We’ve completed another Orbit!

In other words, Happy New Year!

Also, while I’m at it; Happy Chanukkah, A Very Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to you!

We’ve managed to survive yet another so-called apocalypse, London survived the Olympocalypse and our planet’s combined scientific exploits have done us proud once again, from the landing of Curiosity on the Martian surface to the statistically significant and probable discover of the Higgs Boson.

As for me, I’ve dug up Dinosaurs in Montana, Catalogued almost an entire museum collection, Monetised my Youtube channel… (so far making me a total of 44 cents US), Attempted to write a Novel, and totally and utterly failed to find a lasting, paying Job.

As for the next twelve months, I’m hoping to change that last thing, but I’m also hoping to do a lot of other interesting things. This month I plan to start working on digitising Lyme Regis Museum’s Geological collections, which means I’ll be learning how to use Modes 1.99…. oh dear…. but I’ll also be learning how to improve my specimen photography and digital image manipulation. In a similar vein I hope to take up arms against LYMPH 2006-72 again soon, hopefully with more success and less worrying about writing “the wrong thing”.

The Connecting Awesome ‘G.L.O.B.A.L’ blogging project is ramping up nicely; despite a little service interruption over the holiday period, if you haven’t done so already, go check out the other bloggers involved and give them all some hearty encouragement. This week the topic appears to be local events, so my post today will be about the Fossil Festival, and if I can think of something I’ll cover a more generalised British event – though currently I’m at a loss as to what that might be.

More new projects including a podcast are on the horizon, but I’ll not be sure what’s going on with those for a while as they do depend on other people.

Anywho, I just thought I’d drop in and wish everyone the best of the season, even if I’m a week or so behind the curve. Make 2013 a good one everybody!

Ben Brooks

Let The Awesome Commence!

(F.Y.I: Red Text in this post has on-mouseover explanations, hover over it and all shall be explained)

Animated GIF from the Space Statoin
Animated GIF of video taken by the ISS (public domain)

Who wants some awesome?

I thought you might, indeed if you’re a long-time reader of my blog you may be wondering where all the awesome went… well never fear I’m sending you to some right now!

As some of you are no doubt aware I’m an avid YouTuber, what some of you may not know is that I’m also a nerdfighter (cue mass google search, or just click here). Recently the opportunity arose to become part of an Austrian Nerdfighter’s collaborative blogging effort to decrease “world suck” through increasing understanding, and naturally I jumped at the chance!

The project I’m now a part of comes in two distinct flavours – an americo-european and a global one. The aim of the project is for each of the awesome people involved to learn about themselves, each other and the world around us through blogging once a week and reading the posts of the other bloggers.

Each week will see a new topic for the seeding of the posts, and this week (our first) is introductions week. I myself will be helping our Austrian architect to represent Europe in the G.L.O.B.A.L blog; posting on Wednesdays and I hope you’ll join me in supporting my new-found compatriots!

The E.U.R.O.P.E team have been going since Sunday and the G.L.O.B.A.L team got started today, so if this sounds like your cup of tea, head over to Connecting Awesome and take a look around!

I may have more awesome news soon… in the mean-time DFTBA!

Ben D. Brooks

NaNoWriMo, Call of Cthulhu and Character Creation

NaNoWriMo Participant's LogoLast week I enlightened some of you to the fact that I’m going to be taking part in National Novel Writing Month this year, which garnered an amusing amount of interest considering I don’t exactly get involved in the WordPress community… at all!

We’re now just over a week away from the start of this month of literary madness, and so I’m on creating my characters and trying to distil a plot line from my under-creative brain. In terms of the plot, there’s an awful lot of work to go and there will probably be more plot holes than coherent action, at least that’s how it feels at the moment.

Today though, I’m going to talk a little about character creation, and no, I don’t mean the six hours you spend trying to decide what colour your facial tattoos are on Skyrim. Anyone who’s going to be attempting NaNoWriMo will have their own strategies for this, and I’d love to hear them, but here’s my take on character creation.

As I’ve said above, I don’t consider myself to be that creative. While I have a vague idea of what sort of characters I want in the novel, and a slew of characters I like from others’ novels (Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Harper Lee’s Scout Finch) or from history (William Buckland, Barnes Wallis and Amelia Earhart), trying to construct imaginative yet plausible ones for my alternate reality science-fantasy is where I have come unstuck.

Call of Cthulhu Character Creation Kit
A Call of Cthulhu Character Creation Kit… including dice, rules and character sheet. The Book is the 30th Anniversary Edition of Call of Cthulhu.

This is where two things come in very handy: firstly my experiences with tabletop role playing games and a little PDF on the NaNoWriMo website.

“Why does the role-playing help?” I hear you ask. Well because the character creation system of role-playing games revolve around dice and probabilities and in the case of Call of Cthulhu – the system I’ve adopted for my characters – doesn’t involve much overt magic. You can get some really well-rounded, believable characters who have major flaws in one or two respects such as a below average intelligence (Insp. Goldman, a policeman has an INT of 9) or constitution (Ruari, my novel’s doctoral student is a truly pathetic 5 out of 18… the common cold would probably kill her!).

Character Set Table.
Preliminary Character Sets for my Novel’s major players.

The system also allows you to rig for certain characters or traits, so if you want a character with an absurdly large size, you add a multiplier (so instead of rolling two six sided dice and adding 6, you might add 10 for example). You also get a calculated number of skills to allot to a character’s skill set, which means for a character to be good at one thing, they lose out on another, preventing you from getting Indiana Jones-esque super-people! Finally; when it comes to fight scenes or investigative endeavours, it will allow me – with the help of some willing volunteers – to role play the events, which will result in some bizzare and otherwise impossible situations… the sort of “you couldn’t make it up if you tried” moments that make life really interesting.

So now I have the skeletons of my characters, I move on to the NaNoWriMo PDF, It’s a wonderful little questionnaire which; through a series of short, occasionally banal questions, actually really does make you think more about the deeper personality, history, character and idiosyncrasies of the main players – the protagonists and antagonists – of the story. I’ve only got through the two main protagonists so far as it’s quite a long questionnaire, but I’ll be working through the other main characters over the course of the next week!

I’d love to hear how other NaNoWriMo’s or writers in general go about this? Any words of advice that you think I could use? If so please share your stories in the comments below.

Ben D. Brooks


What happens when a scientist tries to write a novel?

NaNoWriMo Participant's Logo…well, we shall find out over the course of the next month or so!

In November of every year an American charitable organisation called the Office of Letters and Light runs an event called National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). This event essentially consists of a dedicated month of creative writing and is billed as “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon”. The goal of this month of crazy, unedited and unadulterated soul-spilling is to produce a 50,000 word first draft manuscript in thirty days or less. It’s a bit like the Ten Tors Challenge in that the only competitive element is with yourself, and everyone else involved supports you along the way; and at a target of only 1,667 words per day it’s eminently achievable.

I’ve been meaning to give this event a go for a couple of years now (I discovered it for the first time in about 2009) but for a variety of reasons including university commitments and cowardice I never bit the bullet and committed to actually trying to write a novel… until now! I’m not sure how successful this whole enterprise will be, trying to write in flowery, not-necessarily-consise language after four years of training to remove those very tendencies, but there’s no harm in trying and I might even enjoy myself.

Cover Art for Courtney's Chronicle: A Shadow over London
The cover art for my NaNoWriMo novel; Courtney’s Chronicle: A Shadow over London. Copyright (c) 2012 Benjamin D Brooks

As for what I’m going to try and write, it’s a science-fantasy genre novel taking place in an anachronistic Britain where the Internal Combustion Engine hasn’t gained traction (I make no apologies for the terrible pun). This means there’s going to be lots of Airship/Zeppelin action, giant steamships, railways and a lot of steam-punked technology! The main protagonist is an economic geology professor at the Royal School of Mines in London and he’s about to get dragged into dark circles and events that he’s totally unprepared for…

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, I’d be really interested in finding out how you’re getting on with planning for the month ahead, and if you’re not but are interested in what I’m doing, you can find out more at my profile on the NaNoWriMo site.

Anywho, with any luck episode 2 of my YouTube vlog will be up tomorrow night; but for now, Allons-y.

Ben D. Brooks

Okay… so I’m a dreadfully bad blogger!

Deutsch: Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Bilderbuch ...
Image via Wikipedia {{PD-US}}

Well if the last few months will have shown my readers anything it is that I am a genuinely useless blogger – especiallty when out of work/education!

It has been said that if you want something done then you’re best chance of getting it done is to ask a busy person rather than someone with time on their hands. It seems to be that I do most of my writing and bogging when I have other things to do, a sort of “productive procrastination” if you will.

However last month I started a three month contract to catalogue the Geology collections at Craven Museum and Art Gallery in Skipton, North Yorkshire, and hopefully at the end of this I’ll have another job lined up to keep me occupied and give me something to procrastinate from thinking about when outside of the 9 to 5 working day. As such hopefully I’ll be resurrecting this blog and If I can drum up a little courage, perhaps even produce one or two Youtube videos.

So, in anticipation of posting a few blog posts very soon (perhaps even today), I’ll bid you adieu my dear readers and hope you look forward to the next post!

Ben D. Brooks

Southampton Social Media Surgery (02/07/2011)

Have you heard of a “Social Media Surgery”?

No..? Well… nor had I until a friend and colleague of mine from Southampton University Students’ Union mentioned that she was planning one a few weeks ago…


…Now she’s got it all organised, and it’s going to be happenning between 2pm and 4pm on Saturday the 2nd of July in the Shooting Star public house on Bevois Valley Road.

Now that I know all about it, I think these Social Media Surgeries are a fantastic idea, after all how many of us have helped a friend get their head around Facebook, or in more recent years Twitter? Now there’s a way to do that for the greater good, by helping local individuals, charities, organisations and volunteer groups get online.

The amount of net awesomeness that a charity or volunteer group can engage in once they are on the social media bandwagon is huge! Just imagine the conversations that can be had, the collaboration between groups, the extra awareness of fundraising or other activities… the list isn’t endless, but it’s pretty long.

Anywho, Southampton SMS is looking for “surgeons” to help people get online, and also of course they’re looking for anyone who wants to get online or any groups that are interested in getting online, so spread the word, and link people to the website. You’ll also find help organising your own if you are not from the southampton area.

If you want to follow what’s happenning with the planning of the event, it’s Twitter hashtag is #SotonSMS. And if you’re thinking about coming along to see what this “Social Media” malarky is all about, or you’re coming along to help out, I look forward to meeting you on the day!

Ben D Brooks


Some thoughts on ScienceBlogging.org

ScienceBlogging Logo
Gad Zooks, They’ve done it! shouted the mad scientist from his laboratory…

Last week I posted my call for a more meta-blogging approach to the whole science blogging malarky with my post; Can we have a “Meta-Blog-Network” please? and I was surprised by how well it was received (even garnering a link from Bora Zivkovic – an acheivement I am secretly kinda proud of), the article seemed to strike a chord with some although as usual with this blog there was little conversation to be had after the fact.

Today though an excellent reposte was given to the concerns I expressed in that post with the coming online of a new Science Blogging aggregator at ScienceBlogging.org which looks at first glance to be the answer to every science blog reader’s prayers. The site provides a central place from which you can get to all of the major networks (including many I didn’t even know existed!) and therefore to all of the most popular among the science blogging community.

Anton, Bora and Dave have also trumped any others considering doing this by including the Blog Carnivals (another new one on me) as a separate entity within the site, a definitely positive move as unless you are au-fait with the blog carnivals you may not think to look for them.

Yet another positive for the site and something I’m sure my friends over at Science3point0 will be very pleased with has been the very open request from the founders for the input of the rest of the science blogging community, something that everyone should welcome and get invloved in (for example @sandygautam has already posted a nice list of requests over at Free as in Science).

Now, having showered glory on this new and exciting venture I will bare the concerns that I do have with it:

  • I worry that this is going to fail because of “information overload”; by which I mean that having such a great clearing house as we now have for the science blogging community, it is quite a foreboding thing to look at on first turning up on the site. Without some kind of searchability or sub-categorisation of posts into (for example) sub disciplines I fear that people will just not know what to look at first.
  • Independent Bloggers are essentially excluded under the current set up of the site, and there are a lot of great independent bloggers out there who are excellent writers (I’m not one of them) and I don’t want to see them drowned out because in place of the one-big-all-consuming-network we now have lots of smaller-all-consuming-networks and a meta-infrastructure built between these and only between these, leaving the independents to join a network or stay out in the cold.
  • This site is a fantastic start, but you still have to go back to it to get different “appropriate links” to the blog post you may have initially started from – leaving the central idea of my initial post standing at the moment; though that may change with time.

These quibbles aside though, I wish to extend my congratulations to the three man team over at ScienceBlogging.org for getting this up and running, as this is an excellent place from which other projects can begin, and I look forward to seeing what they – and others – do next!

Ben Brooks

Short Link for this Post: http://wp.me/pFUij-6l

Can we have a “Meta-Blog-Network” please?

Since the outbreak of the PepsiGate affair over at Science Blogs, the science blogging community – if it could be called a community – has been shaken, remoulded and has evolved extremely rapidly with the creation of all new blogging networks such as scientopia and the rapid expansion and evolution of other networks such as Discover and science3point0. Science Blogs hasn’t gone the way of the dodo though… more accurately it has done something more akin to the survival of the Aves taxon after the end-cretaceous mass extinction, becoming lighter, faster and debatably prettier after the quasi-mass-extinction event marked by the PepsiGate affair.

Anyway I digress, as an almost entirely* independent blogger watching with interest at how things develop, I must confess to a little annoyance that the focus of this recent evolution has been on creating more, large, all consuming blogging networks which at the moment seem to be mutually exclusive to each other and to independent bloggers who may or may not be willing to get involved with large co-operatives.

I am more of the opinion that some form of Meta-blogging-network is something that is severely lacking in the community and would be truely valuable. Despite some initial talk of creating meta-services, much like the news aggregators to be found around the web, there seems to have been no real progress with any of these overarching catch all services – we need a science-blogging-aggregator.

Such a service as I am imagining here is to catch network members and independents alike, and mutually create traffic for all. For example a service with whom you can register your collective or your independent blog, and the blog would then be trawled now and again, keywords in each post identified (possibly using tags such as in wordpress) and then links provided from blog A to blog B based on relevance with the installation of a widget in say each blog’s side-bar. Unobtrusive, workload light after registration and easy to configure, and all it would take is for a small amount of space on your blog to be devoted to the widget.

The closest we have to this is ResearchBlogging.org which does this sort of thing for blog posts about peer reviewed papers, but it’s workload heavy from what I can gather, and may not be the best service even for that, as discussed excellently over at Free as in Science on Science3point0.

This is of course only an idea, and i’m not a software designer so wouldn’t have the first clue about how to do it, but I would none-the-less be really interested in what the rest of the blogosphere thinks?

Ben Brooks

Short Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-60

* by largely independent: I am a member of Science3point0, but due to their focus on open-sci, open-source, open-data etc. advocacy (and it not being my forte) I’m not doing a great deal over there.

Über-good news for bloggers, web-developers, nerds and computer geeks


In today’s Guardian newspaper there is an article on Internet Explorer 9.0 which made my day as a web-developer and blogger.

I consider myself to be a little bit of a nerd, new technology fascinates me and especially where I have some chance of understanding and being able to use that new tech. You can imagine then; that the news that IE9 will be über-compatible, with Microsoft’s developers using (pretty much for the first time) a world-wide-web consortium (W3C) web standard to produce their internet browser made me a very happy nerd indeed!

This was all unveiled on the second day of Microsoft’s PDC conference on Tuesday (see about 40 min into video) and for the first time the great monolith that is Microsoft is actually taking an active role in the creation of the web standards which for so long their browsers have simply ignored. This prior attitude has caused many small websites and individuals to place warnings on their sites about the uselessness of the old IE marks (eg: my website or the Two-Dots comic – see below) and the fact that many sites just will not work in internet explorer or browsers that use IE’s rendering engine (such as AOL).

Two-Dots "internet explorer hates you!" front-page.
The "Your browser hates you" page from the Two-Dots web comic.

As the Guardian’s article says, the promises made by Microsoft regarding IE9 are news to the internet’s collective ears, but it remains to be seen as to whether Microsoft can deliver on them. I for one hope that they can, because I am fed up with trying to use work-arounds and hacks to make my website compatible with IE 6/7/8. Also it may not be long before we see the last of the “your browser hates you” front pages.

Only time… and IE9/HTML5’s release… will tell.

Ben Brooks

Short-link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-4B