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

Monday, 31 December 2012

Films in which radiators appear as a source of menace or mild peril

I keep noticing, or remembering bits in films, in which domestic radiators or large boilers / heaters in utility rooms are a bit menacing.

There doesn't appear to be a category for this on TV Tropes though, so I thought I'd collect some myself. Maybe it's just too obvious in that everyone remembers being a bit scared of something that seemed alive or capable of switching itself on and off when it feels like it.

Buddy telephones his dad at work complaining that something is making a terrible noise - it turns out to be a normal wall-mounted radiator.

That whole thing with the lady in the radiator is a bit odd...

and she sings a song...

Home Alone

In the basement there's a very large scary radiator thing, 20sec in, in the trailer below.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

NCBI PubMed and share buttons - easy way to share abstracts?

Update 15 July 2014
This has (sort of) been implemented. You can now share directly from NBCI PubMed to Google+, Facebook and Twitter with one click (if you're also logged in to the services you want to share to) although there's no information given about how many times a particular abstract's been shared. Useful nonetheless and seems to be quite popular.

------- Original post below -------- 

The other day, while reading the answers to a question on Quora: "What is the funniest research paper you have ever read?" I checked on PubMed to see what the URL was for my all-time favourite "Development of a technique for the in vivo assessment of flatulence in dogs" so that I could include it in an answer myself.

While on PubMed I wondered if folk at NCBI knew that I've shared that paper a few times, on Twitter and my blog, in a collection of abstracts or titles that make me giggle, (and now on Quora). I also wondered if the authors knew that their paper had been shared in this way... and that made me wonder about share buttons on PubMed, so that everyone knows how often an abstract's been shared.
Just for fun really as it's not a particularly stable metric to start weighing one abstract against another (see 'More on share buttons and what they can't do' below). Authors whose names are also the names of rude words will be highly 'cited' as I'm sure will any paper making reference to dogs farting, as my favourite one does. I've also shared abstracts that talk about rats flying in space and kittens being startled by a sort of jack-in-the-box device. So the strangeness or amusingness of the paper is definitely a factor.

After a brief exchange on Twitter with Graham Steel (@McDawg) in response to my tweet above he's investigating how useful it might be, with chums at NCBI, and asking other people what they think - there's a poll which he's shared with people via Twitter and email.

I can't really think of any cons other than jealousy if your paper gets shared more than my paper, so to speak, although there may be the risk that people misuse the numbers to imply that their paper's been shared and used more than the 'data' can really say - I think the benefit is mostly for sharers by making it easy to find the right bloomin' link.

Correct URL:
Incorrect URL:

More on share buttons and what they can't do
Article authors will also have copies of their abstracts or even whole papers on their own university site or an academic listing so people might share that link rather than the PubMed one. Also PubMed deals only in biomedical stuff.

But I thought it might be fun for anyone to see that something's been shared. I've noticed that the Advertising Standards Authority has very recently begun doing exactly this so that any adjudication shared from the share buttons on the page will show up. It doesn't show up though if you just copy and paste the URL (so if you want to share a page 'covertly' then that's the way to do it).

I provide a similarly pointless-but-kinda-fun metric for my pals on the CHI+MED project. Because all of our published papers (really pre-prints) are available on our document management system (Knowledge Tree) and it lets you know how often a paper's been downloaded I can provide this info for any paper.

It's fraught with irrelevancy and wrong-ness though because (a) papers that are published early are around longer and have had more opportunity to be downloaded (b) later-published papers are more likely to be promoted on Twitter or elsewhere as we started the Twitter feed a while after the project began. Exactly as above, authors have copies of papers on their own academic pages and they're also findable in university repositories and some journals make copies available too.

It also tells you nothing about the citations, or even if people read them... and if they did read them if they thought they were useful!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Gandalf at the Genesis cinema - The Hobbit, Ian McKellen and a Q&A in aid of Step Forward

Another lovely film-related event I spotted on Twitter by just happening to see the right tweet at the right time.

On Friday night the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel / Stepney Green hosted Ian McKellen (@IanMcKellen, formerly @IanMcKellen118 - his web people need to update the link to his Twitter profile on his website!) as patron of Step Forward (a charity in Tower Hamlets for young people in need of support) for a charity showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. He was there to do a Q&A which was lots of fun and he also brought with him Gandalf's hat, staff and sword for people to get themselves photographed with after the film. In fact he did two Q&As half an hour apart - first in one screen (the one I was in, with the 3D version of the film) and then a second screen which had the film in 2D.

I made some notes while Ian was talking but I was laughing too much for the notes to be particularly coherent. It was all very good humoured and there seemed to be a running gag with the interviewer's microphone which steadfastly refused to work despite being replaced with spares three times. It was difficult to be sure exactly what the interviewer was asking but easy enough to infer from Ian's responses - fortunately he had the good microphone.

If you were there and think I've missed a bit, do let me know - email address above, comments below

First someone from Step Forward thanked us for coming along, we saw a short video explaining the work the charity does helping young people in Tower Hamlets then Ian was introduced to much enthusiastic applause, learning forwards in seats, waving and smartphone photographing. We were pretty pleased to see him.

The first line of my notes reads "3D, pyjamas, landscape, helicopter, Limehouse, Step Forward, Gandalf Grey / White" so let's see what sense I can make of that then.

Involvement with the charity, Step Forward
He was initially asked about his involvement with Step Forward (@Step_Forward) and mentioned that he'd lived in Limehouse for 32 years and the charity had come knocking on his door and it seemed like a natural fit for him. The charity helps young people who are having trouble at home, or difficulty getting into further education and it also provides sexual health advice and counselling.

12 years between films - how was it different
In response to a question about what was different 12 years on he made the point that this time the cast all knew that there were millions of people waiting to see the film(s). The first time round they didn't know if they'd be well received as plenty of people were against any attempts to tamper with Tolkien. The cast was obviously different, one or two the same, but the people behind the cameras were the same. They had new specially designed sets built by Peter Jackson (they were also used in Avatar I think?) and more recently by Spielberg. In response to a later audience question he said that the atmosphere on set was the same, and that this is something that comes 'from the top', ie the director. Apparently it was a bit like the world's most expensive home movie in that Peter Jackson's kids are in it, his partner/wife co-wrote the screenplay and everyone feels like a big family.

He also talked a little about how lovely New Zealand is and how there are bits that are pretty much inaccessible other than by helicopter. Where they were there seems to have been an absence of pylons (as a fan of pylons I can't get quite as excited by that but I get the point). It reminds me of the small child who said, on seeing the countryside for the first time 'look at all the garden without fences!'.

He said before he'd taken on the role initially he'd listened to some tapes of Tolkien reading from The Hobbit and did an impression of him, speaking in a BBCish Oxford sort of voice which I think he said he'd used a little in Gandalf. He said he preferred Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White (a bit more of a 'great commander' type).

He's asked Peter Jackson if there can be a scene in one of the later films where we see Gandalf waking up in the morning - he wants to see what Gandalf's pyjamas might be like although he suspects he just sleeps in his robes ('no-one ever seems to wash').

The tattoo
I think I missed a lot of this cos of giggling but he confirmed that he and most of the Fellowship had indeed had tattoos done after the first trilogy (I think Ian's is on his upper right arm) in Cuba Mall in Wellington. For the latest crop of films the dwarves apparently designed a ring for him with Gandalf insignia inside it. He also mentioned that he had a 'b ring' (I think that's what he called it) from the original films, but he'd elected not to bring it otherwise we'd not be able to see him ;)

This time around the cast was a little bit more middle-aged than the first time and he painted a picture of carousing hobbits off boozing after a day's filming.

What would Tolkien think?
The older members of Tolkien's estate are generally less enamoured of attempts to put the story on film although the younger ones are enthusiastic - one of his grandchildren told Ian that he'd have loved the films (Tolkien was also an amateur actor).

Who would win in a fight? Gandalf or Dumbledore? (Audience question)
This question from a kid got a big laugh :) Ian gave a very thoughtful answer - that Gandalf's powers work most just when he really needs them, and that his spirit informs his innate magic. Also that Gandalf could defeat anyone in the Potter movies ;)

High frame-rate technology
From a bit of background reading it seems that this film is in six versions, 7 if you count the Atmos sound system in some theatres (no idea if we have this in the UK) with 3D/2D, Imax 3D/2D and 2 different frame rates.

Ian said he'd seen the movie twice but that with his older eyes he wasn't sure he could get the full benefit from the frame rate difference, although he thought the use of 3D was wonderful - 'subtle and dramatic' (I saw the film in 3D and it was indeed fantastic - I wonder what Roger Ebert and Walter Murch think as they're apparently not fans of 3D).

Apparently the human eye operates around the 60 frames per second and the high frame rate (HFR) used is 48 whereas we're more used to 24 frame rates.

I've no idea if the Genesis cinema was showing it high frame rate or not - it all looked fine to me though.

Then Ian asked the charity and cinema staff to bring on-stage Gandalf's hat, staff and sword (Glamdring) - he waved the staff at a few people in the front rows, and said that we could have our photos taken with the items after the filming, and then he left our screen and went and talked to the people in the later showing.

As the film began I wondered if my 3D glasses weren't working or if I needed to switch them on as the film was definitely quite blurred. There seemed to be a few people taking off their glasses and putting them on again and there was a bit of movement with people going off and trying a different pair of glasses. Eventually the projectionist realised there was a problem and did something technical that brought everything back into focus - hooray! We only missed the first few minutes so no harm done. It was lovely to step back into the magical world :) I need to go and see it on IMAX now!

This is actually the second time I've seen Ian McKellen 'live' this year - back in September he and 'colleagues' from the Clapham Academy of the Creative Arts ('CACA') packed out the Prince Charles Cinema for a screening of The Academy, a 'documentary' outlining the troubling financial situation that CACA finds itself in. All good fun. Ian plays his less successful brother Murray :)

Further reading
Ian McKellen's Hobbit blog Twitter interviews: #askGandalf transcript (it includes the best way to poach an egg, haha)
Wired: The Hobbit could send movie fans on unexpected journeys - or start a nerd war (on the different film formats).
Quora: What are some of the most mind-blowing facts about The Hobbit (movie)?
Quora: What are some of the most mind-blowing facts about The Lord of the Rings movie

Related reading
Stuff that Occurs to me (this blog): Actor Brendan Fraser introduces Gods and Monsters, in Belfast - obviously Ian McKellen (who is in the film) features a fair bit in this post too though he wasn't there himself. He sent an email to Brendan for him to read out to us :)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

What chemical reaction, if any, is going on here?

Leaf leaves leafprint in wet pavement
Originally uploaded by Jodiepedia

Here's a 'ghost leaf' on a pavement in London. I presume that the leaf landed on the pavement when it was wet and more rain landed on the leaf. When the leaf blew away, or was kicked away by a pedestrian, this was the pattern that was left.

Is it just dirt and oils on the leaf's surface that's making contact with the water on the pavement resulting in this image, or is something 'eluting' from the leaf under rainfall. I'm guessing there's not much in a leaf that's water soluble though so am going with the leaf's waxy outer coating as being the answer. Whatever it is it doesn't come off the pavement very easily with a boot dragging across it.

Anyway it always pleases me to see this sort of 'foliography' for want of a better word.

Here's what I said about it originally, on Flickr, but I know think I'm wrong and that it's just the wax layer being transferred.

Via Flickr:
This looks like the leaf of a London plane which has presumably had something leached out of it and onto the pavement below during the rain. Scraping my boot over the leaf print didn't make a big difference to it, wonder what chemical is creating the pattern, or chemical reaction.

Friday, 21 December 2012

People can now send you tweets by email, even if you're not on Twitter

I've been emailing myself, and others, the links to various tweets using Echofon on my phone for a while now but I've just noticed that has brought in the ...More option for anyone (logged in) to be able to send a tweet to anyone else via their email address (whether or not they're on Twitter themselves).

This means the email will come from Twitter with " shared a tweet with you", rather than an email coming from your friend with the link to a tweet they've spotted.

You can see it in the link below in the screenshot version (next to Favorite) - not sure if it will show up in the embedded version though.

Screenshot version

Embedded version

I can imagine this either being really great, or being really annoying and quite puzzling to people who aren't currently using Twitter and who might therefore be a bit surprised to get messages from Twitter. The subject will look like this "Jo Brodie (@JoBrodie) shared a Tweet with you!" - so it will come from whatever account is logged in, so if you don't know their Twitter handle then it might be confusing.

If you're not interested in receiving these tweetly emails you can pre-emptively block them by setting a filter (for all of your email accounts) that deletes any email coming from or where the subject contains the phrase "shared a tweet with you". People who try and send you tweets will get a message saying "Right now you are not allowed to share this tweet with that email address".

If you don't want set up filters but emails start to come in (OK I'm not really imagining a deluge) you can still unsubscribe from future messages by clicking on the link in the text at the bottom of the email.

I've got several Twitter accounts and several email addresses (one for each) and when Twitter started emailing everyone to tell us what was happening on Twitter (I mean... seriously?) that was pretty irritating having to manually unsubscribe from each one to stop receiving the spam emails.

On the plus side it's another way to 'trap' a tweet, but it only works for individual tweets. If you want to grab someone else's (or your own) timeline I'd recommend Twilert which sends an email every day. Mind you, Twitter's also rolling out the opportunity to download your entire Twitter archive too, but only your own I think.

Further posts in the Twitter tips series... 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Quitting Twitter (not me!) - I didn't really understand the reasons given here to be honest

I read an interesting post on New Statesman today from a very nice chap who I am vaguely aware of on Twitter, Steven Baxter, who has decided that Twitter isn't for him. This is perfectly fine and anyone should feel free to bow out of Twitter or any social medium without having to offer any explanation - everything has a natural shelf life and one day perhaps I'll move on from Twitter in the way I have moved on from Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

What I couldn't really understand was this particular reason below. Some of the other reasons did make a little bit more sense, although I didn't really agree with most of them - maybe individually they weren't enough to change his ideas about Twitter, but they combined into one large concern about using it.

This particular reason still has me baffled though...
For one thing, I'm planning on becoming a teacher soon. As such, it's not good to have every single thought you utter out there for the world to see, searchable forever more, by the odd the rogue vexatious parent or and mischievous pupil. I'd rather not comb through everything I've ever said, or run the risk of starting all over and saying one regrettable thing.
It's a different world, this one we're working in now. If you're in the public sector, there are people who are out to get you, to snivel if you do anything other than flog yourself with a cast iron sign saying "sweat of hardworking taxpayers" during a lunchbreak. If you're in education, there are people who might want to see you done down, and could look for any excuse, in or out of the workplace, to do it.

... well OK, you'd want to be careful about what you say, especially if there's a risk that your pupils or colleagues might get wind of it. I'm not convinced that not having a social media account is much protection against vexatious parents or mischievous pupils though. I'm not sure that having a social media account would necessarily help either, beyond letting you put your case across perhaps (useful if you have a fair few supportive followers).

I'm also not sure that a social media account could be entirely neutral in situations where someone's having problems, so I might have to sit on the fence on that one.

You might think that protecting your account could solve a lot of problems. It's a start but it's by no means a guarantee as your friends' responses to you are probably visible, allowing people to surmise what you're up to from what they say to you. I've written about this quite recently (Don't assume that your private Twitter account is all that private).

Possibly one way to go is to use a pseudonymous account and be very careful about who gets to know that it's you - although the content of your tweets can also give you away of course.

I think lots of teachers have found Twitter to be a really useful thing - for sharing resources, community, fun and japes. I'm not a teacher and haven't surveyed their views on it, and I'm sure some teachers haven't any time for Twitter.. but I'm still a wee bit puzzled by the chain of argument given above.

But just to be absolutely clear Steven can do whatever he likes with his own social media accounts and this post is not a criticism of his decision - I just don't understand some of the steps in the reasoning and think bits of them are a wee bit mistaken. I wish him well in his offline life :)

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

I have just head the term 'subtweeting' - it's actually not very stealthy

Just posted this comment over at some random post at Business Insider, thought I'd post it here as it's relevant to my fascination with the way social media makes things surface that otherwise might be ... unsurfaced.

Subtweeting is apparently tweeting about someone without using the person's Twitter handle on the assumption that they won't hear about it. I'd not recommend relying on that.


I'd be surprised if subtweeting (hadn't heard the term before) is of much use in stealth tweeting to be honest as there seem to be so many different ways in which the link can become obvious.

The simplest is looking at the (presumably public) profile of the person or people who might tweet about you. If it's private then you might search for tweets SENT to that person, in response to any tweet they might have sent.

If a tweet is sent in reply it forms part of a chain of tweets - even if people's names are removed from the next tweet the chain remains. Just click on any tweet to see the conversation it's participated in.

You can't even use short URLs to 'hide' a web address either as searching for the web address will bring it up along with any shortened versions (whether / etc).

Improving (my) foreign language skills through science podcasts - suggestions needed

I stole the content of this blog post from myself. This was originally published (16 November 2011) on one of my Posterous blogs and it occurred to me that it might get more of an audience here! Here goes :)

The last time I spoke French with any competence I could say "J'ai seize ans" and mean it. Not that much competence mind but I could get by if the topics of conversation were restricted to the purchasing of meat, pastries and tobacco and the whereabouts of cathedrals and other landmarks.

So my French is a bit ossified, and rather junior.

I don't know if it's possible to estimate my reading or comprehension age for written French - probably a lot lower than 16 years old - but this made me think about communications that are created for non-experts... and the role of science communication.

There are many science blogs and science podcasts that don't require a big vocabulary (or the terms are properly introduced) and it seems reasonable to suppose that a popular-science blogpost or podcast in French or Spanish might be pitched at a level that I could follow and learn from.

Last night I found some French podcasts (will put link in later, am on train & composing on phone's notepad) which have the huge bonus of being mostly accompanied by a transcript. The speed of spoken French is a pleasant blur but it's easier to tune up your ears with visual cues from text.

In passing, Kat Arney - who knows a thing or two about science podcasts - told me that transcripts are useful anyway for people who want to know how to spell certain scientific terms and they also add searchable content to your website (which might also increase the number of people finding your podcast.)

I have visited this topic before but didn't get very far... is anyone trying to combine science and language learning in this type of format?

For example, I've not heard of school lessons where two separate classes (French and Chemistry, say) are taught simultaneously to English-speaking pupils but it sounds intriguing in a "killing two birds with one stone" sort of way. There's every chance that it would be a chaotic mess though.

I'd quite like to combine language learning with science information acquisition. If you know of science podcasts or blogs in French, Spanish or Italian - that are pitched to a fairly "young" audience (either children who speak that language or adults who have a basic grasp) then I am toutes oreilles.

I have another flight of fancy if you will indulge me: maybe there could be an annual "translate your blog post into another language" type of thing. Even if it was only run through Google Translate... :)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Here's how I use Posterous - I've edited out the swearing

The editing window in a Posterous blog is for entertainment purposes only and presents you with an image of your final blog post that turns out to bear little resemblance to reality. I have just published a new post on one of my Posterous blogs and the process went something like this.

1. Copy and paste the text from an email, neaten it up and add some embedded links and a picture. Publish.

2. Look in horror at the mangled version that is now winging its way to followers of the work Twitter account. It started off a rather neat Arial 10 with paragraphs and just the right amounts of white space and line breaks and ended up a non-hyperlinked, Courier New variant with no line breaks and text stretching across the page requiring a lot of scrolling. And the picture didn't work - fair enough I just copied it in rather than saving it to desktop and uploading it.

3. Well obviously I clicked on the Edit button to fix this, but then I weakened. Foolishly (never do this) I copied and pasted the text into Word and edited it there and then pasted back the edited version. Bad. Never edit any blog post text in Word. Bravely pressed publish.

4. Here's why I should never edit any post in Word. It adds a large paragraph of code (see below) to the top of the text, invisible when in Word, very visible when edited into a thing that can read html code. The code text refers to the type of fonts that are being used and a whole load of other guff. Posterous also added in some random line breaks. The really annoying ones where you can't backspace delete (because then it joins two lines together) and can't press enter (because it separates them with a linespace between). This is where you have to know how to use the Shift key to manipulate the lines so that one sits on top of the other. Eventually I managed to beat them into submission. Then I re-added the picture (correctly) and pressed publish.

It looks OK.

But this is just part of the normal fight I have with every Posterous post I publish directly on the web. I've stopped looking at the ones I publish by email, it's just heartbreaking that a piece of software that is specifically designed to publish text is so poorly equipped to complete that task. It's a bit like having a camera that nearly takes pictures, or a pencil that won't write on paper.

Here's an example of the sort of code that Word inserts into things - it even does it if you transfer a drafted email from Word to Thunderbird mail program. Maddening.

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Saturday, 8 December 2012

What's the deal with frame rates?

Whenever I watched my parents' television when younger I was often struck by the differences in appearance among films, sitcoms and adverts. I've never really been able to put into words what it is about the difference that I've noticed though, other than that films seem somehow more distant than sitcoms.

I just assumed it was to do with the quality of the type of film used to record in the first place, and nothing to do with our standard CRT television.

When the magnet went on the TV (and we didn't know about the YouTube videos showing you how to fix it) my dad got a new one - it's a flat screen digital affair.

Personally I'm not a fan (I still use a CRT myself) and find that there are artefacts on these modern new-fangled televisions that distract me. Worse, old episodes of Midsomer Murders look... a bit modern, I don't quite understand why they look so different.

I'm not sure if the more modern television is able to show the programmes as they were originally intended, and the earlier television wasn't, whereas more expensive (presumably) motion picture film already overcame the weaknesses of the television... does that sound plausible?

Very much looking forward to seeing the new Hobbit film but the thing I'm really intrigued about is to see how the two frame rates compare, I will probably go and see it in all the formats that I can find, just to check ;)

Friday, 7 December 2012

Don't assume that your private Twitter account is all that private

by @JoBrodie

You can protect your tweets (lock your account) by visiting the settings page, which can be found here: and put a tick next to 'Tweet privacy' which looks like this.

If selected, only those you approve will receive your Tweets. Your future Tweets will not be available publicly. Tweets posted previously may still be publicly visible in some places. Learn more.

Note: ticking the box in the image above does NOT affect your Twitter privacy, you need to do this on your own Twitter account. Go to to do this (& log in)

Once you've done that then people who aren't following you cannot see your timeline without your permission. You'll have a little lock symbol next to your name and people have to send a request to follow you.

However I don't think any system is perfect and from looking at the comments on a similar post (about blocking people) I wondered if this might be giving people a false sense of security (or privacy).

There are several ways in which people can read directly, or at least work out, what's in your tweets.

1. Although Twitter makes it harder for someone to retweet a locked account (the 'Retweet' button doesn't work) this can't stop someone from copying the text manually and reposting it. If you think someone reading your timeline might do this (without your permission) then your tweets aren't perfectly private.

2. Anything that is visible on the screen of a device can be captured by my making a screenshot* - this can then be posted as an image accompanying a tweet. This also includes anything written on a private Facebook page or ANY system. If you can see it on your screen you can show it to someone else.

3. If you've ever heard someone talking on a phone you're hearing just one side of the conversation but you can usually work out what the person they're talking to might be saying, from how they respond. It's possible to search for someone's name on Twitter, or their @mentions, and see what people say to them even if you can't see what they say.

Even without a conversation I might give away what you're planning to do tonight if I talk about meeting in Ye Olde Pubbe at 7.30 and mention you and a couple of other people we're meeting. Someone else watching might reasonably assume that you might be at the pub too.

* How to make a screenshot / take a 'photo' of your screen
Simultaneously press the on/off button at the top and the home button at the bottom, the screen is then saved as an image to your cameraroll.

Press the PrtScr button which is usually somewhere to the top right of your keyboard, you may need to use the Function (Fn) key to activate it. The image is stored temporarily in your clipboard which is generally hidden, but you can view and edit the image by pasting it (Ctrl+V) into Paint / Paintbrush.

If you just want to copy the currently active window use Alt+PrtScrn (thanks to @zeno001 for pointing that one out!)

To take a copy of the entire screen use Ctrl+Command+Shift+3 (you can then paste it somewhere using Command+V) but if you want to save it as a picture file on the desktop remove the Ctrl bit, ie Command+Shift+3.

To select just a bit of the page to copy use either Ctrl+Command+Shift+4, or to save to desktop use Command+Shift+4.

Related reads

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Trying to familiarise myself with the 'Computer Science teaching in schools' literature

As I'm helping out a bit more on another project at Queen Mary (on my boss Paul Curzon's cs4fn project) I'm trying to find out a bit more about 'the literature' relating to various outreach programmes that aim to engage school pupils in the world of computer science.

As I'm not familiar with either the literature, or the search strategies I should be employing to winkle it out (very familiar with life sciences / medical database searching, less so with computer science other than the ACM Digital Library and generic Web of Knowledge) I feel I'm fiddling about more than necessary.

Here are some papers I've found (some are written by my colleagues) on the topic, but what I'm particularly after is information about surveys of CS teachers - what do they want / need? There are already some looking at awareness of CS among high school children and first year students (who studied maths and were required to take a CS module, which they seemed to rather like) but I've not found many that have asked teachers.

I've also just discovered the CSTA (Computer Science Teachers' Association) which does have one or two surveys up its sleeves, so will be hunting there too.

But my question so far (and it may not even be the right question of course!) is - what do computer science teachers want or need to help them teach computer science and encourage pupils to think computationally?

Bibliography - not systematic I'm afraid, mostly foraged and follow-on from citations. Many will prove to be not that relevant but the process of finding that out for myself has been useful! The order below is the order in which I downloaded PDFs or noted the citation. I've added links which should help anyone to track the papers down although I can't guarantee that you'll be able to access them (they open on my computer because I'm within an academic institution that is subscribed to most of them).

1. Published papers
2. Parliamentary discussions / reports to Government

1. Published papers
01 Myketiak (2012)
cs4fn: a flexible model for computer science outreach

02 Curzon (2009)
Computational thinking (CT): on weaving it in

03 Curzon (2008)
Engaging with computer science through magic shows

04 Bell (2011)
Introducing students to computer science with programmes that don't emphasise programming

05 Curzon (2007)
Serious fun in computer science

06 [Multiple authors - conference proceedings]
Proceedings of the 12th annual SIGCSE conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education

07 Thies (2012)
Reflections on outreach programs in CS classes: learning objectives for "unplugged" activities

08 Taub (2012)
CS Unplugged and Middle-School Students’ Views, Attitudes, and Intentions Regarding CS

09 Blum (2007)
CS4HS: an outreach program for high school CS teachers

10 Carter (2006)
Why students with an apparent aptitude for computer science don't choose to major in computer science

11 Liu (2011)
A Survey on Computer Science K-12 Outreach: Teacher Training Programs

12 Ragonis (2010)
A Survey of Computer Science Teacher Preparation Programs in Israel Tells Us: Computer Science Deserves a Designated High School Teacher Preparation!

13 Porta (2010)
Dec-CS: The Computer Science Declining Phenomenon

14 Guzdal (2011)
Learning How to Prepare Computer Science High School Teachers

15 Moura (2011)
Teaching a CS introductory course: An active approach

16 Donathan (2011)
Successful K-12 Outreach Strategies

17 Ragonis (2011)
A Study on Attitudes and Emphases in Computer Science Teacher Preparation

18 Tillman
(year not given on preprint, est > 2010)
Pex4Fun: Teaching and Learning Computer Science via Social Gaming

19 Altinkurt, Y., & Yilmaz, K. (2012). Prospective science and mathematics teachers’ computer anxiety and learning styles. Energy Education Science and Technology Part B: Social and Educational Studies, 4(2), 933–942.

20 Sherrell (2012)

Tri-P-LETS: Changing the Face of High School Computer Science. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 31(1), 61-85. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

21  Curzon (2008)

Securing the future of computer science: computer science for fun
9th Annual Conference of the Subject Centre for Information and Computer Sciences

22 Curzon (2009, though year not given on preprint) Enthusing students about computer science

23 Lapidot (2007)
The Israeli Summer Seminars for CS Leading Teachers

24 Cutts (2007)
Enthusing and informing potential computer science students and their teachers

25 Major (2011)
Experiences of prospective high school teachers using a programming teaching tool

26 Lapidot (2007)
Supporting the Growth of CS Leading Teachers

27 Denning (2005)
Recentering computer science

28 Cutts (2011)
Computing as the 4th "R": a general education approach to computing education

29 Roberts (2005)

30 Gal-Ezer (2010)

31 Arkansas Legislation (2007)

32 Pontier (1996)

2. Parliamentary discussions / reports to Government
13 January 2012
Royal Society report

Computing in schools: Shut down or restart?

"There is a need to improve understanding in schools of the nature and scope of Computing. In particular there needs to be recognition that Computer Science is a rigorous academic discipline of great importance to the future careers of many pupils. The status of Computing in schools needs to be recognised and raised by government and senior management in schools."
"Every child should have the opportunity to learn Computing at school, including exposure to Computer Science as a rigorous academic discipline."
 And from the Summary document (Paul Nurse, foreword):
"It is becoming increasingly clear that studying Computer Science provides a ‘way of thinking’ in the same way that mathematics does, and that there are therefore strong educational arguments for taking a careful look at how and when we introduce young people to the subject."

9 February 2012
Schools: ICT

13 March 2012
Schools: Computer Science
Northern Ireland Assembly

"Given that the school viability audits use the percentage of pupils attaining grades A to C at GCSE as an indicator of a quality educational experience, and that it is generally recognised that ICT would give a better chance of pupils achieving a higher grade than other subjects such as computer science, does the Minister agree that schools are unlikely to choose to offer the more challenging option, unless they are actively encouraged to do so?"

22 March 2012
Digital Economy
Oral Answers to Questions — Culture, Media and Sport
10:30 am

" I am concerned about getting more young people involved in the industry, given that the number of people studying computer science is lower now than it was a decade ago and the proportion of women doing computer science has gone down to only 14%."

9 November 2012

"...we are now consulting on withdrawing the existing ICT Programmes of Study and Attainment Targets from September 2012. This will free schools to develop more innovative ICT curricula with a greater focus on computer science, drawing on support from industry and other expert groups.

ICT will however remain a compulsory subject at all key stages, pending the outcome of the current review of the national curriculum in England." 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

How to pipette properly

This is for the benefit of anyone making TV series or films that feature the transfer of small amounts of liquid from one place to another via pipette, in a laboratory setting - let's get it right. Or at least a bit right-er.

OK it's probably a bit rich of me to tell anyone how to pipette properly as it's been almost ten years since I stepped foot inside a lab, and to be fair most of the stuff I was handling wasn't amenable to plasticware (I was doing lipid science which requires some chemicals that tend to destroy plastic. The destruction of the plastic is less of a problem than the fact that contact between the chemical and the plastic can cause stuff that's in the plastic to 'leach out', wrecking the sample. Glass all the way.)

1. Gloves are there to protect you from the chemicals and whatnot, but importantly they're also there to protect whatever you're handling from you (from your sweat, dust and other stuff on your skin) so when wearing gloves don't fiddle with your hair or face. In some cases you might want to avoid picking up the phone or opening the door with a gloved hand, it does depend though. Ten years on and I still open doors with my foot in preference, where possible.

2. No 'skooshing' of the liquid from the pipette into the test-tube or wherever it's being placed. While this will certainly encourage mixing, which you often want, if you whoosh it in too fast you can lose some of it. If you skoosh it into a test-tube that already contains some liquid then you can end up jettisoning some of that liquid too - so you end up with the wrong amounts of everything. Or, you might form aerosols (tiny breathable liquid particles which you probably don't want). Not crucial if you're making orange squash but not so good in science.

Generally, you should angle the test-tube and touch the end of the disposable pipette tip against the lower side and depress the plunger gently. The liquid will then trickle down gracefully. If you want to mix it with another liquid (or dissolve something in the tube) you can suck up a bit of the slightly mixed liquid and repeat a few times (squidge it up and down a bit), or hold firmly (in your hand) but lightly against one of those vortex mixers).

I was once asked, by a new student in the lab, what the vortex mixer was for and I helpfully explained that you could put an Eppendorf (microcentrifuge) tube on it and it would mix it nicely for you. How we laughed when he took it a bit literally and he placed it on the mixer - without holding onto it - and it pinged off across the lab.

Next week: How to make fatty acid methyl esters. Kidding :)

Monday, 3 December 2012

In support of Lewisham A&E

I fell through a stepladder a few years ago and lacerated (their word) my leg. My flatmate called for an ambulance and off I went to Lewisham A&E for stitches and a tetanus shot.

Despite excellent care the wound didn't quite heal properly and I ended up having to have 'surgical debridement' where they cut back the bits that don't heal1 to a 'bleeding wound bed' after which 'regranulation' can occur. Thanks to the surgeon, Mr Sweeney (not a name you forget), anaesthetists2, nurses, cleaners and people who made me some toast... I and my leg made a full recovery over a couple of months (it was quite a big wound). I now look like I've had a rather triangular chunk taken out of my leg by a very neat shark.

It was a ridiculously hot summer (2003) and while it was all healing I managed to scratch the area just next to the large square plaster. The spreading red marks concerned me as I'd been warned to watch out for cellulitis and I took myself back to Lewisham A&E wondering if I was going to sound like a hypochondriac for saying at reception "I think I might have cellulitis". They didn't mess about and I got some antibiotics (amoxicillin and flucloxacillin3 and the suspected death mites cleared up in a few days.

So I'd be pretty sad if Lewisham A&E wasn't there, and from what I can gather, so would an awful lot of other local people. There are some things that people can read, sign or comment on in the links above.

It's not just Lewisham A&E, their maternity services are under threat too. More at Londonist.

Mind you, if they do have to close Lewisham A&E they might also want to do something about that massive gap between the platform and the trains at Lewisham railway station - I can't help thinking that probably results in the creation of a fair few patients.

Little superscripty footnotes
1. looking back, kinda gangrenous
2. who answered every question I asked about anaesthesia. I had that propofol in the back of my hand
3. I've never been able to pronounce that, although I can manage Eyjafjallajökull no bother thanks to the BBC's pronunciation guide.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Google in Education: Paul Curzon on 'Inspiring students about computing'

Today I lurked on a Google Hangout. It worked amazingly - OK there were a couple of glitches (getting booted out but really quick to get back in again) but I was amazed at several aspects of it. Whenever someone spoke the camera switched to them - I didn't know it did this, having two windows open (the camera image and presentation slides) worked very well for the viewer (although a bit fiddly for the presenter) and when finished the completed recording was on Google's site within minutes. Impressive.

I think you'll have to go here to see the video though, I suspect it's not possible to 'embed' a Google Hangout in a blog but I may be wrong (if you know please tell me).

Google in Education: Paul Curzon on 'Inspiring students about computing'

Background information

cs4fn (Computer Science for fun) is the name of the project.

The text below is just lifted from what I wrote about it on the Google pages, with better links.

Today my boss Paul Curzon talked about sharing stories to get across ideas of how to get school children thinking about computation and human factors in computer science teaching. He used examples of "I'm thinking of someone, can you guess who it is?" and the types of questions you'd need to ask to work it out.

It wouldn't help to keep asking "Is it A?", "Is it B?" as you'd be asking questions forever. Instead it's better to ask 'halving' questions that reduce, with each question, the number of possibles. So "are they still alive?" or "is it a man or a woman?" are good questions to ask.

He gave the example of strategies used by the author of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, had locked-in syndrome after a stroke and could only communicate by blinking an eye) and his writing assistant to make transcribing his thoughts easier. Rather than having to blink once when the relevant letter was read (a, b, c, d, e, f, g [blink] = g) they used the frequency of letters in the language to speed up his dictation.

There are other strategies too, eg ask someone to blink if the letter is in the first half of the alphabet, then 'halve' again.

It's not just about algorithms of course. It's easy to design a system that does something well but it's important to remember the people who are going to be using it... (nb: wikipedia link)

I really enjoyed hearing my boss tell stories and I also enjoyed the bit setting things up before. We realised that the webcam was particularly sensitive to the 50Hz flicker of tube lighting so went off to source some 'red head' lights which have a nice warm light. It turns out that we have, at QMUL, the most amazing resources for filming - thanks to Richard Kelly for helping us with tripods and whatnot. And thanks to Google for setting this up in the first place and Jonathan B for roping me in for some geeky fun :)

The slight irony is that I couldn't participate in the Google Hangout myself because it would have caused interference and confusion, and I won't be able to join in much on tomorrow's one either (more coming on that) because I have the official role of Camera Op Two. It really means holding the webcam steady but I am rather looking forward to it...

Thursday, 15 November 2012

ASA adjudicates on misleading diabetes advert on World Diabetes Day ;)

Fairly often, on a Wednesday, I take a look at the rulings from the Advertising Standards Authority and today I was surprised to see this one - and on World Diabetes Day! It's not one of my complaints (see more after the line).

The advert is available in full at the link above, here's an excerpt - note that the advert talks only about Type 2 diabetes and not Type 1:
The aim of any reversal programme is to help people to control their condition and, where possible, reduce or eliminate the need for medication.

His diabetes was so out of control that he had been told he would need to begin taking insulin ... After following the [redacted] ... his diabetes was totally under control without medication...
As far as I can tell it's a residential programme with access to properly qualified healthcare professionals (doctor and nurse) and people lose weight on it.

The word 'reversal' makes me twitchy though and in their response to the ASA's questions about this the company said that "a reversal of Type 2 diabetes could be defined as a reduction in an individual's blood glucose levels, a reduction in their medication, and in some cases an elimination of the need for medication."

Well... a bit... I suppose. I've always felt that a reversal of diabetes would also include significant improvements in blood fats (cholesterol etc) and blood pressure. Glucose is a big part of diabetes but there's a lot of cardiovascular stuff going on too.

I'm not sure if reversal would also mean an elimination of the threat of future complications too - although we might be getting into the tricky semantics of what is meant by 'reversal' or 'cure' and the company were very clear in their acknowledgement that there's no cure for Type 2 diabetes.

They also said that until recently "the charity Diabetes UK had not used the word "reversal" in relation to Type 2 diabetes, even though it was in common usage in the United States. They explained that that had changed in June 2011 when a small scale study undertaken by Newcastle University, funded by Diabetes UK, showed that Type 2 diabetes was reversible through diet. They stated that as a result of the study Diabetes UK had accepted that a change in diet could lead to a reversal of the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes."

Reversal of symptoms... reversal of Type 2 diabetes - which is it. Many people with Type 2 diabetes have no symptoms or any symptoms they have can easily be explained as 'just getting older'. People with well-controlled diabetes might not have the symptoms of diabetes either, but that's not a reversal of T2 diabetes.

I can't help thinking that companies that make health claims could be keeping skeptic bloggers on some sort of retainer, periodically sending them advertising material to pre-snark at before it goes live. Sort of like testing your prototype to destruction. (No, I am not offering my services).

The statement "a small scale study... showed that T2 diabetes was reversible through diet" was the thing that made me sit up on the bus this morning when I read it. They're referring to a small pilot study - that I wrote about in detail here - in which the trial participants underwent a fairly extreme diet which was very low in calories (600cal), and lasted for probably a bit longer (two months) than you might undertake on a residential healthy holiday. The trial diet and the residential programme seem to be two very different and non-comparable things and although the advert doesn't make any claims linking the two I'm really surprised that this was used in the evidence given to the ASA afterward.

The company also volunteered several satisfied customers who were prepared to offer testimonials about reductions in medication and improvements in their health... oh dear.

Not all negative though - I was pleased to see that if "a guest decided they wanted to reduce or stop taking their diabetes medication, an appointment would be made for them to discuss any changes with the doctor. They also stated that when a guest left the retreat they were given a letter to pass on to their own GP detailing the programme, and were encouraged to make an appointment as soon as possible on their return to discuss their future medication requirements."

I suppose it's also a plus that they're not offering live blood microscopy or live blood analysis or anything like that.

I have previously blogged about the company after putting in a complaint about them myself, however this particular complaint and ruling didn't come from me (and I don't know who it came from). Not long after I blogged about about my complaint the owner of the company got in touch and sent me the world's politest email asking if I wouldn't mind taking the post down. Their reason was that because the previous misleading text had now been removed - I was basically blogging 'after the fact' - my record of it wasn't doing them any favours in google as, for some reason, my blog was coming up in the first few pages. 

They were pleasant, agreed that they didn't want to mislead anyone and sounded reasonable so I happily took down the post and the comments with it. Some of the comments had been a bit snarky, but nothing unpleasant, but I said I'd leave the post for another day as I don't think it's fair to take down a post straight after someone's posted a comment disagreeing with me. The post has been down ever since and I've no plans to repost it or mention the company by name although you will easily find it from the link above.

Today's ruling amazed me. The claims were clearly pushing up to the boundaries (I agree it's quite a grey area) and I cannot understand why the company didn't agree to amend things. That way the end result would be 'informally resolved' and the company mentioned on the informally resolved page and that's it. I suppose they were confident that they could provide evidence for the claims and felt that the ASA board would agree, however there's now another page on the internet which highlights misleading claims made and I don't think it's going to be taken down no matter how polite the request. When I googled the company (and bear in mind that Google does personalise stuff) the ASA ruling was on my first page of results.

Since I am feeling kindly disposed towards pleasant people, even if I disagree with their claims, I will remove the company's name from any comments.