Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking)

Dr Aust has been on the road for a few days, including a trip to Science Online 2009. Call it a sort of slightly working holiday. I started writing the following as an update for the embarrassingly neglected Diary page, but it has now grown to such length that I thought I would give it a post of its own.

So a bit of boring diary travelogue follows, finishing with some ponderings about the conference. If you are just interested in the last bit, skip down to “Anyway – that’s enough diary“.

Thursday 20th.

Slightly frantic morning trying to tie up a few things at work, then off to the station after lunch to catch a train to Oxford to see Dr Aust’s mother. Arrive at 5 pm off hot and crowded train. The walk from Oxford station up to the Aust parents’ part of North Oxford can be done by various routes, but my favourite one, especially for late afternoons and early evenings in Summer, has always been the Oxford canal towpath. When Dr Aust was a teenager in Oxford, an awful lot of years ago, the family garden actually had the canal at the bottom of it. Here the next door neighbour would fish and escape his family, the Aust family dog would occasionally fall in and have to be rescued, and one of our more eccentric neighbours would swim in the Summer, braving assorted waterborne diseases (Mrs Dr Aust would probably have mentioned Leptospirosis).

Anyway, two canal towpath sights never fail to make Dr Aust feel that he is really home – because in some odd way Oxford does still feels like home, even though Dr Aust has not been a permanent resident for nearly 30 years now.

One is this kind of view:

Oxford canal scene

The other is sort of summed up by the middle-aged gentleman who overtook Dr Aust, riding a sturdy upright bicycle that looked at least 50 yrs old and had a battered briefcase strapped on the back. The gent in question was wearing a serviceable but far from new dark linen suit, and a blue bicycle helmet, and looked about as much like an Oxford academic as is possible to look without becoming a total caricature – and whilst pressing a mobile phone to one’s ear and wobbling slightly along the towpath.

The point, perhaps, is that Oxford is rather a special enclave.

Now, when Dr Aust was 18 he was in a tearing hurry to leave Oxford. Oxford, he and his friends would regularly agree, was not the real world. We were mostly dreaming of London – Islington, Notting Hill and the King’s Road. Or perhaps of places even further afield.


“Oxford is not the real world”

Quite true.

The difference is that nowadays Dr Aust tends to think that is precisely what is good, and worth preserving, about the place. The Real World can be a bit overrated.

Friday 21st

Another late afternoon train, this time to London, to check into the hotel and thence to the “pre-conference unconference” (whatever that means) on a roof terrace in Farringdon (which belongs to these guys). The setting is rather good, although the random city noise means you have to shout a bit. Luckily (or not, depending on your POV) Dr Aust is an experienced shouter and annoying interrupter. This comes of years of on-the-job training in lectures, tutorials, or large and protracted University committee meetings.

The best things about the conference “Fringe Prequel” are the smallish number of people and the informality, which make for lively discussions. Oh, and the free booze. Get to catch up a bit with BadScience sensei David Colquhoun, and to meet several bloggers who were hitherto only names and emails, such as scourge of misadvertising chiropractors Zeno of the Think Humanism forum, Nature Network science blogger and crystallographer Stephen Curry (“Reciprocal Space”), and shockingly young bad science ubersleuth Gimpy.

Saturday 22nd

Despite my well-documented loathing of early mornings (or mornings at all, come to that), haul myself out of bed at 7.45, only slightly hoarse from last night’s extended talking session, to get to the 9.30 start of Science Online. As an economy measure I have brought my own breakfast, half an almond croissant from my favourite French patisserie.

Deciding to turn up to the first session turns out to be a piece of good fortune – a last-minute change of  timetable has put the “Legal and ethical aspects of blogging” bit, with blog notables Jack of Kent and Dr Petra, first up. Jack’s request not to be podcasted causes a slight stir. About a third of the audience seem to be hiding behind portable or laptop computers, among which MacBooks are particularly well represented. There is definitely a study of some kind to be done about how rates of Mac use vary across different scientific user groups. Jack gives a nice (if slightly scary) introduction to the possible legal consequences of blogging. Am gratified to find that my strictures a while back about not getting on the wrong side of courts in open cases and risking committing Contempt of Court were probably a sensible note of caution.

It is a hot day, and the after-coffee session on “Online Communication by Institutions and Organisations” is a bit airless. However, it is interesting to find out how different organisations – though none of those discussed is a University – handle online science, and particularly blogging. My personal view is that blogging is not an easy fit with “offficial” sites run by large institutions. The bedrock reason is that institutions have a pathological fear of saying something that offends people – and therefore often of saying anything much at all –  and they find the natural anarchism of scientific bloggers to be distinctly indigestion-causing. For more on this theme, you can read my comment here.

Lunch with Jack of Kent, Dr Petra, Gimpy and Frank the Science Punk, who like Gimpy is preposterously young. Actually, compared to me almost everyone at the meeting looks young, especially since David (Colquhoun) sneaked off before the lunch break, pointing out that it was too nice a day to be stuck indoors. One of the conference speakers is Times science editor Mark Henderson, who looks about 25, though I guess he is probably in his early 30s.

A lot of the afternoon is devoted to the question of linking online identities, online platforms for science data exchange, and various other techie stuff. Some bits are interesting, but the XML-speak and repeated use of the word “syntactical” is a bit hard core for an Technophobic Old Fart like Dr Aust.  Retreat to the nearest pub seems a good option, (I shall rather presumptiously cite Crick and Watson as my authority, if you are arguing) where I discover that several of my fellow-bloggers in the Bad Science posse now have book deals. Quite pleasing to think there is that much demand for sceptical thinking – but then, you can never have enough, certainly these days.

A highlight of the pub, apart from Jack of Kent buying me a couple of drinks, was Andy from the Quackometer’s description of his investigations of some of the Quacktronic “black boxes” that people have sold to try and cure people of “electrosensitivity”.

This particular branch of Quackorama always reminds me of late 19th and early 20th century quack Albert Abrams and his ERA machine (nice old picture and more info here). Abrams was revealed as a flagrant charlatan more than eighty years ago, but his quackery lives on today as “Radionics” (and here). It is, you will be surprised to hear (err…not) popular with some of the homeopaths.

So a successful meeting – as ever, mainly for the informal chat with people who you previously had either heard of, or read a comment by, or possibly corresponded with. Apart from those I have already mentioned, I got to say Hi to Euan Lawson of the excellent Northern Doctor blog. And I also met, as one does, some people completely new to me, like postdoc and science blogger “Dr Jim”, and TV presenter Greg Foot. another of the disturbingly youthful brigade. While Greg is not the first person I have met who has his/hers own Wikipedia entry, I’m pretty sure he is the first I’ve met who has his own “Showreel” on Youtube. Greg and Frank the Sciencepunk have just been given the job of “re-booting” the government “Engage Kids with Science” site Science? So what? (or SSW for short), as you can discover (and offer your own suggestions about how they should do it) here.

In order to save my liver from further damage I finally do a runner at about 6 pm, heading for Paddington station and a packed train back to Oxford. And England look to have a lock on the Final Test, failing improbably Australian comebacks.

All in all, a most excellent and useful day.

Sunday 23rd

A recuperative day of doing nothing in Oxford. Stroll across Port Meadow for a pre-lunchtime beer in the garden of the Perch at Binsey. This used to be one of my favourite weekend lunchtime pubs, but has now morphed into a sit-down restaurant. Thankfully you can still sip a beverage in the garden, and then amble back across the meadow, past the grazing horses and cows, hordes of stroppy geese, and small boat sailors. My mother tells me she took up sailing for a couple of years at University in the late 50s “because when I told the ladies’ moral tutor that I got my keep-fit exercise by jiving, she clearly thought that was most unsuitable”. I knew my mother had been into trad jazz and jiving, but not that she had been a sailor. It just shows how you can still be finding out new things about people after knowing them all your life.

Spend the later afternoon wrestling with my mother’s ancient computer. A decade or so back I taught myself how to build and fix computers, mainly because when the lab was “between grants” there was no money to buy new ones. Unfortunately, just as I got reasonably proficient at it, the price of new machines fell to the point where there was no saving in building from bits. This is fairly typical of Dr Aust’s money-saving or money-making brain-waves.  Sadly, the computer resists most of my attempts at spring cleaning; the antivirus programme won’t update because they’ve released a new version but that won’t install because the Operating System is too old a version, and it won’t update properly because Microsoft’s website says it’s a pirate copy and the shop we bought the machine from has gone out of business years ago…. *sigh*.

On the bright side, I can listen to Australian wickets falling while I fight my losing battle with the dratted computer. And finally….England have won The Ashes! Rapidly compile mental list of all my Australian friends who I can email to have a good gloat. They would, after all, do the same for me.

Monday 24th.

Amused to see in The Times (my mother reads the Times – Dr Aust prefers the Guardian) a “heat map” of the London Underground. Several of the lines were shut this weekend for repairs, so that instead of taking the previous year’s route from Green Park (and the Royal Institution) to Paddington Station, Dr Aust had to foot it down to Picadilly and take a sweltering Bakerloo line train. This is revealed by the map as the second hottest line on the system, reaching 30-32 deg C on hot days. It certainly felt every bit of that at 6 pm on Saturday. Perhaps I should blame Global Warming.

Leave Oxford mid-morning, overcast but warm, and head North on the train. It starts raining just before Birmingham, and then gets progressively colder and progressively wetter as we get further North. Arrive home late afternoon in thin drizzle to find puddle stretching halfway across our road. Jr Aust calls this “the lake”. Feel so cold I have to fire up the central heating. Mrs Dr Aust tells me that in her native part of central Europe the temperature has been 25-30 C all of the last week, with no rain, and that house prices there are such that we could sell up here and build an architect-designed mansion there two-and-a-half times the size. Ponder once again why I live in a place whose climate I have grown accustomed to describing to my American friends as “like Seattle, if Seattle didn’t have any Summer”.

Oh well. Only four weeks until the start of the University teaching year. Joy.

Tuesday 25th – Weds 26th.

More rain.   *sigh*


Anyway – that’s enough diary.

So what about the Science Online 2009 conference (hence “SciOnLon”)?

Well, like most conference, I enjoyed bits of it a lot. It is a very rare conference, actually, where you enjoy ALL of it. Even in specialist meetings there are usually bits that match exactly to your own interests and enthusiasms, and other bits that you find plain dull. As I already said, the techie stuff about “science online” left me a bit cold. And the implementations of things on Second Life that were attempted here and there were rather laboured, which leaves me tempted to conclude, as one other blogger did, that “Second Life is Pants”.

However, as a scientist one grows used to the idea that one does not really “get” a lot of the science other scientists do, even in vaguely related areas. But of course, the people doing it do get it. Indeed, one of the attractive features of science, as I think I said in one of the Friday night “Unconference” sessions, is that no matter how weird, unpromising, downright bizarre, or seemingly parochial the topic, there will be at least one somewhat obsessive scientist type out there  who thinks it is the most fascinating thing s/he has ever come across.

Every geek shall find his/her place, if you prefer.

The  example of this that Dr Aust used to use as an example in tutorials is fossilized dinosaur poo – although this probably isn’t the best example, as the subject actually has a long history.  But really, who on earth would think fossilized dinosaur poo would be fascinating?  Of course, apart from telling you about what the dinosaurs ate, it also gives information about the vegetation around at the time the dinosaur lived.  And there are other folk who specialize in fossilized human, er, deposits, and what they can tell you about human diet and health in pre-modern and even pre-historical times. And there are still other folk who specialize in fossilized animal poo, and so on, and so on.

Bill Bryson’s best-selling A Short History of Nearly Everything has a bit of this sense about it, that is, of some the fascination of science being related to its rather esoteric corners, and slightly loopy practitioners.

Anyway, the point of this diversion is to say that there is a point in these geeky talks, and sessions. You may not get it, but someone else will. And if you don’t have clunky Second Life / online conference participation now, then you clearly won’t have more broadly usable systems a few years down the line. So I appreciate that there will be people who want to sit in sessions logging into web portals and muttering about “syntactical hierarchies”.  Even if I don’t.

But I think I would rather that stuff were in a parallel session or a breakout group, rather than as a big chunk of the main lecture strand.

A somewhat related point is that science bloggers clearly do fall into subsets. One subset, obviously,  is the people who are interested in how the online technology works, or who are working on developing it. People who actually blog about their own research are another subset. People who explain research in their general field, but more for the public that for the Geek-o-sphere, are still another subset. And the Bad Science gang (who talk about science, or pseudoscience, but largely not about the science they do professionally) are still a different subset.

Of course, since most (non-group) blogs are above all personal to their writers, one blogger may span several of the above categories. When I started this blog nearly two years ago I actually anticipated writing rather more than I actually have done about “physiological” subjects, since physiology is my professional speciality. But I think some of the water posts are almost the only example of writing on physiology. And there have certainly been a lot more facetious musical ditties than I had ever anticipated.

Anyway, is there a demand for a conference to get all the factions of “science online” together?  I think there still is. Conferences, at best, offer a mix – detailed stuff you are really into the minutiae of, plus some more general stuff where you get a general “catch-up” on what is going on, plus some things you wander along to on a whim. I’m all for variety. And long coffee and lunch breaks.

The conference has, unsurprisingly, spawned a vast array of blogposts and discussions (some links here) – so far the one I am following with most interest is on Stephen Curry’s blog here.

Of course, above all, conferences remain “a gathering of the tribe”, and this was as true of SciOnLon as any other, see above. Stephen Curry writes on his blog:

“It is agreeably ironic that the richest experience for me was meeting… online folk in the flesh.

Meeting [some of the Bad Science] guys and all the other people I chatted to during the conference, and in the pub afterwards, brought home just how much joining in online has enriched my life with new connections. But it still strange to realise that these connections are best savoured in the real world.”

Which echoes precisely my own feelings.

The commenter who captured this best for me, though, was Canadian genome scientist Richard Wintle, in this response to Stephen Curry’s post:

“I love the delicious irony of your observation that it’s better to meet all these online acquaintances in person, at an event about online interaction.

Somewhere in there, there is a moral for the 21st century. Darned if I know what it is though.”


3 Responses to “Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking)”

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking) « Dr Aust’s Spleen [] on Says:

    […] Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking) « Dr Aust’s Spleen – view page – cached #Dr Aust's Spleen RSS Feed Dr Aust’s Spleen Atom Feed Dr Aust's Spleen » Road Trip (in a minor manner of speaking) Comments Feed Dr Aust's Spleen Hello world! – Dr Aust goes live Cretaceous mud slinging — From the page […]

  2. Frank the SciencePunk Says:

    Good roundup! Agree with your sentiment that there’s no substitute for meeting people in the flesh. And yes, coffee and lunch breaks are the true value of conferences, as such they should be as long as decency allows!

  3. nmark Says:

    this s about yet another great hoax…….the swine flu hoax…

    i think bein a scientist yu shud read it…

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