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 gmx DOT com

Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Monday, 26 August 2013

There might be a #Sherlock prom next year, I'd be rather pleased about that

A few weeks ago I heard a piece of music from the TV series Sherlock played live by a great big orchestra in a great big hall. It was wonderful. I was surprised by how familiar the melody was (the piece was written especially for the concert) given that I've not really watched the television series - or rather I have, but haven't managed to make much sense of it yet.

Here are my sad little tweets about it, about a year apart, thanks to my Twitter archive.

It's one of those programmes that I expected to get into immediately - pretty much everyone on my Twitter feed raved about it, as did work colleagues and friends. I did try but didn't really get anywhere, so rather gave up. When I knew I was going to hear the music at the concert I hadn't assumed that I'd recognise it or have any particularly warm feelings towards it, so I was quite surprised by how at home I was with it. Since then I've listened to a fair bit of the series' music on YouTube and have been amazed at how much of it I knew already - I can't account for it, beyond the way that music from films and TV just seeps into you without you knowing about it.

Anyway as I looked at the concert-related tweets after the event a few of them were suggesting that there should be a Sherlock Prom which struck me as a brilliant idea - the music for the programme is lovely. There was an event this weekend in Edinburgh at which one of the composers was asked about the prom idea and it seems that there's a willingness to make it happen, which is fantastic.

I've collected a bunch of the tweets about it on Storify and am embedding them here.

If a Sherlock Prom sounds like something you'd like to go and see make sure you click 'Would you go to a Sherlock Prom?' and add your support via the Facebook page for it.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Tweeting from beyond the grave with LivesOn

A colleague at Queen Mary is doing some work analysing tweets and sent round a memo to the department that I'm in asking for people (who tweet regularly and have more than 700 tweets already in the bag) to help test the system. Since I have been tweeting for just over 5 years and have sent out thousands of the little messages I thought I could help, and also that it might be fun.

It seems pretty intuitive, to me at least, that given that I am constantly and consistently 'me' that my tweets must have a 'me-ish' quality that could probably be identified, captured in an algorithm and then exploited to produce further me-ish tweets. I think that's the aim.

The idea behind the LivesOn service is that, once you're kicking up the daisies, the system can still send tweets that sound like you - presumably as some sort of comfort to those left behind. You have to teach the system (with feedback) and it learns your likes, tastes and syntax.

Mine's been running for a few hours, at the beta site, and produced 9 tweets each of which are not that much like me (I think) but which have used words and phrases that I have previously used. It's a bit like taking three word excerpts from my previous tweets and recombining them to produce something fairly gibberish.

Fortunately the tweets come prepackaged with my name as a hashtag and the LivesOn handle, so hopefully it's reasonably clear that they're not from me directly - though I've only actually posted one 'live' on my timeline. Also, I'm not dead!

Here are 8 of the 9 tweets so far...

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Examples wanted by @ABSW: Impactful science journalism - specialist knowledge of science journalists

I have special dispensation from Bob Ward, who's on the ABSW (Association of British Science Writers) Committee, to post this on my blog for ease of sharing via Twitter :)

The Committee is collecting examples where specialist science reporters have covered a story (rather than 'Daily Mail Reporter') where that story has been of reasonable impact, although that's probably quite hard to define and measure.

I know a lot of people who do a bit of skeptical activism and blogging keep an eye on that sort of thing, especially in the arena of health reporting (which isn't identical to science reporting of course, but some conceptual overlaps and occasionally topic overlaps).

I haven't been collecting a list (which is so unlike me!) although I do seem to remember mooting something a few years ago (back in 2009) about collecting 'good' and 'bad' examples of science journalism, though not for the same reasons as the ABSW.

Anyway, if you have examples - let Bob Ward know, he's @ret_ward on Twitter (his other contact details are findable from the website in his Twitter bio) or email me and I'll pass anything on (I'm jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com).
"The ABSW committee is seeking to collect examples of impactful UK science journalism to use in promotional materials. The aim is to demonstrate how the specialist knowledge of science journalists not only leads to high-impact stories but also demonstrably serves the public interest. We hope the material will help us to build a higher and more positive profile for the profession.

I would be grateful if ABSW members could send me any examples of impactful UK science journalism that have been published or broadcast within the last five years. I am particularly interested in examples in which a science journalist or writer (rather than a general reporter or writer) was responsible for the story.

Please feel free to pass on this request to any non-members of the ABSW who you think may be able to help."

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Caped broccoli - here's how I might go about finding out about the evidence for Beneforte with extra glucoraphanin

**Warning - this is more of a 'staging post' than a fully published post. The information is incomplete, do not rely on it, thanks. If you've come here to answer the question 'should I eat Beneforte?' you are in the wrong place I'm afraid, this post does not answer that question. I also cannot recommend highly enough Ben Goldacre's book 'Bad Science'**

I used to look into health claims of all sorts of things with much greater regularity than I do now (different job, still do a fair bit as part of 'skeptic activism') but I thought I'd keep my hand in and 'rehearse' some arguments for myself, looking at the claims of Beneforte broccoli. It's a variant of regular broccoli that is higher in what is generally thought of as good chemical compound (glucoraphanin) to have in your broccoli.

Normally I don't publish a blog post until it's finished and I've pretty much settled on what side of the evidence I come down on. Exceptions include alternative health modalities I haven't previously researched and where I'm using the blog to store info and ideas and seek input from others. For example, even though it's not unreasonable to assume that iridology is utter bollocks it's a little unfair to be too dogmatic without looking into it. As it happens it is unmitigated bollocks, but it was interesting to learn what you can and can't tell about someone's health from looking at the surface of their eyes. And how you can tell from the literature.

So this post is 'me in the middle of some things about broccoli' and is more about the strategies and shortcuts I use in finding out about stuff, rather than actually what I found out. It's entirely possible that I will disagree with myself. It's quite fun (for me, dunno for you) to publish a post where I've actually not researched it in much depth, this is more of a thinking out loud exercise.

Note that I am not medically trained, not a dietitian and not a specialist in broccoli - therefore my feelings about broccoli should not affect yours :)

My first thought was "what do I actually need to know?" My second was "where do I need to look to find it?"

There are only a few things I can confidently answer without even looking in a book or at any research. Even if I know something pretty well, if a few months or more have passed, then my info may be out of date - or I may have forgotten the details!

If the claims imply that A, whatever A might be (in this case more glucoraphanin), are of some benefit to people in some way B then I'm probably hoping to find a human trial where people got more or better B when they consumed more A.

I suppose what I really want is a study which shows that [taking more Beneforte] leads to [less cancer, less diabetes, less other]. What I can fairly easily find are studies that indicate that [taking more Beneforte] leads to, or might lead to (not all that many studies done?) [presence of glucoraphanin in blood or urine] or [more good metabolites* in the blood or less bad metabolites in the blood]
  *metabolites are the products of metabolism. In the case of glucoraphanin it is converted to the 'active' form, called sulforaphane.

There is a study that suggests eating Beneforte activates some genes that are protective in preventing prostate cancer, I might want to give that a look and see what conclusions can be drawn from it.

This information is all very interesting but of course it doesn't prove that [taking Beneforte] will improve any particular person's health outcomes.

This isn't disastrous at all though, and in fact it would be an unreasonable burden to ask for that proof. Most prescribed drugs are intended to stop people dying of X or suffering from Y. Both X and Y often take a long time to show up and it's really expensive to run a trial long enough for complications of conditions to show up so people use what are called 'proxy markers'.

Eg, a drug for diabetes is ultimately intended to keep blood glucose levels low enough so that the damage that excess glucose would do happens much more slowly. Though imperfect it is fairly reasonable to talk about a drug's effectiveness in terms of its ability to lower glucose levels in terms of a particular measure called the HbA1c (rather than its ability to stop people dying) because we're fairly confident that there's some causal link between raised glucose levels and bodily damage. However it doesn't automatically follow that lowering glucose levels (and by how much do you want to lower them?) will solve problems. Context is very important.

(And even this is imperfect as some people are naturally more resistant to this damage and some are more sensitive, but... on average...)

So levels of glucoraphanin metabolites may well be instructive. Dunno. If you were in the Southern Hemisphere and trying to get back to the Northern Hemisphere you might use a compass to tell you in which direction to head, but you'd not extrapolate from that bit of information to say that you were actually IN the Northern Hemisphere. It's just a pointer. Some pointers, or proxy markers, are better indicators of where you might be.

I don't know how well [changes in blood profile of chemical X due to more glucoraphanin in broccoli] acts as a marker for good health - that's the next thing to investigate.

I'm fairly behind the idea that people with more of the brassica-type vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts etc) in their diet are healthier than those without. But it's important to remember that even though there are probably health benefits from chemicals in the veg (not to mention "roughage") it's also the case that the types of people who prioritise vegetables at their meals might be different in other ways from people who don't (eg deprivation scores, smoking risk). Healthy and unhealthy behaviours can co-exist but 'people who go to the gym' are often 'people who don't smoke' and 'people who eat vegetables'.
But studies do imply that eating broccoli (any broccoli) reduces risk of cancer - the Beneforte thing is trying to increase that further. But I don't know if it does yet.
Cancer is a complex thing and there are probably other things that have more of an impact on its development than [more glucoraphanin] or [less glucoraphanin]. For example there's heredity (genetics but shared lifestyles too), age, activity, overall diet, smoking, certain medications, environmental damage - eg the effects of sun damage and skin cancers.
These factors might well weigh more heavily in one's risk of cancer, or other diseases, than the quality of one's broccoli.

So it's not just about the evidence that one particular food is or isn't good for you but putting this bit of information in context with all the other bits of information.

Also, I wonder if the knob of butter many people might add to a portion of Beneforte negates its healthful effects ;)

OK I'm going to stop now cos I've got a bit bored... and it's time for tea (yes, I will be having broccoli!)

A note on comments
As this is an unfinished thinking out loud sort of post I'm not particularly interested in comments telling me how great or not Beneforte is. This post hasn't looked at that, it's looked at how I would typically go about finding that out.

Further things to look at
New Phytol. 2013 Jun;198(4):1085-95. doi: 10.1111/nph.12232. Epub 2013 Apr 8.
Genetic regulation of glucoraphanin accumulation in Beneforté broccoli.
Nothing to do with any health benefits of the broccoli, as far as I can tell from the abstract, but about how the plant manages its stores of glucoraphanin.

There are no trials listed at that mention Beneforte (even with the acute e spelling) but five that mention glucoraphanin. is where I generally expect to find evidence from a variety of clinical trials. There's also Controlled-Trials, a similar sort of site.

Here are some that mention the precursor, glucoraphanin and there's a link to more trials below looking at the active ingredient sulforaphane.

1     Completed     Broccoli Sprout Intervention in Qidong, P.R. China
Condition:     Environmental Carcinogenesis
Interventions:     Drug: Broccoli Sprout Extract Beverage;   Drug: placebo beverage
Just looking at metabolites, not really a trial of health benefits

2     Completed     Cross-Over Broccoli Sprouts Trial
Condition:     Healthy
Intervention:     Dietary Supplement: broccoli sprouts extract
Measuring metabolites (in urine) in healthy people given a broccoli sprouts extract, not really a trial of health benefits.

3     Not yet recruiting     Pilot Study Evaluating Broccoli Sprouts in Advanced Pancreatic Cancer
Condition:     Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma
Interventions:     Dietary Supplement: Verum, broccoli sprout grain;   Dietary Supplement: placebo
This one hasn't started yet but it will actually be looking to see if the supplements can increase the survival of people with a particular cancer that is being treated with chemotherapy.

4     Completed     The Effect of Broccoli Sprouts as a Nutritional Supplement in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease
Conditions:     Diabetes Mellitus;   Hypertension;   Hypercholesterolemia;   Cardiovascular Disease
Intervention:     Behavioral: Daily intake of broccoli sprouts
Although the title sounds promising it's a study of the effect of broccoli on blood vessel function - that's not to diminish the study, mind. 
5     Active, not recruiting     Diet and Vascular Health Study
Condition:     Cardiovascular Disease
Interventions:     Dietary Supplement: Diet and Vascular Health;   Dietary Supplement: Diet and Vascular Health Study
They'll be measuring things ('markers') in the blood, like cholesterol, to determine if there are changes in these markers after eating this broccoli for a few weeks.

There are also 26 studies that mention the active metabolite of glucoraphanin: sulforaphane (some will be the same as those above)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Were it feasible I would go and hear film / TV composer David Arnold talk at this thing in Edinburgh

Edit 3 December 2013
I bet London-based readers of this page will also be interested in: David Arnold's introducing You Only Live Twice at BFI in January 2014 - you need to be a BFI member or have an Amex card, and apply for free tickets - details in the post.

Musical accompaniment for this post is Bjork's Play Dead which was (according to Wikipedia) written by Jah Wobble* and scored by David Arnold for the film Young Americans. Holy crap it's gorgeous, I have it on my copy of Bjork's Debut CD and vividly remember the WTF amazement of hearing it for the first time. Press play and enjoy :)

*I'm pretty sure David actually wrote it and Jah played bass but if anyone knows...

David Arnold's iTunes listing doesn't seem to mention Play Dead or Young Americans, though Bjork's listing does mention Play Dead as part of her Debut album (that link will open iTunes GB).

This event coming up looks pretty interesting. Edith Bowman's interviewing the composer David Arnold on Saturday 24th August at 1pm in the city of my birth (Edinburgh) at some really important conference for very serious grown-ups in the world of TV, judging from the helpful pie-chart explaining who the delegates are. There'll also be some of his music for Sherlock played live.

I'm not actually going myself as the conference isn't really relevant to me, not to mention the fact that the ticket price is escalating somewhat exponentially week by week. If you haven't already got yours you'll likely not be seeing much change from £800. Hopefully they'll have employed an official conference tweetist to ping out some of the discussion. Hey, I'd do it for free ;)

Edit: 21 September 2013
Here's a short clip from YouTube of a bit of the event and right at the end of this post there are two links to podcasts / listen again programmes: (1) Edith Bowman interviews David and Matt Berry on BBC 6 Music about (2) their 'Sound of Cinema' programme which is broadcast the following day. The Sound of Cinema is part of a fairly large series throughout September 2013 of programmes about film music.

Edit 12 November 2013 - here's the full length clip.The tweetly folk behind the festival's account were kind enough to let me know about it ages ago, after I asked. I watched it then but having recently written another post that mentioned David Arnold's film composering was reminded of it and so have added the full interview here :)

David Arnold Live: Music and Storytelling
Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, or GEITF
Date: 24 August 2013
Time: 13:00 - 14:00
Venue: The Pentland (Level 3)

Featuring exclusive live performance of the music from Sherlock
Join radio host and music journalist Edith Bowman in conversation with award winning international composer David Arnold as they dissect the importance of composition within all media. Whether a title score for Little Britain, the music for Sherlock, composing for Hollywood blockbusters from James Bond to Hot Fuzz or curating the Olympics and Paralympics, David has done it all. But what is the importance of music within storytelling and how can it hinder or help the end result of our projects? Delving into all aspects of music creation, we will explore how David's hits have helped pictures come to life and discuss moments of immense frustration within the creative process. This is a candid interview with a highly respected composer which will also include some live performances.
Text above pinched from the Saturday 24th tab at the GEITF 2013 programme - I suppose they don't have a page per event because you have to buy a ticket for the entire conference, but their lack of granularity disappoints me.

I've had the pleasure of hearing David Arnold speak at two events this year. He writes music for films and television and was also the musical director for the Olympics and Paralymics closing ceremonies. He's done a lot of interesting stuff in his career and is very funny - this puts him on my list of people that I wish had a blog, though he's on Twitter at @DavidGArnold and over 47,000 people are following him.

Although I knew of his work before the first event I went to (Sundance Festival London, April 2013) I didn't really know his name, and deliberately avoided Googling* before his talk in London because I quite enjoy the surprise of "oh wow.. you did that!!"

He wrote the music for Stargate! I love the music for Stargate and, given my fondness for film music in general (kind of why I went to the talk in the first place) I was slightly amazed that I hadn't already put two and two together.

One of these days I'll write up my notes from the Sundance event. This is a great overview although it doesn't really capture quite how warmly funny and entertaining he is. This 8min video interview from 2011 does though. In among talking about scoring for Bond films he mentions that, in holding the hand of the viewer and guiding them through what's happening on screen, film composers are a sort of 'musical Bear Grylls' haha :-)

The second event (July 2013) I discovered by accident. Despite following him on Twitter I missed seeing any tweet from him about it. I was at the Barbican hearing the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra playing film music selected by Mark Kermode (for his fiftieth birthday celebrations) along with choices from his invited guests - for London it was actor Jason Isaacs and Simon Mayo. It was ridiculously enjoyable.

I'd bought a programme and while flipping through during the interval I spotted that the orchestra would be playing the Stargate overture and specially composed music from the TV series Sherlock (which David co-wrote with Michael Price) in Manchester on the following Monday evening, and that David would be there with Paddy Considine. Too much fun to miss, so I took an afternoon train up to Manchester (luckily Monday's my day off) and am very glad that I did, it was absolutely wonderful.

I'm also pleased to have been able to hear The Leisure Society perform We Were Wasted which features in Paddy's film Tyrannosaur.

It turns out there's actually quite a lot of film music related stuff happening this year (possibly it happens every year and I only just noticed) but I've collected some further information on my sound stuff blog - there are film music Proms and the BBC has a season on film music this Autumn - hooray.

It also occurred to me that you could have quite an eclectic film festival if the inclusion criteria were based on film scores and composers...

*Over the next few weeks I'm going to hear some other film / TV composers (Debbie Wiseman, George Fenton, Clint Mansell and Dario Marianelli) and am having to resist the urge to Google or search YouTube etc, otherwise it's a bit like opening your Christmas presents before the day.

Bonus material
(1) Edith Bowman interviewing David Arnold and Matt Berry on Saturday 14th September - this can be downloaded for another couple of weeks (as of 21 September 2013)
(2) David Arnold and Matt Berry's Sound of Cinema broadcast on Sunday 15th September - this is only available to listen live and it runs out later today I'm afraid.

See also
Nice things said in an academic journal article about David Arnold's scores for James Bond - quite right too (8 November 2013)

Friday, 9 August 2013

I went to the wrong hacking event tonight, but I think I pulled it out of the bag

Here is a self-indulgent post about me going to the wrong event tonight at the Barbican, it's really just for my 'diary' but it made me giggle so thought I'd write it up.

The optional musical accompaniment for this post is Merz's Silver Moon Ladders. No particular thematic link, I just like it.

Colleagues of mine are involved with the 'Hack the Barbican' thing that's going on at the moment and seeing that there was an event tonight at 8pm I thought I'd go along and see what's what. I'm not sure what I was expecting - something along the lines of the laptop orchestra (though that was a few days ago) or something with robots, all good fun.

As I entered the centre I bumped into a friend from the office next door to mine and she asked me if I was there 'for the meeting'. I mentioned I'd come for the event at 8 and she pointed out, sadly, that it was actually at 6 and I'd missed it entirely. However she was going to a planning meeting for further Barbican hacking and did I want to come along. Yes, why not.

So we went to an open room just below the reception desk where people had obviously been sitting together for at least a few minutes and we were very obviously newcomers. There was a guy who greeted us in whispers and made us feel very welcome, fetching a couple of chairs for us (people were sitting in a horseshoe shape, discussing something or other).

A few minutes in I realised it was one of those going round the room and talking about yourself - fortunately I managed to miss this by sitting upstream of where the person now talking was, although had I been invited to explain my presence we'd have all found out a lot sooner that I was at entirely the wrong event. I steeled myself for the embarrassingly inevitable "well actually..."

Clearly the people there had been working on something together earlier in the day, or had been to an event. I was expecting to see a few more colleagues but didn't spot any, but then the facilitator / presenter started talking about social hacking and ethics and people's response to stuff. And lots about liminal space, or liminal something or other.

I was out of my depth and began to realise that I was in that 'The Work Outing' episode of the IT Crowd, and then I hoped I'd not get the giggles.

Then someone asked an interesting question about the relationship between 'being a magician' (as someone who fools people I think) and a social hacker (hacking as in doing different sorts of tricks) and there was some interesting discussion about a period in history where subjects of an Emperor had to avert their eyes when in his presence but the Emperor's magician was allowed, despite being of a low caste, to meet anyone's gaze and interact with them etc - they were given social permission to do that. The speaker thought that magicians are also afforded that permission / respect, which I thought was quite intriguing (my boss does a lot of magic and uses it as part of his work in teaching computer science and computational thinking so I'll ask him).

Not long after we sat down I could hear some wonderfully strange music coming from outside the room - lovely ambient stuff, exactly the sort of thing I like. It was loud enough that people moved from the outer edge of the horseshoe into the middle so that they could hear the speaker better. As there was apparently no event I assumed that it was people trying out some stuff - alas it didn't occur to me that it was actually the event I'd come to see, if only I'd paid better attention to this tweet.

After half an hour of  me being terribly British about the whole thing, and silently hungry, though actually quite enjoying myself, the tempo changed and the speaker was now going to show us some magic. But first he passed round a piece of paper for us to add our email addresses, hey why not I thought, so I might actually find out what it was all about later.

I turned to my friend and asked what time it finished - at which point she admitted she had no idea because she was at the wrong event too. Oops.

And then my dad rang my mobile, so I had a legitimate excuse to stand up while people were milling about filling in the form and rearranging themselves and head into the foyer.

By happy coincidence my dad had rung me to check that I knew about the guy (Barnaby Jack, he hacked into an insulin pump) who'd been hacking medical devices (I work on a project looking at the safety of medical devices) as there was an article in The Economist.

So I managed to have a conversation in the Barbican about hacking after all, just with my dad :)

Dear god I've just seen that the class I attended actually started at 6.30pm and we rocked up at 8. Oops. It was 'A magician's guide to better social hacking'.

Bit cross that I listened to my friend rather than trusting the vague feeling that I'd seen the Barbican's tweet, but I did enjoy everything in the end.