On the troposphere

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


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

Tropospheric 2

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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.

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.

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On starting small

We’re still here. No need to send a search party… yet.


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On immortality

From the “Making dreams come true” department, we recently had a sauna installed at the new gaff.

Warming up
Warming up

It’s very nice, and you should know that South Eastern trains have a special, hidden, weekend fare that lets you use the High Speed service for the same price as the slow train, and that I can pick you up from the station.

In related news, Reuters reports that saunas “might” be good for one’s health. Reading on, this headline seems to undersell things a bit.

I’ve always thought that mortality was more or less 100%. Everybody dies, sooner or later. Now, Elijah skewed the stats a little, but his non-death was compensated for by Tabitha, Lazarus, and two or three others; but on average (and certainly within experimental error), we’re good.

But according to Reuters, that absolute statistic is looking somewhat shaky.

screenshot from Reuters release claiming less death

Reducing mortality

So you might want to take me up on that offer from Gravesend station.

Sadly, I can’t tell you how sound are the data linking saunas and immortality, because I don’t have access to the paper.

“Further studies,” write the authors, “are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health.”


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On meetings

Six years ago I found to relatively easy to tell my mother what I did for a living, if not exactly explain it. I could wibble on about actin polymerization and spaghetti, or messenger RNA export, or why I’d spent a year of my life trying to repeat an experiment that our collaborators had published only to discover that the buggers had effectively made it up. She’d nod wisely and assume I was super smart, which suited us both, really.

Nowadays the conversation is more along the lines of,

“So what is it you do?”

“Uh, I write stuff. And edit stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Slides. And brochures. And 3D animations. And stuff for meetings. And iPad apps. Oh, look at this book we made!”

“Did you write it?”

“No. But then again…”

Blogging about the day job is just as difficult, but for different reasons. The things that make blog posts interesting happen all the time, but I can’t really write about most of them in anything other than vague generalities (unless I wanted to be run out of town by a horde of angry—and suddenly unemployed—pharmaceutical executives).

But there are some things that I do that I can talk about, and one of these is running a reasonably large meeting for healthcare professionals to learn about the evidence for, and responsible use of, certain treatments in their everyday practice. Obviously it’s not something I do myself—there’s a good dozen of us in the company who will be eating, drinking and breathing this particular meeting from now until the last delegate is safely on their transfer back to the airport in the middle of June, and that’s not counting our Production and Creative departments who, while not involved in the organization and programme, will work their magic on the venue and the materials.

The way this all works is that we approach Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd, with a grant proposal for running an educational meeting for around 1400 delegates. With luck, Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd agree to the proposal and gives us a wodge of cash to appoint a chair, select a steering committee, and work with those people to recruit a faculty (that is, speakers) and design a programme. In the case of the project that’s just kicked off, later this year we will be running the fifth of what’s turned into an annual event. The first one was before I joined the company, but I have had a key role in each of the three since—and will again be involved this year.

Although the cash comes from Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd, it has no role in the development of the programme or selection of the faculty. We get the programme accredited, and delegates are eligible to receive continuing medical education credits. The pharma company selects and pays for delegates to attend (although it’s also open to anyone else who wants to pay the registration fee), and we work with their logistics supplier, but that’s about it. We could, theoretically, have a day and a half worth of speakers saying that everything Major Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd produces is crap and kills patients, but I suspect our chances of hosting the event again would be slim. Fortunately for us there are at least three other companies in the same drug space with competing products, not to mention the other treatments that have been around for years. This makes achieving educational fair balance relatively easy.

So we book a venue, we organize the speakers, we work with the steering committee to produce a thought-provoking, relevant and hopefully practical programme; we sort out the logistics and book hotels and whatnot; what else?

Well, before I have to dust off my suit and go on site, we actually have to brief the speakers as to the educational content of their presentations, whether lectures or workshops. What do the chair and steering committee want attendees to take away from the meeting? How do we help them achieve this goal?

We call each of the speakers—and we’re talking at least 20 internationally recognized doctors and researchers—and talk them through the programme, suggest a topic, get their feedback, refine the programme, and then spend 6 weeks chasing them for their slides or at the very least an abstract so we can give our Production and Creative departments the content they need to produce a programme book in time for the print (or this year, digital device) deadline.


The end is in sight…

And we—that is, my Editorial team and I—have to edit the faculty abstracts and biographies (and in some cases write the damn things to start with), as well as check the presentations against the educational objectives of the meeting. There’s a whole heap of slide editing work in there too: has the speaker included their disclosures? Is every slide with data on it fully, correctly referenced? Is there fair balance? Are there annoying little formatting inconsistencies that make consecutive slides appear to jump around? Are there random slides from another talk in this presentation? Has the speaker included all relevant information (and omitted irrelevancies)? Are case presentations sufficiently anonymized? Can we suggest anything—content-wise or structurally—that might improve the educational value of the talk?

That last might seem a bit odd: after all, they are the world leaders in their field and we’re ‘just’ a medical communications agency. But 3 years spent looking at presentations and papers gives one quite an insight into a field, and we’ll often be able to draw a speaker’s attention to a paper only recently published, and they have learned to trust and respect our knowledge. This is particularly valuable when it’s 2 in the morning, the speaker arrived in the country just in time for dinner and has only just now got to the dingy hotel room we’re using for slide previews, with slides we’ve never seen before, and is giving the first talk in just six and a half hours’ time.

There’s the content and design of the Save the Date, the Invitation, the programme book itself, the signage at the meeting… all of which at some point involve an argument between Editorial and Production, or Creative and Production, or Account Management and Creative, or (more likely) all four, usually terminated by the phrase “The print deadline is at 12, TODAY!”

And on top of all that there’s that book I didn’t write.

Or did I? Next post, perhaps.

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On remembrance

Thirty years ago—plus or minus a week—I visited Berlin for the first time.

It was a school trip, organized by our physics teacher. We rode a train from Braunschweig to Helmstedt, where we picked up an East German engine and crew. The doors were chained so they couldn’t be opened by anyone trying to get in. We clanked our way along the dreary transit line, stopping to change engines again at Potsdam, before terminating at Charlottenburg—our gateway to the bustling, decadent shrine to capitalism that was West Berlin.

We rode on the U-bahn; visited the Olympic Park; played video games on the fifth floor of KaDeWe; had liqueur-soaked crepes in a an alcove on the Ku’damm.

We saw the Tiergarten, the Geisterbahnhöfe.

Battle damage.

The Wall, and the Pope’s Revenge.

Pope’s Revenge by tölvakonu, on Flickr

We took a coach through Checkpoint Charlie, negotiating the Soviet guards and the concrete roadblocks. We visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and his goose-stepping guards.

My clearest memory is of how grey everything seemed—the roads, the buildings: even the state-run apotheken. We came back and visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum: shocked, stilled, and dumbstruck—but not totally uncomprehending—at the desperation that led so many people to risk death to escape the East.

Neu Wache
Changing of the guard

And because we were who we were, we figured out how high our hotel room was by dropping stones off the window and timing how long they took to hit the ground.

At Easter the next year I went back with my parents and sister. We drove to Helmstedt on a warm and sunny morning, to Checkpoint Alpha. Dad had to leave the car and march into the Soviet checkpoint. Outside stood a young Soviet guard in full winter furs, sweating in the unseasonal April weather. Summer uniform was a month away.

When dad got back to the car we had two hours to get to Checkpoint Bravo at Dreilinden: any faster and we’d have been done for speeding. Too slow and we would have been under suspicion of stopping and picking up passengers. In case we were stopped by the Vopos we had flashcards with two simple phrases on them, in Russian, German and English. The cards read, “I wish to proceed without further delay” and, “I demand to see a Soviet officer”. The second card was the biggie—if ever we played it we would have to wait until one turned up.

I don’t remember much of that trip—except we once again saw the Wall, perhaps the zoo too, and my sister was delighted that we had chocolate bunnies at breakfast on Easter Sunday in the B&B.

And that was it. A few years later the Wall came down (Jenny has a piece of it somewhere) but until last week I’d never had chance to visit Berlin again.

Last week was a work trip—we were running a day and a half conference at a hotel a few hundred yards from where the wall once stood. I got there on Wednesday, but we didn’t stop working until it was time to catch the flight home on Saturday. I saw a fair bit of Berlin from the window of the taxi, but had little chance to look around on foot. We did manage to walk to Potsdamer Platz, where, instead of nail beds and barbed wire and anti-vehicle trenches, we drank weissbier under the purple roof of the Sony Center.

On the way to the conference dinner I managed to catch a glimpse of the illuminated balloons that marked where the Wall once stood. Sadly, we had to fly back the day before the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of its fall.

And when I got back told the girls about the meeting, and then about Berlin and the end of the Second World War and the Wall going up and how it came down again, they were amazed that any system of government could be so oppressive as to prefer to shoot its own citizens rather than let them leave. All they hear about is how some want to make it more difficult to get into their country, not escape it. I haven’t yet had chance to tell them the story of one of our meeting’s Steering Committee; how she and her family had to flee Berlin in 1950 when her grandfather, a local politician, was rounded up and murdered by the Stasi; how she couldn’t visit the town of her birth for 40 years.

Remembrance isn’t just about those who fought—in whatever capacity—and died for our freedoms. We must also work to ensure that those freedoms—to live and work and love without fear of oppression—are not again lost. And before we do that, we have to tell people these stories, to show them what they are unable to remember because they weren’t there.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow (3/3)
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow” by Tijl Vercaemer, on Flickr

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On a hill

Jenny and I took some friends around the Rotherhithe peninsula yesterday, cutting through Russia Dock Woodlands and finally climbing Stave Hill.

From the top of Stave Hill you can appreciate just how flat London geography really is. The Hill’s not very high—30 feet, according to Wikipedia (and the base is barely above sea level)—but you can easily see the lipstick tower at Elephant and Castle, the London Eye peeking around the glistening slops of Mount Doom (I think you mean the Shard—Ed), the Orbit at the Olympic Park, and even, on a clear day—again according to Wikipedia—Wembley Park ten miles away. The Isle of Dogs, that ever-expanding monument to Mammon, dominates the eastern skyline.

But yesterday, for a brief moment, I caught a glimpse of what London might have been were the Square Mile a mediaeval hill fort, or built on the slopes of a cliff leading to warmer seas.

Two-way radio

In the glass of 20 Fenchurch Street, better known as the Walkie Talkie, I could see the City reflected. And because of the sloping sides of the skyscraper, the illusion is that Fenchurch and Aldgate are climbing up towards the impenetrable heights of Wapping Fortress.

There might be a movie in there, somewhere.

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We strapped this baby into a chair. You won’t believe what happened next!

Tired and hungry

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