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

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Twitter's new photo preview just takes up more space - here's one partial solution

Three possible solutions:
1. Don't contribute to the problem: when using an app to upload a picture to Twitter see if Twitpic is available as an alternative in-app uploader (eg on Echofon the default is Twitter but it can be changed to Twitpic. 'Twitter'-pictures will autopreview, but Twitpics pictures don't. Thank you! Mwah xx

2. @ajfisher has written a script that can be copied and pasted into the 'Stylish' (free) Chrome plugin. I've tried it, it works - hooray, and also gets rid of promoted tweets. If anyone hears of anything for Firefox do let me know.
Twitter Web Client Inline Image Removal

3. Thanks to @latentexistence I heard of a way to use AdBlock to hide the images - you can still click on the tweet to expand as before but it seems to work (I've not tried it myself as I don't use AdBlock).
How to hide Twitter preview images with AdBlock

More detailed information

What's this all about?
For anyone reading their tweets through's website it's now a bit hard going. Here's what Twitter looks like on my desktop now. The two tweets shown have a picture with them which Twitter's now displaying automatically in preview mode. Can't escape this and as you can see it takes up rather a lot of space.

As of Tuesday 29 October 2013 Twitter's implemented a new thing in which it automatically shows a preview pane of any image or video ('media') that's been included in a tweet. You can still click on the tweet to expand both the tweet and the media viewer as before but it seems that if you're using (and to be fair, loads of people don't!) then you can't escape the previews. You can switch them off in most apps though, but not on the website version of Twitter.

What can be done?
• To stop contributing to the problem don't use to upload pictures from smartphones / tablets.

This seems to be the default setting on Echofon for iPhone but was easily fixed by going to Menu » Settings » (scroll down to Advanced) » Photo Upload » (select Twitpic). I'm sure something similar exists for other apps and smartphones / tablets.

If you upload photos to Twitter directly from your photostream (eg you've previously authorised your Photos app to use your Twitter account) then images will show up on Twitter as being sent via 'Camera on iOS' and will show up as with autopreviews.

Oddly, if you're using on a desktop and want to upload a picture using the button that should be visible in the tweet below it does use but doesn't autopreview it. I can't explain that at the moment.

• To stop experiencing the problem don't use on PC or Mac to view tweets.
This seems like admitting defeat though! But if you want to there are plenty of desktop apps such as Dabr and Janetter, all with free versions available.

What about other picture uploading apps?
I've only looked at a few of them, but here's what I've found
a) - via smartphone apps it activates Twitter's automatic preview thing, via web-based version it doesn't appear to do so.
b) Twitpic - doesn't activate preview
c)  imgur - doesn't activate preview
d) Instagram - doesn't activate preview

The big advantage of b) Twitpic is that if you click on the tweet it will expand and show the preview, but no preview while it's unclicked. Imgur and Instagram are 'off site' photo hosting apps and you have to click on the URL to view the pic, clicking on the tweet to expand doesn't do that. None of b), c) and d) will show a preview. Until Twitter changes them too ;)

Further reading
Lots of people ranting on the Twitter forum for Twitter developers ( - Why are pictures suddenly shown in the timeline without a "show picture" link? PLEASE ROLL THAT BACK, THANKS! 

BuzzFeed on Why Twitter Just Turned Itself Inside Out: Clicking is dead, scrolling is king. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the fight for the ultimate feed

ZDNet on How to hide Twitter preview images with AdBlock

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Blog stats for this blog - part four

Previously, on blog stats for this blog:
Blog stats for this blog (23 January 2011)
Blog stats for this blog - part two (30 December 2011)
Blog stats for this blog - part three (13 October 2012)
Blog stats for this blog - part four - this post!

Roughly every year I post the blog stats (from Blogger's own analytics and Google Analytics) for my blog in case anyone else fancies having a bit of a nosey at this sort of thing.

Blogger stats are not accurate but are instead much more inflated and flattering (I think it counts every time Google indexes the blog - I know from checking that any new post I write is indexed by Google within about three minutes, not that surpising given that Google owns Blogger). Google Analytics stats are more accurate.

My first post on this blog was in June 2009 and according to Blogger's own information about hits for that post it's had 54 views. A post written a month later had over 4,500 and one posted a week after that had 18,000 hits (that's in total, to the present day). A post written in August had 103 hits which I hope demonstrates that post hits are extremely variable!

Blogger stats information became available after my blog began but confusingly the first picture below implies that people were viewing my site in May 2007 (though I didn't have this blog then!) so it's a bit mistaken. The second picture shows that the first visits were in May 2008, and I didn't have the blog then either, though the pictures are otherwise identical (the upper one has a few extra months' worth of data though).

Blogger Analytics says I've had a total of 738,630 visits (presumably since Day One). I generally assume that it's 3x too large.

I added Google Analytics information to my blog in May 2010.
From May 2010 to October 2013 it says I've had 201,587 unique visitors making 222,387 site visits leading to 273,175 page views.

I've no idea where my blog falls in terms of average hits so I'm not really in a position to feel either smug or embarrassed by the numbers, so here goes...

January 2013 - 42,893
February 2013 - 40,045
March 2013 - 44,784
April 2013 - 44,532
May 2013 - 42.641
June 2013 - 51.127
July 2013 - 64,599
August 2013 - 54,315
September 2013 - 45,748
October 2013 (unfinished, posted on 26 October) - 31,000+

Google Analytics (90% visitors are new)

January 2013 - 11k visitors, 13k pageviews
February 2013 - 10k visitors, 12k pageviews
March 2013 - 11.7k, 13.9k
April 2013 - 10.7k, 12.1k
May 2013 - 11.2k, 12.4k
June 2013 - 13.7k, 15.4k
July 2013 - 18.1k, 20.4k
August 2013 - 13.1k, 14.8k
September 2013 - 10.1k, 11.6k
1-25 October 2013 - 8.9k, 10.1k

Bounce rate
I have a very high bounce rate - over 90%. This can mean two things and it's difficult to tell which is the case. The bad one would be that people click on a post, realise it's irrelevant and click away (most business SEO sites would consider a 90% bounce rate to be disastrous as the visitor has not clicked on another page to buy something, but I'm not selling anything). The good one would be that they click on a post, have their question answered and, hopefully satisfied, leave. Given that my most popular posts are along the lines of 'how to do something' (often on Twitter) I'm hoping it's that one.

Not that long ago I had a list of all my tags appearing on the blog, I'm not sure what possessed me but it must have seemed like a good idea - perhaps to let people see what sort of posts were available. I think all that does is bring up irrelevant posts to people who are searching for something (just because a word appears on a page doesn't mean the post it appears on is about that). So I've removed them.

Most popular posts 
(according to Blogger, I can't be bothered to wrangle the stats in Google Analytics but assume that they're all much lower across the board by the same amount - see stats above to see discrepancies between Blogger Stats and Google Analytics)


14 Jan 2012, 33 comments




5 Jun 2010, 3 comments




24 Oct 2010, 7 comments

Interesting that the most popular post is 10x more popular than the second most popular post (that one gets the most spam comments, several a week). My least popular post had 17 views ;)

Tweeting links to posts
I publish a link on Twitter to only about half of the posts I write. In terms of blog 'audience building' I'm a bit of a "failure" as I write about many different topics. For me this is more interesting of course but it does mean that my blog isn't really about anything in particular so there's nothing for an audience to really get to grips with. I follow and am followed by scientists, science communicators, charity folk, film music fans, people who like tinkering with electronics, sound designers and consequently any given post is unlikely to be of interest to most of them - except the ones about Twitter.

However most (over 80%) of my views are referred through search engines so that's why I don't really bother with tweeting everything. Professional bloggers will post a tweet with a link to their blog several times throughout the day to drive traffic, and perhaps ask their networks to retweet them. This is an important part of the ecosystem but since this blog is mostly my diary I'm a bit 'meh' about doing that unless there's a post I definitely want to get feedback on. Presumably they also get a fair bit of search engine referrals too.

Friday, 25 October 2013

How to send and receive web addresses via Twitter DM - break the URL - an imperfect fix

Simpler solution - use as the URL shortener. Twitter seems to let these through no problem.

More at
How to skirt Twitter's restriction on links in DMs  
Tired of being told you can't send a link via direct message on Twitter? Me too!
by Jason Cipriani
7 August 2014 10:24 pm BST

------- OLD INFORMATION, kept for historic interest ;) -------

1. Short version
2. More explanation
3. Glossary / terms used

1. Short version
Break the URL et DOT and the other person can reconstruct the URL at the other end by replacing the DOT with a "." and joining the ends together. It's exactly the same as the good old days of writing REMOVE when publishing your email address on the web, eg to stop automated address scraping.

You need to position the DOTs and various bits in the address strategically so that what you send does not show up as a linked URL (ie it changes colour, usually to blue, as you type it and Twitter spots that it's an address). If it's gone blue Twitter has recognised that it's a link and won't send it in a DM. The game is to type the text of a link in such a way that it doesn't become hyperlinked.

Long broken URLs that no longer get the 'protection' of being considered as a nominal 18 characters can't be sent in this way, instead convert the URL into a short version (eg use TinyURL or to do so) and send that, but in a broken form.

Smartphone users will have to copy the text (either the broken URL or the entire tweet depending on the app they use) and wrangle the address either in Safari (for iPhone users) or in whatever notepad type of app is available (recommended).

2. More explanation
Can't send links via DM
Twitter appears to have disabled the option of letting people send DMs that contain web addresses. It's not clear if this is a glitch or a new policy to reduce those phishing spam messages which encourage people to click on a link, that then takes them to a (fake) Twitter login page.

Previously received links are treated with suspicion
Clicking on links in previously sent DMs takes you to a holding page with a message suggsting that the link might be dodgy (even on known-safe links) so it seems that the threshold for wariness is a bit high. Possibly this has arisen because Twitter is rolling out an option for people to opt in if they wish to let anyone send them DMs regardless of whether they are following those people (probably ideal for letting people DM utility companies without following them I think).

Fool Twitter into thinking your link is not a link
Whenever you begin to type a web address into Twitter it soon recognises it as an URL and automatically hyperlinks it, making it appear blue (colours may vary depending on your own colour scheme settings). In a test just now it kicked in as soon as I'd typed the last 'o' in - Twitter will not send a real URL in a DM so you need to break the address in such a way that it doesn't try to turn it into a clickable link.

Typing DOT didn't cause the URL to be hyperlinked (because it's a broken URL) but let me send that address to someone who could then 'splice' the two correct bits of the URL together and remove the DOT bit. For geneticists I imagine this is like exons and introns, for sound editors it's possibly a bit like de-umming a tape loop ;)

Handling longer addresses that make the tweet too long to send
Note that any URL sent via Twitter is given a standard 18 characters (no matter how long the actual web address is). When a longer URL is broken in this way Twitter can't 'autoshorten' it for you so really long addresses can't be sent. The only way round this that I can think of is to use one of the URL shortening services (see above) and then break that link to send, eg http://tinyurl DOT AbCd12

Smartphone users
It's a right fiddle and no mistake to wrangle an unclickable link on a smartphone. I use Echofon on iPhone and if there's no (apparent) link in a DM the only option available to me is to copy the entire tweet. To do this click on the tweet, let go, and the word Copy appears. Click 'Copy' and then you can either open up Safari, paste it into the address bar and delete out the irrelevant bits or open up the Notes app, paste it in there and edit with more ease. I can't think of a better way of doing this but if you know do please let everyone know in the comments.

Ironically I wrote this only last week about my irritation with Echofon's habit of truncating longer tweets with the shortening service, sending people to a TMI page and wrecking any URLs sent in the tweets. Fortunately it's easy to switch off.

3. Glossary / terms used
Web address / URL (uniform resource locator) / link all refer to something like

DM - direct message, often believed to be the same as a PM (private message) but one can never be entirely certain...

Hyperlinked means a clickable address. is unhyperlinked, but is, as is this - Google.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

I'm talking to people in Government next week about science, tech, STEM & diversity

Some random Saturday morning thoughts, some may even make sense...


I've been invited to an event next week at which a small group of people are going to be having a bit of a chat about what Government can do to support / maintain science & engineering skills and get more young people, women in particular, into science and engineering careers.

I've said yes despite not being particularly expert in this area - I'm quick to learn and don't mind asking questions!

Generally whenever I've been doing critical appraisal 'stuff' of health-related things in newspapers or in journal articles I'm always looking for the 'what if?' and 'what's missing?'. So with that in mind I wondered about what the limits are of what Government can and can't do in this area. I'm not sure how much of a focus this is on getting more women in science (a fairly massive subsection in itself) as opposed to getting more diversity in science. It's a short meeting so I might not have a huge amount of time to wave that flag.

There are issues of personal preference - simply, does someone fancy studying science or engineering (S/E) and doing that sort of thing as a career. Do the people who don't do S/E feel that they were ill-done by not having done so... that they could have done so if they'd had a chance?

There are issues of the 'leaky pipe' (see 'further reading' below) - which covers people dropping out after studying S/E at school (includes issues of fewer studying it beyond school but generally refers to people, generally women, who do continue in the field but who then leave, for a variety of reasons).

The science and science communication blogging community has been hearing a lot this week about sexism and harrassment which seems to be pervasive across all community sectors. To me that seems like something that institutions should be dealing with better (anti-harrassment policies are springing up in conferences, I've been dismayed to learn that some institutions don't support staff when they complain of harrassment). I'm sure Government can set the tone, but that would seem to be more of an after-the-fact thing, communities should be able to deal with this better themselves.

Also... funding, pay, flexible hours, competition with other subjects, the separateness of science (it's "biology", "chemistry" etc but science and engineering done in academia and industry is usually vastly more interdisciplinary).

Should be an interesting meeting...

I'll probably keep thinking of bits to add here.


Colleagues at Queen Mary run the cs4fn (Computer Science For Fun) schools outreach programme to flag up the fact that Computer Science doesn't exist as a topic in isolation but is something which gives people useful skills to work in a variety of jobs (finance, medicine, bioinformatics, audio engineering, architecture as well as the more obvious things like running IT facilities for businesses or research in computer science topics).

There are 15 magazines (issue 16 has just gone to the printers) as well as online articles and they collected together some of the articles about women in computer science and produced a bumper issue called 'The women are here' (it's free online as a PDF but I'm taking copies to the meeting) which is popular with teachers who're trying to raise awareness of Computer Science among girls at school (hopefully some of the boys see it too!).

Through surveying teachers they've done a bit of evaluation on how it's been received in schools.

Black, J., Curzon, P., Myketiak, C., & McOwan, P. W. (2011). A study in engaging female students in computer science using role models. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Joint Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education (ITiCSE'11), 63–67. New York: ACM.


Further reading
Homework: other stuff I'm reading / mugging up on (feel free to suggest more)

Pop Quiz: How we discuss women in STEM

Both men and women should 'uncover' family responsibilities at work

Academic Whores

The pipeline isn't leaky
"When a woman doesn’t pursuit the tenure track, she “leaked out” of the pipeline. Consider that terminology for a moment and the connotations it carries. When you have a leak in a pipe in your house, you have to fix it. If you don’t fix it, that leak can cause all sorts of problems – water damage to sheet rock, wood rot, mold. When we say that women leak out of the pipeline, it can sound as if we’re saying that they are making the wrong decisions, ones that are harmful to science. It’s almost as if we want women to feel guilty about leaving the academic track."
Of course some people will make a positive choice to leave for something fab, others will feel forced out.

 Stemming the tide
"The University of Cambridge’s gender diversity champion, Athene Donald of the physics department, is also clear that small actions can make a difference. The UK university recently started a scheme to support carers returning to work by awarding small grants to allow a childminder or other parent to travel with them to conferences.

And many conferences, including the large American Chemical Society national meetings, now offer free childcare. However, recent discussions on Donald’s blog suggested that for some, non-attendance is often blamed on a lack of childcare when in fact there are other reasons, such as a feeling that male-dominated conferences are just not pleasant for women to attend."
On posh white blokes in NGOs

How not to run a women in science campaign: If science wants to deal with its diversity issues, it needs to think beyond gender and be willing to change

How to reduce the gender gap in one (relatively) easy step
- on women being cited less than men, but note the critical comments too

Want to see more black faces in science & technology? Here's how to make that happen today

CASinclude on Twitter (Computing At School)
Improving inclusivity in Computing for children at school, regardless of gender, race, SEN, disabilities or socio-economic background.

Columbia Professor and GZA aim to help teach science through hip-hop

Feminine science role models... and other bad ideas?
- one study suggested that 'feminine' role models might do more harm than good. It seems to have been pretty preliminary, critiqued here.

Diversity doesn't just STEM from gender inequality 

(Lack of) diversity in STEM subjects

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Do you or your organisation produce patient information for children and young people?

The Patient Information Forum (PiF) is updating its guide to producing information for children and young people and needs examples of information that has been written for children and young people and input from the people who put it together.

This might be information from NHS providers, or it might be something that a patient charity produces. I know that Diabetes UK has produced a variety of information for children directly (ie the child reads it) as well as info for parents and ideas on how to broach certain topics with teenagers at appropriate times. I'm sure other medical research and other health charities do too.

If I was working in a health charity I'd be bugging colleagues so that we could get involved, but since I'm not I'm having to live vicariously through you :) Go and share your information.

This sounds pretty good, no?
"The Patient Information Forum is reviewing and updating its Guide to producing health information for children and young people. The Guide features information about involving and working with children, choosing the right formats, communicating health information effectively and the policy context.  It also features case studies from information producers, showcasing their work."
If it does sound good to you, head over to PiF's page... Updating the PiF guide to producing information for children and young people – your input needed!

They're on Twitter as @pifonline

Monday, 14 October 2013

I don't understand the supposed benefits of "boosting your immune system"

Update 19 December 2014
Here's a really good explanation in Slate: You don't actually want to boost your immune system (19 December 2014) Slate

"Natural remedies that claim to “boost your immune system” don’t work, and it’s a good thing they don’t."

Note: I am not medically trained. I am not an expert in immune systems nor in autoimmunity nor in immune suppression. Feel free to argue with me on any of the points below but please do not take my thoughts as being suitable 'advice' for matters relating to your own immune system or health in general. You want a doctor for that (a real one).

  • Can you boost your immune system?
  • Is it something you'd actually want to do if you could?

In the world of pseudomedicine someone always seems to have the idea of finding natural ways to boost the immune system.

I have to assume that this thinking arises because the immune system is a good thing and so more of it must also be a good thing. It doesn't follow that more of a good thing is still a good thing though.

There might be "things that can 'boost' the immune system" - presumably this means increasing the number of a particular type of cells that make up the circulating immune system. If so, I suspect that would be a controlled substance that would fall under the control of the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) so perhaps it's not allowed to be sold without some sort of marketing authorisation. I'd always assumed (perhaps wrongly) that the correct treatment for a compromised immune system is to keep the patient safe while the immune system recovers by itself - are there actually things that really can boost the immune system?

Assuming that there are things that can do this then, wouldn't using them (outside of a proper hospital monitoring system) risk over-boosting the immune system, perhaps leading to some sort of autoimmune response? I think I'm probably being a bit oversimplistic in implying that 'more immune system' = 'autoimmunity' of course, but autoimmune disorders arise from the immune system attacking the person's own cells and tissues. I'd not want to boost that sort of thing, nor increase the likelihood that it might happen.

I'm all for keeping things natural, which includes leaving my immune system at whatever pre-sets have kept me alive thus far. Where nature has briefly got the better of me I've been ridiculously, almost tearfully grateful for antibiotics, but I've worked out an arrangement with my immune responses that I get a cold once a year (about now in fact) and I leave it alone for most of the rest of the year. And I try not to scratch mosquito bites.

Clearly if I was suffering from neutropenia or some other catastrophic problem in the cells that contribute to my immunity then yes, I'd probably want a bit of boosting. Given that it's a medical emergency I think I'd be in hospital, perhaps in a clean-room, with everyone having to wear gowns and be all sterile if they came near me.

Presumably people who have autoimmune disorders don't want further boosting, but are the rest of us supposed to be living with sub-par immune systems? What aspects of it are low? Is the marker for it 'more colds'?

It just seems like the one part of my homeostatic mechanisms I'd probably want to leave well alone. A happily working immune system is a good thing, but 'more' of it doesn't imply 'more good thing' at all. I'm guessing it would be quite the opposite.

And of course if someone has had an organ transplant and is on medication to suppress the immune system (to stop it rejecting the organ) then surely they definitely don't want their immune system boosted.

Presumably breathing is good - are there any natural ways to increase breathing rate to get more oxygen in? I'm not familiar with the medical benefits of hyperventilation (generally, negative I think) but if we're trying to boost stuff...  [I am being sarcastic here, just breathe normally].

Saturday, 12 October 2013

I hope the BBC makes more programmes about film music and its history

The BBC has been running a fantastic meta-series of programmes under the #BBCSoundOfCinema banner. There have been several television programmes including a couple of the Proms and the BBC's new series 'The Sound of Cinema' along with radio programmes on BBC Radio 3, Radio 4, 6 Music and BBC Asian Network.

There's been so much film music stuff that I'm sure I've missed loads, but a couple of things particularly stood out for me - Neil Brand's "Sound of Cinema: The Music that made the Movies", a glorious three-part journey through film sound, and David Arnold's and Matt Berry's one hour "Sound of Cinema" programme plus their 30m appearance on Edith Bowman's show, the day before it was broadcast, to talk about it*.

*[at time of writing there are only 3 days left to download that; they talk about the thinking that went in to putting the programme together, so it's a nice bit of background info; the other hour long programme should be up available to listen for another year].

There's a nice quote from Ben Goldacre (can't find it though!) pointing out that one of the reasons BBC Radio 4 science programmes are often so good is that they usually have a high proportion of scientists on who are speaking, directly, about their work.

What was particularly good about these film music programmes was having experienced "practitioner-communicators" (suggestions for a less ridiculous phrase welcomed) putting other people's work in context and bringing their own knowledge, skill and experience.

Anyone can talk (or write) about a subject they're passionate and knowledgeable about but people who know their stuff, from experience (ie people with a sufficient level of expertise that they can not just 'do stuff' but troubleshoot if problems arise), might also spot some interesting aspects that I'd just miss, and be able to explain them.

Of course 'outsiders' often spot different things and I'm all for a mixture of voices, but in the genre of film / screen music I'm particularly interested in hearing from people who've created it themselves. This year alone I've been to hear 10 composers talk about their work, so possibly I am unusually enthusiastic!

When I went to hear Neil Brand introduce episode one of his series to a packed and enthusiastic audience at the BFI (really, more television programmes should be shown at the BFI!) one of the themes in the Q and A, and acknowledged by Neil and series producer John Das, was that the series just scratched the surface and there's a LOT more to say about film music. They gave the analogy of there being enough to say about film music that would fill three 'baths' but they were only really able to broadcast three cups' worth in the time available.
  • Please can we have some more television programmes about film music? 
  • Any chance Neil's series could be released on DVD?

    I understand that getting rights to show clips, beyond initial broadcast, can be a bit fiddly - this seems an annoyingly solvable problem, but I shall link to an interesting paper (behind a paywall unless you have an academic login, but abstract is very clear) about the practical challenges faced by academic researchers writing about film and film music, when trying to get hold of stills or clips etc.

    Annette Davison (2007) Copyright and scholars' rights Music, Sound and the Moving Image 1:1 (9-13)

Viewing figures suggest The Sound of Cinema is a popular programme
I've no idea how many times the 6 Music radio programmes with David and Matt were listened to or downloaded but according to BARB (the Broadcast Audience Research Board) figures for Neil's television programme were pretty healthy.

The page for viewing information on Top 10 programmes is here and you can select different weeks to view what was most-watched then.

For BBC Four, the third episode (broadcast on the Thursday and then repeated on the Sunday) made the top 10 twice. Not too shabby. For comparison the number one programme on BBC Four that week, with 903 thousand viewers was Lucy Worsley's 'A very British murder'.

These figures tell us nothing about the numbers of people who 'watch again' on BBC iPlayer of course.

Episode One - this had the highest viewing figures, perhaps not surprising as it was pretty well promoted and also was the first.

w/e 15 Sep 2013

Episode Two
w/e 22 Sep 2013

Episode Three
w/e 29 Sep 2013

If you use Echofon watch out for it mangling your tweets & shared URLs - blame the tmi shortener

1. The brief version
Echofon has a default setting that publishes any tweet longer than 140 characters via the tmi service (but without telling you that it's going to do this). This sends out a truncated version of your tweet with a link at the end that followers click on to reach a page with the full-length tweet.

But, if your full-length tweet also contains a link to a website then although the page shows the website's address it's not actually clickable - so your audience has to copy and paste it before reading the website you wanted to share. For people on mobile devices this is really fiddly.

To fix this you can 
(a) go to Echofon's Menu » Settings » Longer Tweet ( and set it to OFF or
(b) include any URLs (and hashtags) at the start of your tweet, then they won't be the truncated bits

Fuller explanation below.

2. The longer version, with example tweets and pictures
I use the ad-supported (free) Echofon for iPhone for my on-the-move tweeting, and also occasionally from conferences and events (if I don't have my laptop with me). Although I like it, it has the annoying tendency of randomly glitching every few weeks requiring me to log in again. When this happens I invariably spot that some of my tweets are being sent via (I presume it means too much information, a similar service is Twitlonger) and amend my settings to switch this off.

What's the problem?
Two examples...

In truncating the last part of a tweet and sending followers to a separate page for the full-length tweet the tmi system makes a bit of a hash of things. The following are how the tweets appear on tmi's website.

Website addresses aren't clickable (see first tweet above, from me) which isn't too much of a problem if you're on a PC / Mac (you can just select the text, open another browser tab, paste it in and view it).

But if you're on an iPhone it's mildly more fiddly. To copy text on an iPhone you need to press the text and let go, a selection tool will appear, use it to select the text and let go, an option to copy will appear, then you need to open Safari, paste it into the address bar and go - I don't think you can do this from within Echofon.

In the second example, from @schrodingerskit, you can see a hashtag that didn't appear in the original tweet, it's only seen when (if) the reader clicks on the tmi link. That tweet would not show up in a search for all tweets with the hashtag, and in addition the tmi version of the tag isn't clickable (if it was it would 'work' as a tag and let the user click on it to see all tweets similarly tagged).

Why is this truncation and link-wrecking such a big deal?
It thwarts your intended communication by hiding part of your tweet (which your follower will only see if they click) and, once they've accessed the full information they can't click on any link you've shared.

If your tweet contained a hashtag at the end then that won't show up on Twitter, so people who are following the hashtag (but who aren't following you) won't even see it. And it won't get picked up by anyone curating those tweets.

If you're trying to share a 'call to action' such as getting people to read an article or sign a petition you may find that you're sending out tweets that aren't effective. Only a small percentage of followers will click on any given tweet and if they find they can't go any further with it (the relevant link isn't clickable) you'll lose those who can't be bothered or don't know how to tackle the unclickable link.

Plus in terms of usability it's a fairly colossal fail (not your fault though), costing the user time and effort to interact with your tweet in the way you intended.

What can be done about it?
The obvious solution is to switch it off. Of course that does mean that if your tweet goes over 140 characters Echofon won't send it until you prune off a few characters (the only advantage of tmi + Echofon is that you can write a bit more) - but to be honest I think the risks of having half your tweet unread or mangled anyway probably offsets that.

If you want to use it then remember to put the URL of any websites you want to share, or any hashtags, right at the start of the tweet. Since the truncation happens at the end people should still be able to click on your link or see the hashtag, even if they don't click on the link to see the rest.

Anything good to say about this?
The only thing I can think of would be a situation where you want to share a link to a person's or company's website without alerting them, ie you're effectively cloaking the link, in stealth mode ;)

I have to imagine that most companies run a search on social media for mentions of their own website (or name, which is usually IN their web address), which means they can monitor conversations that are about them without necessarily being to them (eg where their @ mention name isn't used). As an example if you search on Twitter for you'll see tweets containing and - yet they are all pointing towards the site.

You might as well send the secret URL by email but I am guessing that a tweet over 140 characters with the target company's URL at the end would not be picked up by the company. But I've not tried this... Probably easier to use

Supplemental - how do I know people are using Echofon
Echofon shows you which app someone used to send a tweet. I spotted a few of these tmi examples and looked them up on my iPhone and, sure enough, they were sent by people using Echofon. I'm sure other third party Twitter apps use tmi too and I suspect the problem would be the same there.

Here's what a tweet looks like when viewed from Echofon.

note the bit saying "7.29PM - 7 Oct 13 via Echofon"

...   ...   ...   ...

Thanks to @schrodingerskit (Kate) and others whose tweets inspired me to move this beyond the 'gosh isn't Echofon annoying when it does this' to 'I must act... to the blogmobile' ;)

Kate's been quite busy herself, building loos for people at hippy festivals in the desert and she's part of the UCL Loo ('UCLoo') Festival which is looking at ways of building better loos for people who don't have access to safe sanitation.
"We need to go public about toilets. More than 2.6 billion people in developing countries do not have access to a safe toilet, and in the developed world toilets use water - one of our most precious resources - to wash human waste away. The flushing toilet and water based sanitation systems that we take for granted in cities like London are unlikely to be replicated in the rapidly urbanising cities of the global south.

The world needs a new toilet."
If you like, you can donate to the UCLoo Festival here

  - apparently there's a loo make-a-thon at the Institute of Making, which is a venue I want to explore more, given that I sometimes work at UCL which is where it is. The name always makes me think of the charm of making, from the film Excalibur though ;)

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Inspired by *that* Mumsnet thread, I have a linguistics-related query

This is a 'where can I find out about... ' sort of query.

You might have heard of the thread on Mumsnet that went viral yesterday - it got into the Telegraph and the Mirror as well as buzzfeed and a whole bunch of people's Facebook pages.

It began after someone asked a question relating to a... well, quirk really, of their... let's call it 'post-coital cleanup' routine that had all the other posters on Mumsnet (and later the 'entire internet') fascinated, amazed and amused.

I read some of it on the train home last night and giggled so much the man sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. It is spectacular and hilarious and possibly not quite safe for work so I shan't link to it but I'm sure searching for Mumsnet and beaker will bring it up instantly!

There are several hundred posts in the thread, stretching over about 30 pages (last time I checked was this morning) and while reading I noticed the the high number of consistently amusing 'asides' using strikethrough text. Possibly I'm the only person who made that observation on reading that thread ;) Some of the faux-deleted asides made me laugh more than anything else written and they're typically along the lines of saying one thing and meaning another.

It occurred to me that strikethrough is well-used in blogs where an author writes something, someone corrects them in the comments and then the author amends their post but keeps the original error so that the comment still makes sense, and for transparency and letting people track changes. This is done a LOT by science and skeptic bloggers and is generally appreciated by the community.

Cancer Research UK wrote a great blog post two years ago highlighting a particularly controversial clinic in Texas (the Burzynski clinic) that was (I'm not sure if it still is or has now been shut down) charging patients hundreds of thousands of dollars for an unproven cancer treatment. One of the family members of a patient complained about it and CRUK agreed to amend their blog but they did so by striking through the controversial text so it was still visible, and showing the 'approved' text agreed with the family member. I thought this was rather clever - you could see exactly what the family member had objected to and the much softer terms that had been agreed. It was an extremely effective technique, a tiny bit snarky perhaps (not in a bad way) and still fair to all sides.

So I've seen it used a lot online, also in more jokey ways when someone pretends they can't spell a word, crosses it out a few times and then uses one that's simpler to spell ("Yours sincrly sincereley faithfully").

Those are also the only times I've seen it used in printed items (comical) but I'm not aware of having seen it used snarkily in print, or that widely in print either.

How / where (eg what journals / blogs) can I find out more, such as:
  • Is there a name for the use of strikethrough text in sarcasm / snark / humour - it's often a witty aside but a particular way of using text. @4tis pointed out an online example of using ^H (caret H) in usenet discussions to denote 'backspace delete' which achieved the same effect, more at Wikipedia. EDIT - there *is* a name for this sort of thing, it's epanorthosis (Wikipedia / Silva Rhetoricae)
  • When did people start using it? I daresay in a world of print-only it might not exist as that would involve someone having to create a set of letters with a strikethrough mark through them, probably expensive for limited use, or perhaps I'm wrong
  • Has anyone studied its use as a tool of mostly good-humoured snark in online communities? I got the impression the people using it on Mumsnet were both smart and technically savvy and clearly using it deliberately (I mean obviously if you just changed your mind you'd simply delete the text! So this is a deliberate form of textual and sub-textual communication). A friend of mine has done some linguistic analysis of online communities so will certainly ask them too!

Also, if no-one's researching this can I found the journal Strike Through Strikethrough Proceedings?

Also, also, there's a really obvious joke that I'm not making either ;)

What do you think about making errors, and strategies for avoiding them? Especially in medicine.

The CHI+MED project I'm working on has a side-project (called Errordiary) looking specifically at human error in medicine. This can be pretty devastating as when someone makes a mistake the consequences can be quite serious, including death, but more often just the sort of annoying harms that mean someone has a longer stay in hospital while something gets sorted.

There's often the assumption that doctors and nurses are highly trained and well-paid intelligent folk who shouldn't be making mistakes and should be paying attention - ie we hold medical personnel to much higher (unreasonably so) standards than ourselves, after all everyone makes mistakes. Another problem is that hospitals, wanting to be seen to 'do something' often contribute to this and blame the nurse or doctor, or possibly retrain them, or even sack them.

Unfortunately these responses rarely address the problem. Because humans can make a mistake at any time (no matter how well trained) training them more can't ever stop that. 

Researchers in human error would promote a more systems-view approach instead, one that takes account of the ways in which the devices being used (and the systems in which they're used) could be better designed to reduce the chance of error. Writing 'push' on a door doesn't guarantee that you won't pull it but it does reduce the chances a bit - and even writing it acknowledges that doors might open in two ways and that people might need a guide.

A great big decimal point on a medical device might make it a bit clearer that you're delivering 3.2 millilitres of drug per minute to a cancer patient rather than 32. A device that has presets that stop it working if more than 5 ml drug per minute is attempted would also help in that case. Different coloured insulin pens for fast and slow-acting insulins can reduce the chances the wrong one is used.

Errordiary project
The Errordiary project uses the Twitter hashtag #Errordiary to collect everyday examples of error - some are hilarious, some are annoying, some could be pretty serious. We've collected hundreds possibly thousands of these and they're used in teaching situations to reinforce the idea of the ever-present possibility of making an error. 

We also have another hashtag, #rsdiary, to collect examples of the strategies that people use to reduce their risk of making a mistake (remembering to write, and take with you, a shopping list increases the chances that you'll bring home what you wanted) - these are called resilience strategies.

The survey
We want to ask people what they think of and know about errors in everyday life, and also about their thoughts on resilience strategies. There are opportunities to win a small bit of money too (£10.00, not £1,000 - spot the decimal!). The survey's for general members of the public, healthcare professionals and also there's a category for people with diabetes. That's because people who have diabetes are often using one or more medical devices (blood glucose meter, insulin delivery device) and occasionally something will go wrong while in use. We know, from Twitter, that people with diabetes do have lots of resilience strategies - even if they might not use that academic term for them - and it's handy to (a) capture them and also more generally (b) get more people understanding that errors are everywhere and not a personal fault.

People with diabetes are already using other medical devices at home such as home haemodialysis units and the capacity for disaster following error is quite high there.

Here's the survey, it's a rather unlovely link I'm afraid but the content's very nice:

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Tech help: can anyone explain what's going on with my iPhone?

My iPhone makes no sound, except very rarely - why? 

I have an iPhone 3GS bought in June 2009 so it's pretty ancient and the battery rapidly discharges to zero when the phone is in use and says that it's at 80%. Probably I need a new one, but I'm clinging onto it until the absolute last possible moment.

A couple of months ago, while playing a piece of music, the speaker suddenly cut out and there was absolutely no more sound coming out. At first I wondered if the speaker had got wet and tried it a while later after presuming it had dried out - but it made no difference. I also tried cleaning out the headphone socket in case the sensor was confused and, thinking the headphone jack was present, blocked sound from being emitted from the speaker at the foot of the phone. No joy there either.

Because I use my phone as an alarm clock I realised that I'd have to use it on the vibrate setting, which I now do, although if I have headphones on while listening to music I can still hear the alarm or the phone ringing.

A few weeks later (thanks to my Twitter archive I can tell it was on 10 July 2013) my phone randomly began producing sound, which I noticed when my alarm clock both went off and vibrated. I was delighted that it had fixed itself I listened to a bit of music before it suddenly cut out again a while later.

Jump to 8 October (today) and it happened again this morning. I was woken by my alarm going off and vibrating away and noticed that I could also hear the alarm music coming from it too. Hooray. It let me play music for about 20 minutes (even with the volume at maximum I could barely hear it) before suddenly cutting out again.

Possibly it can only play 20 minutes of music very quietly every three months.

Can anyone explain what might be going on? Clearly it can play music, but it just doesn't.

Dear #WDDTY and supporters - please sign the #AllTrials petition if you've not already done so, thank you

Further down is the explanation of why I've posted this on my blog and not on WDDTY's Facebook page (I did try, honest).

All Trials

Has WDDTY and its supporters signed the #AllTrials petition? If so - hooray, if not might I persuade you?

While the petition is organised by Ben Goldacre, the BMJ (British Medical Journal) and Sense About Science - wait, come back! :) - which I can only imagine might annoy you, I'm hoping the fact that it is actually asking pharmaceutical companies to make available ALL of their clinical trial data (not just the good bits) might cheer you up no end. This is a petition that has already annoyed some pharmaceutical companies, so for that reason alone I hope you might sign it :)

Some of the drug companies have acknowledged the need for a cultural change but others have said they don't want to hand over their data and that it is 'commercially sensitive' - it might well be, but patient safety is more important

We might disagree on many things but I hope we can all agree that more information, and not being allowed to hide unfavourable information about drugs, tends to be 'a good thing'.

More on the petition here

The AllTrials website and they are also on Facebook

You are not harming the reputation of WDDTY or alternative therapists, or benefitting skeptic bloggers, or The Times, by signing this petition. It is quite a separate thing, aimed at ensuring pharma can't hide the data it might want to keep hidden.

Thank you, Jo

Edit seconds after posting...

Here's Ben Goldacre, author of the book Bad Pharma (which is, y'know, critical of some of pharma's practices) writing about why he wrote that book: "I wrote this book because we need to fix a set of problems that have been allowed to persist in my own profession – medicine – for far too long."

This is why I get a bit miffed when people say skeptic / science / health bloggers are in the pay of Big Pharma. No!

Earlier today I received a tweet from whoever's running the @_wddty (What Doctors Don't Tell You) account asking me to "please go to our fb page for replies and statements. Twitter is not meant to be used for giving arguments."

While I'm not entirely in agreement that there are any proscriptions on Twitter's use (I've had some amazing and good-natured arguments on there over the years, sometimes quite productive and I've regularly changed my mind about things) I concede their point. If you've been away from Twitter for a few hours and come back to a bunch of tweets (the other day I found myself copied in on 19 tweets that were really just a conversation between two other people) it's a bit ennervating. Also I don't think that WDDTY have a dedicated responsive social media presence (they may want to have a bit of a think about that though).

So I'm actually fine with interacting with them on Facebook if that's their preference, however I just tried to post the text above on their page and received this unloving message. Possibly I've been blocked from commenting as other skeptic blogger types have found. It could be a glitch though - none of my (reasonably friendly and not all that impolite, I thought) messages showed up the other day and I had assumed I was blocked, only to find them reappear an hour or so later.

Edit: 20 November 2013
Although it happened a couple of weeks ago I have now been blocked from commenting on WDDTY's Facebook page and some (all?) of my previous comments appear to have been removed.

Clearly the wall is WDDTY's space to use as it pleases and it's perfectly within its rights to block me. What I found disheartening was that all of my posts there were civil, had I been rude or spamming - well fair enough, more fool me and that sort of behaviour should lead to someone being blocked. But WDDTY is simply removing the voices of polite disagreement which I think is a shame. Oddly there were some other, quite robust, comments from skeptics - not quite rude but not pulling any punches - and these remained for longer than mine. Perhaps I am just jealous ;)

Monday, 7 October 2013

WDDTY, homeopathy, cancer and vaccines - well it's an odd way of going about things

It's always a bit mean, in an argument, to bring up things like "well you said..." but in the case of What Doctors Don't Tell You I am going to do precisely that. I'm a bit miffed with them at the moment, partly because they have a poor selection process for the adverts in their magazine (many have been sanctioned by the Advertising Standards Authority for being misleading), partly because some of their health advice is poor (not all of it I hasten to add) and partly because they persist in accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being in the pay of 'big pharma' and part of some cabal of people whose only joy in life is spoiling their fun.

Their recent difficulties arose when someone spotted that the teaser in the current issue (October) was going to be talking about cancer and homeopathy in the following November issue (out in a few weeks). Homeopathy is straight-up nonsense and no responsible health magazine should be talking about it, other than to recommend people avoid spending (wasting) money on it. The other problem is that the magazine is going to be talking about alternative (or complementary, if you prefer) treatments for cancer. Because of the Cancer Act of 1939 you have to be a bit careful what you imply in terms of treatments, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

If I could be convinced that the magazine's intention is to suggest things like homeopathy alongside conventional treatment I'd probably not bleat very much. Still a waste of money but as long as someone's getting real medicine then the extra chat they get with a homeopath or the placebo effect from the pills is OK with me.

Sadly WDDTY have a tendency to frame everything that comes from regular medicine as being a bit suspect, providing information about alternatives to real treatments. The magazine's name implies that doctors keep information from their patients, or don't have the latest information.

Even the Daily Mail, which can occasionally be fairly horrendous in its health information, doesn't treat doctors as self-interested employees of pharmaceutical companies so while I'd not lose sleep if they ran out of ink I can put up with their paper being sold everywhere.

A brief timeline
1. The Times recently ran a story (1 October) suggesting that WDDTY had implied that "homeopathy could treat cancer" and that "the cervical cancer vaccine has killed hundreds of girls". Here is the full quote taken from The Times' site (most of the article is behind a paywall):

"Experts are calling on high street shops to stop selling a magazine that claims that vitamin C cures HIV, suggests homeopathy could treat cancer and implies that the cervical cancer vaccine has killed hundreds of girls."

2. WDDTY was annoyed by this, feeling that The Times had wrongly attributed statements to the magazine which hadn't bee made and that, in addition, the author of the article (Tom Whipple) had failed to get in touch with magazine staff for their comment on the story (Tom Whipple makes it pretty clear that he did and eventually WDDTY conceded that he had tried).

It is now 7 October and I think WDDTY have published at least four separate press releases within three days complaining about The Times and the campaign to have the magazine removed from high street shops and supermarkets.
3. WDDTY also produced a video with Positive TV in which someone asks them if they said that homeopathy could treat cancer or that the HPV vaccine killed girls - to which they respond forcefully that they did not, and that they were merely reporting on others' research.

They also addressed the accusations on Facebook and threw a few insults towards Sense About Science, the Nightingale Collaboration and skeptic bloggers. 

They have been at great pains to state on Twitter, Facebook, on YouTube videos and in press releases / emails to their subscribers that they have never said that homeopathy might cure cancer or that the HPV vaccine might kill people who have it.

I disagree!! I think they've said precisely that.

Here they are saying, in the headline, that the HPV vaccine has killed hundreds of girls (to be fair the article is a bit vaguer but why go and say it in the headline?!).

‘Safe’ HPV vaccine kills up to 1,700 young girls

Here's a screenshot...

and here they are saying that homeopathy can be used to 'treat' or 'reverse' cancer - I concede that they have not used the word cure, but nor have they been sufficiently careful to ensure that anyone reading (particularly someone vulnerable) couldn't draw that conclusion. Harrumph!

the headline "Much more than placebo: Homeopathy reverses cancer" rather suggests that homeopathy is a solution for cancer and other text within the body of the article (published September 2013 October 2012) implies the same:

"Several homeopathic remedies are as effective as powerful chemotherapy, according to clinical trials, and thousands of cancer cases are being reversed by homeopathy alone." - this specifically implies that homeopathy is equally effective as chemotherapy, and that it might be used as a standalone treatment.

So this discussion on the use of homeopathy is not about its use as a complementary (and therefore harmless when running alongside real medicine) treatment, it is being suggested as an alternative.

I don't think anyone's died or been injured yet from reading or following the advice in this magazine but I hope you'd agree that it's not very good and the way they've framed it is a bit worrying. We know, from an amazing collection at What's the Harm?, that plenty of people do die or are injured from bad advice though -

Using the address in a public Dropbox folder to find other files also shared

Disclaimer: Because this post mentions the complementary health magazine 'What Doctors Don't Tell You' I feel it is incumbent upon me to state that: I am not medically trained, I am not paid by any pharmaceutical company nor do I have any stocks or shares in them or their subsidiaries. I am not a 'member' of either Sense About Science or Nightingale Collaboration - largely because they don't have members though I enjoy reading the output of both and am supportive of them.

I'm supportive of people / patients getting hold of good quality health-related information and I accept that things are not perfect in medicine. One thing you can do to put pressure on 'big pharma' to share their trial data (all of it, not just the stuff that makes their drugs look good) is to sign the AllTrials petition

Whenever I see a web address that links to some controversial information I am often thinking 'what else can I find from this site'. Typically I might take the root domain (eg as opposed to and use Google to search for specific phrases (eg cancer or inurl:wddty cancer - note that the second one would also bring up!).

I'll also search for the root domain and see what else shows up, or I might put the address in the browser address bar and prune it a bit ('URL hacking') to see what else I can find within subdomains and folders etc.

I have noticed that What Doctors Don't Tell You are using a public Dropbox folder to share their responses to criticism, for example their most recent 'The WDDTY wars' complaining that they were misrepresented in The Times can be found at

The number 165637094 appears to be a constant and if I search for the pruned address on Google:


then I get this page of results, including several articles - note that all of these are articles placed (presumably by WDDTY staff) into a public Dropbox folder and shared publicly on Facebook or elsewhere. I have not hacked into their files to find anything, I don't know how to do that, nor do I want to.

What did I find? Not much :)
  • Our Word: - a recent press release
  • Ageing well (pt 1): - which includes "Homeopathy: According to WDDTY columnist Dr Harald Gaier, there are several effective homeopathic remedies for varicose veins, including H. virginiana (witch hazel), Aristolochia clematis, Paeonia officinalis, Viburnum opulus and Ruta graveolens."

    The obvious thing to try here is to replace the word One in the address with Two, but sadly this file doesn't exist.
  • What the Times didn't tell you: - another press release
  • The WDDTY wars: - press release
  • Latest news (16 May 2013): - this includes a (dead) link to WDDTY's Vaccination Bible  
  • Healing foods: which suggests you might like to "Add some watercress to your lunchtime salad if you have breast cancer, as it may stop the tumours from progressing", which seems a bit overconfident
  • Subscribe before we are banned:

It's worth being aware that if you share stuff on your public dropbox people can use information in the link to find other stuff you've shared publicly - that you might have forgotten you've shared. This shouldn't be a surprise, obviously, since you've shared it... y'know... publicly, but it can be useful in chasing up other information.

How to solve this
If you'd rather people don't have access to a file then simply move it out of the public Dropbox folder and wait for Google cache to catch up.
If you want to save a copy of a file you think might suddenly be deleted I recommend either downloading it (if it's a PDF, you can occasionally do this from Google cache) or Freezepage if it's a webpage.

There is such a thing as the Museum of Water - here's what I'd put in it

While at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday* I spotted someone packing away the contents of some glass cabinets that had glass and plastic bottles in them. I asked what it was all about and discovered the existence of the Museum of Water which turns out to be an artwork celebrating water. The collection contained delicate looking glass bottles and vials as well as pretty ordinary-looking plastic bottles of water. Here's their Flickr page

I spoke to one of the curators who told me a little about the project and explained that people were invited to make donations of quantities of water (they also have urine and spit samples!) that had some meaning to them.
"We currently have over 150 bottles in the collection, ranging from water from a holy river in India, to a burst London water main, ice from a Sussex field, a melted snowman, 20-year-old evaporated snow from Maine, condensation from a Falmouth window, Hackney rainwater, a new born baby’s bath water, Norwegian spit, three types of wee, two different breaths and water from a bedside table said to be infused with dreams."

Water pattern

Normally I'd have to spend some time thinking about an example of water that means something to me, as I'm afraid to say I'm pretty acclimatised to its ubiquity but amazingly I immediately thought of two examples that I'd like to submit to the collection. The challenge is acquiring them - in the case of the first it would involve giving money to quacks, in the second case it would involve considerations of health and safety.

My submissions (in the non-literal sense then, since I don't actually have them) to the Museum of Water are:

1. A bottle of alkaline water
Alkaline water is water whose pH is higher than regular water (which is fairly neutral). Tap water does apparently vary in its pH quite a bit (I seem to remember looking into it for reasons that are about to become apparent), but alkaline water comes in bottles and is definitely alkaline. Of course drinking alkaline water just means that once it gets into your stomach it probably doesn't put up much of a fight against the super-low pH of stomach acids, so as far as I can tell there isn't actually any point in drinking it.

But I've no objection to people selling or buying alkaline water, I'm sure it tastes lovely. What I do object to is people selling it and claiming that it can cure cancer and diabetes. And for that reason I asked Trading Standards to investigate a company doing exactly that and the next thing I heard the company had ceased trading. This surprised me as, given it's not illegal to buy or sell alkaline water, I'm sure they could have just continued selling it as bottled water with a slightly higher pH.

There are some other companies selling alkaline water but since they don't regularly breach the Cancer Act of 1939 they are free to do so without interference from me, though I might mock their claims occasionally.

My first submission would be a bottle of alkaline water then.

2. A bottle of 'heavy water' aka deuterated water
When I was doing a PhD that I never got anywhere with ('blunting the cutting edge of science' as my mum called it - learned loads, mostly that I'm a heck of a lot better at talking about science than doing it, though I'm pretty good at fixing technology) one of the things I did was submit some of my samples to NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance imaging).

I loved doing this, the NMR unit was housed in a double layer of liquid helium and liquid nitrogen (things that are normally gases at room temperature that were at such low temperature they were liquid) and there were lots of warnings around about not letting the liquids heat up which would 'quench' the magnet.

If that happened you were in danger of finding yourself in a room full of expanding unbreathable gas which also (a) displaces oxygen, making it extra hard to breathe and (b) exert extra pressure on the door making it hard to open. Also pretty terrifying I should think, happily I never experienced it.

Anyway, drama aside, the NMR unit I was using was 'reading' the signal from hydrogen atoms in the sample - these are your basic 1H atom which is everywhere. Because the sample is in solution there's a risk that you'll get signal from any of the 1H atoms that are in the solution and so... you use solvents that don't use that hydrogen atom but instead use the deuterated isotope (2H or D - so you get 2H
or D2O for water or CDCl3 instead of CHCl3 (chloroform)).

Deuterium Oxide

I don't think deuterated water is particularly dangerous to have lying around in a bottle, probably is a bit risky if you drink rather a lot of it. Another potential risk is that bottles were often previously sold with another ingredient in it that was used as an internal standard (a known amount of a chemical compound that gives you a standard against which you can compare your sample) and that chemical (trimethylsilane) isn't really something you'd want to drink - but I don't think it's included now.

But safely housed in a glass bottle with a screw lid - should be fine. So my second contribution is a properly stored bottle of heavy water.

Edit: @zeno001 has suggested I also include a bottle of homeopathic water, which would be infinitely diluted...

*for the BBC recording of a tribute to lyricist Don Black, which will be broadcast around Christmas.