Marking the occasion

Yesterday was my first anniversary. See this and this for more details of what the anniversary was.

A first anniversary is a special day – and hopefully the first of many more to come. But, though it marks a whole year, it is quite a lowly event in the cannon of anniversaries. I checked and found that the first anniversary is deemed to be the paper anniversary, so gifts of paper are to be exchanged. That struck me as very retro and quite inappropriate for a digital hipster like me, fluent in the multifarious ways of online scholarly communication. So I set about drawing up an alternative list. Here is my version of the Twelve days of Christmas the first ten years of anniversaries. Sadly I ran out of inspiration after 8th.

I made a start yesterday.

Anniversary Old style My style
1st Paper Tweet

2nd Cotton Tweet with Instagram

3rd Leather Tweet with Vine

4th Linen Short blogpost (up to 200 words)
5th Wooden Full blogpost (500 words)
6th Iron Long blogpost (1000+ words)
7th Copper Blogpost with video

8th Bronze Guest blogpost somewhere more high-profile
9th Pottery
10th Tin

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Paperless at last

1 January 2014 marks a watershed moment for my library: I have cancelled the last of our print journal subscriptions.

Back in 1995 we subscribed to our first online journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, from Highwire Press. I still have the email which announced:

We are pleased to announce that a World Wide Web version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry is now available for testing. Beginning with the April 14, 1995 issue, the full-text of all articles, including images are available. The URL is: http://www-jbc.stanford.edu/jbc/

After opening the JBC Home Page, we recommend that users read the “JBC Online Handbook” so that they can configure their machines properly. Netscape version 1.1 is the recommended (and the only supported) browser for accessing the Internet version of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

This was, to the best of my recollection, the first online production version of a mainstream bioscience journal, though there had been a great deal of other development activity (including publishers sending out their journals on CDROM! We had a drawerfull but never used them).

During the years 1995-2000 we gradually built up our portfolio of online journals corresponding to our print journal subscriptions, so we had both print and online in parallel.  In 2000 a JBC editorial celebrated the journal’s 5th year of being online, saying:

Now virtually every life science journal, as well as journals of many other disciplines, publish online.

Declan Butler reported in Nature in 1999, in a fascinating round up of publishing at the time, that one Danish library had:

decided to phase out print altogether, and deliver journals direct to staff desktops via the World-Wide Web.

Many librarians (including me) were more hesitant to abandon print, wanting reassurance on issues of continuity and archiving.

A joint ICSU/UNESCO symposium was held in 1996 to consider the issues raised by electronic publishing in science. The eminent biologist Joshua Lederberg addressed the conference and his talk makes interesting reading today – much of what he says still holds true.  He stated:  “Electronic materials need to be archived”. Print journals were archived by libraries, but the model that was adopted for publishing electronic journals meant that the publishers held the content of the journals in digital form. Would the publishers commit to longterm archiving, and if not who would? This was an issue that gnawed at librarians’ souls – we wanted to embrace the e-future but didn’t want to abandon our archival duties. This was much-discussed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Initiatives such as LOCKSS (1999) and Portico (2002), together with the activities of various national libraries, began to provide that reassurance (though there are still fears that not everything is adequately preserved). Thus libraries began to cancel print subscriptions, relying only on the online versions of journals.

I was a bit slow to join the print cancellation trend. I didn’t want to race ahead of our library users, many of whom still seemed uneasy about the idea of relying on online journals.  I remember getting comments such as “I no longer use the print journals, but I like to know that they are there” and “it would be unthinkable for an institute like this not to have PNAS on the shelves”. But by the mid 2000s I could hold off no longer and I did begin to cancel – at first cancelling print subscriptions that would save us money, picking off a few more each year. Then I cut print titles even when we would make no direct saving by so doing (thanks to the vagaries of publisher pricing and UK VAT anomalies). It made no sense to spend staff time on processing printed issues that hardly anybody ever read, so I kept on pruning.

Thus for the last few years we have had only a handful of print titles: those that seemed too important to lose (e.g. Science, Nature), those that were not important enough for us to purchase higher-priced online versions (e.g. New Scientist, Scientific American) and one or two that our agent insisted were not available online only.

This year I have finally cancelled this last clutch of print titles. The usage of even these titles proved very low so I don’t think that anyone will notice. Fingers crossed that there is no internet apocalypse. Now, where did I put those old CDROMs?

(Footnote: If you are interested in how ejournals developed, Martin White traces some more of the history of ejournal development in a 2012 article.)

Posted in Journal publishing | 6 Comments

Mind, the map

Last week I attended the launch of a new exhibition at the Science Museum, called Mind Maps: stories from psychology. This is an exhibition, sponsored by the British Psychological Society, which:

.. explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. …this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) …. Bringing together psychology, other related sciences, medicine and human stories, the exhibition is illustrated through a rich array of historical and contemporary objects, artworks and archive images.

I was there thanks to a shiny black and gold sign that has appeared on my blog before, courtesy of the MRC Centenary exhibition Strictly Science.

I had always thought the sign looked rather attractive, in an olde-worlde kind of way, so I brought it to the attention of the Strictly Science curators when they came for a look around last year. They recognised it as the sign for Henry Dale’s old lab at NIMR when it was in Hampstead, so they borrowed it for their exhibition at Imperial College in April this year. Dale’s lab was the fourth lab on the first floor of the building, hence F4. Presumably someone from the Science Museum then spotted the sign at the Strictly Science exhibition because I subsequently received an email asking if I would lend it to them for their Mind Maps exhibition.


The Mind Maps exhibition includes much that I would class as neuroscience and neurophysiology rather than psychology.  It goes back to Galvani – his 300 year old apparatus is displayed in the exhibition – and continues right up to current research on connectomics.

The exhibits that have been gathered together in this exhibition are pretty impressive – you get a real sense of history – and they tell a great story of neurophysiological research, albeit just touching the peaks rather diving into its depths. As well as the Galvani table I rather liked Charles Sherrington’s cat (move over Schrodinger’s cat!)

I also loved the rather scary section on medical electricity. The look of terror on the face of the man in this painting is all too realistic.

The exhibition also featured displays about Hipp, George Adams, William Grey Walter, Hans Eysenck, Sigmund Freud and more recent material on Valium, Prozac, fMRI and EEG.

My F4 sign is displayed in a small section about Henry Dale which includes excerpts from the film Let’s get an effect. This was a film made by members of Dale’s F4 lab in 1949, some years after he had retired, and just before they all moved to the new building in Mill Hill. It is apparently full of in-jokes about Henry Dale and his lab, though they are a bit obscure to the casual observer. Tilli Tansey has described the film, the jokes and the people portrayed in the various scenes of the film, in her W.D.M. Paton Memorial Lecture about Henry Dale’s lab:

The film is called LET’S GET AN EFFECT, which was a favourite saying of Henry Dale’s whilst doing an experiment, and subtitled AN EF-FOUR-VESCENT EPISODE, an obvious pun.

The Science Museum website has some more information about some of the objects in the exhibition and there is a blog post plus video by Samira Ahmed too, about the making of the exhibition.

Mind Maps runs until August 2014 and is free to view, so do get yourself to have a look if you have any interest in matters neuro or psycho, and find yourself within reach of London’s Exhibition Road.

Postscript: Just after posting this I spotted a longer and more scholarly review of the exhibition by Keith Laws on his blog.

Posted in Communicating science, History | Comments Off

Being special

Classification is something that librarians are supposed to be good at, but when it comes to classifying types of libraries there is a bit of a #FAIL. At library school I was taught that there are three main kinds of libraries: public libraries, academic libraries and ‘special’ libraries. Public libraries are well-understood, usually considered as the prime exemplar of what libraries are.  Academic libraries too are broadly familiar. I think of them mainly as libraries in universities and higher education institutions, but the term can also encompass further education libraries and perhaps school libraries too at a stretch. But who knows what ‘special libraries’ are?  It is a cop-out – a class of libraries that aren’t in one of the other classes. Miscellaneous, ‘other’, odds-and-sods. There is a sop to their vanity by calling them ‘special’, though that is a mixed compliment.  These libraries are in fact an enormous and enormously varied bag of different kinds of library.

Non-aligned

My career has been spent in this kind of library – I think of them as the non-aligned movement of libraries, defined by what they are not as much as by what they are. Almost any statement you make about special libraries as a whole will be inaccurate.  They are workplace libraries, but not all of them. They are small libraries, except for those that are rather large. They focus on a narrow subject range, though some are broader-based. Sometimes ‘special’ is taken to be synonymous with ‘corporate’ libraries, but there are many examples in the public and charity sectors too. Special libraries include several large sub-types: medical libraries, law libraries, finance libraries, government libraries, learned society and professional libraries, charity libraries. Some of them may be more information services than libraries per se, their main focus being on delivering information to members of the public rather than building a collection. The definition of special librarians may also be stretched to include other information professionals working as information managers, though they probably would not consider themselves to be working as librarians at all.

Library Camp

Last weekend I attended the third UK Library Camp, held in the marvellous new Library of Birmingham.  I had not visited the library before, though I had heard many good things about it. It is still new and it seems to be a tourist attraction as much as a library – it was very crowded.

The Library of Birmingham – exterior

The Library of Birmingham – interior views

Library camp, or Libcamp, is now an annual tradition: an unconference for all kinds of librarian. It is a great chance to mix with library people from different backgrounds and to take part in informal discussions as part of the unconference format. I like Libcamp. I have attended each of the three UK national Libcamps and a couple of local libcamps.

The recent event started with a round of very brief introductions (very brief as there about 150 people there) and then there was a chance for each of those wanting to propose a session to make their pitch. Then at the end of that the organisers sorted out the timetable, trying to avoid clashes, and squeezing some sessions on similar topics  together. As we waited for this to be completed one of the facilitators asked for shows of hands for those from public libraries, academic libraries etc. He did not actually ask about special libraries though – as usual we got overlooked.

Special libraries

One session I went to at Libcamp was devoted to special libraries.  It was a joint proposal: in the preliminary list of session proposals one proposer asked “Am I still a librarian?” and the other described herself as a “Third sector librarian without a library” – they teamed up on the day to hold a joint session. It attracted a good crowd, including quite a few graduate trainee librarians who were interested to learn more about the sector.

I remember that my first introduction to the richness of special libraries was a visit arranged by my Library School to the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. This was a great collection with many rare books, including beautiful flora and collections of illustrations.  At Library School I was also introduced to an organisation called ASLIB: the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux.  ASLIB used to publish a wonderful directory of specialist libraries, and was a membership organisation supporting special libraries. Aslib still exists but has changed its name so it is no longer an acronym and it has a different remit these days. In the US there is a Special Libraries Association, and they have an active European Chapter. There are also many smaller groupings representing particular segments of the special library menagerie:

  • CHILL (Independent health libraries)
  • LIKE (Information and knowledge managers)
  • CLSI (commercial, legal and scientific)
  • NGLIS (government libraries)
  • PIPA (pharmaceutical information)
  • HLG (health libraries)
  • BIALL (law libraries)

This is just a small collection of the groups I am familiar with but I am sure there are many more. Some of them are subject based and so may include members from academic libraries too. An interesting group I have heard about recently is the Association of Pall Mall Libraries. It started out as a group of libraries serving gentlemen’s clubs but broadened to include other subscription-based libraries, so is quite diverse.

Library Camp logo

Solo / small team work

The Libcamp discussion on special libraries mentioned some of the characteristics of work in the sector.  Many special librarians are solo operators or small teams. This can lead to feelings of professional isolation. They are also very likely to be managed by someone who is not a librarian, and who probably has little knowledge of library work and trends. This presents particular challenges (no names, no packdrill). Special librarians need good influencing and self-promotion skills. Library services are often seen as easy prey when budgets are tight, so the threat of closure is ever-present.

More positively, working in a small library brings opportunities to try your hand at all kinds of tasks, and to take responsibility at an early stage in your career. This is something you do not experience so easily when you are just a small cog in a large library service. Sometimes though the small size can be frustratingly limiting, e.g. sophisticated IT support may not be so readily available.

Workplaces

Often special libraries are workplace libraries, meaning that you are serving the professional information needs of adults, rather than dealing with students or general reading material.  Special libraries therefore tend not to be concerned with learning materials (though of course workplace learning is all the rage nowadays) nor with fiction or books aimed at the mass market.

One person in the session mentioned something that, for me, is a defining characteristic of special libraries: you are serving a well-defined group of people (members of the organisation).  I can remember thinking this back when I was at library school – serving a defined set of people seemed like an easier task than trying to serve the whole population of a city, say, as a public library service must do. A key aspect of work in the special library sector is the need to gain a really good understanding of the needs of that set of users, putting yourself as close as possible to them.

Embedding

Interestingly, the following session at Libcamp that I attended was devoted to embedded librarianship. This refers to the notion that, particularly in academic libraries, librarians should rethink their location and get closer to users, or as the Embedded Librarian blog has it:

the trend of moving librarians out of libraries, both physically and organizationally, is growing, can be of great value to the organization, and can be very rewarding to the librarian — if done well.

It seems to be a new trend, though it has antecedents in e.g. clinical librarianship and of course in special libraries, where librarians are partially embedded to begin with. There is a growing literature about embedded librarianship, including a big report on Models of Embedded Librarianship sponsored by the Special Libraries Association a few years back. About the same time the Association of Research Libraries put out a special issue of their journal, on report on Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries

At the LibCamp session we heard from a librarian working in a specialist school of a university who has ‘gone native’. She identifies strongly with the school and is involved in teaching and research duties there to the extent that she has withdrawn from most duties in the central University library. Others had not moved so far in that direction, but came up with various ideas for getting closer to their users, like “pop-up libraries”, tailored current awareness searches and just simply being nosey.

More generally I think embedding is a response by those academic libraries which serve large populations of researchers to the perception that researchers are ignoring library services. Only by getting closer to researchers, and effectively becoming part of their teams, can librarians have a hope of catching any business from them. This seems more feasible in the USA, where academic librarians have a tradition of “scholar librarians” who know their subject (be it music, anthropology or neuroscience) and can gain the respect of researchers.

I don’t think this tradition is so strong in the UK.  My impression is that senior researchers this side of the Atlantic do not see the need for more intensive information support personnel, also sometimes called ‘informationists‘. Other embedded roles related to information processing – grant wrangling, writing papers, data curation – may be identified as useful but these are likely to be filled by those with direct research experience. I think librarians’ best chance is to identify and work with people carrying out these roles in research groups, and not to attempt to become fully embedded themselves.

 

Posted in Libraries and librarians | 2 Comments

Winton Royal

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books award ceremony took place on Monday night. The event is open to anyone so I went along – I like to feel part of the great science communications endeavour. But I had had a busy day stuffed with meetings so was unable to get there as early as I would have liked. The doors opened at 6pm but by ten past six there was still quite a queue and it sounded as though they were struggling to fit everyone in. Just as I got to the head of the queue they announced that the main hall was full so we would have to go into the overspill room. At least I got a seat in the front row of that room but I felt disconnected from the excitement of the event.

I felt an urge to Tweet so I got my phone out and started poking about to see what people were tweeting. The Royal Society twitter account posted a tweet using the hashtag #scibooks so I started tweeting using that hashtag. It did seem a bit unspecific, I admit, and I was surprised that the twitterstream seemed a bit quiet.  It was only when the whole event was over that I discovered everyone else was using the hashtag #WintonPrize2013. Bah! Wrong room, wrong hashtag – I was definitely not on the right wavelength tonight. [Memo to self:  get there early next time and do your homework on the hashtag].

Things got better once the event kicked off. Dara O’Briain was the Master of Ceremonies and had his verbal overdrive chip installed, talking umpteen to the dozen. He introduced the event then  introduced the first author (a short video clip was played to announce the book) as they took the podium to give a short address and read an excerpt from the book. After this Dara and the author had a five-minute discussion about the book. This process was repeated for each of the six authors on the shortlist, and followed by a general discussion between all of them and a few questions from the audience.

Dara conducted the proceedings with great skill and good humour, ribbing one of the authors about a joke that they had pinched from him, and commenting that another (author of a book on memory) had clearly forgotten they had agreed that he, Dara, would be wearing that shirt – as we realised that they were indeed wearing shirts with identical floral designs.

I have not read any of the books so my comments below are based purely on what I learned about them at the awards event, plus my personal prejudices. In best reality TV show style, I judged the authors by their performance on the night, rather than their entire writing performance.

Tim Birkhead gave a good start to the evening as he talked dirty about birds and senses. I remember reading his pieces in the Times Higher where he always seemed a thoughtful and likeable character. Tonight he read a purple passage from his book, Bird Sense.  The extract dealt with the question of whether birds feel emotion and sexual pleasure. Noting that in one species of bird copulation takes less than a second, while males of another species have a false penis, he then described a bird that seemed to undergo a very sensual and erotic experience in his lab. In the subsequent discussion his depth of knowledge about birds and his love of the subject shone through. I decided I must read this book, and thought it was a potential winner.

Sean Carroll had the harder task of selling us quantum physics. His book The Particle at the End of the Universe about the Higgs boson had no cute birds nor sexy talk. Tonight he focused on the entity’s name, or rather its nickname – the ‘God particle’. The nickname has always seemed a bit daft to me and is apparently hated by physicists, but loved by journalists. Now, I must admit that my interest in physics is only slight (blame my old O-level physics teacher for putting me off it) and I didn’t particularly feel that I wanted to read this book. My bad.

Enrico Coen intrigued me. I have purchased a couple of his books for the Library, including this latest one, and they seemed to attract some interest. I recall that a favourable review of his shortlisted book, Cells to Civilizations, in the Times Higher first drew my attention to it.  The reviewer comments that Coen is attempting “a lofty and ambitious project, so I [was] somewhat sceptical at first”. When he spoke about his book Coen came across as a Renaissance man with a great breadth of interest and reference, and a philosophical undertow (or should that be overtone?).  I expect that I would enjoy the book, but I fear it may be excessively intellectual and tire out my poor little brain. Intensely thought-provoking but not the kind of book you want to read in the toilet. In the discussion session I warmed to him; he had some nice turns of phrase, noting that “plant neuroscience is a very small field”. Later he commented that science was full of analogies so science writers should not be afraid to use analogies to explain things. But I suspect the book may not have a very broad appeal, and I have a hunch that his climb up the ladder of abstraction may not lead anywhere fruitful.

Charles Fernyhough‘s book was about memory: Pieces of Light: The new science of memory.  He referenced the work of Elizabeth Loftus (as described in this recent article in The Atlantic) on how memories can become contaminated. He explained that memory is something constructed, and is not just like a video camera that we can replay exactly. Last year I attended Tim Bliss’ Croonian lecture about the mechanics of memory, and was left feeling that the process of forming memories seemed very fragile. Fernyhough confirmed this to be the case and explained the phenomenon of imagination inflation, by which if you imagine something you are then more likely to remember it as an experience you have had. He noted that advertisers make use of this, putting colourful imagery into their adverts to try and seed our memories. This all sounded very intriguing and he left me wanting to know (and read) more about it.

At first I couldn’t quite make out Caspar Henderson, nor quite see what his book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, was about. It sounded like a nightmare to classify (in the library catalogue sense). Was it science? or art? or history? or mythology? As he talked about his list of beings, all of them real, I was drawn in. He read out a list of extraordinary names given to diatoms – I thought Drosophilists were bad but these were really bizarre. I decided that I liked his quirky way of thinking, and his broad frame of reference. When asked about Homo sapiens he said that he thought music was one of our defining traits. The book sounds like an entertaining read.

Callum Roberts was the final author in this parade of scientific writing talent (all of it male, I noted). His book, Ocean of Life, explains how the oceans are changing. The excerpt he read reflected on the changes that a bowhead whale has seen in its lifetime – which might be up to 200 years. During that time it would have seen (and heard) a huge growth in shipping traffic, and witnessed a dramatic fall in the bowhead population followed by a partial recovery. The ocean is a very different place now than it was 200 years ago. Roberts said that he tried to avoid making the book too preachy, but I got the feeling that there might be an element of sermonising in it, and that puts me off wanting to read it.

So, I mulled over the shortlist and decided that on balance I would award the prize to Caspar Henderson. He made me want to read his book, even though I still had only a very sketchy idea what it was about. Sadly, I was not in charge of that decision.

Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, came onto the platform and made a great show of opening the envelope very slowly, in his best Miss World X-factor judge manner. The tension was, er, unbearable.

Finally, he announced that Sean Carroll was the winner, for his book on the Higgs boson, by a unanimous decision of the judges.

So, that put me in my place. Maybe next year, as well as getting there early and checking what the hashtag is, I should also try reading some of the shortlisted books in advance so that I can make an informed decision about the books.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Mill Hill Essays 2013

One of my more pleasurable annual tasks is producing the volume of Mill Hill Essays. I commmission between 5 and 10 essays, mostly from authors at the Institute, then edit them and oversee the production. Print copies of the essays are sent to various universities and libraries and miscellaneous others, and they are also published on our website.  I have got into the habit of plugging them on here so here we go again – the Mill Hill Essays 2013 est arrivé. This year they are a bit later than intended so apologies if you have been eagerly awaiting their arrival. This year there are six essays, one art project and four mini book reviews.

 

Cellular Alchemy: the science of reprogramming cells by Ben Martynoga

Ben is a postdoc in our Systems Biology Division. He chose his topic just before last year’s Nobel Prizes were announced, but I don’t think he had inside knowledge. He describes the ability to reprogramme cells as a kind of alchemy and explains the mechanisms of reprogramming and its potential, highlighting the work of John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka.


Bacteria maketh the man by  Marc Veldhoen

Marc used to be a postdoc in our Division of Molecular Immunology, but moved to start his own lab at the Babraham Institute a couple of years back. He looks into our guts, and at the bacteria there – they are all around us and inside us. While some bacteria are harmful to humans, causing disease, other bacteria are essential for our health and play an important role.


Plasmodium knowlesi malaria infections in Malaysia: The last parasite standing? by Rob Moon

Rob is also a postdoc, in our Division of Parasitology. He was awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship a little while back and used it to travel to Malaysia to do some fieldwork on Plasmodium knowlesi, which is a parasite that causes malaria in macaques can sometimes also cause human disease. He writes about the history of this parasite and how it has become more significant for human health.


(E)MERGE by Carolien Stikker and Thomas Elshuis

Carolien and Thomas are independent artists. Their joint art project is based on visual research material from some of NIMR’s scientists.


Beyond the DNA code by James Turner

James is a programme leader in the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics. This essay is a complement to Ben’s essay above, but focuses more particularly on the epigenetic mechanisms that control how genes are expressed in cells and the role of chromatin in regulating genes. I kept hearing about chromatin and its importance but I was never quite sure what it was all about, so I was glad to receive this essay – and of course to read it.


The jellyfish revolution by Donald Bell

Donald works in the Computer Image Analysis Lab, and has written about biological imaging.  He describes the history and applications of GFP (green fluorescent protein) in biological imaging. This protein found in jellyfish has had a big impact on biological research.


Are we too clean for our own good? by Davina Sui Ann Chao

The NIMR Human Biology Essay Competition attracts around 100 entries each year from local schools. Year 12 students are invited to choose from a list of half a dozen preset topics and write a 1,000-word essay. The winning essay has the chance of being published in the Mill Hill Essays.  This essay was the winning entry in the 2012 competition and explains the hygiene hypothesis.


The past two volumes of the Essays have included a series of short book reviews by Institute staff. My powers of persuasion seem to be waning and very few reviews came in this year (well, only one actually). Hence you will find my name on most of the reviews below. I review two short novels written by fellow OT blogger Steve Caplan and the biography of Griff Pugh.

 

And now for the bad news. This is going to be the last of the Mill Hill Essays. There have been 16 volumes since 1995, and about 150 essays, but they stop here. We are looking at producing an anthology next year of some of the best essays, but not sure yet.

Posted in Communicating science, Writing | 1 Comment

Deeply felt experiences – musical memories

Some pieces of music bring back strong memories. You recall key moments when you have heard the music before, or great performances that you have witnessed or taken part in. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is a piece that brings back memories of one of the most intense experiences of my life.

I will be singing in a performance of the War Requiem on Sunday 10 Nov, at the Royal Albert Hall. I will be with my regular choir, Crouch End Festival Chorus, joining with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The concert marks both Remembrance Sunday and Britten’s centenary this year.

In the 1980s I moved to London, working in the suburbs but enjoying the cultural life on offer in the city centre. One of the highlights of my life then was my membership of the BBC Symphony Chorus – my first experience of professional music-making. We rehearsed in BBC Broadcasting House and performed regularly on the South Bank and in the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Though the Chorus was composed of amateur singers, we worked with professional musicians and conductors and all arrangements were professionally managed. We performed a wide range of music, including some less well-visited (i.e. obscure) corners of the choral repertoire. At my very first rehearsal we sang Bartok’s Cantata Profana - its often demanding 16-part choral writing and Hungarian language was quite a challenge but exhilarating. I was in at the deep end but swimming strongly. Not long after I joined the Chorus came the exciting news that we were to make an overseas trip. The Frankfurt Alte Oper (Old Opera House) had been bombed in the war and lain derelict for many years. It had now been rebuilt and was being reopened as a concert hall with a festival to mark the occasion. One of the highlights was to be a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, and the BBC Symphony Chorus were to join forces with the local orchestra (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) and their regular conductor Eliahu Inbal. The symbolism of having a German orchestra, a British choir and an Israeli-born conductor to perform this very special piece of music about reconciliation was lost on no-one.

The War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration in 1962 of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was built after the old cathedral was destroyed in a bombing raid during the second world war. The destruction of the old cathedral took place on the night that the city of Coventry suffered extensive bombing. The new cathedral was built just opposite the ruins of the old cathedral, and quickly adopted a theme of reconciliation. The cathedral’s cross of nails became a worldwide symbol of reconciliation. I went to visit the cathedral earlier this year, hoping to connect with the feelings that had inspired the music. The cathedral is a striking building, filled with visually arresting images and sculpture. The spirit of reconciliation is still very much in evidence. In the grounds of the old cathedral there is a small museum that commemorates the bombing of the city, so remembrance is there too.

The first performance of War Requiem (which should more accurately be called Anti-war Requiem) was a triumph and it has remained a firm favourite with performers and audiences alike, making a strong emotional impact. Britten uses the text of the Latin requiem mass, but he adds a new dimension by incorporating several poems about war by Wilfred Owen, the poet who served (and died) in the first world war. Britten used great skill in selecting and positioning the poems. It’s a bit like the way that Abba songs are retrofitted to the story in the musical Mamma Mia! Although they were not written for the story, they seem to fit perfectly. It is the same with the War Requiem; the poems shine a different light on the prayers of the requiem and feel like they belong in the whole narrative, while some of the Latin text provides a cooler and less passionate retreat from the pain of Owen’s poetry. The music bowled me over the first time I heard it, but my understanding of its subject matter has deepened over the years. Owen said “My subject is war, and the pity of war”. Britten expresses this in musical terms as well as the terror of war, matching and deepening all the emotions of the words.

Back in 1981, the Frankfurters were paying to fly the whole BBC choir to Frankfurt and to put us up in a hotel for three nights. I was not a seasoned traveller at that time, so this was an adventure. I was worried about how I would get to Heathrow for an early morning flight. The problem was solved when another chorus member offered to let a small group of us sleep over at his flat in Ealing, just a short hop to the airport. He even cooked us a tasty chicken casserole for dinner the night we stayed. Everything went smoothly and before long we were in our hotel in central Frankfurt. We found the Alte Oper, now gloriously restored, and we had an afternoon rehearsal with Eliahu Inbal, at first just him and the choir and then together with the other performers.

The War Requiem is a complex musical structure. Britten divides his forces: two male soloists sing the Owen poems and are supported by a chamber orchestra; a chorus of children’s voices is supported by a harmonium; the soprano soloist and full chorus are supported by a large orchestra. As these groups alternate throughout the piece the music ranges from massive awe-inspiring sounds to intimate scenes and heavenly imaginations. The groups are often described as three different planes of sound, but I prefer to think of it as looking upwards (heavenwards) with the angelic children’s voices, looking inwards (to the soldiers’ personal stories) with the male soloists, and looking outwards (to humanity’s shared emotional experience of mourning) with the soprano soloist and full chorus.

I love the way that Britten manages the transitions between the ‘planes’. The dramatic setting of the Dies irae (Day of wrath) features brass fanfares in the tradition of the Berlioz and Verdi settings. It leads directly into the words of Owen: “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air”. In another section the choir sings of Abraham and his descendants: “Quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus, followed by the soloist singing “So Abraham rose… and slew his son and half the seed of Europe one by one”. The Sanctus is one of my favourite movements. Britten’s music for the Hosannas sounds like fireworks ricocheting around the choir, and it ends with an astonishingly abrupt and powerful ExcelSIS! that leaves you temporarily blinded in shock. Then the soloist whispers ‘After the blast of lightning from the East…”. For me the emotional heart of the work is the Libera me. It contains two pages of the loudest music. In the vocal score these pages look quite innocuous. Different sections of the choir sing Libera me to a wailing musical phrase, with a chord playing in the orchestra. Except that chord is played by full orchestra and organ, with an array of deafening percussion. It is a representation of hell on a battlefield. The music dies away and a long exchange of great intensity begins between the two male soloists, leading up to the chilling words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend”. After this comes the closing section of the work, when all performers join together for the first time. The male soloists sing ‘Let us sleep now” as the choir sing “In paradisum. Requiescant in pace“.

A large choir and orchestra can produce a great deal of sound, but some of the most magical moments of the piece are achieved when the choir is directed to sing very softly. Paradoxically, you need a very large choir to achieve the quietest singing. The vocal score has several moments when we are directed to sing ‘ppp‘, or three degrees of quietness (hardly audible), and then to get quieter still, down to ‘pppp’. So you are singing as quietly as you can and then you have to get quieter. This is a hard trick to pull off. I recall that Inbal spent a good 30 mins with us rehearsing these very quiet passages until he had us singing as quietly as he wanted, each singer just at the border between making a sound and not making a sound. This contrasts with the diaphragm-busting moments in the Dies Irae and Libera me when you have to deliver maximum horsepower singing fit to blow the roof off.

It was a thrilling performance to be part of. The sense of an important occasion added to the excitement. The male soloists were Robert Tear and Thomas Hemsley, two British singers at the top of their game. The soprano was Julia Varady, a German soprano of Hungarian origin, who had exactly the thrilling timbre required for the role. I recall she made a great deal of fuss about the air-conditioning in the new concert hall and had to be placated by regular supplies of drinking water to keep her throat from drying out.

We were to perform the piece on two successive nights but this first evening we were free to explore the city. My group of friends planned to visit a bar or two and get some food. A couple of them were not feeling well so stayed in the hotel. We visited some risque establishments in the area near the Hauptbahnhof, then we went to a pleasant bar and sampled a glass or two of Apfelkorn. But I started to feel a bit strange and a little later had to go out to be sick. My friends walked me back to the hotel, as I was feeling really poorly. I felt a little explosion in my rear and wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but I suspected it wasn’t good. Once in the hotel I made a dash for my ensuite bathroom and all hell was let loose. I spent most of the next 12 hours in the bathroom, exploding from both ends. Happily the basin was just opposite the toilet, so I could stand up and be sick or sit down and diarrhoeaise. Later I found out that five of us who had eaten the chicken casserole in Ealing were all suffering in the same way, though mysteriously the sixth person survived unscathed. I had never before nor have since experienced such a virulent form of food poisoning. I had to throw away the trousers that I had been wearing that evening. For reasons of delicacy I will not spell out why, but I think you can guess.

By the morning I was drained, weak and dehydrated. It was clear that I and my similarly afflicted friends could not perform that evening. The worst thing was that the other choir-members assumed we had been out on the razzle and had too much to drink, which was not the case at all. By early afternoon I was able to keep down a glass of water, and I ate an apple. It tasted good. We managed to go out of the hotel and take a short walk. I saw a stall selling cooked sausages – pink and glistening – and was nearly sick again at the thought of eating one. (It was three or four years before I was able to face eating a sausage again.) We soon felt well enough to joke about the whole experience. I coined the expression “Happiness is a dry fart” – the confidence to pass wind in the knowledge that there would not be any follow through was a wonderful feeling.

We missed the first performance but were well enough the following day to take part in the second performance. I was a little anxious as we approached the moment of full volume in the Dies Irae, fearing that the physical compression of the diaphragm needed to push the sound out might have an unwanted side effect, but all was well. It was a magical and magnificent concert, and the audience received us enthusiastically.

The concert and the illness became memories. About six months later a large box arrived at the BBC chorus office. The Frankfurters had sent each of us an LP of the performance. I note that this recording is available now on YouTube. I cannot say for sure whether I am on the recording as it depends which night the recording was made.

Back to today. We have had one rehearsal with the conductor Semyon Bychkov and he showed himself to be a wonderful communicator and a very able moulder of performers who quickly endeared himself to the choir. In short: he knows what he wants, he is in control and he persuades you to give of your best. We now have an intense weekend of rehearsal leading up to the performance on Sunday night. I will be avoiding chicken and sausages until after the concert. I think it will be an intense experience for me again but this time on a purely musical and emotional level. I don’t know if there are any tickets left for the Royal Albert Hall, but you can catch it live on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm on Sunday 10 November.

Posted in Music | 7 Comments

Puffed-up and partying

My ears were burning a month ago and my head was swollen. Fear not, I hadn’t caught an interesting disease, I was just being talked about and made prideful.

At the end of the summer I learnt that I had been shortlisted for the Medical Research Council Chief Executive Officer’s awards, in the category for public engagement. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of thing (and I am) but once you are in with a chance of a prize your perspective changes (yes, I am easily bought). The awards are open to everyone in the ‘MRC family’ – its offices and research units – which is about 3,000 people. I am told that there were about 170 nominations in total, in five separate categories. The shortlist comprised ten people, two for each category, and we were told that just getting to the stage of the shortlist meant we were all winners.

My certificate and my iPod nano.

I was a bit surprised to be in the running for an award. It is true that I have put quite a bit of effort into public engagement over the years, and particularly in this MRC centenary year, but I am also very aware of the all flaws in what I’ve done and the things I’ve not done as I don’t have enough time. Still, some of the other people doing prominent engagement work for the MRC were not nominated, and I had enough of an ego to think I might have had a chance of winning top spot.

The awards ceremony took place at lunchtime in MRC Head Office, attended by members of the MRC management board and all ten shortlisted people. When I heard the citation for the other nominee in the engagement category, listing her many achievements, I was not surprised that she was named as the recipient of the award. I was happy enough to be runner-up as it meant I received an iPod nano – a device I have never owned before.

The MRC CEO, Sir John Savill, announced the results for each category and presented the prizes and we all had embarrassing photos taken.

Me and my mate, John Savill.

A trip to MRC HO is always a pleasure as the offices are on the 13th and 14th floors of a circular building in Kingsway. This provides great views of London and, depending on which room you are in, you get a panorama of the city in a different direction each time you visit. Today we were facing southeast. It was a bit foggy but you can recognise some landmarks.

A foggy day in London.

On the same day, in a different part of the building, I attended the MRC Open Comms Forum – a meeting of MRC communications and engagement people.  This was a gathering of people from across the MRC who have some involvement in comms work. It happens a few times a year and brings together people from research units and those in head office comms roles. After interesting talks from Kath Nightingale and Kate Lin about, respectively, the MRC Insight blog and the MRC Twitter account, the main part of the meeting was a workshop on social media, led by Steve Bridger. Most of the people in attendance were managing some social media on behalf of their organisation, either running Twitter accounts, Facebook pages or LinkedIn groups. There was a lot of experience in the room, but in small packages. None of us felt we knew everything there was to know.

Because I had to nip out for a couple of hours to attend the CEO awards upstairs I only caught Steve Bridger’s introductory session and his final roundup session but I was impressed with what I heard. He had clearly put a lot of work into researching MRC social media usage. We had been asked to send him in advance links to our organisational social media accounts, and to answer four questions concerning how we think of and use social media. He had poked around all our institutional accounts, and some of our personal Twitter accounts too.

Steve started with a round up of our views on social media and quoted a nice aphorism, which reminded me of the kind of thing Jill Foster was saying 20 years ago:

Social media is 10% Technology, 90% People

I also liked the Dilbert cartoon on social media, which neatly encapsulates the tension between institutional suspicion of social media and the desire to harness it for organisational purposes. Steve stated that social media’s prevalence has changed people’s expectations of how to engage with organisations. The immediacy of Twitter, its ‘in the moment’ character, makes a difference. Once upon a time, if something interesting or noteworthy happens you might have said “Oh, let’s put that in the annual report” and six months later it would have appeared, when no-one was much interested anymore. Now you can instantly tweet whatever is interesting. Steve stressed that social media can lead people into your organisation. The ‘walls’ around the organisation are easy to step over in a social media world (just @ the twitter handle to get the organisation’s attention). Steve reviewed how social media can make an impact and showed some prominent science blogs. I woke up was surprised when one of his slides showed a screenshot of Occams Corner at Guardian Science blogs, showing thumbnail photos of Stephen Curry and Henry Gee. Occams Typewriter was also cited by Kath Nightingale as one of the blog hangouts that she likes to visit.

I had to step out at that point so I missed the final slides, showing one of my blogposts. When I saw that later I was a bit embarrassed as there had been rather a long gap in my blogging of a couple of months so it wasn’t a great time to be advertising my blog!

I came back two hours later to discover that I, or rather my social media activity, had been a topic of discussion. In the morning sessions I had put out a few tweets and Steve had picked up on those, hence my Twitter page was displayed on the projector screen. Luckily I had not said anything rude (not that I ever do). But it was strange to come from one scenario where I was being congratulated, to another scenario where I was being discussed. This must be what fame feels like.

After all that I was just about ready to come back down to earth, but there were two further events to attend. The Max Perutz science writing awards were presented by David Willetts over at the Science Museum, to the accompaniment of nibbles and modest drinks. As ever it was a great gathering of the biomedical scicomms clans, and an inspiring event to see all that new writing talent from MRC PhD students and postdocs.  We were then privileged to have a special backdoor entry into the Science Museum Lates event. Though this is a free event, the queue to be one of the 3,000 people attending can be quite lengthy, as I had witnessed earlier on, so it was handy to be able to bypass the queue.

I had never been to an SMLates event before, and I nearly didn’t bother as I was a bit tired. But it was fantastic! It is astonishing how the museum can be transformed by loud music, spectacular lighting and  small bars serving beer and wine. I was totally won over. I can’t wait for the Crick’s SM Lates event in Feb 2014.

Posted in Social networking | 2 Comments

Old technology wins out

If there is  one thing I hate more than confusing new technology, it is confusing old technology. While it can sometimes be a bit confusing trying to get misbehaving PDFs to print, that’s nothing compared to doing battle with an ageing microfilm reader/printer.

So, when I saw an email this morning headed “Microfilm…” my heart sank. Someone had some microfilm he needed to view and wondered if I could help. My first question was “Is it microfilm or microfiche?”.  I really hoped it would be microfiche – fiche is just so much easier, and the little readers are less of a fiddle. But he confirmed the worst “It is is microfilm”. I had to confess that we did indeed have a microfilm reader, but it was ancient, had not been used for years and was now languishing in our store.

There was a time when a microfilm reader was a useful thing to have – all UK PhD theses were microfilmed by the British Library so if ever we needed a copy of a thesis we would receive it on microfilm. We also have a cupboard full of old journals on microfilm, though they are rarely looked at. Since e-theses took off, with EThOS, we don’t see microfilm. The reader had not been used for some time so at the last clear-out we stuck it down in the store.

We went over to the store together to try out the machine. The microfilm had been sent to him from a library in Moscow. It was tightly rolled up but not on a spool, so that was going to be interesting. I reacquainted myself with our machine and its various knobs and buttons. It dated back to the 1970s or 1980s when it would have seemed the height of modern technology. I switched it on and the power light came on, always a good sign, and things moved when I turned the main knob. But there was no illumination inside.  I realised the bulb must have given up the ghost.  Much as I might want to get it fixed, ready for when someone wanted to use it again in 10 years’ time, I could not justify the likely expense so I had to admit failure.

The best I could offer was to point him to another library. He has a connection with UCL and was planning a visit, so I checked out the UCL Library website and found they have a few microfilm readers/scanners, of a rather more recent vintage than ours. He seemed happy enough with that outcome.

While walking back from the store he had told me that the microfilm contained a book by Setyonov, a Russian neurophysiologist from the 19th century. Knowing that we had a good collection of early physiology texts I looked the name up in our catalogue but found nothing. On a whim I put the name into the UCL Library catalogue but found nothing there. Googling the name came up with nothing, which seemed a bit odd so I tried “Russian neurophysiologist” and immediately brought up Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov. Realising my spelling error I rushed back to our catalogue and found we did indeed have a copy of a four-volume work by Sechenov on the physiology of the nervous system, and what’s more it was on the shelves over in the store.

The book on the microfilm was Fiziologia nervnoy sistemypublished in St. Petersburg in 1866. The book I now had in my hands was published in 1952, 47 years after Sechenov’s death. It was entirely in Russian, so that even the bibliographic information was indecipherable to me. Luckily there was an insert in French, saying that the volumes contained works by Sechenov, Pavlov, Vvedenski and others. I figured it was some kind of reprint of the 1866 book, or perhaps a later edition.

My enquirer after microfilm readers seemed pleased to see the books.  I am waiting to hear from his Russian-speaking colleague whether they are exactly what he wanted. If they are, then I will chalk up a win for old technology (‘books’) over old-new technology (‘microfilm’). And next time you want to read some microfilm, don’t call me.  Our machine is busted.

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Search engines – out with the old, in with the new

Back in the summer Yahoo announced that it was to close the search engine AltaVista, and that duly happened in July. I suspect that most people’s reaction would be either “what on earth is Alta Vista?”  or “Blimey! Is that still going?”

Alta Vista came along in 1995, at a time when there were several competing tools and no clear leader. It rapidly became everyone’s favourite tool for finding stuff on the net. Google’s arrival on the scene a few years later posed a serious challenge and by the end of 2001 Alta Vista was losing users hand over fist.  Later it was sold off to Yahoo and disappeared from most people’s radar.

Google has dominated the search world ever since, though other tools still have their followers. Microsoft launched Bing as a direct rival to Google.  Personally I have never found a reason to use Bing until this week.  A blog post by Karen Blakeman suggests that “Bing seemed to be better at recipes and shopping enquiries than research oriented queries.” She describes how a tool called Bingiton allows you to submit a search to both Google and Bing and compare the results you get back.  It prompts you for 5 searches in a row and asks you to choose your favourite set of results for each. At the end it tells which service – Bing or Google – you chose as giving the best results.

A new search tool that has launched recently looks interesting.  It is called Blippex and tries to do something different from Google.

Blippex’s algorithm, called DwellRank, decides relevance based on how long users spend on a site and how many times Blippex users have visited it. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have, independently of the Blippex team, established that the amount of time someone spends on a web page or document is, not surprisingly, a pretty good measure of how important and relevant it is.

A blogpost by Christopher Mims with the arresting title “This is the first interesting search engine since Google” explains more about how Blippex works. It is built by observing the behaviour of its users, who are invited to download a plugin. Pages that users spend longer looking at are given a higher ranking. The consequence of this is that the database of pages is currently far, far smaller than Google’s.

Christopher Mims admits:

At this point, Blippex’s search results are pretty rough, but at least they’re different than Google’s, and often significantly different.

My first impression is that it doesn’t home in on relevant pages in the way that Google does, and it needs to get bigger and better quickly to be of real use. But it is an intriguing approach, distant cousin to the idea of social search.

It will be interesting to see whether Blippex will grow into a genuinely useful service, or perhaps blaze the way for another tool to take a similar approach.

Posted in Searching | 9 Comments