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

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Session on #libelreform at the Science Communication Conference

I decided to pre-blog some of the conference sessions at the May 2011 Science Communication Conference because every time I read one of the session blurbs I thought "that would be interesting to blog about". I've previously blogged on my interest in public engagement and online public engagement, the latter being the theme of this conference.

Things kick off at 9am with an invitation-only session on public engagement for people newer to the field, and then a conference plenary at 10 with a keynote address (as this is the draft programme I don't think the details have been published yet) and then, after coffee, some structured networking and lunch, a choice of three parallel sessions.

1. Libel reform and science
(2. Evaluation: Facing the tricky questions / 3. I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!)

The speaker for this is Simon Singh who galvanised scientists, writers and skeptical activists among others to campaign about the unfair libel laws in England and Wales. Simon found himself in the middle of a libel suit after he wrote a Guardian comment article which was critical of the evidence for chiropractic treatments for certain childhood conditions, and perceived by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) as being critical of them. The BCA sued Simon (not The Guardian) and the Twitter hashtag #SinghBCA took off as the case played out (almost in real time thanks to @JackofKent's postings). Eventually the BCA withdrew but not before the case had cost Simon several thousand pounds (somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand) - had he lost the case I understand his costs could have been nearer a million pounds.

Simon discussed and criticised the claims and scientific evidence for chiropractic treatments - which is something that anyone should be free to do especially where health decisions are being made, ie there should be the possibility of free debate without fear of being sued.

A number of companies sell stem cell transplants for a variety of conditions (beyond their recognised use in some blood disorders) with claims that the cells can cure or cause a massive improvement in symptoms. Evidence is usually of the testimonial kind and other information given minimises or fails to mention risks or even to explain what is actually done. I'm unlikely to be much more specifically critical than this in case a company decides to have a quiet word with me about it ;-)

Simon wrote an article about it in 2010 which explains things much better than I can - he's not the only person to have experienced being sued for defamation. There's a dedicated Libel Reform website and the charity Sense About Science are involved in libel reform too.

I'm always a little bit surprised when people sue for things that would better be managed by discussing the science rather than thrashing it out in the Courts. This seems to be a common theme - someone or someones I've never heard of get miffed because of scientific criticism, sue and then I hear of them only to think they'd have done better to keep quiet. It reminds me of the concept of 'suicide by cop'... a sort of self-defamation by libel suit. I can't help thinking that if someone starts a reckless claim for defamation and damages their own reputation in doing so then this should immediately disqualify their claim in court ;)

There will be a draft defamation bill in March 2011 so that should certainly be available by the time of the conference in May.

Libel reform
concepts to be aware of
libel chill, fair or honest comment, public interest defence, see also this article highlighting that Simon had won the right to rely on fair comment.

incomplete list of some of the people who've been affected by the libel laws

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The science communication conference, public engagement and what I'm doing on the CHI+MED project

The British Science Association runs an annual Science Communication Conference which is always worth a visit both for the talks and the networking. Although I've missed a couple I've been to most of them.

This year it's on online public engagement, a topic I'm looking forward to. I've been doing 'science communication' for about 8 years now and while it's always embarrassingly foolish to pretend any degree of expertise in it (so much to learn, always) I'm a lot further along in that area than I am in public engagement.

Much of my science communication involves answering people's questions (on a one to one basis largely via email / telephone / letter) about diabetes that have a science component - this might mean explaining complex ideas or finding out what the evidence is for a particular treatment etc. It's reactive rather than proactive (sadly, we no longer have the capacity to have a full-scale answering service) and in a sense it's didactic (teaching others, explaining stuff, answering their questions) rather than engaging with them in a fuller sense. I do a bit of writing and number crunching too and have responsibility, with my colleagues, for sourcing the evidence for our care statements etc.

Other aspects of my work do involve public engagement but thus far it's been on a much smaller scale.

This is changing however as I'm also the Public Engagement Co-ordinator for the CHI+MED project (which I blog and tweet about as well). CHI+MED (Computer-Human Interaction in Medical Devices) is a large (six years, £5.7million) EPSRC-funded project on making interactive medical devices safer - at the moment we're looking at infusion pumps (eg those that deliver chemotherapy). It runs over four universities, three in London (UCL - where I'm based), Queen Mary and City University, and Swansea University. Obviously this is completely separate from my job at Diabetes UK but the two jobs work rather well together.

Public Engagement (and its evaluation) is a huge part of the project (not in a nebulous sense but specifically embedded in the grant application and plan of work) because in order to make devices safer we have to take account of the culture surrounding them and the people using them. Before a medical device is used it is first designed, tested, manufactured, promoted, compared with others and then purchased. After that staff are trained in its use and ultimately patients are given drugs with it. Safety doesn't occur in a vacuum - if we want to improve the safety of medical devices we need to take account of the different people and systems involved with and supporting the use of the device.

Our audiences include patients, carers, nurses, medical device trainers, medical device designers, regulatory bodies (who decide whether or not a device can be marketed), care commissioners (who purchase equipment for use in hospitals or at home) and other researchers in human-computer interaction and related fields. That's not just the UK either, we're working with companies, researchers and regulatory bodies etc around the world.

So, plenty of people to engage with and blogging and tweeting is only a small bit of that. We have other online tools at our disposal, but also we'll be doing real world stuff too. Not surprisingly I'm looking forward to hearing what other people are up to in terms of engaging diverse audiences and I'll be blogging some thoughts on some of the sessions that feature in this year's conference programme.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Difficulties in rhyming orange, and cautionary scam site tale

Years ago while having lunch with my colleagues someone said they'd found a poetry site online to which you could submit poems with an opportunity to win something or other. We all thought this was a brilliant wheeze and agreed to rustle up a poem and send it in. Most of us did (after discussion I agreed to write the poem in which someone would attempt to rhyme something with 'orange') and then a few days later we all got emails or letters (some had included their postal address!) saying that we'd won the opportunity to have our excellent poems published in an anthology. Not only that but we were all invited to a ceremony in the US at which we'd receive an engraved cup with our name and something to highlight that we were published poets.

Alarm bells rang.

We had a look at the website and clicked on the links we'd been given which would show us the engraved item ready made for us to collect. Unfortunately connection speeds (even in an academic setting) were a little slower in those days and, over a busy lunch time when everyone was surfing, it was clear that what was loading was a generic picture of a metal cup and then another picture of our name was being overlaid on top of it. We were so scammed!

We investigated further and discovered that technically it managed to sail close enough to not being an actual scam to avoid being shut down - it was vanity publishing. It was true that everyone's poems would be published in an anthology which could be purchased and, apparently, people really did turn up to ceremonies at which they were given engraved trinkets. The poems were pretty rubbish though and there was no quality control - one colleague admitted that his poem had just been some random words and phrases stuck together and he was a bit surprised to find himself hailed as a poet laureate too.

I was amazed to find that people were falling for it though - some of the published poems were dreadful and it seems there was no editing of typos or spelling mistakes. Apparently it went on for years and Wikipedia has quite an interesting entry on it.

Anyway, here's my "winning" poem. It's obviously crap but I like to think it has flashes of genius. Fortunately it didn't cost me any money ;)

Unusually orange cereal bowl
By those of linguistic bent
it's said that "orange" s'not meant
to partake in a rhyme
for much of the time
(even written reversed it yields little verse!)

But this edict does not trouble me
nor put me off my poetry
and sustained by my porridge
for rhyme have I foraged...
...while "orange" is rhymeless, its superlatives ain't
I observe that my porridge-bowl has an orangeish taint*
(it's orangeish hue is clearly on view).

So I'm extremely chuffed to be able to boast
that my porringer is oranger than most.

Yes indeed, it stands up to the test,
my porringer's oranger than the rest.

I'm not in jest
Mine's the best
It's the orangest!

Copyright Me, (c) 2002. Also possibly (no longer a scam site as it's now been bought out by Lulu Poetry).

*technically the term 'taint' with this meaning is archaic / obsolete and you should feel free to replace it with tint, but it doesn't rhyme as well, unless you also pronounce 'ain't' as 'int'.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Teeny blog post to remind me how to anchor in-post text

In some of my longer multi-part blog posts (eg Open Air Cinema Screens in London and Where Science Communicators might work - both posts linked on the right hand side panel) it's potentially useful to be able to jump to a section. I've done this on several occasions on other website and nearly always forget the succinct html code that lets me do this.

There are several ways of doing it that will work, but some are better for a wider variety of browsers and some methods aren't recommended (see deprecated tags). This method was recommended by @DavidWaldock and worked well in the Open Air Cinema Screens post. I've reproduced the rubric below to remind myself when I come to tweak posts in future and want to anchor to various sections.

All { and } need to be replaced with < and >.

This is the pointer, which on clicking will take the user to the anchored section.
Jump to {a href=""}2011 screening information{/a}.

This is the 'pointee' or anchor to which the pointer above will jump.
{a name="2011"}2011 :: 2011 :: 2011{/a}

I presume the Government is poking fun obliquely at homeopathy

I was a bit surprised to receive a message from the Government today in response to a petition about homeopathy that I signed back in June 2010. To be honest I'd more or less forgotten about it as it's eight months ago. That seems rather a long time to take to send an answer, I wonder what their Customer Service standards are.

The response summary is five brief paragraphs with a link to the full response. The main summary points are:
"The Department of Health will not be withdrawing funding for homeopathy on the NHS, nor will the licensing of homeopathic products be stopped. Decisions on the provision and funding of any treatment will remain the responsibility of the NHS locally."
- this passes the buck.
"A patient who wants homeopathic treatment on the NHS should speak to his or her GP. If the GP is satisfied this would be the most appropriate and effective treatment then, subject to any local commissioning policies, he or she can refer them to a practitioner or one of the NHS homeopathic hospitals."
- I'm not sure how a GP can consider any kind of homeopathic treatment to be the most appropriate treatment under any circumstance. It certainly isn't effective.
"In deciding whether homeopathy is appropriate for a patient, the treating clinician would be expected to take into account safety, clinical and cost-effectiveness as well as the availability of suitably qualified and regulated practitioners. The Department of Health would not intervene in such decisions."
- safety's always an interesting one. Because homeopathic treatments contain no medicine there's virtually no danger of interactions with any other (real or pretend) medicine but safety isn't determined only by the presence of an active ingredient of course. Clinical and cost-effectiveness would seem to be quite meaningless terms to apply to homeopathy; I assume the Government is having a small joke here.

The joking continues with a link to the full report which, at time of writing, turns out to be a 1998 report on antimicrobial resistance... "Government response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology report: Resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents"

From initially being a bit disappointed by this response I cheered up once I realised that what the Government had done was write a document that is vaguely supportive of homeopathy but then hidden it at the "bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"

Good work Government!

Maybe they were trying to link to this, but that was published in July 2010... While I was looking for that I also found this from 2003 in which the Department of Health encourages doctors practising homeopathy to register with the Faculty of Homeopathy.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Missing desktop and taskbar - worm or windows update? Trying various fixes and reporting back

Update: fixed
Here are the instructions that someone for whom I shall shortly be baking cakes suggested:

Open regedit
See bit in pink below on how to access programmes with no desktop or toolbar, after the 'new task' bit type in regedit.

go to: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon

Find the Value “Shell” it should just say Explorer.exe No path or anything else just Explorer.exe. If it doesn’t change it to Explorer.exe and reboot.

The instructions worked perfectly :)

Disclaimer: boy can you asterisk things up if you make a mistake with regedit. I speak from embarrassed experience.

If no desktop, taskbar (ie no Start button) press Ctrl+Alt+Del to bring up the Task bar. Choose the Applications tab, then New task... and browse to find a copy of Firefox or Safari (I seem to have no IE available at the moment, this may be important) to do web stuff. All programmes are accessible here using this method. There's also a Shut Down option on that C+A+D when you've finished.

My computer is misbehaving. It's an Acer Aspire One running Windows XP.

I switched it on this evening and, while booting up, it suddenly told me that Windows Malicious Software Remover Tool had removed a worm of some sort. I'd never met WMSRT before so at first I thought perhaps that was something a bit dodgy and closed the window, so I'm not sure what it was trying to tell me. The McAfee thing that comes bundled with my BT account suggested all was well... but the little green line that tells you how things are with your processor kept topping out at 100% (to see this press Ctrl+Alt+Del then click on the Performance tab to see how things are going).

Yesterday I downloaded Evernote - I downloaded the same programme at work with no problems. Didn't visit any dodgy websites, don't remember any worrying popups appearing, don't think I downloaded anything else...

I do remember that at switch off the computer wanted to download some Windows Updates, so I let it do that. The next time I switch it on - problems.

Windows Updates have caused all sorts of problems before and they usually fix themselves in the next day or so, but this is the first time my computer's been ostensibly useless.

What's happening?
  • At switch on the computer boots up as far as the 'apply wallpaper' stage, no icons appear, no taskbar; the desktop is completely absent.
  • Pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del has been a bit of a help (it's let me open Firefox and Safari - curiously Internet Explorer is nowhere to be found, this may be significant and suggests there has been a worm) - once you've C+A+D click on the Applications tab and then the New Task.. button and then Browse.. to find the relevant file. I used this to open the browsers.
  • I don't know what the address for the desktop is (it's called Explorer I think, but typing just the word 'explorer' into the box brought up Windows Explorer with all the folders and files hierarchies. Not what I'm after. This is the address for Firefox, for example C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Desktop\Mozilla Firefox.lnk - no idea if clicking this will work of course (and it would only work if you also had a shortcut link to Firefox on your computer).
    Edit: Duh. MSIE is actually iexplorer.exe not explorer.exe - but even then that didn't work until I tweaked regedit.
  • Nerds have previously wrestled with a similar problem but I've not quite worked out whether or not the fault is with a worm virus thing or with Windows update. Poster going by the name of Diddly seems to have the exact same problem as me
I am going to try some of the suggestions on the forum, and on Twitter and post here. Hopefully it won't necessitate having to buy a new computer or anything like that ;-)

----- First report
  • I tried the very simple seeming instructions suggested by meow in the forum post linked above. Didn't work. I thought perhaps the trick was to close an old programme running and open a new one, but nope.
  • Discovered that Windows+R doesn't do anything on my laptop - this might be something that works on Vista or Windows 7 etc., but it doesn't appear to on XP.
  • Noticed that I can turn off the computer from the Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Del to open up the window) - there's a 'Shut Down' menu above the five tabs, to the right. Especially useful when there's no Start button and the windows key does nothing.
  • Loving the nerds on Twitter who leapt to my aid with suggestions - switching it off and then rebooting was a popular suggestion. While it's rebooting you press F8 to bring up some options, including opening in safe mode. I tried this but couldn't get the window to appear but then it was suggested that I should just PRESS and hold F8 while it was booting - that worked. Initially I chose 'open in safe mode' but still no desktop, then tried 'last good configuration' - nope.
  • Tried another suggestion of running sfc /scannow but needed to get a command prompt on screen to do it (no Windows or Start > Run available) so used Ctrl+Alt+Del / New task and then typed cmd (it means command) and up the C:\ prompt appeared. Faffed about trying to get sfc /scannow to work without much success but eventually it took (I was in C:\Documents and Settings\Jo Brodie and it worked there. I'd previously used the cd.. command a couple of times to get back to the plan C:\ prompt.
    (every now and again I open up the command window and ping servers nostalgically but I haven't really used it in anger since the mid 90s to be honest).
  • Finally the computer's now in the process of doing this /scannow and I am using the time to document what I've tried. Not sure what's going to come out the other end of the scan but will report back when I can. Or I might go to bed.
  • Ironically I'm planning on going to the Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park tomorrow (prompted by going to OSHUG7 last night). Perhaps I should take the ailing laptop with me ;)
  • Still puzzled by the curious lack of Microsoft Internet Explorer - the icon does not appear in the list of shortcut links on my desktop (as accessed via task manager) yet it's normally there. See picture below - it's missing.


Thursday, 10 February 2011

Finding the hidden sounds in circuit boards - circuit bending

Things that make noise such as children's toys, little piano keyboards, walkie talkies have a power source, speakers and usually a circuit board with some bits and pieces in it like resistors, capacitors, some stuff I don't really know about yet and in some cases LEDs (light emitting diodes). The manufacturers arrange this starting material so that certain sounds are produced when the toy or instrument is played... according to their instructions. But a bit of tweaking can uncover all sorts of other available but currently hidden sounds, many of them truly awful, but some quite pleasant.
Circuit Bending for Absolute Beginners
WhenTue, 8 February, 15:00 – 17:00

Bring your old keyboards to make new weird sounds. Think Casio, Yamaha... Noise-making toys also work. Not everything will work but we'll have a bash...may have to ask for a small donation to cover cost of potentiometers/wire etc an introduction here:
I spent Tuesday afternoon at the Really Free School in Bloomsbury Square playing around with some circuits and making some noise. The School opened a couple of weeks ago and closes in a couple of days (although it will likely re-appear somewhere else). The people running it have squatted the property which was once offices (and previously a rather lovely house) and unfortunately have to leave and move elsewhere. Their website is and I heard about this because of a mailing list ( I joined when they ran the Temporary School of Thought a couple of years ago.

I've blogged recently on the Temp School of Thought - I went to a film showing there but none of the classes, and a talk by Dougald Hine at the Really Free School. Keeping with the theme of creative living and squatting is a post with some scanned images of a groovy book called 'Alternative London' from 1974.

We sat in a room at the front of the house at large worktables while our tutor told us a little bit about the principles of 'circuit bending' and how to go about getting some bonus sounds from a hacked / modified (modded) bit of kit. She showed us a keyboard which she'd taken apart, added some switches and other twiddly knobs, and from which she could get some eerie sounds possibly not intended by the manufacturers.

I'd brought along half of a walkie-talkie to tweak. A year or two ago I did an afternoon class, which I blogged about here, in Brighton with Ian Helliwell which included a taster session of circuit bending (along with creating a mini theremin from an electronics kit and playing around with tape loops) and I started work on the walkie-talkie then.

There were about eight or nine of us sitting at the worktable with people popping in and out to visit. The people in the room next door (well, it's the reception / living room I suppose) were probably making a much more tuneful noise than we were. The people living in the house brought a baby grand piano with them, there was also a cello and a couple of guitars. People seemed to be really rather good at music.

We took apart the toys that people had brought with them (apparently there's a second hand children's toy shop in Pimlico which seems to provide rich pickings for dismantle-able toys which have circuit boards and speakers in) and got to work with a strip of wire. With the device switched on (might want to be a bit careful here) you basically use the two ends of the wires to poke about and connect both ends to different points of metal on the circuit board. Sometimes connecting them up results in silence, sometimes in white noise, sometimes in a high pitched squeal and sometimes in a fairly pleasant buzz or tone. Depending on your tastes if you like the sound produced you can solder in the connection for keeps.

Even better, if you have a potentiometer to hand you can connect it to two wires and then, on finding a suitable connection, twiddle the potentiometer's knob to make the pitch or volume (or whatever variable you've discovered with your random connection) go up and down.

There are also some pictures on my Flickr page - the lighting isn't very good, it's more of a bright spotlight. This is because we're in a squatted propertly with plenty of electricity (all paid for, utility companies are required to connect up properties which have occupants at the occupants' request and I believe connecting the electricity is an essential part of squatting a property to prevent being accused of stealing the electricity) but with many of the ceiling light fittings absent.

A couple of people in the class dismantled a tiny little plastic drumkit that they'd brought and rewired it so that it made some quite cool sounds when various buttons (that they added) were pressed. You can see them soldering in one of the pictures.

I've described this circuit bending to a few people and they mostly want to know where they can do it so I've added a few links below in case you might fall into that intrigued category.

Places where you can go and do or find out more about things like circuit bending (and 'arts computer' stuff) in London
Dorkbot is more of a show and tell for projects that you've been working on but you'll always find someone in the crowd who can help you but the monthly-ish events aren't workshops. They do usually have an annual event in which workshops feature though.

Hackspace - I've not been to these yet but you can find more details here

Ian Helliwell's Analogue sound course - if and when it runs again it will probably appear here but also see here and

MzTEK ("An Arts Collective for Women in New Media and Arts Computing") hosts workshops for women only on a variety of electronics and other things like laser cutting.

OpenLabs - I attended a circuit creating workshop (making some noise too) at the Kinetica Art Fair and Evan Raskob from OpenLabs was teaching it. Lots of fun but against a backdrop of the Kinetica fair it was quite hard to hear what was going on with my own battery operated mini speaker. Given the squealy noises I was making, perhaps not a bad thing ;)

Technology will save us - I spotted a sign-up sheet for this at the Kinetica Art Fair and signed up, haven't investigated it yet but looks full of potential for classes although they might be a little beyond my budget. and

Tinker It - I am not sure if they are still running courses but they have run Arduino workshops in the past (Arduino is a circuit board whose chip is controlled by a computer programme). and

For people who like non-electronic technical crafts but like sewing then these people might have a class for you: The Make Lounge, in Islington.

I bet someone's reading this and thinking "but she's forgotten X" if so, do let me know, thanks!

You might also like these other posts of mine, tough luck if not :)

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Dougald Hine's talk at The Really Free School in the Bloomsbury Squat 2011

After receiving an email a couple of weeks ago from the group who last used that email address for the Temporary School of Thought I've been reading about some of the back story behind the School and I wrote about my visit there in this post. I've also visited the new incarnation, the Really Free School at 5 Bloomsbury Square. Their event details are on this page but their Google Docs listing works better.

On initially Googling the Temporary School of Thought I came across Dougald Hine's blog which had a roundup of links and reviews of some of the events - and then I discovered he was giving a talk on Third Spaces, Web 2.0 and First Life on Thursday night, 3 Feb 2011, so I went along. I smiled when he said that before he'd start his talk we should all take a moment to soak up the place that we were in, as I'd already been doing precisely that.

A couple of people were video recording Dougald's talk so I daresay it will be available online soon - I didn't take any notes though, just sat and enjoyed. The room was packed; I estimated over 50 people when the talk began and probably nearer 70 by the end, possibly more. This made the room very warm and cosy - and there was even someone having a cigarette (inside!). I'd forgotten what they smell like to be honest.

I wish I could remember more of talks after I've been to them, possibly a mistake not to have made notes which I would usually do.

Dougald talked about the concept of third spaces - a term which originated with Ray Oldenburg to describe places that we meet together in that aren't our homes or workplaces. He mentioned how the phrase had been appropriated by organisations like Starbucks which have been keen to position themselves as a venue where you could get a bit of third space with your coffee and muffin. Apparently the reason why they persist in asking you "would you like a drink with that?" (one of the reasons I try and avoid the place to be honest) is that they have a script to follow and there are mystery shoppers who'll check that they're doing it properly. Staff are also expected to initiate conversations with customers, beyond the script. Dougald contrasted this enforced bonhomie with a cafe in Sheffield run by people from the more surly school of customer relations who'll more or less ignore patrons until they get to know them. I think I'd prefer a middle ground of detached civility though.

There was some amusing discussion and audience participation on the nature of social media (interactive / Web 2.0 stuff) tools. Hardly anyone in the room had used Second Life and I'm pretty sure we all agreed that social tools that help us make more of first life are what's wanted. Examples of these include text messages which bring us ambient information about what our chums are up to, similarly Facebook (and Meetup) are used to help people arrange events etc. in the real world. He mentioned that text messages were originally something placed on mobile phones for engineers to communicate with brief messages they became one of the most used features of mobiles generally. I send and receive texts from my mobile far more often than use it as a telephone because I like that these conversations don't have to be synchronous, particularly if I need to be somewhere quiet.

I remember getting what turned out to be my first text message in 1995 and not having the faintest idea how to access the mystery message. It appeared on my Motorola Graphite in the form of a differnt type of small envelope icon, which unfortunatey threw me. I'd worked out that another envelope icon I'd seen on my phone meant I had a voicemail message but I couldn't get this one to play until the friend (coincidentally he worked for a mobile phone company) who'd sent it asked me about it. And even then he had to explain what it was and what keystrokes I'd have to press on the phone to access it (bit of a geek fail there). After that though, it was text messages all the way, and not just for me either.

Some companies had invested in devices which would let you make video calls on your mobile - he wondered if walking down the street having a video conference with a friend was such a great idea as it meant you were less involved with your surroundings. The message here was that people don't necessarily want to be immersed in something - while they're going about their normal life. With Second Life it might appear that plenty of people don't want to be immersed in that either, unless all of the people I know just don't use it. A year or two ago I went along to the Nature offices while they launched their Second Life island, I'd also seen it in use at the Science Online conference the year before last - it seemed to work fairly well for people not attending the conference to follow it online that way. I'd have used a plain old audio or video feed (Twitter feeds also good) in preference to downloading some new bit of software and learning how to use it (and, I understand, having to dress my avatar). So Second Life has passed me by somewhat. I think IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is probably simpler to operate though.

There was also discussion on the ways in which people are creating and using their own third spaces, and using internet tools to develop them. I briefly wondered about the fate of our libraries...

I really haven't done justice to the engaging way in which Dougald spoke with the crowd and encouraged participation, nor have I done much justice to the content of his talk but I really enjoyed his ideas, and the contributions of the audience, and found the event very inspiring - and was just so glad that I'd gone along. It really is a great place.

Just before I left I took a photo (below) of the tiered seating that had been created, and remembered a similar construction back in the cinema room at the Temporary School of Thought. I think at the time I'd just assumed it was somehow part of the house but have learned that these sorts of things are rustled up by people in the squat who have the good sense to have woodworking skills. This one implies that it might have come from what my friend Helen describes as the spiritual home of the meatball - or perhaps someone just wrote IKEA on it (you can just about make it out).

Back at work I mentioned my evening out at the talk to a colleague and told her about the aims of the Really Free School - she asked if I was recapturing my youth. I was a bit taken aback by this as I'd always thought I was still in it; I wonder where that demarcation line went ;)

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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Temporary School of Thought - the Mayfair squat 2009

This is yet another example of how so many of the fun things I hear about 'off the internet' come from Ben Goldacre's mini-blog - I should really update the list ;). Two years ago, Ben posted something about a kind of school opening up within a squat in Mayfair. The Temporary School of Thought (TSoT) had a nice website, some positive media interest from my favourite media and a schedule of interesting events. It looked fun.

One of the events was on a Sunday evening (January 2009) - a showing of the film Kind Hearts & Coronets which I went along to with my friend from work. We met for pizza in Shepherd's Market and then, in keeping with the location, went to get some provisions from Fortnum and Mason to share with the squat (it was around Burns' night so we left them a couple of haggises and some wine) and headed over to 39 Clarges Mews to have a bit of a wander round the property before the film began.

It was one of those perfect evenings and I wish I could have spent longer there. The building was lovely, everyone we met was good-natured and friendly (it was never entirely clear to me who was living there and who was a visitor) and there was an eerie gloom over some of the rooms as we were there in the evening and working light fittings were a little sparse. Everyone seemed to be taking photos and having to switch on mobile phones or torches to get enough light, temporarily bathing everything in a slightly lesser gloom. I got chatting to some people while standing next to the main front door and my friend, a little braver than me, went off for further exploration.

We'd remembered to bring torches which were useful in some of the less well-lit areas - the last thing I wanted to do was trip over and break something. The previous event was running a little late and I wondered if my friend would be able to stay for the film as he needed to travel further out home than me and his trains are frankly lightweights and stop early. But about an hour after we arrived we were ushered into the cinema room which was well lit and someone had a laptop and projector set up (this is my kind of squat!) - and the film was great. I was sorry when it came to an end. You can see a picture of the room we were in here, on Dougald Hine's blog. It was like being in one of those old Stella Artois adverts (or whichever company it is that sponsors the Sunday night film) where they show some rural village getting together to watch a film being projected onto a wall or something.

I'd previously signed up to the group's email mailing list and have received one or two emails from them in the last two years. The week before last a couple of new emails appeared announcing that a new school was opening up - The Really Free School (RFS) at 5 Bloomsbury Square. Yippee!

When the first email came in I Googled, nostalgically, for information about the TSoT and one of the people I (micro-briefly) met there who was definitely a resident - he hosted the film on the night I was there, and went by the name Lucky Jimm. And that's how I discovered his blog which I've been reading all week and tweeting excerpts from.

I've already waxed lyrical about his blog when I originally posted a quick email to Posterous about the new Really Free School. In an equivalent of discovering a book that you just can't put down, since coming across his blog I've been hooked, beguiled, ensorcelled (feel free to throw the thesaurus at this, as one word won't do) by the writing and can only hope he gets a shift on and writes a book. I usually read blogs because I'm interested in the topic and nice writing is a pleasant bonus. In this case the topics (squatting, gambling, cycling and drinking) aren't of particular interest to me but the (often poignant) mix of humour, angst, frankness and occasional whimsy has meant that I've found the blog electronically unputdownable. (The blog itself covers several years, the episode on the Mayfair school is just a small part of it, lasting a few weeks).

Reading Jimm's blog about the TSoT gave a lot of really interesting background information about the school and the people behind it - I wish I'd found the blog sooner after the event. I didn't find any blogs written by the other squatmates but if anyone knows of them I'd love to read them too.

I'm not quite sure what overlap there is between the TSoT and the Really Free School, but I loved my visit to TSoT and wanted to see what RFS was about - and the next post will be about my visit to the Bloomsbury school.

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Thursday, 3 February 2011

List of NHS bodies that have stopped funding homeopathy

Shortened link for this post is
Background: Briefly, the Government's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee put out a public call saying "what do you think should be investigated?", a whole bunch of people answered "homeopathy" (and lots of other stuff) and after deliberations they came to the unavoidable conclusion that it offers no benefit beyond placebo and recommended its NHS funding should cease.

Their report, which is available here, (.html .pdf) states:

110. The Government's position on homeopathy is confused. On the one hand, it accepts that homeopathy is a placebo treatment. This is an evidence-based view. On the other hand, it funds homeopathy on the NHS without taking a view on the ethics of providing placebo treatments. We argue that this undermines the relationship between NHS doctors and their patients, reduces real patient choice and puts patients' health at risk. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS.
111. We conclude that placebos should not be routinely prescribed on the NHS. The funding of homeopathic hospitals—hospitals that specialise in the administration of placebos—should not continue, and NHS doctors should not refer patients to homeopaths.
However, this recommendation was ignored by the Department of Health (something about 'patient choice' probably) and this was taken by homeopaths across the land as a reprieve of sorts.

Not killing homeopathy could well be a vote winner, but gradually Primary Care Trusts (who currently commission local services) seem to have realised that a homeopathectomy can help balance the books. Although homeopathy doesn't cost a great deal of money it isn't cost effective because it's not the best way to spend that money.

The British Medical Association also voted in favour of giving homeopathy a swerve: Doctors call for NHS to stop funding homeopathy.

I've not found a list of 'all PCTs that have ended the foolishness of paying for tea-sweeteners and a nice chat' and I have Googled for it, but here's my attempt to collect one together. Who have I missed? How do we hear about consultations? Is it something that local people can spot if they're looking at what their PCT is publishing on its website or is the best place to look?

EDIT: 3 Feb 2011
As always, delightfully, people on Twitter have got in touch to point me to more resources, hooray.

Episode #029 of "Skeptics with a K" highlights which PCTs were funding homeopathy (at time of broadcast, 26 August 2010) and there's a Google Docs document which lists Homeopathy in England by PCT).
EDIT: 14 Aug 2011
After a couple of tweets on this issue this morning @DavidWaldock got in touch to tell me that data is available for Scotland too - see Patients per annum and NHS Spend Details, or the full set, including the Hom in England by PCT doc above, is available here. This data comes from work undertaken (Freedom of Information requests) published on the 21st floor blog.

NHS Highland
"The board of NHS Highland has agreed to end future support for homeopathic treatment for its patients."
Source: NHS Highland board ends support for homeopathy

It also seems that NHS Lothian is giving it some thought as well, although I don't think they've got going yet with their consultation.
Scottish Parliament Written answers, 15 November 2010 Scottish Parliament Written answers, 31 January 2011
Merseyside Skeptic Society reported on 2 April 2011 that, following a meeting of the Professional Executive Committee in March, the NHS in Wirral will no longer fund homeopathy.
According to @kashfarooq and @MrMMarsh "Nottingham City PCT and Nottinghamshire County PCT do not commission homeopathy."
Source: Nottinghamshire NHS and homeopathy
The Greater Manchester Medicines Management Group covers the following 10 PCTs and has told them that homeopathy should not be recommended.
  1. Ashton Leigh & Wigan
  2. Bolton
  3. Salford
  4. Bury
  5. Trafford
  6. Manchester
  7. Stockport
  8. Oldham
  9. Tameside & Glossop
  10. Heywood, Middleton & Rochdale
Sources: GMMMG Homeopathy policy
Greater Manchester Medicines Management Group withdraws NHS funding for homeopathy

NHS West Kent PCT
The review that West Kent undertook a year or so before the Government's own review was mentioned in the Evidence Check document and recommendations were made that it should be shared, by the Department of Health, with other PCTs as a model for their own investigations. West Kent was in the slightly unusual position of also having a homeopathy hospital which was then shut down; most PCTs don't have that.
Source: West Kent PCT commissioning review and decision: PCT Board Meeting 24/07/08

Out of all the possible Primary Care Trusts or Strategic Health Authorities that could ditch homeopathy it's a fairly feeble number that actually have, though I hope and expect that this will change.

This blog doesn't attract that many comments but in the unlikely event that the homeopaths swarm over to bleat about this post (seriously, nothing new here - this is merely a collection of information already available elsewhere in one handy page) I'm not going to publish any pro-homeopathy arguments from them as it's really gone beyond tedium. However if they or anyone else spot an error or omission in this post I'll be happy to correct it.

EDIT 3 Feb 2011
Despite the above (fairly clear) instruction I'm afraid the Malik plague tried to leave a comment but I've deleted it. (Just had to edit this sentence as, inexplicably, I wrote that I'd 'delighted' the comment...).