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.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Here’s the thing

What a day yesterday was. Started off with a meeting in which the ethics application I’ve been working on for past 4 months was shelved. Which is fine, as apparently the work will go ahead, but in a slightly different format. This decision was made by Boss #1. This prompted Boss #2 to call a strategy meeting. By the end of the day the grant proposal I’d been working on for the past 12 months had also been shelved. Gulp.

It all makes sense in the long run. I’m just desperately trying not to think about the hours and hours I spent on it. Plus, it does seem that someone will do the project I proposed, it just probably won’t be me, as it seems that in around 28 weeks time I will be producing a small baby that I will be expected to look after.

Which got me to thinking about this blog. The idea was to write about science and what life is like as a researcher. However I have lived the past 3 months through a fog of mind-numbing nausea. Far from life being a whirlwind of stimulating lectures and academic meetings, I’ve either been laid on the sofa eating water biscuits or in the bathroom with my head down the toilet.

So maybe I’ll shelve this little project too. Don’t know. Or entirely limit its content to ‘stuff off the telly’. There’s been a lot of telly watching lately! Either way changes are afoot. Watch this space eh?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

I expect it'll be a bit like Dead Poets Society

I’m currently grappling with writing my first lecture. I’ve given other people’s lectures, and I’ve written presentations on my own stuff, but this is something a bit different.

I anticipate it will go something like this:

1. Decide what I’m going to talk about
2. Get all the info
3. Structure it
4. Spend hours on google finding ‘hilarious’ pictures for it
5. Make a nice powerpoint for it
6. Rehearse it
7. Decide it’s boring
8. Add more bits to make it more interesting
9. Cut bits out to make it less long
10. Wrestle with self doubt about ability to give lectures and general suitability for academia
11. Spend days paralysed by fear and nightmares as lecture approaches
12. Give lecture

One thing I have learnt from my own experiences of listening to lectures, is never ever mention a related topic then say “But I’ll go into more detail on that later” because those words make me throw myself back in my chair wailing “What? How much later? Aren’t we nearly done yet?”

Any other tips/suggestions/pitfalls very gratefully received.

Friday, 30 January 2009

"You'll never be better than a spider"

Public lecture time. Very cool format – a ‘conversation’ between Richard Wentworth (artist, curator and teacher based at the Ruskin School of Fine Art in Oxford) and Mark Lythgoe (Director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London and prolific science communicator). 

The audience were distinguished looking folk and I immediately felt like a scruffy pleb. I was sat next to a very smart looking woman who I promptly elbowed while taking off my coat. 

We were in an enormous hall usually reserved for graduation ceremonies. Right at the front, dead casual like (this was a conversation after all), were some brown leather arm chairs and a tiny projector screen.

Richard Wentworth kicked off by showing some photos. 

I would have said “this projector screen is too small for this room”. 

Richard Wentworth said, “we are defeated by the combination of pre-war confidence and modern technology”. 

This is why I am not an Oxford Professor of Fine Art. That and a few other reasons like being shit at art.

The conversation was about images like this one:

Since the mid 70s Richard Wentworth has been making a photographic documentary of aspects of everyday life that interest him in an ongoing project called ‘Making Do and Getting By’. 

It’s about the fact that we are not really very suited to our surroundings, but we ‘make do’. We innovate with whatever materials we have to hand, and we're really quite good at knowing exactly which chocolate bar will best silence an alarm, for example. 

If you grinned a bit at the alarm bell image, then that’s the bit that Mark Lythgoe is interested in. He wants to know what happens in the brain when people experience that warm satisfaction from seeing a piece of improvisation or ingenuity, an elegant bit of engineering. Just generally the recognition of brilliance in others.

He believes that it’s a form of reward, and there is growing evidence to suggest that in the same way memory consolidation is improved during stress (so we get better at avoiding those situations in future) it is also improved during reward and may be enhanced by positive emotion (so we are better at learning nice solutions to tricky problems). 

What Richard Wentworth does is record the things that make us feel like that; capturing a problem and a solution simultaneously. 

The way they were talking about coming at the same concept from completely different angles was ace. Especially as it developed into an in-depth discussion on the nature of creativity in which they both agreed that "maintaining awareness of the periphery is essential". Which I took to mean “it’s ok to fart about on the internet instead of doing actual work as it will somehow lead to increased flowing of creative juices”. I’m pretty sure that’s what they meant.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

"I only went to get a piece of cake..."

Found another one to add to the (frankly very short) list of Reality TV Shows I Quite Like: Million Dollar Traders

In Spring 2008 (well before Sterling became more useful as kindling) hedge fund manager Lex van Dam gave eight ordinary people a million dollars, a fortnight of intensive training and two months on the trading floor in the City (with a capital 'C').

I'd avoided it because I assumed it would be confusing, loud and stressful. And depressing. I watched it last night and it's fascinating. The whole process had previously been a TOTAL mystery to me.

I think I had in my head that traders were telepathically linked to the market and need only to shout "BUY!" or "SELL!" and it would be so.

But they actually pick up a phone and go

"Alright? It's Karen"

"Alright mate?"

"Yep. I'm looking at Titanium Industries, that's TIT, 'T' 'I' 'T'"


"Yep. Currently 343.6"

"Yep. I'll buy 100"


"Ok you've bought 100 at 343.6"

"Alright cheers bye"

Done. Actually now I've written it down I realise it's a process that's absolutely no clearer.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Big Deal

The annual parade of fragile egos that is Celebrity Big Brother is on at the moment, along with shouty ads asking for auditionees for Big Brother 2009.

With each year that passes I am more and more frustrated by Big Brother. I was a big fan. But now it's just a big summer-long audition for people desperate for 'fame' at whatever price.

I really liked Dead Set, and many of the parallels were so spot on I found myself nodding at the telly like a loon. A few inaccuracies, which were necessary for the story, included the intelligence and common sense level of the housemates, which was too high. And also the nasty producer chap.

I really don't think the producers are nasty or deliberately exploitative. I think they don't have enough confidence in the format, or the fact that the relationships of the average person are endlessly fascinating to other average people. They don't have even nearly average people as housemates, and feel in order for it to be good telly they need to torture, starve and upset the housemates. It's boring. It's just so obvious. It's like human emotions by numbers. Make housemate A do something devious and nasty to housemate B and see if a negative reaction occurs. BORING.

Proof that the viewing public just like watching normal relationships form between normal(ish) people on the telly, as if it were needed, is provided in the form of both Come Dine With Me and Deal Or No Deal. Both of which I adore.

Come Dine With Me is probably a closer relative of BB, as total strangers very quickly find themselves in quite intimate company, that is, throwing little dinner parties for each other. Grudges that develop as a result of refusal to eat the pastry of a Beef Wellington ("It's just not civilised") are far more interesting than those that develop as the result of being forced to pick the housemate with the biggest ego (as recently occurred with Terry Christian) then having it aired in front of said ego (Ulrika).

Come Dine With Me triumphs by exposing the subtle differences that crop up when seemingly innocuous domestic routines collide. And it's just as good when people unexpectedly form wonderful friendships. And all this with absolute minimal manipulation from the producers. People get comfortable. Big Brother tries really really hard to make people feel uncomfortable, so they end up doing crazy things like shoving a wine bottle up their chuff just to get some attention.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, what with Celeb BB on in place of Everybody Loves Raymond of a morning. And I used to think that Deal Or No Deal presented a similar argument. It's fashionable to turn your nose up at Deal Or No Deal but I think it is a work of bearded genius. Yes it's exactly the same every single damn day. BUT it's the people that make it what it is. Just normal people but, crucially, the SAME people.

They get put up in a hotel in Bristol, all together, and often end up spending several weeks in very close quarters, filming every day. There are characters, relationships between characters, and Noel makes sure the audience knows this. He plays it up, he amplifies aspects of people's personalities, creates a mythology around certain players if they have a history of always having a box with a high number. He makes it his business to know the players really well because really he knows that's why people love it.

It's overly sentimental, as are the relationships, with incredibly intense bestest bestest ever friends forming within weeks. Mascots and photos with accompanying nauseating stories are encouraged. I used to think it wouldn't work without this. That Noel and his 22 boxes (just one question) was further proof that relationships between people can make even the dullest format interesting and therefore BB should a) leave well alone and stop engineering upset and b) use normal people.

Until I was in America a few months back and saw this...

That is how they open boxes American style. Beautiful ladies. This is one of the most popular Deal Or No Deal ladies...

This is Brooke. Brooke opens box 15.

Can someone please explain this to me? Why does anyone give a shiny shite? Every other game show on the planet relies on our interest in other people's skill, or knowledge, or problem solving abilities.

I just don't get it. And it kind of suggests that I'm completley wrong about why people like Come Dine With Me and Deal Or No Deal, and that I will in fact just watch any old crap.