Tuesday, March 22, 2011

United Utilities are threatening me.

I love this letter that arrived the other day from United Utilities. Ostensibly they're trying to get me to buy their HomeServe insurance, but the way they've phrased it is just this side of sinister. "How would you cope without fresh water at address?" sounds, to me, like a corporate version of "Lovely taps you've got there. Shame if something were to... happen to them."

And they can leave the washing machine out of this, it's done nothing wrong.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Weeknote #35 (w/e 20/3/11)

Lots of public engagement activity to report from the last two weeks. The first item is that the BACTOCOM piece is now up in the new Revolution Manchester gallery at MOSI (the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry). It's a great gallery, and we're delighted to be featured, but the use of "Bactocom" as a noun (as opposed to an acronym) means that we now have to rig up a fake machine made out of petri dishes, computer parts and moss, just in case anyone asks to see "the bactocom". (Photo by Ade Hunter.)

We also launched DIYbio Manchester last week. This is a one-year project, funded by the Wellcome Trust public engagement programme, with the aim of encouraging citizen scientists to become more actively involved in biology.

Dan Hett wrote a nice blog post about the launch party, and Hwa Young and I were briefly interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester's breakfast show (which you can hear below).

Alice and I also had great fun at Saturday's 'Hands on Science' family fun day, organised at MMU as part of National Science and Engineering week. Her personal favourites were the "memory metal" and the "magic sand", the robots and the racing car. I think she also enjoyed "talking to the computer" (the Turing Test, run by Ben and Matthew).

Once again, there was strong representation from the Novel Computation Group, with Naomi and Zarka manning demo stands, as well as Ben and Matthew helping out. Not sure what's happening with Alice's right hand in that picture, though.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Weeknote #34 (w/e 6/3/11)

Slight shift of focus this week, as the previous seven days have been utterly dominated by arrangements for the fifth birthday party of a certain someone. Anyway, we hired the Fielden Centre in Todmorden (which will mean nothing to 99.7% of my readership), and couldn't fault them (specifically, Bridie) for helpfulness, friendliness and downright reasonable pricing (this is not product placement, BTW).

Anyway, this was the first party we'd organised where everything was up to us; catering and entertainment. On top of this, we decided that such an occasion deserved a healthy turn-out, and invited around 30 kids, on the assumption that roughly 20 would be able to make it. As opposed to the 30 that turned up.

I learned some important lessons this weekend, and I offer them to you now, in ascending order of importance.

5. Check the facilities in your venue. Our place was kitted out with an oven, which allowed us to indulge our wildest, almost Blumenthal-esque food fantasies (ie. pizza, and fish fingers and chips). However, we weren't warned that, after being turned on, the temperature of the oven would rise by about 3 degrees every half hour.

4. Dress as a pirate. Never fails.

3. Corollary to (4). When dressing as a pirate, ensure that arriving parents are aware of your true identity (ie. father of party girl), lest they mistake you for a particularly shoddy hired entertainer (happened).

2. Check your music. I'd vaguely heard about this Glee thing that the kids were into, and thought that music from the series would make an appropriate soundtrack to a party full of 4 and 5-year-olds. Wrong. After rashly picking up two CDs without checking the tracklisting, I got them home to discover that the second track on one of them was a cheery cover of Amy Winehouse's Rehab. Cue frantic last-minute iTunes purchases. Also, check your equipment. An iPod/docking station combo that can be unbearably loud in a kitchen with quarry tile flooring will suddenly sound like a wasp trapped under a beer glass when placed in a cavernous hall full of small children hyped up on blue pop.

And the absolute, number 1 lesson I've learned from organizing a kid's party is don't be the baddy. Specifically, under no circumstances plan games that involve you making semi-arbitrary decisions about who is "out". You will never remember all of the names, and will end up looking pretty evil as you point at some quivering 4-year-old and shout across the room "You! No! Yes, you! You're out!"

I thought I'd be clever and organize a game of "Islands", which is a variant of "musical chairs", using sheets of newspaper as the islands onto which the kids must jump when the music stops. "Very clever," thought I. "Fits well with the 'Under the Sea' party theme." I was so very wrong to be in any way self-satisfied, as the game swiftly descended into Lord of the Flies-type chaos, with refusals to leave swiftly followed by the emergence of factions, and then all out war declared (mainly on me).

Pick games, like "Four corners" (from the link above), or "Pass the parcel". In that way, the decision on who is "out" is taken completely out of your hands, it's utterly unambiguous, and you can simply shrug at the tearful toddler as they shuffle sadly to the margins of the room, and say, apologetically, "Look, I don't make the rules."