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, 27 May 2017

Can anyone help me find this letter to the editor from 1987

This post is inspired by wishing I was at Hay Festival for Letters Live which I enjoyed very much last year, but Hay is a bit too far if you're coming by public transport by yourself. The letter that I'm after, sent to an editor for publication rather than to a person per se, might not make much sense unless you know the context - but find out for yourself by scrolling to section 4 if you don't want to read the background :)

Background to the tale...

1. Low-flying noisy military aircraft
Although I didn't pay a great deal of attention to it at the time (being mostly away at school or living in North London) during the late 1980s there were apparently a lot of military aircraft making a din in otherwise peaceful rural areas such as the Lake District. To be honest had I been aware of it I'd probably have enjoyed it as I'm very warmly-disposed towards large noisy military aircraft and relish the Chinooks that occasionally zip around Blackheath and Greenwich and I actively seek airshows (and YouTube videos on the topic).

The official line at the time, and presumably today, is that pilots need practice flying at low altitude but as I understand it relations between the public and the military have improved somewhat and low-altitude flight times are published in advance and the public can comment etc.

2. My mum's collection of amusing cuttings
My mum used to cut snippets from newspapers and magazines that amused her and she'd share them with me when I was home for the holidays. I just remember laughing myself silly (pretty much my default position truth be told) reading through her collection which she taped onto the pages of a blue school exercise book (buggered if I can find it now though, it was full of cartoons such as this brilliant one, on Irish Dancing, by Ed McLachlan and Norman Thelwell's gentle mocking of a snowed-in fat farm receiving a helicoptered 'care package' - "Thank God! It's the lemons.").

One of her cuttings was Evelyn Waugh's letter to his wife which we used to read to each other regularly, doing all the voices. Here Geoffrey Palmer reads it perfectly -

3. Mathias Rust landed a small aircraft in Russia in 1987
In 1987 (in fact I've just googled it and have been delighted to discover that it actually happened on 28 May 1987 so this post is ridiculously well-timed as its 30th anniversary is tomorrow, genuinely hadn't realised that!*) Mathias Rust landed a plane in Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Totally illegally. Biiig trouble. For everyone, not just him: "His flight through a supposedly impenetrable air defense system had great effect on the Soviet military and led to the dismissal of many senior officers".

*Incidentally Evelyn Waugh's letter was sent on 31 May (1942) so this whole post seems favoured by good timing! 

4. The Letter to the Editor
In 1987 I think my parents would have been taking either The Times or The Telegraph so I suspect the letter would have been published in that, though it's also possible that a friend or relative could have sent mum the letter from somewhere else as her collection was well-known within that sphere, and enjoyed by visitors.

Although I've not had sight of this letter for at least seven years (haven't been able to find mum's blue book since she died in 2010 annoyingly) I remember it very well - at least I think I do! - and have included what I think the text is below. Can anyone confirm? Obviously I wouldn't know if I had false memory syndrome ;)

SIR, may one enquire as to how many hours Mathias Rust spent screaming through the Lake District at low level in a multi-million pound plane before he was able to penetrate Soviet airspace so successfully? Les Stennet [can't remember his location though].

I thought it was a brilliantly pithy letter, though my feelings tend more towards being in favour of jets screaming through anywhere I might happen to be...

5. Post-script, from the Wikipedia page on Mathias Rust
"While doing his obligatory community service (Zivildienst) in a West German hospital in 1989, Rust stabbed a female co-worker who had rejected him. The victim barely survived. He was convicted of attempted manslaughter and sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but was released after 15 months." Hmm, not as much fun as I first thought.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Bloglovin mysteriously re-using my posts without permission

Edit: 10 May - I emailed and asked them to remove my blog, which they appear to have done. Thank you Bloglovin!

------ Original post ------

If this post appears on Bloglovin please know that I didn't authorise it and am trying to get my content removed. I've emailed

Oooh I'm a little bit annoyed. Bloglovin has reposted all of the posts from this blog (going back to 2013), under a different URL, with a 'frame'. For any given post the entire text is there (I really wouldn't mind if it was just a paragraph or two with a 'read more' link that came back to this blog, as is usual with RSS scrapers). Apparently, despite this frame thing I get all the benefits of visits and analytics - but I don't really want my stuff published in this way, and no-one asked. I had to go on a bit of a hunt to find that FAQ as I assumed it was at the end of the page... they have that godawful endless scrolling so more crap (I mean my excellent posts) kept appearing.

This seems rather like taking liberties with what I'd hoped this blog's RSS feed would be used for. Short of shutting down either the RSS feed or the blog I'm not sure how I can stop it.

Here's what my blog looks like on their site. Granted it's rather nice, I'll give them that. And I have 3 followers...

Were you to click on any of the posts you'd be taken to a link like this - 

- and the entirety of the post. All the links on the page point correctly to this blog (or wherever I linked them to) so that's not the problem, On further checking it seems that while all the links on the page point to my links if you hover over them, if you actually click on them the "" overlay remains], I just find it quite weird that my content has been hijacked in this way, with a different web address and my content placed within a frame that links to other similarly-framed posts on my blog and completely unrelated blogs. I don't really like it and want it removed.

If you click the large X it clears the panel of other posts (I have to admit I really like that format, god I'm so annoyed with their nice layout while they pinch my content) and the link reverts to my blog. But it's perfectly possible to read my posts there without ever visiting here. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter as this blog has no advertising on it so it's not possible to make money from it, and I'm apparently not losing any views / analytics. But I'm just miffed about having my posts repackaged in this way. Thrrrppp :-รพ to bloglovin. Mutter grumble. Take my stuff down please.

I see I'm not alone in finding this an irritating way to 'reach an audience'.

I've no immediate plans to take legal action myself though (I've never had to do so when asking people to take down content that's been reposted without my permission) but I suppose the next escalation level is to rename this blog to something that is deliberately disrespectful about bloglovin ;)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Wondering if birds have perfect pitch

On my way to Jury Service (fun!) a couple of weeks ago I wondered if birds have perfect pitch. They certainly seem to repeat their songs at the exact same pitch and I wondered if they can easily transpose a song as most humans can*.

I asked my friend, colleague and fellow DorkbotLondon-goer Dan Stowell who works at the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at QMUL. He's an ideal person to ask because he co-created an app (Warblr) which 'listens' to birdsong and suggests what species it might be and he also convened the Listening in the Wild 2015 conference on "Animal and machine audition in multisource environments" which I attended and enjoyed.

Dan's replies to my emailed questions are in black italic text, mine in a sort of pinkish russet.

Do birds generally sing their tunes on the same starting note, or can they / do they occasionally transpose?

Same note. Birds are MUCH less interested in "relative pitch" and transposition as are humans. The evidence suggests that in many cases, we hear things as being identical-but-transposed, but birds hear them as different. (The evidence is a bit patchy though)

Do you know if lyrebirds' mimicry also includes the same pitch of whatever they're mimicking?

I don't know! I believe it's the same.

He also pointed me to a recent paper "Animal Pitch Perception: Melodies and Harmonies" by Marisa Hoeschele.

Lyrebirds have an incredible ability to mimic all sorts of everyday sounds and there are amazing clips on YouTube of them doing this. I first came across these birds thanks to one of David Attenborough's BBC programmes. The bird was doing an impression of chainsaws, the sound of which rather poignantly heralds the diminution of its habitat! At the time it didn't occur to me to wonder if the lyrebird was singing the chainsaw tune at the same pitch as the actual chainsaw, but now I'm curious. I'd have to assume it was the same pitch but would be happy to hear from anyone who might know. Possibly I'll come across a recording of what the lyrebird hears and its impression of it.

Wolves, however, I'm marking down as not having perfect pitch, thanks to this^ YouTube video in which they join in with an air raid / flood warning siren by having a bit of an off-pitch howl.

A while ago I came across this video of a two year old Chinese boy who can easily recognise which digit in a telephone number is dialled from just its sound. Each digit, when pressed, emits two different tones (basically a chord) because of the dual tone multi frequency signalling system in use - I don't know if these two-tones / inherent-intervals are easier to recognise (would I, as a person without perfect pitch, ever be able to do this?). Also Chinese speakers might find this sort of thing easier anyway (I understand that perfect pitch or pitch memory tends to be more common among native speakers of that language than compared with native English speakers) because Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch matters to the meaning.

Hopefully the thought that perfect-pitch-eared people might listen in and know which number you're dialling might encourage people from switching off annoying key tones on their phone.


I suspect this train of thought (pondering birdsong's pitchness) probably emerged after having heard Far Side of the Moore on Radio 4 which was a sweet and amusing radio play about the launch of Patrick Moore's career as a television presenter on Sky at Night.

One of my favourite people, Tom Hollander, played Moore and he 'got' his voice and mannerisms perfectly. Quite uncanny. Tom also did an amazing portrayal of Dylan Thomas, and seems to be really rather good at that sort of thing.

At the time of writing there are about two weeks left to hear the whole programme on iPlayer / catch up though I think this 3min clip is permanently available.

I'd previously wondered if Tom has perfect pitch, based on my friend sending me a Vine video of him whistling the Hanna tune and finding it was exactly the same pitch as the one used in Hanna. I'd struggle to whistle the theme at the best of times (Tom has whistling form, I do not) but I'd certainly not get the exact pitch even if I did hit some of the notes. If someone has perfect pitch are they in a better position to hear, and 'get', the sound of someone else's voice? Presumably there are actors who don't have perfect pitch (and I've no idea if Tom does!) who've done a fantastic job of getting someone just right, but I wondered if it was a useful thing to be able to have / do.

Things I want to do now
1. Teach lyrebirds to whistle this Hanna tune
2. Teach lyrebirds all sorts of other stuff, but recorded at slow speeds so their playback is a bit spooky

*According to a YouTube video I watched people with perfect pitch might actually find it harder to transpose a song because they have such a strong sense of absolute pitch and struggle a bit with relative pitch, whereas the rest of us find that mostly quite easy once we have a starting note. ^Feel free to judge me for getting evidence from YouTube videos :)