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, 30 September 2012

Handy Twitter RSS feeds to bypass IFTTT Twitter trigger switchoff

Edit: 12 June 2013 - Twitter has now killed off all RSS feeds as far as I can tell.

Below are examples of the RSS versions of Twitter feeds which should work as an IFTTT trigger. It's no longer possible to use Twitter feeds directly, but from what I hear the RSS version of the Twitter feed works fine

You don't have to use IFTTT if you just want to save a bunch of tweets though - @bitoclass subscribes to the RSS feed of his own tweets using the Opera browser to store them. I've tried this out for my own favourites (using the 'Opera mail' option) and it seems to work fine, and it doesn't delete them once you've read them.

Because the RSS feeds are also web addresses (URLs) you can open them straight into a browser although they behave differently, for example I couldn't get them to open in Chrome - it wanted to download an RSS reader.

Replace the username or search term(s) with your own.
  1. User:
  2. Mentions: 
  3. Favourites:
  4. Search: (%20 acts as 'space')
  5. Hashtag search:  (%23 acts as '#')
Twitter's actually switching off support for RSS feeds in March 2012 so this won't be a long-term solution. Hopefully someone will think of a fix before then!

There used to be an RSS feed icon on every page but Twitter removed those a year ago, however the RSS addresses (URLs) still worked, and versions of them work now.

Some example IFTTT recipes that can be customised, all use RSS feeds as the trigger
- note that I've not used or tested any of these

Further reading

Further posts in the Twitter tips series...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

IFTTT and Twitter - what alternatives will work?

Edit 12 June 2013 - Twitter has now stopped RSS feeds from working as far as I can tell.

There's a bit of preamble about IFTTT and then a question which you might be able to help with. If you already know about IFTTT please skip the preamble and jump to the question :)

1 October 2012
It seems that RSS feeds of Twitter will work on IFTTT where Twitter feeds alone won't (cos
they've had to switch them off as Triggers). That saying they'll only work until 5 March 2012 and
then Twitter will switch off support for RSS too...


Preambly bit about IFTTT
If I understand correctly, as of 27 September 2012, people will no longer be able to use Twitter's system to send or store tweets somewhere else(1). For example people have been able to use the If This Then That service to post their tweets to Google+archive their tweets in a text fileGoogle Calendar or Evernote.

These are all done with 'recipes', created by users, in which IFTTT drives information from Twitter to another service. Recipes involve channels, triggers and actions - eg you can create a recipe that says if a tweet is posted (trigger) to Twitter (channel) then post it (action) to Evernote (another channel). IFTTT's 'About us' explains this very well.

There's a list of recipes here that include Twitter as a trigger (the Twitter icon appears on the left of the recipe) or as an action (on the right), some example below.

See a whole bunch of recipes like this, sending tweets to Evernote

Examples of Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr etc triggers sent to Twitter
My understanding is that any recipe that has Twitter on the left will no longer work next week, because IFTTT has been asked / told / forced to remove Twitter triggers, but those with Twitter on the right hand side will continue to work (because Twitter's happy to have stuff sent to its service). Apparently IFTTT has been in violation of Twitter's terms of conditions regarding how third party applications can use its API and while this may be technically correct (Facebook and LinkedIn had to stop using this too I think) it's a bit annoying for end users who had set up systems to archive or do stuff with their tweets.

So... are there any alternatives, or will they all be blocked for misusing Twitter's API?

Is there anything that Nigel Paul can do to retain the ability to automatically retweet, 12 hours later on delay, the tweets he's tagged with #r12, and to forward tweets tagged with #gl to both Google+ and LinkedIn? He's currently using IFTTT to take a trigger from Twitter, and that's the functionality that's being disabled.

I wonder if the first one (#r12) might be OK. Although the trigger is a tweet the action is also a tweet and I don't know if Twitter will smile kindly on this as the end result is going back to Twitter. There are plenty of examples of IFTTT recipes in which one type of tweet triggers a different kind of tweet (eg auto-thanking people for following you).

The next bit is about using RSS feeds to bypass Twitter but it looks like Twitter's gone ahead and killed off RSS feed support already ;) Checked now and seems to be back again! (8.34am 28 Sep 2012)

Alternatively, it might be possible to solve by using RSS as the trigger, instead of Twitter. Although the relevant addresses to use are pretty hidden Twitter's various streams (user, mentions, search etc) do support RSS feeds as a way of reading the updates - however RSS support will apparently be switched off by Twitter on 5 March 2013.

Edit: 9.14am - RSS feeds do work (the only example I've looked at is saving tweets to Evernote but see further reading below for how to set up and customise an IFTTT recipe using RSS feeds)

Example RSS feeds, just swap the relevant search term with your own:
  • User: (opens fine in Firefox and Internet Explorer where I'm logged in to two different Twitter accounts. On Chrome, where I'm logged into a third account) it tries to launch an RSS reader app)
  • Mentions: (as above)
  • Favourites: (gives blank page in Firefox and Chrome, says there's a format error in Internet Explorer so perhaps the link has changed)- aha try instead but swap jamietr for your own (or presumably someone else's if you want) screen name. I heard about this format for the URL from this comment on this blog post.
  • Search (use %20 between words to fill in for the space and make the URL continuous): - all instances of fluffy bunnies :) (as for User and Mentions)
  • Hashtag search (use %23 for the # symbol):  (as above)
I've not tried it but I suspect that for the next six months Nigel might be able to reset his recipe and point the trigger at the RSS feed for his tweets tagged with #r12 and get IFTTT to send a delayed retweet twelve hours later, or those tagged with #gl to be posted to G+ and LinkeIn. The RSS feed's URL can only give you everything tagged with the #r12 or #gl hashtags and not just your own tweets (RSS doesn't let you log in to anything so it doesn't know you're you) so IFTTT would need to be able to fish out just the ones you send. No idea if it can do that.

But if it is possible to gather just your own hashtagged tweets and if Twitter doesn't compel IFTTT to block Twitter's RSS feeds as triggers then this might work (for six months!)

But what to do after six months, or if IFTTT isn't allowed to send Twitter's RSS feeds to Google+ or LinkedIn?

What are the alternatives, if any? Will let you post your tweets (what are they called there?) to other services? Or will etc?

(1) This statement needs a bit of qualification, and I need to learn more about what the terms of use for the API mean, hampered a bit by the fact that I'm not a developer and don't understand the jargon. Twitter doesn't seem to want stuff going to 'the cloud' and I think it's stopped tweets that are posted on Twitter from being sent to Facebook or LinkedIn. However I think it lets updates that are posted on Fb or Ln be sent to Twitter though, so it's a matter of directionality too. It has previously been possible for someone to link their Twitter, Facebook and / or Linkedin accounts together and automate the shuttling of tweets to other places. Google+ users found that there wasn't this automation in place and so used IFTTT to automate the process for themselves, as mentioned above.

Twitter has said that it's happy for services like Storify to continue to use tweets yet these are also stored outside of Twitter (presumably in a cloud?).

Further reading

Further posts in the Twitter tips series...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

More Word glitches solved - troublesome HYPERLINKs and apostrophes

Sporadically (usually after a Windows update I think) my work computer's version of Word starts to look like this, with embedded URLs showing up with the format { HYPERLINK "http://www. " }


Screenshot of shouty hyperlinks


Screenshot of normal embedded hyperlinks

In a few weeks or months it will probably do it again and I'll google the solution. It's Alt+F9.

Information found from (switch your sound off, the website has an annoying autoplay advert but the info works) - apparently I'm toggling field code shortcuts.

I suppose this way of acknowledging a hyperlink is just a more overt equivalent of hovering over the link so that the URL pops up, as it does on the web.

For some reason this doesn't appear to work on my version of Word anymore and if I want to see what the URL is I have to pretend to edit it (right click, edit hyperlink). One day I'll add that to my solved glitches too but the workaround works fine I suppose.

Bonus solved annoyance
Shortly after I fixed that I found that apostrophes were playing up. I tried to type "you've" but it ended up as "you' ve" with a single enlarged space between the apostrophe and the letter V. Googling brought up a forum post in which several answers were offered (I found selecting all the text and changing the font was the one that worked for me). The solution was to be found here

I've written before on the odd characters that Google adds to the address after you've done your search.[deleted]AfHjoCoDQ&ved=0C[deleted]AQ&q=Word+gap+after+apostrophe&spell=1&biw=1307&bih=7[deleted]3

This is the one that you'd share with someone else (unless you just said "search for... on Google"). It's not particularly human readable (at least not Jo-readable) so I don't know what it means - I've deleted random bits of it so it won't actually work as a live address.

Given that the amended version below works perfectly well I don't see why all these extra characters should get to be involved.

More posts in the Word tips series...

Friday, 14 September 2012

The risks of forwarding mailing list emails to a friend ;)

I've just unsubscribed myself from a mailing list and received this delightfully poetic, if plaintive, acknowledgement in response:
"We have removed your email address from our list.
We're sorry to see you go.
Was this a mistake? Did you forward one of our emails to a friend, and they clicked the unsubscribe link not realizing they were in fact unsubscribing you from this list? If this was a mistake, you can re-subscribe at: [redacted]"
Hopefully everyone already knows to edit out any "view this email online" or "unsubscribe" link before sending it on (I have to do this every time I forward any mailing list email to my Posterous blog for example)... but that's why. These emails are packed full of live links that include your email address and can be used to unsubscribe you :)

Perhaps it would be better to have this sort of thing as a two-step process - click to unsubscribe, but nothing actually happens until you confirm.

And while I'm at it, don't forget that if you produce a mailing list email newsletter thing which includes an unsubscribe link you also need to (as in I think you should, it's not a requirement) include a ilink.

This is because (do I really need to write this?!) you might hope that people WILL forward your email and the recipients might subscribe.

I never trust those "forward this to a friend" systems that require me to enter my email address and someone else's (I think it's rude to give you my friend's address without checking with them first which is why I always use my own email system to alert them to something they might want to join). Does anyone actually use them?

Thursday, 13 September 2012

How to avoid deleting stuff and how to recover from it - at a fairly basic level I think

Edit: 2 December 2012 - instructions are for PCs, which is what I wrote this post on. Now I'm using a Mac the instructions are more or less the same but wherever it says Ctrl use the Command key . Where I've referenced notepad or paint - use TextEdit or TextWrangler and [need to check name of Paint version!]. 

When I started using computers for writing documents in earnest (the days of AmiPro, WordPerfect and early versions of Word) I soon learned that saving often and backing up was important. 

The first thing I ever learned, and probably the thing I type most with my left hand, is Ctrl+S which is your basic 'save whatever I'm working on now' keyboard command on a PC. As far as I'm aware it'll work on anything where you can type.

If you've not saved the document before (ie, it's a new document) then pressing Ctrl+S will likely bring up a little box inviting you to name the document and say where you want to store it.

Generally programmes like Word don't crash anything like as often as they used to and recovery appears to be built in as default (if not, try File > Options > Save, making sure relevant boxes are ticked).

Even if your computer needs to be switched off and on again to restart things, Word, when you restart it, will show you the last saved version (the programme automatically saves at intervals, you can change the intervals yourself [see below] and of course Ctrl+S overrides and saves with the current version) and ask if you want to keep or discard it.

A couple of quick ways of grabbing your text before things crash, that is if you get any warning, are...
(1) use Ctrl+A which selects all of the text in the currently-active typing window, then Ctrl+C to copy that text to the clipboard (which is hidden, so it looks like nothing happens). Ctrl+V will then paste the text into a fresh window - I often use notepad for most of my editing (in fact I'm drafting this post in notepad now) which is a much smaller programme and quicker to save a file in, in an emergency. My preference is to start in notepad and then transfer (using Ctrl+A, C and V) into Word for a document or email, or into a blog post, comment window or whatever.

Or (less brilliantly)

(2) to press the Print Screen button on your keyboard (PrtScn on mine, next to Scroll Lock) and then open up Paint (basic picture editing software that's bundled with every version of Windows I've ever seen, used to be called Paintbrush) which you can find by Start » Paint (type it in the search box). Pressing PrtScn copies an image of the entire desktop (you can also do Alt+PrtScn just to copy the current window) which you can then paste (Ctrl+V) into Paint and save it. Admittedly all that will do is save a couple of hundred words or so which you'll then have to retype them. We've all done it ;)

  • To save your document as you go, use Ctrl+S
  • To select all the text in the window that you're currently writing in, use Ctrl+A
  • To copy the text that you've selected (you can use your mouse to click and drag a smaller selection of text of course) - Ctrl+C  || Use PrtScn or Alt+PrtScn to grab a 'photo' of what you were working on, save it in Paint and re-write it when you've recovered.
  • To paste the text that you've copied somewhere, use Ctrl+V (you need to position your mouse cursor into the spot where you want your text to appear).
We're also writing a lot of stuff these days directly 'onto the internet' in terms of drafting blog posts or writing comments on YouTube. Here there are greater risks of losing stuff when you press send and the page refreshes itself taking my / your pithy insights to the grave. Swearingly annoying when that happens. 

I do sometimes weaken and type directly into an internet comment box (I include 'compose new Gmail message' in this category) but before I press send / publish / comment or any other 'go' button I usually do a quick Ctrl+A (to select all) and Ctrl+C (to copy it to the clipboard) ready to paste it again (Ctrl+V) in case of disaster.

A free program that autosaves as you write: Evernote
Evernote acts both as a local filestore and as a place to store files on the internet. You can create a new note, type text in it and press Ctrl+S and it's saved to your computer. If you're connected to the internet it will miraculously synchronise with the Evernote server providing (a) back up of your note and (b) let you read your note on any other device that you've chosen to sync with your Evernote account (eg iPhone). You can also click the Sync button to manually synchronise.

I use this a lot when going to a place I've not visited before - I use Google Maps to find information, take screenshots on my PC, stick them into an Evernote note then click Sync to synchronise. Once done I can then view this information on my iPhone while on the move (the iPhone version of Evernote needs to be synchronised too so do this before you leave in case the signal's poor when you're out). Very useful.

Free online filestore: Google Drive née Google Docs
If you've a Gmail / Googlemail account (and if not it's pretty easy to get one) you already have a large free internet space to create and store files on Google Drive. If you use the Chrome browser (it's Google's) you can work offline but will need to synchronise once you are online again, so that you can access the files from another computer. You can also export your documents to doc, pdf, rtf etc.

Thanks to Erik J Cox and Joe Dunkley (@joedunckley) for suggesting Google Drive and also for what to say about it, in response to a related tweet of mine.

If you've done something you didn't mean to: Ctrl+Z
I have always felt a bit like this XKCD cartoon [where someone says they've never seen the diet coke and mentos demo before and you get the joy of showing them] whenever I've shown someone how to recover whatever they were doing with the Ctrl+Z command.

With a-bit-too-sensitive laptop pointers it's annoyingly easy to unwittingly select a bunch of text and overwrite it. I do this a lot by accident when I'm actually trying to paste something (Ctrl+V) on top of some text I want to replace and mistakenly end up just pressing the letter v, replacing an entire paragraph of text with "v". Pressing Ctrl+Z fixes this (it reverts you back one step) - it's exactly the same as 'undo' and works anywhere you can type. 

You can toggle between 'undo' (Ctrl+Z) and 'redo' (Ctrl+Y) all you like (although ironically it's not that effective in notepad!)

In programmes like Word you can do several steps backwards if you press and hold Ctrl and press Z a few times and you can probably set how many times you're able to go back - although I've not found out how to do it. It seems I can go back several steps on my copy of Word so I think the default setting is pretty forgiving.

  • You've done something you wish you hadn't and want to go back a step (undo), use Ctrl+Z
  • You've done several somethings you wish you hadn't, use Ctrl+Z, Z, Z (keep holding the Ctrl button while pressing Z!)
  • Actually that was fine, you didn't need to undo that (redo), use Ctrl+Y
A free tool to back up your files: Dropbox
This is a file storage system that, like Evernote, works locally and on a remote server. When you save a file you save it to a location on your own computer but it is also synchronised with a copy of that file on the Dropbox servers. I use this to work on something in the office, save it, close... and then pick it up at home. As long as you don't have the work and home copies open simultaneously you'll never run into problems (even then it just saves two copies and marks one as a copy, for you to decide which one to keep). 

Both Dropbox and Evernote have pretty much eliminated the need to email documents to myself. 

Even if you delete a file on your computer's Dropbox and didn't mean to you can undelete and recover it via the web server -

Learning objectives: you should now be familiar with... ;)
  • Use Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C to copy a bit of text before publishing it somewhere, using Ctrl+V to paste it, just in case you lose it.
  • When working in a document type of programme use Ctrl+S regularly to save it.
  • Recover from error with Ctrl+Z to undo (or Ctrl+Y to redo)
  • Use 'cloud' type services like Evernote or Dropbox (free versions available) to 'type and save' as you go.
  • If writing on the web (eg a blog post or comment) draft it in something like notepad first before transferring the text. Or if writing directly onto the web copy the text before you publish it in case the page loses it when you press 'publish'. 
Miscellaneous things about Word that I've mentioned above
Tweaking the time between automatic saving of your document.
These instructions work for Word 10 (the one with ribbons) - they're slightly different from earlier ribbon-free versions of Word.
  • Click on File (it's probably highlighted in blue and is to the left of the Home tab). 
  • Choose Options which is towards the bottom of the menu.
  • Choose 'Save' to view the options for saving documents.
In the main panel you'll see an option for "Save AutoRecover information every ... minutes" - make sure it's ticked and set a time, eg 10 minutes, or lower if you type fast. There's also a "Keep the last autosaved version if you close without saving" - I'd be surprised if this wasn't already ticked as default but tick it if not.

Temporary copies of your Word documents are probably available somewhere on your computer
It used to be the case that when you were working on older versions of Word every time you saved the document the system would create a temporary (.tmp) file which was overwritten once you closed Word.

It was possible to recover these when disaster occurred and sometimes to get the text out (this was not always straightforward and required a bit of prior knowledge and patience). I vividly remember lovely IT folk helping me access these types of files in the first place so that I could then work on one to try and recover the text. The contents were usually fairly unreadable and it wasn't simply a matter of opening up the .tmp file and carrying on as you were - you had to pick the closest correct format to open and then do quite a bit of processing of the mangled text to fix things. 

This is where I learned to use things like Edit / Replace All but that's not particularly relevant to this post, but see this one for more on that.

I've honestly no idea where the .tmp files are to be found on my current laptop - I've never needed to look for them as the software hardly ever crashes (sometimes it hangs, but it recovers a few moments later). This is probably a useful technique to record so if anyone knows more and tells me I'll add it here but I've found all the other methods above tend to solve everything for me.

Meanwhile, I suggest trying to search for *.tmp / *.tmp* / *.doc or *.doc* to see what's there. If your file is called important.doc you could replace the first asterisk with important, the second asterisk covers all eventualities of your file ending being .tmp$ or .docx etc. See Retrophile's second comment below.

More posts in the Word tips series...

On Flickr I'd like to be able to select 'show this photo' v 'keep in reserve'

I've lots of holiday photos from my trip to Orkney that I'm uploading Flickr. Some are passable, plenty are probably just for completists only ;) I tend to take an 'upload them all and sort them out later approach', especially when on sporadic wifi (the iPhone Flickr app is *really* good at uploading stuff I've noticed).

Some of the ones that are neither good nor bad are perhaps still of some interest if they're of some obscure bit of technology (I've taken a lot from the Orkney Wireless Museum for example), or provide some detail missing in one of the others - but I'd like to 'hide' them from the main 'set' or mosaic of pictures while still making them available.

So I don't want to make them private, or delete them - I want them there, but available to anyone that wants to see them.

I'd like to be able to pick out eight of the best and say 'show these 8, but don't "promote" these 14'. Whoever might like to look at my photos might see the selected 8 and be more than satisfied with those but anyone who's thinking about going to the museum or interested in grainy shots of old tech might like to see more.

There are many options available at every conceivable level of granularity (ie you can do something to one photo, to a group of photos [set] or a [collection] of sets) ... except, as far as I can see, this one.

Basically I want to fling all my photos into the vat and pick out a few to pin to the wall above it leaving others to rummage in the vat if they want. Is that possible?

Suspicious sign in prevented - Google Mail sent me this message

Status: presumed harmless

I've had two emails ostensibly from Google ( telling me that two separate attempts were made by an app to access my mum's* Gmail account, although I've not received anything telling me of any issues with my own Gmail account, and it's that which intrigues me the most.

In both cases the message says:
"Someone recently tried to use an application to sign into your Google Account [email address redacted]. We prevented the sign-in attempt in case this was a hijacker trying to access your account. Please review the details of the sign-in attempt:
Day, Date, Time, in GMT
IP address: (
Location: Sopot, Poland
(the second message has 233 as the final bit of the IP address) 
If you do not recognize (sic) this sign-in attempt, someone else might be trying to access your account. You should sign in to your account and reset the password immediately. Find out how at support / google / reset_pw (within a normal looking URL that I can't be bothered to type).
If this was you and you want to give this application access... troubleshooting steps at [plausible looking URL]."
The astra2connect immediately made me think of ship satellite communications - the timing of the attempted logins coincide with my two journeys on ferries, once from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, Orkney and the other the return journey. In both cases the wifi is provided by direct satellite link rather than the more usual ground stations (this always thrills me a bit to be honest!) so I presume it's nothing more exciting than my iPhone mail app hooking up with the astra2connect satellite, firstly on the MV Hjaltland, secondly on MV Hrossan courtesy of the lovely Northlink Ferries (lovely, lovely ferries).

So far, so not sinister - but why does my own Gmail account not return this message? The use of the term 'hijacker' seems unusual in a Google communication too.

Googling the IP addresses and astra2connect didn't bring up anything obvious, or suspicious. I don't remember getting these messages back in June when I took Stena ferries (also lovely, lovely ferries) from Liverpool to Belfast and back again... I should probably double-check though.

*when my mum was on her deathbed a couple of years ago I set my iPhone mail system up so that I could intercept any messages sent to her Gmail account from wellwishers so that I could read them out on my visits to her and respond. Both mum and account are now dormant but the Gmail receives sporadic spam and I never send messages from it whereas I interact with my Gmail account several times a day.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Orkney 2012 - Orkney Wireless Museum

When I arrived in Orkney I had no idea there was a wireless museum here but once it got on my radar, so to speak, I couldn't stop myself from paying a visit. Surprisingly it doesn't seem to appear on - or at least I've not found it yet - so when I'm back home I shall add something if it's not actually there.

Orkney Wireless Museum
Orkney Wireless Museum, Kiln Corner, Kirkwall, Orkney - photo taken by Flickr user "I like"
Above is a great photo of the museum, I'm afraid all my photos are iPhone snaps but here they are. This is a selection which I've imported from a set on Flickr (I'll be adding more, at the time of writing there are seven) and there are some thoughts on the lovely museum below.

Orkney Wireless Museum
Orkney Wireless Museum, a set on Flickr.

The museum is PACKED full of wireless equipment including early crystal radio sets from the 1920s when radio broadcasts began in the UK. It's nicely organised with a flow from the basic sets, through thermionic valves, diodes etc, along with changes in the way people listened to their sets. Early sets weren't powered so headphones, or those gramophone horns were used but as power increased there was enough oomph to drive speakers. There are also displays looking at the military use of wireless communications.

During the Orkney International Science Festival the volunteers who run the festival do live demos of amateur radio ("CQ...CQ"). The chirruping of the radio equipment as it was switched on and tuned made a lovely sound (if you like radiophonic workshop types of sounds). While I was there they managed to contact someone in Belgium (fairly good signal) and Italy (poorer signal, but the guy in Italy had a fairly low powered transmitter). Having never heard these communications before I was quite surprised how they slip between formal (calling to see if anyone's listening, introducing your callsign, all with the Echo Bravo Tango business, repeating the callsign of the other person) and into informal chit chat. I assumed that every single syllable would have to be very precisely pronounced but even though the communications weren't perfectly clear I didn't expect to be able to understand so much of what was said - our ears must be pretty good at tuning in to the signal!

I also unwittingly discovered that one of their demonstration speakers was still on - while my iPhone was doing its handshake with the groundstation / trying to find a signal (I've not seen any 3G signal while here, only the O symbol which is frankly useless, hotel wifi for the win) one of the speakers started making that interference trilling sound when someone sticks a mobile on top of a speaker. While I waved my phone near various speakers we worked out which one was still switched on ;)

If you've ever wondered why the ends of the great big valves are silvered (I have), I found an answer from someone working there. The valves look awfully like light bulbs and were often made by the same companies - the technology's not that different in terms of evacuated glass tubes. The silver didn't appear to be conductive (it didn't seem to be connected to anything) so I couldn't really work out what it was doing and wondered if it might just be aesthetic, but no. It's apparently used as a 'getter' to clear out the last bit of air/ gas in the glass and, on being heated, leaves a silver deposit on the inside of the glass.

Pictures of museums just show you what's in there but they can't really convey the comfy warmth of a room full of lovely handcrafted brown things (wood!) and the sounds of tuneable radios.

Other Orkney 2012 posts

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Orkney 2012 - Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Stenness

While chatting to a fellow hotel-mate at breakfast she told me there's a scheduled Stagecoach bus that runs a three and a half hour trip round the West Mainland bit of Orkney, taking in Stromness, Skara Brae and Skail House, ring of Brodgar, standing stones of Stenness and then returning visitors to the Kirkwall Travel Centre at the end of the trip. Hooray for Stagecoach.

T11 Discover Orkney (it left from Stand 4 in Kirkwall Travel Centre) [PDF map of bus routes]
 Route T11T11T11
Kirkwall Travel Centre10001400
Stromness Travel CentreArr10301430
Stromness Travel CentreDep10351435
Skail Skara BraeArr10551455
Skail Skara BraeDep12251625
The Ring of BrodgarArr12401640
The Ring of BrodgarDep13101710
Kirkwall Travel Centre13301730

It was lovely to see Orkney from a bus - in warmer weather they use an open topped bus but while it was mostly dry yesterday the occasional showers were sudden and dramatic. I took lots of rubbish photos of the landscape but they don't do justice to the vast pale greyish skies with some darker moody bits and the post-rain sun lighting up the barley and grass with a rainbow for good measure. And I had it pretty much all to myself as I was the only afternoon passenger.

Alan, my driver, is from Orkney and pointed out various bits and pieces as we went past them and told me some history. Apparently there are about 20,000 people on the Orkney islands - there are about 70 in total of which 16 are inhabited. One of the islands, Graemesay (sp?) has only 26 people living on it - you'd feel a bit bad taking a boat to visit it wouldn't you?! There are 100,000 cattle up here... a worrying ratio should they ever decide to rise up and overthrow anyone. 

Wheat doesn't grow much on the island but barley does (more on that in another blog post as I'm off to find out more about Orkney's landrace 'bere' barley, the agronomy institute's working on it here) and the fields of barley are very pretty. There is a small woodland too, somebody planted it a while back - trees do fine on the island but only if someone plants them.

The area of Skara Brae and Skail House is pretty remote - there's nothing else there (bar the visitors' centre, which is always busy) and walking around the site it really does feel like the edge of the world. There's a little cove with a beach that looks onto the Atlantic Sea, which makes a very nice sound. I'll try and upload the sound recording I took of it but I suspect it will just be the sound of the wind howling into the iPhone microphone (I need a microphone spoffle). 

Here are some of the pictures I took of Skara Brae itself - this is a Neolithic site which was uncovered in the 1850s after a bad storm ripped away the earth that had been covering it. Below were a series of dwellings with a central hearth, beds inset into the walls and then - to me the oddest thing - each house had a dresser that might have been used to display items. The 'houses' were all connected and it seems to have been a nice place to live.

Skara Brae - overlooking the Atlantic OceanSkara Brae - Atlantic Ocean and some piles of stonesSkara Brae neolithic settlementSkara Brae - neolithic settlementSkara Brae - neolithic settlementSkara Brae - neolithic settlement

Other Orkney 2012 posts

Orkney 2012 - Orkney International Science Festival

I'm here in Orkney, ostensibly for the science festival but to be honest I was looking for an excuse to come back here and see the sights. It's a lovely place to be.

After my suitably epic journey (the Vikings would have approved no doubt) I let the side down a bit by taking a taxi to one of the venues (I could have walked it in 15 minutes but had a lie-in!) where I heard a couple of talks.

The first was on dendrochronology, the use of tree rings partly to determine the age of the tree but also to infer what was happening at particular times during the growth cycle, as the behaviour of the growing cells and tree layers is affected by the environment, and a permanent record is left of the conditions in which the tree was growing. Well, trees plural, as the time frame in which a tree grows is encoded within its rings - you can match up the ring patterns from different trees and get a record stretching back several thousand years (I think it goes back to about 5,000BC/BCE).

The dating itself is done with radiocarbon dating and it all appears to line up nicely with information gleaned from the Greenland ice cores.

The speaker was actually wondering if the stories and myths, and the timing, of biblical floods might have arisen from a 'bolide' hit (cometary fragments) that might have happened in around 2350BCE, as there was a serious dip in ring growth for several years around that time. It also seems to conveniently tie in nicely with Chinese stories from Emperor Yao around the same time... not really sure what to make of all that but I might have to blog my notes in more depth!

The second talk was actually a series of talks about what I always assume are fancy theodolites but turn out to be some sort of laser scanner camera that takes incredibly detailed scans of whatever's in front of it. The scanning process involves taking several shots from the Leica 'camera' which is mounted on a tripod - I took a photo of one in use in Queen Mary quite recently which I will dig out when I have a better web connection - from different angles. Certain points in the environment are labelled with markers that let the registry software line the images up and present it as a 3D image that's quite similar to the Google map streetviews in that you can 'walk around' in them. 

They've been scanning ancient bits of Orkney and various digs around Scotland to see what's going on and they eventually hope to make the data available online so that we can take a wander round, using the Leica Geosystems / Cyclone software. All sounds rather cool. One dig (it might be the Ness of Brodgar, I'm not sure) has an area that's full of animal bones however they don't appear to have been dumped but there seems to have been some consideration of how to place them with head bones at the bottom and leg bones in the middle and upper layers - mostly cows but a few sheep or goat and one or two red deer.

It's difficult to know of course if this is of any significance though and if head bones placed first really 'meant' anything to the people who put them there. After all I've just recently packed to come to Orkney and slotted my rolled up socks into a pair of shoes at the bottom, however this careful placement of socks doesn't have any ceremonial meaning or religious significance ;)

The most obvious engineering artefact in the Pickaquoy Centre (where the talks took place) is a massive cinema projector which looms up at you as you enter the lecture theatre / cinema screen (I hadn't realised it was a cinema until later). I took an unfeasible number of photographs of it and learned that it had been in use until 1998. All of Orkney is still using the 35mm format and will move to digital in the next six months or so. I knew that most films are now produced in a digital format, with only a few produced in 35mm too, but hadn't realised until just a few weeks ago that older 35mm films are now in a pretty unusable condition. 

While chatting to the projectionist she showed me the largest reel of film I've ever seen - it turns out to be several reels of 35mm film spliced together to show the next film (I think it's either Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Expendables 2). Incidentally the Pickaquoy Centre is the UK's most northerly independent cinema.

Other Orkney 2012 posts

Orkney 2012 - getting there

I first visited Orkney in 2007 for work, giving a talk on diabetes research to one of our voluntary support groups there - I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. On that visit I took two flights to get there and managed to arrive within one day but these days that just doesn't seem dramatic enough and after my heroic journey earlier in the year to Belfast I thought I'd try it again and re-visit Orkney, in time for their International Science Festival.

There's a ferry from Aberdeen that runs a few times a week so the obvious previous step is to get to Aberdeen and there's an overnight sleeper train that does that, however it sets off at 9pm and my departure night clashed with an opportunity to see Ian McKellen and Jonathan Hyde (among others) launch their spoof comedy show - the Clapham Academy of the Creative Arts - at the Prince Charles Cinema. That was hilarious fun, and the timing meant that I took the later Glasgow sleeper instead of the Aberdeen one.

The overnight sleeper is such a delightful way to travel that I am prepared to arrange quite complicated travel plans around it and I've recently developed a taste for overnight or evening ferry journeys too (as of June 2012). So I slept on a train on the way to Glasgow and snoozed on the evening ferry from Aberdeen to Kirkwall, the capital city of Orkney. In the middle of that I tried out a 3 hour coach from Glasgow to Aberdeen. Not particularly luxurious but not uncomfortable and a great opportunity to see the lovely countryside, and the coach stations of Scotland.

When I arrived in Kirkwall there was a connecting bus that didn't quite go to my hotel but the driver was very accommodating (this is a bit of a feature of Orkney buses!) and dropped me off nearby - I had to walk down a pitch black (seriously) alleyway which would have been much more terrifying if there wasn't a light at the end of it (my hotel). But the nicest bit was when I looked up and saw stars. LOADS of them. So unlike London.

Since I spent most of Sunday snoozing and recovering you might think that taking 24 hours to travel and another to recover is a bit daft... but I enjoyed it so there. I think that I might actually be mentally preparing myself for a sea voyage from Southampton to New York in a few years ;)

Itinerary London - Kirkwall
Friday 7 September: 23:45 depart London Euston (boarding from 11pm) on Caledonian Sleeper arriving Saturday 8 September 07:20 in Glasgow.
08:30 Megabus coach from Glasgow Buchanan Bus station to Aberdeen, arriving 11:35. Spot of lunch and I managed to catch Brave (great fun) on 3D before getting the 17:00 Northlink ferry (MV Hjatland, by the way Northlink have recently been taken over by Serco!) to Kirkwall arriving 11:05 and getting to my hotel at about 11.45 and then having quite the sleep after that!

Sleep is always lovely but sleeping on a train or boat is the best.

Other Orkney 2012 posts

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Adult content blocking: am writing to the consultation - anything else I need to say?

The Open Rights Group has pointed out that I need to get a shift on if I want my views to be included in the consultation process on adult filtering and ISPs which ends tomorrow. So here's what I've put together - I remember a similar experience when O2 stopped my phone from seeing anything that might alarm it a year or so ago, and that was all very silly too.

Remember that any comments I or you send may be published...

Here's what I've got so far - what have I missed?


A copy of this email is going to my MP. I am raising my concerns about the proposal for network filtering of adult content and default blocking.

I would like to submit the following evidence and I am happy for you to make it public either generally or through any Freedom of Information request (I would prefer my address is not made public however):

In March 2011 I tried to access the Economist's "Intelligent Life" magazine via my iPhone through the O2 3G network. I was a bit surprised to see a page popping up to tell me that the site was for over 18s [] and couldn't imagine what could have triggered such a warning - it's a pretty innocent news / editorial magazine.

Complaining about this on Twitter I learned that a new annoyance had been implemented that day which had forced all mobile companies to block large swathes of the internet (vastly over-reaching to include sites that are not at all 'adult') and forcing their customers to prove their age either by credit card (easily faked by a person under the age of 18 who can find the card details) or visiting a shop (admittedly less easy to fake).

A whole load of sexual health advice sites were also blocked - these can be crucially important to young people (and older people) and should never be treated as if they are harmful or in need of filtering. I think young people who are exploring sex or their sexuality need to be able to have access to such health information sites, and without their parents knowing. Finding out about stuff is not the same as rushing off to try to do stuff.

Similarly when using an O2 dongle SIMcard to connect my laptop to the internet while travelling I was amazed not to be able to access sites as benign as which is just a simplified version of Twitter. As I don't have a credit card I had to go to the shop and ask to have my SIMcard age-verified, but only once I'd returned of course.

If some measure is implemented in which a parent or guardian has to OK it before their ISP will deliver "pornography" (however we're defining it) to their computer then I'm absolutely 100% convinced that their kids will quickly learn how to overcome it and probably share that method online.

I'm particularly concerned that religious groups appear to be having much of a say in what is defined as adult content - many religions are not known for their progressive views on sex or relationships.

As far as I can see it filtering just blocks sites that it shouldn't and doesn't actually protect anyone - although perhaps it manages to make it look as if something is being done even when it isn't.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

[Free] Me, on Mondays - can I help your medical research charity?

Edit: 17 May 2013

Originally written in September 2012, but activated again as I have more Mondays free!
For the foreseeable future I have Mondays free as I work a four day week. But I rather miss being part of the medical research charity world and while I might like to take up paid employment in that world again at some point, at the moment I'm thinking more in terms of something voluntary.

Basically, if you're from a medical research charity in London and think that I might be able to help you or just bounce ideas around please get in touch. Just on Mondays though ;)

It's free, you don't have to pay me - I already have a job from Tue - Friday.

My areas of particular interest and reasonable competence are:

Science / health / medical communications
For example the ways in which charities talk / write about the research that they fund, but also they way they comment on health stories in the news and how they write information leaflets for people or carers.

Social media, mostly Twitter (not so much Facebook)
I've been using Twitter for four years and have dipped my toes in most of the online tools. However I've never used these to engage with large groups of people, or for fundraising purposes. But I have some ideas about how they can be used well.

Also I'm pretty good with computers in general, although I'm not sure how much use that would be.

Over the years a fair few people from other charities, and elsewhere, have got in touch for advice, info or feedback from me and I enjoy sharing ideas, and also hearing about how others do things.

Edit: 4 September 2012
Can't believe I forgot that. I'm really quite good at finding data from a variety of sources and created this Diabetes Statistics site for myself and a couple of colleagues. In terms of mathematical wrangling and p-values... not that sort of statistics.

Edit: 14 May 2013
I've got a few more Mondays free for the foreseeable, except first week of June. I also like teaching people how to use computers / intranets and I'm really good at keyboard shortcuts :)

The deal
  • You need to be registered with the Charity Commission and support people with a health condition and their carers. You don't have to fund medical research but those are my favourites.
  • Probably best to email or tweet me first (see top bit of this blog) to see if I can actually be of any use - you might have very specific needs that I simply can't help with so best to check first and save time.
  • Only on Mondays - and never before 10am ;) Needs to be in London obviously, although Skype's a possibility I suppose .
  • It's free, and I already have a travelcard so don't need expenses, or lunch for that matter - tea always welcome though.
  • If something interesting crops up I might blog about it but will run it past you of course!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Duchenne, petitions and research funding infrastructure

The other day someone on Twitter asked me to sign a petition calling on the Government to fund research into a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Her young son has the condition, it's incurable and results in muscle wasting but mind sparing - so you know what you're going through and that it's fatal. Grim. She wants to find a cure for her son which is very understandable but I'd be very surprised if research results produced now or in the next few years would result in a cure in the right timescale.

I'm all for curing Duchenne and I like signing petitions but I don't think that this petition will necessarily help, I'm not even sure that it can.

As far as I'm aware the Government contributes funding for medical research through the MRC (Medical Research Charity) which is one of seven research councils, all of which have responsiblity for different areas of science, medicine, technology and other research funding. 

The MRC has definitely funded research into DMD, so by extension the Government has funded research into DMD. I don't know if you can say that it was particularly directed at curing DMD though. An awful lot of basic research needs to be done first in order to understand a condition and it might be difficult to know, depending on how much is already understood about DMD, which avenue holds most promise. 

We've still not cured diabetes and it's been known about since antiquity (earliest written record believed to be the Ebers Papyrus). Insulin's been available to keep people with Type 1 diabetes alive since the 1920s and we now understand a great deal about the mechanisms underlying Type 1, Type 2 and other forms of diabetes and treatments are much better tailored. We're able to 'tinker' with diabetes and, in some cases, slow the progression to full-blown Type 1 diabetes, reduce the amount of insulin someone with Type 1 needs, normalise blood glucose levels in someone with Type 2 diabetes - but these are all fairly extreme cases requiring surgery or immune suppression. And generally these aren't thought of as a long-term permanent cure, although I often hear it called that for bariatric surgery.

If the Government is already funding Duchenne research, indirectly, and this petition won't help (because (a) the Gov wouldn't specifically fund Duchenne and (b) it's perhaps a bit of a challenge to pitch funding directly at a cure for any condition) - what would?

Possibly supporting charities that fund research into Duchenne might help, perhaps getting on the research decision-making panel (if possible) to have a say in the direction of research, seeing what clinical trials might be available and perhaps raising the issue in Parliament (mostly to get news coverage I expect, rather than funding). It's also worth seeing what people are saying about the condition on social media, in terms of hearing about news and events.

According to the Charity Commission there are several Duchenne charities operating in England and Wales. Some provide patient & carer advice and support and some fund medical research. The ones highlighted fund research.

The ones I found are

1101971 ACTION DUCHENNE LIMITED     Registered
1146355 DUCHENNE NOW                     Registered
1147094 THE DUCHENNE CHILDREN'S TRUST     Registered
1119068 THE DUCHENNE RESEARCH FUND             Registered

Not sure what it means by the second one being 'removed' as their website still seems operational and has the charity number listed on its site.
  • Action Duchenne: Website | Twitter
  • Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Trust: Website (incidentally, gorgeous creepy ambient music)
  • Duchenne Now: Website
  • The Duchenne Research Fund: Website 
Not to mention there are several charities for Muscular Dystrophy more generally.

Clinical trials
Both these websites have information on registered clinical trials - I don't know if there's a research network for Duchenne (in the same way that there are for cancer and diabetes). There's a Duchenne Alliance of a variety of Duchenne support groups though.

Who's mentioned it in Parliament?
There was an Early Day Motion back in July 2012 - Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (No. 2) - about the showing of a film in the Atlee Room, the event seems to have been coordinated by Muscular Dystrophy Campaign and Action Duchenne.

This link will run a search for mentions of Duchenne:

Social media
Twitter: This link will return a list of tweets recently posted about Duchenne!/search/realtime/duchenne

Topsy is like a supercharged search for Twitter: from which I discovered this news story about a newly trialled drug called Eteplirsen. To be honest I'd like to read the original published paper (and probably get some help in understanding its nuances) before I'd be as cheerful as the mum in this story.

Undoubtedly there are Facebook groups too.