Monday, 28 December 2009

2009 (Part II)

2009 began, for Rachel and I, in a five star mansion house in the Brecon Beacons, snow all around, the world's most exciting shower in the bathroom. It was a peaceful, relaxing start to the year, but it was really a calm sandwiched between a large amount of discontent. I was in a job I wasn't enjoying and, as a result, I wasn't enjoying living in London. This upset me greatly, as moving to London was supposed to be a big adventure, a big step up in life. It backfired and I felt stuck. Every weekend I was leaving the city because I wasn't happy there. But not spending time in the area I had adopted also upset me, as it meant I wasn't meeting and befriending people or making the most of local facilities. This obviously made things worse. It wasn't long before I was commuting on a Monday morning from Birmingham to Kings Cross. It was surprisingly easy and far preferable.

I didn't write much early this year, certainly little that was personal. Anything I did tried to be positive, but mostly I didn't write about me because I didn't feel I had anything of any interest to say. Instead, I wrote about other topics and bigger things - the Simon Singh libel case, for example. But in doing so, and because I was largely unhappy, these causes came across more as rants. I was told this, and also realised it myself, and tried to back off. Besides, other people were doing a better job than I was. These causes haven't gone away, and I still appreciate their importance, but now that I feel happier I can hopefully approach them differently. I set up a second blog to provide a platform for this. The Sense About Science campaign that began as a result of Singh's (and others') case has since expanded, combining with English PEN and Index on Censorship to form the National Petition for Libel Reform ("Free Speech Is Not For Sale"). I support it, but I shan't rant or push you to sign. If you are interested I simply refer you to, which explains what is going on, and why it is felt that action is needed.

Meanwhile, I distanced myself from the Skeptic community that introduced me to the campaign. The idea is that Skeptics think rationally, so they are wary of woo therapies and claims, and this is an important skill. But the Skeptic crowd, intentionally or not, seems, in my view, to have latched on to the 'science=atheism' fallacy, and displays more than a little arrogance about certain causes, often before looking at any evidence. The appropriateness of scepticism is also context-specific, as we have seen with Climategate. I felt uneasy with the impression given that Skeptics ought to be atheists. I am not one, and I'd rather disassociate myself from a crowd that assumes this of me. The problems with Skeptics are being discussed at several interesting websites and blogs (see here, here and here), and I direct you to those. I believe that it is important to adopt a rational viewpoint, but that it is equally acceptable to have a faith. There are different philosophies in this world, and it is wrong to use one exclusively and dismiss the others, especially if we don't understand them. Science and religion, for example, are not mutually exclusive, but the philosophy of one cannot be used to explain the other.

While all this was happening I was making big decisions about the future. It prompted some self-evaluation and made me post some surprisingly candid posts (for example, Encore une fois). The big decisions all happened at once. I had to leave London and my job. I had to go to somewhere where I was more comfortable. At the same time, I realised more than anything that I wanted to marry Rachel, my rock in those hard times. So I handed in my notice, bought a plane ticket to Australia, went on holiday for 7 weeks and, while there, got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. I've not told this story or any anecdotes around it because I'm saving it for the wedding speech, but suffice to say, she said yes.

Things since then have been a whole other realm of contentedness. We both live in Birmingham, although not together. I've started a PhD, which is obviously not an easy thing to do, but the atmosphere, topic, team and work style suits me far better than before. My boss complimented me the other day, even though I haven't got an experiment to work yet. In fact, much has gone wrong - in the first week alone I cut myself, burnt myself, grated myelf and came into unnervingly close proximity with a notorious carcinogen. But that positivity from my boss was not something I had been used to in the past year and a half, and it meant a tremendous deal.

My happiness is, I think, starting to show here, in the style in which I have been writing. So I'm sure that 2010 will see this site flourish with stupid anecdotes and whimsy, in the way that it was always intended.

I wish you a happy New Year and hope that whatever problems you are having will be resolved in the immediate future.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

2009 (Part I)

AS I do every year*, I present to you a round up of the inner workings of this blog and, because things round here are changing, that other blog I started too. The statistics of the blog provide endless amusement and fascination. Some people really do look at seriously strange stuff online.

This year things really took off, with certain posts reaching a far wider audience than I have previously encountered. At the very end of 2008, visits to a post I called Weird Science spiked so dramatically I thought something had gone wrong - visits increased overnight by 9,200%. It wasn't even a proper post. Hits subsequently crashed, but it was a sign of things to come and, curiously, Weird Science remains the most viewed piece of writing I have ever produced.

In January 2009, things began well with Baby is Born. Has Special Powers, a piece that was, at that point, an uncharacteristic style of article for me to write. It was a response to a newspaper article claiming that the world's first "cancer-free baby" had been born. One of the themes of the article was recently repeated in How to live to 100, a piece I wrote over at t'other blog.

Things spiked again in February courtesy of Gail Trimble, the super-brainy captain of the winning team (subsequently revoked) of University Challenge.

Things largely went quiet again until May, when I became involved in the Simon Singh libel campaign, attending this rally in support of him. A trio of posts - In the name of nerdiness, Nerds united - the Blogosophere erupts to the tale of Simon Singh and Nerds rejoice! - proved popular, although their figures pale in comparison to things written elsewhere - and rightly so. I will explain why in my second review of 2009.

Later in the year I set up a second blog, LH&S, to accommodate less personal, more political, scientific or essay-like writing, to keep this blog about me. The catalyst for this change was the longest piece I have ever written, Is Kazakhstan the "Seat of Satan"? No. Grow Up. Despite this, that essay on Kazakhstan was the second most popular entry of the year until very recently (it brought traffic from the UK Skeptics forum and, when my review of U2 in Sheffield overtook it. The new blog meant I was free to be more personal here, and I thoroughly enjoyed presenting The Masquerade Ball, Nightmares and Graduation to you.

I also was pleasantly surprised when, via Twitter, Rob Dougan endorsed my review of his album (in A Turquoise Chord) and subsequently promoted my travel entry Here I Go Again.

Over at t'other blog, things are all very much anew, but my dad commended me on For the benefit of humanity, which meant a lot.

This year I had visitors from the UK, the USA, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, India, Spain, France, Norway, Portugal, Finland, Italy, South Africa, Denmark, Mexico, Poland, South Korea, Austria, Japan, Hungary, Singapore, Indonesia, Sweden, Malaysia, the UAE, Romania, Russia, Estonia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Bahrain, Venezuela, Greece, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland, Thailand, Egypt, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia, Uganda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guam (brilliant!), Ukraine, Tunisia, Iran, Vietnam, the Isle of Man, Ghana, Oman, Fiji, Peru, Chile, Pakistan, Lebanon, Cote d'Ivoire, the Philippines, Jersey, New Caledonia, Croatia and, for the first time, the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It's the modern equivalent of stamp collecting, and makes for a very exciting map.

I apologize for all of the threads I promised to write about and never did. Maybe next year, maybe not.

It thus remains for me to let you in on the psyche of the average Internet user. The following selection genuinely brought Internet users here. Some of them are slightly concerning.

Gail Trimble (hugely popular, usually with the word photos, sexy or cute)
hooved crocodiles
Permutations involving Kazakhstan, Satan, Astana, Bayterek, Occult, Symbolism, Illuminati, Masonic (including Astana alien invasion)
The ever popular Johnstone River Crocodile Farm (the post to which this appplies is now 2 years old, and still ignites controversy)
GFP Bunny
Simon Singh (and libel, chiropractic etc.)
Melbourne vs Sydney
Just like last year... sexy Sue Barker
U2 secret gig
English Cheesecake Company + "trustworthy"
New Hits '96
Babies born with special powers
The Swan on cowbells
British Guardian newspaper Scythians were Turkic
Can mutations be done causing special powers?
Cloudland Nature Refuge Australia
"Darth Vader Christmas Stephen Fry"
Dr Alice Robert's boyfriend pictures (?)
Devil's footprints, Wendover, Bucks
Find diagram to show cva patients how to shave
Genghis Khan song atomic bomb
"Gunge, gunged or gunging"
History of the poppadom
Is there anyone in the world with special powers?
In the jungle, the mighty jungle: Simon
Lyric of the song Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
Murder of Miranda Downs on Buckhams Beach, Cairns, Australia (?)
Bruce Parry jumping over cattle
Rob Dougan wine (here's Rob's vineyard: La Pèira)
Simon Says... show me two fingers
Simon Says... nudist
Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for turkic people of Central Asia
Step by step Hangi with diagrams
U2 tour: why didn't they play Pride (in the Name of Love)?
What do you say at a climate change rally?

and, finally, the most surreal:
"What are the milestones of Australia's evolution into what is now its modern day pharmacy practice?"

See you in 2010

*Except 2007 - I blame the jetlag

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #7

Carol services and Christmas events. Unfortunately, I haven't managed to go to a carol service this year, but I have fond memories of services in the past. Last year's service at Christ Church Cockfosters had gospel, rock, traditional and operatic styles all perfectly arranged (music director David is underrated for the work he puts into the worship at the church) and Rachel and I hold a certain university carol service in the Great Hall with particular fondness, for we would consider something that happened there a pivotal moment in our relationship.

Instead, this year, I have seen two nativities. One, led by a youth group of Pavilion in Bournville, was the nativity story as interpreted by Hollywood. In it, after a message from an Angel of Charlie, Mary falls pregnant. She and Joesph go to Bethl... Beverley Hills from their home in Naza... Nashville, Tennessee, to give birth. Unfortunately, there is no room in the inn, because a portal to a parallel dimension has opened and cybermen have taken all of the rooms. Not to worry, they are offered the strange, small blue box that recently materialized outside to stay in.

"But it's so small!"
"It's bigger on the inside."

When Jesus was born, the shepherds, wise men and additional extra teenagers held him aloft to the opening music of the Lion King. Technical hitches meant this had to be chanted in person.

It was all very silly but enjoyable.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #6

My mum's roast potatoes. I'd forgotten how perfect they are.

Things we like about Christmas #5

Unexpected discoveries. In the car back to Devon today with Ben and Jenny (thanks for the lift guys) we listened to Now That's What I Call Xmas. Christmas music often drives me crazy, but I've been oddly receptive to it this year. Thankfully so, for the compilation presented us with the hilarious and hitherto unheard of Never do the Tango with an Eskimo, which reached number 6 in 1955.

Kerrang! radio has also been providing much amusement with its own attempt at positive, uplifting Christmas songs, including:

Oh Christmas tree
Oh Christmas tree
I can't afford you Christmas tree

Oh Christmas tree
Oh Christmas tree

I'm in negative equity

and one that begins:

Good King Wenceslas went out
Didn't take a condom

You can guess where that one leads...

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Things we like about Christmas #4

Hat hair, from wearing a paper hat for too long.

Things we like about Christmas #3

Rachel likes everybody sitting around the kitchen table chopping vegetables and wrapping sausages in bacon. Every year her granny tells her how to make the bacon go further. One year, her other granny scored every single brussel sprout on the bottom with a cross: enough for 13 people.

Things we like about Christmas #2

Forgetting to open an advent calendar for a week, and then eating a whole week's worth of chocolate in one go.

Things we like about Christmas #1

Animal prints in the snow. I like paw prints, pitter-pattering along the fluffy white pavements: Rachel likes the footprints of little birdies.

Saturday, 19 December 2009


LAST Friday was Rachel's graduation, deferred from the summer when we were in Australia. It was a wonderful day.

The night before had been my lab's Christmas party, a truly festive game of bowling and on for a curry. It was a late night and so, try as I might, I looked a little dishevelled early the next morning. But it was rather fun, turning up at work in a suit, transferring vials of flies and sorting progeny through a microscope. I drew many strange looks.

Then I was off, via the photography studio and robing room, to the Aston Webb building and the Great Hall. The last time I was here was my very own graduation two years ago, an occasion I look back on with mixed memories - I was flustered because I was in the spotlight, needing to be here at this moment, here at another, but then I was completely unsure how to react when, on leaving the hall after the ceremony, we walked through the middle of the hall to a standing and rapturous ovation. It was a uniquely uplifting sensation. I was in equal measure laughing and, secretly, crying a little bit.

Graduands are only allowed two tickets each for the ceremony, so Rachel's parents sat in the Great Hall, whereas myself and Granny and John were to go to a screening room where the ceremony is broadcast live on to two television screens. As an overflow room it is not very big, so I went in early and reserved three seats, asking the two people flanking the aisle to protect them.

Back in the foyer Granny and John arrived and many photos were taken, particularly of Rachel in her robes and mortarboard next to a Christmas tree. It took a while for us all to be ready to go in and so, to my dismay, as we arrived the three seats I had reserved had become two. The people reserving them had left and so we were quite lucky we still had two. The rest of the room was packed so I stood at the back in the doorway. This was not a good place to stand because people would frequently approach, see that people were standing at the back, in the doorway and out into the corridor and, taking this as a sign that the room was full, proceed in anyway, just to see for themselves. Every time somebody did this we all had to shuffle around and breathe in to give them room, holding our breath for the few seconds it would take for them to come back out again, having confirmed their suspicions. Eventually room was made and I could move from the doorway into the room itself, propped against the back wall.

The ceremony began with a fanfare. It was quite the spectacle: everybody in their finery and robes, everybody geared up for occasion. But I was distracted from all of this by the third trombone player, the one on the right, because he had a magnificent beard.

The occasion was an opportunity for the Vice Chancellor/Pro-Vice Chancellor (I forget which) to promote what is going on at Birmingham - and there really is a lot. I have often got the impression that the University of Birmingham is forgotten (people automatically think of Aston), but this is a hub of pioneering research and many tremendously expensive developments. It makes graduating from here quite special. I was very impressed with Birmingham's rank within the UK and on a world scale, although I have now forgotten both*.

Standing in the overflow room was funny. Whenever somebody went up to receive their degree, often their family and friends, if present, would cheer and clap. In the Great Hall this would have been perfectly normal, but here we were disconnected from the hall - the graduand couldn't hear them. It lifted the spirit in the room, and those present were united in respect for those graduating. These people deserved their applause, even though they couldn't hear it.

In front of me there were a few young children, clearly bored and unaware of what they were supposed to be watching. One of them had easy-wipe cards with puzzles on, such as mazes and spot the difference. He would scribble all over them with magic markers, rub it out and then start again. He began playing a version of noughts and crosses with his mother. This involved writing your initial in a square, taking it in turns and trying to get four in a row. The boy began:


Now it was mum's turn:


I can only assume that the N stood for the lady's real name. But the young lad was not happy with this, for he rubbed it all out and told his mum: "but that's not your name... you're 'm' for mummy!"

Soon it was time for Rachel to go up to receive her degree, the only First in the crop of Biosciences graduates. Rather than stressed, concerned about where to be and when, or flustered because of the number of photographs required or, as I was, concerned about falling up the steps on the way, Rachel was the happiest I have seen her in a while. She was beaming, radiant and beautiful and I am incredibly proud of her.

*#66 of 600 (link)