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Build It And They Will Come

I love ponds. I love digging ponds. I love furnishing ponds with plants. I love watching as the wildlife spontaneously arrives. I have had a number of ponds in various places in my garden — and previously on an allotment —  as well as large containers full of water. I have become fond of those old galvanised tanks people used to have in their attics, found on Facebook marketplace and reclamation yards.

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But recently I had the urge to dig the biggest pond I could. Partly because I love ponds. But also because a pond, once established, is almost labour-free gardening, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with that part of the garden. So I started to dig. Here is the resulting hole. It’s about three metres in diameter and a metre deep in the middle. The scale bar at the bottom (we’re scientists, after all, we have to have a scale bar) is an old-fashioned imperial yard. So just short of a metre.

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I sculpted a rim round the edge for planting. After taking some time to make sure it was more or less the same elevation all the way round the rim, smooth it out and remove roots and sharp stones, I lined it with a thick layer of pond-maker’s fleece. This is woven by hand by artisans in Peru from the nose-hairs of specially bred alpacas, probably synthetic, and helps protect the overlying pond liner from any potential point sauces tzores sources of stress, such as any stones I hadn’t removed. Remember — water is very heavy.

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Then I wrestled the pond liner itself into place, a sheet of super-thick polythene six metres square. I got the fleece and liner from a specialist online shop. Thirty-six square metres of thick pond-grade polythene weighs a lot and was delivered on a palette by a lorry that got stuck trying to negotiate a right-angle bend at the bottom of our street. I had to rescue it with the family car. It was a squeeze even getting all that paletted polythene into the back of a large Volvo. This is some serious pondage. Very nearly a small lake.

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Only after all that fuss and flapdoodle could I fill the pond with water.

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After leaving it all to settle down, I introduced some gunge from the bottom of the large container where the frogs like to congregate in spring. Said gunge is probably full of all kinds of biology just waiting to burst out and stretch itself in all that water. Then I put in some plants — reeds and irises and water lilies that were getting out of hand in containers elsewhere. I added a few more plants from the garden centre.

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This is what it looks like today. It already looks great, though I still have to tidy up the excess polythene round the edges.

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While I was doing this, and other gardening, this afternoon, a neighbour put their head over the fence for a chat. It was then I noticed a damselfly on a stinging nettle near the pond. I hope it’ll be the first of many new visitors to the pond.

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Ah, weeds. I think I have the national collection of stinging nettles. Stingers love nitrogen-rich soil, and our soil is especially fertile after having had hens run all over it at various times. However, at this time of year the garden is also overrun with garlic mustard, red campion and speedwell. A few years back Mrs Gee scattered some wildflower seeds from a packet she got off the front of a magazine, I think, and now they’re rampant. I like weeds, because I am lazy gardener I like to encourage biodiversity in my small plot. I do get out the strimmer to keep paths clear, but that’s pretty much it. And I don’t have a lawn. Minimal gardening — and a pond.

Build it, and they will come.

Something else happened, too. After cleaning out the chickens, planting tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse, and doing other odd jobs in the sunshine, I felt the corners of my mouth and my cheeks crease up. It was a smile. Can’t remember the last time I smiled, spontaneously. Truly, getting out of doors and doing things in the sunshine is effective therapy.

Posted in Gardening | Leave a comment

Not Knowing Where You Are Going

One of the initiatives I started when I became Master of Churchill College was a series of public conversations with eminent women, many – but by no means all – academics. To start with I was quite nervous: would I run out of questions? Would my interviewee just answer in monosyllables (none of them ever did)? Would I put my foot in it accidentally by asking a question that felt too intrusive? Would I just fall over all my words and mumble? You can imagine the sorts of things that troubled me, but by and large none of them came to pass and I have enjoyed the interactions enormously. You can find the series of interviews on the Churchill website here. It may not have fulfilled my original objective of reaching out to students – sadly few of them ever found the time to come – but it has certainly been immensely satisfying for me!

Sharon PeacockMy last conversation, rather a bittersweet one given it was the last one now I am stepping down, was with my successor at the College, Sharon Peacock (pictured). Whereas many of the women I’ve talked to have had what one might call ‘typical’ careers, in that they went to university straight after school and then followed a fairly logical path, this cannot be said of Sharon. Here was a woman (the recording will be up on the Churchill website soon) who left school at 16 with no qualifications. Although, like her, both Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Sally Davies of my previous interviewees had failed that largely historic hurdle, the 11-plus, Sharon did not have the family know-how and backing to find ways round the setback so straightforwardedly as they did. Sharon went to a school that had low expectations and did not offer a route to the exam successes she would have needed to go on to A Levels and university in a straight path.

As a result, Sharon had to study both O-Levels (GCSE’s predecessor) and A-Levels in her evenings, while working in full time employment, starting with work in a dental surgery, and only finally got to university much later in her 20’s. It is interesting to note that my very first interviewee, Carol Robinson, had also not gone straight to university from school, but worked as a technician at a company that encouraged her to take qualifications and progress so in due course she could study for a PhD at Cambridge. Carol went on to become the first female professor in Chemistry at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where she still is, and will be receiving an Honorary Degree from Cambridge this summer. Sharon, meanwhile, has had a successful career in infectious diseases, before coming into the public limelight as the leader of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, something that was fantastically important as the world tried to combat the disease.

The point I want to make is that not all careers go in straight lines, including the highly successful ones. Luck – good or bad – plays a part in progression. Cultural capital arising from one’s family background is incredibly helpful to have, but neither Sharon nor Carol had the background to start off with it. This week, two activities I’m involved in will be confronting the issues of what happens if you didn’t have the best start in life.

Firstly, I am off to a school in the Fens, as part of the Speakers in Schools Programme, to talk to some Y12 students. I have been asked to give a ‘motivational and aspirational’ talk to a group who perhaps are coming from backgrounds thin on cultural capital, with little awareness of what a university education can and cannot do for them, but who have already made their post-16 exam choices.  These may be A-Levels or BTECs and they certainly won’t necessarily be in the sciences, so a fairly generic talk is required. I will certainly be ending up with a potted history of Sharon, to demonstrate that ‘not all those who wander are lost’ as Tolkien put it in a different context, a subject I have written about before, but as applied to postdocs.

Secondly, as part of the Royal Society’s Science 2040 project looking at what an ideal system for science should look like in 2040, I am leading a working group exploring ‘Future Careers’. We cannot and should not assume things ought to go on in the same way as now. What needs to change? We also importantly need to consider the overall needs of the entire science ecosystem and not just for those who may be the FRS’s of tomorrow. In this vein, I wrote recently about Ottoline Leyser’s comments regarding just how many different people contribute to an overall outcome to make a fully functioning science and innovation system. Our organisations – whether universities or not – need to recognize this in their incentives and progression systems. I suspect industry, for instance, is already much better at rewarding team work than our universities currently are.

At the end of the day, our education system and our society need to realise that A-Levels may not be the gold standard that everyone needs to work their way through if they are going to contribute to a fully functioning science system, although I doubt that T-Levels are the answer either. (In the Fens, for instance, how are schools going to find sufficient local businesses to provide 45 days useful and relevant work experience?) Equally, students setting out on their educational and career journeys need to understand that a beginning that does not fit the norm does not mean all doors are closed to them for ever more. It takes determination – as Sharon clearly demonstrated – luck and supporters within the family and far beyond, but nevertheless a great deal can be accomplished even with a shaky start.

 

Posted in A levels, careers, Churchill College, education, Fens, Science 2040, Science Culture, Sharon Peacock | Leave a comment

We need medicine

I caught up with Wanda on Friday.

She’d managed to inspect the captured swarm the day before, and all seemed hunky-dory. No eggs yet, but you can expect to wait a couple of weeks before a newly mated queen will start laying.

Bee on lavender

We opened up the main hive, and similarly couldn’t see any eggs. More concerning though was the complete absence of a queen. Our hypothesis is that we hadn’t destroyed all the queen cells before the new monarch had worked her way out, which probably means she’d been deposed by the existing workers, and any new queens had swarmed. There might still be a queen somewhere, but it’s not looking good for that hive.

Before I started working, she asked me not to stand on the large plantain that was standing by the hive. That led to a conversation about tea (which you can make from plantain), and the surprising properties of goosegrass—or cleavers, as Wanda knows it.

Afterwards, we inspected the grapevine that she’d bought for her husband a couple of years back. I asked her how she pruned it, and we talked about replacement vs cut-back methods. Then she asked me what I sprayed my vines with, and I said “Nothing,” as they spread over a large area and I’m concerned about the effect on beed.

So she told me about neem oil and its seemingly magical properties. She gave me her recipe for fungicidal/insecticidal use, adding that it worked a charm on broad beans (what is it about broad beans and blackfly?!). She even gave me a sample to try, which I will probably do at the weekend.

We talked about the tinctures she’s made with neem (including one for psoriasis), and other potions she’s cooked up and used to beneficial effect, and I asked if she could write them down and share with me so I could put them on my recipe site. She agreed, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to try some, or at least convince you to test a few, and we can do some experiments.

Because you can still do science, even if you haven’t been in a lab for 15 years.

Posted in bees, nature, neem, science, witchdoctor | Leave a comment

In which I make the best of things

BluebellsGreetings from the tail end of a typical British bank holiday, where the big highlight was gardening in the rain.

In all seriousness, it was rather lovely to be out tidying up the flower beds in the fresh air, among the blooming lilac and the first roses, hacking order from chaos through water-splattered specs. (When I was a kid I always longed for windscreen wipers for glasses, and even though the year 2024 sounds like science fiction, I’m still waiting.)

It made a nice break from grant writing, at least. I’m on the home stretch, finishing up the last of four I’ve been wrangling this spring, probably the one I’m most excited about. It’s due next week, and I’m confident everything is under control. The competition will be tough, but I’ve got a great foundation, building on our published work in a way that seems logical but also timely and exciting.

It bothers me that I seem to spend most of my research time writing grants – singing for my supper instead of eating, let alone enjoying the meal. I’m painfully aware that there are a few manuscripts that would go more quickly if I only had more time to spend helping their lead authors out. But the way I’m funded at the university, I have to prioritise writing the bids that will bring in small fractions of salary, cobbling together my two days a week buyout from teaching. It’s not easy to mastermind a continuous 40% salary, but just when I think I’m going to default, something always comes through for me. I could honestly do without the stress, but having lived with it for nearly a decade, I’ve learned how to keep the anxiety largely at bay.

I always feel guilty working evenings, weekends and holidays, though, which I’ve been doing a lot recently. At least my family are understanding, for which I’m grateful. When I have to work through my down time, I sometimes try to make it seem more bearable by surrounding myself with a special environment, to make the labour feel more like a holiday. Normally this time of year I’d park my laptop on the bistro table under the grape arbour by the little cascade and pond that R. built me. But this spring has been more or less a cold wash-out, so I’ve spent a lot more time in our summerhouse cabin with a fire in the wood stove to keep away the chill.

a cabin with wood stove

The cabin is my sanctuary. It’s quiet, bright, smells of seasoned pine, is carefully decorated and offers a lovely view over the lush back garden terraces. When the sun shines, a fountain splashes in a stone trough on the porch; when it rains, the drops tap comfortingly on the roof. Birdsong filters through: robin, wren, blackbird, dunnock, tit. The wood stove is a marvel of efficiency, burning slowly through kiln-dried logs which I spice up with fragrant dried bark from our eucalyptus tree, making the interior toasty-warm. A small glass of wine does not impair my intellect.

In this space, I can pretend that the overtime is pleasure, is voluntary, is what I would have chosen to spend my holiday on if I’d truly had a choice.

Posted in academia, careers, Domestic bliss, Gardening, Research, staring into the abyss, The profession of science, work-life balance | 1 Comment

Ambivalence, reluctance and the Jesus scale

About eight months or so ago, I started talking about the concept of a scale of faith in Christ. I christened it the Jesus scale. Here is a diagram:

The Jesus scale.
Created with PGF/TikZ, the tool I used to create the figures in this post.

On the far left, you have antitheism, hard determinism, militant atheism, and frankly a lot of rage. Moving along the scale, you come to spiritual but not religious, vague belief in some sort of higher power but no deity, and moralistic therapeutic deism. Somewhere along the line there is baptism, cultural Christianity, regular churchgoing. Heartfelt profession of faith. Further up the scale are people more churchy than you and that is where it gets unsettling. The scale goes further still: the religious life, say. Anchoresses. At some point we move out of my comfort zone entirely: young-earth creationism, Biblical literalism. Damaging fundamentalism. Again: rage.

Political extremes are not a scale but a cycle. Communism becomes fascism if you follow it far enough. So it is for religion. Both antitheism and fundamentalist Christianity use their doctrines as justification for oppression. A pair of inflexible positions rooted in fear and in hatred.

One weakness of this model is that it fails to account for other faiths. I would be interested in exploring how this concept plays out there. Anyhow, my coming to faith meant moving up the Jesus scale so fast I ended up with spiritual whiplash. Just about now, as that seems to be resolving, I have hit a new problem.

All possible means

I was prompted to come up with the Jesus scale after noticing that when I have conversations about faith, and sometimes other topics, I carefully figure out where other people might be on the Jesus scale, and pitch my words and behaviour so that my range on the scale presents as overlapping with theirs. If I do not do this, in either direction, I alienate them fast. When I dare to think about what type of priest I can see myself being, I want to be the guy who can hit all the bases, with the exception of the extremes. This is not a new desire. As the apostle Paul puts it:

20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

Middle-class, middle-England Brits feel comfortable with the weak-tea-and-unthreatening edit of Christianity beloved of western Anglicans and expressed well by David Cameron (right). When I am around people who fall in this camp, we talk about how church is “just like any other organisation really” (yes and no), how Christians are mostly just kind people (hah!), and lean heavily on jokes about the CofE being, well, mostly tea.

Fear not.

I reassure them,

You’ve not lost me to those people.

gesturing at the terrifying other. I keep quiet about my relationship with Jesus and how my prayer life is going, and am careful never to describe how by the time the weekend rolls around I ache for the absolution and Eucharist. That would not go down well and might make them afraid or hostile.

At the other end of the scale are prayer warrior friends who think nothing of grabbing our hands and praying openly during teas and coffees after the service (yes, really) and describing their lives in terms of the work of the spirit. During that prayer bit, I felt a prat. But we were planning a New Year’s Party at the time and had hit a roadblock. We prayed that the Lord would guide us to the right venue, that a lot of people would join us, and for hot men. Reader, we got all three. But if this kind of shenanigans makes me feel awkward, no wonder when I try to talk about my sense of vocation with James, I clam up, feel horribly vulnerable, and become all thumbs.

My Lord I beg you to send someone else, not me.

13But Moses said, “My Lord, I beg you to send someone else, not me.”

At our most recent meeting, James explained the expectation that I would be able and willing to articulate my sense of calling. Not keen on this prospect, I closed out the meeting by saying

Right, I’m off to cry to my therapist

He seemed not to understand. James is at a different place on the Jesus scale.

I sought solace in a video call with a supportive friend. I explained the Jesus scale to him.

What I’ve gotta do

I continued

is get more comfortable talking a bit further up the scale. I have to be able to articulate it.

You,

I indicated, gesturing some sort of mid-range of values

your range is here, but once I start talking about my relationship with Jesus…

and my friend visibly winced. The cringe is real, right? Zealotry is alienating. But the opposite is also true. Priests who joke about not believing in God provoke a related sense of disquiet for the nascent Christian.

When I am with a different cohort of people, such as my friend who led us in prayer for the New Year’s Party, others in discernment, and God-fearing clergy, I flinch less, because our conversation is pitched different on the Jesus scale. For myself, I am now tasked with pulling what I am confident conversing about up in line with my inner experience. The outer and the inner are in different places. I am not worried about being not Jesus enough, but I do tend to frame my experiences with God in terms of defensive jokes.

My flinching friend digested what I am up against, sat back, and reflected:

I don’t envy you.

This made me feel validated, but hardly reassured. I am determined to get past this, but at this point in time I do not know exactly how. It matters not because I need to successfully navigate the Church of England discernment process, nor because I need to somehow convince James. Those things are in God’s hands. I could not fake them and nor would I want to. It matters for the sake of possible future ministry to others. If I am going to be a religious leader, I need a faith that other people can lean on – I like Matt Redman’s description of an unswerving faith – and it needs to be visible. Being able to articulate it, without shame, without flinching, without wanting to hide behind a cushion, is part of that.

15…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, …

Posted in career, careers, challenge, Clams, discernment, doubt, Faith, Life, PGF/TikZ, Prayer, the Jesus scale | Leave a comment

Learning to fly

Hive

Hive and seek

I’ve written at length about our hens. What I may not have mentioned is that last year we got a hive, and some bees to go in it.  The bees did what bees do, and we had a few jars of honey.

Honey

Honey

Tragically,  the colony died in November, following that bizarre autumn we had with temperatures of 20ºC followed by a chill. I harvested what I could (including the ivy honey they’d made, which is an ‘acquired taste’), cleaned the frames up, and stored everything away.

We started again in mid-April, with a fresh 5-frame nucleus, and although they struggled a bit with the wet weather we’ve been having, they are doing the bee thing now. We’re a little wiser, and hopefully this colony will fare better.

Part of the ‘wiser’ thing involves talking to people who have been doing this a while.

I answered a call for help on the local beekeepers’ association WhatsApp last week. Someone was worried about the behaviour of their bees. The consensus was that they were swarming, but as she had just had a knee replacement (her own, not a bee’s knee), she was unable to do the lifting of heavy hive parts needed to inspect the colony.

Bee thyme

Bee having the thyme of her life

As I had some time on my hands, I offered to help. I’d also noticed from her video that she had the same sort of hive as me—a clever set-up that allows you to drain the honey from the frames rather than needing to faff around with centrifuges and whatnot. I thought I might be able to get some tips.

Inspection

Inspecting the flow

I got there, we talked a little, then we suited up and starting looking at the frames.

What we discovered was that the queen had not been laying eggs, and had probably departed with the swarm (or had died or otherwise vamoosed). We also found an empty queen cup—the special cell that queens grow in when the not-so-loyal subjects of the old queen decide it’s time for a new one. We had no idea where either queen was, and weren’t minded to check every single frame looking for her.

We put the hive back together, and I was about to de-suit when Wanda’s husband came home, suited up in motorcycle gear. Turns out Chris is allergic to bees, although very keen on the art, and build all the equipment.

Chris, having no clue about what we’d seen in the hive, said,

“There’s a swarm in the lane.”

So I put my suit back on, grabbed a polystyrene bait hive that Chris dug out from behind the shed, and went to collect my first swarm.

I snipped away a few branches and brushed as many bees as I could into the bait hive, and then strapped it to the fence.

Bait hive

Looking for a new pad

When I went back a few days later to help Wanda instal a new queen to the original hive (yes, you can mail-order royalty), she told me that she’d gone out later and found the new queen in the swarm, and captured her in the bait hive. So we split the old hive (finding another queen cup as we did so), so that the queen Wanda had found would have some stores and brood in her new pad, and installed the new queen in the old hive.

I will go back at the end of the week and check that both colonies are doing OK.

It turns out that Wanda and Chris have been keeping bees for about 25 years. They had an operation with 100s of hives in Zimbabwe, and I am hopeful to hear lots more tales of their adventures there, where beekeeping is more akin to guerrilla warfare than the (mostly) gentile pastime it is here.

What fun.

Posted in bees, Gardening, hens, nature, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Stupid Chemists (perhaps)

I’ve recently returned from my annual visit to the High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the picturesquely named village of Pott Shrigley at the Western edge of the Peak District. This is a conference about which I have written before, following its evolution from the scarey place full of established and unwelcoming male chemists I encountered as a young researcher back in the mid-1980’s, to a much more diverse and inclusive group of people working across the polymer domain. If you want to know about the science discussed under the theme of Polymers in the Age of Data, I refer you to Richard Jones’ excellent summary on his own blog. My take on the conference will be more focussed on the human aspects.

Over the years I’ve been going, my own years have clearly advanced. Now, I have reached the heady heights of chairing the committee that oversees this annual event. One consequence of this is that I am expected to produce an after-dinner speech on the final evening. For any international readers, this idea may be somewhat alien, but it is a standard activity at more formal dinners in the UK. I have, in my capacity as Master of a Cambridge college, had plenty of experience of exhorting students in the college to better things, and reminiscing about the College’s activities (and why donations are so important to support our students) at alumni dinners. Neither of those sorts of speeches would fit the bill very well at this conference, as I discussed in my speech last year. (I may say my predecessor as chair was Andy Cooper. He gave an excellent talk this year about his robot-based synthetic chemistry lab, on which more later, but as chair for three years he managed to get away with only giving one after-dinner speech, due to two years of cancellation because of the pandemic.)

The challenge is, at least in part, because this is not a speech that can be written in advance, as it needs to take into account what the different presentations covered. So, the afternoon before the conference dinner may need to be set aside for dreaming up amusing anecdotes to include. The strategy I have taken, both last year and this, is to make notes, at the time, of the particular bon mots I want to include and then weave them together. It works for me, but probably wouldn’t for everyone. This year, speakers seemed to cover much about the skills needed, and the skills that perhaps robots lack. As Andy put it in his own talk, his ‘robots are the world’s stupidest chemists. We need humans in the loop.’ However, it is also the case, as Tanja Junckers said, that ‘robots are much more consistent than graduate students.’ Hence, using them (the robots that is) for repetitive grunt work absolutely makes sense, with the added advantage that they can work 24/7 without complaint.

Given that the whole theme of the conference was what can and can’t be automated, what data we do or don’t have, and how we’re going to tackle the gaps in knowhow and robust data, it isn’t surprising that much was said about how the average researcher fits into this evolving landscape. Michael Meier, who was obviously pushing the limits both of the chemistry and of his students, remarked that he had ‘some students very frustrated with the Chemistry he was requiring of them’ and that often there were various routes to some end point, but ‘all of them were crap’. However, whatever his students might have felt, he himself remained excited about his research, including one project that he called his James Bond project; you can imagine the sort of flavour that had.

One of the major problems in this area is that there are data on only a subset of all the possibilities – be it in molecular structure, or a particular property over a specific if narrow range of parameters. How do you construct a database under these circumstances? Jacqui Cole has been working hard at scraping the literature to build a huge dataset, but up till now she has concentrated on small molecules, often inorganic. To move into the polymer world is hard, as she admitted, saying not only that ‘polymers are messy and difficult’ but that overall ‘polymer science is really hard.’ I suspect those words will have resonated with everyone in the room, even if not applying all of the time. Polymer science is, of course, endlessly fascinating as well, or we wouldn’t all be doing it.

But careers do not go in a straight line – something I frequently tell the Churchill students (particularly at the Freshers’ and Graduates’ Dinners) as well as writing about here over many years – and that sentiment turned up too in the presentations, when Adam Gormley said flatly ‘I didn’t design my career to get here.’ Who does ‘design’ a career, even if synthetic chemists may try to design a macromolecule? Our final speaker, Filip du Prez, was perhaps being flippant, or cynical, when he praised those students who ‘boost their supervisors career’ – he was after all the only thing standing between the delegates and the conference dinner, so perhaps a little lightheartedness was in order.

It was an incredibly stimulating conference. I have picked out the comments I have, because I noted how many people addressed some quasi-social aspects of the area. I’m not sure that this is so common in conference presentations, but perhaps this field particularly lends itself to rueful remarks about human/machine-learning/robot/data interactions in ways that other parts of the discipline do not. I’ll be watching out next year to see if the theme continues.

 

 

Posted in careers, data, Pott Shrigley, Research, robots, Science Culture | Leave a comment

My first music library conference – April 2024

Last month I attended the IAML UK & Ireland Annual Study Weekend (ASW).  IAML is the International Association of Music Libraries, and this is an event run each year by the UK & Ireland branch. This was the first time I have attended a music library conference. I’m an old hand at libraries generally but a novice in terms of music libraries, so I had a curious mix of feelings. I felt a certain confidence but then kept remembering I have no experience in music librarianship. I know little of its history and I lack experience of what works, what’s been tried before, what all the factors are that influence how systems are set up as they are.

Leeds

This year the ASW was held in Leeds. On the morning before the conference started I spent some time exploring the city and its 19th century glories – the huge covered market, the opulent shopping arcades, the town hall. Leeds is an impressive city.

Leeds town hall, built 1853-58. 40 years ago I sang the Verdi Requiem in this building.

County Arcade.

The ASW organisers had arranged some library tours for delegates and I enjoyed seeing and learning about the history of the Leeds Library – this is a private library that was founded in 1768 with Joseph Priestley as it first Secretary. The tour gave insights into the social history of the city and the reading habits of its citizens.  If you’re ever in Leeds I recommend a visit to this library – they have regular tours, or you can just visit as a guest at certain times of day.

Interior of Leeds Library.

Blue plaque outside Leeds Library.

The first talk of the ASW was about a book recently published on popular music in Leeds. It was given by three of the co-editors: Brett Lashua, Paul Thompson and Kitty Ross.  The book, Popular Music in Leeds, brought together the perspectives of historians, community historians, sociologists, journalists and musicians and that mixture is reflected in its subtitle – “Histories, Heritage, People and Places”.

Sounds of our City.

The three speakers described the book and the way it came about. In 2020 Leeds Museums & Galleries created an exhibition (curated by Kitty Ross) called ‘Sounds of our City’ to celebrate music in Leeds. This opened just before the COVID lockdown, so it was quickly turned into an online exhibition. It focused on places in Leeds where music of all sorts was made. By various twists and turns the exhibition inspired the book.  An app is also under development which will map Leeds popular music venues and history, as well as images. Leeds is home to the world-renowned triennial Leeds International Piano Competition (LIPC) and the 2024 event is already under way.  In a wide-ranging presentation given by key staff of the LIPC we learnt about its history and the achievement of its founder, Fanny Waterman, in creating LIPC, and how efforts are now being made to address the gender gap. Another session which focused on Leeds and its cultural heritage was the after-dinner session of archive and special collection ‘speed dating’. We moved around ten tables, each with a librarian and an item from their collection. They had three minutes to explain what the item was and what it signified. At the end we each voted for our favourite item, and then the winner was declared. This was a great session and left me wanting to know more about all the items. I am planning a separate blogpost about this.

Music librarianship

One of my aims in attending the IAML ASW was to learn more about the community of music libraries/librarians in the UK. The conference was a nice size – about 35 attendees – so it was easy to interact with most of the people there, and find out about their work.  I also gained insights into a number of other interesting and/or inspiring tales from the broader music library world. Three of the talks at the ASW gave insights into the work of music librarians. Peter Linnett described a raft of EDI initiatives at the Royal College of Music library. Sarah Lewis told us about her experience of moving into music librarianship, as Subject Librarian for the Creative Arts at University of Lincoln. She is developing a Libguide for the music dissertation module – it looks very good and thorough, focusing on the needs of the learner rather than on the resources. Charity Dove gave a very personal account of her 17 years working as subject librarian for music at Cardiff University. She didn’t shy away from describing some very challenging times. Her intense connection with and dedication to her user community shone through strongly. It’s always good to hear about successful innovations and Hannah McCooke’s account of musical instrument lending in six Edinburgh public library branches was very inspiring. It’s also a reminder that not all music librarianship happens in places that are called music libraries.  The Edinburgh scheme started in August 2022 and is a collaboration with the Tinderbox Collective – a collective of young people, musicians, artists and youth workers in Scotland.  The scheme has already accumulated more than 300 instruments and in 2023 recorded over 900 loans. They have a musician-in-residence who offers tuition one day a week and puts on workshops.  The scheme has reached hundreds of children, and adults too.  They have a heap of testimonials and events under their belt. The scheme has spread beyond Edinburgh and I expect it will grow further. The session of most direct interest to me was the one about the lending of vocal and orchestral sets in the UK, as I am volunteering in a library that lends sets to choirs and orchestras.  Lee Noon, from the Leeds performing arts library, outlined the complexity of current provision and the pressures that choral and orchestral set collections face. Someone observed that provision of sets of scores is a national service that is run at a local or regional level.  This makes it harder to provide a national strategy and achieve economies of scale. How can we move to a more unified system of set lending? The Encore21 catalogue is a key piece of infrastructure, supported by IAML UK&Irl, but it needs to be made sustainable. It uses Koha technology which works well and is flexible, but Encore21 could be improved by adding a lending system to the catalogue. This would allow users to move easily from locating a set to effecting a loan. While desirable, this would be a big undertaking and would take some work to get agreement from all current Encore21 participants. Even agreeing a common pricing system could be very tricky. Someone suggested that the system should also cover wind band and brass band music, and should try to bring in more providers. I wondered whether something like the UK Research Reserve would be helpful for music,  to help manage holdings of rarely-requested music sets. Exploring that possibility would be another major project. It was noted that a survey of current providers of music sets will be launched soon, and this will be useful alongside the results of the Encore21 user survey.  I see that the Music Libraries Trust also ran a survey in 2020 and produced a report in 2022 that might guide thinking.

Ethics, diversity, archives

The session on cataloguing ethics was instructive and generated a lively discussion. It was good to hear research perspectives from Deborah Lee, a lecturer at UCL’s Department of Library & Information Studies with expertise in music knowledge organisation, and from Diane Rasmussen McAdie, Professor of Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University. Diane was a member of the Cataloging Ethics Steering Committee which drew up the Cataloguing Code of Ethics in 2021. Caroline Shaw (British Library) gave two very practical examples. In  one project context notes were added to 200 catalogue records to flag up offensive language in song titles. In another case, pushing for inclusive language led to a change in an institution’s style guide. Another talk, by Loukia Drosopolou, told us about an 18 month-long project to catalogue the archives of some women musicians – Harriet Cohen, Astra Desmond and Phyllis Tate. This is valuable work to increase representation and make resources available to music historians. History was also the focus of Geoff Thomason’s talk about the friendship between Adolph Brodsky and Ferruccio Busoni. They got to know each other when they were both in Leipzig and kept up links when Brodsky moved to Manchester as a professor at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM). Brodsky suggested to Busoni that he could move to Manchester to become professor of piano, but he declined. This detailed talk showed evidence of many hours spent researching in the RNCM archives to unearth the history between the two musicians.

IAML

Several sessions provided updates about IAML and the IAML UK&Irl branch, how they work, and what they do. There is a need to broaden membership to include people outside of libraries – someone said ‘Music is everywhere’ not just in libraries, so it would be good to reach out to other places where there are music collections. I think it would also be good to include people from the music publishing business, and from the digital music sector. I think that the inclusion of multiple points of view in the group can only be a good thing. Janet Di Franco, the IAML UK&Irl branch president, gave us a good impression of the challenges ahead, and the need for us to get involved in the work of the group. Overall I found it an interesting and engaging small conference and hope I will be able to attend another IAML ASW in the future.
Posted in Libraries and librarians, Music | Leave a comment

What I Read In April

UntitledCixin Liu: The Dark Forest This is the sequel to The Three-Body Problem, which I read last month. In that book, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie sends a signal into space that alerts another species to human existence. The species inhabits a planet that orbits chaotically in a system of three suns. As a result, this planet, Trisolaris, is subject to extreme and unpredictable climate swings. When the Trisolarans learn of Earth’s equable situation, they launch an invasion fleet. In the centuries that the Trisolaran fleet will take to reach Earth, humans do their best to think of ways to counter the Trisolaran menace. It turns out that the Trisolarans have a way to infiltrate all human communication in real time. But they have a weakness, for, unlike humans, they are completely incapable of deceit. Human thought, in human brains, remains opaque to them. Thus the humans come up with the Wallfacer Project, in which four humans are chosen to think deep thoughts and possibly come up with a scheme to counter what comes to be seen as an otherwise insuperable threat. The least likely of the four Wallfacers is unambitious astronomer Luo Ji. Nobody knows why Luo has been chosen — except that someone, somewhere, keeps trying to kill him. This leads Luo into what at first seems an unlikely partnership with rough-hewn detective Shi Qiang (my favourite character from the first book). This book is as rich and as deep and as full of marvels as The Three-Body Problem — and as full of absorbing red herrings, diversions and dramatic plot twists. To sum up, it’s a cross between the fable of the Three Little Pigs and an exegesis on the Dark Forest Hypothesis — that the reason why the Universe seems devoid of intelligent life is that the civilisations that last are those that do their best to remain hidden. For in the Dark Forest, there are wolves. Like The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest is a tour de force of modern science fiction. Moving on to Death’s End, the final book in the trilogy…

UntitledCixin Liu: Death’s End This novel begins in an unlikely place and time — Constantinople, as it is about to fall to the Turks in 1453. A prostitute discovers that she has amazing magical powers… which fail just when they are most necessary. The significance of this is revealed later. Back to the near future, the United Nations, keen to raise funds, start a cheesy scheme to ‘sell’ star systems to the public. Few take up the offer, but one is terminally ill Yun Tianming, a former college classmate of brilliant astrophysicist Cheng Xin, who secretly has a crush on her. Having come into money just before his death, Yun Tianming buys Cheng Xin a distant star system. The significance of that is revealed later, too. Later still, Yun … or rather, his brain … is sent by Cheng Xin in an experimental probe to spy on the advancing Trisolaran fleet, but is lost. Meanwhile, the now aged Wallfacer Luo Ji (from The Dark Forest) comes up with an ingenious deterrent that will prevent the Trisolaran fleet from attacking the Earth — a threatened broadcast into space of the location of Trisolaris, which will bring down a so-called ‘Dark Forest Strike’ from an unknown alien assailant. He moves from being Wallfacer to Swordholder, wielder of the deterrent. But this action runs the risk of exposing the Earth, too, at some future date. The Trisolarans call the Earth’s bluff just as Luo Ji hands the sword to his successor, Cheng Xin — who fluffs it. The significance of that, too, becomes apparent later. The Trisolarans invade the Solar System, but the deterrent is sent anyway by Gravity, one of the few spaceships that managed to evade the invading Trisolarans. Trisolaris is destroyed, and Earth seeks to find ways to either send a message of goodwill (thus preventing a strike) or to discover ways to protect the Solar System. Centuries later they are aided by an unlikely ally — Yun Tianming, who had been picked up by the Trisolarans and reconstituted into fully human form. He drops hints about possible strategies to Cheng Xin in the form of a fairy story, something that his Trisolaran handlers will not understand. Sadly, the humans — as it turns out — completely fail to understand the message, with dire consequences. But that is only the half of it, and what I have written hardly begins to convey the beauty, grandeur and melancholy of this stupendous book. Just like The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, Death’s End is full of old-fashioned SF super-science wound into engaging personal stories that called to mind everything from the aliens in Carl Sagan’s terrific novel Contact (read the book: please avoid the film adaptation, so dreadful that even Jodie Foster could not save it) to Flatland, a fantasy on life in two dimensions. For it turns out that space is not the wilderness we always thought it was. What we humans think of as the unshakeable laws of physics, such as the number of spatial dimensions, and the value of the speed of light in a vacuum, have been repeatedly adulterated by hyper-technical civilisations that are constantly at war, and the Universe we know is the bombed-out wreck of what was once an Edenic state. Like its predecessors in this majestic trilogy, Death’s End combines prose as delicate and beautiful as a traditional Chinese brush painting with huge passages of exposition that shouldn’t really work, but rather than hold up the narrative, they only increase the tension. I found it by turns suspenseful, exciting and at times intensely moving. I can safely say that The Three-Body Problem, considered as a trilogy (for it is just one long story), is the first book I have come across that knocks The Night Circus off its perch as the best book I’ve read in the past decade, and that Cixin Liu is the most compelling author of hard SF I’ve come across since I first read the nouveau space opera of Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds. Having devoured the trilogy as audiobooks, I shall now buy the dead tree versions which I’ll set up at home where they’ll take pride of place in my alphabetically arranged SF library between Le Guin (Ursula) and Lovecraft (H. P.). Having said that, I might put The Three-Body Problem on a separate shelf, all on its own, as a shrine, and worship at it. For The Three-Body Problem trilogy is a masterpiece in anyone’s cosmos.

UntitledDonald L. Miller: Masters of the Air As you both know, Offspring#2 is the Gee family’s resident projectionist, with a knack of discovering televisual emissions that others might enjoy. So it was that she spotted Masters of the Air, a mini-series about the lives, loves, horrible deaths, incarcerations and occasional survival of the boys (they were, really, just boys) of the American bomber crews stationed in East Anglia during the Second World War. And so Offspring#2 passed me the book of the film, as it were, which turns out not to be a drama at all but a serious and well-researched work of military history, a genre I rarely touch, if ever. Well before Allied infantry set foot in Hitler’s Fortress Europe, and while the sea lanes were still prowled by U-boats, the crews of the US Army Eighth Air Force (the US Air Force did not become a service separate from the Army until 1947) flew their B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses over Germany, at first unescorted by fighter support, with the aim of the pinpoint destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure (the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt feature strongly) and do so in broad daylight, with rather small bombs. They largely failed, and that they were mercilessly shot up by the Luftwaffe is to be expected, but US planners felt that such a stiletto approach would be more humane than the bludgeon wielded by the RAF, devised by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, of saturation bombing of German cities by night, with much larger bombs. The strategy only began to achieve success after D-Day, when fighters that could escort the bombers became available, and when strategists finally realised that striking Germany’s oil refineries and synthetic oil plants would cripple the Reich. That, and Hitler’s hurried scheme of devoting resources into futuristic weapons such as ballistic missiles and jet aircraft that would be payback for the destruction of German cities, but which came too late. In the end, though, the inaccurate targeting of the Eighth Air Force ended up converging with the merciless slaughter dealt by RAF Bomber Command. Masters of the Air is an intriguing if rather dense read, and shows, once again, that the schemes of military theorists far from the front are tested by many others with their lives, and underlining that old dictum that the best-laid plans of any military strategist rarely survive first contact with the enemy.

UntitledAmor Towles: A Gentleman In Moscow Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, late of ‘Idle Hour’, an estate near Nizhny Novgorod, returns to Russia from Paris after the Revolution to set his grandmother’s affairs in order. He is rounded up by the Bolsheviks, who, rather than shoot him for being a  ‘social parasite’, have what seems to be a worse fate in store. He is made a ‘former person’ and confined for life to the luxurious Hotel Metropol, just opposite the Bolshoi Ballet and within sight of the Kremlin, there to live at the state’s expense, in a tiny attic room, as he is forced to watch the collapse of his privileged world. But the Bolsheviks hadn’t reckoned on the resourcefulness of their prisoner. Rostov’s late guardian, the Grand Duke, had instilled in the young Count not only perfect manners, but an unshakeable maxim: you must become the master of your circumstances, lest you become mastered by them. So Rostov adapts to his new life and finds in it contentment as he encounters poets, actors, waifs, strays, journalists, diplomats, party apparatchiks, petty bureaucrats, movers and shakers among the hotel’s guests. His old-world decorum finds him taking a job as Head Waiter at the hotel’s prestigious Boyarski restaurant, as well as advising the New Russians on how best to conduct themselves in foreign company. This perfectly constructed novel is every bit as elegant and well-comported as its protagonist, with wry, funny asides and delicate prose lightly concealing the ups, downs — and horrors — of the Soviet Union from its birth until the early 1950s. I found it most affecting. Now I’ve finished, I find myself missing Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known to his friends as Sacha, a man with a steely resolve buried, seeming very deeply, beneath his well-groomed exterior.

UntitledSusanna Clarke: Piranesi A young man called Piranesi lives in a strange, Borgesian world, an infinite series of gigantic marble halls styled on classical lines, and ornamented by uncountable statues. The highest halls are full of cloud: the lowest, inundated by the sea. Piranesi is content, making fires of dried seaweed, eating delicious concoctions of seaweed, mussels and fish, communing with the many birds that flock the halls, and tending to the needs of the various mummified corpses found, now and again, in odd corners unoccupied by statues. The only other living person is ‘The Other’, with whom Piranesi meets each Tuesday and Friday. But all is not as it seems. There are intrusions from another world, revealed at first by odd facts, such that the bones of one of the dead people are stored in a box marked ‘Huntley and Palmer’s Family Circle’; and the mention, by The Other, of nonsensical words such as ‘Battersea’. The unravelling of Piranesi’s world is seen through his eyes — or, rather, through his meticulous diary entries, for Piranesi documents  the events as obsessively and seemingly as uncomprehendingly as the autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. At first one is inclined to think that Piranesi is a psychiatric patient, and all indications suggest that this is the case. But as with everything in this story, nothing is really what it seems. Not even Piranesi. A beautiful book, if slightly unsettling.

UntitledFerris Jabr: Becoming Earth Those who seek for life elsewhere in the Universe first need to understand this: that life does not just exist on Earth. It is everywhere. Life clothes every surface. Everything that is living hosts other living things on, inside and around it, and these motes host smaller things too. Life modifies the Earth to make its habitat amenable to yet more life. Even the inanimate world might be very different were it not for the all-pervading influence of life. In this evocative hymn to life, journalist Ferris Jabr shows just how much life has shaped the Earth during its long history. Life enhances, speeds up, facilitates geology. Everyone knows that we owe our breathable atmosphere to life, our nourishing soil. Fewer will realise that without life, plate tectonics might not be what it is. Most of the minerals extracted from the Earth would not exist without life.  In his quest to understand the interconnections between Earth and life, Jabr climbs dizzying towers into the canopy of the Amazon rainforest to show how forests create their own weather, and descends deep into old mine workings to show how life thrives far underground. And yes, he meets a centenarian James Lovelock, originator of the ‘Gaia’ theory of how living things regulate the environment to keep it equable. Jabr is no blind follower of Gaia, though. To him, the whole planet is not a living thing — instead, Earth has come to be shaped by life in ways that could never have happened had life never existed. Loving and lyrical, in some ways this reminded me of classic nature writing such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. While Jabr reminds us of the current threats to the climate from human activity, he notes that progress is already being made. Things might not be as bad as they seem. For we humans are just as much a part of nature as the worms that burrow kilometres underground in search of bacteria, or the aeroplankton of spores and living dust that the winds carry in the air far above. [DISCLAIMER: this book was sent to me by the publisher for an endorsement].

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Time BEWARE There are spiders spoilers spiders. Generation starship Gilgamesh is the last hope of humanity to flee a dying Earth in search of a new home. Eventually they discover a gorgeous green planet that had been terraformed by an outpost of the long-gone human empire, watched over by a half-mad quasi-human guardian determined not to let any human land there and spoil her experiment in generating new sentient life. The life that arises, however, is not quite what the guardian — and the desperate crew of the Gilgamesh — had expected. Who will win the ultimate battle? Terrific, thrilling, madly inventive hard SF adventure. Moving immediately on to the sequel…

Posted in Writing & Reading | Leave a comment

Higher

This is a cross-post of something I wrote on LinkedIn.

Treehouse

It’s a treehouse rather than a strategy house but I still built it.

One of the most fun projects I’ve been involved in was the series of global Annual Brand Meetings we ran for a client. In partnership with the client we would come up with a theme for this 4.5-day meeting, build the agenda, organize workshops and liaise with other partners to build the room and the stage.

And of course write the slides.

Oh, the slides.

It was a Global Commercial Marketing-led event, with participation from affiliates around the world, and we would grapple with the Brand strategy and activation plans to address the challenges (and celebrate the successes) of the blockbuster product.

As a Writing team, we helped clients from Commercial, Medical and Market Access, from Global, the Regions and from selected Countries, put together their messages and presentations that recognized where we were, where we wanted to go, and—critically—how we were going to get there over the following 12 months. And we had to do all that in a manner that was clear, accessible, internally consistent, understandable across the global operation—and without killing people by PowerPoint. We had the opportunity to be reasonably creative with our slides, although people would often still try to cram too much into their presentation. A couple of times we even arranged some presentation skills training for them.

As I say, it was fun, if very hard work trying to balance all the conflicting demands of the different functions and personalities. On more than one occasion we’d deliver the showfile no more than 5 minutes before the scheduled start of a session, having been up most of the night putting the finishing touches on slides, before someone would come to us at breakfast and say “Oh, one last thing…”

One particular year just before the pandemic, the meeting had been reduced to 2.5 days to save budget. The theme of the meeting was ‘mountains’, because we were encouraging the entire Brand Team to make that final push for peak sales. Perhaps a little obvious, but we did get to play with some lovely photography and graphics concepts for the meeting.

And, because cramming the messages and value from four days into two and a half wasn’t enough of a challenge, someone made the decision (I honestly don’t remember if it was us or the client) to have slides made to fill the super-wide screen LED display that covered half of one wall of the 300-seater conference room.

For the most part, we used the centre of the screen for a standard 16:9 presentation and the outer parts for repeater screens and close-up video feed of the speaker. But for the intro talks in each session—i.e. the most senior presenters—we filled the screen. We are talking slides that were 4320 pixels wide and 940 deep. That’s more than four times wider than high, and a real challenge when you’re working on a tiny laptop screen.

Admittedly for most of those presentations we cheated a bit and had some static themed graphics either side, and only played with the middle third for content. We still had to contend with crammed graphs and tiny text supplied to us in standard PowerPoint and make them sing somehow, but it was doable.

Then as I was sitting in the slide room in the Barcelona conference centre, reflecting on 2 days of successful meeting and thinking about going and getting some dinner,the VP of Global Medical Affairs (the therapeutic area medical head) for this multi-billion dollar drug came up to me and said,

“Richard…”

Now, I liked VPGMA. We’d done some great stuff together, and had some really good discussions about the product and what we were trying to achieve. So I was inclined to be sympathetic to his request. And then he told me what he wanted.

He was due to open the proceedings for the final day—recap the meeting so far, give a 10-minute Medical Affairs talk, and introduce the morning’s speakers. He’d seen the amazing slide work we’d done for his colleagues in the other functions, and didn’t want to give the standard data-heavy medical spiel.

So we had a chat about how we could just use graphics with key numbers highlighted, the fewest possible words, and fit it all in under 3 minutes with some animations to bring it seamlessly together.

Then he dropped the bomb.

“And I want it to be timed,” he said, pulling up an MP3 on his laptop, “so that the messages come on screen at the same time as the words in the song”.

We listened to the song and I searched up the lyrics.

“Sure,” I said, without knowing if it was even possible. “We can do that.”

“And I don’t want to click through. I don’t want to say anything after presenting the agenda. I want it to run automatically from start to end.”

“Across the entire screen?”

“Across the entire screen.”

Dear Reader, I learned a lot about animation timings in PowerPoint that evening.

I sat in the slide room with the rest of the writing team, and as the night wore on and one-by-one they finished their own “one more thing”s, they gathered around the wide-screen TV I was using as a second monitor. Every now and then I’d say “Right, here we go,” and test the next 20-second segment. There’d be the occasional comment, such as “You’re a little bit fast, there”, and I’d go and tweak that one slide and then check all the other timings that were affected, before running the animation again.

We were heartily sick of the song by the time, a couple of hours after midnight, I exported the file as an MP4 and sent it to VPGMA with a short note asking for his approval.

In the morning, I had to upload the video to the AV desk, and explain to the AV crew that no, the first part isn’t slides, you need to switch from the holding screen to the video, and then back to the slideshow for the next presenter. They got it eventually, and we even managed to test it—with 5 minutes to spare, of course.

And the best part of this entire story?

It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Head of Medical receive a standing ovation at a Brand—or any other—Meeting.

 

Posted in client, Me, Powerpoint, War stories, work | Leave a comment