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 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Thursday, 29 September 2022

Introducing 'PECS' - a new mailing list / community of practice for people involved in Public Engagement in Computer Science

New mailing list
PECS = for anyone involved in Public Engagement in Computer Science

Paul Curzon and I are on a lovely EPSRC grant running over the next three years and he is one of five new "ICT Public Engagement Champions". One of the things we said we'd do in our application was create a community of practice (pragmatically = a mailing list) for people who do public engagement with computer science research, but we didn't want to restrict it just to academia or industry. 

Consequently the list is open to anyone who does computer science-related science communication, or public engagement with computing (and electronic engineering). 

There are loads of people who do this in the UK and beyond but I don't think we necessarily know who's doing what (or at least I don't, yet) and others might not know what we're* doing. So this list is kind of like a point of gravity to get us all to fall in together and learn from each other, celebrate fun things and highlight stuff that's coming up.

Note that messages to the PECS list are publicly archived (here's the privacy policy).


*Our project
We've been producing the free secondary schools magazine CS4FN (Computer Science For Fun) for over 15 years and send around 21,000 copies to 2,400+ subscribing UK schools and will produce a special issue on Diversity in Computing for this grant; there's also an accompanying website. We're also delighted to be able to expand our primary schools version ('A Bit of CS4FN') which we piloted thanks to internal funding from QMUL's Centre for Public Engagement and which we can now expand thanks to the EPSRC. Primary teachers teach the entire curriculum so these mini magazines are designed to be cross-curricular, and draw links between computing and other subjects. We also want to support teachers in championing computer science research and careers.

The PECS mailing list is part of our remit to embed public engagement in computer science research (both within our own department and elsewhere) and we already have an internal Teams group (called PEEECS, for PE in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science). I'm sorry about the acronyms ;)

We also run Teaching London Computing for teachers which has free classroom resources and we sometimes run workshops (supporting teachers who are newer to teaching programming).

Although this post is published on my personal blog I would like to acknowledge the EPSRC funding (grant number EP/W033615/1) which has allowed us to create and maintain the PECS 'space' :D



Friday, 26 August 2022

Here's how to advertise your film festival on Kermode and Mayo's "Take" podcast - free

Sharing your film festival or film-adjacent event on Kermode and Mayo's Take (formerly Wittertainment) podcast.

I help run the Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival, one of several Free Film Festivals in London, and have been really pleased that Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's 'Kermode & Mayo's Take' podcast now has an opportunity for community film festivals and other film-y special events to advertise themselves through the medium of a 20 second voice memo clip. These are shared on the podcast towards the end. It's completely free to send one in!

This blog post is about how to do that and includes some timings so that you can hear some examples. I've also included the 'scripts' of what people said and the duration of their clip, to give a flavour of the different approaches, and at the end is a short practical guide on how to email a voice memo from a phone.

Email your 20 sec audio clip advert to


Table of Contents
A. Timings
B. The 'scripts' of what people said
C. How to email a voice memo (from an iPhone) 

A. Timings
Note that timings vary depending on the different platforms, as different adverts are used, so I've given a rough guide of timings for the iPhone podcast app and for the same app on a Mac to point you in the right direction (but tracking a few seconds to a minute either side will probably be needed if you're using a different platform). 

A1. Timings on my phone’s podcast app were
1. Minions (1 July 2022) - approx 1hr 8min 15sec
2. Sheridan Smith (15 July 2022) - approx 1hr 13min 34sec
3. Daisy Edgar Jones (22 July 2022) - approx 1hr 17min 39sec
4. Jordan Peele (12 August) - approx 1hr 12min 07sec
5. Hugh Bonneville (19 August) - approx 1hr 11min 50 sec

A2. Timings on Apple podcasts at time of writing were
1. Minions (1 July 2022) - approx 1hr 05min 45sec
2. Sheridan Smith (15 July 2022) - approx 1hr 11min 05sec
3. Daisy Edgar Jones (22 July 2022) - approx 1hr 16min 18sec
4. Jordan Peele (12 August) - approx 1hr 09min 54sec
5. Hugh Bonneville (19 August) - approx 1hr 11min 32sec

B. The 'scripts' of what people said
1. Minions episode
"Hi Simon and Mark, Kirsty here from the Outdoor Picture Palace. Join us on the 16th and 17th of July as we screen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Descent and The Alpinist in the Lake District at the UK's most extreme cinema. If you fancy being driven up a mountain in a 4 by 4 before geting comfy inside Honister Slate Mine with popcorn in hand, book tickets now at See you in the Audience." [20 sec]

"Hello Simon and Mark. This is Steve from TAPE, in Old Colwyn, North Wales. July 1st sees the release of our second feature film Approaching Shadows. The film's been made by over 250 people accessing the charity over the last four years with every element of the work completed through an inclusive production model. It's released in the UK through Bohemia Media and we'd love people to check it out, thank you." [18 sec]

"Hi Mark and Simon. My plug is the Carbonale a one-day climate culture festival, July 2nd in Berlin. One of the organisers is a very good friend, documentary film-maker Lena Müller. The event is all about living with the climate crisis in a non hand-wringing way. That's Carbonale, July 2nd, Berlin." [24 sec]

2. Sheridan Smith episode
"This is Kevin from the newly minted city of Doncaster promoting our monthly sci-fii screening at Doncaster Brewery Tap, on Young Street. The master brewer Ian will be showing the Michael Anderson classic Logan's Run on Friday 29 July at 7pm. Fish and plankton and sea-greens. It's all here, ready, fresh as harvest day." [20 sec]

Hello Simon and Mark, this is Token Homo from London-based film-club queer horror nights. Our next screening is a rare double bill of the Psycho sequels. That's Psycho 2 and Psycho 3 back to back at the Cinema Museum on Sunday the 24th of July at 6.30pm. Join us from 5.30 for a bar social then check into the Bates Motel to find out what Norman did next." [23 sec]

3. Daisy Edgar Jones episode
"Hi I'm Rob from the Recovery Street Film Festival. This annual competition gives people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and their families the opportunity to share their stories through the use of film and challenge the taboo that so often goes hand in hand with addiction. Find out more about how you can enter the competition and watch some of the winning entries from previous years at" [24 sec]

"Hi Simon and Mark, Lloyd Bradley here, curator of From Jamaica to the World a new season of films celebrating Reggae music on at the BFI Southbank and on BFI player throughout August. The season puts Jamaican music in its Jamaican context by covering all aspects of reggae culture and the life that surrounds it. These music documentaries and iconic films include a 50th anniversary re-release of The Harder They Come which will be in cinemas across the UK from the 5th of August." [34 sec]

4. Jordan Peele episode
"The last arthouse theatre in the Southern Hemisphere, Cinema Nova, is turning 30 this August. Starting as 2 screens in 1992, and now 16 screens, it's helped make Melbourne a major centre for cinema culture. My name is Simon, I've worked there for 17 years as the maintenance man and three of my children have also worked there as as ushers and [missed what was said here]. I wanted to wish Cinema Nova a happy 30th birthday, thank you." [26 sec]

5. Hugh Bonneville episode
"This is Pat Higgins, writer-director of Powertool Cheerleaders versus The Boy Band of the Screeching Dead, a new musical comedy horror which is screening at this year's Fright Fest on Monday 29th of August at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square. It's directly after Mark's appearance in Duelling Egos so you'll be there anyway so stick around and hopefully watch it. Cheers." [20 sec]


C. How to email a voice memo (from an iPhone)

C1. The Voice Memo app is bundled free with iPhones and the red button will record you speaking into your phone. Press again to stop, doing so saves the file to the app. You can click on it to expand it and then click on the three blue dots to bring up the various options. You can also do some fairly basic editing here (basically trimming). 

C2. The Share... icon at the bottom will let you send your recording to all sorts of places, including email. The email address is

If you want to send it to another device on the same wifi network you can also switch on bluetooth then click the black AirDrop button, which will go blue while searching for a connected device, and press again to send it.

Thoughts on starting to learn Python - I am rather new to it

While my colleague was away on his hols recently I thought I'd surprise him by having a go at learning Python so signed up myself for a week-long course (at a different institution). Every year he and other colleagues teach hundreds of undergraduates how to program in Python and Java (subject knowledge), but he also teaches lots of schoolteachers how to teach programming too (pedagogy). 

I expect we're moving in the direction of undergraduates being taught how to teach programming as well, because one of the skills they'll probably need in the workplace is to be able to teach new colleagues how to use new task-specific software. Anyway...


Gosh I was right to have avoided learning Python for this long, it's like Very Hard Sums ;) Much harder than I was expecting. I don't seem to be much of a computational thinker alas (learning to program not only teaches the obvious 'how to program', but also 'how to think a bit more logically about things', but sadly I may be a lost cause). Also, I have no particular impetus for learning programming (beyond annoying myself and amusing my colleague) as I genuinely can't see to what use I'd ever put it (and this has generally discouraged me from taking it up in the past).

That said, I've always been 'good at computers' and gravitated towards the nerds wherever I've worked - it's a constant surprise to me that I don't already know how to program or that I'm not a SysAdmin. Doing the course felt a bit like 'retconning' a missing patch from earlier in my life that probably should have been installed during or shortly after I left university. Ironically I do actually have a university qualification in Computer Science because I studied it for one year on my modular course (Biology, Psychology and Computing). I remember spending my holiday in a library in Harrow reading newspaper articles about IBM and Token Rings. We learned to program in SQL and had to make a thing that would calculate how quickly a bath would fill and empty, ostensibly for a property management company. 

Anyway I enjoyed the recent short course but it was a bit fast for me (or perhaps I'm a bit slow for it) and I found that if I wrote anything down there was a risk I'd miss something, which I would later have to rely on, so I mostly just tried to keep up.  

I didn't find the concepts of variables or types or int (integer) / float (numbers with decimal points) or string hard though - the thing I found hardest was actually parsing the English instructions for the exercises. I always felt I was missing something and asked a LOT of questions. The tutor and other students were very helpful and didn't make me feel too much like a lame duck.

It reminded me of doing AO maths (an alternative O level that's slightly more advanced, but not much). There was lots of lovely mechanics involved and trajectories, using formula like s = ut + ½at² where 'u' is the initial velocity. People smarter than me will immediately realise that the starting speed of a ball about to be thrown is obviously zero, but I have to admit that I once asked for help with that as the instruction had 'missed' it out. I seemed to lack the cognitive wherewithal to work that out for myself - oh dear! It looks like I am not very good at extracting, or abstracting, information from a paragraph of text and really need bullet points.

So this was pretty much where I found myself with trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing, let alone trying to convert it into a program. It was interesting to see under the bonnet of my own cognition - to see exactly where the limits are of my own capacity for understanding.

I did learn a lot by taking the solution and testing permutations, basically to see what happens when I tweak different bits of it, but I would not say that I have the sort of brain that finds it easy. I'm clever enough and reasonably logical, but possibly not quite clever or logical enough for Python. Also I'm 52 so possibly this would have been easier 30 years ago. Now i just want an easy life ;)

One exercise involved using the remainder / modulo function which I couldn't get my head around at all. I spent at least half an hour that day being absolutely baffled that anyone would ever want to know what was left over after a division. Surely if you divide 236 by 17 the only answer you want is 13.88 and not '13' or '88'. It featured in an exercise about leap years that I didn't really manage to get to grips with.

Later I was doing some work for our Charlton and Woolwich Free Film Festival and had a flash of inspiration about film times and the mystery modulo. 

If I want to express the time, in hours and minutes, of a film lasting 138 minutes then I don't want to say that it's 138/60 = 2.3 hours, I want to say that it's 2 hours and however many minutes. Aha! AHA!!

I actually managed to create a program that worked and told me the answer!!

138 / 60 means "what is 138 ÷ 60", and gives the answer of 2.3.

138 // 60 means "what is the whole number that results from dividing 138 by 60?", and the answer is 2.

138 % 60 means "what's left over once you've finished dividing by (really, subtracting from) 60?", and it's 18.

So a 138min film = 2hr 18min.

This is my 4-line program (text version at the end)

film_length = int(input("Enter the length of the film in minutes, e.g. 123: "))
hours = film_length // 60
mins = film_length % 60
print("The film is this long:",hours,"hr",mins,"min")
Which results in being asked for the length of the film and, when a number entered, gives the result. Pleasing.

Enter the length of the film in minutes, e.g. 123: 138
The film is this long: 2 hr 18 min

Process finished with exit code 0 <-- this is good by the way

I was pretty pleased to have worked it out for myself and for it to work exactly as expected. Going to see if I can try and write a program to do it in reverse, so you enter 2hr 18min and it gives you 138 mins....


Further reading
I'm enjoying reading (very slowly) and comparing these two books / PDFs, published 18 years apart:

How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 3 Documentation (Release 3rd Edition) by Peter Wentworth, Jeffrey Elkner, Allen B Downey and Chris Meyers (17 April 2020)

and the first edition 'How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python' by Allen Downey, Jeffrey Elkner, and Chris Meyers (2002) (there's also an interactive version).

Text of the program, which I called

film_length = int(input("Entere the length of the film in minutes, e.g. 123: "))
hours = film_length // 60
mins = film_length % 60
print("The film is this long:",hours,"hr",mins,"min")

Thursday, 18 August 2022

International Ctrl+F Day - 18 August 2022 - this Thursday share your nerdy knowledge

I bet you know someone who'd benefit from discovering that SHIFT+ENTER lets them introduce paragraphs (and some white space) into their Facebook comments. If you do, please tell them. While you’re at it, let the world know that an underscore (_) or asterisk (*) on either side of a word in a WhatsApp message adds italics or emphasis - you can even strike out the text with a couple of tildes (~), one on each side. 

There’ll be someone in your department who knows how to store email addresses on the photocopier to save people having to enter it each time. Perhaps it’s you? If so, maybe you could leave some instructions for your grateful colleagues who have been fighting a beepy battle to scan documents and email them to themselves. (After finding out how to shush our office photocopiers’ beeps I once stayed late after work and covertly de-beeped two floors' worth of machines.) 


“I think I now understand what it's like to be a Jehovah's Witness. I want to knock on strangers' doors & tell them the good news of Ctrl+F.”(1)
We all pick up useful ways of doing things on computers or other tech but, unless you sit and watch what others are doing, we don't transmit these tricks to other people very effectively. I'd always assumed that the Ctrl+F (or Command+F on a Mac) shortcut was widely known, by pretty much everyone, and I remember my amazement in August 2011 to discover that it wasn't. The keyboard shortcut is a quick route into the Edit » Find menu, available on almost any bit of office software, which lets you leap through a textual wormhole from wherever you are in a document to wherever that exact word, phrase or search 'string' appears. It doesn't matter how long the document is (200-page PDF? No problem) and works on web pages as well as Word. Using Ctrl+F boosts your search skills and saves a lot of time letting you check within seconds if something appears in a document. 

On a smartphone it’s slightly fiddlier to ‘Ctrl+F’ a word on a page. You need to pull down at the top of the page show the search bar, type in your word or phrase and then it will tell you if it appears on the page you’ve been looking at (and it’ll let you tap your way to each instance of it). Wherever you use the shortcut it’s incredibly useful. 

On 18th August 2011 Alexis Madrigal published an article(2) in The Atlantic drawing attention to research by Google ‘search anthropologist’ Dan Russell which showed that 90 per cent of internet users didn’t know about Ctrl+F. What had they been doing instead? It turned out they’d been scrolling up and down and visually scanning to try and hunt for the word that was hiding somewhere in the text. Jaws dropped. A follow-up article(3) a few days later considered the fallout of this momentous news and articles appeared extolling the virtues of having Ctrl+F among your search skills, as well as other useful keyboard shortcuts to save time or ‘increase productivity’. 

I’d like to suggest a kind of “International Ctrl+F Day” on 18th August, partly to mark the anniversary of nerds discovering^ that everyone else didn’t already know this tip, and partly to encourage everyone to grab the opportunity to share some small technological thing that might help others. If you feel inspired you might write a post, on Facebook or your work intranet, to tell people about Ctrl+F (or Shift+Enter) or some other useful thing that you know and (probably wrongly) thought was too obvious to share. Did you know that you can press and hold the space bar on a phone to reposition the cursor? Someone you know probably doesn’t and might be pleased to know. Tell them, on Thursday (or any day you like!). 




(2) Crazy: 90 Percent of People Don’t Know How to Use CTRL+F (18 August 2011) by Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic 

(3) Why Using Control+F May Be the Most Important Computing Skill (22 August 2011) by Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic  

^My surprise at finding out that most people didn't know about Ctrl+F is also matched by my sudden awareness of how poor I'd been at estimating others' digital literacy. I'd not given a moment's thought to ever mentioning Ctrl+F to anyone as I'd assumed everyone had just picked it up, as I had, by spotting it in the on-screen Edit / Find menu.




Thursday, 11 August 2022

Things I wish I'd known before booking into DoubleTree Docklands by Hilton Hotels, opposite Canary Wharf

1. Bring biscuits, make a note of these shops

There are no snacks in the room (and no mini-bar). 

Apparently there's not a single biscuit to be had in the entire DoubleTree Docklands hotel to dunk in a cup of tea, or wasn't during my stay. 

There is tea and coffee (and a kettle) in the room. But no bottled water. Reception said all the taps have drinkable water so I just used that. They also suggested I walk over to ask the bar & restaurant about biscuits (but it turns out they don't have any either, which wasn't a huge surprise). Happily I was already near the bar (it's just along from Reception) because I'd had to go down to Reception in person (as no-one was answering the phone); I made several visits there during my stay as it was quicker than waiting for the phone to be answered. 

The bar (and door) staff suggested I try a shop, giving me directions to two local shops: a nearer one (3 mins away) and a bigger one (10 mins away). As it was heatwave-hot I said I'd try the nearer one.

When I arrived I discovered that the nearer shop had already closed for the evening, the second was open and had biscuits. That was great but the extended walk between the two in the heatwave (~8.30pm on the evening of 18th July)  wasn't. I'd rather have been told before that the first one was closed, to save myself the detour - but really, how could anyone possibly know this easily accessible and predictable information about shop timings?

Take note (and check in case things have changed) -

Docklands Trading Post - 2 Timbrell Place

020 7252 0816

7am to 8pm every day

Google Map code: GX38+6F London

Co-op Food - 346 Rotherhithe Street

020 7394 0577

7am to 10pm every day

Google Map code: GX45+M9 London

The Co-op also does Deliveroo stuff but I thought it was too hot to have someone sweltering on a motorbike just to bring me snacks, but worth being aware of in cooler times. The C10 bus will pick you up outside the hotel and drop you off. I discovered this en route, no-one having thought to mention it. The C10 route goes between Victoria Station (rail, and coach) and Canada Water. I was glad of it in reverse and it dropped me back to the hotel. You can use a contactless payment card or Oyster card to pay for it.


2. Free croissants

Near reception there's a self-serve stall where they put croissants, pains au chocolat and other jam pastries during the day. I didn't notice it until the second day otherwise I might have had one with my cup of tea (if they'd not all gone). No-one mentioned it.


3. Free cookies, allegedly

I discovered, via the tray liner* on the Room Service tray (food was lovely) and subsequent Googling, that Hilton Hotels are actually famous for cookies, which they apparently offer to guests on arrival. I didn't get one and while I can live with that I'm a bit surprised that me asking for a biscuit didn't trigger some sort of "no, but we have cookies" response. As opposed to "please walk for longer than you need in this sweltering heat to the shop".

To be fair I've seen zero evidence of these free cookies so it may well be an internet myth.

*Discovered later in the evening after I'd returned from my biscuit expedition. At this point I felt like I was being trolled. 

Room Service tray which says "There's more in our kitchen than cookies"

"There's more in our kitchen than cookies".
No-one said there were cookies so this came as a surprise.


4. If arriving by boat try and time it for high tide

I regularly travel by the Thames Clippers so I do actually know this but because I wanted to arrive before the temperatures got into the mid-30s I prioritised that instead of the tide and it was a bit of an uphill climb at low tide.

Piers consist of two bits: one bit attached to the shore and another linked bit that floats on the water. As the water level rises and falls the angle of the connecting gangway changes with it. At low tide the water-bit is considerably lower than the shore-bit. When the tide is high the water-bit is pushed up level with the shore and so it's a nice flat walk.


5. The Room Service menu is on TV

This isn't completely alien but I'd not stayed in a hotel for 3 years so had forgotten. Usually when you walk into a hotel room the television is either already on and telling you how to access this information and/or there's a printed information pack with timing details and contact numbers for the amenities. 

This hotel has neither the pack, nor an already-switched on TV and not even a sign alerting you to investigate the TV options. The lack of info pack made me think info had been missed from my room anyway (no, just not given) but I managed to pick up both the TV explanation and a paper Room Service menu on my first of several visits to Reception (they weren't answering the phone in my room).


6. Make a note of the hotel's phone number (020 7231 1001)

I was pleased that I happened to have the number saved in my mobile phone. When I first arrived at my room after checking in neither of the two access cards worked so I called them, from my mobile (which they did answer). Fifteen minutes later a maintenance man appeared. He was there for a completely unrelated reason but he was able to take my cards downstairs, get new ones and come back and let me in at 3:50pm (I'd checked in at ~3:20pm. Actually I checked in just after 3pm but there was a separate delay but I wasn't too bothered about that, at the time). 

Shortly after making the call on my mobile I spotted that there was a phone by the lift which I could have used (if anyone answered the internal phones which, on Monday 18th July 2022, they were not).

7. Check and see what other hotels are available

Would be my overarching advice. Or at least book a cheaper room. I did put in a formal complaint (the arrangement really was not what I'd paid for) and I was partially reimbursed. I waited a month before posting this as I wanted to see if I'd calmed down about it since. Nope ;) That biscuit thing tipped me over the edge.