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Notes from Open Research London, 12 February 2024

Earlier this month Open Research London held a half day event at the Francis Crick Institute to mark Love Your Data week, comprising six half-hour talks. The very engaging and interesting talks were focused on research data discovery, with detours into publishing, preprints and AI. Attendees were well-supplied with coffee and pastries during registration and the halftime break, so there was plenty of time for chatting with fellow attendees. There was also an option to move on to a local pub afterwards to continue conversations and catch-ups. All in all, it was a great chance to learn from and discuss with knowledgeable people.

Here are some notes about each talk. I’ve put them in a different order from the actual programme.

  1. Dan Crane, from the Open Research team at King’s College

Dan started by describing the setup at King’s and outlining what FAIR data is (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable). Then he outlined how his team capture datasets into the King’s Open Research Data System (KORDS) – a repository that uses FigShare.

The team at King’s have developed a metadata template to guide and encourage researchers to add descriptive metadata. There’s a balance to be struck between encouraging them to be as thorough as possible, whilst not nagging them so much that they are put off depositing their dataset. There’s also a balance between getting the researcher to do the work versus the Open Research Team taking on the work. I really recognise that dichotomy. Depositors in KORDS are encouraged to include a readme file and to add their ORCIDs. The system can also capture relationships between datasets. There is a good range of guidance and training material to help users to get their head around FAIR and open data sharing. Researchers are shown how they should reference the dataset deposited in KORDS when creating their data access/availability statement in the paper.

The King’s team also encourages researchers to create metadata-only records for datasets that cannot be shared openly, to give some exposure to this data.

Finally, Dan talked about how they create DOIs for grey literature in their PURE repository. Currently this is done manually. Guidance on ‘how to cite this’ is put on the page of each grey literature document that is posted in the repository.

I wonder how easy it is to get the message out to researchers that creating a DOI for any grey literature that they create is a Really Good Idea? I found that researchers (in life sciences at any rate) have a tendency to stick documents on general web pages without considering that there might be a better way to make them discoverable and accessible.

  1. Jonathan Green and Julie Baldwin from Univ Nottingham libraries

Jonathan and Julie described the process they use to find research datasets that have been deposited on external platforms by Univ Nottingham researchers, and then to import metadata from Scholix into the Nottingham repository. The aim is to create metadata-only records in the Nottingham data repository. Often research data is deposited into specialist domain repositories and thus is not easily visible or knowable via the university where the authors work. The Nottingham service is based on code shared by Durham/Manchester and uses the Scholix service as a data source.
Jonathan and Julie explained that initially they kept the project small-scale, due to resourcing constraints. The project started as an exploration – running some code to find what datasets existed ‘out there’ and then checking them manually before converting the metadata so it could be imported into the DSpace repository. The process has now been streamlined and further automated.

They had an interesting slide reflecting on some of the challenges and learning points. These boiled down to observing that the world of research data is messy, unpredictable and complex, hence human intervention is needed.

I found it very interesting to see this idea in practice as it’s something I’ve long thought could be useful. You can also import metadata from the EBI’s Biostudies database and I’ve seen this done, but for the purpose of research evaluation rather than for increasing the visibility of the datasets.

  1. Holly Ranger, from University of Westminster

Holly talked about capturing research outputs from practice research. This kind of research is often non-tangible, and collaborative, affected by its relations with other practice research. Holly noted that existing standards aren’t always suitable for arts research outputs. To improve the representation of practice research in the repository, Westminster has made various changes to the schemas for these. A particular feature is the ‘overlays narrative and context’. Holly said that contextualised data is really important for practice research. Holly mentioned persistent identifiers; RAiD, DataCite DOIs and CReDit. RAiD has proved to be a good fit for these outputs.

Westminster has embedded guidance to making practice research open within the practice PhD research handbook – explaining how to document the practice and research journey.

The second aspect of Westminster’s steps to embedding OA into practice research was implementing ‘Theory of change for research design’. I missed the details of this part of the talk. Holly mentioned the Practice Research Voices project, funded by the AHRC, and its final report and recommendations that have been published.

  1. Maria Levchenko, from the Europe PMC team at EBI

Maria talked about preprint discovery and preprint review/feedback, focusing on preprints in life sciences. She started with a definition of what a preprint is, and showed the growth in adoption of preprints and of preprint evaluations being posted. She mentioned that there are up to 60 preprint servers that have some biomedical content, and there are more than 35 initiatives reviewing life science preprints. This means that discovering preprints in life sciences can be challenging.

Europe PMC has been indexing preprints since 2018 and now has 735k preprints from more than 30 servers. Of those, 260k have been published in peer-reviewed journals and 10k have some kind of feedback.

Europe PMC also indexes preprint feedback and links them to the original preprint, to help readers assess the preprint. The feedback can be any kind of comment on the pre-published work. Though still small, the numbers of preprint peer reviews are now increasing. Researchers can gain exposure and credit through providing feedback on preprints. ePMC also links into funder and grant information about the research in the preprint, and citations to the preprint. These are all indicators of trust. Maria mentioned eLife’s Sciety website and EMBO’s Early Evidence Base website. Both of these categorise preprint feedback, but their categories are not the same. It would be helpful to harmonise types of preprint feedback.

Maria highlighted the issue of licences for reviews to whether and how the reviews can be reused. For example, can they be translated, text-mined, used by AI tools to provide summaries? Free to read does not mean free to re-use. Hence there is a growing need for pre-print licenses. Subsequently on Twitter EuropePMC posted:

If you want to be part of the conversations to define best practices and community standards sign up here: buff.ly/3uyZC3V

You can check for preprint updates using the Europe PMC Article Status Monitor tool to check if a preprint is:

  • Published in a journal
  • Withdrawn
  • Removed
  • Available as a newer version
  1. Mark Hahnel, Digital Science

Mark’s talk was titled “Global Academic Publishing: Where will experimentation lead?” He enumerated some of the qualities we look for in effective academic publishing: speed, openness, cost-effectiveness, trust. It’s hard to combine all four of these. Mark suggested that trust is the most important.

Mark sketched out some of the current problems in scholarly publishing: paper mills, research integrity failures, the volume of research that needs peer review. He pointed out that over the last 20 or so years the amount of academic research published has tripled, but there aren’t three times as many academics. Hence the peer review burden on each academic is increasing, and this is not sustainable. He asked whether/how we can limit the number of papers and datasets that need to be reviewed?

Mark said he doesn’t have answers to these problems, but emphasised that we need innovation in publishing in order to find the answers. He added that innovation can add complexity to the whole system, so it is not always welcomed by researchers/authors.

  1. Andrea Chiarelli, Research Consulting

Andrew talked about AI’s influence on open research discoverability and impact. He stated that there are many AI tools today and it’s hard to keep up. There’s even a website called ‘There’s an AI for that‘.

AI tools for enhancing search/discovery/review are getting better. Some tools can recommend what to read. Others can enhance research objects with machine-generated metadata, to improve discovery. Other AI tools can help to translate academic language into language that speaks to the policy and practitioner communities that can benefit from research findings. AI tools can also help with trend discovery and analysis.

Andrea highlighted three tools that are worth a look:

He acknowledged that there are drawbacks to AI. It’s a black box – leading to limitations in transparency and reproducibility. It’s difficult to understand the tools and language of AI. There is potential for bias and ‘hallucinations’ with generative AI. There are also data security and privacy concerns.
Finally, Andrea posed the question whether AI is a research partner or a research predator?

He presented the pros (research partner) thus:

  • AI becomes a powerful ally for researchers, enabling them to deliver more
    efficient, comprehensive and rigorous work.
  • AI tools help researchers with literature review, data analysis, hypothesis generation, experiment
    design and paper writing.
  • Researchers leverage AI to enhance their creativity, curiosity and critical thinking.
  • AI helps democratise research, making it more accessible, inclusive and diverse.

and the cons (research predator) thus:

  • Researchers lose their autonomy, agency and identity as AI takes over several facets of their roles.
  • AI enables a competitive and metric-driven culture, where researchers are pressured to publish even more and faster, sacrificing quality and integrity.
  • AI widens the gap between disciplines, institutions and countries, creating a monopoly of research by a
    few powerful actors.
  • AI tools are used to manipulate, plagiarise, and fabricate research results at scale by paper mills and toxic actors.

A question from the audience highlighted sustainability concerns with using free AI tools: who owns the infrastructure that we become depend on when we use these tools? What “hidden costs” are associated with this? This is an aspect that needs further thought by anyone building services that rely on these tools.

Posted in AI, Journal publishing, Open Science, Preprints | Leave a comment

Games Without Frontiers

My enthusiasm for sport has always surpassed my ability. Except for soccer. At school, me and John Grant would always play in defence and hope the ball never came our way. I still don’t see the point of that one.

But I enjoyed cricket and tug-of-war (I wasn’t very heavy but I had brains and understood the importance of rhythm), and hockey and swimming, and above all, rugby.

We’re fortunate now to live right next door to not one but two rugby grounds, and a year and a half ago I got around to signing away our Sunday mornings to take Joshua to rugby training.

It’s been a ‘journey’, but the squad is finally coming together, and in their little matches Joshua is showing flashes of genius, not to mention grit and determination—and kittens for his mother.

He had 2 days with Saracens coaches at half term, along with four of his squad-mates, and it might have made a difference.

He’ll also happily sit and watch the 6 Nations, cheering along whoever is playing (let’s not mention the Calcutta Cup though), and even though he was cheering for France at the outset was quite devastated when Paolo Garbisi’s rushed penalty bounced off the posts.

He’s also discovered that he can swim. He’s been having lessons since he was 5 or 6, but something has suddenly clicked, to the extent that when his primary school trust organized (I use the term loosely) a gala at the Olympic Park in Stratford, and his school only had four swimmers for a 5-lap relay, he was chosen to swim twice and helped the team to a silver medal—the only podium slot his school managed that day.

So he’s not just smart and handsome, but athletic too. Probably all due to his mum, again.

Posted in 15MinutePost, Joshua, offspring, proud dad, rugby, swimming | Leave a comment

What (and How) Should We Teach our Children?

In the world of social media and ChatGPT, a post-Covid world and a world where climate change and war put everything and everyone under new strains and worse, what should our students – at school or university – be taught and (not necessarily quite the same thing) learn? Two recent papers raise these issues, with a looking-to-the-future slant.

“In the past 14 years of Conservative government, the focus of the education system has been on the narrow task of getting children through exams, with little thought as to whether it will adequately prepare children to navigate this transformed world.”…. Half (50%) of Britons think that schools are not preparing students for the world of work. 50% think that schools are failing to prepare children for life in general.”

So says a Labour Together newsletter reporting on a recent polling of parents carried out in December, designed to go along with their new report Broad and Bold: Building a Modern Curriculum. The argument of this report comes firmly down on the side of “learning a broader range of knowledge and skills in different contexts is a better bet for the future. More, in this case, does indeed mean more. Breadth matters…”.

This is very much the line the Royal Society has been taking for a number of years, with its push for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. This philosophy, if not this phrase, certainly dates back to their Vision for Science and Mathematics Education project report from 2014 (a report I was associated with), when the overarching vision was described as ‘All young people study mathematics and science up to the age of 18’. The Government has indeed recently made a push for everyone to study maths to 18 although, as has been frequently pointed out, there aren’t the teachers to provide this. However, their concept of the Advanced British Standard, currently out for consultation, doesn’t really amount to significant broadening of education post-16, nor does it address anything that happens before that age. It really isn’t possible to introduce a meaningful post-16 baccalaureate style education without thinking about a child’s learning and progression throughout their school days from first entry. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. For any Government, let alone one shortly to face a General Election, rethinking the entire education system is a big ask.

Simon Margison, in his lecture this month to the Centre for Global Education, highlighted a different problem within our education, specifically higher education, saying:

“education focused solely on productivity and employability, now dominates policy and public debate in many countries concerned about graduate under-employment…governments more confidently press for the remaking of higher education by pushing the sphere of work back into education and measuring education in vocational economic terms, installing extrinsic job preparation inside the intrinsic core of higher education….The bottom line is that neo-liberal policy does not see higher education as personal formation in knowledge as optimal for productivity and growth.”

So, we face a problem both at school and university, a tension between knowledge and skills, which the appearance of AI on the map, hallucinating or not, brings into sharp focus. Do we teach deep disciplinary knowledge, the memorising and regurgitating of facts in exams that have been standard for decades? Do we assume that is unnecessary because Google and ChatGPT have all the answers and simply teach life-skills such as team working and project management? Clearly that would be unwise. I am reminded of an exchange I had with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education at the time, regarding careers advice at school, in which he told me that ‘any self-respecting 16 year old can find all they need to know on the web.’ I would have liked to dispute that then (but was swiftly shut up) and I would still dispute it now: the web is great if you know exactly what question to ask and can spot ‘fake news’ when it provides garbage. Otherwise, human intervention – about careers or so much else – is really necessary.

However, it is undoubtedly the case that we need to think harder about the content of our curricula, at school and university, to rebalance how we teach fact versus understanding, all coupled with a good dose of life-skills. Sadly, this debate is too often mired in political dogma as well as the genuinely massive challenge that a rethink would bring. England is a real outlier in terms of the breadth (or more accurately, narrowness) of its post-16 curriculum. The changes to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence were intended to provide breadth (the Scottish system was anyhow broader than England’s) and, according to the Scottish Government at the time of introduction, ‘provide a holistic, competency-based curriculum for those aged 3-18 years aims to prepare children and young people for the workplace and citizenship in the 21st Century’. Instead, it seems to have led to a decline in standards and a narrowing not broadening of subject-study at the later years. According to a 2023 Nuffield Foundation report there is

“Significant evidence of the existence of a culture of performativity in many schools, encouraging the instrumental selection of content and/or organisation of curriculum provision to maximise attainment in the Senior Phase.”

English politicians can point to this as demonstrating the unwisdom of changing the ‘Gold Standard’ A-level system.

Nevertheless, perverse incentives imposed by any government, as in English league tables of schools, constant harping on about ‘mickey-mouse’ degrees and using salary post-degree as a measure of success, may all be defeating the purpose of educating, as opposed to training, students at both school and university. I have no confidence we are providing the education our future citizens need in science – or languages or even literacy and numeracy – to face the 21st century, but feel the debate is hardly started. It is to be hoped the next Government will take on this challenge. Starting with early years, as Bridget Philipson has made clear would be her own priority if she becomes the next Secretary of State for Education, is no bad thing. If children (many still badly affected by the pandemic) don’t learn the basics at primary school, it is all but impossible for them to thrive thereafter. The more so if they come from a less-than-privileged background. There is a lot of work to be done.

Posted in broad and balanced, curriculum, Curriculum for Excellence, education, Simon Margison | Leave a comment

Family Tree

We’re blessed to have a larger-than-usual garden (for these parts). Legend has it that when they built this development at the arse-end of the 1980s, what-was-to-become our plot was down for 2 (or even 3) houses, but they didn’t get planning permission for that, so we ended up with double the regulation size garden.

It’s not some manicured mansionly acre, but a rising jumble of joyousness and birdsong and weeds and flowers and  trees. Definitely trees. You can’t have too many trees, we say to ourselves, more frequently than is perhaps healthy.

And we can always find space for one more, although I’ve been saying “But we don’t have room” for at least the past 6 saplings we’ve put in.

We planted a walnut tree about five years ago, and we’ve had one nut off it (and the squirrels [fuckersfluffy-tailed tree rats] have had two). It’s somewhat shaded by the vast and mighty laurel out the front of the property, which we don’t want to do anything with because the robins and sparrows and blackbirds live there. But that’s not conducive to walnuts growing quickly.

Jenny says “Maybe we should have another one, in the back garden where it’s sunny.” So she bought me one for Valentine’s day, and now we have another tree.

Squeezed between the less-good cherry, one of the magnolias, and the path.

I’m sure it’ll like it here.

Posted in 15MinutePost, nature, Silliness, walnut | Leave a comment

No News Is Good News

During a group discussion at work (as you both know, by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company) a colleague noted that among the various things one wouldn’t be allowed do with human subjects, one would be to deprive them of access to the news for five years.

Five years without the news, I thought. Bliss! Sign me up!

That was when I decided to  make myself nayesrein (I’ve just made that word up), so since 15 February I have stayed away from all sauces tzores sources of news, whether broadcast, print or online. I can choose not to watch TV news, or look at news websites, and when the aggressively inoffensive burble of BBC Radio 2 that’s usually on at home is interrupted by a news bulletin, Mrs Gee either switches it off, or I fire up Queen’s Greatest Hits from my iPhone into my bluetooth-equipped hearing aids. If in the supermarket, I avert my eyes from the come-on headlines on the news stand.

Earlier experiments with abstention from news (for a day or two, such as over a weekend) show that lack of exposure to news does improve my mood.

Consider: most of what news editors choose to report of world events is dreadful, and what makes it worse is that there is very little you can do about it. That doesn’t stop one being personally affected by the news. Ever since Recent Events in the Middle East, there has been a sharp rise in anti-semitism, evidenced with such strength of feeling and in such a large swath of the population that Jews like me feel, to say the least, intimidated. In short, it’s a downer.

How long will I abstain from news?

I don’t know yet. Some news has already leaked through (the death of a Russian opposition politician) but perhaps some crosstalk is inevitable. It reminds me of Anathem, a fine novel by Neal Stephenson, of a secluded order of monks whose members can choose to shield themselves from the outside world for a day, a year, ten years, a hundred years … even ten thousand years. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep it up for that long.

I have a feeling that the world would be a far better place if we went back to a kind of world in which news came to us once a day, via a radiogram, at 9pm, and read by Alvar Liddell. Failing that one could get it from The Times, two days later.

Perhaps, you might argue, constant exposure to news should make for a more informed electorate. On the other hand, I am not at all sure that exposure to the news on demand, at any hour – any minute – of the day or night, is really healthy. And that’s aside from the invariable spin that news editors choose to put on the news, at times simply by choosing to include one item rather than another. It’s no wonder that fake news and conspiracy theorists have thrived in such a news-soaked atmosphere.

Hey, I have an idea. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole country, or even the whole world, simply refused to access any news site, or buy any newspaper, or listen to or watch news broadcasts, for a short while, such as a week, and do something more useful instead such as go for a walk? It would do wonders for our mental health.

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In which we fast-forward

A grassy lawn with spring flowers

Once more, with feeling

The phrase bleak midwinter was first coined by the English poet Christina Rossetti in 1872 and went viral when composer Gustav Holst incorporated her text into a carol a few decades later. Although the words are clearly meant to evoke the “hard as iron” feel of Christmas, I have always associated bleak midwinterism with January and February, the period after the festivities have ended but before the first spring bulbs begin to bloom. In this dormant, liminal period, the world is gripped in darkness and all hope seems very far away.

I used to struggle quite a bit during the bleak midwinter, but it’s been increasingly less problematic; this year, the period has lost its bite altogether. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have happened at all. Maybe it’s because of the mild winters we’ve been having, which keep the roses blooming into late December, coaxing up freakishly early snowdrops at the same time. The cow parsley sent up green fronds in January, alongside the rusty-red quince blossoms and lemon-yellow false oxlips; February has brought the crocuses and daffodils, hyacinths and hellebores, all compressed into one wave and heedless of the proper unfolding order of things. We may yet get a cold snap or even a dusting of snow, but to all intents and purposes, some celestial force has zapped us straight from New Year’s Day to spring.

I am not complaining. But at the same time I am hardly sure what to do with this sense of peace and contentment which normally needs to be awaited, longed for, somehow earned.

Posted in Domestic bliss, Gardening | Leave a comment

2023 – Top Ten, plus one

In a surprising twist, here are my top 10 photographs from 2023… only a couple of months into 2024! As usual, they also live in a Flickr set that you can explore here.

Craig McRae, Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (November)
RAWF 2023
One of a number of performers to appear on the OLG Entertainment Stage during the ten days of The Royal. The foreground blur is courtesy of a display case of award-winning foodstuffs – specifically, maple syrup bottles.

Avalon Stone, Maxwell’s, Waterloo, Ontario (February)
Avalon Stone, Maxwell's, Waterloo Ontario
Avalon is a singer I first met in 2022, as one of the artists participating in the Canadian Musicians Co-Op. This show was from a large club about an hour away from where I live, with Avalon on a bill with three other local bands. If it looks like she’s ripping the roof off the club with her voice – she is. Blues-rock at its best.

Roo the Rooster (May)
His Name is Roo
Another local vocalist. Legend has it that this brave fellow chased off a coyote. I certainly wouldn’t mess with him.

Newgarden vs. Rahal, Honda Indy Toronto (July)
Honda Indy Toronto 2023
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden gets past Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman (yes, that Letterman) Lanigan Racing at turn 5 of the Streets of Toronto IndyCar circuit. The race was won, in a bit of a surprise, by first-time-winner Christian Lundgaard, also driving for RLL.

Bull Riding, Royal Rodeo (November)
RAWF 2023
One of the highlights of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is the Royal Rodeo on the last day – and one of the highlights of the rodeo is the bull riding. The riders are equal parts brave, athletic, and completely unhinged – but undeniably fun to watch.

The Petras, backstage, Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (September)
The Petras, Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto
It may be an indication that you’ve reached a certain age, when your best friend from high school’s daughter finds herself in her band’s big-city debut. In this case, at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West. Close your eyes backstage and you might imagine being back in the days when The Rolling Stones, The Police, The Pixies, or a host of other bands played here. Open them again and you’d see The Petras, kicking back before headlining the evening. Read more about the Horseshoe’s storied history here.

Daniella Kistemaker, Orillia Opera House (August)
Canadian Musicians Co-Op - Orillia 2023
Another co-op performer – isolated in this photograph but actually on stage with a full-on rock band. Yes, there is such a thing as rock-and-roll harp, and Daniella is one of its ambassadors.

“Don’t Call Me At A Party” single release – Liam Benayon, Cameron House back room, Toronto (April)
Liam and fans
Another independent musician at another storied Queen Street West venue. Liam packed out the back room (possibly slightly exceeding its allowable capacity) to debut his new single. I’ve photographed Liam on a few occasions, and he always brings a ton of energy to the stage, as well as some truly impressive hooky pop songwriting. And when you know the artist, you can sometimes hop up on stage for this kind of post-performance photo.

Farriers, Royal Horseshoeing Classic, Toronto (November)
RAWF 2023
For the first time, this horseshoeing competition made its way to The Royal, and I hope it comes back. The challenge is to fabricate a horseshoe to exacting specifications, starting with a steel bar, in only an hour. It’s great fun to watch and visually very striking – even if my clothes and all my camera gear smelled like forge smoke by the end of it.

Feura, Queens Hotel, Barrie, Ontario (October)
Feura - Queens Hotel, Barrie
Yet another co-op musician, although in this case I met Feura initially through another favourite co-op performer (and, because everything must be connected, Liam Benayon was also at that show). Fast forward 16 months or so and here’s Feura again, bringing their high-energy, politicized, pop-punk music to the stage, opening for two other bands (one screamo metal, the other ska-punk). Feura has rapidly become my favourite act to photograph live, because of the amazing energy of their live show.

Bonus – Northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) (August)
Northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
Common in this part of the world, these snakes get to be about a metre long, and are well known for their curiosity about people. It’s not unusual to find one swimming up to you while you’re taking a dip in a lake, just to take a look and see what you’re made of. This particular one was sunning itself on the dock at the cottage, and very obligingly posed for a photo or two. You can read a little more about these snakes here, if you like.

And that’s it! Heavily biased towards live music and The Royal, with a taste of motorsport in there (because why wouldn’t there be?). And a rooster and a snake, because I like them. 2024’s photographic journey is off to a very slow start, unfortunately… with only some from the very earliest few minutes of the year so far. Time to pick up some cameras and get out shooting again!

MTAV NYE 2023

Posted in concert photography, Hobbies, Music, nature, Photography, racing | Leave a comment

Hunstanton Sand

I’ve just started reading a book called The Spirit of Enquiry by Susannah Gibson, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, an interesting society of which I was once a committee member (as well as a prize-winner). I am struck by the fact that the building where my GP’s surgery now hangs out, was actually purpose-built for the Society, something I had not appreciated before. The room where I’ve sat around waiting for Covid vaccinations was once their Reading Room, at a time when that was quite a novel concept (the College Libraries were only available to current members, and not MA’s still resident in the city, for instance). Having found this a fascinating book, written by someone attached to this University’s History and Philosophy of Science Department, I am pleased to have been invited to the book launch of Gibson’s next book. Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement is due out at the end of this month.

The Spirit of Enquiry starts off describing what motivated Victorian natural philosophers in Cambridge, led by Adam Sedgwick and John Henslow, to feel such a society was necessary. The latter was a botanist. Indeed, he was Professor of Botany although, late in life, apparently a very delinquent one. The former was Professor of Geology, and spent time walking the cliffs at Hunstanton examining the strata. These are fine cliffs, tending to erosion like so much of the East coast, cliffs I have visited just for the pleasure of visiting the seaside, but also (in my much earlier life) for ornithological ventures in the cold of winter. My most recent interactions with Hunstanton’s beaches are, however, more closely allied to my Physics: Hunstanton sand.

The last lecture course I taught before I retired from the Physics Department was the first year Waves and Quantum Waves. It was an unsatisfactory course in many ways, as I was required to include a great deal of classical optics (stuff such as the Lensmaker’s equation, for instance), when the students wanted to be let loose on the quantum material, which consequently got very squeezed. The syllabus was not of my making. However, in an earlier incarnation of this course, when the classical waves part was taught at a more advanced level (and without the optics material) and there was more time to think deeply about implications of some of the topics, I had a lecture demonstration I loved involving Hunstanton sand. And I know it was Hunstanton sand because it came in the sort of shaker good cooks use to spread flour on the worktop to stop pastry sticking, to which an ancient luggage label was attached reading ‘Hunstanton sand’. Although I doubt this went back to Sedgwick’s time, indeed the Cavendish Laboratory only opened in 1874, it certainly gave the impression of being very venerable. It came along with a heavy brass plate about 30cm wide (probably in reality it was a foot square), an example of a Chladni’s plate.

If you look on the web for what the point of a Chladni’s plate is, you will find all kinds of neat videos demonstrating how it can be used to show a pattern of standing wave nodes by plugging a sand-covered plate into a frequency generator: at appropriate frequencies, when the wavelength is some suitable fraction of the length of the side of the plate, standing waves are set up. It is indeed a beautiful way of revealing complex patterns, building on the mathematics of standing waves in two dimensions (which is what I was teaching). But the demonstration I gave was more arresting and memorable, I think, even if also more risky. With a device to generate a wide range of frequencies, it is easy to dial up the exact frequency you know will give the desired pattern. No risk there at all. But perhaps students remember things that don’t go according to plan rather more than something they can find easily on YouTube. That was at least my motivation in doing things the hard way.

The third item of this ancient lecture demonstration consisted of a bow. It was an utterly appalling bow, if you were a string player, with no tension in the hair remaining after all these years, and no way of increasing it except by manually holding it taut. I suspect it once had been a double bass bow as it was quite short. (As an ex-viola player, upon occasion I took in my own bow to make life easier, given that mine was in rather better shape.) Instead of electrically generating different frequencies to set up the standing waves, the original demonstration design relied on ‘playing’ the plate with the bow.

There were some marks scribed on the plate to indicate where the bow should be placed to get the appropriate resonance, but they were pretty approximate. Consequently, in my experience, it was necessary to move the location of the bow back and forth a little to find the place where the plate ‘sang’ – which it would most pleasingly when I got it right. A beautiful harmonic would be forthcoming, echoing round the lecture theatre (large: I used to lecture to well over one hundred students). More than once I got a spontaneous round of applause when this happened. Every year (at least five I think) bar one, I managed to find the sweet spot. Sometimes, I even risked finding a higher harmonic to show how the sand bounced around until it found the new pattern of nodal lines. It was immensely satisfying – apart from that one year when, try as I might, I never quite got it and the standing wave pattern on the plate was blurred, the true note transformed into a messy noise.

All in all, it was far more satisfactory, for me and, I hope, for the students, than simply playing a video of someone else’s experiment uploaded onto YouTube. Every year, at the end of the lecture, I would try to return my Hunstanton sand to the flour shaker. This was a messy enterprise, but I felt the sanctity of this particular ancient sand in its luggage-labelled container. Who knows who’d made the trip out to Hunstanton to collect it? After the end of the lecture, the kit would be replaced in some wooden cabinet in the Cavendish Museum. I wonder if any of this will survive the move to  the third incarnation of the Cavendish in the soon-to-be-finished (but who knows quite when, building work being what it is) Ray Dolby Centre, otherwise known as Cavendish III. I lectured in the so-called New Cavendish, its second home; the equipment no doubt was first used in the original Cavendish on Free School Lane (a brief history can be found here).

My days of undergraduate lecturing are over. I’m sure, just as I participated in the translation of delivery style from blackboard and chalk, to writing on an overhead projector, to prepared overheads, to powerpoint which may, for all I know, be superseded by a further electronic transformation, I fear too many demonstrations will be called up from the web. I loved my old-fashioned experiment, even as I also used more modern approaches too. The latter is certainly more likely to be fail-safe. So, happy memories of Hunstanton sand.

 

Posted in Adam Sedgwick, Chladni's plate, Communicating Science, lectures, standing waves | Leave a comment

Heart of Glass

Had I not been out the front of the house, watching Joshua earning some pocket money by washing the car,  I’d probably have sent the milk round sales droid on his way. But I was, and we talked, and seduced by the idea of reducing plastic use and a faint tang of nostalgia I signed us up to the thrice-weekly delivery schedule.

We talked about cars—the droid was thinking about learning to drive and we covered insurance and no-claims bonuses. He said that driving on the left wasn’t a problem because they drive on the left ‘back home’. “Oh,” I said, having already established that he lives the other side of the M25 and he didn’t know our area, “Where’s home?”.

“Mozambique”—which surprised me. I’d expected him to have been from Manchester or somewhere equally exotic.

But here we are, and I’ve been teaching Joshua the ways of the foil top, about how you have to hold the sides and not the milky surface, and indeed how to open the bottle. He is discovering the joys of either gently inverting the bottle with your thumb protecting the lid, or else having creamy milk on his Weetabix.

Got a lotta bottle

Do you want it pasteurized cos pasteurized is best?

The milk is delivered into an enclosed porch, so it’s unlikely he’ll see what happens when the local blue tits get thirsty, or even how the foil lid can be pushed up when it gets really cold. But soon he’ll get used to the new normal and maybe in time forget what plastic milk bottles look like.

Posted in 15MinutePost, Joshua, milk, Nonsense | Leave a comment

What do you do when God comes for your LinkedIn?

My Father’s house has many rooms

2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

In September 2022, The Guardian published an article Divine comedy: the standup double act who turned to the priesthood. The article sketches out what happened when two university friends of the author became Christians. Both friends explore whether or not they had a vocation to the priesthood.

I remember this passage:

Recently Jack has started picturing his life as a great house comprised of many rooms. There are rooms for your friendships, your love life, your career, rooms that you put signs outside declaring: I do not want this changed by my religion. Gradually, though, God starts knocking on the doors of more rooms, asking to join you in there, too. “And it’s difficult and painful and annoying,” he told me.

Born-again blogging

19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

If you become a practicing Christian as an adult, there is a process of coming out to go through. Whilst God rifles through all of those rooms in your life, forcing you to come out to yourself over and over, the question arises of who to tell. In the years before I made any sort of commitment to Jesus, I observed I was being told stories of faith, commitment and conversion by friends and colleagues. The colleague who video-called me up from abroad and confessed she had gotten baptised; the friend I met through Imperial who talked about the tension between her faith and her work, and later took me to her place of worship; a colleague and friend who said he would pray for me when I was going through the divorce.

Telling people mattered. I needed to explain that something significant was happening, a bit change. I was nervous coming out on the blog. If you recall this blog was born under New Atheism – close inspection reveals that the blog launched the day after the launch of the fundraiser for the Atheist Bus Campaign. In the blogging community of the time, I remember vociferous and to me somewhat stupid seeming below-the-line arguments loosely centred on faith. I was terrified of a hostile reaction to a position I did not yet know how to defend.

So when I cited Jerry Coyne in the first blog post in the Faith category, I did not tag him on the socials lest I brought forth an argument I was ill equipped for.

But bit by bit over the past year or so, God has taken over my web presence just like He is working on the rest of me. Priest friends warned me that Anglican Clergy Twitter is a tough space but I have seen worse in those early science blogging days.

On Instagram, I follow churches and cathedrals, flooding my feed with photogenic buildings. When I joined Threads and BlueSky, craving a Twitter replacement, the first people I followed were – well, you lot. Thank you all for being there. And for not attacking me. I was scared of what I might lose.

Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you

From The Methodist Covenant Prayer

Put me to what you will,

let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,

A Christian without a job feels like the oxymoron I am. I left the workforce when my health precluded; recovering, repent-and-believing, and returning to the job market happen for me in one and the same moment. But where was I headed? I set out with not a lot more than scripture to guide me:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

For the first half of 2023 I hedged my bets, applying in parallel for Church-based roles and stats ones. By the middle of the year, six interviews down and a corresponding half-dozen rejections in hand, I sacked off the stats thing for now and focus on doing the Church thing.

LinkedIn is my current least favourite social media platform, in part because it reminds me of the former career for which I continue to grieve. I thought I was going to leave LinkedIn when I decided to put a soft pause on my biostatistics career, but I have too many friends in my former colleagues on there. Even if scouring the LinkedIn job listings for the term Church leads mostly to jobs in Church Stretton.

My friends at St Mary’s placate me with tales of their own job hunting eras, trust in the Lord, and the multipurpose epithet wheeled out after every failed job interview

Rejection is God’s protection.

The bellringing crowd assign themselves as my cheer squad, not once questioning my change in direction. They take me to the pub and cajole me into not overthinking, telling me instead of Church job openings they have heard about. I double down on morning prayer and the gym, and give up trying to explain why I think I might be headed for ministry rather than the glorious career in middle management at Glaxo once understood by others to be my assured destiny.

My social media platforms fall one by one. I go from being a statistician with a tongue-in-cheek thread about church, to a Christian nostalgic for stats.

I face remarkably little pushback over my new worldview, online nor off. A few relatives struggle at first. I infer they are concerned I might be being drawn into some sort of cult. But they come around quickly. I think they can see the difference this is all making. I get little challenge from friends of friends, and my oldest friends draw close and defend me, caught up in excitement for me and fascination.

But now I need to out myself to LinkedIn, which at the time of writing is portraying me as a statistician-scientist with an oddly long CV gap. I have been stalling, thinking I will update my profile – or take it down entirely – when I finally land that church job. It is every bit possible I will get rerouted back to stats later. Roughly a third of clergy in the Church of England are self-supporting ministers and a proportion of those are bivocational, juggling another career alongside the ministry for which they do not get paid the equivalent of a salary. Conscious that some of my former colleagues are religious and unsure what they might make of it all, I write draft after draft in my mind. I am acutely aware of the ambiguity of my current situation. Leaning towards something light and humorous I call to mind the difference between the statistician joke and the church one. My working tagline, which I test out on my new profile on BlueSky:

Statistician for Jesus. What are the chances?

I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am

Revelation

His name will be on his servants foreheads, and they will worship him.
From Revelation 22:4 and The Brick Testament

Cutting deals with God is ineffective; threats of vengeance liable to backfire. Ask me how I know this.

Advice from a priest friend

Advice from a priest friend.

However, in ambivalence, it is hard not to think, teeth gritted

when I get to that house, with His many rooms, I’m gonna take my time and rifle through all of them. See how He likes it.

Posted in alternative careers, Ambivalence, Blogging, careers, Faith, Life, linkedin, social media | Leave a comment

A Place Called England

I planted snowdrops in the green in the woods last Sunday morning, and this Saturday when we visited they were already demurely in bloom.

Snowdrops

The first fruits of them that sleep

We usually get one crazy forerunner between Christmas and New Year in our garden, but it’s not until the massed banks of praying white heads start to appear that we allow ourselves to believe that Spring is merely a Solstice away. There will be a hard frost, perhaps even snow, towards the end of the month, but you can’t stop it now.

We dropped into a new (to us) garden centre on the way home and I picked up a couple more asparagus roots. I’ve been trying for a few years to get a patch going, but after one very successful year it’s been a bit of a struggle. So I dug over the entire bed today, gently rescuing the alien-looking plants and sprinkling in blood and bone. I carefully replaced them, from large to small so I could keep track of which I expect to crop this year and which need nurturing carefully—adding the new ones on the end and telling them they’re going to like it here.

Asparagus bed

No slacking now, fellas.

Fingers crossed.

PS. If you’re wondering about the post title, check out Maggie Holland’s version. Perfection.

Posted in 15MinutePost, asparagus, Gardening, nature, snowdrops | Leave a comment

Transferable Skills and Career Paths

I am honoured to have been invited to give the Gareth Roberts Lecture in Durham next month (in the Physics Department), following a long line of distinguished speakers. To be honest, I did not know that he had been associated with Durham because, by the time I was aware of all he was doing in the Higher Education space, Roberts was Vice Chancellor at Sheffield. I think I only came across him in person a couple of times, once at a lecture in Sheffield, once when he was reviewing the Research Assessment Exercise (REF’s predecessor) after the 2001 exercise, although why I was personally presenting evidence to that review I can no longer recall. However, for many – postgraduate students in particular – it is the 2001 review known as SET for Success that is probably most pertinent, even to this day.

Sir Gareth was an example of someone who had moved between academia and industry (and back again) with great success, picking up an FRS, a knighthood and many other accolades along the way. He demonstrates that ‘porosity’ between sectors is possible, something that soon-to-be-retiring CEO of UKRI Ottoline Leyser has often talked about. In the current system, it may still be possible, but it certainly isn’t particularly easy. There are some schemes designed to facilitate the exchange of personnel and ideas between industry and academia, with the Royal Society (for instance) running both Industry Fellowships and Entrepreneurs in Residence schemes. However, particularly in the pure sciences – less so in engineering and computing – such mobility between sectors is neither easy nor common.

Roberts recognized in his report that lack of mobility was a drawback for the health of the system (and the economy), but also that postgraduates’ education was often falling short on a variety of points. I would highlight the following, which I feel sure will still resonate today with many students and staff.

  • low stipends, when seen against the option of entering employment and reducing the substantial debt that many students will have built up during their first degree;
  • concern from students that they are likely to take more than three years to complete their PhD, while generally, funding is only available for three years; and
  • inadequate training – particularly in the more transferable skills – available during the PhD programme. As a consequence, many employers do not initially pay those with PhDs any more than they would a new graduate, viewing the training (particularly in transferable skills) that PhD students receive as inadequate preparation for careers in business R&D.

Issues about money most certainly won’t have changed for the better, and the duration of a PhD has only increased, although at least there is some recognition of that fact in the length of time for which many funders provide a stipend. The last bullet point I’ve pulled out is the one I’ll be considering at more length in my lecture: what beyond their lab/computational/analytical skills training (according to what is directly relevant to their thesis) do students get exposed to and what additionally might they need in their future careers, wherever they end up? What options are there if someone wants to get involved with activities that may not be completely aligned with their thesis research, both now and once their PhD is completed?

Following the SET for Success Review, a new pot of money was established, colloquially known as Roberts’ money. It was supplied to universities to enable them to provide a new sort of training in transferable skills. In Cambridge additionally, I know some of this money went to creating posts in the Careers Service for advisers specifically to help the PhD population, with separate posts created for the physical and life sciences so that there was a fair degree of specialisation in those who held the posts. Whatever a PhD supervisor may think and even, all too frequently, say, there is a world beyond academia where scientific training is crucial. Even a world beyond industry. With an aspiration that the Civil Service reach 50% of its Fast Streamers from the STEM disciplines (a number apparently already exceeded in its 2023 hires, though it will take a long time for those sorts of numbers to permeate the entire system), there is one route to a career outside the obvious.

There is no doubt, more members of the Civil Service who are numerate and confident about handling data would be likely to benefit us all, when you think about the decisions that need to be made on a daily basis.  Policy-makers who had the confidence to use data to inform decisions and not, as I fear may happen and as one former politician and Civil Service employee once told me, expecting policy-makers to search for data to back up an already-decided policy. That’s just one example of a career outside academia. There are plenty of other jobs in a wide range of sectors that neither a supervisor nor a student may immediately think about as the student reaches the end of their PhD (patent law, journalism, the creative industries, thinktanks…..to name but a few).

There are many skills the modern PhD student needs to master, which fall into the transferable skills bucket: management (of projects, people and resources) is a key one that one hopes at least postdocs and freshly independent researchers are being exposed to, but probably not students. I am struck by the breadth of training the Royal Society now offers its research fellows, such as the course  in ‘Innovation and the Business of Science’, but also in handling the media, public engagement and communicating your research more generally. Relevant to what I said about the Civil Service, there is additionally a science policy primer, to help researchers understand the nature and process of policy-making. All good stuff that it seems likely Roberts would have approved of.

As I write my talk for Durham, I will have these different aspects in mind, linking Roberts, the relevant recommendations from SET for Success and my own wandering career trajectory and personal experiences.

Posted in careers, Civil Service, Policy, Sir Gareth Roberts, Transferable skills | Leave a comment

On the Freedom of Misunderstanding of Speech

Close up of the Tube sign at Warren Street station showing just the letters W-A-R

Misreading on the tube leads to WAR

“The Ruffian” is great title for Ian Leslie’s Substack given his predilection for roughing up lazy thinking. I first came across him as the author of “Conflicted”, an excellent book about how to disagree constructively, a practice he frequently deploys in his Ruffian pieces. I sometimes disagree with Leslie, but not often enough to stop me paying the £4 monthly subscription to his Substack. He’s a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued observer of contemporary life and there’s a substance to his writing that can’t easily be dismissed.

A couples of weeks back Leslie’s sharp eye was directed towards the critical reception of the recent Netflix specials from Ricky Gervais and Dave Chapelle, both of which have been branded as “anti-woke” by commentators who dismissed the performers as lazy and out of touch. In characteristic hang-on-a-minute mode, Leslie observes that both shows are among the most popular currently on the streaming service and mounts a pretty cogent defence that in his show Armageddon, Gervais (whose work he is most familiar with) is laughing not at minorities but at the po-faced strictures of the members of the ‘wokerati’ who have set themselves up as censors.

I think he has a point, even if the piece did raise a couple of uneasy thoughts that I wanted to chase down. I agree with him that comedy doesn’t have to have a moral purpose – it’s about the laughs. And like him, I want to live in a society where comedians are free to push at boundaries and to play with the hypocrisies and discomfort of their audiences. Indeed, I think that comedians have a licence to transgress. Those watching have made a choice to do so and there’s an understanding that what’s being watched is a performance, even if some performers work hard to disguise their artistry.

Even so is there any collateral damage? The comedian’s licence to transgress isn’t easily transferred to the workplace or other social environments. Gervais can’t reasonably be held responsible for the retelling of his material, but it is nevertheless absorbed into broader discourse.

As others have said elsewhere, Gervais’s show is a bit lazy in its content and construction. He’s done smarter work and I’ve seen edgier and better crafted shows challenging social mores from the likes of Stewart Lee, James Acaster, and Hannah Gadsby. Armageddon lacks their fire and sophistication, though admittedly, Lee, Acaster and Gadsby were approaching transgressive boundaries from different angles in their work (I am probably revealing my tastes and biases here). Gervais leans too heavily on simplistic caricatures of some of his targets such as critical race theory or statue protests (though he had a good joke about cultural appropriation). These things are fair game for comedic attack but do jokes that operate at a Daily Mail level of critique of the underlying ideas erode the foundations of efforts to create a fairer and more tolerant society (efforts with which Gervais admits at the end of the show he supports)?

On balance, I suspect not. I felt I could take what I liked from Ricky Gervais’s show and discard the rest and my guess is that many other audience members are probably doing the same. Is it a problem that not all are – that some are clapping and nodding along without seeing the artifice in Gervais’s act? I find it hard to believe that the political divisions over the merits and demerits of ‘wokeness’ depend much on any one comedian, however popular.

I’m very likely over-thinking this, but I still think there’s a broader point here about the impact of misunderstanding in public discourse. Misunderstanding is the raw material of comedy, which is part of the justification for its license to transgress. Jokes often play on people’s misperception of the set up: “By my age, my parents had a house and a family, and to be fair to me, so do I, but it is the same house and it is the same family” – you can see why Hannah Fairweather’s was judged one of the funniest jokes at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. However, in discussions that aim to critique one viewpoint or another, misunderstanding is more problematic, whether it’s intentional or not.

The intentional part is obvious in the rhetoric of political posturing. But there’s another aspect of the problem that seems to be more common in the age of quickfire social media and was highlighted in Helen Lewis’s Substack on the reaction to the Gervais and Chapelle shows on Netflix: the politicisation of arts criticism. Lewis writes “Many people are making political judgements, rather than artistic ones, and using these cultural avatars to signal their political beliefs,” and suggests this is happening both because “it’s easier to write about the ideological content of an artwork […] than it is to appraise its technical details” and because controversies over ideology, particularly ones stoked by half-truths and superficial analyses, attract readers and clicks. The problem extends to those of us who engage in social or political debates on Twitter/X, Instagram, and in blogs or Substacks, where the primary purpose is to attack or defend a given position, because we are on show in a technologically enlarged public square. It’s human nature to fall back on snap judgements and assume that any given statement defines a person or the full contours of their political viewpoint. We’re all prone to this sort of kneejerk or system 1 thinking, which is most likely to be unleashed in the heat of partisan politics or – to return to my starting point – the work and anti-woke enmities that inflame the current culture wars.

The temptation to react without thinking more deeply might be augmented by the rapid-fire format of much of social media but is not confined to it. Even in longer form writing it can be difficult to convey the totality – dare I say complexity? – of what we want to say. Even as I write this post, already festooned with mid-branching qualifications, I aware of the compromises between the clarity and conciseness. Ideas spill and meander in branching lines of thought and can be hard to shape into concrete forms. This is why Pinker argues it’s so much easier to explain yourself in conversation than in writing, where you cannot react to your audience and have instead to anticipate their needs.

I write all this as someone who has given in to the laziness of system 1 thinking on occasion (mostly on Twitter) and who has in turn, as a result of working in matters of EDI and research culture in a university setting over the past several years, found myself misunderstood. I have been variously accused in the press and on social media of being a stifler of academic freedom, a remover of statues and, on one particularly memorable occasion, “a witchfinder general”. As far as I am concerned, each of these accusations was based on misunderstanding or misreporting, but maybe part of the fault was mine for not expressing myself clearly enough. While each accusation was an irritant, I mostly opted not to respond. This was because although I was being criticised personally, as a member of the senior leadership team of the university, I risked any reaction being seen – misunderstood? – as an institutional pronouncement. I no longer hold that position, so it is now easier for me to write about these incidents, but I don’t feel completely free of the constraint of institutional association.

Still, the lack of response still feels like a failure. I am well aware that contested matters of EDI present no easy solutions, which is why I made openness to challenge and dialogue the seventh seven pillars in our university EDI strategy and have striven to live up to that commitment in responding to concerns raised by colleagues and students. But it’s hard to know how much faith people have in that commitment (both internally and externally) and it certainly remains the case that universities struggle to engage meaningfully in public-facing discussions about what they are doing.

The facile answer to this challenge is that everyone should read and absorb the lessons of Ian Leslie’s bookabout how to have a productive argument. That’s easier said than done, alas, even at universities which, of all our public institutions, are supposed to be the places where ideas can be tested rigorously – to destruction if need be. The places where thinking should be the least lazy.

However, it doesn’t always work like that. As we have seen last week with the Employment Tribunal judgement that Professor Jo Phoenix was subjected to victimisation and harassment at the Open University for her gender critical beliefs. The lesson to draw here is not that such behaviours are to be found at all UK universities. In my experience of leading on EDI at my own institution and through talking to my opposite numbers across universities in the UK and Europe, there is serious engagement with the myriad intersecting issues (including academic freedom and freedom of speech) that affect efforts to create environments that more equal, more diverse and more inclusive. Although some might accuse universities of mindlessly quaffing the Kool-Aid of wokeism and identity politics, what I have mostly seen is recognition that we are grappling with complex and shifting debates and that dialogue to find a way forward has to embrace the full range of views that are advanced in good faith.

Perhaps these internal discussions are too internal. It remains true that creating a space within universities for critique of difficult issues – the appropriate balance between trans rights and women’s rights, the Israel-Gaza conflict, the frictions between sexuality and some religious beliefs – remains, well, difficult. There is nervousness about internal and external reactions that crowd out efforts to have a more informed and nuanced discussion between different perspectives. But if universities aren’t prepared to shoulder that risk, who will? They are not helped by the fact that these issues are now grouped under the simplistic and misleading term, ‘culture war’. Different perspectives on our aspirations as a society or a culture aren’t going away, so why condemn ourselves to endless bitter conflict? As a first step, wouldn’t it be better to stop warring and have a conversation? Who’s brave enough to go first?

 

Posted in Equality Diversity & Inclusion, Science & Art, Science Culture, Scientific Life | Leave a comment

What I Read In January

UntitledGeddy Lee: My Effin’ Life Frank Zappa once quipped (and I am working from memory here) that rock journalists are people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for the benefit of people who can’t read. I am mostly inclined to agree — the memoirs of rock musicians, often ghost-written, are not generally works of great literature, and neither is this one. It is however a great deal better than most, for two reasons. First, the author (who had a little editorial help) is the bass player and lead singer of the rock band Rush, which, as they came from Canada, have what can be described as a cult following (that’s me, and possibly Ricardipus) but only if one regards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as the biggest home movie ever made. Rush was very much on the intellectual end of the rock spectrum, combining dense, complex arrangements with lyrics based on science-fictional themes or social or historical commentary. Although much of this came from the drummer and lyricist, the late Neil Peart, it would hardly have succeeded were his bandmates, Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, not also intellectually in tune, and this depth is echoed in this book. The second reason is Lee’s background. He was born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib to two Polish Jewish emigres who’d come to Canada following the Holocaust. Indeed, Lee’s parents met in a Nazi concentration camp, and that both survived can be put down to a series of hair-breadth ‘scapes. Lee has researched the Holocaust and his parents’ experiences and these and the wider context are described in two moving chapters. (‘Gershon’ became ‘Gary’ became ‘Geddy’ following his mother’s inability to pronounce ‘Gary’ in her thick Polish/Yiddish accent. ‘Eliezer’ was shortened to ‘Lee’). Lee’s father died when Lee was just twelve, leaving this nerdy boy with the responsibility of saying kaddish thrice a day for eleven months just before his own bar-mitzvah, a period he describes as his ‘year of woe’. Although Lee gave up formal religion after that, his Jewish background informs his writing and world view, and as a fellow Red-Sea Pedestrian whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, this part of the book resonated strongly with me. I suspect that many Rush fans will skip those chapters. The rest of the book will probably be of little interest to anyone else. But for Rush fans who happen to be Jewish, this will hit the spot.

UntitledHilary Mantel: A Memoir of my Former Self: A Life In Writing The late Hilary Mantel was the author of Wolf Hall and its sequelae, together a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the canny and ruthless advisor to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its immediate sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Booker Prize, but even more prestigious accolades awaited: Wolf Hall was my read of 2016, and the third volume, The Mirror and the Light, was in my top ten in 2021. A Memoir of my Former Self is an anthology of her journalism. It’s an eclectic collection, including assorted film reviews for the Spectator (she liked RoboCop, but not Mickey Rourke); delvings into her ancestry; reflections on the craft of writing historical fiction (and for her, writing was very much a craft); occasional pieces on travel; musings on a fetish for stationery; and — most of all — her reprinted Reith Lectures. What shines through this scatter of pieces, sometimes funny and demotic, occasionally dense and philosophical, is a barely suppressed rage at her own treatment by the medical profession. In her twenties she experienced agonising abdominal pains, which were brushed off by (male) doctors as symptoms of depression. It’s turned out that they were gynaecological and very real. Severe endometriosis required a complete hysterectomy and the excision of parts of her bladder and bowel at the age of 27, the consequences of which she was to endure for the rest of her life. Even in this supposedly enlightened age, the medical profession treats female patients as so many hysterical women, to be patronised with valium and told to go away and pull themselves together. Mantel’s death in 2022, aged only 70, from a stroke, was a grievous loss to literature.

Posted in Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

Bookshelf

Recovery

Shelfie.

Shelfie.

You’re reading again.

my brother remarked, last fall.

You said you couldn’t read before.

I jolted. It was true.

When I am depressed I lose the ability to read books. This is one of the worst symptoms. Staring at the same paragraph over and over, unable to make words stick, knowing I need distraction and unable to escape. My brother loves books, and conversations about them. I envied him ploughing through novels, plays and biographies. But by the second half of last year, I was talking about books I was reading again.

Hallelujah!

Bible Study

Four years earlier, abruptly in need of a Bible, I consulted Amazon. The choice overwhelmed me so I asked Fiona

which Bible should I get?

She picked one out for me. When I screenshotted the dispatch notice email to assure her – and myself – I had gone ahead with the purchase, she spotted that I had thrown a box of posh chocolates into my basket too:

can recommend eating chocolate when reading the bible

Clergy-approved approach to scripture.

Win!

Bog standard Bible

Bathroom cabinet containing a bible.

Blasphemy or pragmatism? You decide.

I found getting to grips with God’s word one of the toughest parts of the journey, In true depressed fashion I berated myself for this. Was I sceptical? Faithless? Stupid?

With osmotic ambitions, I acquired lots of Bibles and put them everywhere. I carried paperback Gospels around with me, only for my copy to get soaked by the rain. I bought an NT Wright commentary on the New Testament which I thought might be easier going but was not. A Dorling Kindersley commentary on The Bible aimed at younger readers with lots of timelines and illustrations is a surprisingly useful reference.

I even bought a cheap copy of the New Testament NIV from a thrift store, to put by the loo.

In hindsight writing this all down now I can see that in a large part the challenge was not that I was unable to read the Bible, but more that I was unable to read at all. It was also last fall that, frustrated with my progress, I hit the start button on the Bible in a Year plan on my app. To my astonishment I have stuck with it ever since. At the time of writing I am more than a third of the way through, often reading the day’s assigned portion on the bus.

You might call it God’s timing.

Room at the Inn

Ask an Anglican, get a book

was a trope Fiona taught me.

They hand you a book when they don’t know what else to do.

True to form, whilst depressed-me set to work trying to convince myself I was too deep a miscreant to ever be worth of God’s love (Ha! Nice try!) Fiona dispatched me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel by sometime alcoholic and former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning. I flicked through the book but the fact I was unable to read seemed to only emphasise my unworthiness of All Of This. I abandoned the book to gather dust under my bed (sorry, Fiona). I returned to Ragamuffin later, won over – finally – by among other things, Philip Yancey’s What’s so Amazing about Grace? (Great title.)

I cleared space on my bookshelf for church related books, and for several months found that I had gone from being unable to read at all, to being unable to read anything other than church-related stuff. I quickly graduated from books covering the basics, important though they are. I read books about calling, communion, grace, parish life and ministry; Lancelot Andrews’ sermons and their commentary, biography. Prayers and books on prayer. One of the most bizarre experiences was that when I went to church for those few months pre-pandemic in early 2020, I considered getting confirmed. I downloaded a book on confirmation on Kindle and discarded it quickly, for it made no sense at all. But returning to it around the time of my confirmation for real, last October, everything had fallen into place.

The book had not moved, but I had.

Pretty soon I will have to move those Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions on the right. My bookshelf of faith is running out of room.

Bookshelf of faith

Those small weight plates are fractional plates, for strength training.

Echoes

I had my First Meeting with James about All That. Mostly, we looked back, on how far I had been brought by God and the good people of St Mary’s during the past year. How much I was gaining from my relationships with my church friends. And from bellringing, and the bellringers, my other church family.

James suggested some things for me to think about, and some things to do. These days, I lead Morning Prayer regularly on Wednesdays. Me, leading worship!

And, like Fiona, James sent me on my way with a book to read. This one is about leading churches.

Unnerving does not cut it.

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