Weather with you

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

Even before we moved to Gravesend, we knew of its “dodgy thermometer” from the weather forecasts on TV and radio. Gravesend was consistently the warmest place in the country, bucking the nation’s trends by a degree Celsius or two.

In our first year here we realized that this was no meteorological fantasy; we soon came to recognize the “Gravesend Effect” as a real and tangible phenomenon. While the rest of the country—even London—shivers under grey clouds, the sun often puts in an unscheduled appearance here, despite all Met Office claims and forecasts to the contrary.

Last year we recorded the (first) hottest day in the UK. We are joint second for the hottest UK day ever. And the hottest September day since 1911 was recorded in Gravesend last year, leading to a chap in a natty dastar at Gravesend station saying to his companion the next day, “We broke the record again. It must be all those curries we’re making.”

And on top of all that, my mother before I came along was a meteorological assistant, providing weather forecasts from RAF Bawtry for Strike Command.

In a way, weather runs in my blood, even more so than for most Englishmen. Gratifyingly, then, Jenny bought me a weather station for my birthday last week.

Now, weather stations are funny things. They’re incredibly cool, and geeky, but quite soon you think, yeah, and forget about it. There’s an LCD screen on your desk or whatever but you can just look out the window or check the Met Office app or whatever, and you might be tempted to think what, actually, is the point? It might be fun to keep months and years worth of weather records, or compare the guesstiforecast that the control panel gives you with reality, but it’s always seemed to me that such joys might quickly run thin.

Except.

Except this little gadget connects to my Mac, and thence to the Met Office itself. There your data gets slotted into observations from all over the world (although it’s mostly the colonies and the honorary Brits in the Netherlands where stations tend to be clustered) and compare, contrast, forecast, and generally feel part of a great big crowd-sourced weather-geek community.

weather dots

And more than that, I had a chance to flex my rather atrophied PHP/HTML muscles today because I also figured out how to slurp the weather data from the program (WeatherCat) that’s talking to my hardware into a weather section of my own website. Which makes me inordinately happy. There’s more I want to do there, like document record-breaking days and have more interesting graphs and whatnot, but it’s a start.

Ain’t technology fun?

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Back in the USSR

Last time I was here, I made a comment about how I hoped things were going to get less busy.

U!S!A!

Yeah… that didn’t work out too well.

Since January, I have been on six overseas work trips. The most recent was to some little out-of-the-way place in middle America.

I’m also doing the work of about four mortal men—on the one hand, working for an agency, this is good, because it means I get paid at the end of the month. On the other, bloody hell I’m knackered. Thankfully Jenny is off to a conference in Warwick on Sunday, which means I have to pick up Joshua, which means I can’t go to the big Brand Meeting in Prague that we’re running, which meant I had to sadly decline not only the meeting itself (trip #7) but also the two slide preview sessions held at #MAJORCLIENT_HQ (trips #8 and #9).

I’m still tired and a little stressed. But there is a bright golden haze on the meadow: the meeting (which I still have to support) is over on Thursday; my stupidly tight print deadline for a major materiel is in the past; I have two days in lieu next week and we’ve completed all the work we had to do to support a major phase 3 clinical trial presentation.

U!S!A!

Back home the mercury hit 20°C today, the daffodils are in full show, the birds are coughing in the trees and the cherry blossom is out. I can see the bluebells starting to push their way up and the pool is warm enough (OK, not so testicle-crushingly cold) to dip in after a sauna. And I’ve just made chocolate ice cream.

Things are looking up.

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Hard Day’s Night

Last year was mental.

Back in December 2015, with about about 10 days’ notice, a colleague and I flew to Orlando on a Sunday lunchtime, ran a meeting Monday morning, and flew home Monday night.

That was just the start. In January I had a 36-hour round trip to Dubai—but as I left at the end of the work day and had a 2 AM return flight it turned into a 48-hour no-sleep marathon.

Then in February I was in Toronto for 3 or 4 days. I did manage to snatch a few minutes to see Richard, but had precious little time for anything else.

I think I had a bit of a break in March, but then in April I was off to Barcelona, with a random trip to Berlin somewhere around then, and then there were another couple of day trips (Nancy via Luxembourg and Freiburg via Basel), before our big meeting again in Barcelona in the middle of June.

This is all work travel. You get very little chance to do any sightseeing: airport, taxi, hotel, taxi, airport is the usual itinerary. Some people manage to squeeze in holiday at the end of these trips but I like to get back for Joshua, so I don’t see much of these places.

When we got back from our much-appreciated holiday in August, I thought the madness had stopped. There was a project kick-off in Berlin (one night in a Holiday Inn), but as far as I was concerned, that was essentially it for the year.

How wrong can you be?

A couple of days after our holiday, our major client asked us to run an extraordinary meeting for them… at the end of November. So from September to the end of November, I was on a work trip (abroad) about once every 8 or 9 days. There was Berlin, Berlin again, Berlin several times in fact, as well as New Orleans, Berlin again and then Vienna for the meeting itself.

No wonder I was knackered.

I’m hoping 2017 will be a little less frenetic, and will let me replace my passport—the biometric chip is broken and won’t let me through the automated gates. I do already have a Berlin overnighter in a couple of weeks though, and I haven’t read my work email in 2 weeks.

And look what happened last time I did that.

I can see your house from here

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What are science?

Labcoats

Get ready to blow things up

Apparently we all fucking love science, or at least we love pretty pictures, anecdotal facts, chemical explosions and slightly preachy environmentalism.

However, science is none of these things. Science is the generation and testing of ideas; normally disproving them, in the process generating more ideas that need more testing.

Science junkies

Sadly, the day job of a scientist is nothing like the programs ‘Bang goes the theory/Tomorrow’s World/Johnny Ball Reveals All’ (delete as appropriate depending on your generation): in my 20 years being a professional scientist, there has been no time at work when I have blown anything up, thrown heavy weights into bowls of custard or put Mentos into bottles of Diet Coke.

To be honest, blowing things up at work is frowned upon and the management go to some lengths to prevent us blowing up the building (just another example of health and safety gone mad).

Highly visual demonstrations of chemical reactions are educational if phrased properly – if I do this, what do you think will happen and why? And these demonstrations can be effective for attracting the impressionable to a life of science. In effect, flashy chemical reactions are the gateway drug to scientific addiction.

At school we had a teacher who once a term gave us unrestricted access to the chemical store and a Bunsen burner; I imagined this was what it would be to be a scientist. Nowadays I don’t even get to do experiments, and yet I identify more as a scientist now than when I was doing my PhD as a space-filler before getting a “real job”.

Indoor work, no heavy lifting

So if the day-to-day of science isn’t setting things on fire, what is it?

It is immensely varied, and depends upon both the stage of your scientific career and the field you work in. But the main work of science is testing ideas. Some of which involves being in a lab, but most of which involves sitting in an office analysing the results from your experiments or coming up with new ideas because your experiments haven’t turned out as expected.

Since 99% of these ideas come from other people, another major strand is evaluating other people’s ideas and building on the back of them. And since other people need to evaluate the ideas we have, we need to be able to effectively communicate them, as written articles (papers), as sales pitches (grants) or in person (conferences).

So disappointingly, the day to day work of science is not so far removed from other professions, though we do get to wear a white coat occasionally. You need to be able to read, to write and, terrifyingly, interact with other people – very much none of the things that got most of us into science in the first place.

 Guest starring

But hang on you are thinking, this is not the Richard P Grant I know and love: it is far less eloquent.

I am John Tregoning, scientist, academic, dad, occasional blogger and relentless optimist. I mostly write here but occasionally here and RPG has kindly given me space to brain dump on Occam’s Typewriter. In the real world, I am a senior lecturer at Imperial College, working on how the body stops respiratory infections, but secretly wish I was blowing things up!

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On cooperation between dogs and squirrels

Warm beef topside baguette and a pint of Seafarer's

Lunch

I’ve had a lovely morning walking round Harris’s Copse; not shooting anything, but seeing a few wood pigeons who are too easily spooked. A baguette and a pint for lunch from the Robin Hood, and back in, this time via the south entrance.

As soon as I’m in, there’s a grey squirrel running up a tree. I shoulder my air rifle and watch where he’s going. No clear shot yet, but I plan to work my way round to his tree.

Then there’s a crack behind me.

I look over my shoulder and some cove smoking a fag has come onto the track, two dogs running before him, making a hell of a racket. I’m against a tree and he never even looks in this direction, happily wandering down the gully with his dogs.

My squirrel of course is long gone. I hang around for a while, trying to spot him, but he’s having none of it.

So I go a little deeper into the woods, and find a nice tree to lean against… trying to make myself look just like any other mess of shrub. It’s peaceful: the songbirds have returned, and a couple of pigeons fly overhead, but they’re not stopping for a quick hello, welcome to my barbecue.

Air rifle with view of woods

I know you’re out there. Somewhere.

Scanning the trees, I see another squirrel (I guess it could be the same one; they all look the same to me) climbing a tree about 40 yards away. I’m just about to swivel round and I’m wondering if I can get a tad closer, when something down the hill catches my eye.

Guess what?

Some old woman, almost bent double with a huge pack on her back, is encouraging her two fat little Jack Russells, which are too damn knackered to yap, to climb the damn hill.

I don’t believe it.

I sit and watch her—and her dogs—struggle up the hill for about ten minutes. My squirrel of course is nowhere to be seen.

But I’m sure I can hear the little bastard laughing.

Celandines and bluebells in a wood

At least it was pretty

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Get off of my cloud

In my previous life, I pontificated on the etiquette of iPods and in particular the signals that earbuds send out. My central thesis was that if you were foolish enough to approach someone at the lab bench who was wearing both earbuds, then you deserved to be fed to the autoclave.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although my current job title is ‘Senior Writer’, actual writing—putting words in order to make complete sentences; prose—is not a huge part of my current gig. Most of the work tends to be slide-based, or short scripts; I do bash out a few newsletter articles each month, but as each one is designed for the attention span of a salesdroid they barely engage the star drive at all.

These last few days, however, I’ve been writing a white paper. Total length is going to be around four thousand words, and as it doesn’t need to be point referenced it should be simply a case of looking at my source material and knocking out some sentences that hold together and build a coherent argument.

The problem is that in my open-plan office, where there are three professional writers to about 20 other editorial staff and two dozen account management trolls, nobody really understands that what a writer really, really needs apart from a regular supply of tea, coffee and gin, is reasonably extended periods of uninterrupted tappity-tap time in which to craft the Words.

So I sit in at my keyboard, do a bit of reading, do a bit of thinking, and then type maybe half a dozen wo—

“Richard.”

“What?”

“Do you have time to call John tomorrow?”

“No but I can make Wednesday at eight. Send me an invite.”

Where was I? Um, yes. Hang on, let me answer that email. Right, so the problem with small-animal models for infection is that—

“Richard, can you review this graphic?”

“What? Let me see. Oh good grief. Look, it’s meant to be a superscript, not a subscript. OK? Think you can handle that? Tell Sarah to check the brand guidelines too, because I’m sure the client’s drug isn’t meant to be puce.”

Oh, a colleague has just Skyped me. I need to find that file… click click send.

Right. So, we’re talking about infection, and these models, and I just had a really good way of putting that, perhaps if I—

“Can you join this call, Richard?”

“BUGGER OFF.”

You see my problem? Because most of the work we do is quite granular, and because Certain People would have no fucking clue what Creativity is if it were a non-inferiority endpoint in a phase III clinical trial, it takes me six times as long to do anything as I actually quoted for. Each interruption actually adds about 15 minutes to the task, as it takes about that long to get back in the zone.

Yes, I like to work from home, and I’m far more productive there; but it’s not always possible (or socially acceptable).

I have tried simply ignoring people, at least until I get to the end of the sentence I’m currently writing, but then they go off in a huff and say rude things about me to HR. I’m considering having a sign made that says “Sod off—I’m writing”, but I don’t think that’d be particularly politic either.

Irritable Owl Syndrome

Seriously considering getting this mug

So I’ve been trying sitting there with my iPod on—or at least my earbuds in—with a fresh cup of tea, LookOut minimized, and trying to hit that Zen-like focus point where I can—

“Richard. Richard. RICHARD.”

Sad to say, some of my cow-orkers are in dire need of re-education.

Posted in Ill-considered rants, Office life, The stupid, it burns, Work | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

On the troposphere

The second best thing about flying to the US on business is the views you get on the way.

Tropospheric

The best thing about flying on business to the US is, of course, coming home

Tropospheric 2

Posted in Art, Work | 1 Comment

On fungus

As a cell biologist, yeasts spelt doom for crucial experiments. And as a gardener/amateur brewer, mildew and mould and other nasties can really ruin my roses/vines/beer.

But there’s something about fungus, especially that not of the common or garden toadstool or mushroom variety, that, as a keen photographer of the world around me, is fascinating.

Pixie flats

On a walk through Shorne Woods last weekend, we happened upon these rather splendid specimens. Some looked like classic fairy flats; others like pencil shavings shaded in and scattered over still-living trees; yet others glowed with a strange orange translucence.

Orange ears

Shorne Woods is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and there are signs aplenty warning visitors not to take any specimens.

Pencil shavings

No need to tell me: I don’t know what any of them are, but I’m fairly sure I don’t want to be frying them up with my eggs and bacon on a Sunday morning. Best to leave them all where they are, and just take photos.

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On the cranes

Apparently it’s (still) #WorldPhotographyDay.

To celebrate, here’s a photograph from our bedroom window this morning, not taken with my iPhone.

London Gateway

In fairness to Stephen it was taken in ‘P’ mode, but I’m going to start experimenting with ‘M’. And yes, it’s the 55–250 mm zoom: it might have crappy optics but I like it, so nyah.

The only filter is a polarizing one on the lens (oh, and a UV1A, but everyone has that, right?).

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On legends

For most of my first 17 years I lived on, or very close to, one of a number of airbases in England and Germany. Just about every day was airshow day, at least for a somewhat limited and specialist class of aeroplanes.

I’ve watched Lightnings take off and disappear beyond the tropopause in 3 minutes flat. I’ve coughed in the smoke at the end of the airfield from low-level Red Arrows Gnats. I’ve felt the ground shake as the Concorde passed over my head on its way to land.

It didn’t stop when Dad left the RAF. From the bottom of my parents’ garden I used to watch the Avro Vulcan hang impossibly in the sky. I’ve seen the evening sky torn apart as Tornadoes have taken off to bomb Kosovo from their base in Germany. And of course there are the ‘proper’ airshows: I’ve cycled to Duxford to watch Spitfires and Hurricanes and B17s; I’ve gawped with everyone else at amazing feats of close-formation flying; I’ve watch Su-27 Flankers do impossible things; I’ve laughed at the Turkish Stars commentator; and I’ve sparked a security alert at one of the world’s best airshows.

Sadly, many of these aircraft I’ll never see fly again. At the weekend I had to add Vulcan XH558 to that number.
Vulcan

The Avro Vulcan is the unforgettably shaped strategic bomber that formed part of the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. It converted to a conventional role, and famously was temporarily saved from the scrapheap when the longest bombing raids in history (at the time) were carried out, during the Falklands War of 1982.

Nobody who has ever seen a Vulcan fly will forget the way she hangs in the sky, in exactly the way that houses don’t. Nor will they forget the distinctive howl of the engines, or the whistle you hear when those four massive engines throttle back and the wind is sliced by the delta wing.

In 1993 the Vulcans were retired, supposedly for ever.

But amazingly, in 2007, Vulcan XH558 flew again. She remained flying all the way up to this summer, after which she must retire a second time. And then will never fly again.

On Saturday I dragged the entire family down to Eastbourne for Airbourne, the airshow on the beach. Thousands of people stood and sat and swam and watched XH558 strut her stuff.

We’re going to miss her.

—-

Update: I’ve just managed to find where I’d previously described that security alert.

Posted in Personal, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments