Guilty laughter. But still laughter.

As I sat here today, wrestling with an intransigent Master’s thesis (the thesis is NOT mine, though the intransigence is), as well as the sheer existential gloom of being back at The Bunker (aka the Medical School Building) after the Xmas break…

…something made me laugh out loud.

And then again. And again.

The thing in question, already plugged a bunch of times in the blogosphere, is the brilliant twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods

I defy any scientist not to be reduced to tears of laughter by this one, a variant of the long ongoing conference beer-call / after a few pints routine where we translate the formal language of the Methods Section of our own and other peoples’ papers into… well, into why we REALLY did it like that… [See e.g. this version from the wonderful PhDComics]

A favourite so far:

– which I definitely recognise from loading cells with fluorescent dyes.


And another one which made me smile with recognition is:

– which I also recognise from my youth sitting in small dark airless rooms with microscopes and lots of heat-emitting amplifiers, recorders and computers*.


One of the people who has plugged #overlyhonestmethods, Derek Lowe of the excellent In the Pipeline science/pharma/chemistry blog, comments:

“I’m adding a few myself, not that I would ever do anything like these, though, you understand.”


And, er, yes. What he said.

Unless, of course, there is a higher truth, or purpose, involved. For instance:

Take that, reviewer no. 3. As we say in the biz.


*Of course, given the legendary ineffectiveness of University heating, in Winter the microscope room was usually the only place to get as toasty warm as 20oC.


Postscript:  Via Drugmonkey, I learn that the originator of #overlyhonestmethods is apparently Drugmonkey’s fellow Scientopia blogger dr leigh, a neuroscientist who also writes a blog called Neurodynamics.

Good work, Dr Leigh.


Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

No passion please, we’re scientists

In which I put a damper on all this over-invoked passion.

Regular readers of this blog (you know who you are, you two – stop giggling at the back), or of others in the OT stable where I can be found grumbling in the comments, will know that I have an abiding loathing – you might even call it a *cough* passionate *cough* hatred – for PR bullshit, promotional-speak, and the misuse of language in things like job adverts.

This came up just yesterday in a conversation after Sylvia Mclain’s latest interesting blogpost on ‘The Life Scientific’. As we discussed over there, most scientists are committed to their work, and to the idea of science as a way to try and discern as much of the truth about the natural world as we can. Let’s face it, you would have to be pretty seriously committed to it to put up with stuff like this. Or this. Or this.


…WHY THE **!* does that commitment mean that people always have to reach for that over-used, and abused, word, ‘passionate’?

A few years back, job adverts in science always asked for people who were ‘enthusiastic’.

No longer, though. The bar has been raised. Now you have to be, not dreary run-of-the-mill enthusiastic, but passionate.

I was reminded of this again today when the British Pharmacological Society tweeted this:

Now, though I am not a member of the BPS, they are a sister society to the Phys Soc, and I’ve worked almost all my career in joint physiology-pharmacology departments so lots of my friends and colleagues are members. Anyway, I feel a sort of kinship. But, while I am a longtime advocate for ‘Education and Outreach’, there are some things that you simply can’t let go.

So I tweeted back:

This generated a few responses from the Twittersphere, including one from a Twitter pal of mine, an ex-postdoc and medical writer whose Nom de Tweet is @DrunkenOaf.

He pointed me to the following excellent clip, where comedian David Mitchell gets on his Soapbox and gives the modern promotional misuse of ‘passion’ a good old-fashioned kicking. I was cheering Mitchell on all the way.

David Mitchell pours cold water on passion

Interestingly, David Mitchell CLOSES his argument with an example from the world of – you guessed it – Universities.

No, no, I’m not going to tell you which University is

‘Passionate about everything we do.’

You’ll just have to watch the clip and find out.

Posted in Annoyances, Grumbling, The Interwebz, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Twenty five years without parole

In which I look back in… stunned disbelief?

It has been a rather strange week here. The main reason, I think, is that last Wednesday, on Feb 1st, I passed a rather unnerving landmark – twenty-five years working for the same employer.

Indeed, you might almost as well say “twenty-five years with the same job”.

I certainly have essentially the same job title – “Lecturer in Physiology” – as when I was appointed in those distant days when Mrs Thatcher, now immortalised in a weighty biopic, was still running the UK, and indeed had yet to win her third general election. Actually the original appointment letter from late 1986 said “Lecturer in Biomedical NMR Spectroscopy in the Department of Physiological Sciences”, but that title was short-lived (probably just as well given its length) , and when I was appointed permanently a few years later (1991?), that letter said “Lecturer in Physiology”. Or possibly just “Lecturer”

And so the job title has stubbornly remained these subsequent twenty years and more.

Now, you might think I must have learned a few things in my quarter century on the Faculty that I could pass on – but I struggle to think of many.

And in fact, I am often loathe to dish out advice at all.

There are a few reasons for this. One is in case I communicate to my younger colleagues too much of what some people (typically members of the senior management) call my “well-practised cynicism”. My younger colleagues don’t need that, after all – they have, on the whole, quite enough **** to deal with already.

[I recall that when one of my ex-PhD students (by then a postdoc in another lab in the department) was being appraised by one of our department’s most dynamic and going-places Professors, my ex-student was asked “Is the reason you want to quit research because Austin was your PhD supervisor?”.]

Another reason I don’t really “do” advice is that I am mindful that University Departments tend to be rather full of people who are only to keen to dish out advice at the drop of a hat – to the point that junior academic staff may well be swimming in the stuff, much of it probably conflicting One of my ex-Heads of Department used to quote a line to the effect that “the only advice worth having is advice someone actually asked for”, and I reckon that is a good maxim.

A third reason is that it is arguable that, as a junior staff member, you’d be best advised to get your advice from those who have demonstrated an ability to rise purposefully through the system – on the obvious basis that they must have been getting things right. In the light of that logic, a man with exactly the same job title after twenty-five years in the University perhaps wouldn’t be the best source of sage council – as I point out to any who ask, as a kind of Caveat Emptor.

A fourth reason is that I’m never terribly sure what advice to give. I’ve certainly received plenty of bits and pieces of it myself here and there, and I have to say that a lot of what I was told was not all that useful. Apart from the obvious stuff like:

“Guard your time zealously”

“Avoid department politics”

“Don’t give up at the first, second, or even third setback”

“Don’t agree to write a review article unless: (i) you’ve written it already or (ii) you really want to do it and you’ve got several months free”

“Never, ever, lend your colleagues money” and

“If someone tells you you should do something because ‘it’ll be good for your career’, you almost certainly shouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole

However, the ongoing discussion at OT about ‘What am I doing here?’ did bring back one piece of advice I was given, back when I was suffering from what I might now identify as an early career bout of Impostor Syndrome.

This dates from when I was a final year PhD student, and was talking to an older colleague with whom I was co-authoring one of my earliest papers. At the time I was having some doubts about whether we needed to do lots more stuff, use more sophisticated methods, add n numbers, more elaborate data analysis etc etc.

“Look” my colleague said “Do you REALLY think that these experiments of yours were somehow done worse than the other labs we know doing similar things do theirs?”

I had to admit that they probably weren’t.

“Well, just stop over-thinking all this and get on and write the paper.” he said.

And that advice, at least, I have occasionally been able usefully to pass on.


Posted in Getting old, Grumbling, Physiology, Procrastination, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities | 27 Comments

Making the grade?

Note:  Now with added game: scroll down

As the three chess-playing readers of this blog will know, club chess players who play regularly in club leagues end up with what in English chess is commonly called a ‘grade’ or ‘grading’, and in many other countries a ‘rating’.

This number is based on the gradings/ratings of the people you have played in competitive games, and the results, and gives an indication of how good a player you are. For instance, a reasonable standard competitive club player might be 150 on the English scale, someone with real pretensions as a player might be 200+, and a chess grandmaster would typically be 230 or above. There is some discussion and even the grading distribution from a few years ago here.

I last had one of these gradings as an 18 year-old in 1979, the last year I played chess before quitting to pursue a then rather all-consuming interest in (inter alia) punk rock electric guitar, dressing up in ridiculous clothes, and consuming cheap cider, beer and red wine [In other words, I became a student].

Anyway, I have played just enough games down at the chess club this autumn to have accrued one of these gradings again. It is 160 on the English scale, which equates approximately to somewhere around 1900 on the international (ELO) chess rating scale.

I am pretty sure this number is distinctly on the optimistic side, since I haven’t played against many players with ratings above this figure, and that is always the real test. But… I’m quietly pleased that I can play at all after so long. And it’s always good to know that your brain’s ability to solve cognitive puzzles hasn’t completely gone.

Although talking of cognitive puzzles – I should say that in my earlier chess-playing career I did at one point have a rating of approximately 160. That was in 1977, when I was 15 or 16 years old.

Always nice to get these things in their proper perspective.



PS  Now updated with an actual game…

For dedicated chess-ists, here’s a game to be going on with. It’s from the beginning of the chess ‘season’ back in late September. I remember it was an unseasonably warm night,  something of a contrast with now! This was an away match, and played in a South Manchester Conservative Club, so there were large portraits of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen hung about the place. Thankfully Mrs T was not hung in the room we were playing in, as I think her gimlet gaze, even on canvas, might have put me off.

It isn’t a terribly good game really – more one of those ones exemplifying Savielly Tartakower’s famous dictum that “the winner of the game is the one who makes the next-to-last mistake’ – but it was a tense struggle. I got a clear advantage in the opening, then let it slip rather around moves 17-21 , and then got it back when my opponent went wrong. In the endgame I was clearly winning, and was material ahead, but was terribly short of time – I reached move 30 with only 20 minutes left to finish the entire game, while my opponent had more than 50, and by the time the Queens had been exchanged on move 35 I was well into my last 10 minutes. This made the end of the game surprisingly tense.

I was quite pleased to win in the end – first because it’s nice to win, at least once in a while, and also because I’d been unexpectedly promoted to board 2 in the team and my opponent, who had a rating around, ECF 140 / 1750, was the highest-rated player I’d then played on the comeback trail. But it was most pleasing, I think, because winning out at the end of a back-and-forth 3 hr struggle helped convince me I could still play a little.

Anyway, notes more or less as I wrote them when I was analysing the game later.


AE – JB    Manchester Chess Association Wahltuch Team Trophy  Sept 2011

1. e4 e5  2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 d6  5. Re1

(I think White is supposed to play d4 straight away here, but I had forgotten. The rather slow set-up I chose – with Re1, c3 & h3 to prevent …Bg4 –  is the ‘standard’ kind of closed Ruy Lopez scheme that White usually employs after 3.. a6 4 Ba4)

5.   ..Be7 6. c3 0-0 7. h3 Bd7 8. Ba4

Worrying unnecessarily about possible ‘discovered attack’ tactics if the Nc6 moves.

8  ..Be6?

There seems no reason to move the B again, and it invites White’s next move d4 – after which, as White threatens d5, the B simply ends up back on d7.

9. d4 ed:  10. cd: Bd7   11. Nc3 a6

A move without much point to it when the White B is already on a4.

White has clearly got a better position out of the opening. The question is how to proceed. After a rather inconclusive think I decided to push the e-pawn.

12. e5 de:

13. de: Ne8

14. Qe2

This move took a longish think, and I’m not sure it is best, though it does clear the d1 square for a Rook

14  ..g6

Planning to route his N to g7-e6, but solving the “where does the White Queen’s Bishop go” question for me.

15. Bh6 Ng7

16. Nd5

Good, but perhaps a touch hasty. 16, Rad1 first looks better, when Black would probably have to play ..Qc8 to get his Q off the d-file. 17 Nd5 would then be even stronger than a move before, and would pretty much force ..Re8 – when 18 Bg5 would already be nearly terminal for Black, as exchanging Black-squared Bs leaves his f6 square horribly weak.

17. Ne7:+ ??

Dear oh dear. I can’t remember why I did this, but it is a terrible move, trading off the best piece on the board for a Bishop which is doing nothing much on e7 (and missing Black’s 18th move completely). The right move was the obvious 17. Rad1, bringing the final White piece into play and transposing to the previous note.

17.  ..Qe7:

18. Bg5

I think I had got a bit obsessed with the idea of getting at f6, which might explain 17. Ne7:+? as well – but here 18. Rad1 is still the right move.

18     ..Qb4

Errm – crikey – where did that come from?

19 Bb3  Ne7?

Just when he is untangling a bit, Black goes wrong. 19. ..Be6 20. Be6: Ne6: is obvious and good, blockading the e-pawn.

20. Rad1

Better late than never, I suppose. I wasted far too many minutes here thinking about 20. Bf7:+ Kf7: 21. e6+ Be6: – which fairly clearly gets nowhere after 22. Ne5+ Kg8.  The computer liked 20. Bd2 Qb6 21. Ng5 best, but it is always hard to see crafty piece retreats like Bd2.

By now I was down to about 15 minutes or so to make the ten moves until move 30, and 35 minutes in all to finish the game.

20     ..Bc6

Again, I couldn’t (and can’t) see why he didn’t play the obvious and solid ..Be6. Perhaps the idea was that the c6-h1 diagonal points at White’s King.

21. Nd4

I didn’t want him to have time to play Nef5 and then Ne6, solidfying things. The obvious idea for White is to play e6 to open the position, and Nd4 supports the e6 advance. Now he played another move I hadn’t anticipated:

21.     …Ba4?

Which should actually lose the exchange by force after the not-at-all-obvious 22. a3! Qa5  23. Bd2 (that retreat again) Qb6 24. Ba4: Qd4: 25. Bb4.  I didn’t see this, needless to say.

In this position I was seized by two thoughts. Firstly, if I exchanged off my light-squared Bishop, it would get much harder to play e6; and secondly, I really needed to try and get at the black squares round his King and make my opponent defend. So I decided to force the pace with:

22. e6 Bb3:

23. ab: f5

I was quite happy when he played this – I was expecting fe:, and having decided I couldn’t take back with the Knight (because of ..Nef5) I was pondering 23.  ..fe: 24. Bf6 and things after that. After …f5 the black squares around his King are like the proverbial Swiss cheese, and the P on e6 also helps set up mating threats. It also made the next few moves obvious, always good when you are short of thinking time.

24. Qe5

My opponent had quite a long think here, so I had the impression he might have underestimated this move, which threatens both Bh6 and Qf6. Another useful point is that the Black pawn on f5 means a Knight can’t move there and cover g7.

24.   ..Rf8

25. Bh6 Nh5  (forced)

26. Bf8: Rf8:

27. Qc7:

It’s always tempting to cash in advantage for a material plus and to simplify, especially when nearly out of time. However, I did wonder momentarily if 26. g4 might not have finished Black off. And the computer found something even better a move earlier: 25. Nc2! (forcing the Black Q away from protecting e7) Qb3: 26. Be7: Qc2: 27. Rd7 winning easily. 25. Nc2 is, of course, another of those retreat-to-attack moves that I never spot.

27… Nf6

28. Nf3

Aiming for g5 and f7, but 28. Nc2! is still far more decisive: 28  ..Qb3: 29. Qe7: Qc2: 30. Rd8 and wins.

28. ..Rc8

On the night I was very happy when he played this move, as I now get to swap off his rook AND play my last two moves before the time control at move 30 without having to think. When you have less than a minute of time left, not having to think is a definite plus.

29. Rd8+ Rd8:

30 Qd8:+ Kg7

The dust has settled, and I have just over 20 minutes to play the rest of the game. I now got fixated on the idea of getting my Knight to f7, upon which I assumed checkmate or advancing the e-pawn to queen would follow. The best move here would have been 31. Rc1! heading for c7 and simultaneously preventing Black’s ..Qc5. I picked a not-as-good open file for the Rook, mainly to have the R protected by the Q.

31. Rd1  Qc5

A good move, thinking of ..Ne4 with a nasty threat on f2. Around here I began to have misgivings about my opponent having nearly an hour or so left to my 20 minutes.

32.  Ng5

Heading for f7, but also stopping  ..Ne4.

32.  ..h6

33. Nf7  Nfg8

Blast. Black prevents the mate, but at least now his knight is a very long way from e4.  The question for White now is – how to convert the advantage?

34. g3

And this definitely ISN’T it.

The origin of this rather dire move is that I wanted to move the Rook down to d7, but didn’t want to allow a check on c1, and especially not then another check on f4, with a probable draw by perpetual check. However, g3 is a rather poor way to prevent a check on f4, as will become apparent. 34. Qb8! (covering f4) and Rd7 should win, as should 34. Nd6. and then Ne8+. After Ne8+ White can swap Queens by Qd4, and he then wins easily by Rd7, as Black’s King and Knights are completely immobilised.

34. ..f4

And now I realised I had given him a target. I didn’t fancy 35. gf: or 35. g4 f3. In fact, the latter line is OK as Nd6-e8 still wins comfortably… but of course I hadn’t seen the Nd6-e8 manoeuvre.  *Sigh* Anyway, to kill the threats I traded Queens:

35. Qd4+  Qd4:

36. Rd4: fg:

37. fg; Kf6

The big difference here from an ending with White’s N on e8 and Black’s K penned in on h7 or h8 (see note to 34. g3) is that now the Black King is active.

The next few moves demonstrate that I am not much of a R vs minor piece endgame player. The best way to defend the e6 pawn is probably Nd8, which would allow White time to play Rd7 and get at the Black pawns. What White should NOT do is tie his Rook down to the defence of the e-pawn..

38. Re4 Kf5

I was a bit surprised by this move, as by some mental blindspot I had convinced myself that White’s next move was actually checkmate!

39. Re5+ Kf6


40. g4  g5

41. Re4 Nc6

42. Nd6 b5

By now I was down to my last 5 minutes to finish the game, while my opponent had 40 minutes. I had a series of rapid thoughts.


– I don’t know how to play this endgame. Where should my Rook go? Should I try and keep the e-pawn or let it go? Where should I put my Knight? And so on.

– I don’t have time to think about how to play it. If I stop to think about it, I will lose on time. Again.

– Losing on time in a won endgame will be…  embarrassing.

– My opponent is clearly planning to play Nge7 next move.


So I decided to swap off a pair of Knights, even though I realised I didn’t know how to play the R v N ending either.

And then – I got an idea.


43. Nc8 Nge7

44. Ne7:  Ke7:

I was expecting this capture with the King, but when he played it I was doubly sure his next move was going to be Nd8 and then Ne6:

45. Kf2 Nd8

I had the impression he was starting to look quite happy, not unsurprisingly given his time advantage.

46. Ke3 Ne6:

47. b4

This brought him up short, and he had a think, making it likely he wasn’t expecting this move. Or the next one.

47… Kd6

48. Re6:+!

And this was my idea, though it isn’t anything that startling. My opponent did look distinctly surprised, though, which was gratifying.

The point is that after:

48.      …Ke6:

49. Ke4

White has gained the opposition, as we say in chess, and thus the pawn ending is won for White. The reason is that if the Black King heads for the Pawns on either wing, then White’s King runs the other way, and gets to the pawns on the other side a move or two faster, since White’s King is further advanced. But Black has to move – he has no pawn moves he can make, and his King has no ‘waiting’ moves, so the King has to give way, left or right.  The evocative German word for this is Zugzwang – ‘compelled to move’, even though any move loses.

There is also a subsidiary point, which is that it is a lot easier to play a Pawn ending with little or no time left than it is to play a Rook ending – less options to consider, and no checks, and you can think on your opponent’s time. At least, it’s easier provided you are winning. Admittedly there can be subtleties that require thought, but it is still a much better option all around than a piece ending.

49.  …Kf6

After a long think.

50. Kd5  Kg6

51. Kc6 h5

52. Kb6 h4

53. Ka6: Kf6

54. Kb5: Ke5

55. Kc5 Kf4

56. b5 Kg3:

57. b6 Kh3:

58. b7 Kg4:

Black’s h-pawn will be much too slow.

59. b8=Q h3

60. Qh2 Kh4

61. Kd4 g4

62. Qf4

Immobilizing the pawns. My opponent had been playing on for the last several moves because I was down to my last minute of time. However, these positions play themselves…

62.  ..Kh5

63. Ke5 Kh4

64. Kf5 Kh5

65. Qg5 mate

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Times past, and celebrity guests

Though perhaps I should have called this “The Old Neighbourhood”

Many years ago – in the early 90s, to be precise –  I went back as an adult, after more than two decades, to the Cape Cod village of Woods Hole, where I’d spent three wonderful Summers as a kid at the end of the 60s.

It was a very odd experience.

In some ways it was brilliant, because the place looked just the same. The main street, the drug store, the ferry terminal, the boat chandlery, the legendary Captain Kidd pub, the old Marine Biological Lab where my father worked and the MBL beach were all pretty much exactly as I remembered then from childhood.

The Captain Kidd, Woods Hole

Except… that they had all got small.

The reason being, of course, that I had last seen all these places in 1970 as a nine year old. I returned as a thirty-something.

So of course they hadn’t really got small. It was that I had got bigger in between.

Partly because of stuff like this, some people like to say that You Should Never. Go. Back.

Not even to take a look around.


Now does that apply, I wonder, to blog neighbourhoods?

To blog networks?


Talking of which….I’ve just been back this afternoon for a look at many of our former home at Nature Network. Commenting there seems a tad slow – I see from the ‘Recent Comments’ page that the slight flurry of ones I left there this afternoon (after I’d found, to my surprise, that I could still remember my login details) are still all visible – but some of the blogs I used to read when we were over there are still alive and kicking.

For instance, Stephen Moss, who some will recognise as a regular commenter hereabouts, has posted an interesting analysis of Science Minister David Willetts’ speech (the same one Stephen Curry recently wrote about), while Lee Turnpenny is back from his world travels and is also blogging again. And of course our old friends  Eva Amsen and Bob O’Hara are still there, as is Kausik Datta, who has been doing a comprehensive demolition job on the claims made for acupuncture (part one and part two).


I’m a celebrity scientist – let me out of here?

Now, I don’t miss Nature Network – and don’t even mention MT4 – but one thing that was unusual, and interesting, about NN was the occasional, errm, celebrity guest. Probably because of the Nature name, once or twice a famous name would turn up to argue – perhaps when they were being discussed, or referred to.

Two examples spring to mind. One is theoretical physicist, Nobel Physics Laureate, extra-sensory perception and homeopathy fan Prof Brian Josephson (f0r more on him, check out his own homepage). I remember a long thread where Josephson turned up to defend homeopathy, and argue at length with Stephen Curry, and others. Rather sadly, the post this was on has disappeared – it was on Ian Brooks’ entertaining (and sometimes entertainingly profane) old NN blog A Meandering Scholar, which is seemingly no more. [Indeed, all the older ‘no longer live’ NN blogs that were ‘archived’ now seems to have vanished entirely, and the links to them are dead.] Anyway, Ian’s post, which was called ‘Can we agree to disagree?’ [Ans: No] had a truly Epic comment thread battle, which I thought was quite revealing about the thinking of Prof Josephson, and perhaps by inference of the mindset of other defenders of anti-science who have actual scientific credentials.

The other example of a celebrity visitor that I know of is currently still visible on NN. It can be found on a blog written by Andrew Sun, which is still up, though it has no new posts since last Summer.

The post in question, from March 2010, was called The Most Hated Journal in Science? It involved a discussion of Medical Hypotheses, a journal long famous/infamous because it did not employ any kind of expert peer review (incidentally, that has now changed, according to their website). I won’t give away the identity of the mystery celeb, who turned up to chide me in the comments thread. You will have to go and look.


Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments