Wednesday, 20 May 2009

"Now... where was I?"

The last film being shown as part of the Movies and the Mind Season is this weekend. The Arnolfini are showing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I haven’t seen it but the book is astonishing.

Can you get to Bristol? Like films? Like brains? Go!

The concept behind Movies and the Mind (kudos to Bristol Festival of Ideas and to the lovely lovely people at Bristol Neuroscience) is to show films relevant to current topics in neuroscience, then have a discussion about the film and wider issues with members of an expert panel (experts on brains, minds or films).

Initially lured by A Matter of Life and Death paired with the promise of some geeky discussion I ended up seeing Memento at the Arnolfini. As much as I think A Matter of Life and Death is one of the most amazing films about a neurological condition (or is it?) ever made, I couldn’t make that one.

The experts at Memento were Dr Clea Warburton who researches neural and cellular substrates of learning and memory processes, and Dr John Holloway who specialises in the treatment of people who have suffered head injury that affects brain function. The discussion was chaired by Dr Ash Ranpura, a neuroscientist from University College London who promotes talk and public debate around issues in neuroscience.

I saw Memento when it first came out but couldn’t remember it very well (ha!). So here is a quick reminder of the plot: Leonard Shelby is a former insurance fraud investigator searching for the man he believes raped and killed his wife during a burglary. During the attack Leonard suffered a severe head trauma which left him with anterogarde amnesia – the inability to make and store new memories. Leonard maintains a system of notes, photographs, and tattoos to record information about himself and others, including his wife's killer.

A particular strength of going to see a film in this format is there’s no need to be embarrassed about being a massive geek. We all knew why we were there, for unashamedly nerdy film- and neuro-talk.

We watched, we thought for a bit, then we poured out our opinions and questions. The experts were indeed expert, but the atmosphere was informal enough to encourage plenty of discussion from the audience.

Clea and John agreed that it was a pretty good portrait of anterograde amnesia, if a little peppered with some artistic licence. There was also some particularly good chat about the way in which the film’s structure reflected the way in which we actually remember our lives, like little episodic fragments rather than the seamless narrative that we’re used to on screen.

Another particularly fruitful discussion concerned the fact that there most certainly isn’t a clear black and white distinction between remembering and forgetting. The film addresses this by suggesting a fairly wobbly continuum between drawing a total blank and vivid memories, which features remembering inaccurately, deliberately remembering differently, and deliberately forgetting and everything else in between. Which we are all prone to, brain injury or not.

There was also some really interesting stuff about recognition versus memory as such, and whether these are different systems and how they can be specifically affected as in the case of face blindness. But that really deserves a post all of its own.

A lot of the stuff the audience wanted to know, just isn’t known yet. But then that in itself is something worth knowing.

It is such a great platform for really good discussion - especially as you've all just spent the last 90 minutes sharing the same air, so everyone is quite relaxed with each other. Frankly, all films should be shown like this.

Monday, 11 May 2009

I'll take a Donald

Quite why baby wigs aren't listened under 'what you need to buy' section of my 'NHS guide to pregnancy' I simply do not know.

As seen on Graham Linehan's blog

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Crimes of Passion at the RWA

Took some time out at the weekend from preparing the house for the arrival of the small monster I am growing to visit the Crimes of Passion street art exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy of Art (RWA).

The curators have done an incredible job of making it appear as though the RWA's very grand marbled building has been invaded and covered in all kinds of crazy.

b movie in the sun by *FilthyLuker on deviantART

"blown up and octopied all at once" - the inflatables currnetly squatting at the RWA.

I loved it. Perhaps because I’m such a rule-abiding freak (see below) I found the sight of graffiti on precious marble slabs/bursting out from the wall all over the period features insanely pleasurable.

The video below is off of YouTube and I believe is from opening night. It takes until about 1.02 to really see the stuff that makes the most of using the gallery walls as a canvas. Although it’s street art, so actually it’s just using the gallery walls as walls. It's subversive stuff so it is.

At 2.31 there’s a brief glimpse of my favourite, The Bristol Montage by Acerone which can better be seen on his blog here. Somewhere in there are three canvases that seem to have been completely obscured by the paint. Just ace.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

F*ck you I won't do what you tell me

Except I probably will because I am pathologically afraid of "getting into trouble", whatever that may mean at any given time.

So if the following, purely hypothetical, situation were to happen to me I'd be absolutely beside myself. But it wasn’t me it was a friend. And of course it was hypothetical so it didn’t even really happen to her*

This friend woke up at 3am one morning last week, heart racing at the sudden realisation that HER TAX DISC HAD EXPIRED. According to her report, she initially wanted to violently shake her husband awake and scream "I don't have a valid tax disc" in his face, such was her gut churning panic.

She resisted. At 5am the sound of a car engine woke her. She vaulted out of bed and ripped the curtains open expecting to find the DVLA laughing manically as they clamped her little car. It wasn't them. Back to sleep until proper morning, to dream of various scenarios involving bankruptcy and/or jail.

She made it through toast and coffee without bursting into tears, and went and sorted herself out with a nice new tax disc.

Honestly if this highly unlikely situation were to happen to me I’d think myself a complete tool.

*just so as you know, nice representative of any relevant authority that happens to be reading

Monday, 2 March 2009

We'll send him a red cap and a Speedo.

Whenever people ask me, and they often do, which Wes Anderson film best evokes what it’s like to be a scientist, I say “Why, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou of course”.

If I thought I could fund my research by making exciting and colourful popular films about my findings, I absolutely would. The crucial difference here is that Steve Zissou et al.’s data look like this (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Crayon Pony Fish

Any samples I deal with are either pus or blood. Apparently the film-going public just aren’t that interested. I had assumed that this was the case for most other scientists. Then I see THIS…

Fig. 2 “Oh hai!”

Meet “Psychedelica”, a new species of fish reported by Ted Pietsch and colleagues in the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

Isn’t it wonderful? Clearly the creature’s name was inspired by its migraine-inducing good looks but, as the press release points out, “Psychedelica is perhaps even more apt given the cockamamie way the fish swim”.

Members of Histiophryne psychedelica, or H. psychedelica, propel their crazy selves along by pushing off from the sea floor with their fins and expelling water from tiny grill openings on their side to jet themselves forward. They don’t seem to concern themselves with steering too much. Fortunately, they have “gelatinous bodies covered with thick folds of skin” to protect them as they bumble along looking for food.

The video is well worth a look. Little beast made my day.

Psychedelica image ©David Hall/

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Adventures in fancy film

Now hear ye hear ye. I am very much in love with my Smena Symbol 35mm camera. It always gives me really interesting pictures and such amazing colours. Can such cameratastic perfection be improved on? Apparently so.

I'm spreading the word: if you have any kind of film camera - start loading your films upside down!!!! I foolishly went and spent hard earned cash on 'red scale' film, but I'm reliably informed that it's just normal film loaded the wrong way round. Which makes sense as it does NOT want to be loaded into the camera and reduced me to tears with its refusal to curl round the spool.

But it was worth it. It's spectacular. It's a bit hit and miss, some things look total rubbish but when things look good they look amazing. Depending on the exposure you use* colours range from muted and tinged with red (Fig. 1) to red red red red red (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 Sunset

Fig. 2 Moonrise

Do it. Or go here and buy some red scale. Whatever.

* I ain't no photographer - the Smena Symbol is so named because of its little weather symbols to help people who don't know any better with which exposure to use. So all I need do is say "hmmmm white cloud with cheeky sun poking out today I think". Bingo.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

And how does that make you feel?

I’ve calmed right down now. I think I was alarmed at the speed with which all my projects were rearranged the SAME BLOOMIN’ DAY as I made my little announcement.

But I did end up feeling a little on the totally useless side. So it was nice when, the next day, someone asked me if I could do a bit of teaching while I’m on maternity leave. God when will these people leave me alone?

Also I’m on a training course all this week. Of course this makes me in no way useful but still. It’s exciting.

We’re learning how to do in-depth interviews and focus groups. A lot of the stuff I do is with NHS patients. Increasingly, NHS ethics applications require that the research has been developed in collaboration with the patient population being investigated.

Ethically this is a very worthy aim: among other things, patients feel like they’re actually being listened to and that the research they pay for as a tax payer is actually relevant to them. But in terms of the science, it tends to mean that the research question being asked is not only much more focused, but also one that is likely to be worth answering (and therefore published).

And to be honest my last job involved growing cells in dishes then messing about with them - no interpersonal skills required whatsoever. So I looked forward to blossoming into a confident and friendly researcher, highly trained in the art of interviewing and people management.

Plus I thought it might make me feel like a policeman.

Through the self-reflection that is part of the process I have learnt that...

I am bad at interviewing people
I am good at role-playing the following characters in a mock focus group:

1. Dominant expert “You feel you know a lot about the topic being discussed and want to let everyone know how much you know”
2. Interrupter “You aggressively interrupt with irrelevant topics, or talk over people in a way that makes it difficult for them to finish”
3. Angry and belligerent “You have personal experience of the topic in hand, something you are clearly angry about and may have an axe to grind”

Great! Behaving appallingly in a small group of lovely people was surprisingly difficult and stressful. And although the characters were assigned randomly (others had to agree with everything, or be shy, or disinterested), y'know, first impressions and all that.

Interpersonal skills FAIL.