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, 31 March 2013

I wonder what happened to this woman who had 'suspected cancer' - live blood analysis

What on earth is going on with the world of live blood testing / live blood analysis / nutritional microscopy? The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has added a fourth company to their non-compliant online advertiser list who has been selling both a live blood test and a dried blood test, among other things, and doing so misleadingly as there's no evidence either is of much use as a diagnostic tool in a health setting.

There are a total of 46 non-compliant online advertisers on the ASA's list. Four of them are offering something to do with live blood tests - that seems a fairly high percentage. No evidence is forthcoming that it works though.

Many people offering live blood tests have been trained by Robert O Young who has some very peculiar ideas about alkalising diets as well as what can be seen under a micrsocope. Here's a page listing people who've been trained according to his methods and the country they're now flogging live blood tests in - I had a look at England and spotted a few familiar and unfamiliar names.

On one of the microscopist's pages, which is about their consultations, there's the question "What do you do with suspected cancer?" (full post here).

This seems a fairly disingenuous post. A young woman's doctor apparently gives her an unconfirmed diagnosis of suspected cancer and it seems some time is elapsing as she waits for these confirming tests to happen or for the results to appear. Meanwhile she undergoes the live blood test (with many pictures of the slides made from her blood on show) and makes changes to her diet. Whether it's the dietary changes that make her feel better I don't know... but what happened next?

The post ends with the phrase "Watch this space as we post her 3rd blood assessment pics soon" however no date is given so no-one really knows how long we'll have to wait to hear how this woman is doing.

Fortunately we have the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine which can't tell us the exact date either but it can show us a screenshot of the page as it was on 24 June 2010. Pretty much exactly the same it seems, so that page has been waiting for nearly two years for an update. I hope she's doing well.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Things you're doing wrong on Twitter (well not you, obviously)

You can tell me all the things I'm doing wrong on Twitter in the comments :)

1. Not using . before an @ when you want your tweet to be seen by more people
Don't put the @name first if you want your tweet to be seen by more people. You can either rewrite your tweet to put the @name somewhere else or cheat by sticking a . at the start.

2. Forgetting that threaded conversations means other people can view your contributions 
If you reply to a tweet with lots of names in and delete some of them, your tweet is still part of the thread and can be seen by anyone who clicks on any of the threaded tweets.

If you want to break this one, send a fresh tweet and don't click reply.

3. Missing conversations that don't mention you / your brand but link to your website (businesses)

Search for your company's and you should find all sorts of conversations going on where people are linking to your site, talking about your product (though they might not refer to you directly). Also it doesn't matter if they've used URL shorteners, Twitter will still pick the links up. You can use as an adjunct search.

More detailed version...
1. Not using . before an @ when you want your tweet to be seen by more people
This might be a consequence of the way we think about the @mention - it's used both as an address but also as someone's name.

There are lots of tweets like this:

@JoeBloggs is going to skydive for our charity, support him here [link]

In the above tweet the person sending it is saying that "Joe Bloggs" is going to do something, but what they've done is addressed the message to JoeBloggs. This tweet will appear in JoeBlogg's timeline (and the timeline of anyone following both you and him).

If you want to tell your followers that someone is going to do something, and let them know who that someone is then the first character in your tweet must be something other than the @ symbol. By convention a dot . is used but it can be any character.

.@JoeBloggs is going to skydive for our charity, support him here [link]


Want to support @JoeBloggs who is skydiving for our charity? Here's his fundraising page [link]

In the second example there are obviously more characters than . but because they come before the @ symbol all of your followers can read the tweet. You can either reformat the tweet so that the @name comes somewhere else in the sentence or just add any character before the @ at the start of the tweet, a dot is the least intrusive.

2. Forgetting that threaded conversations means other people can view your contributions 
Because pressing 'reply' usually brings up all the people mentioned in the previous tweet while giving you the option to delete some of them you may believe that doing so means you're only sending your message to one or two people. You're not. The act of pressing reply means that your tweet is included in the threaded conversation and will show up whenever anyone clicks on any of the other messages to see the threaded discussion.

The only way to escape from a threaded conversation is to create a new one instead of clicking reply. Obviously your tweets are every bit as public but they are not brought to the surface as much if they're not part of a thread.

I'm sure most people know that everything they write on Twitter is public (except direct messages) and can be seen by other people if they visit your profile which shows all the tweets you've sent. However replying to a threaded conversation gives an extra visibility to your tweet.

Also, sticking a . in front does not break the thread (I think it used to, but not these days).

3. Missing conversations that don't mention you / your brand but link to your website (really for businesses)
Hopefully everyone's worked this out but if you're keeping an eye on relevant keywords and your at-mentions you might be missing other conversations. People might post a link to a page buried within your website, or your homepage and you can find them all by searching for the basic unit of your web address which is basically the bit before any single forward slashes /

A search for will bring up and etc and even if the URL is shortened by Twitter ( or by anyone else (,, etc) the search will still pick it up.

Of course this means it's a bit harder if you want to tweet a link covertly ;) Though not impossible.

Also worth searching for more detailed searches.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Thwarting spammers on hashtag livetweeted events

Type this into Twitter's search page (or on your smartphone Twitter app's search)


where #hashtag is the tag you're interested in and is the URL shortener being used by spammers (eg it could be

Note that this also works on Storify should you want to capture the hashtagged tweets minus the spammers' contributions.

Update 21 Jan 2014 (welcome #iscg visitors) - you can also use the slightly more obscure URL shortener to shorten your URLs, chances are the spammers restrict themselves to and There are a variety of URL shorteners out there so it's possible to keep a step ahead. Good luck and happy conferencing :)

More detailed explanation
We all know that if a word, phrase or hashtag starts trending then it attracts the interest of spammers hoping to exploit the eyeballs of those watching the stream of tagged tweets.

Generally spammers include a link, though sometimes it's just text (rarer) and if they do then it's worth trying to subtract the root URL from the hashtag search.

So if you're watching the search output results from #RCGPSoMe (Royal College of General Practitioners Social Media chat) and annoyed by spam links coming from then search for #RCGPSoMe and not for, thus:  #RCGPSoMe which gives you this URL:

(the %23 means # and %20 is just a space).

Since the spammers are also using then I'd recommend pruning that one out too, so type into Search
#RCGPSoMe and remind people to use or or some other URL shortener so their tweets aren't mangled too.

Search for #RCGPSoMe which gives you

1. This works both on (ie the web version) and on Echofon on my iPhone, just by typing in the keystring
2. I'm aware there's an app / tool / site which will collect tweets only from people who've registered, ignoring the spam, but have forgotten what it is. will help a bit but not perfect.
3. The search string also works on Storify! This means you can semi-automate the capture of appropriately hashtagged tweets, hooray.

I can't take credit for the search string though it was certainly a case of fortune favouring the prepared mind. I suspected it might work and Googled to see if others had investigated and these two had come up with something: A trick for stopping event hashtag spam (1 October 2012) but an alternative, which may not work as well now that Twitter has hidden the info on the app used to send the tweet, was Finding ways to battle hashtag spam (7 May 2012).

Monday, 18 March 2013

£6.50 for a ticket transaction fee is a bit much isn't it?

I was thinking about going to an event at the Sundance London film festival in April - film composer David Arnold is talking about his work. Last year I saw composer Harry Gregson-Williams talk about his work in film composition and I could quite cheerfully hear from all film composers (and anyone else who's involved in making films happen) telling me about their work.

The tickets are a very reasonable £14 but when the checkout page told me I was signing up for £20.50 my first thought was that I'd mistakenly ticked the box to say I wanted a ceramic Sundance Festival mug (I kind of do, to be honest) - there is a transaction fee of £6.50. That seems to be pushing it a wee bit, no?

Here's what See Tickets, who are completing the ticket transactions on behalf of the festival have to say:
"The transaction fee covers the costs of processing your order, packing and delivering the tickets to you. In many cases it also covers the cost of producing your tickets. This fee can also apply to tickets arranged for collection.

The transaction fee applies per order not per ticket. If you purchase six tickets, you only pay one transaction fee.

The transaction fee will vary depending on what type of postage we are being asked to use by the event organiser and these costs are reflective of the amount that See are charged by despatch companies. First class post and Registered Post prices will vary accordingly.

See only send tickets securely for events that do not issue duplicate tickets in the event that tickets get lost in the post."

"This fee can also apply to tickets arranged for collection"? Are they printed on vellum?

It turns out that there's also a surcharge on the face value of the ticket. The event actually costs £12.50 (the face value) but See Tickets also charge a bit extra on that:
"The face value of a ticket is set by the event organisers. They don't pay us anything to sell their tickets, so in order to make money See has to charge a little bit on top. The ticket cost is the face value plus the booking fee. We have to do this on a per-ticket basis to cover the cost of providing a 7 days a week, 24 hours a day booking service, labour costs, credit card commissions and all the other costs associated with running our business. The actual amount we charge is negotiated with the venue or promoter for each event.

For some shows, such as those held in West End theatres, there is no booking fee - the £1 shown is a restoration levy collected on behalf of the theatre."
So there's a booking fee and a transaction fee, totalling £8 on a £12.50 ticket. Hmm. Feels a bit fleece-y although the event sounds brilliant and I want to go.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

When did we start photographing bits of things? Or am I noticing something that isn't new?

I might be wrong (could be confirmation bias) but I get the impression that there's been an increase in people taking photographs of bits of things in addition to (perhaps in preference to) photographs of the whole thing, ie as an accent, or colour, or to evoke a mood - Instagram is full of it, and I am certainly guilty of it too. Though I do think the photos are pretty.

(Edit: I'm not really talking about recording things for scientific purposes, which is certainly an example of people focusing closely on one aspect of a thing and also the thing in context, just about people taking snaps that don't encompass the full item, and looking at just an aspect of it).

Until I've worked out how to embed an Instagram pic I'll have to make do with a link, so here's one I took of the inside of a British Gas envelope - I think it's probably pretty obvious to most British Gas customers what it is

Note that this wasn't a macro photography shot, but I've been doing a fair bit of that as well by using a small drop of water on my iPhone - you can get some quite impressive shots - here's a close-up I took of a pound coin.

£1 coin macro

Is this shift that I think I'm perceiving a consequence of changes in the capability of cameras - easier to get close ups, more options with different kinds of lenses, with digital 'film' maybe people might be more confident about trying things that don't work etc., without worrying about the expense of wasting resources, or is it more to do with the way we look at stuff?

To me these evoke 'London'...

London underground

London Eye

...every bit as much as larger shots of London vistas do

London, England

I know that people painted landscape scenes as well as studies on individual flowers so I'm not claiming that no-one has ever looked at things at different levels before, but I've certainly started noticing it a lot more. When I 'see' London I do see it all at once like this but even if I don't concentrate on the little fiddly bits (the pattern on Big Ben's tower, the little wiggly bits on the spire) if I see them separately I immediately recognise them as part of my landscape.

Is it a change in the way we think about how we look at stuff (perhaps we are becoming more artistic!) or a change in technology, or just me spotting a few instances of it and then just noticing it all the time?

Monday, 11 March 2013

Adiphene weight loss pills - do they need, or have, MHRA approval?

Here's what the CAP code (what the Advertising Standards Authority uses to determine if an ad breaches guidelines) says, in relation to Sports supplements: Medicinal claims:
"We have previously been informed by the MHRA [the UK's Medicine & Healthcare products Regulatory Authority, it's a bit like the FDA] that all products containing citrus aurantium, white willow bark, chromium picolinate, cyanotis vaga, tribulus terrestris and variations of androstenediol are medicinal. Marketers should contact the MHRA if their products contain any of those ingredients before selling the product or preparing marketing campaigns for it. "
 Here's what CAP says in its Slimming guidelines for the press:
"8. Claims that products can, for example, boost metabolism, inhibit dietary fat absorption, melt fat, soak up fat, break down fat, suppress appetite, block fat etc,are almost always unproven and are likely to break the Code and may also be medicinal claims. Furtheradvice can be sought from the MHRA (
CAP has seen no evidence thatproducts containing the following can assist in weight loss; Aminopyline, Citrus Aurantia, Chitosan, Chromium Picolinate, CLA, Garcinia Cambogia, Guarana Extract, L-Carnitine, Lecithin, Ribose."
I don't know if these guidelines relate only to sports supplements and discussions in the press and mean that marketers are free to make these claims about different products and not in the press - I doubt it though.

Assuming that these guidelines do affect all marketers... it would seem, then, that the CAP guidelines are recommending that anyone selling a product containing chromium picolinate needs to check with the MHRA before marketing it (in the UK), while also mentioning that there doesn't seem to be any good evidence that chromium picolinate helps in weight loss.

The guidelines also highlight that claiming that implying that your product can boost metabolism or suppress appetite etc is 'likely to break the Code' and that such statements 'may also be medicinal claims' - ie, it's probably necessary to check with the MHRA.

So it seems that if your product contains chromium picolinate and / or makes claims about boosting metabolism etc then you might need MHRA approval before marketing that product.

Adiphene is a new (to me) weight loss product, from RDK Holdings (the same people who make Phen375 weight loss pills) and it contains chromium picolinate and makes precisely the claims on its website that the MHRA and CAP are a bit uncomfortable about. I have been trying to find out if permission from the MHRA is needed (in the first place) or if it has already been granted for Adiphene to be marketed in the UK (it's entirely possible that it has been given).

A website promoting another slimming pill, Proactol, has a page with the question "Is proactol plus approved by the MHRA?" however it doesn't appear that they've actually answered that question anywhere on the page...

I didn't find any mention on the MHRA's pages for Proactol or Adiphene though I did find mentions for the Over The Counter weight loss pills 'Alli' (orlistat) and the prescription version Xenical. The MHRA also has an interesting list of herbal slimming products to avoid that have been found to contain the prescription-only medicine sibutramine (reductil).

Adiphene's parent website is probably based in the USA so I expect what it says on its own pages is its own business, although I'm not sure where the line needs to be drawn when the product is being shipped around the world (the site lets you tweak it to give you the prices in UK pounds). Also, the site is being promoted by MoreNiche affiliate marketers some of whom will (presumably) be promoting the product's sale to people in Britain.

(1) Adiphene official website:
(2) Examples of affiliate marketers' UK (apparently) sites promoting Adiphene
  • - mentions boosting metabolism
  • - mentions chromium picolinate, appetite suppression
  • - mentions chromium picolinate, inhibition of fat absorption
Further reading
Nuratrim on the naughty step for failing to provide evidence for their weight loss supplements (23 August 2012) - the ASA added Nuropharm Ltd to their list of non-compliant online advertisers.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

I have never seen this strategy used in 'Who wants to be a millionaire' and have often wondered why

In the ITV gameshow WWTBAM contestants are asked a series of questions and given four options to choose from for each - one is the right answer and three are wrong.

If the contestant doesn't know the answer, and can't confidently work it out for themselves they have three 'lifelines' to help them: phone a friend, 50-50 (where the computer removes two wrong answers) and ask the audience.

The 50:50 one is simple enough and if you've formed an opinion about one answer being probably right and it still remains after the computer's deleted the two wrong answers then you might be brave and choose it as the answer.

With 'phone a friend' people tend to read the question to their friend on the phone and then read out the available answers. This seems an odd way to go about it and is a bit inefficient. I'd suggest either reading out the question and waiting five seconds to see if your pal is able to volunteer the right answer before prompting them (this lets you know how confident they are in their answer, though not how correct they are of course).

A better way would be to dispense with reading the question as it's written and just read out the minimum - ie the most important bits of information. So instead of "What is the capital of France?" I'd say "France - capital city?" - although I imagine lots of people watching in the studio, the dramatic music and the lighting might make me feel very different if I was actually there of course.

But the lifeline that intrigues me the most is ask the audience - if you have no idea what the answer is then submitting to the wisdom (hopefully) of crowds seems very sensible. However while you might not know what the answer is, you might know what the answer isn't.

If you don't know what the capital of Zambia is then you might struggle to decide among three of the names below, but you might be fairly sure that 'Accrington' is unlikely to be a candidate (no guarantees, obviously so perhaps this isn't a perfect example!).

a) Abuja b) Accrington c) Lusaka d) Banjul

I've never seen a contestant 'direct' the audience, asking that if they don't know what the answers is to vote for b) Accrington (relying on the fact that Accrington isn't likely to be the answer of course).

It might be that 60% of the audience has no idea what the capital of Zambia is, so rather than having them randomly guess one of the four why not prune them out of the deliberations by re-routeing them to an assumed false option. The remaining three options are now being considered by members of the audience who either do know the answer or think they know the answer. I can't help thinking that this could increase the odds slightly.

Maybe contestants aren't allowed to offer guidance to the audience, and maybe the audience wouldn't take kindly to being instructed in this way and might sabotage the outcome ;)

But whenever I've seen it I've wondered about this...

Currying favour with Google etc through sneaky use of Amazon's Mechanical Turk and ShortTask

After being alerted to the existence of Amazon's Mechanical Turk and ShortTask (both are websites which let you pay people to do small tasks, ie crowdsourcing) I occasionally take a look there to see what drivel people are being paid to do.

Generally you can earn around 5 cents for doing one small task such as leaving a positive comment on a YouTube video or liking a Facebook page.

Here are some of the current ones on ShortTask - I could only find twenty tasks, I wonder if that's because I'm not logged in or because its appeal is becoming more 
  • This one asks you to search for breast growth mco on Google and then report back the name of the website after spending a minimum of 40 seconds on the site.
  • Here's one that will pay you to flag a video on a YouTube as spam. Seems a bit harsh.
Whereas over at Amazon's Mechanical Turk...
  • Possibly the oddest writing gig I've seen - this one will pay $5 for you to compose and publish ten tweets on the general topic of writing, which can include freelance tips and grammar tips. According to the 'project pay' information this works out at 50c per tweet and roughly 0.02c per word - probably not that in line with the National Union of Journalists' recommendations for payscales.
  • There's a rather nicely designed website at 'phlogistoncarnival' however they offer speechwriting (OK) but also the writing of papers (hmm). I suspect their 'AI teacher' page is a bit of a cunning ruse designed to boost their own dictionary / thesaurus - - for their MTurk task they want you to tweet about them from a Twitter or say something on a Facebook account that is not typically used to post commercial tweets or Facebook ads.
  • Sticking with the blogging theme, this one wants you to find blogs about travel and their contact email address. No idea why but it put me in mind of those annoying people that email me periodically asking if they can (a) write a guest post for me or (b) sneak a link to some iffy company or resource page into one of my blog posts. I wonder if there's a complementary task in which people are paid to send a template email to people who write travel blogs asking them if they'll advertise your travel site. Funnily enough I have received one of these requests myself in the past.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

"Adequately controlled" - this means different things in different contexts

I am currently looking at the CAP code guidance on healthcare therapies and evidence (CAP code is what the Advertising Standards Authority use to determine if an advert is misleading or not) and spotted the phrase adequately controlled (and the concept of control) cropping up a couple of times in this bit:
"Evidence submitted for health claims should normally include at least one adequately controlled experimental human study, but an adequately controlled observational human study might be sufficient in some circumstances.

If the body of evidence does not include at least one adequately controlled experimental human study, the ASA will usually need to be convinced that the data supplied is sufficiently compelling.

A convincing rationale would need to be provided as to why commissioning an experimental human study would be impractical.

‘Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable as sole support for a “new” claim relating to physiological or psychological action or function in humans.
On their own, outcome studies or audits may not be sufficient as a rigorous basis for claims as there is little way of controlling for bias or for other influences that may have a bearing on the results. In addition, the claims should be able to be applied across the population the evidence should therefore reflect the targeted consumer base, whether general or specific."
To some alternative therapists (especially those who aren't familiar with scientific or medical terminology) the term 'adequately controlled' could mean something very different from its intended meaning here. The phrase could mean 'well run' or 'within expected limits' (as in 'her diabetes is adequately controlled' or 'his glucose levels are adequately controlled') or, as it means here, that an appropriate comparison was made between people getting the test treatment and people getting regular treatment or no treatment (the control group).

If people do misunderstand its meaning, how much of a problem in communication does it cause - if any? 

The last paragraph in the quote does go some way to explaining how the term is being used but I'm not sure that its meaning is all that clear. Even 'outcome studies' might not mean much to everyone - after all you do a study... it has an outcome ;)

Tele-science communication - giving researchers cameras and letting them video their research

War report: fighting armyworms
Video diary reveals the battle against country-wide insect plague

I met up with some science communicator pals this week and during the discussions there was a rather nice 'show and tell' where we saw a short video about the fight against the African armyworm (Spodoptera exempta) made by a researcher visiting Zambia and edited by Arran Frood, who works at BBSRC, in the UK. Arran's already quite into film-making in general and he suggested to Dr Ken Wilson, whose work is funded by the BBSRC, that the next time he gets the call to go and investigate the armyworm infestation (there's a season between October and April) he could pack a camera with him and get some footage.

Clearly the researcher did a rather good job of this as he took several short films, interviewed people, did pieces to camera and got some nice close ups of the worms in question (they're really caterpillars) - I think he quite enjoyed it. The worms devastate crops and seem to appear in volumes I'd normally associate with biblical locusts - they look cute enough but you'd want to keep them well away from anything with foliage.

Armyworm caterpillars devastate important food crops across entire countries. Image: Masaiti Emmanuel
Armyworm caterpillars devastate important food crops across entire countries.
Image: Masaiti Emmanuel - image from BBSRC


Arran mentioned that the researcher had returned the footage, via Dropbox, once he'd returned to the UK (I had wondered if he'd done a couple of test films and emailed them for feedback, but that probably wouldn't have been practicable) and Arran edited some of the videos together to make this short film.

I thought it was a really nice use of a camera - I'm sure there are loads of other examples of people being given a camera to make videos of their work, though I'm not particularly aware of in medical or life sciences research for example (please tell me if you know of other examples).

This is the video transcript of the short film (I remember hearing Kat Arney talk about podcasting and she recommended publishing a transcript where possible, for several reasons: obviously helpful to those with hearing difficulties but even those without will find it useful to check spellings of any medical terms, also once transcripted and published the text is indexable by Google).

Friday, 8 March 2013

Fairly useful pages on the internet

These are the websites I have filed under 'Useful' - that's literally the only thing that unites them. I've numbered them but no ordering system is implied.

1. Alt codes for PCs
For typing unusual shapes like ♣ and ♫ with your PC's numeric keypad and your alt key (make sure you switch on NumLock) - it won't work with the numbers across the top of your keyboard. If you don't have a numeric keypad on the right hand side of your keyboard it's possibly embedded in the main bit of your keyboard (check the JKL letters), accessed with the Function (Fn) key. I'm using a Mac so I just copy and paste them. - like the small bullet points I'm using? It's Alt+7 = • and Alt+8 on a Mac •

1a. Keyboard shortcuts for Macs

2. Online timer
Probably worth using the 'five second test' first so that you can hear what the alarm sounds like. I recommended this page to my dad who set the alarm for a period of time minutes, forgot about it then after the time had elapsed discovered his computer making a really odd and unpleasant sound and with no idea what was happening until he twigged.

3. File converter
I've used Zamzar a few times and it all went swimmingly. I've converted an mp3 into an ogg file for uploading to Wikimedia Commons and a Powerpoint into a PDF for printing as an A1 poster.

4. Google results URL pruner / link converter
If you've ever 'right click / copy address' from a page of Google search results and pasted the address somewhere else you might have been a bit disappointed by how ugly it is. There's a whole load of stuff that Google adds to URLs when they're participating in its search results and this tool prunes out the excess.

Basically it turns this:
(line break added by me)

into this:

5. Domain tools
Who owns that website, when was it registered? These tools can help.

6. Freezepage
Lets you capture a copy of a web page as it is, in case it changes.

7. Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive
Lets you find earlier versions of websites, even if those websites have since disappeared.

8. Google cache search and site search
Find the previous copy of a web page (eg if it's recently changed and you want to see what it looked like before) by adding cache: to the URL (but delete the http:// bit). Search within a domain / site by restricting it using site: and then the name of the website.

Examples - this is what you type into the Google search box:
• useful

9. URL shorteners
Although no longer needed for Twitter as it automatically converts any web address into a shorter one these are still useful in printed documents or powerpoint presentations where a reader / audience might want to note down or type in a web address that doesn't go on for ever.

With ones you can also find out how many people have clicked on it and some other analytics stuff. ← this is the one I'd use where I'm not sure if the audience is familiar with URL shorteners

10. What is my monitor size?
- Hold a credit card on top of the on-screen credit card, slide the slider until they match and voila, it tells you how big your screen is. Also works with compact disc, and a whole bunch of American stuff (nickels etc).

11. BT Speed Test
Gives you a rough estimate of your download speed (not your upload speed though - there are tools for that though, but I never use them).

12. TV CatchUp  // TV Guide UK
Free, awesome, registration required. Watch actual live television (couple of seconds delayed) on your PC, Mac or iPhone etc. Wifi connection needed. 

13. Flickr images with a Creative Commons licence
Find pictures that can be used, as long as you credit the photographer / Flickr appropriately (eg if you embed a picture into a blog using the embed code this all happens automatically).

For example, here's one (hover over it to see who it's by, click on it to see it on Flickr, in situ)
Saving Time

14. Oral Rehydration Solutions
If you've got diarrhoea but have salt, sugar and water to hand you can help yourself feel a lot better by following the instructions in this excellent page:

15. Cheaper telephone numbers for companies - say no to 0870 - helps you find geographic numbers (eg 020 8xxx xxxx rather than 0845 numbers which may cost more, especially if run from a mobile).

16. Remove line breaks online tool
For when you need to copy and paste text from one place to another and want to get rid of line breaks (example below). You can choose to get rid of line breaks and preserve paragraphs, or just get it all running together: hat tip @zeno001 who pointed out that the site has other useful tools too.

Raw text from Food Standards Agency letter on raspberry ketones (October 2013). 

Under Regulation (EC) 258/97, novel foods and food ingredients may only be
marketed if they have been evaluated and authorised under the procedures
defined in the regulation. A novel food or ingredient
is defined as one that was not
consumed to a significant degree in the European Community before 15 May
Raspberry ketones
been authorised under this regulation.

Same text with formatting removed (there's a button in Blogger's editing pane that does this):

Under Regulation (EC) 258/97, novel foods and food ingredients may only be
marketed if they have been evaluated and authorised under the procedures
defined in the regulation. A novel food or ingredient
is defined as one that was not
consumed to a significant degree in the European Community before 15 May
Raspberry ketones
been authorised under this regulation.

Same text run through the line break remover

Under Regulation (EC) 258/97, novel foods and food ingredients may only be marketed if they have been evaluated and authorised under the procedures defined in the regulation. A novel food or ingredient is defined as one that was not consumed to a significant degree in the European Community before 15 May 1997. Raspberry ketones have not been authorised under this regulation.

Ta da!

17. Vocaroo
Online voice recorder - record a short message and share it with a link. It's a bit like an audio tweet.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Today's brilliant or crap idea - random monthly magazine subscriptions

I had an idea and need to put it somewhere, in the hope that someone more enterprising than me makes it happen or tells me that it already exists. Or, as my dad suggested, doesn't do it at all.

You can be in a wine club type of thing and each month (or quarter or however these things work) they send you a different wine. I don't think they just send you the same type of wine but a more recent version of it.

With monthly subscriptions to magazines mean you get the next issue of the same magazine.

How about a magazine subscription that lets you try out different magazines. You could say you're interested in science or history and the publisher could send you a different magazine each month. Or, for the more adventurous magazine subscriber (!) you could opt for potluck.

I suggested this to my dad and he pointed out that it's a fairly crap idea because it costs more to post the magazines than it does to print them but even so how would anyone know how many extra to print. My reply that there would probably be magazines left over didn't impress either - then you'd be sending out old magazines. Ah well. I'm sure someone could do something sensible with it...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Workarounds for people who used RSS feeds from Twitter - and now can't

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

Today is the day that Twitter apparently switches off support for RSS feeds that take content from Twitter and let people read it somewhere else (however anything that takes RSS feeds from somewhere else and sends them to Twitter is fine - this is how @DiabetesTrials works, using an RSS output from the website, via Feedburner into that dedicated Twitter feed - all automatically, set it up years ago).

Most people won't care that the RSS feed outputs from Twitter have been stopped as people generally use the really nice widgets that Twitter provide - if you've ever been on a website and seen a little panel of 'latest tweets' that's what they're using and you can get your own at

Some people though will have set things up years ago to take an RSS feed from a user, search result (eg hashtag) or something else and send it to their website or RSS reader - at some point this will suddenly stop working. Assuming they notice they might not know how to fix it. RSS, standing as it does for 'really simple syndication', was extremely easy to use and 'portable' - you didn't really need to know much techy stuff beyond knowing how to click a button or use copy and paste to get a feed up and running.

I'm curious to know what easy workarounds there might be, if any, for people who've found that stuff they previously did with RSS isn't going to work much longer.

Back in October 2012 I wrote this post "Has Twitter killed RSS feeds yet? Possibly not, but not working awfully well" and it's had over 5,000 views which is off-scale for any of my blog posts (although my most popular, with almost 100,000 views is the one about what happens when you block someone on Twitter!) as most of them get in the low 100s. From the comments it seems a few people will be a bit annoyed, unless they've found alternative. What are those alternatives?

I have put out a call for problems that people have experienced, and any solutions! Please send yours :)

Case 1 - staff intranet
An organisation has a staff intranet and there's an RSS feed from the company account that goes to the intranet - this lets staff see what's being discussed. The RSS feed has been replaced with a bit of code (if I can get hold of it, and permission, I'll post it here).
Solution: problem solved

Case 2 - Following lists by RSS
Used to be possible, RSS support for lists has already been switched off and no plans to reimplement it.
Solution: unknown
Interim: Twitter's widgets allow you to add a list's tweets to your website. This is also easy on things like Blogger (just select a new html/javascript 'gadget' from Design / Layout / Add a Gadget) though from previous experience it's impossible on a website (fine on self-hosted).

Case 3 - Reading tweets in an RSS newsreader, such as Google Reader
It's expected that Twitter will switch off support for all other RSS feeds (user timeline, mentions, search etc) today in which case, if that happens, the RSS feeds will simply stop and be unavailable to Google Reader etc. If someone is using Google Reader to read a collection of feeds, which until now had included Twitter feeds, they might be quite reluctant to move to a different way of reading them.
Solution: unknown
Interim: as above, Twitter lets you add a widget to your own website for user timeline | favorites | list | search but I think this is just your own tweets, faves etc.

Another solution is to read tweets by email using Twilert which will send you a daily email. Use the advanced search options to 'search for', 'From' (ie a user's timeline) or 'To' (ie at-mentions)

Case 4 - An embed-your-tweets into widget
From @alexmoss writing here "I am the developer of the Twitter Feed Plugin for WordPress ( It has been downloaded over 80,000 times and is powered completely by the RSS feed. This process suddenly changing will affect a lot of WordPress sites if not supported in the same way." 
Solution: after some to-ing and fro-ing on the discussion page Alex mentioned that he'd found a workaround for the problem, though I have no understanding of what he's done -
"I eventually ended up developing an updated version that uses the embedded timeline but also developed Twitter Feed Pro that uses the new API to output the tweets the way they used to. It was a shame as a lot of webmasters will not understand the implications of turning off the RSS feed."
Interim: not sure but person from Twitter responded with some information about how to GET statuses/user_timeline, unfortunately I've not worked out what it means yet either. But if it's as simple as just using a different web addrress then I'm all for it.

Things to investigate, though I don't understand much that's on these pages:
User timeline:
Lists: (same link as favorites)
Embedded timelines: 

A friend of mine has been doing some API tweaking for Errordiary so I shall ask him more about how one does this, but I suspect coding skills are needed whereas RSS just sort of magically appeared, hidden behind a little orange button and was pretty easy to implement for most people.

Case 5 - your own tragic tale of RSS woe
Ping them over, let's find solutions and workarounds. Thanks :)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Trying to find this year's QOF stats on diabetes - worked example

This is an unfinished post that I last saved on 10 February 2013. I was in the middle of updating my own stats website at DiabetesStatistics and (a) discovered that all the previous links to stats files were now out of date because people will keep moving things around and (b) I found conflicting numbers and hadn't managed to resolve it. I'm publishing this now as I was so surprised to read of 'new' figures today... which seem to be the October 2012 QOF figures. Odd.


When I worked at Diabetes UK one of my tasks was to contribute to our "Diabetes in the UK" document which began to be updated annually to take account of new QOF (Quality and Outcomes Framework) figures for people with diabetes. You can see the history of the document from 1988 to the present at this page on diabetes prevalence here.

Here are the 2011/2012 figures I've found for each nation.

England: 2,566,436 people over age of 17 with diabetes (any type)
Scotland: 234,871 or possibly 247,278 (not sure about this one, see explanatory text below)
Northern Ireland: 75,837
Wales: 167,537

Total: 3,018,610 / 3044681
Wales 167537 3185538 5.3%
England 2544197 55068625 4.6%
UK 3018610 65358176 4.6%
Scotland 231248 5210522 4.4%
Northern Ireland 75628 1893491 4.0%

Briefly, and probably somewhat simplistically, QOF is a form of accounting so that each GP practice in the various nations gets the appropriate payment for the number of people they are looking after with different conditions. I'm not sure that it was particularly designed to provide health charities with a handy record of how many people (over the age of 17) have a particular condition, but that info is there and that's the only reason I've ever looked at the data.

Taking England (because I live there and it's got the biggest population) as an example, the data is available at the level of 'everyone in England', 'everyone in a particular Strategic Health Authority', 'everyone at a particular practice' - using the latter you can also find out information about how many people in a particular town (eg with 5 practices) have a particular condition.

I won't pretend that I've ever gone to the QOF's landing page and gone straight to the relevant file and picked out the answer I want. Usually it's a case of clicking on a few things, trying to remember how I did it last year and eventually finding it. Or asking a colleague.

The QOF figures for 2011/2012 came out in October but I paid little heed to them as I'm no longer in the business of updating statistics, but then I remembered my very large DiabetesStatistics google site and I thought... I really ought to try and update it.

Easier said than done.

I created it largely for me but also for colleagues and anyone else who might be interested in statistics. Its strength, for me, is that I left reasonably good instructions on how I got hold of the figures rather than just the figures themselves.

However an additional challenge is that statistics websites often move things around, so while the instructions are good, you can't 'follow along' using previously captured figures as a guide to how to do it now because all the pages and files are '404 not found' or worse, take you to the sites' homepages.

Every single link in this section below, of this QOF overview page is now non-functioning ;)

NHS Information Centre's pages on QOF ENGLAND
Landing page (2010/2011) » data tables » Prevalence data tables » SHA level QOF tables (opens .xls)

Below is the very detailed record of my attempts to correct the links for 2010/2011 data and find 2011/2012 data. It's quite long...

In the text below the addresses are shown as embedded links but for URL hackers I've left the full addresses at the end, though the NHS IC ones don't really lend themselves to that unfortunately.

Firstly, I found where the 2010/2011 data for England had been moved, here are the links for each of them... this was partly to correct the links but also to refamiliarise myself with the process of where to look for the relevant number.

2010-2011 QOF data for ENGLAND - published in 2011
So, now onto the four nations...

2011-2012 QOF data for ENGLAND - published on 26 October 2012
Checking as we go...
For fun (your mileage may vary) you can also fact-check you've got the correct stat by googling that number along with the word diabetes - I found this question asked and answered in Parliament, which mentioned this specific figure, so this is an independent verification.

I also searched on Google for million Diabetes UK and then restricted to the most recent month to see any instances of things like "there are X million people" on DUK's site, or "According to Diabetes UK there are x million people with diabetes". I found a couple of references to 3.7 million, so then searched for that to find their September 2012 report which specifically mentions 3.7 million people with diabetes in the UK - this will include all England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales 'known cases' of diabetes - this just tells me that once I've got all my figures they should probably combine to form 3.7 million (unless they're including an estimate of people with undiagnosed diabetes which is about 850,000 but I doubt it).

And Googling for 75,837 diabetes brings up plenty of evidence that others have picked the same figure, which is always heartening.

This one was a wee bit tougher because the relevant spreadsheet has macros and regardless of whether or not I enabled or disabled them the file wouldn't work on my computer (a Mac) and I couldn't select the QOF register I wanted to look at. Fortunately I spotted there was a second tab, which presents the data in a different way, so I went for that one instead. On Googling the resulting number (234,871) I didn't find much evidence of it having been used by anyone, so possibly another figure is in use.

However it is similar to the figure for last year's Scotland prevalence 2010/2011 on Diabetes UK's page (223,494) and slightly larger, so it's pretty plausible.

It's also possible that I picked the wrong file, so corrections would be appreciated! So many files...
Incidentally my page on Scotland stats took me to the 2011 register information, from which I was able to work out the landing page above.

(*) It should be possible to do it using the first tab ('by NHS board') but the macros weren't friendly. Where it says (near the top) 'please select QOF register' it should be possible to select Diabetes from a drop-down menu and get the relevant information for NHS Scotland as a whole, and then for each NHS region.

Other figures I found
Diabetes rate in Scotland continues to increase BBC News (20 August 2012) - 247,278 people, this figure comes from the Scottish Diabetes Survey.

The Scottish Diabetes Survey seems to be consistently a bit higher than QOF because for 2010/2011 prevalence Diabetes UK was using QOF figures of 223,494 and SDS for 2010 had it as 237,468.

Last year I probably knew why there was a difference ;)

  • After a lot of false starts, I discovered this helpful page from the GP Contract website, called QOF Database - Wales - DM 19
  • Look for DM 19 | 2012 = 167,537

GP Contract - QOF Database - Wales - DM 19


General Medical Services Contract: Quality and Outcomes Framework Statistics, 2011-12
QOF Data Summary for Wales and LHBs, 2011-12


Unless you are tasked with trying to find information from scratch and the links above don't work you probably don't need to look further. If the links above don't work you may be able to draw some conclusions about site hierarchies from the links' structures below.\

Other useful resources
Association of Public Health Observatories (APHO)'s Diabetes Prevalence Model (England, Scotland, Wales only)

Raw URLs / addresses
2010-2011 QOF data for ENGLAND - published in 2011
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2010-11
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2010-11, England level
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2010-11, England level: Prevalence data tables

2012 data
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2011-12
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2011-12, England level
Quality and Outcomes Framework - 2011-12, England level: Prevalence data tables

The chances are that next year's file might be called qof-12-13-data-tab-eng-nat-prev.xls which you can search for, although it's not clear from the PUB0123 type numbers in the URL where it will be located so file searching probably best unless the landing page helps you.

My DiabetesStatistics page on England

NI Direct QOF data
Local Commissioning Group Level (for relevant year)
Achievement in the Clinical Areas table:  Diabetes XLS

My DiabetesStatistics page on Northern Ireland

ISD Scotland's Quality and Outcomes Framework
Register and prevalence data at Scotland, NHS Board and CHP level
Prevalence reported from QOF registers (practices with any contract type)

Scottish Diabetes Survey

My DiabetesStatistics page on Scotland


Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) by local health board and disease registers 

My DiabetesStatisitcs page on Wales

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Patients and health research findings: accessing, discovering, understanding and putting them in context

This is a shortish (well, for me) post on 'stuff I've noticed' around the theme of better access to published research, and making sense of it - with some schemes and things to keep an eye on (in a good way). It seems to me that these are things that probably need to slot nicely together at some point in the future...

In case it turns out to be a bit longer than I think it is here's some music to play in the background. A choice between Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene (~40m) and Subcutaneous Phat from Josh Homme's Desert Sessions 10 (~5min) depending on how fast you read.

1. Accessing / discovering research
Many research papers are behind what's called a 'paywall', that is you have to make a payment of around $40 to access the article you want to read. This cost pays in part for the journal to shepherd the article from its early days as a manuscript through to the neatly formatted end product. You can always buy an article but it's expensive and there are cheaper and free-er ways available.

Increasingly, the trend is for more papers to become free to the end user ('open access') and rather than readers paying to read the articles, the authors (through their research grant money) pay to be published. This is great for patients, though there's still a bit of ironing out of how it's all going to be paid for and you can read more about that in this post on 'Open access for the deeply confused'

Until that happens the simplest ways for getting hold of newly published research articles are likely to be along the following lines:

  (i) Google Scholar might have a copy of the paper too:

  (ii) email the author of the paper and ask politely. If you've heard about a piece of research through a news story use the information in it (scientist's(s)' name(s), university, subject keyword, name of journal) as well as adding the search terms 'email address' to find their e-address. You can also just search for their academic page on their university which will usually have their contact details. You can get the basic citation for a paper, and the abstract, for free from PubMed too.

You're looking for the 'corresponding author', or if not obvious, the paper's first author - this information will definitely be on the journal's listing for the article, not sure if it will be on PubMed though.

  (iii) find a copy of their paper on an university repository. Many organisations that award grant money to people working on research in universities insist that a copy of any paper published that arises from the money should be made freely available. University repositories often post unformatted copies (before the journal's tweaked them) of papers as PDFs. You may also find that the author has published a copy somewhere on their own personal site, usually as a pdf so you can try adding filetype:pdf to a Google search

  (iv) If you're lucky enough to have a local library or even an academic library if there's a university or equivalent near you then it's worth asking the librarian there if they can help you get hold of a copy of the article. It may be cheaper than buying it directly from the publisher's site. Your librarian should also be able to get copies from the British Library and you can search their catalogue to see if they have the journal:

2. Understanding the research
Published research articles can be heavy-going as they use a lot of jargon. They also use everyday terms in very precise meanings which doesn't help either. If you're lucky someone might have written a blog post explaining the science behind the article, aiming their post at a non-specialist audience - you can search for the article's name within Google's index of blogs.

PatientsParticipate! is a venture one of whose aims is to encourage medical research charities to work with patients in developing 'lay summary' (plain English summary aimed at non-specialist audiences) for research papers that the charity funds. Many charities do already make great efforts to make the work that they are funding more understandable (they have to, be hard to get funding otherwise!) but this doesn't always stretch to published articles. Get in touch with the relevant charities and see if they can help, but no guarantees as there are an awful lot of papers! The largest umbrella body for medical research charities is the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) and they are also one of the partners behind PatientsParticipate!

*Update* 29 May 2013
The final published versions of the guide on writing lay summaries are now available, for printed copies for events contact - see comment below

AcaWiki is an expanding list of non-specialist summaries of research articles, it's pot luck though if your article or area of interest is represented there.

If you want to help write lay summaries you might be interested in PatientsParticipate!'s guide on 'How to write lay summaries' (PDF) (annotated online draft version for comments) and there's also a science wiki from the 21st Floor which aims to "open up scientific research to the public by offering plain-language summaries of important scientific research" to which people can contribute.

3. Putting it in context
Turning complex phrases ('hyperglycaemia') into plain English ('high glucose levels in the blood', and explaining why that's a big deal) is all very well but although it's a good start it's not sufficient. A single piece of research is just part of the bigger picture and people need to know whether or not a particular research finding is relevant to them. Information about the type of research study that's been done and published, and the conclusions that can be appropriately drawn from it is very important. So rather than just the who, why, what, where, how, when you also need the 'what if', 'what's missing?' and 'does this study really show that X causes Y or just that the two are related'.

Something that looks very promising here is research being done into the development of an online patient toolkit to help patients, and people generally, make sense of a piece of research.
"The toolkit — which will initially be in the form of a website — will help people assess the credibility of health evidence by taking them through a set of questions they should ask of a study. The questions will be tailored depending on the type of study.

“It’ll ask people how many patients were in the study, whether there’s a control group, whether the people were randomised,” says Lindsay.

There are some services already out there that appraise evidence, such as NHS Choices’ Behind the Headlines, which analyses health research that has made it into newspapers.  The difference between the toolkit and these services is that people will be empowered to analyse research themselves.

“Behind the Headlines can’t cover every study,” says Lindsay “and some people don’t trust organisations. We want to give people the tools to appraise evidence themselves.”"
See also 
Winner of Access to Understanding competition is announced as Europe PubMed Central and the British Library celebrate accessible, engaging science writing (11 March 2013)
The lay summary is dead, long live the lay summary (#A2UComp) (13 March 2013) by Simon Denegri

Thanks to pals known and unknown on Twitter who retweeted my requests for info (@McDawg @pigsonthewing @mostlygeordie @Harrison_Peter @unifex @arclight @inkysloth) and made suggestions, and hopefully will continue to do so :)

This post was actually inspired by @cherrymakes writing a post explaining what Open Access is all about for people who aren't that familiar with it. I've linked to her 'new readers start here' post in mine above but here it is again for good measure: Open access for the deeply confused. It was also co-inspired by Katherine Nightingale's post for the MRC on research being done into a patient toolkit, linked above but it's here again as: Lindsay Hogg: giving power to patients