Science communication and social media #media140au

Attending the Media 140 Conference in Brisbane today. The tag line for this conference is “exploring the impact of social technologies on science communication” and it explores some of the issues and challenges facing science communication today.

There’s been a great line-up of speakers so far, with:

  • Bernie Hobbs, ABC Science (who’s doing an excellent job as Conference host)
  • Dr Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and the Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
  • Natasha Mitchell , ABC presenter of All In The Mind.
  • Wilson da Silva , Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS
  • Elena McMaster , Nanotechnology Project for Friends of the Earth Australia
  • Craig Thomler , Gov 2.0 advocate
  • Dr Craig Cormick , Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Dr Kristen Lyons, Senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Queensland

Dr Andrew Maynard’s keynote on Social media and science communication – a load of Jackson Pollocks? was interesting and he noted his top three issues to consider for science communication:

  • Hubris – disregarding the medium because you don’t understand it. Assumed authority – old model does not work, and Control – “rather misguided theory that we can control conversations”.
  • Creating value – behaving like rockstars does not give us credibility as science communicators – remember cause & effect. Trying to mimic viral videos and blogs is not the answer need to have the good content that creates value.
  • Uncivil behaviour – feeling that we can “tell people forcefully what is right until the get the message” – ends up alienating people we need to connect with.

And a fascinating panel session on Web 2.0 or Web too far? chaired by Natash Mitchell. The panel discussed topics as varied as:

  • Online democratisation and/or demonization.
  • How to manage when the web is used to distort, misinform and distribute propaganda.
  • How anti-science ideologies and commercial agendas use the web, and how we should use social media to democratise scientific knowledge.

ANZAC Day: remembering some ordinary diggers, not famous, not important #ANZAC

Another ANZAC Day and another day to remember the sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand forces. Those who serve in battle never get off lightly, even if they manage to survive seemingly unscathed.

This year I remember some family members – Claude and Tim from Crows Nest, and Henry Demas – who fought in the Second World War. These men were ordinary working class blokes, not famous, not important. Based on stories and their military records they were larrikins with some disrespect for hierarchy and authority.

Local boys from Crows Nest in Sydney, Claude and Tim fought in North Africa and the Pacific. They sailed to the Middle East and were at Tobruk for part of the siege. After being withdrawn from Tobruk and following a training period in Palestine they took part in the two epic battles at El Alamein (first battle of El Alamein and second battle of El Alamein) before returning to Australia in time for offensives against the Japanese in the New Guinea campaign. Their fourth and final campaign took place in British North Borneo.

Claude and Tim returned at the end of the war. But they did not return the same as they had left. Not physically damaged, yet they were each damaged in some ways.

Claude returned as an extremely angry man. He became an alcoholic, abandoned his young family, lived an itinerant existence and died alone in a veteran’s hospital on a Christmas Day in the 1960s. Ironically, after so many years of wandering away from his family, the hospital in which he died was only a few minutes away from his family who were celebrating Christmas. A sad end to the life of a man who, by all accounts, was intelligent and easy going in his youth.

Tim – a polite, kind and unassuming man – married, worked in a factory and lived a quietly medicated existence until his death in the 1980s. He never could sleep very well after the war and only rested with the help of medication and beer. Always a natty dresser, Tim never left the house without wearing a ‘proper’ hat; and he maintained meticulous personal hygiene throughout his life.

Washing and carefully drying his feet was an extremely important ritual for Tim several times a day. As a young child I did not understand any of this. I never understood why he was so obsessed with keeping his feet clean and dry. But I bet if we’d fought in tropical New Guinea and Borneo during that fierce fighting in impossible jungle terrain we’d want clean and dry feet for the rest of our life too.

I can truly understand why the generation of men who went off to fight in World War 2 wanted to come home and live quietly ordered lives. I can see the attraction of a world where supper was on the table at 6pm and everyone was safely behind their white picket fences.

Henry Demas was much more unlucky than Tim and Claude. He was part of the Australian 2/18th Battalion and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. This is such a sad story. He survived Sandakan – one of the most horrific parts of the war in the Pacific – until the war was almost over. Henry survived several of the Sandakan Death Marches only to die very close to ANZAC Day in 1945 – 28 April 1945. That simple fact made me cry. The Japanese surrender was only a few months away in September 1945. To be so close to the end and not survive seems terribly poignant.

But then only six men survived the horror of Sandakan, which some refer to as “Australia’s holocaust“. The exact numbers of the dead at Sandakan, as recorded by the Australian War Memorial: 2428 “known” dead: 1787 Australians and 641 British.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Source: The Ode

Lest we forget.

What’s in a name? Pirate, freedom fighter or terrorist

I recently discovered that one of my ancestors was arrested by the British in 1828 as a pirate and sent to Australia as a convict. He had originally been sentenced to death, but he appealed to the King and his sentence was commuted to life as a convict in Australia.

It was pretty cool to discover that my relative was both a pirate and a convict – Talk Like a Pirate Day will probably never be the same.

But then I started to delve a bit further into this story and the layers of complexity began to emerge.

My ancestor, Damianos Ninis, was a Greek freedom fighter in the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) – a war against Ottoman Turkish oppression.

It is reported that at his trial the defence argued that:

the Greeks who were fighting a war against the Turks had the right “under international law to remove articles of war from a neutral ship proceeding to an enemy-occupied port (namely, Alexandria).” The verdict rendered by the Court stated that Manolis, Ninis and Vasilakis were to be sentenced to death, whilst Boulgaris, Papandreou, Stroumboulis and Laritsos though sentenced to death “but with a recommendation of these four to mercy, since, they had not taken a leading part nor committed any act of violence.”
Source: A History of Greek Migration and Settlement to Australia by Stavros T.Stavridis

It turns out that Damianos survived his time in Australia, having arrived on the ship Norfolk in 1829. He was granted a complete pardon in 1836 and returned to Greece the following year. Two of his sons later returned to Australia, hence the family line continues here.

All of this got me thinking about how important the words we use really are.

It is likely that Damianos and his compatriots considered themselves to be freedom fighters against an oppressive regime. To the Turks they were probably classified as terrorists, and the British categorised them as pirates.

I wonder how we can work this kind of thing out now. Who is a freedom fighter, who is a terrorist?

The question is very apt now with wars and upheavals leading to various waves of refugees, and continuing unrest in Palestine, North Africa and the Middle East. And I suspect that there are no easy answers.

What’s real and what’s not

“Sometimes life happens and you can’t stop it. Now is that time. When it happens, you discover where true love lies, and where it never existed.”

A good friend said this very recently in response to a significant life event. It got me thinking about how much time and energy I have wasted on things and people that have nothing to do with true love.

Then the question arose: what do I mean by true love? For simplicity I adopted the terms for love used by C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves (however, not necessarily his explicitly Christian reading of these four types of love). He adopts much of his analysis of love from Aristotle. For those unfamiliar with the four loves of which he speaks:

  • Storge – Affection: fondness through familiarity, especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance.
  • Philia – Friendship: a strong bond existing between people who share common interest or activity; the love between family and friends.
  • Eros – Romance: love in the sense of ‘being in love’ or the emotional connection with the other person as distinct from sexuality.
  • Agape – Unconditional Love: love that cares and acts regardless of circumstance or behaviour.

It is interesting to go back and think upon one’s life, to consider how much time was spent with companions with whom one shared bonds of love. To consider how much time one has spent with people who did not wish you well. To consider how much time was spent on things and not on people. And to ponder how much time was spent on people who had no love for us or for others.

Spent is the right word. We spend time like a currency in our lives. We are allocated an unknown yet finite amount of time in life and our challenge is to spend that time. And the choices we make create the value of that time we spend.

Notice that possessions and wealth are not on that list? Things cannot give love they can merely inertly receive our love, never return it. Only other people can share love with us.

Now that I am older it is clear how precious and short our time here is. I do not want to waste another minute. And I want to spend my time on love and loving; on real things and not imaginary things.

This sums up why this matter is important, not just to individuals but to the entire world:

“Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.”
Source: His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

Protecting babies: whooping cough vaccination boosters for adults

Many people who were vaccinated as children do not realise that by the time we’re all grown up some of our protection no longer works.

In the case of whooping cough, or pertussis, the protection can wane in as little as six to ten years. This means that many of us are wandering around at risk of catching whooping cough ourselves or asympomatically transmitting it to others. This is not so much of a problem for adults we might run into, but for little babies this can mean exposure to a life threatening illness.

Whooping cough is a disease that does not evoke fear in our generation as it did in past generations. It used to be a terrible killer for children before the advent of the pertussis vaccine.

“Whooping cough is a relatively mild disease in adults but has a significant mortality rate in infants. Until immunization was introduced in the 1930s, whooping cough was one of the most frequent and severe diseases of infants in the United States.”
Source: Kenneth Todar, Ph.D. Textbook of Bacteriology

Now many parents are refusing to vaccinate their children against whooping cough and this makes things more dangerous for very young babies. This is a real networked world problem. One person’s decision not to get vaccinated can have implications for the health of those around them.

In Australia the adult booster vaccine typically includes diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. I had one of these booster shots recently because I knew that I would be spending time with some newborn babies and wanted to ensure they were protected.

Check out this video … and consider consulting your doctor and getting an adult booster shot.

Bad idea: updating products for no real benefit to the consumer

I’ve been a product manager and been to business school. We all learned about the cows, dogs and stars via the BCG Growth-Share Matrix.

But there comes a time when so-called innovation is just annoying to your consumers. That happens when you take a product that is working just fine and you “improve” it to the point where is it just doesn’t meet customer needs or wants.  This often happens when a product is no longer bringing in the revenue it did once, or when management want to increase revenue from a product.  A typical solution to this is a product refresh. The idea behind this is to take a successful product and tweak it a bit to drive better sales and it is often used as an excuse to increase retail price.

An excellent example of this phenomenon is the Berlei company who make a bra called Barely There Contour. For many years this bra has been the staple foundation garment for working women around the world. This product – while not pretty or fancy – made the wearer look good, was entirely functional and could be worn all day in comfort at work and then into the evening if necessary. The straps were extremely comfortable and it was by far the best bra to wear for a twelve hour stretch; plus it looked good under either business or casual attire.  It was a great bra for travelling in – it was a favourite to wear for sitting on a plane on long business trips.

I suspect that this product was, for Berlei, a cow as per the matrix above. And there is always an interesting decision to be made in changing products. Do you create a new product, do you enhance the old one, do you create a line extension?

In this instance existing loyal customers are faced with the “Berlei Barely There NEW REFRESHED Contour Bra“. This product refresh has not been a success from my perspective. A line extension might have been a better alternative.

What does that mean? Well it means that the once comfortable straps that used to make it my bra of choice are now painfully narrow ones that dig into my shoulders and make me conscious of wearing a bra (when it should be the last thing on my mind).

It also means that the newly refreshed Berlei Barely There Contour (BBTC) model now has straps that even when extended to their fullest length are not long enough for the bra to sit comfortably under my bust. This again is an uncomfortable feeling, and I suspect that it contributes to the digging in of the now too narrow straps.

I wore one of this new model out yesterday to meet some friends for yum cha. While sitting waiting for them to arrive I was extremely conscious of how the narrow straps of the BBTC were digging into my shoulders rather painfully, and how it was not sitting comfortably under my bust. This has never happened with the old model of this product (of which I’ve owned more than ten). I could not wait to get home and remove the damned thing.

Many friends who were fans of this product have reported similar experiences to me. In fact, one of the women at yum cha recounted precisely the same experience and asked if I’d found a viable alternative product.

It makes me wonder did Berlei actually try out this new “refreshed” model on any actual consumers? Did they have a clue why the old model of this product was one of the most popular bras?

Sadly Berlei have now lost a customer and loyal brand advocate. I need something I can put on at 6.30 am and wear all day in the office and then head out to a function in the evening after work. I need something that makes me look good and is so comfortable I don’t even notice I’m wearing it.

Thanks Berlei for “improving” this product. Hope that works out for you. In the meantime I’m looking for an alternative product. If anyone has tips on alternative products please let me know.  If anyone has stock of the old model please do let me know – I’ve got some friends who’d love to take those off your hands.

By the way I’ve got two of these new model things that will be sent back to the place where I bought them. It’s a real pity that I’ve already worn the other one. Looks like that one will be going in the bin.