Stuff that occurs to me

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

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

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

Science in London: The 2015 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Hay Festival's very pretty, but very very far from London

Hay Festival 2016 - Sunday 29 May

I've had quite a long day :) I decided in the last couple of days that I'd pop along to the Hay Festival to cheer on Tom Hollander who was one of the actors performing at Letters Live, which is a lovely thing that I missed in London this year (though have managed to go to a one a year or so ago). And also see the Hay Festival for the first time.

My first surprise was how busy the Jubilee Line is at 7 in the morning on a Sunday. More packed than it is on a weekday, surely. I missed the 8 and 8.07 train from Paddington with ease (it didn't help that the Bakerloo line from Baker Street won't be stopping there until August, wish I'd paid more attention to that!) and so I risked the later, but direct, 8.42 train, arriving in Hereford at ~noon. Paddington didn't have that many trains today - normally when I'm there as you walk up the stairs there's a sort of whum-whum-whum of lots of engines all echoing around that beautiful hall, but today it was much quieter.

The train journey to Hereford was lovely, then it was a random shared taxi to the Hay Festival - another 40m journey. Unhelpfully the taxi driver dropped us off at 'How the Light Gets In' festival which is about a 15min walk from the main festival so I arrived just after the event began and found a rare seat. A word to people on pavements - get into single file people. Also you always walk facing the direction of oncoming traffic so if I'm on the outside keeping an eye on the cars don't crowd me off the kerb please. A massive 'thrrrppp' to everyone who got in my way today.

Holy crap Hereford and Hay are pretty though. I spent the entire taxi journey smiling at trees (top faves - ash with their lovely little leaves), hedges, wild flowers, some sheep, meadows, great big hills over there in the distance, fields and general countryside accoutrements (tractors, adverts for potatoes). Then as we approached Hay on Wye - bunting! I love bunting. They had great big white marquees, and oodles of bunting and flags. Perfect.

The Letters Live event was heaving and for some reason I'd been expecting a much quieter and smaller affair. It was a huge venue and of course, being late, I was at the back and couldn't see much so was grateful for the big relay screens. It was all very lovely with a range of letters (funny, poignant, frivolous, devastating) read by different people. Benedict Cumberbatch (unbilled) did four of them!

Apart from lovely Tom, who could probably entertain just by reading the yellow pages ("not much of a plot, but what a cast" *ba-dum-tish*), possibly the audience favourite was Bruce Robinson who managed to misread the word 'flunk' for a word less suitable for the 1pm family-friendly slot. He then got the giggles which made it all the funnier.

Toby Jones (go and watch him in Berberian Sound Studio, he's brilliant) did one of my favourite letters - that from Evelyn Waugh to his wife about a subaltern who made an out-by-10 error in clearing away a tree stump. My mum used to read it to me and we'd fall about laughing at it, so it was lovely to hear it read, and all in different voices. Tom read a couple, including the rather sweet 'Love what you love' from Ray Bradbury.

Anyway, I'll sleep well tonight after all that travelling ;)

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Everyone loves Tom Hollander - I've only just realised quite how talented he is

Edit 16 May 2016: Things he has coming up include a role in the film Tulip Fever and he's doing a BBC Radio 4 play from Wed 18 to Thur 21 May at 2.15pm, called School Drama which gets a nice write-up in The Guardian. He's also appearing at Letters Live at the Hay Festival on Sat 28th (sold out) and Sun 29th (tickets).

I've always liked Tom Hollander. I remember really noticing him in 'The Lost Prince' (in which he was brilliant as King George V). Loved him in Rev. and In The Loop too, among others.

Last week I discovered that he's also a very good writer and has had a column in The Spectator for years. I'd completely failed to hear about this until he recently wrote about meeting Prince and the tweet below found its way into my timeline, piquing my curiosity. His back catalogue is funny, thoughtful and honest and I wondered what everyone else thought of his writing... so I had a look on Twitter and realised that liking Tom Hollander (as an actor or writer, or just people having met him) appears to be everyone's default position. Quite right.

I think this tweet's how I discovered that he'd written something.
Assuming this is real he's also rather good at whistling...

...and he was absolutely incredible as Patrick Moore in 'Far Side of the Moore'. My amazed face looked a bit like this :-O on hearing his 'impersonation' of him (I'm not sure that's quite the right word) though. He's bonkersly talented.

I collected a bunch of tweets in this Storify and have embedded it below. There are quite a few tweets so wait for it to fully load (or just view it at Storify).

Sunday, 17 April 2016

UK researchers might be gagged from lobbying - I have a cunning plan

There are moves afoot that may prevent scientists, and indeed any academic researchers, (who receive funding from the UK Government) from being able to lobby the Government, with evidence from research that the Government has funded - which seems pretty daft and problematic. This may have originated with benign (your mileage may vary) intentions while trying to address a different 'problem' (again, YMMV) and began with this announcement, on 6 February 2016 -

Organisations receiving government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to lobby government and Parliament Press Release from Cabinet Office

The announcement clarifies the intended audience...
"The Institute of Economic Affairs has undertaken extensive research on so-called ‘sock puppets’, exposing the practice of taxpayers’ money given to pressure groups being diverted to fund lobbying rather than the good causes or public services.

A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding."

...and although it doesn't mention research institutions or universities specifically, their omission means they may be automatically subsumed into this edict unless there's an exemption put in place.

Here's what the text that's to be inserted into grant applications will say
"The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action." (emphasis added).
The more detailed document Implementation Guidance for Departments on Anti-Lobbying Clause(Q&A format) makes several mentions of the option for Ministers to make exemptions, see in particular answers to Qs 4, 7, 8 and 9.

My cunning plan(s)
1) Sign this petition
Please sign this petition which asks the Government to consider declawing this new policy by explicitly including an exemption for academic research.
Exempt grants for academic research from new 'anti-lobbying' regulation

2) Raise money that can be used to lobby
While I'm sure some lobbying doesn't need to cost anything there are nearly always hidden costs (taking time off work, printing off materials etc). Hopefully it won't come to this if (1) works but I also think (3) might be better anyway, but note that the press release also says that...
"It will not prevent organisations from using their own privately-raised funds to campaign as they see fit."

3) Lobby the Government yourself
A great deal of academic output is increasingly widely available to anyone with access to a computer. People can download PDFs of published papers and can use them (along with other resources) to make sense of complex information, and act on it if they wish. People with health conditions are good examples of types of people that are motivated to learn more about a topic that affects them, and to learn how to get to grips with academic literature. Having an Open Access culture - in which published research articles are freely available rather than costing $30 per paper - will (hopefully) only increase that.

Obviously there are journalists, science writers and bloggers who can help people make sense of a complex topic too.

This was my cunning plan, in two tweets.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Homeopathy clinging to NHS by its fingertips, not far to fall

Every year the UK Government's Department of Health publishes (through the Health and Social Care Information Centre, HSCIC) the latest figures for money spent on prescriptions in the NHS in England. This is known as prescription cost analysis data and this year it was published on 7 April.

The data include the number of prescription items and the cost of those items. In many cases, and partiularly in the case of long term conditions like diabetes, numbers of prescription items tend to increase each year.

But not for homeopathy prescription items (which, anachronistically, are still permitted on the NHS where doctors (presumably?) want to give patients 'a pill' without actually giving them a pill)...

The graphs below (prepared by the Nightingale Collaboration) show the number of homeopathy items prescribed and the overall costs associated with prescribing them. As you can see homeopathy is plummeting on the NHS and has been for some time. That's quite a ski slope there.

The peak number of prescribed items was in 1996 at about 170,000 items. By 2005 this had roughly halved to about 80,000 and, rather dramatically, had halved again two years later in 2007. In 2015 the number dips below 10,000 items, to 8,894.

Graphs made by and stolen from Nightingale Collaboration, click to enlarge
With fewer items being prescribed overall costs are dropping too though the relative cost per item has doubled in 20 years (the cost per item was £4.97 in 1995 and in 2015 was £10.60, thus allowing me to make the joke that homeopathy is most certainly not cost-effective* on the NHS).

You can find a summary of the original data on page 381 of this 711 page PDF ;)

Click to enlarge image.

It's World Homeopathy Awareness week from 10 to 16 April 2016 but it looks like the UK at least is wise to the nonsense of homeopathy. If you plan to share one homeopathy-related article during the week please make it the Nightingale Collaboration's careful analysis of homeopathy's plummetous drop on the NHS which you can find and enjoy here - Homeopathy on the NHS: at death's door

*technically cost-effectiveness-ness for drugs would weigh the effectiveness of the medication (for homeopathy that's zero) against the cost (anything other than free is a waste of money) but here I am mean-spiritedly demonstrating that even compared against itself it's useless. Ha!

Version for homeopaths
Well done homeopaths! You started the year with zero prescribed homeopathic items and ended it with nearly 9,000 - a massive increase, great work everyone :) 

Monday, 4 April 2016

Open air cinema screenings - London 2016

Woohoo it's time for the annual Open Air Cinema Screenings in London post. The text below actually lives in a Storify story and has been embedded here. I'll update the original Storify post so feel free to embed it into your own blog post so that more people know about open air film options in London. Think of it as creative commons.