This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Samson & Delilah

I have just watched the Australian film Samson & Delilah* and I feel compelled to write something about it. Normally I plan my posts, think about how I am going to structure them, but the film was so strong that I want to just write in response, just as the credits have finished rolling.

Samson & Delilah is a very depressing film. Yet in spite of this, I urge you to watch it.

Friday, 1 October 2010

On whale snot and socks covering shoes

WITH the announcement of this year's Nobel prizes to be made shortly comes that other annual science prize ceremony - the Ig Nobels. If you are unaware of what the Ig Nobels are, they are, in a sense, a parody of the Nobels, awarding prizes to researchers who would never get a look in at the true Nobels. But they honour scientists who investigate what they find interesting, no matter how bizarre or tangential. The awards honour those discoveries that "first make people laugh, and then make them think".

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sad story, cute picture

Department of Conservation rangers fight to save kiwi from ferrets at Pukaha Mount Bruce, read more here.

Friday, 18 June 2010


I BRIEFLY break my blog silence to share a thought about Kyrgyzstan. I am by no means an expert on the Kyrgyz situation, but I have an interest in Central Asia and care that the region receives global attention at this time. Today, reports from interim leader Roza Otunbayeva suggest that the death toll in ethnic clashes between resident Uzbeks and Kyrgyz (see this article for a summary of why these groups share a country called, misleadingly, Kyrgyzstan) could be ten times greater than official figures. That puts the toll at 2,000, which is a horrifying number. 400,000 people have fled their homes, many ethnic Uzbeks crossing into Uzbekistan - many have been denied entry and would enter at their peril. Most bridges over the border have been destroyed and the land is heavily landmined. Meanwhile, US envoy Robert Blake has called for an inquiry into the unrest.

Sorry, but that's not good enough. An inquiry will achieve nothing. How about we take steps to stop the fighting, to stop the killing, rather than wait for more to die and find out why later? Kyrgyzstan has called to Moscow for military help (for better for worse), a request that Moscow has turned down. The US call for an inquiry is a bit rich for a nation that is, in part, responsible for it all. Both Russia and the US have bases in the country. Permission to build the US base, which is of strategic importance, stands on dubious grounds - this week Kurmanbek Bakiyev, son of the ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was arrested on arrival to the UK after an Interpol warrant for him for corruption was issued by the interim Kyrgyz government. One count of corruption refers to Pentagon contracts to Bakiyev Jr for the supply of the airbase (others refer to embezzlement of a loan from Russia). Of course, it's more complicated than that, as Bakiyev Jr is accused of fuelling this recent conflict - and if so I am not objecting to his arrest - but the call today for an inquiry rather than aid and action really narked me (to use the Australian use of the word).

I can't help but think a lack of understanding about this part of the world is adding to our reluctance to offer to help. We should. End of.

Update: I awake this morning (19th June) to see that the UN has launched a $71m appeal for the country and that consultations about an International presence are underway between the EU, the OSCE and countries in the region, which is good news. For the time being, however, though food aid is reaching the region, there are serious concerns for the safety of national UN staff in Osh who identify with either one of the Uzbek and Kyrgyz groups.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Third Leaders Debate: Live from Campus 5

Phew! What a day! What a debate? Well, I'm not sure, but this is not the place for a discussion on the quality of the arguments put forward. But as the media and parties whip themselves up into a frenzy in the 'Media Centre' (a temporary setup in the Avon Room, a room where I have had many lectures and exams) and as Question Time begins in the Great Hall (where I graduated), I thought I'd finish off my day of sporadic observations and desperate attempts to find stories from the wrong side of the security fence.

The Third Leaders Debate: Live from Campus 4

HANDILY, somebody just set the fire alarm off in Biosciences, so, in spite of the rain, Karl and I just went for a look around. Good job we did - as we were walking towards the compound, Lord Peter Mandelson walked by, surrounded by a flurry of reporters, cameramen and sound engineers, as well as soggy students. He looked quite happy, not perturbed by the crowds. Karl was very excited.

"I'm really happy now!" he said.
"Yeah! We saw someone famous!" I replied.
"Well, its only Peter Mandelson."

The Third Leaders Debate: Live from Campus 3

I JUST went for a walk around campus to get a feel for the mood of the people out there, and there are a lot of people out there. Sky News have set up in front of the hydrogen cars, and there was a melee of people trying to peer in through the fences. There isn't much to see as a barrier of news vans restricts the view to the Great Hall, but people were chatting away, mostly both excited and terrified in equal measure at the prospect of snipers on the rooftops (we saw at least two). I chatted with a politics student called Matt, talking about the security and the excitement of the occasion; there are many students wearing pink "vote for students" t-shirts provided by the Guild; and there was a girl dressed as a tiger - who knows why, but for the spirit of the occasion perhaps?

Not everybody is excited, however. The lady who just served me in the cafe was complaining that all the rhetoric, sob stories and spin is untrustworthy. "Like or loathe her policies," she said of Margaret Thatcher, "if she said she was going to do something, it happened. That won't happen with this lot." One student outside the compound agreed, saying (loudly) as he passed: "Why should I care about those three, opinionated t*****s?"

All of the leaders have arrived now and are inside rehearsing. There's little else I can say for now: I'll hopefully be with the crowd at the BBC Big Screen later to judge reaction and will be updating somehow later on.

The Third Leaders Debate: Live from Campus 2

Twitter tells me all three leaders are now in the house, as it were. Listening to the radio the Gordon Brown "bigoted woman" gaffe continues to be debated, despite it being a non-news story. He said something he shouldn't have, in private, being recorded when he shouldn't have been. He has apologised - can we move on please? I'm sure they are all as bad as each other. What is worse, that the Prime Minister had a grumble about somebody, or that somebody has what some are seeing as bigoted views? Surely the news should cover why she said what she said and why she believes that, rather than his comment?

The Third Leaders Debate: Live from Campus 1

LAST night I went to see Fiddler on the Roof at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham. I didn't expect that this morning I would show up to work at the University of Birmingham to see cameramen and police on the rooftops too.

Last week I randomly guessed that the third Prime Ministerial debate, billed as in the 'West Midlands', would be at the Great Hall on campus. It was a lucky guess, and as rumours spread excitement grew. Yesterday there could be no denying that the debate was here as vans, satellite dishes, spotlights and cables started to fill Chancellors Court. I had a wander round as they were setting up - I can't do the same today. Police are swarming, the archways of the redbrick architecture have been filled with body scanners, and university roads have been blocked off.

I have no idea what I will be able to see/tell from today. I am actually at work and have a whole day of work to do, but I will try to wander around the site every so often and see what is happening and update here if I can. Meanwhile I recommend that you visit Redbrick Online, home of the university's student newspaper, who are doing their best to cover the day's events.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Sirocco the Kākāpō in Exile

DO YOU remember Scirocco the kakapo? It turns out he is facing exile.

Scirocco the kakapo gained notoriety last year when he tried to mate with Mark Carwardine's head on BBC2's Last Chance to See. The scene became an international sensation and thrust the kakapo, a species I have been fond of for some time, into the limelight. As a result of the programme, the Kakapo Recovery Project in New Zealand has been swamped with donations and Scirocco himself, at the suggestion of New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, became the "spokesbird" of conservation as part of New Zealand's role in the International Year of Biodiversity. But his promotion has come at a cost: Scirocco is now looking for a new home.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

A Prayer for Poland

AT Church on Sunday the current situation in Poland was mentioned in the intercessory prayers. The congregation duly listened, perhaps murmured in agreement with the sentiment shared by the reader, and then said Amen. The service proceeded, with a sermon on a scripture from John's gospel. But after the sermon, before the service could continue as planned, something happened - something unusual, I suspect, for most church services: spontaneity.

A member of the congregation stood up, acting peculiar. She went up to the man who had just given the sermon, asking for the pastor. When she found the pastor she said she needed to pray, so on his invitation she went to the front of the hall and addressed everybody. In tears, she explained.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Transmissible cancer

I'VE been planning that Tasmanian Devil post for months, and spent much of the last few weeks researching, writing and tweaking it. So I was bemused to walk into work this morning, days after finally releasing it on the world, to find in our office a copy of the most recent Wellcome News, the cover of which is Elizabeth Murchison holding a Tasmanian devil skull. Inside is an article written by Murchison herself (part autobiography, part summary of research) and another entitled Catching Cancer, a feature on transmissible cancers and how they go against conventional thinking. I was wrong in one respect before: there are more than two known cases of transmissible cancer. I knew of the Tasmanian devil and of dogs, but it is not unheard of in hamsters and has been shown to be possible in us. The article is an excellent summary and I direct you there for your interest. Happy Monday :)

Source: Wellcome Trust newsletter Issue 62

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Save the Tasmanian Devil

THE FIVE devils in the pen below us bounded around happily with not a care in the world. They were small, fluffy bundles of energy, running around and around, almost skipping, happy-go-lucky and enjoying their freedom. Every so often they would fail to look where they were going and smack head-on into one of their friends - immediately they would stop, step back, assume an aggressive posture and growl for a second. But such aggression would be short-lived and they would be off again, bounding away. La la la! They were happy little devils.

This is a difficult post to write, for it is about a small marsupial that lives in Tasmania. Chances are that if you are reading this you live in Britain, or at least not in Tasmania. How, then, do I make you care about a creature that lives so far away, that is so far removed biologically and symbolically from our national consciousness? The Tasmanian devil? Some people I know don't even believe it exists at all, that it is an invention by folklore and Warner Bros.

But there is a creature, very much real, called the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). And it is in serious trouble.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Simon Singh, #singhBCA and all that

AS promised, I will not be using this platform to delve too deeply into campaigns and causes. You can expect more like The Bastard Gumwood, my last post, which was fun to write. I plan to write more light hearted or straightforward articles as and when I get the chance, although right now I have no spare time whatsoever (I'm publishing a series on my travels in Australia over at my other blog at the moment, of which only one to date has actually been written since Christmas).

Nonetheless, last year I became quite involved in the Simon Singh vs. British Chiropractic Association court battle and subsequent libel reform campaign, and I thought I could provide a link or two for those still interested. Simon was in court on Tuesday appealing a decision on the definition of his wording, for which he is being sued for libel by the BCA. This isn't simply a case about the BCA suing instead of providing evidence for their claims, but a deeper concern about the stifling of honest criticism by those with the most money. According to Jack of Kent, things went well in court, although we won't hear for a good while.

I explained the premise of the Singh case to my colleague the other day - from the original Guardian article to the rally in the Penderel's Oak, where I joined a few hundred people, pint in hand, cheering the man on. I mentioned the libellous phrase and the claims to which it refers. I mentioned the backlash against practitioners of alternative medicine and the cynical and marginally hostile attitude exhibited by some sceptics since all this kicked off, and why I want to distance myself from the present 10:23 homeopathy campaign. As if to confirm that it is very much time for me to drop this and leave it to the professionals, Graham responded to my tale with seven carefully chosen words:

"You have cotton wool on your chin."

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Bastard Gumwood

HERE'S something interesting, which I heard on PM last week. The Bastard Gumwood (Commidendrum rotundifolium) is a 12 foot tall tree with long, knarled branches, at the tips of which are star-like, pale yellow and white flowerings. As a species, there is no variation from these characteristics, because there's only one of them. As such, it is declared extinct in the wild. Now, conservationists from Kew Gardens are making a last-ditch effort to rescue it from extinction.

Source: John Ekwall's St Helena flora profile