samedi 28 juin 2014

On the mysterious disappearance of *Dr* Douglas Carnall

   Between 1994 to 2007, if you'd asked me, "What do you do?" I suppose I'd have replied, "I'm a GP." Certainly that was how I mostly earned money, even if I rejected much of the ideology of the discipline. This was a delicate matter. My chief concern was to keep my workload within reasonable limits, which I did by working as a locum and billing by the hour.  Such an attitude was a certainly an affront to the notions of vocation claimed by the betweeded denizens of the British Journal of General Practice. I had no desire to confront this ideology: it seemed in many ways humane, certainly in comparison with other parts of the profession. And anyway, I didn't really have the intellectual tools to do so, and wasn't particularly interestedat that timein acquiring them.
   Still, I was flattered, in 2003, to be called by one of the editors of the Br J Gen Pract, and asked to write about blogging for the back pages of the journal, presumably on the strength of the columns I'd been writing about the internet for the BMJ for several years.
   I remember finding the BJGP article hard to write: I'm not sure that I shared the vision of the commissioning editor, and I was certainly more interested in maintaining my own blog and making music at the time. But I wrote something, and delivered it, probably on time, and in due course, it appeared.
  Usually I enjoy rereading my old stuff, but not that one. By that time I'd developed significant disillusion with the dis-ease of use of the free software of the epoch. I was ambivalent about proposing that all doctors should blog, though I'd taken it up myself. Doing it on free software seemed almost insurmountably difficult; yet handing over all comms and memory to predatory capitalists and intrusive state agencies using proprietary platforms was as much an evident danger back then as it is now. I didn't pose the issue explicitly in the article, but my nagging doubts that I was merely a fashion victim do seep through, I think, and it's hardly a comfortable position as an author.
  A decade later, happily retired from general practice, I suppose I was right that blogging would catch on: both Twitter and Facebook are effectively blogging platforms; but wrong that this would greatly affect general practitioners, who seem largely absent from them. I guess taking up blogging would be something to be done on the eighth day of the week. And the duty of confidentiality makes any discussion of individual cases online so fraught as to be best avoided entirely. Neither has the publishing world's snail-like progress towards open access aided trade among doctors in professional articles. Progress towards the noble goal of making the world's scientific literature open to anyone who cares to read it, has, to my mind, been disappointingly slow, though things are going in the right direction.
  Anyway, when I moved to France in August 2007 "for six months off" I stopped paying all of my medical subscriptions, including to the Royal College of General Practitioners, and felt that it was only right that I should saw the MRCGP off my name (the M stands for member). And as holders of a bachelor's degree in medicine are addressed as doctor only as a courtesy for clinical settings, I have converted, for all purposes, to being a simple monsieur, et toute ma vie y est améliorée.

samedi 14 juin 2014

Jam not telly

Well, the general consensus on the internets is that Croatia was robbed. Brazil's double goal scorer shouldn't have been on the pitch after his forearm smash to an opponent's throat, it was never a penalty, Croatia's goal should have stood, etc etc. Still, they've spent so much on the stadiums, they can't have the home side being knocked out early. This tweet summed it up nicely:
And though we enjoyed a pleasant little soirée round at Djamel's watching this opening match, I realise I can't summon that adolescent fervour any more. It was a great buzz while it lasted, but I won't be going out of my way to watch any more FIFA World Cup matches. Instead I'm going to be making jam and chutney and maybe posting some illustrations here.
I like pictures of stuff in the kitchen sink on the way to being transformed to some delightful conserved product that will last out the year:

A list of the steps

0) First pick your strawberries. These were from Muzon, near Trellières, about 15k from Nantes. The women and children drove in cars; I naturally found it a pleasant occasion for a bike ride. Picnic in a field. When the farmer returned from lunch we got started. I picked about 3 kilos as fast as I could. On the ride home I bought 3kg of sugar from SuperU.
1) Wash and trim strawberries. This took a while, listened to some podcasts online. In the end there was 2.2kg of fruit.
2) As well as a field of berries to pick, the farmer also kindly supplied an A5 flyer with a jam recipe on it, which I followed slavishly in the absence of any other counsel. This suggested adding 600g of sugar plus the juice of 1 lemon for each 1kg of fruit.
3) As soon as you add the sugar and lemon to the fruit the osmotic process of maceration begins. The lid on the pan not being 100% close fitting, I also put the pan in a plastic bag, to avoid contamination with any other odours from the fridge.
4) In the morning you have a cauldron of shrunken wibbly strawbs in a dark red syrup. This you boil for one minute, then cool it and put it back in the fridge.
5) On the third day, comes the definitive cooking. This obviously involves jar preparation (see video below for technique). The cooking is the most fraught part of the process. Boiling the fruit, sugar, and acid should liberate pectin from cell walls in the fruit and cause the mixture to gel. You test the propensity of your solution to gel by the 'cold plate test': putting a teaspoonful of the solution on a cold plate and looking for signs of jellification. If you boil it too much, you can zap all the pectin chains, and it will never set, or you boil off too much water and it crystallizes into a solid lump of fruity sugar.
So when I had exceeded the recommended cooking times of both the farmer (7-12 min) and Harold McGee* (10-20 min) I was nervous. The red juice ran down the face of the plate as freely as at the beginning. Also, it was time to go fetch the boy from school for lunch. So once more I cooled the mixture in a sink of cold water, and held off doing anything about it till later.
6) Happily I ran into Isabel, picnicking at the park, who suggested the addition of some agar-agar and pointed me to the La Vie Claire to get it.
7) That evening, I mixed four 2g-sachets of the grey, seaweed-derived product with about 30mls of water in a cup, then added some of my reheating jam solution to the cup, mixed it well, and lobbed the whole lot back into the pan. Another couple of minutes of boiling, and, for the first time, the cold plate test started to develop a ripple of viscosity, and into the jars it went.
8) Cooled over night, the jam is a nice consistency, doesn't run off the toast and has a good flavour. It's very sweet.

*Heston Blumenthal's favourite cookbook: McGee H. On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen. NY: Scribner, 1984.

samedi 24 mai 2014

Why I keep public bookmarks (and where you can find them)

Well, the finding them bit is easy. They are here:

a brief explanation

About 5000 web things of various kinds are there, all tagged by subject in my own folksonomic classification of about 900 terms. Each is also accompanied by an evocatext of similar length to an abstract, designed not to summarise the content of the text, but to evoke its memory. This might be a conventional summary (if one was easily available to copy) but it is more often a key passage in a text, or a bit that was funny or sexy or violent or grotesque (because that kind of stuff is more memorable). Evocatext* is a neologism. Sorry about that.

a short history of my bookmarks

The arrival of family life in 2009 meant I started to have fairly generous swathes of time available before a computer screen, and no particular ambition in mind. My complete break with my former life as a jobbing GP in London town by moving to France had left me agreeably free of an obligation to professional reading that had become increasingly tedious.

I was using the internet a lot for my French studies, and decided to open accounts on all of the social networks to play with them and better understand them. I've labelled monitoring these accounts "being on general internet patrol," and I quickly realised the frustration that comes from reading something online, then being unable to find it even a few days or weeks later. Social bookmarking seemed to be the answer: I was happy user until it was taken over and trashed by its new owners. At that point I discovered I am extremely tightfisted when it comes to paying for online services, but founder Majiec Ceglowski has convinced me of the need to dob him $25/year, and I find maintaining my collection there useful and satisfying. My annual fee also pays for personal copies of pages to be archived, which means if you hit a 404 from there, I may be able to help.

examples of tag collections

French > English, English > French resources
Open access advocacy and information
Readings in agnotology, obscurantism, and attention

Note that in selecting one set of tags, associated tags open up on the left of the page, enabling selections such as 'openaccess' + 'funny', 'peerreview' + 'reputation', or maybe 'sex' + 'drugs' (which will lead you to a Paris Review interview with Beatriz Preciado entitled Pharmacopornography).

If you find stuff you like there, and you'd like to follow my curations in future, pinboard has a really cool RSS feature that makes that easy: simply place any pinboard address (up to three tags deep) in your RSS reader, and the next time I classify something I've just read using those tags, up pops a link in your reader. Fellow freelance translators might enjoy my translation business stream for example.

  a modest caveat

My own experience of following other users' bookmarks on delicious and diigo  was that following all of an individual's bookmarking is just too random to be time-efficient. Pinboard's ability to follow subsets by tag may mitigate this somewhat. Those bookmarks are up there first and foremost for me, but if they're in any way useful for anyone else, I'd love the feedback (to dougie_DOT_carnall_ATT_gmail) or in the comments here.
* A short (~80-150 words) text selected or composed to evoke a longer text. Evocatexts do not aim to summarise the longer text as a whole, but to represent the most memorable parts of it to enable later recall by digital searching. An evocatext would aim to reproduce the parts of the text that were, for example, funny or sexy or violent or grotesque (because that kind of stuff is more memorable). See also: keywords, abstract, summary, précis, publon.

"Yeah, he's got a really nice collection of tagged public bookmarks, each with a high quality evocatext to assist later recall."

dimanche 13 avril 2014

A consultation with a social librarian

    I came upon GoodReads again this morning, and decided to sign up and give it a goI've been yearning for some medium-light stuff in English to complement my worthy trawl through the French classics, currently La Peste.
    GoodReads is like Facebook for book lovers: 25 million users have shared their literary preferences, and, using the power of the social graph, once you do that too, those magical inklings about what you "didn't know you didn't know" become yours for the taking.
    This technique worked dramatically for me. Told I needed to rate 20 books to start receiving recommendations from the site, I set off, but was being presented with digital screeds of books I'd never heard of, and didn't even care that I hadn't. After scrolling through many pages of this, I finally lighted upon Richard Feynmann's Surely you're joking Mr Feymann?, gave it a five star rating (heartfelt: I even bought it for a nephew last Christmas), and from that moment on, my universe at the site changed completely, and I started to be presented with much more plausible choices of stuff that I might actually want to read. I was reminded that I have yet to tackle much of Dostoyevsky and Kafka for example.
    There was a slight dip when I came to rating my preferences in sport, where, as a simple matter of attentional survival (84kb PDF), I limit my reading strictly to cycling. Amidst a morass of recommendations treating on American-rules "football" (this though the ball is hardly ever kicked), baseball, and basketball, cycling was nowhere to be seen. This time I had to resort the the site's search tool: a search and a click on Tim Krabbé's The Rider sufficed to transform the site once more into friendly territory.
    It's a pretty awesome site, it has to be said. So now the problem is the more familiar "so many books, so little time." But my impression is that the site offers a powerful attentional tool, enabling ready surmise of populist preference, whilst easily forcing it to turn to the interest at hand (say, by specifying philosophical works). For an autodidact this is invaluable. For example, you'd seen references to the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, but didn't know where to begin; the GoodReads recommendation looks like a pretty palatable place to start. And unlike at Amazon, the GoodReads reader reviews generally seem non-trivial and sane.

mercredi 2 avril 2014

Was this URL censored on Twitter?

Try as I might (and I need my beauty sleep) I could not manage to post a tweet with this URL in it tonight:

The story there describes how a Mr Duff, head of his large eponymously-named company, only agreed to move his head office to Rennes from current locations in London and Paris, because he knew there was going to be a new airport at Notre-Dames-Des-Landes. Three hundred jobs are reportedly at stake.

The idiocy of this position can hardly be described. Why does he need a new airport 90km away, when he's already got one 10km away on the outskirts of Rennes? I crafted a tweet to point out this basic absurdity at 2330h on 2 April 2014:

 M. Duff retirerait 300 emplois si #NDDL n'aurait pas lieu: Mais il déjà existe un aéroport à Rennes! #bizarre

[Mr Duff will pull 300 jobs if #NDDL isn't built: But Rennes already has an airport! #bizarre]

 and thought I was about to head for bed, when it failed with the following error:

'Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You'll have to be more clever.'

Well, actually, it wasn't. It was 110 characters, plus a valid URL, which would normally be shortened by Twitter's URL-shortening service to 20 characters. This gives a total of 130 characters, well within the 140 character limit.

But try as I might, that Tweet wouldn't post. I redrafted it. It was very like Twitter was overwhelmed, as happens sometimes, so I thought I'd complain
and get off to bed. But when that tweet posted so easily and quickly (i.e. not at all like a general server fail that you sometimes see at busy times with Twitter) that my curiosity was piqued.

So I thought I'd post another tweet, avoiding the hashtag #NDDL and the URL to the Ouest-France story, and see how I got on:
That posted very nice and smoothly. Hmm! This was looking, on the face of it, like a keyword censorship problem at Twitter. I used the and URL shortening services. Those yielded 'internal server error(s).' It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had created some crummy propaganda (which really is of insultingly low quality) and didn't want sarky tweets flying around deconstructing it before it's had a chance to fool a few time-pressed loyalists.

So I alternated attempts to post the most refined version of the tweet (as follows):

M. Duff retirerait 300 emplois si #NDDL n'aurait pas lieu. Et l'aéroport actuel de Rennes ne sert à rien?

with a few tweets on other subjects, as one might, while on general internet patrol.

The madness that is the public discourse over American healthcare never ceases to exercise a horrible fascination in me, for example:
Hmm. No problem posting that one either.

So what are they filtering on? Surely the #NDDL hashtag can't be entirely blocked, because that would be too obvious, and people would complain:

So #NDDL is alright. Must be that link. But I still have not succeeded in posting it in any way to Twitter from my location here in France. I complain

And start researching Twitter censorship. It seems that France is indeed the leader in this. On the spurious grounds of preventing the sale of Nazi memorabilia, the French government have demanded that internet players be able to filter content by national boundaries.

I, however, am not even trying to sell a Hugo Boss suit: I am legitimately participating in a public debate about whether to build a new local airport using my taxes! Leaving aside the environmental question for a moment, the proposed subsidy is €266 million euros (which is about €450 for every man, woman and child in Nantes)—for what? A useless white elephant further away from Nantes, with no public transport, when we're already proud owners of a prizewinning airport.

I regard this as prima facie evidence that tweets around a certain URL were blocked between 2330h and 0300h, when I stopped trying to tweet, and began to pull this post together. I really cannot believe that they are defending this completely idiotic story, which they obviously plan to circulate it as a major triumph in their new airport = jobs argument. Such a completely bogus argument. Mr Duff! Indeed!

Doubtless the filter will be switched off tomorrow and everyone can deny this ever happened.

In the meantime, I have engaged here:
But really! This is supposed to be the EU, not some banana republic.

vendredi 14 mars 2014

No more talks from Tony Benn

As is so often the way these days, I surmised the demise of a public figure by random occurrences in my Twitter timeline, such as this:
which is quite a nice way to get the sad news.

I did actually meet Tony Benn one day on Whitehall, sometime in 2003: opposing the invasion of Iraq, we were. He wasn't actually engaged on any more serious conversations at that moment, so I went up to him and shook his hand and told him how much I'd enjoyed a talk he'd given at Sheffield University Students' Union at the time of the miners' strike. He received the compliment without comment, smiled benignly and moved on. I was struck by how his dress sense resembled my father's: decent in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and brown trousers.
Anyway, here, in his memory, is the story he told, to that adoring student audience, back in 1983:

"So I was helping out on one of the miners' stalls outside a supermarket--we were gathering food, tins and whatnot, from the people coming out of the shop--when an old lady, obviously very deaf, came up and said [more than passable imitation of a Chesterfield accent] "What's going on 'ere then?"
"So, of course, I replied, we're collecting food for the miners, there's a strike on you know."
"And she replied, [more Chesterfield] Oh verra good. I'll 'ave a tin of beans then."
"And she took a tin of beans off the stall!"
[We all laughed with Tony, who of course had a wonderful beaming smile on his face as he told the story]
 "And of course, at the time I was flabbergasted, and I didn't know what to say. But I've thought about it, and you know, that old lady was right. Because that is what this strike is about: it's about defending the rights of ordinary people to live a decent life..."

Truly, a memorable homily. It was a big meeting: I'd say 1500 students had turned out to hear the great man, and we were not disappointed. He had that very rare talent, of great warmth and charm, and being able to put that over in a way that unites an audience.

Of course, he is as easy to criticise in hindsight as any of his contemporaries, left or right, but I think he was a very decent man, and I mourn his passing. Plenty of YouTubery out there to enjoy, but @medialens picked this one out, which does capture his late era persona rather nicely.

dimanche 2 mars 2014

Shocking resort to science to resolve question of English language usage

Almost two years ago, David Crystal posted a short article on his blog musing about when to use "for instance" and when to use "for example." Such pedantry is perhaps not the most thrilling topic, but I guess métier oblige, and Mme Beezer and I count ourselves among his fans: she even buys his books.

As Crystal was requesting the intuitions of his readers, and as anyone had yet to post, I thought it a reasonable opportunity for increasing my notoriety, and quickly drafted a few remarks. These stated my intuition that "for instance" was perhaps more likely to be used in spoken English, than "for example," and showed that "for example" was more common, citing evidence from the Google Books corpus. I also remarked that my hunch about spoken vs written usage would be testable, given access to the right corpus. Happily I managed to express all this, and still get the first post, which I'm sure are more read than others 'below the line'.

Even more happily, I'm now five weeks into the most excellent Future Learn MOOC on corpus linguistics, which has given me access to the British National Corpus, and some good teaching about to how to use it. Anyway, as we all now know on the course, the BNC comprises corpora of both transcribed speech and written texts, enabling me to test some of the intuitions I offered Crystal two years ago against hard data. Here's a table showing the relative frequencies of both terms in the spoken and written sections of the BNC:
For instance51.4976.61.49
For example106.25257.42.42
(freq/10^6 words)(freq/10^6 words)(ratio)
Data: British National Corpus hosted at
As you can see, the outnumbering of "for instance" by "for example" witnessed in the Google books corpus is replicated. I'm no statistician, but it does look as though "for instance" is relatively more favoured in speech than in writing, when compared with "for example."
As some of Crystal's other commentators (Lucy, Rick Sprague) remarked two years ago, fr'instance does slip more felicitously off the tongue, or, if you like that kinda thing, "is preferred for phonotactic reasons."