2012 a busy year, some highlights

My wife told me that publishing this would be like sending out one of those braggardly “family newsletters” to one’s friends, but I wanted to round off the blog for 2012 by posting a few memories from the year…is that so bad? I even blogged about not posting it. Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve, no one will be reading this.

I also just ported my snaps from Instagram to my Flickr account and those photos should act as personal mementos for what has been a rather busy year for us with several highlights and several lows (which I’m not going to list here, you’ll be pleased to learn). Anyway, I’m finalising this on 20/12/2012, the day before the Mayan Apocalypse, if you’re reading this, then we must have survived…

Anyway, here’s the Instagram link on Flickr to my collection of snaps from this year.

Took in the David Hockney “The Bigger Picture” exhibition at the Royal Academy London.

Attended a bloggers’ breakfast at Buckingham Palace for the launch of the Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist exhibition.

Took a tour of the Classic FM studios with presenter/creative director Tim Lihoreau.

Took part in a medical research study in Cambridge.

Climbed Derbyshire’s Lose Hill in the snow and slid back down.

Saw and photographed The Cotswolds for the first time.

Helped promote the first sellout Custard Comedy gig in Cottenham.

Watched a good friend play Amundsen in the Bawds production of Terra Nova at the ADC Theatre

Visited the Sanger Centre on the Genome Campus.

Started playing bass guitar after 34 years of being a 6-string guitarist.

Attended a STEMPRA training day.

Attended a 60th birthday party.

Watched the Cambridge University “Bumps” from the river bank at Ditton Corner.

Took part in the UK Conference of Science Journalists.

Joined hundreds of other singers at the Royal Albert Hall London to peform two choral works by Karl Jenkins.

Swam in the chilliest indoor swimming pool ever courtesy of Anne and Julian.

Hosted a German exchange student with the family and sent our daughter off to Germany for the reverse trip.

Camped in the wettest weather imaginable during the Diamond Jubilee weekend.

Took in some Olympic events (men’s hockey prelims).

Wrote a book (Deceived Wisdom, launched 8 November)

Visited Brighton (third time)

Visited Liverpool (third time)

Visited Leeds (first time!)

Did my second ever poetry reading to an invited audience (a poem about Stiffkey in Norfolk),

Helped kickstart an arts night at our local, volunteer-supported coffee shop.

Wrote what seems like an awful lot of science and technology news and features for various publications.

Published almost 300 blog posts on Sciencebase.

Passed 22,000 Twitter followers.

Wrote and performed solo a self-penned song to a select group of friends.

Celebrated 20 years of happy marriage to my wife Tricia.

Celebrated our son’s 18th birthday and our daughter’s 15th.

Facebook boosts self esteem, leads to snacking

That’s an approximation of the tabloid headlines. But, as ever, NHS Choices offers a more solid critique of various bits of research into the effects of online social networking on our psyche.

“Overall, social networking improves self-esteem, particularly when the person has a greater number of contacts that they consider to be close and when the information they are viewing is related to themselves, such as personal experiences they have related. This seems quite a plausible finding.”

However, the research also showed that this boost to self-esteem was somehow associated with making unhealthier food choices directly afterwards, as well as less persistence when asked to perform a mental task.

Sounds spurious to me. Yes, enhancing one’s circle of friends will improve self-esteem (even if that is delusional in some cases), but there are countless situations in which people snack unhealthily after completing a task, whether that’s going to the shops or tweeting your amazon wishlist. I’d imagine that after spending time on one particular task most people would not be particularly keen to then switch focus to something new especially under test conditions. Either way, the good vs evil battle between users and non-users will rage on.

Social networking ‘makes people snack more’ – Health News – NHS Choices.

End of the World

Well, the sleeping Americans probably don’t know it yet, but the end of the world hasn’t happened as Australians and others who have already entered the day Winter Solstice will attest. Google celebrates with a piece of the Mayan Calendar. Of course, why anyone would trust the “predictions” of a civilization that didn’t predict its own demise centuries ago is beyond me. More to the point though, we in the West have a new calendar to mark the Earth travelling another orbit around the sun, but we don’t see New Year’s Eve as being the start of the apocalypse each year. The Mayans just didn’t get around to publishing their new calendar for the next period after what is to our minds the date 2012-12-21.

There was a rumour about a big asteroid passing by a few days ago, there were also rumours that Betelgeuse in Orion was about to go “supernova”…well the asteroid has been and gone and Phil Plait debunked that story on supernovae two years ago. And, here we are. Still here…for now.

Mayan calendar end of the world

Dead-tree stocking fillers

A couple of arrivals on my desk for review worth a look.

John Rentoul has been running the Questions To Which The Answer Is No! Awards for several years now. Celebrating the journalistic skill of basing an entire article on a fantastically far-fetched question-based headline and only admitting that the premise is extraordinarily unlikely in the final paragraph, his blog attracts large numbers of followers keen to submit their own favourites. This is a compilation featuring such journalistic gems as: Was JFK killed because of his interest in aliens? Can your dreams predict the future? Has Marilyn Monroe been reincarnated as a shop assistant called Chris?

Questions to Which the Answer is No!: Amazon.co.uk: John Rentoul: Books.

Actually, the second book is scheduled for a January release according to amazon – Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: Amazon.co.uk: Maria Konnikova: It attempts to answer the question what is it that separates Sherlock Holmes from his long-suffering friend and side-kick Dr John Watson? What makes Holmes such a superior detective, able to piece together clues and solve problems that seem elementary to Watson only in hindsight? And can we – most of us, Watsons ourselves, ever hope to harness a bit of Holmes’ extraordinary powers of mind, not to solve crimes, but simply to improve our lives at work and home? Well the answer to that questions may well be yes and psychologist Maria Konnikova shows us how.

Legal guidelines on social media

Lawyer and blogger Jack of Kent has published an interesting article discussing the preliminary guidelines on how prosecutors under English law should approach social media. To my mind, I assume that a prosecution would be appropriate if a tweet, Facebook update or other public posting breaks the law and indeed that seems to be what the guidelines clarify. This is a summary of how that should be assessed:

“Communications sent via social media are capable of amounting to criminal offences and prosecutors should make an initial assessment of the content of the communication and the course of conduct in question so as to distinguish between:

(1) Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property.

(2) Communications which specifically target an individual or individuals and which may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or which may constitute other offences, such as blackmail.

(3) Communications which may amount to a breach of a court order. This can include offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 or section 5 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. All such cases should be referred to the Attorney General, and via the Principal Legal Advisor’s team where necessary.

(4) Communications which do not fall into any of the categories above and fall to be considered separately (see below): i.e. those which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”

via DPP interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media | Jack of Kent.

We all have a right to freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean you can harass, stalk, blackmail, abuse or threaten people on social media. The guidelines discussed by JoK would seek to clarify how prosecutors should approach accusations. Of course, the guidelines do not define what is “reasonable”, what is “grossly offensive”, “indecent”, “obscene”, or even “false”. Remember the man on the Clapham Omnibus, he used to wear a flat cap and a mac, these days, he’s got a hoody and an iPhone.

Deceived Wisdom about wine

red wineIn my book, one of the myths I debunk is that surrounding the etiquette of removing the cork from a bottle of red wine to allow the wine to “breathe”. It’s clearly nonsense as the air-liquid interface is too small to have any significant effect. There are some claims that aeration either through decanting or whizzing the wine through an aerator device might have some effect on the aroma and taste by inducing oxidation. Again, that’s a myth as the rate of oxidation even when bubbling air through wine would require two to three days to have any effect.

However (part 1).

I have just written a feature article for a chemistry magazine reporting on research into the synergistic effects of compounds present in wine that apparently enhance fruity or jam-like aromas even though the individual compounds themselves are present at levels below the detection limit of even the most sensitive nose. Analytical chemists have shown that these volatile compounds are certainly present and that the wine will taste different, usually worse (not so fruity nor aromatic), if they are not present in the mix. So, it could be that aeration or decanting leads to the evaporation of some of these compounds and thus negates the synergistic effects and so reduces the bouquet of the wine after it has been decanted. So, I stand by my debunking.

However (part 2).

I asked the researchers about this point and this is what they had to say:

“Evaporation of wines’ volatiles (at sub-thresholds levels for some compounds and also at levels higher than thresholds for others) during decanting and also when the wine stays in the glass for more than 10 minutes have a clear impact on the global aroma. Nevertheless, the most volatile volatiles are not necessary the most impacting from an organoleptic point of view. A lot of work must actually be done to confirm, but what is sure is that wine’s aroma is clearly modified by these facts. Is this aroma better or worst? That is the question… and it’s highly probable that, according to the wines, there is not a unique answer.”

I will update you on the details of the feature article once it’s been decanted by my editor.

Labradors, dirty socks and mustard

santa clawsA conversation on Facebook where I highlighted Freeny’s model of the internal organs of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, reminded me of an incident with our pet labrador that happened a couple of years ago.

She ate a pair of my wife’s dirty socks, thrown off in curled up form after a long walk, before we could stop her, we just saw the last threads of the pair being swallowed. Called the vet for advice. Better out than in, could cause intestinal torsion requiring surgery and an expensive overnight stay. Advice? Give her a tiny bit of mustard and it should make her vomit and thus regurgitate the socks. We should have known better…

After she had got through three jars of Colman’s English and one of that nice brown French delicatessen stuff with the whole seeds that goes so well with a rare beef steak, we gave up and took her to the vet for an emetic injection…87 quid and a bowl of socky dog puke stinking of mustard later and we were taking her home. Now, whenever I get the skillet out to flash fry a steak and open the door of the refrigerator, she’s there…drooling…

Labradors. Bah.

Breaking scandal at the BBC

UPDATE: This has ended up being one of the most popular Sciencebase blog posts and garnered almost 100 retweets. Despite this, the BBC is yet to hex their oct. Bizarre really, they spent several minutes on Radio4 Today discussing how to genetically modify Brussels sprouts to avoid stinky farts but they cannot get their crystalline water symmetry right…

This is a disgrace. Octagonal snow flake (actually a snow crystal) on BBC’s 2012 Christmas ident. Snowflakes abide by hexagonal symmetry due to crystal packing characteristics of water molecules in ice. As they would know if they’d read Deceived Wisdom. Hasn’t there been enough scandal at The Beeb this year without this?

Alchemist chemistry news roundup

The Alchemist muses on materials and their potential this week as well as thinking beyond oil. There are also analytical developments that could help with monitoring difficult to access tumors and a new tiered approach to determining whether new chemicals will be potentially harmful endocrine disruptors. Japanese chemists have built a conformation simulator and finally there is a right royal reward for a US chemist.

via The Alchemist Newsletter: Dec 12, 2012 – Welcome to ChemWeb.

Slo-Mo Slinkies

I’ve mentioned this bizarre-seeming effect in which a Slinky seems to defy gravity. It doesn’t, of course, it just takes a finite time for the “fact” that the top is no longer supported to reach the bottom and the whole spring to hit the deck. Researcher discusses it in terms of information and signals, which it is, but it is simply that the upper part of the spring is still suspending the lower part until the kinetic energy generated from the potential energy of suspension in a gravitational field reaches the lower part.