Book reviews!

An inner monologue, recently: “oh! I have a blog! I should write something. But the most exciting thing that happened this year isn’t really bloggable yet; the second-most exciting thing was the wedding in England of a very dear friend who would not want her wedding photos posted on the internet, and also that seems too long ago to write about now; and most of the other things that happened this year involve grants, and no-one wants to hear about that even though I did set a new department record by submitting six grants in the same week this week.

I have read quite a lot of books, though. Maybe I’ll blog some book reviews”.

(Yes, my inner monologues contain semi-colons).

So, here you go! In no particular order, but now with ratings :)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. 10/10

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I started it during my aforementioned trip to England, and could barely put it down. At one point I took it out of my bag to read during lunch in the café in the British Museum, and an hour and a half later had to remind myself that I was surrounded by some of the most interesting objects in the world and could read the book some other time. It was a tough call though.

The eponymous Harry is born in the North of England between the two world wars, grows up poor, survives WWII, grows old, and dies… and then is born again. Same body, same time, same place, same life. And then again. And again. In his early lives Harry struggles to understand, seeking out answers in all the countries and religions of the world. In later lives, he learns to exploit the situation and meets some fellow travellers, called Ourobourans.

It’s ever so cleverly done: Groundhog Day meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, but better than both – whole lifetimes repeated instead of a single day, and concerning broad swathes of human history instead of one couple’s love story. The meat of the story concerns Harry’s attempts to prevent a fellow Ourobouran from destroying the world, but the real joy of the book lies in how cleverly North has worked out the logistics of how this kind of existence would actually work. For example, one device is that Ourobourans can pass messages forwards and backwards in time. A young child visits a dying elder, giving them a message from the child’s future that the elder can take back to the year of their own rebirth, so that they can find a dying elder during the childhood of their next life and send the message back even further. “At last, something new to talk about!”, exclaims one such dying elder when he first receives the message of the end of the world.

I’ve just started North’s new book, Touch, which I’m really enjoying so far. Again, the logistics of having a rare kind of gift are explored in a delightfully clever way.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. 7.5/10

I think I’d have enjoyed this new book by the author of Cloud Atlas more if I hadn’t read it immediately after Harry August. It contains a similar theme of a small community of people who live multiple lives, except that they’re reborn as different people in different places and times with each new life, but just wasn’t as satisfying.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, with its initial hints that something is not as it seems followed by a gradual unfolding of the nature of the mystery, and I also liked the final section, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. However, the penultimate section spoiled the overall experience for me. There was a very sudden and jarring change of pace, with lots of breathless action interspersed with some long information dumps explaining what was happening. I enjoyed the slower, more gradual revelations of the earlier chapters a lot more. It was as if Mitchell suddenly realized “crap, I’d better explain some of this stuff before I can wrap up the rest of the story” and then just sort of rushed through it. Great characters, good story, and some superb writing – shame about that one section though.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. 7/10

OK so I’m a bit dim sometimes. This was a book club pick, and I read more than half of it thinking it was a novel rather than an autobiography. I only realized my mistake after I complained to a friend that it was a bit disjointed and didn’t really flow logically! Needless to say, I liked it better after the reason for that became clear (and after I read the part describing the drive back from Mexico, which was hilarious). There were still some unsatisfying parts – really, you lived in a junkyard with a bunch of feral kids for a few months and barely even mentioned it in passing? – but I did enjoy it, and I’ve bought the next installment (but haven’t read it yet).

The funniest part was at the book club meeting in Beth’s apartment. Each of the “book club discussion points” that Beth found on the internet could have been a PhD thesis. One of them was something like “to what extent do issues of race, gender, and class intersect in this book, and in that time period in American history in general?” We laughed and laughed as Beth read down the list. We’re not a very serious book club.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. 7.5/10

A re-telling of the Pride and Prejudice story, but from the point of view of the Bennett family’s servants. The original story is seen in glimpses – oh, Mr. Collins has arrived! ooh, here comes Mr. Darcy to propose for the first time! – but the real action takes place downstairs, where the staff are scrubbing Miss Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats and conducting romances of their own. Light and frothy (except for the chapters set in the war that Mr. Wickham et al. were supposed to be preparing for), and very enjoyable except for the less than kind take on Mr. Bennett (oh, Mr. Bennett, how could you?!).

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. 5/10

Weird book. A friend of mine recommended it very enthusiastically when she was about halfway through, but her tone seemed to have changed when she’d finished reading it and asked me if I was enjoying it. I was about halfway through it myself at that point and said that yes I was, very much – but then it all went wrong.

The first half is lots of fun, with a really interesting structure, but then it just gets sort of messy and frustrating (and preachy. Very preachy). The topic is animal experimentation, and the flip side point of view that “the lab in question has done great work on Parkinson’s – these are not easy questions” is barely mentioned in passing. I ended up more annoyed than anything. The friend who recommended it agrees, and we both learned a valuable lesson about being sure to read the whole book before recommending anything to others!

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. 3.5/10

I avoided all the media hoopla about this book in an attempt to avoid spoilers. I was aware that there was some controversy over whether the book should have been published, but didn’t know any of the details. I ended up wishing that I’d paid more attention so I could have avoided reading this (and thus spared my book club from reading it, too – this was my most recent pick. Sorry, ladies). There were some good elements, but the pacing and voice were all over the place. The editor who said, “I’m not going to publish this, but you can obviously write and hey that back story sounds pretty interesting” made the right call.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. 8/10

I was slightly dubious about this book club pick, wondering how interesting the fictionalized version of the invention of the theremin could really be. But it was actually a very good read! The inventor himself, Lev Termen, didn’t exactly make for the most charismatic and engaging character in literary history, but the book’s very well and smoothly written and the settings and story are very interesting, especially after Termen returns to the USSR. Definitely recommended.

How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. 8/10

This is a riot! A working class British teenager reinvents herself as hard drinking, hard partying music critic Dolly Wild and goes off on a hilarious crazy sex-fueled adventure – until it all goes horribly wrong. The only thing that spoiled it was that the author seemed to suddenly try to wring some kind of serious message out of it at the very last possible moment, when it might have worked better as pure frothy fun.

Posted in book review | 8 Comments

Missed opportunity

From my Facebook feed:


It should totally be called a beehemoth! Whoever first called it a wasp moth sucks!

Posted in freakishness, nature, photos, silliness | Comments Off on Missed opportunity

Conspiracy deathmatch

I realized recently that, in the best tradition of fighting fire with fire, it’s possible to counter some conspiracy theories by invoking other conspiracy theories. The best two examples I’ve come up with so far are as follows:

  • The anti-vaccination movement is just an Illuminati plot to thin the ranks of the masses via the resurgence of preventable disease! The same is probably also true of the persistent cancer-hoax myth that encourages people to forego conventional treatment. Don’t let the Illuminati win – vaccinate, sheeple!
  • Of course the moon landing was real! NASA got there by secretly translating and implementing the wisdom left to us by ancient aliens in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics, duh. All attempts to convince people that the moon landing was faked are actually designed to prevent us from learning the truth about these mysterious beings and their other technological gifts to us, which are currently being kept from the public by NASA and other government agencies.

These are the best matches I could come up with, but there must be other effective pairings out there too. Add yours in the comments!

Posted in medicine, pseudoscience, quacks, science, silliness, technology | 2 Comments

Book review bundle

I was inspired to start this post by Beth‘s 2014 book list, and to finish it by Stephen‘s – although my list spans 20 months rather than 12! Bad blogger.

Beth also invited me to join a newly-formed book club a few months ago, which is a first for me. I was ambivalent at first, thinking that I don’t seem to get around to reading the books I’ve chosen myself let alone the ones other people select for me, but I’ve enjoyed the two meetings I’ve managed to get to so far and I’m hosting the next one in a couple of weeks. Yay, new friends! Who like books! And wine!


Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. This was the first book selected for the new book club; we decided that a short kids’ book would be an ideal way to get us into the swing of things. It’s a pretty simple story of a friendship between a young boy and a young girl, in a rural part of the US where the two friends’ love of books and the world of the imagination marks them as outsiders. It’s very well written, and the ending made me literally cry (damn PMS! That’s my excuse, anyway). Several months later I’m still angry at basically all the adults in the book, except one teacher.

We Need New Names: A Novel, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Also a book club selection – my choice, as I’m hosting the next event. My sister got me this book for Christmas last year and I hadn’t got around to reading it yet, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone! The novel falls into two halves: the narrator’s life in an impoverished part of Zimbabwe, stealing mangoes and playing games with her friends, and then her life after moving to Detroit to live with her Aunt. I enjoyed reading the book, especially the first half with all its colour and life, but I felt like it didn’t really have a strong storyline and then it just ended abruptly, seemingly mid-chapter (Beth and I both wondered if we’d accidentally read a misprinted copy with the last few pages missing, but apparently not). Thinking about it more, the main character was at something of a crossroads at the time the book ended, finding herself with deep connections to two countries but belonging to neither (an accurate reflection of the immigrant’s experience, I think), and facing an imminent decision about her future education, so maybe the indecision and ambivalence are the whole point. If not, then I’m not sure what is…

Burial Rites: A Novel, by Hannah Kent. Also a gift from my sister, who consistently has very good taste! I absolutely loved this book, which transported me to the unfamiliar world of 19th century Iceland. An accused murderess is sent to live with a local family while she awaits trial and sentencing. She’s shunned at first, before her hard work gradually encourages the family and the wider community to begin to accept her. Parts of her story gradually start to come out as the community prepares and then hunkers down for the long, cold, dark winter – although no-one hears the full story until the very end. Beautifully written, with an absorbing story – definitely my favourite of the books on this list. 

The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. I loved Boyden’s first two books, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, so I was excited to read his new novel. The Orenda is set during the years when the first French missionaries were beginning to contact Canadian First Nations people, and uses a rotation of three narrators (a Huron leader and his adopted daughter, and a French missionary) to tell the story of the ongoing wars between different First Nations groups, the toll of the diseases brought by the newcomers, and the growing influence of the French. This book is not for the squeamish, as it features a lot of bloodshed, torture, and sexual violence (the first two described in graphic detail, the latter left more vague); I have a pretty strong stomach for fictional violence, and I found the torture scenes in particular to be a bit too much. This is probably why I kept putting the book down for a few weeks at a time, before the strength of the narrative drew me back. Overall I didn’t find the characters or the book as a whole to be as compelling as Boyden’s previous novels, but it’s very well written and again brings a very different voice and perspective to those I’m used to reading.

Cloud Atlasby David Mitchell. I decided to read the book after being delightfully confused by the film, which I had to watch twice to (kinda) figure out what was going on. The book stays on one story for much longer at a time than the film does; as a result it makes much more sense, and adds a lot more context, especially to Sonmi’s story. The connections between the stories from different time periods also seem clearer now; I think the use of the same actors to play multiple roles in the film version set me off on the wrong foot in a couple of instances. I enjoyed both versions very much, but the book more, and I do now see why people who read the book first weren’t very happy with the adaptation. I’m very much looking forward to reading Mitchell’s other books now!

The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak. I didn’t love this book, which I know is a minority opinion. The story of a young Jewish man hiding in the Munich house of his father’s WWI buddy during the Nazi years, and of the young girl of the house who befriends him, was fine; it was well written; I loved the characters, especially the little girl’s father; and I really did enjoy the device of having Death as the narrator – but the whole was somehow less than the sum of the parts. A large part of the problem was that too much was given away too early – a little foreshadowing’s one thing, but outright telling you “this character will die soon, you know” is another – so there was zero sense of tension and anticipation. Disappointing.

Accordion Crimesby E. Annie Proulx. Recommended by Henry, for which thanks! I really enjoyed the structure of this book, which follows the lives of the various owners of an accordion as it passes from its Italian immigrant maker to a series of people of all races and cultures all over the US. The last Annie Proulx book I read, Postcardswas unrelentingly depressing, and Accordion Crimes has some similar elements of people falling on hard times, but at least there’s a reset in the misery levels every time a new owner’s story begins, and the quality of the writing more than makes up for the sadness. Definitely one of my top picks from this list.

The Windup Girlby Paolo Bacigalupi. I have very mixed feelings about this book. On one hand it’s an incredibly visual novel, describing a fully-formed future world into which you’re suddenly dropped with no explanation for how things have come to be the way they are; you infer the story of genetic engineering gone wrong, food crop pestilence, and mass starvation gradually as the story progresses, which is the way I like it. On the other hand the thinly-veiled anti-GMO message is too preachy at times, there are vanishingly few sympathetic characters, and the sexual violence scenes were gut churning (although thankfully brief). Apparently there may be some sequels coming out, and I really don’t know yet whether I’ll bother reading them or not.

Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish – A Novel by, David Rakoff. I saw Rakoff perform at the This American Life live broadcast I mentioned a while ago; he was talking about how he’d lost the use of one arm due to cancer treatment. He sadly did not survive the cancer, and although I’d heard of him before the live show, I didn’t truly appreciate how good a writer he was until after he died and TAL, Wiretap, and other podcasts I listen to started to air their tribute episodes. Love, Dishonour, Marry, Die was published posthumously. It’s a short novel told entirely in rhyming couplets, and while it’s very clever indeed (my favourite rhyme was seance / crayons), it’s probably not the best introduction to Rakoff’s work. It made me smile, I admired the cleverness, but overall it felt like eating too much junk food – filling, but not entirely satisfying. Still worth a read for those who appreciate unusual structure and clever wordplay though!

The Selectby F. Paul Wilson. This is the best by miles of the StoryBundle* books I’ve read so far, and the only one I’d consider reading again. The plot features a female student who wins a scholarship to an extremely selective private medical school, where there’s much more going on than meets the eye in both the instruction and the research spheres. None of the big twists are all that earth shatteringly surprising, but it doesn’t really matter because everything else is so well done, and I found myself racing to the end to find out how it would all end.

The Hour Before Darkby Douglas Clegg. Also from StoryBundle, a decent enough supernatural/horror thriller. Not my usual genre, but I found this book to be sufficiently creepy and well-executed to keep me reading. It’s a little predictable, but entertaining.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boyby Helen Fielding. I absolutely loved the first two books, which made me literally laugh out loud in public several times. I downloaded and read this third instalment one sleepless night at my mother-in-law’s this summer, when I wasn’t feeling well, hoping that the lighthearted humour would cheer me up. Unfortunately, large parts of the book were actually heartbreakingly sad – Bridget is now widowed with two young children – and the humour that was present just felt repetitive and out of place in the new context. I’m still glad I read it – it felt like catching up with an old friend – but it wasn’t funny. My brother-in-law walking buck naked into the kitchen where I was reading at 2am, on the other hand, was hilarious, after we’d both got over the surprise of seeing each other there!

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governorby Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. Look, we all have our moments of weakness, OK? I was on a long flight home, I’d finished my own book,  Mr E Man had picked this up in the airport on our flight out, and it was right there. (It was surprisingly entertaining actually, although I will not be rushing out to buy the sequels).


A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. Our second book club selection was this memoir written by Canadian journalist Lindhout, who along with an Australian colleague was held hostage for more than a year in Somalia. She was treated horribly by her captors – beaten, isolated, sexually assaulted – and it made for harrowing reading. Lindhout came across as pretty naive, and we all agreed that something about her narrative didn’t seem to quite gel; I’d be interested to read the book her colleague wrote, as apparently his version is quite different from hers and the two of them are no longer in contact. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book, as the stress of reading it isn’t quite balanced out by any strongly positive features.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. Now this is a gem. I laughed so hard throughout the descriptions of how human cadavers are used in various flavours of research that it didn’t seem quite decent. The only part I didn’t find hilarious involved in-depth descriptions of plane crashes, which I do not recommend reading while you’re on a plane as I did. The rest of the book was brilliant though. As soon as I’d finished I immediately downloaded all of Roach’s other books and am currently halfway through Bonk. I also looked into local cadaver donation options and have received (but not yet completed) some paperwork from UBC. I do plan to go ahead though, if Mr E Man agrees. Now that’s what I call a book with an impact!

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkby Deborah Blum. I’d heard great things about this book, which tells the story of how one man revolutionized New York’s approach to forensic toxicology and thereby set the standard for the rest of the world. Stories about individual poisoning cases are interwoven with chapters about forensic method development and the politics of policing and prohibition. It’s well done, but reading it immediately after Stiff made it feel somewhat flat. I also hadn’t realized how much of the book is about prohibition, a very US-specific obsession that has never particularly interested me.

Half Emptyby David Rakoff. This collection of personal essays is a much better introduction to Rakoff’s dry wit than the rhyming couplets novel reviewed above. The book inspires more wry smiles than actual chuckles, but it’s very amusing and has more substance to it than the clever rhymes do. It really made me wish I’d read more of his work while he was still alive.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I guess this is non-fiction? The book version of one of my favourite blogs of all time comprises a mix of new stories and stories already told on the blog. I wanted to love it, but unfortunately the old stories are the best entries, and the new ones aren’t as good. You should read the blog instead. All of it. The stories are a better fit for that medium, and I’ve never laughed more at a website.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fifth Edition, by the Project Management Institute. Not recommended.


I usually end my book review posts with a request for new book recommendations, but I’m currently swamped with unread books and un-acted-upon recommendations! So don’t you dare suggest any new titles to me. Unless they’re really good or something.


*StoryBundle is the site I’ve mentioned before that sells monthly selections of books by independent authors, all on the same theme or from the same genre; members can pay whatever they think the books are worth, and can split the profits between the authors and the site however they wish. As you’d expect the results are a mixed bag; I’ve bought two bundles and only read two books all the way through, if you don’t count the several extremely short stories written by primary school children (I’m sure it was a thrill for the kids, their families, and the school to see the stories published and sold, but there is no thrill involved in reading stories written by young children to whom you have no connection!). The rest were so bad I couldn’t get through the first few pages. There haven’t been any bundles that interest me for a while, but I’ll probably buy another selection at some point.

Posted in blog buddies, book review, movie review, personal, science | 9 Comments


When I still lived in the UK, New Year’s Eve was always a really big deal for my friends and me. We usually went up to Edinburgh for the huge Hogmanay street party, which involved being out on Princes Street from about 10pm until 4am, pushing our way through massive crowds, drinking cheap wine from plastic pop bottles, kissing random men in kilts, walking the several miles back to our friend’s Dad’s flat, then sleeping like sardines on the floor. We spent the 1999-2000 celebration in similar style on Newcastle’s Quayside, and also spent a very cold and snowy night at Glasgow’s street party one year. It was always loud, rowdy, and tons of fun.

I went back to the UK for Christmas and New Year the year that I moved to Canada, but stayed on this side of the pond the following year. My Dutch friend and I, plus our Canadian then-boyfriends-now-husbands, had the genius idea of trying to recreate the European street party experience by heading to Whistler, which we’d heard was the place to be for New Year’s Eve. Sadly, however, we were misinformed.

The actual street party element of the Whistler Hogmanay experience lasts for approximately 20 minutes either side of midnight. Before and after the big countdown, everyone’s inside at various bar parties and the snowy streets are almost deserted. This was particularly disappointing for us because the party we’d chosen was the saddest New Year’s Eve party of all time.

We should have known something was up when we could actually get tickets that didn’t cost $200 each; I think ours were more like $30. It looked OK though – cozy, intimate – when we first arrived and grabbed a table right by the as-yet empty stage. They were playing decent music, and serving decent beer – but then the couple on one side of us started to have a massive argument. Even the arrival of the singer didn’t stop them, and their relationship continued to unravel as the singer settled in with her acoustic guitar and started to sing country-pop ballads about her own breakups and other relationship disasters. She was actually pretty good, but her songs were kinda depressing – and apparently the couple on the other side of us agreed, as they commenced a very serious conversation about the state of their relationship that didn’t seem to be heading anywhere cheery.

The sad songs continued. The woman from the first couple left the room in floods of tears, and did not come back. Her apparently now ex-boyfriend looked like he was going to cry into his beer. Another sad song. The second couple had decided that their futures did not include each other, and were sitting pointedly not looking at each other, in silence. And then the singer announced, “oh, hey, someone just pointed out that it’s 12:04! Sorry, I missed the countdown. Oh well, happy New Year!”, before launching into the saddest song yet. We all burst out laughing, downed our complimentary glasses of sickly sweet cheap champagne, hugged and/or kissed each other, and headed out into the Village Square to witness the last few minutes of the street “party”. Back at our table a few moments later, we agreed that it was one to remember.

My subsequent Canadian Hogmanays have been much less depressing: a mix of bar parties and house parties with friends, happy music, and no more breakups. Lately, though, the downsides of the evening – the feeling of pressure to do something “cool”, the crowds, the ridiculous prices, the loooooooong wait in the cold for a taxi – have felt more pronounced. Last year we decided to do something different, and just invited a few friends over for dinner and board games, and you know what? It was really, really nice. I guess we’re getting old.

We were planning to do the same thing this year, but then we both came down with colds over Christmas. I’m starting to feel better but I’m still coughing and hacking, and Mr E Man is a couple of days behind me, so we ended up cancelling. The friends we’d invited have all had some health problems this year and we don’t want to get them sick, plus we’re just not really feeling up for a big night. We’ve stocked up on delicious food to cook, we have some good beer and a mini bottle of fizz that my boss gave me when I passed my PMP exam, and so we’ll be home tonight watching movies and playing cribbage and backgammon, like the old folks we apparently are. No sad songs, no drama, no crowds, no taxi queues, no hassle. I wouldn’t want to do that every year, but this year, it’s just perfect!

A very happy New Year to all of you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing! I hope 2015 is good to you!

Posted in drunkenness, getting old, personal | 3 Comments

How to pass your PMP exam

It’s been a while, eh?

Today’s the first day since early September that I’ve woken up without a long list of specific things to accomplish, and it is blissful! I’m on my sister-in-law’s sofa with a big cup of tea, and I don’t have to do anything but this or be anywhere but here ALL DAY. Heaven!

Yup, it’s been my busiest few months since I was in the final year of my PhD, and I’m glad I can breathe again before going back to two imminent grant deadlines in January. The two main reasons for all the running around (other than the usual grants and progress reports) are that I helped organize and run the joint International Human Epigenome Consortium / Canadian Epigenetics, Environment and Health Research Consortium 2014 Annual Meeting, then took a week-long course and studied for weeks for my Project Management Professional exam.

The former was tons of work, but really fun! I made new friends, geeked out extensively, and even got to meet Richard Wintle at long last!

The latter was tons of work, but no fun at all. But at least I can get a blog post out of it! Here’s how I managed to pass Thursday’s exam with the top mark1 in each of the five domains:

1) Take a good course

You have to have 35 hours of project management education to take the exam. I followed my department’s tradition by taking the PMP Certification Exam Preparation course2 at the local community college, and it made all the difference. It was a painful week though, with 8 hour days of intensive instruction and in-class exams plus hours more spent on homework each night, and we were all exhausted by the end of the week.  Our instructor did a fantastic job: she started us off on the Monday morning by proclaiming that the subject matter is extremely dry, the textbook is terribly written, the exam is full of trick questions, but “I’ll get you through it”. Correct on all counts!

2) Take a friend

It’s pretty much expected that everyone in my team will take the PMP exam eventually. Most people who’ve been there longer than me had already done it, but there were a few of us who were eligible who hadn’t taken the plunge yet (you have to have a certain number of months of experience – the total amount varies depending on which degrees you have). Three of us made a pact that when we did it, we’d do it together, so we all signed up for the same course. It really helped to have some familiar faces there with me, although by the end of the course all twenty or so of us were bonding through the time-tested methods of bitching and venting (my little group also took the initiative of writing the name of a pub on the board on the last day, and lots of us found our way there for beer and more bitching after finishing the final exam). The whole group shared study tips, useful links, and stories of success via email, and the three of us from the same team did a lot more in person too. Aside from the tangibly useful advice, the feeling of solidarity through all those weeks of intensive studying before and after work really helped too.

3) Remember that this is not like any of the other exams you’ve ever taken

Friend, colleague, and regular reader Mermaid reminded me a few days before my exam, “remember, you don’t have to get an A on this one; a C is plenty good enough”. It was a hard lesson to learn for a lifelong academic overachiever like me, and one of the two colleagues who took the course with me said the same. We’d never in our whole lives done as poorly in an exam as we did in the in-class exams, and the concept of “here are four correct statements; please pick the one that is the MOST correct” continues to warp our poor little scientist brains3. With practice you do start to learn what the tricks and patterns are – but there were still a couple of questions on the final exam that I didn’t understand at all, several where two answers looked equally correct, and even one where all four options looked equally correct.

4) Study actively

I’ve never had a problem motivating myself to study for an exam before, but then I’ve always been lucky enough to study things that I find interesting. The Project Management Body of Knowledge textbook does not fall into this category. While trying to read it I would often find my eyes sliding off the page and onto the table next to the book, because the table was more interesting. I found that studying by just reading was going to be impossible this time, despite my not-quite-eidetic-but-really-very-good-visual-memory; I had to combine reading with more active study techniques.

What worked for me was that while I was reading each chapter I would make a list of all the parts of the text I thought I would need to memorize, complete with the number of components for each item, and a textbook page reference. I could then look at my list, try to recall all the components of each item, then open the book at that specific page to see if I was right. For example I would list “sequence of activities for scope management (6), page X”, or “inputs to control quality (5), page Y”. This was much easier than trying to read through pages and pages of the damn book again!

With each pass through the list I would cross off the things I was confident I’d memorized correctly, so each subsequent pass was faster and more focused. Conversely, I’d highlight the items I knew I was struggling with (see point 6, below) for extra attention.

5) Practice, practice, practice

Doing practice test after practice test helped more than everything else put together.

During my most intensive three weeks of study I re-took all the chapter-specific exams we’d taken in class, the day after studying that chapter. When I’d been through my memorization list a few more times, I started taking a series of online exams – as many full-length (200 questions) versions as I could find, but also some shorter ones. Someone who’d taken the course at the same time as me emailed everyone this great link that compiles all the best online resources in one place, and I used this list (plus a 200 question exam the course instructor sent us by email) exclusively. I found #1 and #3 on the list to be the best options.

I did also try downloading some iPhone apps so I could do practice questions on the bus, but I couldn’t find one that I really liked – the four I tried had either very easy, very repetitive, or demonstrably incorrect tests. If you’ve found one that you actually like, please post a link in the comments!

6) Identify your weaknesses

As soon as I started taking practice tests, I created an Excel spreadsheet to track which questions I was consistently getting wrong. I defined the area of weakness fairly broadly, e.g. topic: quality management, subtopic: control quality. I just kept a simple tally next to each subtopic, with conditional formatting set to red data bars so I could easily see where the peaks and troughs were. I also had a summary pivot table with incorrect answers per chapter of the textbook.

It would have been best if I’d calculated the % incorrect, as some chapters are featured more heavily in the final exam than others, but that was too much of a hassle – and the numbers themselves were really useful in helping me to focus my studies during the last couple of days. For example, I knew I was having a hard time with risk management and quality management, but it was a surprise to see procurement management near the top of my error list; it just didn’t feel like I was having too hard a time with those questions. However, I followed my check sheet / Pareto diagram approach4 anyway and studied procurement management on the penultimate day – and then I got six or seven questions about contract types, so it really paid off!5

7) Repeat point 5 until you pass

Good luck!


I’m exceedingly relieved to have put this hazing ritual behind me and rejoin the real world! Well, I will after Christmas, anyway.

Other news

  • My cats have become extremely famous since my last blog post! During a rare slow moment in November I tweeted the same Schrodinger’s cat joke I made on here a few years ago, and it attracted tens of thousands of retweets, likes, and mentions – including by the official Nobel Prize feed! How bizarre! The photo’s also shown up on Reddit and in various other places on the internet. Uncredited, but I’d rather have the cats than the credit, because they are the most awesome cats of all time, especially Saba, but don’t tell Google I said so.
  • I had tons of fun thinking about, talking about, and writing a very silly post about the epigenetics of the X-Files at the Guardian.
  • I’ve been invited to participate in two career development events at UBC – one for biochem undergrads, and the other for postdocs – focusing on non-traditional career options for scientists. I will report back!


1) The top mark is “Proficient“. Yay.
2) The course has the very appropriate code “BSAD”.
3) It doesn’t help that the textbook and the exam questions are full of grammatical errors, and that the definitions they use for such terms as “order of magnitude”, “bar chart”, and – most egregiously – “standard deviation” are different from the definitions used in, y’know, science, and the rest of the real world.
4) Why yes, I did project manage my project management studies!
5) When you sit down to take the computerized final exam at a third party testing office, the software pulls 200 questions from a bank of around 3,000 possible options. This means that everyone’s exam is unique; my friend had multiple questions about three-point estimating, whereas I only got one, and she didn’t get any questions about contracts. It also seemed that around 15% each of the answers I selected were either “update risk register” or “develop project charter”, but hey, I passed, so clearly most of those were correct! The pattern started to feel really pronounced and uncomfortable, but I just reminded myself that true randomness includes long runs of the same result and kept treating each new question independently from all its predecessors.

Posted in blog buddies, career, conferences, furry friends, personal, science, why I love the internet | 8 Comments

Street signs

My sister and I had very active imaginations when we were kids. We acted out plays with our stuffed animals, pretended we were time travellers, and frequently visited Narnia – but what we really loved was solving mysteries. Fuelled by a diet of books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series1, we’d pedal around our neighbourhood in the summer, looking for clues to the epic acts of iniquity and skullduggery that were surely lurking around every corner.

The trouble was, our neighbourhood was the kind that is distinctly devoid of iniquity and skullduggery2 – all near-identical three- and four-bedroom homes with carefully maintained lawns and rose bushes. Beyond some distinctly non-mysterious teenaged loitering outside the off-license, the biggest crime in town was probably the vandalization of the swings at the local playground.

We were not discouraged by this less than promising environment, though. In fact, the facade of peace and good order that the local crime syndicates had obviously thrown up to thwart us just made us even more determined to find the clues that would lead to their downfall. So, when we found some mysterious pieces of yellow plastic on three different streets near our house, we just knew we were onto something. As we found more and more pieces, we started to put together all kinds of theories and plots about international smugglers, kidnap victims trying to lay a breadcrumb trail for us to follow, and other schemes I can’t remember. Those few little pieces of yellow plastic kept us happily occupied for literally days.

We never did solve our mystery, but I was recently reminded of how much fun we had trying. You see, the streets of East Vancouver are suddenly full of some really meaty, juicy clues:


photo 1

and, most excitingly:

photo 3

Clearly, something big is afoot. And even while the boring, adult part of my brain ponders the mystery of when the construction’s going to start and exactly how much of a hassle it’s going to be, the part of me that speculated for days over a few pieces of yellow plastic is running scenarios and trying to crack this mysterious code.

I hope the local kids know just how lucky they are… and I really, really hope that the ones who saw me taking these photos have incorporated the mysterious stranger on a bike into their skullduggery scenarios. That would make me, and no doubt Enid Blyton, very happy indeed.


1) I recently re-read another favourite Blyton series: the Malory Towers boarding school story series, all midnight feasts and pranks played on teachers. My sister had told me how much she’d enjoyed re-reading the books, but I was somewhat dubious, thinking that I’d find the outdated gender and class role aspects too grating. However, the stories were just so spiffingly good that I was drawn in all over again and read through the whole series in no time at all. Jolly good fun, and I was surprised at how much I remembered!

2) Although, staggeringly, the village is home to what I think is still North Yorkshire’s only unsolved murder! It happened a couple of years after I left to go to university, and the rumour is that the wife hired a hitman to kill the husband. No idea if that’s true or not, but you can imagine the scandal it caused – people are still speculating about it now.

Posted in book review, family, photos, silliness, Vancouver | 3 Comments

Accelerate the progress of your research by using this one weird old tip!

(Photo and title by Sonja Babovic; used with her permission)

Other geeky things that made me laugh recently:


Posted in grant wrangling, photos, science, silliness | 2 Comments

Things I learned at a funding agency’s “community engagement” session this week

  • “Your stupid new metrics are irrelevant to my field of research”
  • “It’s not fair that chemists get bigger awards, even though I acknowledge that their research is much more expensive than that of the other fields that fall under your agency’s mandate”
  • “You can’t make me change the way I format my CV! I’ve done it this way for years!”
  • “It’s not fair that you’re no longer asking people to attach their CV as an .xml file generated by the Common CV system. I spent days figuring out how to hack that code to include more publications than the format allows!”
  • “Postdocs waiting to submit fellowship applications until the final year they’re eligible, rather than diving in at the first opportunity when they have fewer publications, is ‘gaming the system'”

(all quotes paraphrased, but only a little bit. I don’t know any of the PIs involved – this was an event held at the campus of one of the universities with which my institution is affiliated. I went as my institution’s representative, and didn’t recognize anyone else there. The funding agency rep handled everything way better than I would have in her position. From my position in the audience, it was a very entertaining afternoon).



Posted in career, grant wrangling, science | 8 Comments

Ectopic scribblings

It occurred to me this week that I’ve written various things in other venues that I’ve never linked to from this blog, and that it might be a good idea to compile some sort of list to try and mitigate the increasing entropy of my online presence, such as it is.

I wrote a book!

It’s on Amazon and everything!

Well, I co-wrote a book, way back in 2007-2008. Some people who’d recently left the biotech company where I was employed at the time to start their own company were approached by a publisher to write a textbook about stem cells for the US home-school market, and asked me to help them. I’d just got married and was already interviewing for the job I ended up doing from 2007-2012 (I actually signed the book writing contract on the same day I resigned from the biotech company), so it was a bit of a crazy year…

I ended up writing about 30% of the content of the first version, and also edited the other three authors’ chapters for grammar and consistent language. The entire process took about three months, and I was basically a total hermit for the entire time; I wrote all weekend every weekend, and edited every weekday morning before work and most evenings. All this while learning the ropes at a new job! I even wrote all day on Boxing Day 2007, even though we had a house full of in-laws who’d unexpectedly stayed overnight after it snowed during the Christmas dinner we were hosting, and who seemed strangely reluctant to go home. My then-teenage niece berated me with the words “you’re supposed to be Auntie Cath, not anti-social!”, which was highly amusing but not persuasive enough to make me leave my lonely desk in the spare room and come out to play Trivial Pursuit.

Once we’d finished the text we handed it off to the publisher, who edited and compiled everything into their usual format. We updated the text in 2010, at which time it was also converted into a non-textbook version by the Genetics Policy Institute, whose website seems to have closed down (but the book was always hidden behind a log-in system for some reason anyway). We found out earlier this year that yet another version had been released and was available on Amazon; this is the version I linked to above.

Overall, the experience was great, and I learned a lot. The financial gains have been much more modest (as in, my share is just barely into four figures – I wasn’t expecting a lot, but was nevertheless disappointed!) We’ve also all found the lack of communication with the publishing companies involved to be a bit of a problem – for instance, we’ve asked many times to be sent a few free copies of various versions, but in the end I had to buy my own from Amazon. It’s all been a little bit unsatisfying to be honest, but as I said I gained a lot of valuable experience and, most importantly, I can say “I wrote a book!”

I wrote a short story!

I know, I’m as surprised as you are!

I hadn’t written a single word of fiction since high school English homework, and never for fun, but then the idea for “Crisis Management” got into my head and, like Boxing Day in-laws, just wouldn’t leave*. (The idea was born, as so many great ideas are, during an after-work pub session; specifically, a conversation with a colleague who is the real life “Dr. Hutch” from the story. I would like to point out that the real Dr. Hutch’s research methods are 100% traditional and ethical). I was trying to write a serious science piece for the Guardian, but would find myself thinking about my story idea instead, and eventually I realized I was just going to have to write it so I could concentrate on other things. It turned out to be tons of fun, and I’m really glad I finished it!

I’d like to once again thank official fiction writing consultant Vanessa and official subject-matter expert Beth for their comments on an earlier version, which helped to improve the story immensely, and of course Jenny for publishing the story on the LabLit site. You rock, ladies!

I wrote two more pieces for Occam’s Corner!

Unbreakable: do superheroes, impervious to cancer, walk among us? explores genetic resistance to cancer, and made it (briefly) onto the front page of Digg;

Epigenetics 101: a beginner’s guide to explaining everything does what it says on the tin, and features what I think is my best analogy to date.

Many thanks to my new writing group – Jane, Catherine, and Anne – for their suggestions on improving both pieces, and to Jenny (again) and Richard for further suggestions and Grauniad-wrangling, respectively.

OK, I’m done! For now, anyway.


*I love my in-laws! I always say I have the second-best in-laws in the world (Mr E Man has the best). I was just grumpy that Boxing Day 😀

Posted in blog buddies, career, communication, personal, publishing, writing | 13 Comments