Category Archives: Odds and Ends

Brain candy for the intellectually incapacitated – the sequel

Two years ago I posted links to ten (relatively) mindless online “games” as a bit of fun, and as something not too taxing to indulge in over the holiday break.  Having reached that point again where anything more intellectually challenging than tic tac toe makes my head hurt, I thought I would revisit and update the 2020 Science Compendium of Mindless Games. The only criteria for inclusion: an ability to retain my attention for more than 10 seconds, minimal thinking required, a high smile-factor, and absolutely nothing of overtly educational value!

Just in case you are looking for something a tad more intellectually stimulating, you can always try the Royal Statistical Society Christmas Quiz instead!

Have fun, and Happy Holidays! Continue reading Brain candy for the intellectually incapacitated – the sequel

Didn’t get a reply to your email? This might be why:

You sent me an email and didn’t hear back?  This might explain it:

OK so it’s not a serious decision chart.  But it’s beginning to look increasingly attractive!

I always have the best of intentions when it comes to keeping up with my email correspondence.  But increasingly I find myself struggling to keep up. The problem isn’t so much the volume, as the expectations.  I have a constant stream of email asking me for stuff – presentations, reviews, advice, comment.  Each request is important to the sender I’m sure.  But if you are asking me to do something that I’m not directly paid to do, doing what you ask means that I to sacrifice something else to respond.  And that inevitably ends up being my personal time, family time, meal time or sleep time.

That said, I don’t begrudge people asking me to do things for them, and I usually try and accommodate requests. But if you have sent me an email that seems to have disappeared into a black hole, the chances are that it has been swamped by hundreds of others like it, or I had to decide whether to spend time with my wife and kids or with your request.  And if it was really important, there’s never any harm in resending!

Note: In the “Is it from someone important?” box, I should point out that this includes family and friends!

Brushing off the academic time planner

With the new university year just about to kick off, I thought I would brush off that most essential of items that no faculty member is ever without: the Academic Time Planner.  Here’s what it looks like:

Things to do this year:

  1. Prepare and deliver a great number of mind-blowing lecture courses that make even the most tedious subject seem exciting.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  2. Mentor students, exhibiting God-like levels of omniscience and patience while helping them discover their inner potential.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  3. Participate fully on faculty committees, embracing the opportunity to contribute to the great engines of bureaucracy they represent.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  4. Write grant proposals that will bring in millions of dollars to help make the world a better place in the future, while paying the bills in the here and now.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  5. Carry out research on esoteric challenges which, despite their apparent obscurity, are vital to the continuation of life as we know it.  Time commitment: 40 hours.
  6. Write bucket loads of peer reviewed papers for high impact peer review journals that, while possibly unintelligible, nevertheless appear awfully clever.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  7. Talk to people all over the world about awesome stuff that they really need to know – whether they realize it or not.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  8. Participate in important committees and advisory groups that are critical to creating even more important committees and advisory groups.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  9. Hobnob with people who are interested in what we do here – and who might even give us some money to do it!  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.
  10. Continue to build the Risk Science Center into a kick-ass place for risk science.  Time commitment: 40 hours/week.

Total time commitment: 40 hours/week

Sorted!  And I even have some time left to actually have a life by the looks of it. Not like many of my poor colleagues who are so over-commit that their work is their life.

Go figure that one out!

The ultimate rules list for accepting speaking engagements

I think I might have just accepted one speaking engagement too many!  After years of patiently bearing the brunt of my grueling travel schedule, my wife Clare has finally put her foot down.  Sorry folks – if you want me to speak at your meeting, these are the new rules!

After nearly 24 years of my husband disappearing off to conferences, speaking engagements and sundry other events, I’ve finally got to the point of putting my foot down. Andrew usually claims he doesn’t want to go to Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the middle of nowhere; he simply has ‘a rather large sense of civic duty.’ My opinion: he’s just someone who can’t say ‘no’. Someone asks him to speak, to do them a favor, and he’s off. I’ve finally concluded that his health and his family deserve better, and have come up with a set of rules that we will be following from now on.

From now on, if you need him to speak you’ll have to go through ME first!

Clare’s Rules for NOT Accepting Speaking Engagements

Any request that coincides with the following is an immediate ‘sorry no can do!’

  • Family birthdays or anniversaries. Last year we celebrated Andrew’s birthday on the right day for the first time in 4 years!
  • Holidays such as July 4th, Memorial Day or Thanksgiving weekend – boy are we sick of July 4th on our own!!
  • Children’s concerts or other important school events – I’m done being a single parent as far as the school goes.
  • No weekends – someone needs to do the cleaning round here.
  • No trips of more than 3 days – I’m not willing to walk the dog in the dark or wet more than 2 nights in a row!
  • No engagements that necessitate weekend travel – coming or going
  • No meetings that involve leaving or returning home in the middle of the night
  • No events involving flights that are likely to be delayed or cancelled
  • Nothing that involves having to eat airplane food
  • Nothing that involves eating out every evening for a week
  • Absolutely nothing where we end up paying for the privilege of him traveling!
  • No meetings where we’re expected to pay $1000’s up front for plane tickets and wait months to get the money back – we are not a lending service!
  • No boring meetings
  • No summer meetings
  • No meetings from which he arrives home with a week’s worth of dirty washing
  • No meetings where he isn’t loved, appreciated and pampered as he would be at home

In fact, if in doubt, just assume the answer is ‘NO!’ Someone has to look after him …

Thank you!

James Gleick’s Chaos – the enhanced edition

In 1987 I got my Bachelors of Science in physics, Prozac was launched in the US, and James Gleick published Chaos.  I don’t think the middle one has any bearing on the other two.  But the first and last are tentatively linked because, despite being completely jazzed on physics, I didn’t read it.

Being a young physicist with a new-found appreciation of the universe and just how complex it is, I quickly found there was nothing thing quite so irritating as a popular science book.  Just imagine, after three years of sweat and tears you begin to get a feel for the basics of your chosen subject, when some smart alec arts student comes along authoritatively sprouting stuff that you think you should understand, but don’t – and all because they’ve read the latest best seller in the science charts.

Humiliating?  Not even close!

But time and maturity help to break down the fragile arrogance of youth, so when I was asked to review the just-released enhanced e-edition of James Gleick’s best-seller Chaos, I willingly agreed.  And I’m glad I did.

The enhanced version of the book has just been released as an ebook for Kindle and iBook platforms by Open Road Integrated Media.  It’s based on the 2008 update of the original 1997 book, and includes seven new embedded videos, as well as links to supporting material within the book.  However, it should be noted up-front that the audiovisual content is not accessible on the Kindle reader.

For this review, Open Road kindly provided a copy of the book for the iPad – the $12.99 this saved me has undoubtedly biased my impressions, but don’t let that deter you from reading on!

In sitting down to write this, I intended to focus on the experience of reading it as an “enhanced” ebook on the iPad – after all, the text itself has been commented and re-commented on ad nauseum over the past twenty odd years.  But it is worth saying something about the content, as this plays such an important part of the overall experience of reading – irrespective of the format. Continue reading James Gleick’s Chaos – the enhanced edition

Davos 2011 – Partnering with teens to build a better world

This is not a science and technology post – which is a bit odd for a science and technology blog.  But I wanted to introduce five people who together shake up the whole idea of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos as being an elitist and increasingly irrelevant gathering of middle aged balding guys in suits – the Davos Teens.

Rather than write a deadly boring post (which this was until a couple of minutes ago), let me dive right in:

The Davos Teens are a small group of teenage (or thereabouts) social entrepreneurs, selected by their fellow Global Changemakers to attend the meeting.  The whole Global Changemakers shebang is organized and supported by the British Council, is committed to empowering youth to catalyse positive social change through Learning, Doing, and Advocacy, and includes over 600 young people from 110 countries.

This year’s Davos Teens are:

Anjali Chandrashekar (India) - a two-time national award winning visual artist and activist who has been using her artwork to raise funds and awareness for many national and international organisations

Dan Cullum (New Zealand) - a guy who has a vision to empower youth throughout the world to make a difference through simple act of wearing the same tee-shirt for a year – as well as working with underprivileged Maori and Pacific Island youth in South Auckland.

Mai Shbeta (Israel) – a young woman with Palestinian/Jewish parents, and living in a mixed religion/race village in Israel, who aims to bring Palestinian and Israeli youth together through peace camps.

Raquel Helen Silva (Brazil) – a social activist and community volunteer for the last decade, Raquel is working to improve the lives of girls and young women in Brazil.

Trevor Dougherty (USA) - an online activist since 2007, Trevor is dedicated to transforming the “me” on-line community into the “we” online community, through innovative uses of social media.

You can find out more about each of them here.

This morning, the five talked about their ideas and aspirations with Davos delegates in one of the most stimulating and worthwhile sessions of the conference.

Facilitator Nancy Lubin (CEO of reminded us “old” people that we weren’t there to mentor these young people, but to work with them as equal partners in exploring new solutions to pressing problems. As a result, I found myself in a room full of energized and engaged business leaders, social/government leaders and entrepreneurs working with the Davos Youth to find new solutions to serious problems.  No paternalism or teaching or training – just a partnership between great ideas and seasoned know-how.

The collaboration between everyone in the room was electric, and I guarantee that it led to many people – young and old – leaving with new ideas and new plans.

Here and in numerous other places, these five young people are providing input to the Davos meeting that not only enriches it, but has the power to touch and influence event the most aloof of world leaders gathered here.

In other words, this is a model of partnership between youth and experience that is proving its worth many times over, and is ripe for growth.

Pretty enlighteneding for a gathering of “middle aged balding guys in suits”

The Davos Teens are guest-blogging for the Washington Post this week

Read last year’s blog on Global Changemakers at Davos here.

Knitting science

Sitting in a meeting on informal science education recently, I was intrigued to see a respected academic working on her knitting.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Now I may have had a something of a sheltered life, but in over twenty years of attending scientific conferences and workshops, I think this was the first time I had come across public acts of wool-work.

I was fascinated.

This was reinforced the other week when, following Tweets from a science policy event at the British Library the Science Blogging Talkfest in London, Stephen Curry announced “I can confirm that @alicebell is indeed knitting.”

Alice Bell's "leaf scarf" - clearly, knitting is about more than woolly jumpers and never-ending scarves!

As well as being a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College, Alice Bell is also something of a knitting maven.  So I asked her whether there was anything I should be reading to explore this new-found fascination with knitting in meetings.

Instead, Alice threw me down the metaphorical rabbit-hole! Who knew there was such a rich intersection between science, math, and working with yarn?

I was aware of the work on modeling hyperbolic geometries by Daina Taimina of Cornell University, using crochet. (can I mention crochet in a knitting blog?)  But, as I’m discovering, there’s a whole sub-culture of knitting and crocheting science out there! Continue reading Knitting science

Have iPad, will travel – 48 hours on the road with Apple’s iPad

I owe my nearly-thirteen year old son – big-time!  This time next week he will be the proud recipient of an iPad – part birthday present, part relocation “compensation” and part his own personal investment.  But in the meantime, I’m here at 30,000 feet, typing on his intended device – being a kind soul, he graciously allowed me to give it a test run!

Reading all the publicity and chat surrounding the iPad, I’ve been intrigued by it’s potential as a work-aid.  Forget the fancy games, the videos and the photos – I wanted to see if it could make my reluctant road warrior-scientist existence just that little bit easier.

So taking advantage of a short trip to Minneapolis, a shiny new iPad in the closet just begging to be used, and my son’s generosity (I asked first!), I’ve been putting Apple’s latest gizmo through it’s paces. Continue reading Have iPad, will travel – 48 hours on the road with Apple’s iPad

The politics of change

Well, it’s been a week since I upped sticks from D.C. and started my new life as an academic in Ann Arbor. It’s been an eventful week, with the start of a several-month commute between my family who are still in Northern Virginia and Michigan, and beginning to find my feet in a new town, organization and position.  But I think I’m going to enjoy it here.  Continue reading The politics of change

Scientists and social media – This is not a case study

By Ruth Seeley, No Spin PR.

A little over a year ago, Ruth Seeley – a freelance communications consultant – rather bravely approached me with a proposition:  She would help me develop a social media strategy for 2020 Science, if I would let her write the experience up as a case study.  Was she mad?  Did she not know how impossibly contrary scientists are to work with?  Or was she simply a sucker for punishment?  Twelve months on, I’m pleased to say that Ruth is still speaking to me.  But how did the experiment go?  To find out, read on… -AM

Despite having once shared an award for client service with a much more senior colleague, I would be the first to admit that client service – in the sense of getting along with and working closely, productively, and harmoniously with clients – has never been my strong suit. As an ex-global public relations employee gone (briefly) ‘corporate’ and now a solopreneur, I’ve had many challenges, not least of which was aligning myself with the kind of clients who don’t need a lot of handholding and who have either a learned or an instinctive understanding of what public relations is and what it can do for them. Managing client expectations and educating them is fine and dandy when you have a client willing and able to pay for their learning curve. Being asked to teach, explain, or worse, being second-guessed at every step of the way (which is what tends to happen when your client is another solopreneur with little corporate experience and a miniscule budget) is, frankly, both intolerable and unprofitable. Another real stumbling block for me was the fact that I no longer had a team – virtual or in-person – to draw upon. Nor an IT department to help me with technological challenges, ranging from viruses to actual laptop meltdowns. Couple that with the fact that I decided a decade ago that it really was time to stop and smell the roses, and I was faced with a dilemma when I decided to give public relations one more shot in late 2008 and see what I could make of No Spin PR. Continue reading Scientists and social media – This is not a case study

2020 Science in 2009 – and a chance to win a rather nifty 2020 Science Mug!

I know you’re supposed to look forward at the beginning of the new year, but having done that the other day, I thought I would take this opportunity to have a quick glance back at the last 12 months of 2020 Science.  And just to keep your attention – I know how tedious these retrospectives can be – I’m throwing in a chance to win some “fabulous” prizes at the end of the post; so don’t go away just yet! Continue reading 2020 Science in 2009 – and a chance to win a rather nifty 2020 Science Mug!

Scientist just wants to have fun – a compendium of mindless games for the holiday season!

Brain-candy for the intellectually incapacitated.

To help the brain cells recuperate from over-exertion (and quite possibly over-indulgence) this Holiday season, here’s a short compendium of mindless games – the sort of things scientists and others indulge in when they think no-one’s looking! Continue reading Scientist just wants to have fun – a compendium of mindless games for the holiday season!

Texas Instruments – transforming the world, one graphing calculator at a time (or, Where I Went Wrong With My Life)

I always thought mathematics at school was all about being taught a new language – one that helps us live in a culture built on numbers, enables scientists and engineers to understand and control the world we live in, and enriches us by revealing the underlying complexity and beauty of the universe.

I was wrong… Continue reading Texas Instruments – transforming the world, one graphing calculator at a time (or, Where I Went Wrong With My Life)