't particularly appreciated the inundation of Valentines Day related spam from the supermarket I happen to buy my food from (Sainsburys).

Now they're inundating me with Mothers Day spam. Annoying enough if your mother is still alive.

Friday, February 15

No wonder no-one round here knows what I do

According to a report on the BBC News, less than a third of all state schools allow pupils to study the three separate sciences at GCSE.

What rot this is. Is there a "combined humanities" course? No, you have them all separate. But apparently the powers that be decided a long time ago that combined sciences was a good thing. Even if you wanted to do separate science. I did, back when GCSEs first started, and didn't get the choice. Nothing has changed since.

In Nottingham, a mere 2% of children take Physics GCSE.

It is indefensible to refuse to offer a proper GCSE course to children. Combined science is a good course for children who wouldn't otherwise study any science, but if it is the only option then it all too often becomes the last science children do.

Tuesday, February 12

Big shoes to fill

Oxford University now has its adverts out for one of their academic posts following the announcement that the incumbent is retiring in September. As the post is the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science and the current prof is Richard Dawkins (who could not be described as retiring in any other sense), this is an important post in science - after all, the public purse pays for much of it.

Interesting to see who will succeed Prof. Dawkins. He has no say whatsoever in the matter - Oxford have a cast iron rule that no-one has a say in their successor.

The original manifesto by Charles Simonyi is reproduced at Richard Dawkins' webpages.

Monday, February 11

Thought crime?

According to the Grauniad, a woman is being questioned by police in Scotland today, and it appears all she may have done is had a bad dream. And then be overheard by an idiot.

A union official is quoted as saying

"It was complete madness. This girl had a dream about a bomb being on board and she was a bit shaken. The next thing anyone knew workers were being evacuated."

Oil rigs have long been feared as a target, and the Piper Alpha disaster shows that it can be a dangerous place to be. So such a dream is both plausible and stressful. That she can't then talk to a friend about the dream without setting off a major alert would appear to be just plain silly, but that's what the news coming out of the incident so far seems to indicate.

Wednesday, February 6

England Lions - which spinner?

So, the England Lions are touring, Monty Panesar with them for the moment, but I suspect a lot of people will be comparing how Monty does to how Adil Rashid does - Rashid being the latest prayed for all-rounder.

After the first warm up match (one of those more than XI a side things), in which Monty (who bowled in the first innings) took the honours with five wickets, Rashid appears (looking at the scorecard) to have done well in the first proper match against the Central Zone. Rashid scored 40 and 24no with the bat, and took 3 wickets for 20 runs. Monty got 0 and did not bat, and took 2 for 88...

I should add I rather suspect that Monty had to face more of the top order, while Rashid may well have only bowled against the tailenders in the second innings - although it always helps your figures if you then promptly polish them off, as he did.

Tuesday, February 5

Conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids?

Yes, I admit it, whenever I see articles such as this one on the BBC website about fluoridation of the water supply, I always immediately think of General Jack D Ripper's complaints about how a foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual...

I should really discuss this rationally and sensibly, considering the rights of people not to be medicated against their will against the effect on society of not providing this medication (at least it's not like measles vaccine, where those deciding not to be treated produce an epidemic of measles which kills people). But instead I'll go on the web and look up quotes from the film.

Thursday, January 17

Save our Science. Again.

This sort of thing seems to come up with depressing monotony. The Institute of Physics has issued a plea to the Science and Technology Facilities Council not to introduce cuts until Professor Bill Wakeham review of Physics is reported to the government.

The STFC is short of 80 million. In comparison, the Northern Rock building society has had to have a loan of £26bn because - well, frankly they were too greedy and didn't worry if things went wrong because the government would have to bail them out.

Looking at the Hansard report on the discussion on Tuesday in the House of Commons on STFC funding, I find some interesting quotes:
The important point... is that the STFC has been telling Ministers about the problem since July

Although it looks as though the research councils have had a cash uplift, they are in fact spending not new money, but old money that was going towards research costs

As far as I am aware, every physics community in every university is affected by these cuts.

Wednesday, January 16


Or Rodents of Unusual Size - in the film Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts declares his disbelief in their existence, only to be promptly attacked by one.

He'd have come off rather worse against a rodent of the most unusual size so far discovered by science - Josephoartigasia monesi tipped the scales at over 1000kg.

See also an summary article in the Grauniad

Saturday, January 12

Three As and a Facebook account

Oh, shock horror. A Cambridge University admissions tutor has admitted to looking at prospective students facebook public accounts.

The University says it relies on "interview performance, academic record and personal statement, outlining their interests and reasons for studying a particular course."

But someone can be nervous at their interview, or overstate their interests in a personal statement. Or they could be very, very dull and do nothing but work (while I like to think of City boys as being very, very dull, nowadays they like to recruit people who get firsts while, say, captaining the rowing club).

Perhaps the tutor doesn't really want a bunch of dry, grey, faceless academic clones who can do nothing but work, because if you pick that you'd get a bunch of nervous breakdowns long before the finals. I suspect the tutor isn't using this as an excuse to deny people, but as a clue that someone should really be let in.

Friday, January 4

Flu vaccine?

The BBC reports that a drugs company has developed a vaccine against influenza A. That's all influenza A, not just this year's variant. Not a perfect vaccine, but protecting 90% is better than 0%.

In the Acambis press release here, they state that a pre-clinical study suggests that the vaccine provides 70% protection against the Vietnam 2004 strain of H5N1 avian influenza. Which is some 70% better than the control group.

Of course, even if it works it will be some years before this is readily available.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig

Not completely sure what this video of Nick Cave et al suggests - apart from that the new album is imminent.

More details on their website

Thursday, January 3

All right if it's funny?

Would it be funny if Times journalist Matthew Parry was hit by a large 4x4 and dragged a hundred yards down the road, dying in the gutter? Or would him being the victim of a hit and run by a speeding GTi be a joy to witness?


I didn't think so either. But he appears to have a different sense of humour.

Others who hate cyclists - like Jeremy Clarkson - are annoying, but I don't recall him ever suggesting a good way to maim them, just whinging about them in an occasionally entertaining fashion.