30 November 2011

"Worms in liquid form" FFS!

BBC, you can do *so* much better than this.

Let's just clarify. The worms are IN a liquid, they are not in "liquid
form". They were launched up into space in a broth, and they survived.
Great! Quite how much this aids human spacefaring is difficult to
assess, but at least we may be able to sup worm soup up there. That's
a result in itself, I suppose.

29 November 2011

Common sense prevails.

It's nice to see things restored to normal once again. Thanks everyone for your support. Now, where were we?

26 November 2011

Vision for Vision for President of RCGP

Do we really want to go back in time
to the bad old days?
Over at Dr Una Coales's (@drunacoales) blog she sets out a vision for her bash at presidency of the Royal College of General Practitioners. I need to declare that I am not a GP, so I'm not in a position to vote on this. However, being a kindly soul, I am happy to offer Una some advice on how to present a vision that people can actually get behind. I'm posting this here because for some reason Una doesn't have comments enabled on her blog. I'm sure this is simply a technical oversight, and I hope it gets fixed soon.

Well, the post is a bit of a mess. It's far too long, and doesn't help the reader make an assessment of what Una can bring to the important position of President of a major medical Royal College. It meanders all over the shop and contains numerous platitudes and pointless anecdotes that add nothing to the overall thrust (if there is one). There are also some alarming aspects that certainly raise my eyebrows, for example:
I reiterate the U.S. policy that the GMC should ONLY deal with proven cases of medical negligence, i.e. when a patient dies unnecessarily, when a death could have been prevented but occurred due to negligence.
I am something of a cynic when it comes to the General Medical Council. I agree with Una that many of its systems and processes are long and harrowing, and that the GMC can be abused as a weapon against doctors by people with a grudge. However, to restrict the GMC to dealing with "proven cases of medical negligence" is a very very strange thing to say. The "i.e." implies that a patient has to die before anyone gets pulled up on their practice; I charitably presume that Una meant "e.g." here (I hate it when people misuse these important little abbrevs), but if this is meant to be a bar indicating the severity of malpractice meriting a referral to the GMC, then medicine really will be in trouble. What about inappropriate sexual advances to a patient? What about financial pressure, or coercing patients to write the doctor into their will? What about grossly incompetent surgery where the patient doesn't die, but ends up disfigured or in pain? Surely no competent doctor would wish to see the GMC restricted to dealing only with patient deaths, but wants to have a regulator that upholds standards of excellence in patient care, right the way down to ingrowing toenails or accurately assessing and communicating risk (important in my own specialty of Genetic Medicine).

And then we need to ask what constitutes a proven case of medical negligence? Who does the proving? In the UK, that is generally the GMC, so Una seems to have hit a bit of a Catch-22 here; if the GMC only deals with proven cases of negligence, and for a case of negligence to be proven, that requires a GMC adjudication... You can see the problem. Certainly Una is right if she's saying the GMC should not pry into people's personal lives, religious beliefs, sexuality etc. if the doctor nonetheless practices excellent medicine without fear or favour. But in matters of medical practice, it has to be the GMC that decides what constitutes negligence or incompetence (these are not the same thing). Una is of course also correct in implying that the processes need to be sped up to weed out vexatious referrals or complaints where there is no case to answer. The GMC is not and must not be a grievance body.

What do doctors (and patients) really need in a president of the RCGP? Vision is one thing; clarity of vision is another. I suggest they need grit and determination (Una certainly has these in spades), but also a commitment to practical everyday excellence, constructive engagement, and the development of a truly responsive and equitable health service. In order to avoid over-lengthiness and meandering I'm going to leave it there for now; do have a read of Una's post, and perhaps we can discuss further in the comments below (which I allow on my blog).

[UPDATE - Dec 2011: Image changed because of threat of legal action to the tune of $150,000!]

[UPDATE2: 1/3/2012: Previous still image from Mentorn Media's production for the BBC "The Big Questions" (broadcast 12/2/2012) has been removed after a request from the company. I wish it to be clear that this was completely voluntary and amicable, without coercion of any kind.]

[UPDATE3: 1/3/2012: Keep an eye on the blog for the latest!]

25 November 2011

Israel's tech startups: @basilmccrea take note!

It's happening again - every time our local representatives are
required to set foot off the soil of Ulster to get some work done, the
worthies get up in arms about "junkets", as if a trip to San Diego is
just a holiday. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-15882358
for info, if you want it. Don't get me wrong - San Diego is a lovely
city, and it's warmer than Augnasheugh, but it is also a place where
you can Get Stuff Done, and where there is some spectacular R&D
getting translated into economic benefit.

Another economy, whatever one's views of the general situation there,
that is making serious waves is Israel, and it is here that I think
Northern Ireland needs to get some big lessons in how to grow an
economy. This BBC report http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15797257
demonstrates how Israel has become a global technology and business
start-up giant, even given its meagre population of 8 million. No
other country has produced so many science Nobel prizes per head of
the population.

So what is Israel's secret, and how can Northern Ireland learn from
it? Well, for one thing Israel has a pioneer spirit. Sometimes that is
a very bad thing, as we have seen in the aggressive behaviour of
illegal settlers in the West Bank and formerly Gaza. However, it is
often a very good thing - people are prepared to take risks and to
roll up their sleeves to try to make life better and make their
country better. Another thing, perhaps one of the most remarkable and
admirable legacies left by Judaism over the centuries, is a profound
respect for science. Science is rewarded in Israel. It is a mark of
major prestige to be a scientist, or for your child to go into
science. The fact that this translates into technology and business
success is not an accident.

Now there is no doubt that I am generalising hugely here, and my
Israeli friends will no doubt inform me that Israel puts nowhere near
the right emphasis on science that it should. There are deep
inequalities in Israeli society, with a cadre of plutocrats jealously
clutching the dosh, and failing to allow this to trickle down to the
ordinary population. This was the seed of the massive street protests
earlier this year, and the problems are far from fixed.

However, we in Northern Ireland have a broken society too. But we
concentrate far too much on our legacy of the past. The pioneer spirit
that built Kentucky and Tennessee seems to have emigrated from our
shores. The attitude that made such a success of our engineering
industries in the previous century has been replaced by a maudlin
backwardness that prefers to write morose poetry, rather than to
explore and understand the universe.

So, Basil, please do take the committee to San Diego, but also take
them to Tel Aviv. Invest in our educational infrastructure; destroy
the sink-holes that are sapping our young people into a life of
perpetual stupid; boost the sciences, boost engineering, boost
technology - not just in investment (because this will come), but in
terms of social prestige. Let's get this country off its knees.

And perhaps people will even enjoy doing it.

24 November 2011

Thanksgiving #TLUD

Happy little stove - new design (minor tweaks). Still needs better airflow...

23 November 2011

Contact established with Phobos-Grunt!

Here's the info: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15850516
The Russian Phobos-Grunt mission was to send a probe to the Martian
moon Phobos, land, pick up samples, and return them to Earth. If
successful, this would be a fantastic scientific and technological
achievement. Sadly the mission didn't get past Low Earth Orbit, where
it remains, effectively stuck, and up to now incommunicado. If they
can re-establish communications with the spacecraft, it may still be
possible to diagnose the fault and get the little ship on its way,
although this remains (in my considerable space science experience,
which is not considerable at all) something of a long shot. So, in the
best tradition of the rationalist scientific endeavour, I suggest we
all pray. In the meantime, the engineers and programmers on the
mission will be trying to do stuff that actually has a hope of

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15 November 2011

Religions of the World

Courtesy of my little brother... There is Wisdom here.


13 November 2011

I seem to have incurred some wrath...

If there is one thing that gets right up my nasal passages, it's the encroachment of fluffy ideologies into the realms of science in general and medicine in particular. It has been my view for quite some time (and as I get older, this is concretifying rapidly, if that's even a word) that there's a group of no-doubt well-meaning but scientifically illiterate punters who are trying to develop a framework of talking about human behaviour, at all levels from the individual to the societal, based on whims and arcane concepts that have no useful mapping to anything scientific.

This is the world of pseudophilosophy (or maybe "Philosophy as She is Writ), where concepts are "isms" and everything belongs to a rigid ontological hierarchy. It's the world of CP Snow's Two Cultures, except that the scientists are the baddies, and to get anywhere you need to be able to drone at length on "post-structuralism" and "dialectics" and the like.

Anyway, within the constraints of the 140-character limit of Twitter, I became embroiled in a discussion of the value of concepts like "structure" and "agency" in addressing inequalities in health. Now I have nothing against terminlogical shortcuts per se, but the reason for my being brought into this discussion was not because I care how "social scientists" (more on that term later) view health inequalities, but because of a previous discussion with someone over what exactly "agency" was. The skinny on this is that my correspondent was trying to make the claim that "agency" implied "free will" (whatever that is). So what's this "agency" malarkey?

Some "social scientists" (commenters on public affairs, I suppose) suggest that there are two big factors in How Stuff Works in society. One is Structure, which is effectively the environment - the bricks and mortar, effectively. The other is Agency, which is what people do. Now you don't have to be a genius to figure out that these are not rigidly separate categories, because much of what is Structure is set up by the Agency of our punters (members of the ape species homo sapiens), and that Agency is influenced by the Structure, not just at the macro level, but at the very specific micro level that applies to discrete individuals. And since the Structure also has to contain the genetic background of your population, the baseline disease patterns, neural connections, personality traits, biochemical disturbances, outside influences and so on, it becomes difficult to make a good case for distinguishing Structure from Agency anyway.

Well, my ennui at this sort of cobblers spilt over to something of a diatwibe (that's a diatribe on Twitter) against "social science". Because this is where the problem really lies. "Social Science" is a spectacularly ill-defined entity; basically it acts as a rag-bag of several different disciplines, including history, archaeology, geography, that don't fit easily into what's commonly thought of as "Science". This is a shame, because the very name "Social Science" seems to lend an air of respectability to the rags within the bag, some of which deserve that respectability, and some of which manifestly do not.

It also results in the sad situation where people can call themselves "Social Scientists", and attain some sort of protection of the herd, while being able to twaddle on with nonsensical and jargon-laden pablum that has no prospect of informing policy, furthering research or leading to understanding.

I suggested (testily) that the entire literature base of social science could be destroyed, and we would be no worse off. I guess I hoped that some of the social scientists soi disant would leap to the defence of particular disciplines within the rag-bag, and indeed my original correspondent (our tussles aside) was the only one in the little Twitter group to even make a stab at disentangling the mess.

So we're stuck with what is actually the key problem. People whose understanding of science is purely based on a sociological paradigm proposing sociological models and sociological approaches to issues that deserve much more precise and evidence-based approaches. And when we are looking for evidence, rather than the opinions of "thinkers", we are into the realm of science. Proper science - not "qualitative research", not Google-bombs. We need approaches that can be tested so that conclusions - proper conclusions - can be drawn and built upon. That is something that many "social scientists" are spectacularly ill-equipped to do. Our world is complex; there are multiple feedbacks and dependencies. If we insist on adopting the top-down philosophies that percolate out of "social science" thinking, we are going to make expensive mistakes that we have no way of knowing that we're making.

Am I hammering the humanities here? No. I had the real pleasure of getting one meagre "social science" qualification, namely a Certificate in Egyptology from the University of Manchester, a couple of years back. Yes, I am told now that Egyptology is one of the social sciences. Yet within that, I found researchers and lecturers who were well versed in science and hugely sceptical of the fluffy mindset that comes from "sociology". Here were people planning proper experiments, adopting a highly scientific and rigorous approach, appropriately reticent to being too dogmatic about their conclusions, ready to be flexible and to think outside the box. Lumping Egyptology into "social science" seems such a shame.

Am I being too derogatory? Does "Social Science" proper actually exist, and does it have a role to play? Is there a real peer and post-peer review process ongoing? Is anyone leaving out the trash? No doubt your comments will help correct any of my misapprehensions...

09 November 2011

The Adoration of the Magi

Another lovely old tile panel from The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. I think there are about 15-20 such works dotted around the hospital. There's something very beautiful about them. Look how the lines follow the tiles...

The Finding of Moses

One of the beautiful 1930s tile panels from the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. There are a number if these, and they're amazing!

05 November 2011

Alternative #TLUD feedstock drying apparatus

Using the small TLUD, an old ceramic plant container (open bottom) and an inverted metal bin lid. Joy!


Using my little TLUD to dry more fuel - it's amazing how much water is present even in supposedly "dry" fuel. Dampness decreases efficiency enormously - always use nice dry feedstock!