O'Really?

December 13, 2013

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Podcast, now on BBC Radio 4

ISIHAC

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also unavailable on Samsung Android devices.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (ISIHAC) is a superbly funny comedy show broadcast by the BBC since 1972 and currently airing it’s sixtieth (yes 60th!) series. Unlike many other BBC programmes, ISIHAC is mysteriously unavailable as a podcast, which makes it difficult to listen to offline. Why is this? Professor Google doesn’t give a definitive answer and the BBC aren’t saying much about it either. So in the spirit of public broadcasting, this post poses the question, where’s the podcast? Currently there are a two theories floating around on the interwebs:

  • The podcast was destroyed by the lovely Samantha when she exceeded her bandwidth after … [insert smutty innuendo here]
  • There is no podcast because Random Entertainment Ltd, the company behind ISIHAC, make a tidy profit from ISIHAC merchandise (mostly CDs, audiobooks, Uxbridge English Dictionary etc). This makes enough money for Graeme Garden and Jon Naismith to have a lifetime supply of Swanee whistles and Kazoos funded by tax-payers money. Consequently, the BBC don’t have the rights to podcast it or something, probably…

If all you want is an ISIHAC MP3 of the broadcast that can be listened to offline at your leisure, then the lack of a podcast is frustrating. Of course, there various workarounds and hacks to roll your own using using get_iplayer, a digital recorderXBMC or similar but this will be a lot of unnecessary hassle for most listeners. None of this seems to be in the spirit of public  broadcasting and there’s a bigger (unanswered?) question about how the BBC decides what to podcast (and what not to).

So Jon Naismith, Graeme Garden and anyone at the BBC, if you’re reading this, please can ISIHAC be made available as an MP3 via a podcast? Much obliged.

July 1, 2013

New music? No thanks, we’re stuck in the fifties / sixties / seventies / eighties / nineties / noughties

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass by bhikku

John Peel comtemplating Drum & Bass via bhikku on Flickr.

If you’ve filled your boots with the wall-to-wall glastonbury festival coverage, you might find it curious that many people have little or no interest in new music, choosing instead to listen to the artists they liked in their formative years and loyally sticking with them for life. John Peel put it another way:

People do find it curious that a chap of my age* likes the things that I like but I do honestly feel that it’s one of those situations where everyone’s out of step except our John, because in any other area of human activity – theatre, literature or something like that, you’re not supposed to live eternally in the past, you know, you’re supposed to take an interest in what’s happening now and what’s going happening next and this really all that I do, it seems to be a perfectly normal and natural thing to do.

*John Peel was a spritely 50 years of age at the time of the interview where he said that in 1990 [1]. Isn’t it curious that, as Peel said, new music is largely considered to be the exclusive domain of “younger people”, while new theatre, new technology, new art, new science and new anything-else is not? Wonder why that is?

References

  1. Desert Island Discs Archive, Find a castaway (1940 – date)

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.

References

  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

August 3, 2012

July 13, 2012

Animation 2012: Computer Science for Schools

Animation 2012 at the University of Manchester

Computer Science as a subject in mainstream UK secondary education is in a pretty sorry state [1,2,3] but it’s not all doom and gloom. While many long suffering school children are being force-fed a nauseating diet of Excel, PowerPoint and Access others are enjoying a nutritious platter of Raspberry Pi, Hack to the Future and Animated fun.

Here’s a brief report on one of these tasty appetisers: Animation 2012, a UK schools animation competition now in its fifth year.

The day kicked off with prizes being awarded for the animation competition. To get a flavour of the creativity and skill involved, you can see winning examples online.

Following the prize giving there was a carousel of activities which included:

Animation 2012 was great fun for all involved, congratulations to all this years winners, hope to see you again next year. There were 526 Schools involved from across the UK, with 914 entries. 58 students were involved in the 35 winning entries from 31 different schools. Thanks to Toby Howard, all the organisers, supporters (Google, Electronic Arts and NESTA) and associates (Computing at School, CS4FN and BAFTA young game designers) for putting on an impressive show.

References

  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report
  2. James Robinson (2011). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, condemns British education system: criticising division between science and arts, The Guardian
  3. Keith Stuart (2011). Michael Gove admits schools should teach computer science: education secretary recognises the failings of ICT courses, The Guardian

May 24, 2012

Physics or Stamp Collecting? Let’s hear it for the Stamp Collectors

An old stamp collection by DigitalTribes on Flickr

Are you a Physicist or a Stamp Collector? Creative commons licensed image via DigitalTribes on Flickr.

The Life Scientific is a series of interviews by Jim Al-Khalili of high profile scientists. It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs without the music and with more interesting guests. If you missed them on the radio, you can download the lot as a podcast. Here’s a good example of an interview with John Sulston on the Physics vs. Stamp Collecting debate [1].

Jim Al-Khalili:

“There’s this wonderful, I’m sure you’ve heard it, Lord Rutherford’s tongue in cheek quote that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. Very rude, very insulting of course and it was applying to the way 19th Century naturalists would classify the world around them. What you were doing was a similar sort of thing but down at the level of individual cells.”

John Sulston:

“Yes I mean I am a stamp collector by that definition and I freely admit that, that’s why…”

Jim Al-Khalili:

“I don’t want to be insulting.”

John Sulston:

“No, no, no it’s not insulting in the least, I am a stamp collector but stamp collecting with a purpose, I don’t want to collect all stamps, I like collecting stamps that people are going to use. So I collect patterns perhaps is what I do. And I make maps that other people can use for their own work and that’s true of the cell, and it’s true of the genome, and I think that’s my role, I don’t think I’m a very intellectual person but I certainly can through a sort of obsession and loving of sort of completeness make a map that other people find valuable. Whereas other people previously had only done little tiny bits of it, which weren’t joined up, so I had to do the joining up, that’s very appealing to me. But it works – it wouldn’t work at all if you were off on your own – that’s why the stamp collector thing is used in a pejorative sense because it means somebody all by themselves just obsessively collecting stamps but if you bring a map out and it becomes the basis for a lot of other people’s work, like my maps have, then it’s entirely different.”

So let’s hear it for the stamp collectors, aka the “other scientists”. They no longer have to live in the shadow of Ernest Rutherford‘s jokey insult about their physics envy.

References

  1. Birks, J.B. (1962) Rutherford at Manchester OCLC:490736835
  2. Ihde, A. (1964). Rutherford at Manchester (Birks, J. B., ed.) Journal of Chemical Education, 41 (11) DOI: 10.1021/ed041pA896
  3. Birks, J., & Segrè, E. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester Physics Today, 16 (12) DOI: 10.1063/1.3050668
  4. Goldhammer, P. (1963). Rutherford at Manchester. J. B. Birks, Ed. Heywood, London, 1962; Benjamon, New York, 1963. x + 364 pp. Illus. $ 12.50 Science, 142 (3594), 943-944 DOI: 10.1126/science.142.3594.943-a

May 10, 2012

The Lovelock Laboratory: A fantasy workplace in the West Country

έροτας : love, as described by an implicit heart curve (x²  + y²  − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

An equation of love (x² + y² − 1)³ − x² y³ = 0

Former Mancunian James Lovelock runs the kind of a laboratory most scientists can only fantasise about working in as they grind through the humdrum bureaucracy of peer-review and never-ending grant applications. Lovelock is fortunate enough to run a completely independent, self-funded lab located in the beautiful West Country. There’s a fascinating interview with him on The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili where he says lots of interesting things about elocution lessons, nuclear power, climate change and his grand theory of planet earth, Gaia [1,2,3]. When asked, he also made this interesting comment about being an indepedendent scientist [4]:

“It’s the most wonderful thing to do [being independent]. I keep on saying that scientists are just like artists if they are creative. If you were an artist, would you want to spend your life in an institute for fine art, quibbling with other academics about the different styles of painting? You’d rather be in your garage doing your masterpiece and selling a lot of art to some tourists to pay the way. That’s been my life as a scientist. ”

The audio file of the broadcast is available for download or just click on the play icon below:

So to become a truly independent scientist, you either need to win the lottery, nobel prize or possibly invent the modern equivalent of electron capture detection to bankroll running a lab from the bottom of your garden.

Well if nothing else, it’s an entertaining fantasy to while away dull moments in the real world…

References

  1. James Lovelock (2009). The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning ISBN:1846141850, Penguin
  2. Andrew Watson (2009). Final warning from a sceptical prophet: James Lovelock fears that humanity faces widespread death and mass migration as Earth’s systems become further unbalanced by climate change Nature, 458 (7241), 970-971 DOI: 10.1038/458970a
  3. John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (2009) He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, ISBN:1846140161, Allen Lane
  4. Matthew Reisz (2012) Free-range thinkers: Independent scholars can confound, complement and challenge the work of their campus counterparts. Times Higher Education

May 8, 2012

BBC Connected Studio: Get involved in shaping digital content at the Beeb

BBC: The Olympic Broadcaster

Olympic broadcasting by the BBC from Quay House, Salford Quays, Manchester

The BBC is currently seeking external partners for collaborative innovation around BBC Online. This is happening through a series of events called BBC Connected Studio. It’s open to small, medium and micro businesses, individuals and digital agencies from the creative sector who want to work with the BBC developing new functions, features or formats for online audiences.

The first studio was held in Manchester last Friday focusing on Home Page, Search and Navigation (HPSN), a part of the Beeb that gets around 9 million (and up to 40 million) unique visitors every week from the UK alone. International visitors to this page get sent to bbc.com which is completely separate. Here are some rough notes on the event from a non-BBC outsiders perspective.

The basic format of the day goes something like this:

  • You are given a brief
  • There is an introduction from various people to kick things off
  • You have access to experts within the BBC, to pick their brains
  • There is time to work up your ideas on the day
  • Then you pitch an idea in ~2 minutes (like a much friendlier version of Dragons’ Den) to an assembled audience of about 80-ish people collected on the day.
  • There is time for questions and feedback
  • Successful pitches are notified after the event with the opportunity to build a functioning prototype and potential pilot project

For the event last Friday, the studio was kicked off by introductions from Ralph Rivera and Adrian Woolard, James Thornett and Clare Hudson.

During the day, there was expert advice available, formally at Speakers’ Corner and informally via conversation. This covered a wide range of topics including Simon Williams on audiences, Tim Fiennes on market analysis, Tom Broughton on homepage technology, Steve Gibbons on user experience and Phil Poole on personalisation.

Following this there was time to work on concepts and plan presentations, including a very useful audience feedback session with some real users of the BBC home page.

At the end of the day there were just over 20 open public pitches and 9 closed private pitches (those with sensitive intellectual property rights). I teamed up with Nick Drummond (of ATilla the AT-AT pet fame) to pitch an idea called Show Me More – providing links to BBC content directly on the home page (bbc.co.uk).

What worked well

The event went well, especially since this was the first one of the series. The audience feedback sessions and speakers corner were well organised and well attended. Whatever the outcome, this was a good opportunity to bid for work, see what goes on at the BBC and meet some of the people behind the BBC online. There was lots of advice available on how to work up a pitch, the audience was friendly and respectful. It was enlightening to watch other people’s presentations. The fifth floor of Quay house at MediaCityUK (pictured above) is an ideal venue for this kind of event with lots of different sized spaces for collaborating, thinking, eating, drinking and enjoying the fine views of Manchester from an elevated perspective.

How it could be improved

There was (inevitably?) a fair amount repetition in the 20 pitches as everyone was pitching to the same brief. It might be better next time to have fewer pitches and encourage people to work in slightly larger groups and reduce duplication. You can’t say very much in two minutes but perhaps that’s the idea…

As an aside, I’d love to see a public open API to BBC content, as far as I know there isn’t really one (yet). An open API would allow innovation by opening up content and services to organisations and businesses outside the BBC. Something along the lines of the Twitter API, Flickr API or Google Maps API would be great. An API seems to fit squarely with the needs of it’s constitution as a public service broadcaster. I asked about this at Speakers’ Corner and on twitter (speakers’ corner of the interwebs). There are security issues (as usual) but:

I think there might be a BBC SPARQL endpoint somewhere (there certainly used to be), which is an API of sorts but can’t find the exact location at the time of posting this.

All in all, BBC Connected Studio was informative and fun, thanks to Adrian Woolard and everyone at the BBC for your excellent hospitality. If you’re interested in taking part, it’s well worth joining in.

How to get involved

If you’d liked to get involved in BBC Connected, there are various events scheduled in 2012 on different products at the Beeb including: Weather & Travel, CBeebies, UX&D, CBBC, Sport, TV / iPlayer, News, Knowledge & Learning, Radio & Music. For more info subscribe to the BBC Internet blog, follow tweets @BBC_Connected or visit BBC Connected Studio.

December 22, 2010

Happy Christmas Lectures 2010

Mark Miodownik by Joe Dunckley, on FlickrAs Tom Lehrer once sang on his christmas carol:

“Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say ‘when.’
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again…”

Which must mean it’s also time for another seasonal tradition: the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This year they are being given by the materials scientist and engineer Mark Miodownik with the title “Size Matters“. After nearly a decade in the wilderness of More4 and Channel 5 and elsewhere, this year the lectures will be back with the BBC broadcast on the 28th, 29th and 30th December at 8.00pm (also subsequently on iPlayer). Topics this year include:

  1. Why elephants can’t dance (but hamsters can skydive) see “crash test pets” video below.
  2. Why chocolate melts and jet planes don’t – chocolate is “one of the most sophisticated and highly engineered materials on the planet”!
  3. Why mountains are so small (Yes, small) – how rocks behave like liquid.

Mark has a reputation for being an entertaining and passionate [1] speaker, who unlike some previous lecturers – likes to improvise without a script which will probably make for lively and educational viewing.

Where ever you are this winterval, have a happy holiday.

References

  1. Mark Miodownik (2005). Facts not opinions? Developing both the physical and aesthetic properties of materials Nature Materials, 4 (7), 506-508 DOI: 10.1038/nmat1416

[Creative commons licensed picture of Mark Miodownik at the Science is Vital rally earlier this year in London by Joe Dunckley]

November 12, 2010

The Infinite Professor Theorem

Filed under: funny — Duncan Hull @ 10:15 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Prof Brian Cox by greyhawk68 on FlickrIf you took an infinite number of Professors, added some comedians, recording studios (instead of typewriters) and got them to record random radio shows you might just end up with a program like the Infinite Monkey Cage.

After a brief break, Physicist Brian Cox (pictured on the right with the sun shining out of his behind) and Robin Ince return for a third series of their phunny physics show which takes a “witty, irreverent look at the world according to science”. The next program will be broadcast Monday 15th November on BBC Radio 4 at 4.30pm and is available as a podcast too. Worth tuning into if you like your science comical, physical and audial.

[Creative Commons licensed picture of Brian Cox by John Roling (greyhawk68)]

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