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

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Not getting homeopathy events moved from universities - can't win 'em all

Summary - despite requests to move or cancel it Birkbeck (University of London) will continue to host an event promoting homeopathy for women's health conditions. Homeopathy is not a valid system of medicine.

Edit: I've not even published this post yet and have only just spotted this phrase which appears in the testimonials (not in the main marketing text, but what do you think testimonials are for) -

"I highly recommend taking the course on Female Diseases, as his presentation will provide a book filled with serious cured cases such as cancers, fibroids, infertility and much more" - emphasis added. It's possible that the addition of that comment is problematic under the Cancer Act 1939.

Universities hosting homeopathy (or any alternative medicine / quackery) events is problematic for several reasons.
  1.  It gives the event the fillip and prestige of being hosted at a respected academic institution (whether or not this is exploited or explicitly implied in other marketing material)
  2. It suggests that the event, or type of 'treatment', is a little less ridiculous than it might be if it had been hosted at Teehee McFunny's Mirthful Comedy Cabaret
  3. Not university-specific, but let's assume that an event promoting an unproven treatment is not in people's best interests and perhaps higher-education institutes might prefer not to give them house-room.
  4. As I'm not a lawyer I don't know if this is piffle (and I only read about it on Wikipedia [see bit on Education act]) but it seems that people can get away with saying things in an academic setting in the UK that they might be less able to say in another setting - possibly this affects academics only not visiting quacks. Though if it affects everyone it suggests that quacks might be able to overclaim for their quackery.
Birkbeck (part of the University of London) is hosting a homeopathy event for 'female diseases'. Presenting at the event is a visiting doctor from India and the event's application form makes it clear it's aimed at homeopaths or student homeopaths rather than the general public. However I think anyone can apply (and since 'homeopath' isn't a protected term anyone could put student homeopath (for example they might be doing a short course at a local community college)), and spend around £200 to attend. That's £200, wasted on this event.

To be fair the event organisers have not made much of the fact that it's taking place at the University of London but the text of the marketing for the event certainly seems at odds with academia.

There is a shopping list of 'female conditions' which include endometriosis, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian disease, amenorrhoea [stopped periods]) as well as things like miscarriage and infertility. Homeopathy is very unlikely to be of much use here.

Because this isn't an advert for a product the text doesn't fall within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority so there would be no benefit in complaining about it to them. However I think it's interesting to consider that - if an advert - the ASA would likely rule against it, because of the mention of serious medical conditions and the implication that homeopathy might be of use to people who have them. When adjudicating on previous adverts the ASA have considered that listing medical conditions may encourage people to forgo appropriate medical advice (bad!). While the ASA don't get a say on this event's marketing it seems a good rule of thumb that if they'd not permit it as an advert it's perhaps not much good for an event at a university.

The event promo ends with "There is no claim here that homeopathy can heal, treat or cure these medical conditions. Homeopathy is used to trigger natural healing mechanisms of the whole person to work better rather than address particular symptoms. These case studies will be used to talk through techniques that were used to lift the general wellbeing of the people concerned." but simply writing this isn't really much use, given that the rest of the page rather contradicts it.

For example "Medical test results are shown before and after homeopathic treatment for most cases leaving no doubt about the changes that have occurred" and the speaker "will encourage you to feel more able to support challenging cases, perhaps even where the experts have given up" - this seems quite close to claiming that homeopathy can heal.

A couple of people on Twitter have contacted Birkbeck about this event (I don't know the outcome of that). I emailed Birkbeck (copy below) to ask them to distance themselves from the event, and while I've acknowledged my hope that it's cancelled I've not specifically asked them to do that. I just don't think it should be hosted at a university.

Recently there was some success in stopping a different event, though I heard about it only after it was all over. Curzon Cinemas had been about to host 'Vaxxed' and a Q&A with Andrew Wakefield (disgraced former medic who is no longer allowed to practice after his role in deliberately falsifying medical data relating to autism and vaccines) but after criticism from doctors and scientists this event was pulled.

There were a few tweets about it and I replied to one that "I am currently failing to get a event for women's health moved from Uni of London (Birkbeck)."

I was deliberately precise in my language of moving not removing or cancelling despite this a couple of people challenged me (nicely, I might add!) asking "what's the reasoning behind trying to get this event cancelled? I mean, aside from it being fake science?" and "[other text] ...but forcing ppl to pull events is a dangerous line to cross", which I hope I've clarified for them, as I'm not doing either - though I'd not complain one bit if the event was pulled.

Trading Standards have previously taken action to shut down events, or venues have pre-emptively cancelled events, where people would have tried to talk about cancer cures (doing so may be illegal under the Cancer Act 1939). Similarly there have been raids on events promoting MMS (a form of bleach) as a miracle cure, including for autism. I don't have a problem with unsafe medical events being stopped from going ahead. Women are not well-served by this event which promotes a form of non-treatment for potentially serious health conditions.

Birkbeck have replied that the event is still going ahead and have pointed me to their free speech policy for their events. It's a good document but unfortunately this homeopathy event is not considered to breach it, so the document doesn't really 'protect' against utter hooey being presented uncritically. This is good news for homeopaths and I'd advise them to host their future events at academic instutions ;)

At some point I'll add a much briefer version of this to the 'failures' section of the Skeptic (activism) successes in homeopathy post and Storify (embedded in the linked post).

Copy of the email I sent to Birkbeck in December

I wasn't planning on blogging about this particular homeopathy event so please forgive me sending it to the press team but this was the first email address available through the contacts page. Twitter has made me aware that someone will be running an event on using 'homeopathy for female diseases', at Birkbeck (address listed on the event page) [link redacted] in March.
Homeopathy is not a valid intervention for any health condition and it's fairly startling that this is taking place at Birkbeck, and that people are charged money to attend. From extensive previous experience of university venues being exploited in this way it's fairly clear this will be framed as a prestigious University of London venue recognising the value of homeopathy.
Please can you pass on my request to whoever deals with room booking and ask them to do whatever is possible to distance Birkbeck from this quack event taking place. In an ideal world the event would simply be cancelled, though being moved elsewhere is usually what happens.
There is a shopping list of conditions that the speaker imagines himself qualified to speak on (doubtful) including fibroids, thyroid problems and miscarriage. This event promotes mistaken and potentially harmful interventions for women.

Many thanks, and best wishes,

Postscript - incidentally the event organisers haven't exploited the prestige at all so I'm wrong on that one, but I am still concerned by the overall 'framing' of the event, implying that a homeopathy event is an appropriate one for academic institution, I really think it isn't. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Simple-text list of London boroughs

Updated 18 January 2021, adding extra files

I find I need this so often and keep having to process a list from Wikipedia or elsewhere that I've finally decided to add it here for copying and pasting. Each time I do this, and search for a list, I stupidly believe that I'll come across a list I think I saw once - but I never do. So here it is.

1. The Plain Text version will parse downwards into one column in an Excel spreadsheet if you copy / paste it in.
2. The second version is numbered alphabetically. There are 32 London boroughs and City of London is a separate thing so 33 in total.
3. The third version is bullet points

Help yourself :)

A bonus file - a tab-separated version (.tab) which will parse the boroughs across 33 column headings (you never know when you'll need that!). It can be opened directly into an Excel sheet or can be opened as a text / notepad file and then the contents copied and pasted into Excel.

Other useful bits at the end.

1. Plain Text version (or download and save this .txt file)
Barking and Dagenham
City of London
Hammersmith and Fulham
Kensington and Chelsea
Kingston upon Thames
Richmond upon Thames
Tower Hamlets
Waltham Forest

2. Numbered alphabetically

  1. Barking and Dagenham
  2. Barnet
  3. Bexley
  4. Brent
  5. Bromley
  6. Camden
  7. City of London
  8. Croydon
  9. Ealing
  10. Enfield
  11. Greenwich
  12. Hackney
  13. Hammersmith and Fulham
  14. Haringey
  15. Harrow
  16. Havering
  17. Hillingdon
  18. Hounslow
  19. Islington
  20. Kensington and Chelsea
  21. Kingston upon Thames
  22. Lambeth
  23. Lewisham
  24. Merton
  25. Newham
  26. Redbridge
  27. Richmond upon Thames
  28. Southwark
  29. Sutton
  30. Tower Hamlets
  31. Waltham Forest
  32. Wandsworth
  33. Westminster
3. Bullet point version
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Barnet
  • Bexley
  • Brent
  • Bromley
  • Camden
  • City of London
  • Croydon
  • Ealing
  • Enfield
  • Greenwich
  • Hackney
  • Hammersmith and Fulham
  • Haringey
  • Harrow
  • Havering
  • Hillingdon
  • Hounslow
  • Islington
  • Kensington and Chelsea
  • Kingston upon Thames
  • Lambeth
  • Lewisham
  • Merton
  • Newham
  • Redbridge
  • Richmond upon Thames
  • Southwark
  • Sutton
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Waltham Forest
  • Wandsworth
  • Westminster
Other useful bits
London borough mapping tool (eg if you've got 4 things in Lewisham and 10 in Sutton and want to map this with a colour-graded heatmap etc) -

London schools atlas:

Friday, 20 January 2017

Air Studios in Hampstead and basement excavations next door

I've been following the fate of Air Studios in Hampstead for the last year or so ever since I heard that their neighbours had put in a planning application to excavate their basement to make room for fun and exciting things. The noise and disruption would be offputting under any circumstances, all the more so given that this is a recording studio which has particular requirements about noise.

Basement excavations are tricky things to get right at the best of times but when they go wrong they can really go disastrously wrong. The Health and Safety Executive published a press release (Basement building in London faces safety scrutiny) in March 2015 highlighting that in the preceding ten years 17 construction workers had died and 27 were seriously injured during basement excavation work. I don't know how that compares with other construction work though, but it seems rather a lot.

From the same press release...
"In December 2014, following the death of a labourer in a basement excavation collapse in Fulham, a company director was found guilty of manslaughter offences and jailed."
"The work is technically challenging and can carry substantial risk. Standards are often poor and often vulnerable sections of the labour market are recruited."
There have been a few mentions of the problem of basement excavations aka subterranean development in Parliament (you can search the easy-to-use version of the Hansard reports here) -
"Basements are a real problem. Anybody who lives in an area where basements are spreading will accept that they are a problem. If you talk to people who live next door to where a basement is being dug out, they will tell you, “For heaven’s sake, we have no peace, we cannot sleep”."
Lord Dub:
When these things go well they just make a lot of noise and disturb neighbours and when they go badly they cause a lot of damage and injuries. Since they benefit so few people (well I suppose the contractors who are still alive at the end of the work benefit too) it seems an odd balance sheet to have.

Collapsing buildings, or Einst├╝rzende bauten
- note: this is, by definition, a biased sample of basement excavation stories as it's unlikely that 'home redevelopment passes without incident' would be mentioned in the press. But still, there's an awful lot of this sort of thing. With further (cautious!) digging I'm sure I could find more. There are certainly plenty of applications.
"In 2001 the borough of Kensington & Chelsea received 46 planning applications for basements; last year [2013] it received 450." (The Guardian)

Some stories refer to other examples so I've tracked back and found others that I'd not been aware of. In a handful of the cases below no damage occurred (or hasn't occurred yet).

This post was published on 20 January 2017 but I've added a couple of later examples to the list. The November 2020 item references a 2018 study which suggests that plenty of basement excavations do in fact result in a successful end product (hooray) and that over 500 of them are built every year, hopefully without incident - "The study, Mapping Subterranean London: the Hidden Geography of Residential Basement Developments, listed 4,650 basements constructed across seven London boroughs between 2008 and 2017, with 374 of the developments including a pool, 242 a sauna or steam room and 115 incorporating accommodation for staff." Perhaps only 0.4% (rough estimate) end in disaster.

  1. Kensington & Chelsea, November 2020
    London street evacuated after two houses collapse during building works (The Guardian)
  2. Barnet, January 2017
    Basement excavations haven't helped a pub's renovation much (Broken Barnet)
  3. Blackheath, December, 2016
    No problem yet but parents are concerned about a basement development planning application near a school (London News Online)
  4. Cardiff, October 2016
    After a basement extension collapsed the owner was refused further planning permission (Daily Mail)
  5. Penarth, June 2016
    House collapses during basement extension (BBC News Wales)
  6. Richmond, June 2016
    No problem yet but residents surprised that a planning application accepted, and warn of 'iceberg' developments. Similarity to the collapsed building in Barnes in Nov 2015. (Richmond & Twickenham Times)
  7. Barnes, November 2015
    House collapses during basement excavation (BBC News)
  8. Hackney, November 2015
    Ceiling collapsed, attributed to basement work next door (Hackney Citizen)
  9. Finchley, October 2015
    A house split in half when the basement excavation went bad. It took the couple a lot of effort and legal misery to get compensation (Daily Mail)
  10. Marylebone, April 2014
    A burst water main (which had been leaking for 90 years) caused the problem, not the basement excavation itself. When work began the softened ground gave way (Evening Standard)
  11. Warren Mews, London, August 2013
    Basement excavation caused noise misery for nearby residents, and damage to cobblestones but I don't think any buildings fell down, hooray (Fitzrovia News)
  12. Hampstead, NW3, June 2013
    Neighbours express concern about plans for a basement excavation (The Telegraph)
  13. Kent, January 2011
    Worker excavating a basement at Benenden School badly injured (The Construction Index)
  14. Fulham, December 2010
    Builder dies when basement collapses (BBC News). 
  15. Belgravia, October 2010
    A skip fell through the road after the basement beneath it was excavated (Evening Standard)
  16. Camden, March 2010
    Basement excavation work carried out without planning permission does enough damage that the nearby homes of two families had to be demolished (BBC News)
  17. Gateshead, October 2009
    Fortunately this garage excavation was nipped in the bud and damage averted (Chronicle Live)

Friday, 13 January 2017

Unusual Thunderbird mail glitch (overenthusiastic scrolling) - any ideas

I have three panels on Thunderbird (v45.6.0). Full length on the left is the list of folders then on the right split horizontally are two - on the top it's the list of emails in the mailbox I'm viewing and the panel below is the email I'm clicked on.

Normally if I move the cursor into the email pane and start scrolling (even without clicking into the pane) the text of the email moves so that I can read the complete message. I've found that Thunderbird just scrolls up and down through the messages above, meaning that what I can see in the message pane changes. It's a bit frustrating.

It's been going on for a while but I noticed a few days ago that it seemed to have sorted itself out without me doing anything. Alas after switching off and on again I'm back to the overly excitable scrolly thing.

Additionally the rate of scroll is impressively fast, with the slightest touch on the mousepad (Lenovo, Windows 10) making the cursor leap to the top or bottom of the message, or mailboxes, list. This isn't a mousepad sensitivity problem because scrolling behaves normally in all other programs.

I'm hoping that if I don't switch off my computer for a few days it might settle down by itself but I don't know what's causing it or how to find the settings to interact with that aspect of it.

The only scroll options I've found make no difference, in any permutation.

Any ideas what's causing it, and what I might do to fix it? Thanks!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Is there a list of places that employ Computer Science graduates?

Back in 2003 I wanted to find out what was available to someone (me!) new to the world of science communication. It's a huge field that encompasses museum explainers, people working in press and PR in medical research charities, bloggers / journalists / science writers, scientists and researchers working in educational or corporate institutions who want to talk to non-specialists about their work etc. I began making a note of "organisations that might employ science communicators" with a focus on London which is where I live.

As my list got bigger it naturally fell into themed areas (charities, learned societies, universities etc) and in 2009 I published what I had found, and others suggested new organisations and new thematic areas. It's a resource for people looking for work 'now' or for those who are 'prospecting' and want to find out what sort of things are available.

Where London science communicators might work (July 2009)

I wondered, on reading the Shadbolt Review (of computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability) if there might be something similar for people interested in working with computers or 'in computing'.
"We have gathered evidence that, outside of the large and well-known technology companies, the potential computer-related careers paths on offer to graduates can often be unclear and that graduate outcomes can be impacted through a lack of knowledge about the industries in which they could make effective use of their skills and knowledge." - 7.29, p77 of 91 in the Shadbolt review (below)

One of the recommendations, Recommendation 5, looks at careers advice and visibility of graduate opportunities - bemoaning the fact that students (and perhaps pre-students wondering what direction to head in) don't really have a good overview of what's available. In science communication I see that quite a few job openings are circulated within small groups - I wonder if prospective applicants (and, in this case, computer science students) are aware of that infrastructure, if those jobs aren't more widely findable.

Computer science degree accreditation and graduate employability: Shadbolt review (May 2016) 

Computing is an even wider field than science communication because almost every profession has its own software, and individuals skilled in unrelated matters might use software for their business needs. Employers like banks, charities, Google, Microsoft, Apple - not to mention startups - provide employment for people who are good at computers. Many of those employed will likely have or need a Computer Science degree but since there are plenty of self-taught computer geniuses in the maker / tinkering community too.

There's this, but the page is too vague for what I'm after but it is from ACGAS who are mentioned in the report (p78 of 91).

Edit: 12 January
I wrote this post yesterday (11 Jan 20117) then somehow inadvertently managed to revert it to a draft and delete the text within an hour or two of publication. Given that the Blogger platform is owned by Google and Google crawls Blogger blog posts very regularly I assumed I'd be able to find a cached copy, but alas it wasn't to be, so I've had to remember what I wrote, and then rewrite it. Silly mistake really.

Friday, 6 January 2017

"England, their England" on the lovely Marylebone Station

My dad recommended "England, their England" to me, in particular for its 'bit' on Marylebone Station in London. There are several ways* of getting to Harrow from (slightly more central) London and the one that involves Marylebone is the loveliest and quickest. Chiltern Rail have a service running twice an hour and it takes less than 15mins.

Marylebone always feels like it's from a bygone rail age and, like Paddington, is filled with the (to me, lovely) sound of rail engines idling. One fault is that the Harrow train (destination Aylesbury) is often hidden on Platform 6 which is that bit further away from the concourse. Worse, there are usually two trains on the platform and the one furthest away is the one you need. Often they give you less than 10 mins notice which is fine for me but was an awful burden on my poor dad who really struggled to get to the train in that time.

Just outside the station you can get the 2 (goes to Victoria) or 205 (goes to Stepney Green / Bow) bus and if you cross the road there's the 453 to Deptford Bridge. There's also a normal-priced newsagents shop there if you want refreshments for a longer journey (Marylebone goes to Birmingham, Oxford (as of 12 Dec 2016), Warwick etc).

Anyway here's what England, their England has to say about the station and a journey to Aylesbury (written in 1933 by AG Macdonell, set in the 1920s).
"Two days later he was at Marylebone Station, quietest and most dignified of stations, where the porters go on tiptoe, where the barrows are rubber-tyred and the trains sidle mysteriously in and out with only the faintest of toots upon their whistles so as not to disturb the signalmen, and there he bought a ticket to Aylesbury from a man who whispered that the cost was nine-and-six, and that a train would probably start from Number 5 platform as soon as the engine-driver had come back from the pictures, and the guard had been to see his old mother in Baker Street.

Sure enough a train marked Aylesbury was standing at Number 5 platform. According to the timetable it was due to start in ten minutes, but the platform was deserted and there were no passengers in the carriages. The station was silent. The newspaper boy was asleep. A horse, waiting all harnessed beside a loaded van, lay down and yawned. The dust filtered slowly down through the winter sunbeams, gradually obliterating a label upon a wooden crate which said "Urgent. Perishable."

Donald took a seat in a third-class smoker and waited. An engine-driver came stealthily up the platform. A stoker, walking like a cat, followed him. After a few minutes a guard appeared at the door of the carriage and seemed rather surprised at seeing Donald.

"Do you wish to travel, sir?" he asked gently, and when Donald had said that he was desirous of going as far as Aylesbury, the guard touched his hat and said in a most respectful manner, "If you wish it, sir." He reminded Donald of the immortal butler, Jeeves. Donald fancied, but he was not quite sure, that he heard the guard whisper to the engine-driver, "I think we might make a start now, Gerald," and he rather thinks the engine-driver replied in the same undertone, "Just as you wish, Horace."

Anyway, a moment or two later the train slipped out of the station and gathered speed in the direction of Aylesbury.

The railway which begins, or ends, according to the way in which you look at it, from or at Marylebone, used to be called the Great Central Railway, but is now merged with lots of other railways into one large concern called the London, Midland and South Coast or some such name. The reason for the merger was that dividends might be raised, or lowered, or something. Anyway, the line used to be called the Great Central and it is like no other of the north-bound lines. For it runs through lovely, magical rural England. It goes to places that you have never heard of before, but when you have heard of them you want to live in them—Great Missenden and Wendover and High Wycombe and Princes Risborough and Quainton Road, and Akeman Street and Blackthorn. It goes to places that do not need a railway, that never use a railway, that probably do not yet know that they have got a railway. It goes to way-side halts where the only passengers are milk-churns. It visits lonely platforms where the only tickets are bought by geese and ducks. It stops in the middle of buttercup meadows to pick up eggs and flowers. It glides past the great pile of willow branches that are maturing to make England's cricket-bats. It is a dreamer among railways, a poet, kindly and absurd and lovely.

You can sit at your carriage window in a Great Central train and gallop your horse from Amersham to Aylesbury without a check for a factory or a detour for a field of corn or a break for a slum. Pasture and hedge, and pasture and hedge, and pasture and hedge, mile after mile after mile, grey-green and brown and russet, and silver where the little rivers tangle themselves among reeds and trodden watering-pools.

There are no mountains or ravines or noisy tunnels or dizzy viaducts. The Great Central is like that old stream of Asia Minor. It meanders and meanders until at last it reaches, loveliest of English names, the Vale of Aylesbury."
The full text is available at Project Gutenberg Canada.

*An almost identical journey (running on a parallel line, though sometimes they run on the same tracks) is the Metropolitan tube line from Baker Street a few minutes walk away from Marylebone, that takes about ~20 minutes. Euston runs a rail service to Harrow & Wealdstone and Hatch End etc. The Overground trains also go from various North Central London stations to Harrow & Wealdstone but that's a slow stopping train.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Possible rapprochement with poetry

I've always found poetry a bit irritating. Probably my feelings about it stem from school English lessons in which we were encouraged to consider "what the poet was really trying to say" which made me wonder "why couldn't they just say it that way then?"

My particular peeve is with poems that don't scan and which have lines where the poet has pressed 'enter' too soon (it's called enjambment). The poem continues on the next line but you read the line as if it's continuous. Why? Why would anyone do that? Technically I know because I've read that Wikipedia article on enjambment that I just linked to. It seems like it wouldn't work with limericks as you need a bit of breathing space between the lines for the rhythm to work, though of course now I can think of examples where I'm wrong ;)

I'm interested in science communication generally and specifically in health communication in which complex medical information is explained to non-specialists, with some significant effort made to reduce ambiguity in the explanation (see the terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public here). Scientists and non-scientists may understand quite different things by 'model', or 'protein' or 'theory' so precision is required. This might also have coloured my view of poetry, which I acknowledge can be precise, but still poems seem to go out of their way to be oblique. Either the meaning has to be teased out (what inefficient communication!) or it appears to be incomprehensible gibberish. And said in a special intoning poetry voice.

I had a bit of epiphany yesterday though, and it's thanks to my love of film music. Music used in films can sneak up on you without you necessarily being aware of it, or the feelings it creates. It can create all sorts of moods and underscore what's happening on screen, or it can hint that something on-screen is not actually as it appears. It manages to do this without words and I'm gradually coming round to the idea that the rhythm / meter in poetry might be vaguely analogous to the pace of the music. Presumably the words themselves are meant to evoke something rather than actually making their meaning clear, perhaps a bit like those lovely Uilleann pipes always evoke Irish / celtic associations, or certain types of drum rhythms evoke the US military in films. That's about as far as I've got with mulling this over, but I might have to try and rethink my irritation with poetry.

Poems should still rhyme though, and preferably be funny :)