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 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Monday, 25 September 2017

Scientific talks in London - 2017 edition

by @JoBrodie,
  • Blackheath Scientific Society - 2017 not published yet (programme starts in late October)
  • Chelsea Physic Garden - Thursday Supper talks
  • Hampstead Scientific Society - programme
  • Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution - Lectures / Events (I'll just display the ones that seem the most sciencey, there are plenty of other interesting events there)
  • Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS) - Information page (PDF) @Kewlectures)
  • Linnean Society - Events (PDF)
  • Richmond Scientific Society - programme (starts in September)
  • Worshipful Society of Apothecaries - Events (lectures free, booking advisable) 
See also Interesting Talks in London
There are also events from the Royal Institution and the Royal Society which are fantastic but it's almost impossible to copy and paste text from their website so I've not added them here.

Also, feel free to copy and paste this and put it in your own blog posts and listings. It's not my info, it's just culled from all these sources above. Share the science communication news :)

12 September - Tuesday
6pm, Apothecaries Hall
'An illustrated history of modern cardiology and cardiac surgery' - W Bruce Fye

13 September - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'How do we know anything? And how can we know things better?' - Michael de Podesta
[Tickets on the door only]

21 September 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘It’s not all about the Flowers’  with Matthew Wilson
[More info] [Tickets]

21 September 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'You may not believe this but....?' - Heinz Wolff
[Tickets on the door only]

2 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Plant hunting in Northern Vietnam' - Alex Summers
[Tickets on the door only]

5 October 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘How to Eat Better’ with James Wong
[More info] [Tickets]

9 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'A study of New Zealand's native flora' - Matthew Rees
'Exploring the forests of temperate North America' - Olivia Seed-Mundin
[Tickets on the door only]

11 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'South East Asian Geology' - Robert Hall
[Tickets on the door only]

16 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Conservation of the Fen orchid' - Tim Pankhurst
[Tickets on the door only]

19 October 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘The Joys and Powers of Herbs’ with Judith Hann

19 October 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'Biosignatures in Earth's oldest sediments' - Dominic Papineau
[Tickets on the door only]  

23 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Make America Green Again! A perspective on US public gardens' - Sophie Walwin
'Step back in time: a tour of heritage gardens of France and Italy' - Chris Clowser
[Tickets on the door only]

25 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
Sopwith Biplanes - David Hassard
[Tickets on the door only]

30 October 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'The science and politics of soil carbon' - Ed Revill
[Tickets on the door only]

31 October 2017 - Tuesday
8pm, Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution
'Bitten by Witch Fever: wallpaper and arsenic in the Victorian home' - Lucinda Hawksley
[haven't worked out how you get tickets yet]


2 November 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden 
Grandma’s Herbal Remedies, Fact and Fiction – with Jekka McVicar

6 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Using every opportunity to cultivate, record and conserve' - Martin Gardner 
[Tickets on the door only]

21 November 2017 - Tuesday
8pm, Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution
'Discussing climate change: why so toxic?' - Christopher Rapley
[haven't worked out how you get tickets yet]

25 October 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'Aerodynamics of today's megastructures' - Stefano Cammelli
[Tickets on the door only]

13 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Searching for passionflowers in South America' - John Vanderplank 
[Tickets on the door only]

16 November 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'The history of local anaesthesia' - William Harrop-Griffiths
[Tickets on the door only]

20 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Hillier Gardens through the seasons' - David Jewell
[Tickets on the door only]

22 November 2017 - Wednesday
5.15pm, Royal College of Physicians (under the aegis of the Soc Apothecaries)
'Gene, cells and systems - keys to life and the future of medicine' - Paul Nurse
'The college and the Society: origins, ambition and survival' - David Starkey
[tickets and info] - £15 for just the lecture, if you want the lecture and the coach transfer back to Apothecaries Hall for the 3 course dinner you'll need a lounge suit and £110

27 November 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Conifers: a natural history of the Pacific Northwest' - Harry Baldwin
'The botanical wonders of Malaysian Borneo' - Keegan Hickey
[Tickets on the door only]

4 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Before roots, shoots and leaves: the early evolution of plants' - Paul Kenrick
[Tickets on the door only]

7 December 2017 - Thursday
6.00-8.15pm, Chelsea Physic Garden
‘Fashioned from Nature’ with Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

11 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'The art of creative pruning' - Jake Hobson
[Tickets on the door only]

13 December 2017 - Wednesday
8pm, Vestry House, Richmond
'Forensic microscopy - tales from the past' - Pam Hamer
[Tickets on the door only]

14 December 2017 - Thursday
8.15pm, St John's Church, Hampstead
'Ancient Chinese science' - Andrew Gregory
[Tickets on the door only]

18 December 2017 - Monday
6pm, Jodrell Lecture Theatre, Kew
'Exploring the flora of Danube Delta in Romania' - Loredana Vacareanu
'Trees of the Chilean temperate rainforest - a trip to the end of the world' - Eliot Bardon
[Tickets on the door only]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Confusing reversed passenger flow at Cannon Street tube station

tl;dr - a bleat about confusing tube-station signage, with everyone walking in the wrong direction.

Everyone who uses the underground learns, probably quite quickly, that you walk on the left and stand on the right (on an escalator). However there are a handful of tube stations on the system where parts of the passenger route ask you 'keep to the right' when walking - the upper level section of Baker Street and all of Cannon Street tube station come to mind.

I have no idea why Cannon Street tube station wants people to walk on the right and none of the staff I've spoken to seem to know either. Presumably someone deliberately made this decision after doing some test or other. I'm afraid it isn't working.

All the signs say 'keep right' but plenty of people ignore this.

The signs fail to take account of where people's eyes are looking, and fail to make it clear that something is different about this station. If you use are a user of a sytem in which almost every other station is 'keep left' then you can be forgiven for thinking you're meant to walk on the left. Signs on the left hand side will probably be seen, but ignored (other than one word being different the signs look identical so people probably don't even clock them) because people expecgt them to say 'Keep Left', and no-one's looking on the right hand side - why would they, they're walking on the left. Given that you're asking people to walk down the 'wrong' stairs the signs need to be positioned more obviously, on the ground with those shoe sole things indicating which direction to travel in, or a hanging sign above the staircase saying 'this way' or 'no entry'.

If you want users (passengers) to follow your instructions then you need to design the system to accommodate their prior expectations and make it very clear that something is different at this station.

My advice is simple and effective - and it would save a lot of confusion for the passengers who do see and obey the signs and find themselves facing lots of oncoming commuters. Remove the damn signs completely. Everyone already knows to keep left and the lack of signs means that people will simply default to that (in fact that is what they are already doing now, because they're certainly not seeing or paying attention to the signs). Those that don't know* will fall in with everyone else walking left and won't be confused by signs telling them something different. This will also be a lot cheaper than re-signing the station.

It would be interesting to know if there's a particularly good reason why someone thought everyone should move on the right. If it's absolutely essential for people to keep right (have to assume it isn't given that almost no-one does) then (a) make the signs look really, really different fromt the Keep Left ones and (b) think about where people's eyes are actually pointing as they move around the station, and put the signs there.

*The current system is confused as regulars walk on the left and visitors / tourists (often with large bags) look for the signs and obey them, with the result that everyone has to walk around each other on busy stairs.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

A lovely time at Wilderness Festival 2017, or 'camping while slightly unfit' ;)

I've not been to an on-site camping-based music festival in about 20 years, and I've not been camping for 10 years (after a handful of brilliant bushcraft weekends with Woodsmoke in the Lake District) so I was pretty thoughtful about spending five days and four nights away in a tent. Knowing that I could bail at any moment and get a taxi back to a train station (or to London if it came to it!) or a hotel might have offered an additional reassurance of course. But in the end I had a great time and didn't freeze or get too soaked, bit of sunburn but nothing awful.

And I met Tom Hollander, which was a lovely surprise.

Tom Hollander reading a letter at Letters Live

Table of contents
  • On-site help
  • Getting there
  • General packing advice
  • Tent / camping
  • Mistakes I made
  • General foot comfort
  • Loos
  • Showers
  • Food
  • Bunting
  • Phone charging
  • Phone signal
  • Useful information I kept on my phone
  • Family friendly
  • Torches
  • Keeping dry / weather
  • What I would change (more informative website, ISS pass announcements)

All the Letters Live people (minus Russell Brand who's not in shot)

On-site help
They have a general store in the main arena that sells soft drinks, sun lotion, lighters, stoves, sleeping bags, ground sheets, tent pegs, toothpaste - pretty much anything you've forgotten. They also sell spring onions, presumably for the campers determined to cook - though I kept a fascinated eye on them and don't think they sold (m)any. There's an Information Tent which is very helpful, also each campsite has its own welfare tent if you get into difficulties. They also have lockers where you can charge your phone (!) though I brought chargers and lasted five days. There are also cash machines. Are all festivals like this now? I might have gone to a few more if I'd known!

I recommend actively checking in with the Information Tent to hear if there are any changes to the programme or exciting additions. Physical programmes are compact thick booklets full of info for £10.

The bunting outside the Information Tent

If you're leaving on the last day of the festival note that the arena and stalls will be closed so pick up your breakfast provisions (in my case a Snickers bar and can of diet coke) on the day before.

Getting there
I am not one for walking long distances holding tents and camping mats and would rather take a coach that drops me off inside the venue than a train that doesn't and where I can't be certain of the taxis. I had a great journey from Blackheath to Victoria rail, then from the coach station to the venue - two hours, easy peasy. We left at 10am and I was tent-up by 1pm and having a light snooze before exploring. Thank you National Express. The return journey was also good although the traffic was so ridiculously busy we left an hour and a half after the scheduled time.

I enjoyed arriving the day before everything got going and having a chance to check out the lay of the land (and where all the food stalls were) while there were considerably fewer people.

General packing advice
Put everything in a plastic bag before putting into main bag and squeeze the air out of it as much as possible, I used sandwich bags a lot. While I knew where everything was at the start (I am a maker of lists) it all got a bit more muddled as time went on, I might try mentally labelling each bag A, B etc and then each pocket is A1 or B4 - we'll see, it's a work in progress ;)

Tent / camping
For the benefit of my hands carrying stuff I prioritised lightness over all other considerations and ended up with a single-skin pop-up two man tent. There was just about enough room for my luggage, but not enough room to stand up or really sit up in. I need more room. Very easy to put up, not so difficult to put down though I still managed to break it, oops.

I am not one for kneeling or crawling around on grass and would prefer a bit more space for getting into the tent, there were quite a few graceless entrances and exits. When moving from wet outdoors to warm indoors I wanted to create a sort of interstitial space between the two, so this basically meant spare shoes that I could change into and get into / out of the tent with, using a spare ground sheet as the 'ante-room'. Lots of people much braver than me went barefoot, feet being neither absorbent nor having treads and so much easier to dry and keep clean. Flip-flops also good I suppose.

Quiet camping isn't all that quiet, but it turned out that family camping is also pretty disturbed too - people aren't that quiet. The quiet camping is further from the main stage but not from the other parties. 

Mistakes I made
  • trusting the piddly little tent pegs which bent easily in the tough terrain of Wilderness (fortunately I'd picked up a bag of extra-sturdy pegs from a pound shop)
  • not bringing a plastic mallet to hammer them in (borrowed one from a new neighbour, campers being a friendly, helpful bunch)
  • adding bunting to my tent - looked lovely but here's what happens when it rains and is windy. The rain that's on the outside of the rain is basically tapped through the single-skin tent as the wind flaps the bunting against the outside of the tent. After the first night I dispensed with the bunting.
  • forgot sun lotion, didn't bother to pick up spare though - didn't get too burned fortunately
  • packed sunglasses, forgot (every single day) to transfer them into my day bag so squinted
General foot comfort
There's a LOT of walking and standing around, unless you happen to find a seat (there are plenty, but a great deal of competition) and I'm not 20, or even 30. Over the five days I definitely got better at sitting on the grass and getting up again but I don't find it easy (don't really trust my knees or leg muscles not to give way during descent or ascent) so I kept spare socks and those insole things to hand. The site is large but while not massive you are moving around on different terrains, mostly grassy, with some inclines (I'm more worried about things sloping down than up as that's worse on the knees) so quite tiring to walk over. I moved very slowly, but pretty much constantly so ironically I'm a bit fitter than I was at the start.
Shout out to Andyloos whose loos were lovely. Clean, fragrant, constantly stocked with loo roll and hand sanitiser. Most of the loos had mirrors too. Absolutely amazing. At no point did I feel nauseous in the festival loos, and though the queues were occasionally long they moved quite quickly. I did pack a pound-shop variation on the Shewee in case of emergencies but didn't need it. Nor could I have used it in my tent as I wouldn't have been able to sustain the kneeling position to use it anyway, especially in the dark.

Crowd enjoying the Wilderness Orchestra at the Atrium on Sunday night

Each campsite had its own shower units with a fairly long queue for those. I'm afraid I dispensed with the concept of showering and used only baby wipes to maintain a minimal level of cleanliness. Just the thought of getting changed, then wet, then getting changed again - too much effort. A scent spray from Boots possibly helped a bit - which reminds me of a cartoon of a woman trying different scents in a shop and asking the opinion of the shop staff: "no madam, you're still coming through".

Delicious and varied. There were options to have fancy dining experiences with long-table feasts for £80 but they sell out quite quickly and my friends with kids probably wouldn't have been that into it so I didn't splash out to go by myself. Maybe next year I will, I do quite fancy the idea.

The Wilderness Festival is peak bunting. It's everywhere. Lovely stuff.

 Example of the various bunting, flagging and general garlanding plus moody cloud

Phone charging 
Can you believe it's taken me over six years of owning an iPhone to fully understand what switching off cellular data means. I thought it meant no internet AND no phone signal but no it only switches off internet - you can text and ring your mates nae bother without it (though can't share pictures through text as that seems to require an internet connection, fair enough). This fact alone guaranteed that my phone charge held for much longer than it might have. Amazing. I had packed several full-charged spare chargers and didn't have to use them all.

There are places on-site where you can charge your phone.

Phone signal
I had excellent 3G and general O2 text / call signal throughout the festival. It struggled a little on the last day (when everyone is packing up and arranging to meet people I suppose) but I didn't really need it then.

Useful information I kept on my phone
Obviously I had my National Express ticket in my emails but I kept a screenshot as well just in case of low signal. I also had a copy of the PDF map and various other files and bits and pieces in a folder on Dropbox. Before I set off I changed the setting on each file so that it was accessible if I had no signal. Dropbox on a phone is great for this.

Family friendly
It's the most ridiculously family-friendly festival I've ever heard of. Not only do they have a big dedicated kids' area with fun stalls full of things for smaller visitors, loads of adults had small trolleys with them for transporting their kids around the site. I'm not sure if they brought them with them or hired them but whoever came up with the idea is a genius.

Flowers (not real!) at the festival

It turns out I had four sources of light: my iPhone, headtorch, regular torch and one of the phone chargers also has a light. I kept my headtorch on me at all times so that I never had to go back to my tent at dusk in order to collect it for use later. When in use I kept it on my wrist to avoid blinding people.

Keeping dry / weather
I saw a few people with umbrellas but I find them fiddly to 'manage' so I got by with a pac-a-mac thing and a shower curtain (lighter than a ground sheet / tarp and does the job fine) for sitting on. Alas my legs are too chubby to fit comfortably in most wellies but my footwear is reasonably waterproof and we only had one major downpour.

The weather app on the iPhone was pretty reliable for keeping me informed. Annoyingly you kind of have to pack for rain and sunshine, though I was glad I did.

What I would change
Online information
There was a lot of information about dressing up and themes but I found the website info quite confusing. All I really wanted was a list of timings and answers to FAQs. I did find this information eventually but felt the website was more of a teaser for the event than informative.

Shush people in quiet camping
I'd have liked a bit more policing of the quiet camping area as people walked in having loud conversations and continued them inside the compound. My in-tent shushing was ineffective as they were too far away anyway. 

Announce ISS passes
A nice thing on Saturday night, after the special event on the main stage, was seeing the International Space Station going overhead. I was with very good friends and their kids (that I've known since they were born) so it was a lovely communal moment, among many. Lots of people were moving away from the main stage, as the event had ended, and none of them seemed to know about the ISS. I thought that was a tiny bit of a shame as it would have been lovely for everyone there to be able to look up and see it very clearly - on a lovely cloudless sky. It was beautiful. I wish I'd thought to ask them to make a public address system announcement about it.

As the ISS was due to pass over again on Sunday night I tried to suggest it at the Info Tent but they weren't buying it, and in any case it was cloudy anyway. But if you have an outdoor evening event and there's an ISS pass why not tell people about it.

 Moon peeking through the clouds

Sunday, 23 July 2017

RadioTimes is stopping its TV Watchlist - recommended alternatives?

RadioTimes had a handy thing for keeping an eye on when favourite films or programmes were going to be broadcast. As long as you had an account you could click a 'Watchlist' button on the page for any programme, then you could look at your watchlist to see what was coming up in the schedules.

I'm not quite sure how I discovered this but I associate it with coming across films that David Arnold had scored and tweeting him that they were on. Gradually I added more of his films and would let him know - whether or not he wanted me to - that a particular film of his was to be screened. Sometimes he'd retweet the info and on occasion people would write back saying how much they loved that score, which was always rather lovely to be included in. It was also fun when he'd live tweet stuff about the making of the film or the score.

But RadioTimes are stopping the Watchlist, and now we have to use some app instead. Alas I can't download any more apps onto my very full phone so I'm looking for a 'web-based solution'. Do you know of any?

Homeopathy 'banned on the NHS' - nearly, but not quite

NHS England is updating its guidance to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), recommending that certain items offered in primary care should no longer be prescribed. This includes homeopathy but some herbal remedies are in there too, also glucosamine + chondroitin used (ineffectively as it turns out) for osteoarthritis pain.

The document outlining the recommended changes was published on 21 July 2017 and is called Items which should not routinely be prescribed in primary care: A Consultation on guidance for CCGs. It's out for public consultation until 21 October 2017 (see pg 7 of 48 of the linked docuent on how to respond).

A. Things I want to consider in this post, the short version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS? 
No, not yet

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?  
Seems pretty likely

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
The evidence isn't good, also to minimise any unwarranted positive associations with healthcare

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS? 
Slightly dishonest ones

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS? 
Probably helped

B. Things I want to consider in this post, the longer version
1. Has homeopathy been banned from the NHS?
Not yet. The document acknowledges that the evidence for homeopathy is poor and that homeopathy should not be prescribed, however this is a consultation document not an edict. Also this will affect England, not the whole UK.

2. Is it likely that homeopathy will be removed from the NHS?
I think so - it's widely acknowledged that it's a waste of money and there is little support for it being on the NHS. To be fair homeopathy has been declining on the NHS for two decades as this bar chart from the Nightingale Collaboration. This is more tidying up loose ends than a big new thing.

3. Homeopathy costs a fraction of the total NHS costs, why do skeptics want it removed?
While it's true that the homeopathy spend is now under £100,000 (a drop in the ocean compared with total NHS costs) it's not just about costs. We don't want money wasted on unevidenced treatments (this includes pharma drugs too), even if it is only a small amount of money. But there's also the 'halo effect': homeopathy benefits by its association with healthcare, the NHS is effectively giving its backing to nonsense. Removing it from the NHS removes this positive association. Annoyingly homeopathy also benefits from the fact that you can buy it in many highstreet pharmacists but that's a different argument.

4. Are there any reasons to keep homeopathy on the NHS?
Not good ones, no. Some doctors have argued that patients who are distressed about perceived ill-health, despite not actually being unwell, might benefit from homeopathy or placebo pills.

"TEETH" stands for "Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy".

The idea would involve doctors knowingly (or perhaps even unwittingly) giving patients inert medication with the aim of making them feel better (placebo effects, being taken seriously etc) without causing any side-effects. Another possible benefit is keeping a link with a patient who might otherwise withdraw from appropriate healthcare and explore unhelpful and costly options from quacks.

To be honest I do have some sympathy with this notion. The dishonesty troubles me - it's basically lying to a patient 'for their own good' but I can see examples of where I might go along with this (which also troubles me!).

Here a GP writes about 'heartsink' patients (where your heart sinks as what's ailing them isn't clear, nor is the solution) in an article on the Faculty of Homeopaths website. The FoH is a society of medical doctors who are also homeopaths.

"Another group of patients for which homeopathy can be helpful is those who frequently appear in GPs’ surgeries presenting with a whole host of “functional disorders”. Despite undergoing the full gamut of blood and hospital tests, no abnormality in the body is found. Nevertheless, these “heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this.

Sometimes conventional medicines can be useful, but once again they are symptomatic treatments which may also produce unpleasant side-effects, resulting in the patient feeling even worse. Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help."

5. What's been the role of skeptics in removing homeopathy from the NHS?
The term 'Skeptics' is generally assumed to mean activist bloggers but obviously includes people who aren't bloggers but who are also skeptical of homeopathy - including scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals, teachers, people who've tried it but experienced no real benefit from homeopathy, members of the public, anyone.

It's difficult to prove causality. My perception is that online skeptical activism, particularly targeted at homeopathy, really got going in the early-mid 2000s, coalescing around Ben Goldacre's Bad Science colummn and blog. Obviously scientists and doctors have obviously been skeptical of homeopathy pretty much since it was invented. Prof David Colquhoun has been blogging about homeopathy since the very early 2000s and published (in a journal) a re-analysis of some homeopathy data in a paper in 1990 - I'm sure others have too, it's just we happened to have a conversation about this recently!

The focus of skeptic activism can be both narrow and targeted (for example getting something changed, eg getting an advert taken down, getting an event moved from an academic setting etc) or wider (eg contributing to people's awareness of what homeopathy actually is) and I think both feed into each other. I think of the former as 'meat' and the latter as 'marinade' and I think skeptic activism has done both very well. It seems as if articles in the press about homeopathy are much more critical and less credulous than they have been in the past - I don't know if this can be attributed to skeptics but I know that quite a few of us have contacted journalists to point to better information.

In late 2009 the UK Government announced that it was seeking examples of topics in which a science Select Committee could "assess the Government’s use of evidence in policy-making", inviting the public to suggest topics. Homeopathy was one of many, and was chosen to be the second 'evidence check' resulting in a 2010 document recommending that funding be withdrawn.

The fact that homeopathy's been included in the current consultation is also largely due to the efforts of the Good Thinking Society which has mounted legal challenges to Clinical Commissioning Groups to get them to stop funding homeopathy, as well as trying to get it blacklisted from NHS spending.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (originally published 24 August 2015 but regularly updated)

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A couple of useful mildly passive-aggressive phrases I learned from my dad

These two phrases, passed on from father to daughter (I've no idea where Dad got them from) have been occasionally useful and I thought I'd share them in case others want to adopt them too.

1. To what fault in yourself do you attribute that?
I'm not sure I can really carry this one off as well as my dad (though he annoyingly remains dead when he was alive he was 6ft 2, large, loud and commanding) so I tend to use it more in jest but I leave it to you to decide how to use it :)

Dad probably used it most with jobsworth types. Or people lacking in insight.

2. Well to be fair they're probably not as well-advised as me
This one's good for rebuffing annoying people who tell you that 'everyone is doing X', particularly if they're trying to sell you something or beat you in a game of I Remain Unconvinced. It's not an actual game but I tend to gamify efforts to sell me things.

Here's a bonus one from my mum...

3. X permanently has his/her foot in the stirrup of his/her high-horse 
Funnily enough it's quite possible Mum might have been talking about Dad or me. She used to ring me occasionally with news of Dad's victories against companies that had foolishly tried to rip him off; he was never happier than when a proper fight was in the offing. Honestly my dad used to have the most amazingly protracted arguments (and the weird thing was they were nearly always really amiable) with companies about something failing to turn up, the wrong thing turning up, something needing replaced etc. An awful lot of Mum's, or his, stories seemed to be about vacuum cleaners - our house was like some sort of graveyard for them, a lot went there to die. Companies kept sending them, particularly after they'd spoken to my dad for upwards of half an hour.

Anyway, make sure you don't die by knowing what a failing smoke alarm sounds like or get out of the house and go and see a film in the open air (admittedly this link only relevant if you live in London).

Know when your fire alarm / smoke detector's battery is failing - sound beeps

On three separate occasions in three separate mini supermarkets in London I've mentioned to the person serving me that the high pitched, intermittent "pink" chirruping beep was their smoke detector's battery announcing its demise. Two of the people looked at me blankly (one couldn't even pick it out from the surrounding noise) and the third person told me it always made that sound and that it was the sound of a normally-functioning fire alarm - I mean really! I think next time I might be a bit more persistent.

I'm sure different kinds of smoke alarms emit different kinds of sonic death announcements but here's the one I'm most familiar with. Wouldn't it be great if the British Standards document for smoke alarm beeps kept them the same. Perhaps it does. I hope everyone knows what a failing smoke detector sounds like, it's basically an important warning. I hope everyone has a smoke detector...

Whenever I've changed the battery on a detector it's always made a terrific din and beeps for a bit before settling down, perhaps those beeps are to cue me in to what it sounds like - it worked for me but not the people in the shops.

My mum once rang me when Dad was away asking if I knew what had started beeping overnight and disturbing her sleep. I think she may have ended up holding the phone near to where the sound was coming from (she didn't know it was the smoke alarm and wasn't sure of the source's exact location) and eventually we worked out what it was and she was able to change the battery. 


I've just taken the bus home from Westcombe Park station and waited for the 108 bus going upwards back to the heath. While standing at Bus Stop B I heard the unmistakeable sound, coming from the houses behind me, of a failing smoke alarm. The lights were off and it was late (and no fire!) so I didn't start knocking on doors but I hope someone works out what the problem is.

Westcombe Park station is a lot less welcoming than Blackheath station, particularly as two of the street lights are out - not great when it's quite a steep hill and uneven pavement, anyway...

Sunday, 16 July 2017

I'm a bit skeptical about Ms Courtney's post about the future of homeopathy

Perhaps I shouldn't take the bait but when someone is wrong on the internet (and wrong with such enthusiastic regularity) it's difficult to ignore. If homeopaths restricted themselves to saying something along the lines of "you might feel a bit cheerier after talking to one of us, we're mostly quite nice, but the pills are just a distraction" I'd probably tolerate* homeopathy on the NHS, as an inert placebo. It's the fact that homeopaths promote it as a separate system of medicine that grates, and that some of them promote it as an alternative to real medicine for real diseases that worries.

The homeopathy enthusiast BrownBagPantry has posted the above quote numerous times on her Twitter feed under the #homeopathy hashtag and I thought I'd write up a quick rebuttal and correction of the points within it.

*It's still lying to patients in a rather paternalistic way, but that's an argument for a different post.

"Realistically, the anti homeopathy activists have a minuscule sphere of influence worldwide."
- 'Anti homeopathy activists' probably refers only to skeptical bloggers but it's important to remember that healthcare professionals, journalists, authors, scientists and all sorts of other people have taken steps to warn the public about the dangers of relying on homeopathy and other fake medicines. Many of them wouldn't recognise themselves as 'anti homeopathy activists' though.

The 'sphere of influence' bit is perfectly true of course. We don't particularly need to influence everyone who might consider buying or using homeopathy, we only really need to influence the decision-makers, that is people who regulate it (allow it on to the market, or how it can be marketed) and the people who commission it on the NHS etc. As it happens I'm also a fan of encouraging users of homeopathy to be aware of what it is (and it looks like plenty of people might be mistaken in thinking that it's the same as 'herbal').

I think of the first part (influencing decision-makers) as the meat of what skeptic activists might do and the second part (public) as the background marinade that also needs to be changed. It feels like public attitudes to homeopathy are changing - there are more negative articles about it in tabloid newspapers that, until recently, tended to be more supportive. There have also been a number of high profile stories. However I don't know how much this changes the minds of staunch supporters.

Generally "anti-homeopathy activists" act locally - I don't write to universities in India asking them to move a homeopathy event on their campus but I do in the UK (with a recent success in Birmingham). However we know that people IN Australia tackle local Australian quackery and likewise in other countries. So the 'worldwide' thing is a bit of a red herring. We're everywhere, having local effects, so while none of us has worldwide influence the effect of skeptical activity is felt globally.

"Since Hahnmann's time, these activists' opinions have been unable to stop the manufacture & distribution of homeopathic remedies"
- I don't think we've ever tried to stop the manufacture or distribution. Personally I've no objection to homeopathy products being on sale (this would be like objecting to sugar being on sale), only to the confusing or misleading advice given about what the products can do. There have been isolated examples of products being removed from sale because they no longer have a market license and I think the FDA sanctioned one manufacturer for poor manufacturing practices, but this hasn't particularly been a focus.

Recently homeopathic teething products for babies were withdrawn from sale after links to serious ill-health problems, combined with the discovery that the contents of the products were not as described on the label and had been inconsistently produced. It was the parents of the children harmed by homeopathy that brought the action - I don't know if they consider themselves to be anti homeopathy activists, but the manufacture and distribution of some homeopathic remedies has most certainly happened.

"the private practice & licensing of homeopaths; the schools, universities, organizations and private groups that teach it;"
- well this just isn't true. A number of universities have stopped teaching homeopathy, most recently in Spain, and they're also stopping validating others' courses. Hooray! The evidence base for homeopathy (poor) is also critiqued in UK pharmacy and medical degree courses, and there are critical-thinking modules available for schools that use it as an example.

"the privately and government funded research studies"
- goodness me, if people are still wasting money on research into homeopathy when it's been comprehensively shown that any effects can be explained by placebo then we need to step up our efforts here ;)

"surveys; the publication of books, journals and magazines for public and student consumption"
- I don't think we've tried that much to be honest. A few people have taken one magazine's advertisers to task for misleading content and to get it removed from a number of shops, but no attempt's been made to stop it from publishing. There have been a few examples of looking at getting books removed from sale (not from being published though) including a pharmaceutical society in the UK that still makes them available for pharmacists (!).

"the social media sites that educate curious health care consumers about it, and the cured patients who sing its praises to family members, co-workers, [casual] and longtime friends."
- particularly for Twitter those promoting homeopathy will certainly be met with rejoinders from people who are skeptical of the claims. I've been in work situations where someone has suggested homeopathy and I've certainly taken the time to explain why that might be unwise (I often gave talks to colleagues and members of the public about diabetes research and often talked about the risks of using either herbal or homeopathic remedies).

"The National Center for Homeopathy in the U.S. recently noted that the interest in their website grew by a "whopping 600%" over the past two years."
I emailed and asked them about this and they were unable to confirm, only wanting to know why I wanted to know, which is a bit odd. 600% seems quite an impressive figure so you might imagine they'd want to tell a homeopathy skeptic about it. They said it was something that had been sent in a newsletter to members. I've no idea then if the 600% figure is true but let's assume that it is. But it doesn't tell us if they had only 2 visitors two years ago and that this has just gone up to 14 visitors two years later ;) It also doesn't tell us if they're measuring all visitors (which includes Google indexing 'bots') plus people visiting by accident, or who are skeptics. Nor does it tell us what those visitors think about the information they found there.

Further reading
Skeptic successes in homeopathy (24 August 2015, updated September 2016)

Friday, 14 July 2017

Saved by a fax machine: the most ridiculous error I ever made with a computer

tl;dr version: I stuffed up a computer by mucking about with the regedit or .bat file and it wouldn't start. This was in the early 90s and the only way the company could help was by faxing me instructions to type into a new text file to save on a floppy disk from which I could then boot up. 
Fortunately it worked :)

In the early 1990s I used a computer to control a pump that gently delivered solvents, at a defined rate, into a long thin chromatography column, for lipid chemistry purposes. The column contained a substance which slowed down the compounds in my samples as they passed through, based on a relative attraction to either the solvent or the retarding material (also a little bit based on their size and other physico-chemical properties). This resulted in a complex mixture going in one end and individual components coming out ('eluting') from the other end, for me to collect and see 'how much'. The computer provided a reading of the output based on the refractive index of the eluted solution (eluent), transferring this to an on-screen graph.

At some point something went a bit wrong and my boss suggested I be a bit braver than I had been about fixing it myself so I read the manual and asked people in the computer department. I learned that I had to do something to the registry file, which underpinned the whole functioning. So I did.

After I'd done what I thought I was supposed to the computer wouldn't switch on (well it wouldn't boot up and I couldn't interact with it). My boss agreed that I probably should have called in an expert and I was a bit worried that I'd seriously stuffed up the computer and rang the manufacturer to ask for help. As it was such a long time ago, and as I resolved never to do it again, I've no record of exactly what I did or to which file but I remember 'regedit' and .bat files being involved.

The company said that I'd need to boot the computer from a disk (which I didn't have) so they said they'd fax me a set of instructions - I don't think they had email at that time, though I'm fairly sure that I did (was working in a university), so a fax it was. The fax turned up and the program was pretty short - I went to another computer, opened up a .txt file in notepad, typed in the code and saved it with the appropriate file ending onto a floppy disk. It worked perfectly ;)

I am just recording this small curiosity in the history of me killing computers...

My favourite examples of (what I think is) diegetic switching in film music

As far as I can tell, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, diegetic sound refers to anything 'in-story' - so in a film it's sound that comes from the on-screen environment, eg music coming from the radio that a character is listening to is diegetic but the film's score is non-diegetic.

Sometimes a film uses what TV Tropes calls the "Left the background music on" trope in which what seems to be film score or external source music (non-diegetic) for a film suddenly switches to being in the film (diegetic). This is, as I understand it, a diegetic switch. An example is the start of Shawshank Redemption where the music starts off as being external to the film, and then at about 50s into this clip, internal - as in coming from Andy's car radio.

I've no idea how they achieved this - perhaps it's beautifully edited from two playings of the same song, one through a gramophone and the other through a radio speaker. Perhaps they just manipulated the graphics equaliser to make them sound different - if you know tell me :)

Next up is a scene from Woody Allen's film Bananas in which he is invited to have dinner with the President, an offer which almost overwhelms him and his imagination. As he lies back on his bed in reverie the dreamy harp music that plays over the scene, at 28 seconds, is not as it seems...

In the Shawshank example it's the same song that is rendered slightly differently as the diegetic switch happens but in Bananas the music doesn't change but our understanding of it does. In the next two examples something slightly different takes place. As in Shawshank the music in both these clips does change but the switch seems to have more of an emotional resonance than the one in Shawshank (that's not a criticism of it!). First up is a clip from the West Wing, episode Noel, in which Josh is being taken to hospital by Donna after having a bit of a breakdown and injuring himself.

The segment begins around 1m 40 as Donna shepherds Josh out of the West Wing whereupon he hears a choir in the street outside singing and performing the Carol of the Bells on voice and handbells. At 2m 46 the switch shows him zoning out briefly - accompanied by the music taking on a richer sound with additional instruments - before  Donna's "Josh!" at 3 minutes in brings both him and the now diegetic-again music back to 'normal'. At the end of the clip the music is again 'augmented', and it's gorgeous, though it doesn't have the same emotional punch as the segment in which Josh is briefly caught up in himself. I think there might be a tiny diegetic switch at 1m 57 too when the music starts being audible but we're still in the White House with Leo McGarry, though presumably the music wouldn't be audible for him.

Another example is from the 1996 film Emma in which the protagonist is enjoying a dance but distressed that her friend isn't, having been snubbed by someone she'd liked to have danced with - the main scene starts at 27s in to the clip. In the background you can hear what sounds like a small group of musicians playing the dance piece as the story unfolds. Then the hero of the hour, Mr Knightley, steps up and invites Emma's friend to join him on the dancefloor and at 2m 15s the music swells and is presumably being played by a much larger group of musicians. Again I'm not quite sure how they managed to switch from one to the other and keep the pitch and timing so perfect. I'd love to see it performed live as a 'live to picture' event (where the score is performed live while the film is screened).

The use of the diegetic switch in both the West Wing and Emma clips seems to be doing something else in addition to just switching the locus of the music, certainly changing the way the audience might feel about the story and its protagonists.

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 :)

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Homeopathy is hardly exactly escaping the NHS 'ban'

It's Homeopathy Awareness Week next week or as we in the snark community have it 'Homeopathy Bewareness Week'. Don't get taken in by their lies ;-)

Actually homeopathy's already been having a pretty interesting week this week.

First, plenty of people noticed its absence in the list of things the NHS is considering not paying for anymore. Second, considerably fewer people noticed that the NHS has kinda already considered this, by paying less and less for it each year anyway.

There are two sums of money at issue
  • the amount spent on NHS England prescriptions for homeopathy - less than £100,000 (see blue graph below) for 6,821 prescription items (red graph below) in 2016
  • the amount spent on the wider infrastructure for homeopathy (staff, buildings etc) - apparently about £4m to £5m in 2016

In the mid-1990s the NHS in England spent upwards of £800,000 on homeopathy for 170,000 prescription items. This has dropped precipitously over the years, as you can see from the informative and entertaining graphs below.

Picture credit: Nightingale Collaboration, used with permish :)
Version for homeopathy fans
Well done! You began the year on 1 Jan 2016 with not a single homeopathy item prescribed but ended the year with a whopping increase to 6,281 items prescribed - an increase on a par with infinity.

Where was I...
I don't have the breakdown for the non-prescription costs, estimated to be several million at the moment. It's great that the prescription costs are dropping but we may still be wasting millions on this non-treatment on the NHS.

Although homeopathy wasn't mentioned in the first raft of 'things to consider banning' it will indeed be included in later considerations, according to Julie Wood's tweet below (she's the Chief Executive of NHS Clinical Commissioners).
"Homeopathy is in the overall £400m of spend identified - currently not in
first wave of 10 products for review but this is an ongoing project"

In other words, skeptics are pushing at an open door. We're not really trailblazing the decline of homeopathy on the NHS, it's happening anyway. Perhaps we've contributed to the changing mood though - for example newspaper reports now seem less likely to champion it and more likely to laugh at its improbability.

Unsurprisingly the magazine 'What Doctors Don't Tell You' (they don't like me much) have regurgitated the misinformation ("Homeopathy escapes the NHS cuts") and also managed to add in another error at the end ("The Swiss health authority has announced that homeopathy is effective enough to be included among therapies that can be claimed under health insurance plans..."). The Swiss have done no such thing and explicitly acknowledged that homeopathy was unable to provide evidence of efficacy. However, bafflingly, they are continuing to reimburse its use in health insurance but only if administered by a doctor, so there's that I suppose.

Background reading on NHS prescription costs
Every year the costs of prescriptions in England are published. Skeptics, being amused by the drop of homeopathy spending on the NHS have kept an eye on the cost for each year, going back to 1995 (info is publicly available).

Prescription Cost Analysis, England - 2016 [NS]
Publication date: March 30, 2017
Prescription Cost Analysis, England - 2016: Data Tables [.zip]
The [NS] means a publication that is within the scope of National Statistics, the lack of a [PAS] next to it means that no Press Announcement is Scheduled.
NHS Digital Publications calendar April 2016 - March 2017
NHS Digital Publications calendar (future)
Background reading on Swiss health authority and homeopathy
The Swiss rejected homeopathy as a 'treatment' that could be reimbursed in 2005 however lots of Swiss people voted for it in 2009 to be included, among some other ineffective treatments. The health authority requested evidence of effectiveness but eventually admitted defeat and surprised everyone in 2016 with this announcement:
"In a statement released on Tuesday, the interior ministry said it had come to the conclusion that it was “impossible to provide such proof for these disciplines in their entirety”.

They will thus be treated on a par with other medical disciplines, when it comes to health insurance.

The ministry plans to continue allowing reimbursements of treatment costs by compulsory health insurance, provided they are administered by certified medical doctors." 

Bad news for homeopathy fans though, it will continue to be scrutinised...

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Imaginary Maritime Science Festival - what would you have in your perfect science festival?

"It is a bright sunny evening: the sea reflects a thousand glowing colours, and, in a minute or two, I shall be gliding on its surface." Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents by William Beckford

My thoughts are never very far from boats at the best of times and this only increases when I'm waiting for the ferry home to Greenwich, North Greenwich or Woolwich (I like to vary things a bit). While I was waiting for the Thames Clipper ferry home I jotted down, on my phone's 'notes' app, a bit of a brainstorm for an Imaginary Maritime Science Festival. Bagsy Festival Director, obviously. 

Over Easter (April 2017) Greenwich and Woolwich (not sure about North Greenwich) will be hosting the Tall Ships festival 2017, the last one (in fact the first in Greenwich / Woolwich) was in September 2014 so I'm assuming these tend to happen about every two years or so in future. Tall ships are quite large vessels with masts and sails and they look gorgeous and afford many photography opportunities. Some are static, some waft gently on the water. People can even board them. Most of them are, as far as I'm aware, entirely modern ships rather than re-enactments but they look totally re-enactment-y. I think some of them will sail up and down the Thames with visitors on them.

Image from page 142 of "The boy travellers in Australasia : adventures of two youths in a journey to the Sandwich, Marquesas, Society, Samoan and Feejee islands, and through the colonies of New Zealand, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, and

On land there are also other entertainments, last time there was woodworking and all sorts of stalls. Plenty of bunting. But I wondered about the science. Just up the hill from the water's edge there's Greenwich Park which contains its very own National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory Greenwich. They'll be open over the festival and they have lots of cool stuff to see and do as well:

Here are some of the talks, film screenings and other events that we'll have at my #IMSF (Imaginary Maritime Science Festival unless someone else is using that hashtag in which case it might be #IMSF2019). I might have got a bit carried away, but fortunately the Assistant Festival Director will be there to rein me in ;)

Maths and knots
I went to a great interactive talk ('The Mathematics of Knots') at the Orkney Science Festival in 2015 which featured mathematician Dr Julia Collins from Edinburgh University and knots expert Mark Shiner of Stromness Nautical School. We got to play around with bits of string and tie some knots too, it was ace.

Linked activities: flexagons (Martin Gardner's maths puzzles, hexahexaflexagons also used by colleagues to teach computational thinking concepts and graphs / maps (mathematics))

Image from page 213 of "Boat sailing in fair weather and foul" (1903)

Flags and semaphore, Morse and telegraphy (laying cables also pretty cool).

Edit 28 May 2017 - I've just worked out that these flags spell out "Welcome Aboard" with the flags for 'aboard' nearest to the viewer and part of the 'welcome' message cut off. You can check this for yourself on Wikipedia's page on the meaning of the International Maritime Signal flags.
. The flags have very different meanings when not displayed in this format, for example the L flag (third one down on the further-away bunting, it's a yellow and black check) means either "The ship is quarantined" when in harbour, or "You should stop your vessel instantly" when seen out at sea.


The one below is from 1902 and uses some of what are now number pennants for the letters.

1902 International Code of Signals painting

Film screenings
Obviously Longitude which is about Harrison and his clocks, possibly Titanic / Poseidon Adventure might be pushing it a bit.

Medicine and diSEAse (see what I did there)
A talk from the James Lind Alliance on his C18th randomised controlled trial for scurvy which suggested that citrus fruits were a good idea. Someone might also talk about A Day in the Life of a Ship's Surgeon which I'm expecting to contain a fair bit of amputation-related gore (or in which I learn that it was mostly splinters from wood). Perhaps a bit more gruesome might be talks on recovery from drowning, and 'mammalian diving reflex' - I'd certainly encourage everyone to read 'Drowning doesn't look like drowning'.

Submarine sonar beeps, radar, that anti-pirate sound device that you can blast unpleasant sounds with. I might widen it a bit to include other sounds you might hear at sea including whalesong and the loud sounds made by shrimps. Foghorns too (Sarah Angliss wrote up a lovely event in celebration of the decomissioning of the Souter Foghorn).

Life on board ship
Practising staying upright I imagine, among other things. This lends itself to multiple comparisons - different types of ships and modern versus ships of yore.

Ye Olde Ships involved a fair bit of wood, and the right type of wood at that. What makes some wood better than others. You probably won't be surprised that I went to a lovely lecture on different types of wood, as part of an economic botany course a few years ago. Modern ships seem fairly metallic. I don't know if a great deal of metalwork has ever been done ON ships, but I suppose other than the ship itself the largest lump of metal is probably the engine or the anchor.

There was a lovely Ray Mears programme from a few years back in which he and a friend created, from scratch, a birch-bark boat - made from the peelable bark of the birch tree. In the UK we can peel birch tree bark too but it's paper-thin and doesn't lend itself much to boat building.

Astronomy - when I went on a 2 week cruise a couple of years ago I entertained myself beforehand by looking into getting one of those sextant deelies and a big book of what to do with one. It turned out to be a bit more involved and fiddly so I didn't follow it up but I'd love to learn how you point something at a star, look up something in a book and declare that it's 9.32pm on Tuesday the Umpteenth of Month 1739 or something like that. Polynesian navigation seems extremely interesting too, I'd like to hear how different cultures found their way around and home again.

Image from page 206 of "The history of mankind" (1896)

Definitely want talks on longitude, possibly accompanying the film screening, also accuracy. Plus GPS and satellites, and how you can keep an eye on ships around the world with things like Shipfinder. Tides are also probably fairly important! And the Moon.

Power and movement 
Buoyancy - a notable thing about ships is that they float, when all's going well, and go forward at impressive speeds. Engines are pretty interesting, propellors, steam, those wheel things. Sails (shape, catching the wind - which leads me to wind power more generally, and wave power).

Desalination / recycling
On-ship water can be re-used.

Talks from the Royal Navy / RAF on how they land aeroplanes and helicopters on aircraft carriers and take off again. That's a bit clever.

After 43 years supporting Royal Navy RFA Gold Rover departs Portland for the final time.

Trade routes
Other than probably not being at war with Spain over Gibraltar people use ships to explore and trade, not to mention un-fun things for whales (whaling for oil!). In Greenwich we have the lovely tea clipper called the Cutty Sark which zipped around the world collecting tea and probably other stuff too. There's a fantastic film called City of Ships from 1940 which looks at the produce coming in to Tilbury Docks near London - that would definitely be in the film screening strand.

Even if only for the opportunities for dressing up and saying 'Aarrgh' a lot. Maggi Koerth-Baker's article on actors taking on the role of pirates for a museum exhibition is absolutely brilliant. The actors did so much research. A great read: Real history from a pretend pirate. My favourite pirate, Stede Bonnet, wasn't very good at it. At the Tall Ships festival this year someone will be dressing up as Pirate Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. No sign of Cutler Beckett, alas.

Great Sea Voyages
Darwin... Cook... people who did the Grand Tour by boat.

Social and cultural
In addition to a 'day in the life of' there's also sea shanties, carving scrimshaw, experiences of people left behind, plenty of sea related poetry, other traditions. Maritime mythology... mermaids and whatnot.