Monday, 28 January 2013

The rise, fall and rise of Irish whisky

Last Friday, we had another great Wine Club whisky tasting, run by whisky aficionado and kite-flyer extraordinaire, Lex. This time it was the turn of Irish whiskies and the line-up was a good one.
handout
The title of the tasting - The rise, fall and rise of Irish whiskey - refers to the fact that Irish whisky is beginning to regain some of its former glory after a period of decline when Irish Distillers had the monopoly on Irish whisky production from 1972 until the opening of Cooley Distillery by John Teeling in 1987 (and its first whisky a few years later). With competition driving innovation once again, the quality (and reputation) of Irish whisky was back on the mend, and it was five of the mended varieties that we got to taste.
The whiskey lineup
From left to right: Jameson Select Reserve; Tyroconnell Madeira Finish 10yo; Redbreast 12yo; Bushmills Three Woods 16yo; Connemara Turf Mór.

TyrconnellThe evening kicked off with a Jameson Select Reserve (40%) from the Irish Distillers megadistillery in New Middleton, County Cork. This was to set a benchmark for the evening, which it did quite nicely: there's nothing wrong with this whisky but neither is there anything particularly notable about it.

The second whisky, on the other hand, from the Cooley Distillery was something a bit special: a 10 year old Tyroconnell Madeira Finish (46%). Although a close-run thing - and another night I might have chosen different - this was my favourite whisky of the night. It was pretty strong at 46% and was very warming to the palate as a result. It also had quite strong vanilla tones - hints of custard! I would happily drink this one.

For the third whisky, we returned to New Middleton for a 12 year old Redbreast (40%). This is an Irish "pot still" whisky made in the traditional fashion of mixing malted barley with other grains, which should make the flavour more complex. I liked it and found it very smooth to drink but more interesting than a Jameson or Powers etc. I did not get a great deal of complexity though - I think my whisky palate still needs some developing.

Fourth up was a Bushmills Three Woods 16 year old (40%). This one was unusual and had a very savoury character in contrast to the sweeter vanilla tones of the earlier whiskies. This was a popular one with many of the tasters but, sadly, it did not really do it for me.

The fifth and final whisky, on the other hand, punched the right buttons for me. Another Cooley offering, this was the Connemara Turf Mór, weighing in at a mighty 58.2% cask strength! As the name suggests ("big peat"), this was a peat monster and taking a sip was like getting a mouthful of smoke - in a good way! I found it surprising pale but what it lacked in colour it more than made up for in flavour. A very close second behind the Tyroconnell, which I just found a touch more drinkable.
Turf MorTurf Mor colourNice one (or two), John Teeling!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Salmon and mascarpone cocoa pasta

Salmon and mascarpone cocoa pasta

Last year, I was given some Hotel Chocolat cocoa penne pasta for my birthday. I like chocolate and I like pasta but I've never before had chocolate pasta! Today I made the recommended recipe off the packet - Salmon and mascarpone cocoa pasta - and it was delicious!

I'd certainly never cooked with cocoa pasta before, so it was great that it came with a recipe. A tasty recipe too! And simple.
RecipeIngredients
PastaIn fact, this recipe is so simple that I'm not really sure it can be called cooking! The ingredients list is short - pasta, mascarpone, smoked salmon, parmesan and basil - and there is virtually no preparation. (The pasta itself only needs 9-10min to cook, so whoever wrote "30 mins preparation" must have the world's slowest kettle!) Basically, you just cook the pasta, stir in some mascarpone to coat, then stir in the flaked smoked salmon (buying trimmings is great for this), grated parmesan and torn basil leaves.

I could really smell the chocolate when the pasta was cooking but the taste itself was quite subtle. Really nice, though. That said, this recipe should work great with regular pasta, and next time we will probably make it with the normal stuff. (The cocoa pasta is not cheap - definitely present material rather than everyday food!)

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

X-Com: Enemy Unknown - rebooted and better than ever

If I had to pick my favourite video game series, it would probably have to be Grand Theft Auto. If, on the other hand, I had to pick my favourite computer game of all time, it would be UFO: Enemy Unknown. This was an old PC game from 1994. I remember having the demo long before the actual game and playing it over and over again. It wasn't a big demo, placing you in command of half a dozen poorly armed (and unarmoured) X-Com troops at an alien "terror site", trying to save the civilians from a greater number of better armed aliens - and, above all, trying to survive.

The demo was excellently balanced - challenging but possible - which in part accounts for how I could play it over and over again. The game itself was amazing, despite some minor irritations like having to equip your squad from scratch for each mission - tedious when the number of soldiers you could deploy increased. It also seemed a bit cruel sending out the rookies in nothing but their grey jumpsuits!

The best thing about UFO, though, was the atmosphere. The tactical missions oscillated between the nervous tension of Alien and the gung-ho craziness of Aliens. (Helped in part by one of the most fearsome aliens (the "Chrysalid") looking like the Alien and even turning hapless victims into zombies that would (not much) later hatch into fully grown Chrysalids.) The soundtrack fed the tension and as the game progressed, the aliens got ever more powerful. They would also react to squad movement as you discovered them. Nothing quite made one jump like an unlucky soldier stumbling on a heavily armed foe who gunned him down instantly - a scream and then darkness as the line of sight granted by the now-deceased was lost. Storming UFOs was particularly dangerous (at least until you could make your own doors with advanced explosives).

UFO spawned quite a few sequels, which improved various gameplay components - X-Com: Apocalypse probably has my favourite tactical combat system of all time - but none of them ever re-captured the atmosphere (or scary aliens) of the original. Until now.

X-Com: Enemy Unknown for the PS3 has gone back to basics and rebooted - nay, perfected - the series. Squad size is strictly limited, harking back to that very first UFO demo, although I am glad to see that the raw recruits at least have a bit of standard body armour this time. (Not that it's of much help against the alien plasma weaponry.) The old isometric turn-based tactical missions are back but with a reworked (and better balanced) control system and much improved graphics. It may not be the most realistic game in the world (would you really only send six soldiers to take on the alien menace?) but that matters not because whatever it lacks in realism, it has one thing in abundance: fun!

The old atmosphere and fear for your soldiers is back - enhanced by having so few - and whilst the visual range of your troops is unrealistically limited, it makes for a much tenser and trickier playing experience. No longer can a bunch of marksmen sit miles from the action and pick off all the aliens with impunity. (Well, snipers can to some extent, but I'll get to that.) Instead, you have to stalk your foe, flitting from cover to cover and trying to outflank them, whilst they do the same in return.

I won't give anything away about the plot but another thing that has changed is that the game is a little more story driven, with a few more key advances and events that occur along the way to keep things progressing. A couple of other changes have made even bigger improvements in my book. One is the diversity of missions: in addition to the alien abductions, "terror sites" (rescuing civilians) and UFO missions, there are now hostage rescues and bomb defusing missions too. Even terror sites have had a facelift and now you have to actively seek out and save civilians before the aliens get them.

The biggest change, though, is in the soldier experience and upgrade. The older games featured different stats that improved with experience and depending on the balance of a particular soldier you would choose whether (s)he was best suited for heavy weapons or sniping. In the new version, there are four different classes that your soldiers are assigned to once they have a bit of experience: sniper, assault, heavy or support.
As well as giving them access to different weapons and equipment, the different classes of soldier also develop different skills as they get promoted through the ranks. There's sometimes a choice of two skills you can give them at each stage - so each soldier gets customised to some extent. (You can fully customise them in terms of name and appearance too if you wish.)

These skills really add an extra tactical dimension to the combat. Many of them have "cooldown" periods between use, so you have to select your moment. (Some weapons too are single shot.) Above all, they really let you tailor your squad to your own combat style - and, to some extent - to the mission.

One last change worth mentioning is that the game is over much faster than the original, which is good. I have already completed it once on the entry-level difficulty (unlocking a few more options for the next game) and never reached the occasional boredom of the original when hunting down another small UFO whilst waiting for the more exciting missions. Highly recommended.

Monday, 21 January 2013

A (gloved) thumbs up for Yaktrax

Snowy thumbs upFriday's snow gave me a good excuse to try out my Yaktrax, which we had got following the last bad snow and ice a couple of years ago but had not had the chance to try out. Yaktrax are clever little grips that fit over regular shoes. Basically, they have a stretchy rubber mould with steel coils that stretch across the bottom of your shoes and give good grip on packed snow and ice.
yaktrax
yaktrax in snowThe snow on Friday was still fresh (and still falling!) so it was not strictly Yaktrax conditions but there had been some light rain the night before that might well have formed a frozen layer underneath, so I thought I would try them out anyway. They certainly gave my footprints some extra personality!

I'm not entirely sure how much they helped as I did not do a control by walking half-way to/from work without them on but I can report that I had zero slips, including at the pretty steep entry and exit to the underpass on Southampton Common. Given how slick that bit can get, I'd be surprised if they didn't make a difference.
I also went out for a curry in the evening (the always fantastic Kali Mirchi - still great! -) and it was a bit more icy then. I'd taken my yaktrax in my bag and did end up putting them on and noticing a direct difference on the way home. They're pretty easy to put on and off (as demonstrated by the fact that I was able to put them on on an icy street) and so even though they actually make things worse on clear roads/paths, I think they are a handy piece of kit to have on you if in doubt. Now I just need it to snow some more so that I can use them a few more times!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

More snow pictures

Entrance to Southampton Common in snowSouthampton Common in snowWhen it is wet and windy, walking to work can be quite unpleasant. On a snowy day like yesterday, however, it is a joy! I am lucky enough to have a walk to work that traverses Southampton Common and could therefore really enjoy some snowy trees and (at that point) unspoilt blankets of snow.

Thanks to my touchscreen gloves, I was able to snap away quite happily on my iPhone without even getting cold hands! It also gave me a good chance to try out the "panaroma" function of my iPhone - something that my wife mentioned to me (as I had somehow overlooked it completely) but not yet tried out.

It took me a couple of attempts to get it right but I am pretty impressed and pleased with the results. (You can see more on Google+.) They're a bit small here but hopefully will open bigger OK. (I might need to find a different way to get them into blogger that doesn't resize on the largest dimension.)


B85 panoramic
Top: Southmapton Common. Middle: Southampton University.
Bottom: Building 85 (Life Sciences) and surrounds
Giant snowman
The University got shut in the afternoon due to the snow and the students (and staff?) were able to let off a bit of steam by building snowmen, including this giant in the "plaza" outside Building 85 (right).

There was even more snowman construction going on in Southampton Common on the way back home. One group were even building an igloo, which can be made out on the left in the picture below. When I was passing, it about waist/chest height. I've not been back to see if they finished it!
Igloo building

Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow!

I love snow! We don't get much of it in Southampton but today we are forecast to have rather a lot. I feel a little bit sorry for travelling students with exams today but I am looking forward to a snowy walk into work across the Common!


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Diep Noodle - worth getting to the airport early for

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Dublin Airport: Dublin Terminal 2 food court - great for food but poor for hot drinks. Well, this week I was travelling through the airport again and, though travelling from T1, was there early enough to get some dinner there. Having only had a coffee there the previous time, I am happy to report that my earlier assessment was both right and wrong: it is great for food but is not necessarily poor for hot drinks!

When I lived in Dublin, Diep Noodle in Ranelagh (now takeaway/delivery only it seems) was one of my favourite restaurants (although I only went a handful of times), so I was keen to have my dinner at the Diep Noodle Bar.
The Menu is quite simple (and a bit more expensive than the current one on the web shows) but it's still hard to choose when everything is so nice. I remembered the yellow curry with particular fondness - it is still the one to which I compare all Thai yellow curries (and usually find them wanting) so I opted for the beef variant of:
Gaeng Karee
Yellow Curry with Potato, Onion & Crispy Shallots.
It was so delicious that I forgot to put my iPhone to its proper use of taking food pictures. Every bit as good as I remember. If you are travelling through Dublin Airport around time for dinner (or lunch) then I recommend planning your inward/onward journey around leaving time for a visit to Diep Noodle Bar in Terminal 2. (The meal arrived really quickly, so you probably don't need to leave too much time!)

One of dinner companions had a cappuccino and reported that it was very nice - made behind the counter at Diep rather than just coming from an automated machine. It might have been less than €3 too. This begs the question as to why they make the coffee machine so prominent but perhaps my poor awareness last time was more to blame than the setup.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Mapping Mars as a Citizen Scientist

In case you missed last night's Stargazing Live on the BBC, it was all about Mars, including some nice features on the Curiosity Mars Rover. And if you want to do a bit of mapping of Mars yourself, you can head over to Planet Four and have a go at classifying "fans", "blotches" and other "interesting features" on the surface of Mars. I'm not sure that I am any good at it but it is quite fun exploring the surface of Mars nonetheless!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The argument from fine-tuning, destroyed

I'm a big fan of coelsblog. The frequency of posts is pretty low but the quality is high. (I've posted before about previous posts on religious tolerance versus respect and his destruction of the myth that Hitler was an atheist Darwinist.)

In a post from November last year, A fine-tuned universe argues for atheism, Coel goes after a classic argument made by Intelligent Design advocates and the like:
"A favourite and fashionable argument for God is the argument from a fine-tuned universe. The argument is that, were it not for many aspects of our universe being “just right” for us to exist, then we wouldn’t be here, therefore [and that "therefore" is the big leap] the universe must have been fine-tuned to produce us."
His response is devastating and draws attention to six major flaws in that argument.I've touched on bits of this before (although with considerable less eloquence) but I recommend reading the coelsblog post for the full six. (It's not that long.) Coel's 3b is my new favourite, though:
"The occurrence of things for which their environment was NOT “just right” would be a far better indicator of intelligent intervention. For example, an animal in a zoo is indicative of intelligent intervention; an animal that fits perfectly into its ecological niche is not an indication of intelligent design, but instead is amply explained by non-intelligent processes such as evolution. Thus, if we found ourselves in a universe that was not suited to creating us then that would be far better evidence for intelligent intervention!"
As he points out in another great post from Jan 2, Science can indeed answer “why” questions, it's not "that science cannot give answers involving gods", it's just "that science does not give such answers". Science also remains open to the possibility that, ultimately, there is no "why" at all. It is not that science has decided up-front that there are no gods, it is just that it currently has "no need for that hypothesis". Many atheists, myself included, are the same.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Prominent anti-GM campaigner becomes GM defender after looking into the science

I don't like to name-and-shame on my blog (attack the idea, not the person) but I don't mind giving a positive shout out to those deserving of praise and I think one such person is Mark Lynas. Mark is an author, journalist and environmental activist. He has written a lot about climate change (in a pro-science, myth-busting way) but was also a very active anti-GM campaigner.

The corner of Twitter that I follow is alight with the fact that, last week, he delivered a frank admission that his anti-GM stance was wrong to an Oxford Farming Conference. I've not watched the video but the transcript on his website makes an interesting and inspiring read. The first three paragraphs are particularly hard-hitting:
"I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

So I guess you’ll be wondering – what happened between 1995 and now that made me not only change my mind but come here and admit it? Well, the answer is fairly simple: I discovered science, and in the process I hope I became a better environmentalist."
It's a pretty courageous admission to make, I think, especially given the later paragraph that gives some truth to what a lot of us in favour of a balanced approach to GM food have long suspected:
"This was also explicitly an anti-science movement. We employed a lot of imagery about scientists in their labs cackling demonically as they tinkered with the very building blocks of life. Hence the Frankenstein food tag – this absolutely was about deep-seated fears of scientific powers being used secretly for unnatural ends. What we didn’t realise at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it."
What changed Mark's mind?
"So I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.

I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.

I’d assumed that GM benefited only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.

I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago, and that Terminator never happened.

I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.

I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way."
What's worse, is not so much the myths themselves but the unwanted consequence of perpetuating those myths:
"Before [Norman] Borlaug died in 2009 he spent many years campaigning against those who for political and ideological reasons oppose modern innovation in agriculture. To quote: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”

And, thanks to supposedly environmental campaigns spread from affluent countries, we are perilously close to this position now. Biotechnology has not been stopped, but it has been made prohibitively expensive to all but the very biggest corporations.
...
There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about."
There's a lot in there dispelling some of the myths about the benefits of organic food too but, being a geneticist, I'm more interested in the Genetic Modification angle. I've already given some of my own views on (Standing up for Genetic Modification) so I won't repeat them here. I was not quite aware, however, just how much the anti-GM movement had stood in the way of progress, including the Golden Rice project that I mentioned in my previous post:
"The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.

What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people.

This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.

The fact that golden rice was developed in the public sector and for public benefit cuts no ice with the antis. Take Rothamsted Research, whose director Maurice Moloney is speaking tomorrow. Last year Rothamsted began a trial of an aphid-resistant GM wheat which would need no pesticides to combat this serious pest.

Because it is GM the antis were determined to destroy it. They failed because of the courage of Professor John Pickett and his team, who took to YouTube and the media to tell the important story of why their research mattered and why it should not be trashed. They gathered thousands of signatures on a petition when the antis could only manage a couple of hundred, and the attempted destruction was a damp squib."
He also draws attention to another case that, having lived in Ireland for six years, was of particular interest to me:
"One final example is the sad story of the GM blight-resistant potato. This was being developed by both the Sainsbury Lab and Teagasc, a publicly-funded institute in Ireland – but the Irish Green Party, whose leader often attends this very conference, was so opposed that they even took out a court case against it.

This is despite the fact that the blight-resistant potato would save farmers from doing 15 fungicide sprays per season, that pollen transfer is not an issue because potatoes are clonally propagated and that the offending gene came from a wild relative of the potato.

There would have been a nice historical resonance to having a blight-resistant potato developed in Ireland, given the million or more who died due to the potato famine in the mid 19th century. It would have been a wonderful thing for Ireland to be the country that defeated blight. But thanks to the Irish Green Party, this is not to be."
There's a lot more in the post and I think that the lecture itself has more still, so I encourage you to go and read and/or listen to the post on Mark's website if you are even slightly convinced that blanket opposition to GM is a good thing. (The Science Museum has a fairly balanced intro to some of the pros and cons here. It is important to stress that GM is not always good nor is it the only solution to food security but it is a vital weapon in our arsenal against the duel threat of climate change and global over-population.)

The end is pretty hard-hitting too:
"So I challenge all of you today to question your beliefs in this area and to see whether they stand up to rational examination. Always ask for evidence, as the campaigning group Sense About Science advises, and make sure you go beyond the self-referential reports of campaigning NGOs.

But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt. If you think the old ways are the best, that’s fine. You have that right.

What you don’t have the right to do is to stand in the way of others who hope and strive for ways of doing things differently, and hopefully better. Farmers who understand the pressures of a growing population and a warming world. Who understand that yields per hectare are the most important environmental metric. And who understand that technology never stops developing, and that even the fridge and the humble potato were new and scary once.

So my message to the anti-GM lobby, from the ranks of the British aristocrats and celebrity chefs to the US foodies to the peasant groups of India is this. You are entitled to your views. But you must know by now that they are not supported by science. We are coming to a crunch point, and for the sake of both people and the planet, now is the time for you to get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably."
I think the message here goes well beyond the GM debate too. There are a lot of worthy causes to campaign for but it is always important to periodically re-visit and re-evaluate the evidence for and against any given position. (It is very rare for something to be all-good or all-bad.) Most important of all, one should always be willing and able to admit that one was wrong, as Mark Lynas has done.

h/t: Simon Singh. [Golden Rice Picture taken from the Genetic Literacy Project. (Although based on a Google search, the anti-GM lobby have all the good pictures!)]

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Cast your pearls to the teapigs!

Another one of my Christmas presents this year was a packet of Jasmine Pearls teabags (or "tea temples") from teapigs. I am a big fan of jasmine tea and I have to say that the teapigs variety is very tasty indeed! It looks pretty too: a little pyramid of tea.
Mmmm... tea!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Getting touchy but not feely with touchscreen gloves

Having a waited almost a year to blog praises of one of last year's Christmas presents (my Urban ears headphones, which (ironically) have just broken and need fixing/replacing ), I thought I would be a bit quicker off the mark this year!

I'd been pondering the merits of touchscreen gloves for a while, as I do use my iPhone a lot on the way too and from work and it is mildly inconvenient (and sometimes cold) to have to de-glove to change track, take a photo or read a message. I'd never actually got round to looking into them, though, and seeing if they were more than just a gimmick, or even comfortable as gloves. (I wasn't even sure what the fingers were made of, to be honest.) It was therefore great to get a pair for Christmas - along with some good opportunities to try them out straight away in a chill December Dublin.

My initial reactions are good and they work really. They're definitely not as responsive as naked flesh but then you wouldn't expect them to be. I think this is in part you cannot really feel the contact in the same way as you can with exposed fingers, so you cannot rely on touch when typing, for example, to know that your press has registered. Your fingers are also obviously fatter in gloves, so you cannot be quite so sure that you are pressing the desired buttons. As a result, you have to rely more on sight, which slows things down a bit, but I have not experienced any frustration due to my touches failing to be detected.

The drawbacks are pretty minor and I would definitely recommend them for the winter touchscreen user. For most iPhone activities when you'd be wearing gloves, it's still faster than taking regular gloves off and then putting them back on again - plus, of course, there's no need to expose your hand(s) to the cold. They function well as gloves too! Now I just need the weather in Southampton to turn cold again, so I can use them some more!

Friday, 4 January 2013

What I've learnt from another year of blogging

I was hoping to do a bit of an End of Year review for the blog with the top posts of 2012. Unfortunately, blogger does not seem to be able to provide annual stats - it's limited to the last day, week, month or all time. Google Analytics is more useful but, unfortunately, I only set it up on the blog in April so I cannot use that either. Instead, here are the top six posts from 2012 based on all time stats at the beginning of January:

#PostDateViews
1Kumala Zenith Merlot/Cab Sav/Shiraz - another bargain red
6 Feb 2012
381
2There's nothing scary about the Spice Kittens
16 Oct 2012
360
3Tim Minchin talks to Caitlin Moran
30 Aug 2012
273
4How to root a phylogenetic tree
7 Jun 2012
183
5A fan fixes Star Wars (Machete Order)
7 Oct 2012
181
6Finding Nemo's sex-changing father
18 May 2012
159

So, what have I learnt from this year's blogging?

✏ People like wine. (OK, I already knew that.) Although I do not really consider The Cabbages of Doom to be a "science blog" per se, I am a bit disappointed that the science posts have not rated higher. It's especially embarrassing to see a wine post top the bill as I don't really know much about wine and the posts show that! (They're really just for me to keep track of wine I like!)

✏ Sex, celebrities and kittens sell. Also not really surprising, I guess - this is the internet - but three of the top six feature sex, celebrities and kittens. Not things I blog about often but good to remember if I ever feel the viewing stats need a boost!

✏ Education, education, education. I've blogged before that Education is the key to impact and it seems to hold true for blog posts too - mine at least. The top science post was the education-related How to root a phylogenetic tree and the second also stemmed from a lecture. Still, good motivation to blog some more lecture-related material when I have the chance.

✏ Blog what you like. The philosophy behind my blog has always been "because the internet has a better memory than I do". I don't think it is easy - or that healthy - to try and predict what other people will be interested in and write about that, unless you are trying to blog professionally, of course. Given that I do not think I would have predicted any of the above as top posts, I think this is a good philosophy to continue.

✏ It doesn't have to be fresh. Especially with science, it sometimes feels like a race to "get in on the action". The more I blog, the more I feel it's best to leave that to the pros. There is something nice about returning to the scene after the dust has settled and there's less pressure to try and be original.

✏ Quality not Quantity / Fun not Frequency. There was a period when I got a bit obsessed about trying to knock out one post a day. It did not last too long and it killed some of the fun. One of my favourite blogs, coelsblog, probably posts one or two times a month on average. This is a hobby, not a job, so it's perfectly OK for it to be sporadic.

✏ Comment on other people's blogs. I don't mean leave snarky troll comments all over the internet but making positive contributions to other people's comment threads is a great way to get a few extra page views heading your way from those with similar interests. Even without the carrot of extra page views, I still recommend leaving comments that encourage posts you have enjoyed - as a blogger, I know how nice (although sadly rare for me!) to get them. (Desire for feedback is also part of the point of blogging.) Such conversations can also provide good inspiration for future posts. (On the subject of other blogs... more end of year blogging wisdom can be found at Under The Banyan.)

✏ Be polite. Attack the idea, not the person. Or, better still, question the idea. (Usually, the best defence is not offence.) Both when blogging and commenting, always remember than you are effectively self-publishing to the world. I'm sure I don't always get it right but I try to stay mindful of (and avoid) anything that might come back and bite me later, hence my blog disclaimer: "Any unsourced opinions on this site are my own. I sometimes get things wrong and will be happy to amend my position in the light of new information."

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is technology ruining the moment?

Like many people, I was at home when the New Year was rung in, so I could only watch the fireworks on TV. They were, it must be said, pretty spectacular (although I actually thought there were too many at times) and I felt a twinge of jealousy towards all those watching it live above their heads.
Jealous, that is, until the camera panned across said crowd and revealed all the upturned faces, staring into the LCD screens of their cameras and smartphones.
Is the memory of the 21st Century human really so bad that we have to try and capture every event and every moment on a digital device, however inferior that would be to the experience itself? (Even the best camera equipment is not going to have a dynamic range or field of vision to challenge the Mark I human eyeball.) I could almost understand it if the event was not being televised and recorded for prosperity anyway. (It's on BBC iPlayer, which is where the screen grabs are from, if you missed it.)

I think I'm going to add another New Year's aspiration:

☑ Enjoy the moment. Learn to recognise when the view or the moment is just too special or breathtaking to be distracted by trying to get the perfect shot for the future.

Hmmm. That's two rants in a row. Must make the next one a positive post!

It's not cool to label your diagram "hot pink"

One of our assignments has students making pretty PDB structure diagrams using UCSF Chimera. Some of them are very good at it too. (The picture left is from the Chimera Image Gallery, not a student.)

I am always amazed by some of the figure legends, though, which feature colour descriptions such as "hot pink", "forest green" and "dodger blue". This is not so bad when there is only one pink, green and blue in the diagram - it can just be written off as idiosyncratic and superfluous. When I am asked to contrast "cornflour blue" with just "blue" in the same image, however... well, now we've crossed a line into downright unhelpful. Stick to "light blue" and "dark blue" - and if that's not clear enough, then pick another colour!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

New Year's Aspirations for 2013

I'm not a great believer in New Year's Resolutions. After all, if there's something you should change in your life, do it when you realise it, don't wait until the end of the year. There is also the potential issue of self-recrimination etc. if you fail to keep them.

At the same time, it is useful to reflect on stuff from time to time and New Year provides a good time for this and plenty of time sitting around to think about it too! I can't say I've given it a lot of thought but I did think it would be worth penning a few New Year's aspirations. (Not because its anyone else's business, of course, but I do think I am more likely to do something if I've publicly stated it - not that it worked with the gym!)

☑ Make more time for reading. I made a quite long Christmas reading list of interesting papers and stuff but did not do a very good job at getting through it and it's back to work tomorrow. I also got a few books for Christmas, which all look good. I'm also behind with work-related reading. Must. Read. More.

☑ Make more time for writing. I've got a few papers and a book chapter that need writing. Episodes of Mystic Mog and the Exploding Tortoise have also been decreasing in frequency down to a disappointing 4 in December. There are a number of contributing factors to this but one is clearly not setting aside time to write.

☑ Blog more papers. Although this is not specifically a science blog per se, one of the motivations behind blogging was to try and get better at science communication. The number of science-related posts is not too bad (about 1 in 3) but I could definitely do with blogging a few more original papers, which will hopefully also help with the reading and writing.

☑ Cook more meat. I don't intend to eat more meat. I'm never going to be vegetarian for a number of reasons but nor do I see the need to eat meat every day and tend to cook quite a lot of vegetarian meals. When I do cook meat, however, it tends to be safe recipes erring on the side of boring. This is largely because I lack experience and the confidence that comes with it. One of this year's Christmas presents was The River Cottage Meat Book and I intend to make good use of it!

☑ Budget. I don't consider myself particularly irresponsible with money but there is always room for improvement. I've got reasonably good of keeping track of my expenses in 2012 but 2013 is time to convert that knowledge into some proper budget planning. Maybe.

☑ Gain control of my inboxes. I had a bit of a purge a while back but my email is still swamped by loads of junk mail. Time for another purge, I think. I think it's also time to try and make Facebook more active and less passive - it's actually easier to keep track of messages in FB than email sometimes. Unless I really get my inbox in shape, that is.

Not the most inspiring list (or interesting post!) in the world but it will be interesting (for me) to revisit these in a few months and see what progress I am making. It doesn't hurt to have aspirations.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

My Top Tunes of 2012

Every now and then, I like to exercise my geekiness by writing a program to do something trivially unimportant just for the fun of it. One such exercise is a little Python program for processing iTunes playlist exports. It's still in early development (and doesn't handle accented text properly) but it's good for calculating crude summary stats for Albums/Artists and differences between exports at different times. I therefore thought that I'd compare my iTunes library as of 27/12/12 with an export almost exactly a year ago (20/12/11).

The New Year period is always full of "best of" lists, so here are the resulting "Best of 2012" lists for my iTunes library.

Top 20 Tracks (Most plays) of 2012

#NameArtistAlbumPlays
1WalkFoo FightersWasting Light28
2The English WayFightstarBe Human (Deluxe Edition)27
=ZihautanejoFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours27
4No More HeroesSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)26
=One Day SonFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours26
6FloodsFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours25
7CheersThe WildheartsCoupled With24
8Our Last Common AncestorFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours22
9Apocalyptic LoveSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)21
=Standing in the SunSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)21
=We Apologise For NothingFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours21
12Mvua NyeusiFightstarBe Human (Deluxe Edition)20
=Amaze UsFightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours20
14Youre a LieSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)19
15Dark Star (Acoustic Version)HypnogajaDark Star - EP18
16One Last ThrillSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)17
=Thank You God (Live)Tim MinchinTim Minchin and the Heritage Orchestra (Live)17
18AnastasiaSlashApocalyptic Love (Special Edition)16
=Mazel Tov CocktailThe WildheartsChutzpah16
=Hazy EyesFightstarGrand Unification16
=Wake UpFightstarGrand Unification16
=See The WorldGomezHow We Operate16
=Floods [Instrumental]FightstarOne Day Son This Will All Be Yours16
=The Fence (Live)Tim MinchinTim Minchin and the Heritage Orchestra (Live)16
=Down Down DownCharlie SimpsonYoung Pilgrim16

The list is dominated by Fightstar tracks, which is perhaps not surprising because I discovered them around the time of the first export in December 2011. A few Avenged Sevenfold tracks almost made it but largely missed out due to only being added in the last couple of months, although (along with many of these) they feature in the Top Albums (below).

I obviously recommend all of these tracks but I think that three deserve a special mention. See The World by Gomez is not just in my Top 20 plays for 2012, it's my most played track of all time. This is partly because my wife also loves it (it was our leaving music at our wedding) but mostly because it's just a damn fine track. Walk by Foo Fighters is quite possible the perfect track in my book. I just cannot think of any way to make it better. I love it! The final track with a special mention is Floods by Fightstar, which not only appeared in the top 10 but the Instrumental version also appeared in the Top 20. (Combined, they would be the Number 1 song of 2012.)

Top 10 Albums (Plays per Track) of 2012

#AlbumArtistPlays/Track
1Apocalyptic Love (Special Edition)Slash15.7
2NightmareAvenged Sevenfold12.3
3Grand UnificationFightstar10.9
4Dark Star - EPHypnogaja10.7
5One Day Son This Will All Be YoursFightstar9.2
6Cast Of ThousandsElbow8.8
7Be Human (Deluxe Edition)Fightstar8.7
8Avenged SevenfoldAvenged Sevenfold8.1
9Waken The FallenAvenged Sevenfold7.7
10Giftes 1 & 2Antlered Man7.4

For anyone who's read my previous music posts, the rock-heavy nature of this list will come as no surprise. Somewhat reassuringly, quite a few of them have featured in posts (linked from the Artists, below - the Album names link to Amazon in case you want a listen). Hypnogaja and Antlered Man are lined up for posts in 2013.
I actually discovered Hypnogaja when looking for Apocalyptic Love by Slash as they have a track called Apocalyptic Love Song. That's not on the six-track Dark Star EP but it was my access point to quite an extensive catalogue on emusic. (I'm not sure if an EP counts as an album but six tracks seemed like enough to warrant inclusion.)

Top 10 Artists (Most listened to) of 2012

#ArtistPlaysTracks
1Fightstar52055
2Avenged Sevenfold32947
3Hypnogaja28543
4Slash27543
5Elbow23936
6The Wildhearts17777
7Muse16296
8God Is an Astronaut14240
9Tim Minchin12833
10Foo Fighters11761

Again, many of these have featured in previous posts (linked in the table) and the rest are definitely deserving of them. I guess that God is an Astronaut - another emusic discovery - deserves a special mention here as the only Artist not to feature a top song or album. They just have a very solid and appealing catalogue across the board.

Muse also stand out a bit as I have almost 100 tracks by them. Crazy! I knew I was a fan but did not realise I had quite so many. (Most of them are quite old, which is why they are not higher up the charts, I fancy.) They're not top overall in this respect, though: The Red Hot Chili Peppers (159 tracks) and Blur (113) both beat them. Green Day (80) comes in fourth and probably should have featured, except that I have been holding off getting ¡UNO!, ¡DOS! and ¡TRÉ! in case I got them from Christmas. (I didn't.) Lots to look forward to in 2013!