Talking about death and not dying on stage: Keith does Science Showoff!

A few weeks ago I performed a short stand-up comedy set as part of Science Showoff, a regular series of events which are billed as 'chaotic cabaret for science lovers'. Science Showoff is the wonderful brainchild of Steve Cross, who is to science and comedy what peanut butter and jelly is to sandwiches (well, American ones anyway). The idea is to make science fun, entertaining, and (hopefully), funny.

I love presenting and I've always considered myself to be someone who puts a lot of humour in my presentations and I always try hard to make my talks engaging. So Science Showoff seemed like a logical thing for me to do. However, there is a big difference between a science presentation with hints of comedy and a comedic presentation with hints of science.

In addition to having presented at a variety of levels (from lab meetings up to to international conferences) I've also played several gigs in various bands. So I'm not particularly nervous about the idea of getting up in front of strangers. Initially, the idea of performing stand-up comedy didn't really faze me at all, but as the date of the gig came closer, I felt much more anxious than I was expecting to feel.

The most challenging aspect of Science Showoff is that, as a newcomer, you get a 9 minute slot. This goes by very quickly and if you want to tell some sort of story with a beginning, middle, and end, there is very little room for making on-the-fly alterations.

I found myself rehearsing my material in more detail than I have for most presentations that I have given. There is very little room for 'chaff' in a 9 minutes! My original version of my talk probably ran to about 30 minutes and I had to just keep cutting more and more material to hone it down (maybe they'll end up as deleted scenes on the DVD version).

I feel I made things harder for myself by deliberately choosing a topic which initially might seem bereft of any humour potential. My title was: 'Seasonality of Death'. When I first volunteered for this, I knew that I would be doing a slide-driven presentation but I dramatically cut back on how many slides I would normally present and I chose slides that were strong on visuals and kept text large and legible.

The result of my efforts is included below. I'm pleased with how I did, especially with respect to the timing of all of my content. I'd certainly consider doing this again if the opportunity arose and I think it is a great exercise in making you think about all aspects of your presentation skills.

Thanks again to Steve Cross for the opportunity.

That's no moon…but it is one of my favorite places to visit in Davis

Some may know it as the UC Davis Social Sciences and Humanities Building, but for me it will always be the Death Star. It's an amazing building…well technically it is a collection of many interconncted buildings, all packed with awkward, imposing angles. It is very easy to get lost in the innards and courtyards of this building, and this (intentional) design feature is part of the charm.

No two corners (or windows) appear to be the same and there are many steps that lead you to dark nooks and crannies. Perfect spots for plotting the destruction of those Rebel scum.

If you have never visited the Death Star, then you should give yourself to the Dark Side (at least once!). Here are some black and white photos that depict the Death Star in all of its raw and powerful beauty.

Click on the pictures to enlarge…

Thoughts on the unpredictability of which social media posts will be popular

I tweet a lot and I write a lot on my blogs, especially on my ACGT blog. Sometimes I write things where I think: This…this is the one that will go viral. And of course it never happens that way. The more I try to engineer a meme, the less likely the chance of success seems to be. This is why my concept of a #MexicanTweetOff never went anywhere, and that no-one seemed to get the joke in my recent #IamSpartacash tweet:

But then there are those tweets and blog posts which I think won't be of that much interest to anyone, but turn out to be the most popular things I've ever written. This week has been surprising in that two of my social media posts have taken on a life of their own.

Everyone loves a good gnome story

First, I spotted the opportunity to have a bit of fun with Genomics England. Last Thursday was a big news day for them with the project being featured in Nature. So after seeing the piece in Nature early on Thursday morning, I came up with this:

This tweet went on to have over 40 retweets and Genomics England ended up featuring me in a storify article on Friday about their news of the previous day. To date, that tweet has reached an audience of over 67,000 people on twitter!

Microsoft as a tool for bioinformatics

Then on Friday I was trying to find an image to use in a talk. I wanted to make a point about Excel often being an inappropriate tool for the management/querying of biological data, and just wanted a picture of Excel containing some sort of biological data. I was quite surprised by the image that I eventually found, and immediately shared it in a quick blog post:

Admittedly. the 'NFSW' part of the blog post title was a tactic designed to deliberately provoke curiosity. I tweeted about the blog post on Friday afternoon, a time which normally doesn't provoke a lot of interest (many of my European followers will have gone to bed by this point).

But it seems that this post hit a nerve and it has subsequently taken on a life of its own. Currently, there has been 64 retweets and 44 favorites, and now it is being spread on Facebook. By the end of Friday, it had become the most read item on my blog for the entire week (this never happens for posts I publish on Friday afternoons). I assumed that traffic would die down on Saturday but that didn't happen. By the end of Saturday, the post was my most read article of anything I have posted in the last 4 months.

At this point I assumed that things would surely quiet down on Sunday, but that didn't happen either. Traffic to my blog doubled compared to Saturday, and the post has now become the most viewed article of anything I have written in 2015, with almost 3x the page views compared to the next most-read article.

I guess the message here is that I should stop trying to predict the popularity of my social media posts!

Writing a new book

Just a quick note to say that I am currently writing a new book with the help of Michelle Gill and Ian Korf. This will be a follow up our Unix and Perl to the Rescue! book. The name?

Unix and Python to the Rescue!

Snazzy eh? You can find out more details about why we are doing this on the newly revamped Rescued by code! website (it didn't make sense to keep on using the unixandperl.com website anymore).

A flag for Davis, California

Yesterday was flag day in the United States. So it seems a fitting time to launch my idea for a flag for the city of Davis, California. Davis currently has a logo, which incorporates a Penny Farthing bicycle, but this is not a good choice for a flag as it breaks many rules of good flag design.

Here is my proposed design (you can also download a larger version without the border):

The video below explains what this design symbolizes. I shall contact the Davis City Council with my idea, but I would love it if they organized a proper flag designing competition, open to all residents of Davis.

Flags can be rallying symbols that a city can unite behind. Flags can also give people a sense of pride about where they live. So let's have a flag for Davis, California!

Video: iterating towards the final design of my 'These go to five' banner logo

I recently launched a new blog, These go to five, which is attempting to (very slowly) chronicle all of the five-star songs that make up my iTunes music library. These songs represent only about 1% of my ~13,000 song music collection, so I thought I would use the blog to explain why they are so special to me.

Once I had settled on the name — a bit of an oblique reference to these go to eleven — I then started work on my design for a banner logo. The following video shows how I iterated over several designs before arriving at the final version. The backing music is an instrumental song that I wrote as part of the RPM music challenge.

Which coalitions would have the greatest support from the electorate?

Time for some amateur psephology regarding the imminent UK general election. British voters have probably seen many, many graphs like this one which shows the projected share of the vote:

However, these type of graphs don't always reflect the picture among the entire electorate. That's because a sizable chunk of eligible voters do not vote. In the previous 2010 election, voter turnout was 65.1% and this is pretty close to the average from the last four elections (average turnout 64.1%). So let's assume that turnout on Thursday will be about the same, and I'll arbitrarily set it at 65%. This means that the 34.5% of people who are projected to vote Conservative are really drawn from the 65% of people who might actually vote. I.e. the percentage of the electorate who might vote Conservative is only 22.4%. So the most popular party — in terms of share of the vote — may only have the backing of fewer than 1-in-4 possible voters. Let's see how things look if we plot the support for each party based on the percentage of the electorate who might vote for them:

Of course, it's possible that the third or so of people who don't vote may all have strong leanings towards the Conservatives, or towards Labour, or it may be that the 35% contains a representative mix of supporters of all of the parties. I'm not sure if anyone has any good insight into political allegiances of this group of non-voters.

There is already a lot of speculation as to which coalition might end up coming together to form a workable government (there are a lot of permutations). So I'm curious about how well possible coalitions might reflect support from the electorate as a whole vs the combined number of seats they would amass as a voting block. To gain an absolute majority, any coalition would ideally need 325 of the 650 seats.

The following graph plots the number of seats that various Conservative and Labour coalitions might achieve vs the possible percentage of the electorate that might back such a coalition. I've also included separate data points for Conservative and Labour as potential minority governments (circles and squares indicate Conservative/Labour coalitions respectively):

So what does all of this mean? First let's look at the situation for the Conservatives:

  1. Another Conservative/Liberal Democrats coalition would have 307 combined seats, but would only have the backing of 30% of the electorate.
  2. Combining with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) might only give the Conservatives 1 more seat, but it adds a sizable chunk of electoral support (rising from 22.4% to 29.6%)
  3. If the Conservative could combine with the Lib Dems, UKIP, and the Democratic Unionists Party — a party from Northern Island who have often allied with the Conservatives in the past — then they would still only have 316 seats, and this would reflect potential backing of 37.6% of the electorate.
  4. It's hard to imagine any other party supporting the Conservatives, except for maybe on a vote-by-vote basis.

And for Labour:

  1. Support from the Scottish National Party (SNP) would add a huge number of seats to a potential coalition (which has already been ruled out), but would hardly change the national backing from the electorate. The SNP only run candidates in Scotland and despite potentially winning almost every Scottish seat, this may only reflect 2.5% of the electorate voting for them.
  2. In contrast, a Labour/Lib Dems coalition would gain fewer seats than a Labour/SNP deal (293 vs 318) but would end up reflecting much more support from the electorate.
  3. Labour have more potential coalition partners than the Conservatives, and could possibly form some sort of union with the SNP — yes, I know that I've already said that this has been ruled out but you know…politics — as well as the Lib Dems, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the SDLP (the Social Democratic Labour Party of Northern Ireland). If they all joined forces, they could amass 352 seats with backing from 34.7% of the electorate.

Conclusions

So in the unlikely scenario of grand Conservative or Labour coalitions, you still end up with a situation where less than 40% of the electorate would have voted for them. Only if Labour can unite with the SNP, will they have a chance of an absolute majority (>325 seats). The best they can do otherwise might be about 300 seats or so.

I find it interesting that the slice of the electorate who probably won't vote is larger than any single party, and larger than all of the potential coalitions listed above bar one (the grand Conservative coalition).

Whatever happens on Thursday — and over the following days and weeks — it will probably be true that any resulting coalition is going to be unpopular with most of the electorate.

Bad restaurant marketing in Davis: a sign of the times?

There is a relatively new Japanese restaurant in Davis. Like all restaurants, and most places of business, it has signage that displays the name of the restaurant. Here is how that sign looks when looking at it directly from about 20 feet away:

If you were driving past this establishment, you'd be another 20 feet or so away from the sign. I suspect that many of you might not be able to clearly read the first word. Here's a close up:

The shadows that you can see hint at the problem that I'm about to raise. This signage is 3-dimensional, with the letters being raised several inches from the wall. So what happens when you have such a sign and you try looking at it from anything other than directly head on?

Doesn't seem great from a marketing perspective if the name of your business can only be read when looking at your sign from one particular angle! It's a little better at night as the white backing to the letters is illuminated. Here is a close up that more clearly shows the 3-dimensional nature of the sign:

Did no-one check this at any point and ask the simple question "Wait, can you actually read those words?"

Sketches of Science: a must-see exhibition in Davis

This weekend we managed to catch the Sketches of Science exhibition at the Mondavi Center (also see the official website). I thoroughly recommend that people catch this free exhibition before it finishes on 28th January.

Photographer Volker Steger has met with many Nobel prize winners and asked them to make a poster (using crayons) that represents their nobel-prize-winning science. He then photographs them with their poster and some of the posters are also accompanied by audio interviews.

There is a lot of humor, beauty, and fun that emerges from this experience. Some scientists go for a simple representation of their work, others pack a lot into the poster (including a poem in one instance). Well worth seeing if you get a chance. I believe that this is the only place in the USA where this exhibit is being shown at the moment.

Martie Chalfie, one of many folks to win the nobel prize for their work on Caenorhabditis elegans

Bob Horvitz, another C. elegans researcher to feature in the exhibition

Decade

This Saturday marked by 10th year at UC Davis (also my 10th year of living in the USA). This is kind of incredible since the plan was only ever to stay for a year or two! Since arriving here in 2005, I have become a husband, a father, and settled down to a wonderful family life.

However, all good things come to an end and so we are planning to move back across the pond. We don't yet know where we will go (probably the UK, but possibly Western Europe), we don't know yet know what we we will do (probably something related to science), and we don't yet know when we will go (probably early 2016).

The USA, and Davis in particuar, has been very good to us both professionally and personally. Our careers have flourished, but more importantly we have made some wonderful friends who we expect to keep in close contact with wherever we end up.

I thought that this would be a fitting time to relaunch my website and blog as I plan to write more regarding what will be the next big chapter in our lives. The idea of not knowing where you will be in a year's time, or what you will be doing, is exciting and scary in equal measure.

I'm looking forward to what the future brings us.