Tag Archives: Science

My Life in Music: Datastacks 0.2


About sixteen months ago, I opened this series of blogs with an uncomfortably-geeky look at my music collection and extraction of a whole bunch of statistics on a whole bunch of inconsequential data.

It’s been long enough now that it’s time for an update, so let’s begin with a brief breakdown of what my music collection currently consists of:


Unsurprisingly, standard long-play albums make up the vast majority of my collection (93.7%); not a shock. Of the remaining 6.3%, though, two-thirds are EPs or collections of B-sides and rarities, while the remaining third consists of ‘Greatest Hits’ collections or live-recorded albums. In many ways, and in this age of digital interfaces and the ability to release small collections of new material online or through mechanisms like Bandcamp, it’s arguable that the humble EP is going extinct; though the meteoric rise of vinyl in the last few years might be its saving grace.

Still, I’m minorly proud of my collection of 576 long-play albums, so let’s investigate what’s changed in my collection since my last blog. The most interesting findings lie in the genre breakdown of my CD collection since March of last year:


In general, the proportions remain fairly the same: my most favourite genres grow whilst the lesser ones continue to trickle on. There’s been a slow expansion in both my flavour for “Steampunk” (mainly due to finally acquiring the entire Steam Powered Giraffe back-catalogue as well as the smashing new record by The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing last year) and, more recently, black metal coming with growing respect for the genre. Equally, I’ve seen my interests decline in the likes of thrash metal, power metal and metalcore but become no less intense; it seems that my taste continue to evolve rather than undergo full-scale revolution.

Plotting these growths on a logarithmic scale (comparing the new additions to my collection with the genre counts as of 19/03/2015), one can see the fourfold increase in “Steampunk” records on my shelf but also observe the fairly consistent growth in genres across the board. I’ve always been aware that my musical taste is eccentrically-broad (who else can boast a music collection that features both Cradle of Filth and Ke$ha; Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Bungle?), but it’s reassuring that the trend continues.


The notable gains on the swing-o-meter come under the category labelled “Indie”, and there’s a fine reason why: “Indie”, at least in this little project, has come to classify anything that can’t – for particular reasons – be described as full-on “Rock”, but is something lighter; more atmospheric; or ‘different’. In the last couple of years, I’ve absorbed more and more interest in the genre of post-rock (c.f. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut et al.) and fuelled by a rampant voyage of discovery at festivals like ArcTanGent.

On this second iteration of Datastacks, it’s high time to devolve the “Indie” category a little further and delve into the numbers. Whilst ‘indie’ might, these days, have only grazing reference to the truly “independent” music scene, it’s come to mean catchment to a lot more than simply one musical style; much in the way that “rock” encompasses a thousand sub-genres. So, let’s have a look to see what that means in terms of my collection:


Unsurprisingly, my ever-expanding collection of post-rock makes up most of the category; particularly emphasised with a raft of spectacular albums released in 2015 and 2016 by the likes of Explosions in the Sky (The Wilderness), Three Trapped Tigers (Silent Earthling), God is an Astronaut (Helios/Erebus) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress).

Of the remains, post-punk (in this study, meaning the likes of Killing Joke, Hüsker Dü and The Cure) hoovers up what isn’t what I’d call the more ‘traditional’ indie fayre (Death Cab for Cutie, Chairlift, KT Tunstall, Snow Patrol), whilst the couple of entries tentatively labelled “swing” are delivered by the mighty Dresden Dolls.

So, there you go. Naturally, I’ll retroactively modify the genre split for the next Datastacks, so I can properly track how my tastes are evolving. I’d apologise for being such a massive maths/music nerd, but we both know that I’m by no means ashamed at all. So, nyer.

Anyway, let’s take a look at how the geographical split has divvied up in the last sixteen months:


No spectacular changes, but there’s some interesting mini-growths: Canada and Sweden showing particular, short spurts for no pre-arranged reason; and new entries coming from Luxembourg and Ireland thanks to my interests in post-/math-rock stalwarts Mutiny on the Bounty and And So I Watch You From Afar. I’d expected Norway to be surging ahead, given the sheer amount of Norwegian black metal I’ve been getting down my ears in the last few months, but maybe the charts haven’t fully caught up with things quite yet. Hopefully the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union won’t affect (too much) the trickle of European rock/metal into the United Kingdom; even if it will negatively influence my access to cheap metal records from the continent. *grumble grumble*

That being said, it’s minorly interesting that the advances of homegrown artists in my collection almost matches the progress of US bands; again, through no particular alignment but reflecting, perhaps, efforts to fill back-catalogue gaps in my collection for the likes of Bowie, Muse, [spunge], Cradle of Filth and Funeral For A Friend. Not surprisingly, the NATO countries still dominate my collection, as evidenced by PIE CHARTS: clearly, were NATO to deploy heavy metal-based warfighters towards invasion of the rest of the world, then it’s likely that they would annihilate the opposition.

[FYI, the non-NATO countries reflected here are Finland, Japan, Australia, Ireland and Sweden, who I’m sure would all put up a good fight.]


Upon moving flat, I recently took the opportunity to bolster my music shelving with a few more bookcases and fully alphabeticised my collection by artist name; something I’d been meaning to do for a long time but had never gotten around to. Anyway, beyond the satisfaction of filing everything neatly onto the shelves, the exercise also highlighted some interesting facts about the alphabet.

For clarity, bands are sorted by name (any “The” bands, e.g. The Birthday Massacare, are sorted by the next word in their time) and solo artists are sorted by surname. Let’s take a look:


Clearly, I own a buttload of ‘A’ artists, which owes a lot to AFI but also to the likes of Alkaline Trio, Alice in Chains, Amen, American Hi-Fi, Akercocke, Avenged Sevenfold, Audioslave, Alestorm, yada yada yada. I do wonder whether bands are inherently more likely to choose monickers which are closer to the head of the alphabet for the sakes of prominence in record stores; something that’s far more a study in sociology than I’ll attempt to address here.

Curiously, I haven’t bought a single record by any artist beginning with ‘J’ in the last sixteen months; and only a single album each to the ‘E’ and ‘Q’ categories. In the positive side, though, there’s finally a tally in the ‘Z’ column thanks to the wonderful new self-titled album by Zoax, so let’s continue to watch the progress with interest.

And on that bombshell, I’ll leave things until the next time. Boo-yah.





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My Life in Music: Datastacks 0.1


You may not know it, but we’re currently living in exciting times.

The major news media may be ignoring all discussion of such world-changing events, but monumental waves of excitement are currently rippling away from my general area.

I’ve been re-organising my music collection. Oh yeah.


A few years ago, a catalogued all of my favourite albums from all of the years that I’ve been alive. You can find them here:

Part 1: From Out of Nowhere (1985-1991)
Part 2: Where Boys Fear to Tread (1992-1998)
Part 3: Dancing Through Sunday (1999-2005)
Part 4: Set Fire to the Hive (2006-2012)

But yes, while re-organising all of my various musics, I’ve taken the opportunity whilst doing so to properly catalogue everything I have and to generate some tedious statistics about all of it. For example: as of 19th March, I own 466 full albums and EPs (after having a bit of a prune of those records I’m not likely to listen to again). Furthermore, 4.07% of those albums/EPs are AFI albums or EPs. That’s quite interesting, right?

So yeah, because I’m a nerdy engineer and I like looking at pages and pages of data, I’ve made a spreadsheet listing every CD; the year it was released, the country that the band is from and what genre it inhabits. You may say that that’s a colossal waste of time, but I say “nyer” :P. Thus, on that immature little note, let’s probe into the stats and see what we can uncover.


Interestingly, my music collection seems to be predominantly ‘punk’. There’s a significant chunk of it already taking up my shelf-space it seems; especially when you add the ska-punk total to the mix as well. I was well aware that punk is one of my primary musical outlets, but I’m not sure I would’ve predicted that it occupy quite such a large proportion of it. [Of course, this fact is perhaps a little skewed by the fact that I’ve divided ‘metal’ up into more sub-genres than I have done for punk – the whole range of punk stuff from Green Day to Turbonegro to Amen to Sum 41 is all under one umbrella whilst I’ve split metal more into its established sub-genres]. Broadly, AFI would probably come under ‘punk’ as well if I didn’t separate them into their own genre, so there’s that to add up, too.

On that note, here’s a little chart of how many records I own from the top ten bands in my collection:


AFI obviously take up a significant proportion of my collection, and I own literally every LP and EP they’ve ever put out on compact disc (and, in most cases, own multiple copies of them to reflect different versions or covers or international editions); even the super-rare stuff like The Days of the Phoenix EP, which only ever had 500 copies. [For further AFI geekery, I own both a legit copy of it as well as a fake/bootleg version].

But yeah, it’s satisfying that my collection is (broadly) even across the many sub-genres of rock ‘n’ roll: to establish this, let’s have a look at the pie chart because PIE CHARTS.


For clarity, “Popular Rock” encompasses stuff like Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age; pure pop (Ke$ha, Bowie, Prince) is lumped in with “Dance/Electronic”; all types of rap/metal crossovers and stuff like RHCP and RATM all slip into “Nu-Metal”; and heavy metal stuff like Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Black Sabbath were immersed in with “Thrash/etc.”.

I’m a little sad that my “Steampunk” section still rounds down to 0% of my collection. Granted, it currently consists of just The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing Cannot Be Killed by Conventional Weapons and Professor Elemental’s The Giddy Limit, but I’m working on it: hopefully I’ll import the whole Steam Powered Giraffe back catalogue sooner rather than later, and TMTWNBBFN will soon have album #3 under their belts. Boom.

Okay, so where are my albums from? Let’s have a look.


No big surprise; most of my music hails from across the pond. The US dominates so much of rock ‘n’ roll music that you can tell how much of an influence it wreaks upon my own listening. It’s still good to see that around a quarter of my music comes from our own shores; although mildly strange that nothing hails from the Republic of Ireland. Naturally, there’s a strong Scandinavian contingent given my predilection for power metal and Finnish folk-metal. Canada has a strong showing, but it’s worth noting that most of those are Rush albums (15 in total). Furthermore, all of my records from Italy are associated with Rhapsody or Rhapsody of Fire (or Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody). Aw yeah.


Proportionally, of course the US absorbs more than half of my shelf-space. Interestingly, though, the entirety of the rest of my collection comes either from Europe, Australia or Japan. Before the 2015 cull, I did at least have a few things from Brazil (mainly Sepultura), but it’s curious to know that there are vast swathes and surface areas of the globe (the whole of Africa!) that have never even come close to seeing a position on my CD shelf.

Another question that my CD re-shuffling was aiming to answer was: “When Was My Collection Released?”. Naturally, I expected that a sizable chunk of my collection would have come from around 2001-2005, where my main musical addictions were formed (and I’ll talk about these in a little more depth in my next blog). While this is certainly not untrue, I was a little surprised to find that the most prolific years were actually 2012 and 2013 (with 28 and 27 albums from them, respectably); probably arising because, at the time, I was deep in the wrangles of trying to finish my PhD and research stuff and hence likely to want to hear nice, new and noisy things in my ears to take away some of the pain.


I also anticipated that 1994 would be a bumper year, given that some of my very, very favourite albums were released in (or around) that year: [1993 // In Utero, Siamese Dream; 1994 // Punk in Drublic, Superunknown, Smash, Weezer (The Blue Album), Stranger than Fiction, Dookie, Welcome to Sky Valley, Burn My Eyes, The Downward Spiral; 1995 // Mellon Collie…, Foo Fighters, King for a Day/Fool for a Lifetime]. But yeah, whilst the hit rate of what albums were released in 1994ish and those which are cemented as some of my favourites is incredibly high, it turns out that I don’t own as much from that period as I thought I did. Huh.

I know I probably seem a little like a bit of a dinosaur for continuing to rely on (and thrive upon) little shiny, plastic discs containing lovely things destined for my ears. But yeah, I have 466 CDs in my collection. That’s pretty cool.

Please don’t burgle me.


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It’s been a little while since I properly posted here. So what have I been up to?

Well, I’m still plugging away at my post-doctoral research, trying to push through the wall of Academic Sucess & get my own research paper published and working on a bunch of ‘space’-based infographic-type display materials for some of the University’s outreach and public engagement events that I’m involved in; the latter of which I’m going to show off here because I can.

From some of the space debris work that @spaceman_ben and I have been involved in, I’ve constantly been looking for engaging, and interesting, ways to communicate some of the information that we’ve collected about the current state of Earth Orbit and to inform the general public about some key facts about ‘Space’. There’s a lot of cool, interesting and captivating infographic posters floating around the internet; and I thought I’d put my hand to coming up with some for myself. Some of my inspirations were:

I designed and produced each one from scratch (well, after making a template myself for the style of the graphic) in CorelDraw X4; collating some of the data on active spacecraft and debris drawn from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database and the public catalogues of space objects (SpaceTrack // Celestrak). Some of the results are also from the EU space debris project ACCORD which I’ve been contributing to, along with results from debris simulation results from the University of Southampton’s space debris model, DAMAGE [Dr. Hugh Lewis]. It’s been pretty fun; turns out I quite like doing graphic design and getting to funnel a little bit of creativity into my regular (research) job. 

Anyway, without further ado, here they are (I, II and III):

I. SPACE: 2014 |

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1llwe4T

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1llwe4T



Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1lltche


Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1cPNSsR

Larger Version: http://bit.ly/1cPNSsR

Each poster is (IRL) at A0 size, approx. 84 x 59 cm, which is pretty big. Since the (original) files (output at like 600 dpi) were MANY MEGABYTES big, I cranked the resolution down a tiny bit to upload them here. If you want to download the super-high resolution [600 dpi; warning: large file size], then head over here:

Download full versions:

I | Space: 2014 (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 4.4 Mb)
II | Space Debris (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 5.4 Mb)
III | Earth Orbit (.png, 6640 x 9492 pixels, 4.4 Mb)

Hopefully they should be winging their way to the printer’s office very soon and all ready in time for Southampton Science and Engineering Festival, which is just under a month away. I feel fairly proud of the end result (so far, at least), so hopefully I’ll feel even more pride once they’re turned into actual, physical things that I can hold in my hand/hang up on the mantelpiece/etc.  Either way, it was a monster effort and a massive time-sink to make and edit then around my regular research responsibilities, so I’m fairly pleased that they’re at a point where I can shove them out of the door and not keep tweaking them indefinitely like the perfectionist that I am.

Not sure what my next creative project will be quite yet; I’m toying with the idea of designing a card+dice game based on WWII air race/dogfighting, but that’ll need some further thought before I thrust myself into the endeavour. In the mean time, I will ponder.


Anyway, that’s all the proper stuff that I wanted to say; I shall finish up by sharing some of my most-recent playlists, cataloguing the soundtrack to 2014 so far.

I therefore leave you with these014/01 – Black Sails to the Wind (folk metal);  014/02 – Flextronix (electronic/indie lo-fi). Onwards to glory!




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Big Bang Solent Science Fair 21/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

Further to my previous update (Science & Engineering Day 2013), last Thursday presented the Astronautics Research Groups’ second event in in National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) 2013, with the arrival of the Big Bang Solent science fair to the Garden Court at the University of Southampton. This post documents the major goings-on of the day, what we can do to improve for next time, and also to share a few photos from our activities and exhibits. So, without further ado, onwards!


Our stand and presenting team (Ben [spaceman_ben] and I, plus a few other stragglers) were once again out in full force at a brisk 0845 on Thursday morning  to put our stand and kit together; smugly earlier than most of the other stands exhibiting that day, leaving us plenty of time to soak up the free coffee and biscuits and to gently rib the other delegations who’d scheduled considerably less time to sort out their kit. Our setup was largely the same as for the previous Saturday, albeit with a few modifications to our LEGO Mindstorms demonstration, resulting in the substitution of Aquabot with a new, space-debris themed rover, Debrisbot:


Saturday’s headaches were largely derived from the fact that Aquabot‘s mission of collecting coloured balls into its jaws provided unexpected sources of unpredictability: for example, our demonstrations of placing balls in Aquabot‘s path meant that visiting children were inclined to try picking up the balls and rolling them (sometimes with great force) into the rover’s maw. This was fine, except when it happened just as Aquabot approached the edge of the ‘green’ area, such that a ball would get stuck under the NXT colour sensor when the rover reached the  green card and hence would not detect that it was imminently going to crash into the makeshift (albeit perhaps with one less ‘f’) cardboard wall we constructed to make sure balls did not roll everywhere. In addition, we hadn’t accounted for the fact that children would ‘lean’ on the cardboard wall and bend it completely out of shape, meaning that its ability to contain both Aquabot and the coloured balls to the table area was severely impaired.

Given these points, it’s not only a miracle that we did not have balls rolling loose all over Building 85 but that we actually managed to get to the end of the day without any of our balls inadvertently going home in children’s pockets (or worse, mouths) for a permanent holiday away from the University. So, to remedy these, we decided to get rid of both the balls and the cardboard wall – by eliminating the other functionalities of the NXT colour sensor aside from the ‘am I near the edge of the table?’ detection using the green card, we could reinstate our previously-abandoned ‘is there object in the way?’ detection function using the NXT ultrasonic sensor to make the rover recognise any solid objects that we placed in its path (which we couldn’t use before because it kept detecting the balls themselves and tried to avoid them rather than trying to collect them). So with that, Aquabot was gracefully retired and replaced with Debrisbot; a rover programmed to sense nearby objects (which we assumed were nearby space debris fragments) and perform “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres to avoid impact. And in most senses, Debrisbot worked pretty well.


Not brilliantly well, though. There were still quite a lot of issues arising due to the NXT ultrasonic sensor’s narrow field-of-view meaning that there would be an object to the left- or right-side of the sensor that wouldn’t be detected; or other cases where there was too little energy being reflected back to the sensor (where it was sometimes absorbed by the object, or reflected in a different direction), and the the rover didn’t detect object properly and would drive into it anyway. The idea was for Debrisbot to be roving around, avoiding bits of junk as necessary, but sometimes it would just clatter into it anyway, or turn around and get objects stuck under the tracks; doing ungainly pirouettes and wheelies before falling over like a boss.

So, an executive decision was made to transform Debrisbot from a debris-avoiding rover into a debris-sweeping rover; charging around the ‘black’ area, pushing the ‘junk’ objects into the ‘green’ zone like a giant space snowplough. And with that, a significantly greater level of success was observed, as within minutes, all of the bits of ‘junk’ (made from Tic Tac boxes stuck together and wrapped in black duct tape) would be pushed to the edge, leaving the black region of ‘space’ safe for satellite operations. Debrisbot was essentially just driving around in straight lines until it encountered the edge of the ‘green’ (and hence wasn’t aiming for objects at all, just ploughing them if they happened to be in the way) so it would be even better if Debrisbot was able to ‘look around’ for bits of junk and then explicitly move towards them, but that’s a larger task for another time. For the moment, though, Debrisbot demonstrated pretty much what we wanted it to in a nicely simple way and leaves plenty of room for improvement. Not bad, little buddy.


The event itself was pretty enjoyable – essentially an event to get schoolchildren interested in doing science and engineering, and involved around 600 children from the nearby area visiting for the day to do some fun, science-based activities, talk to people in college/academia/industry [delete as applicable] who ‘do’ science and stuff for a living and to get an idea about future careers and stuff.

Our main drive for exhibiting was to demonstrate our research activities and show the youngsters that activities in ‘space’ are happening here in the UK, and to prod them towards taking up such work in their future education, if they want to. It was also interesting to find out how many young people are aware of the  space debris problem, and to ask them for ideas about how we could go about resolving it: while Debrisbot was hardly the most efficient (or successful) method of demonstrating how a space debris sweeper system might work, it did the job and (I hope) gave the visiting public a new perspective of the space debris problem and the ‘sort of thing’ that could be done to manage it.

Anyway, an enjoyable day: the Space Junker stuff went down pretty well as usual, with some visiting students managing some staggeringly high scores, and we certainly gave out of a lot of our ‘Space Systems Engineering’ worksheets which contain information on our research, details of how to access Space Junker online, and also a few puzzles and stuff. So, to round off the event and, indeed, this post, here are a few of my other photographs from the day: we’re not sure when we’ll be taking Aquabot/Debrisbot out on the road again, but I’m sure he won’t be in the garage for too long. Hooray!


EDIT – Our activities were recently published as a blog post from LEGO Education UK! You can find it here: http://legoeducationuk.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/space-research-with-a-little-help-from-lego-mindstorms/

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Science & Engineering Day 16/03/2013 – Personal Debrief

As part of the Astronautics Research Group‘s outreach and public engagement, last Saturday marked our first adventure in this year’s National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW), with our annual involvement in the University of Southampton’s Science & Engineering Day on campus. Each year, we’ve managed to significantly increase our display stand and materials, and this year marked our biggest and best exhibit yet. Here follows a short summary of the day’s events, what we had on show and some photographs from the day.


Having set up most of our banners and posters the night before, Ben (spaceman_ben) and myself (zinar7) arrived at a deathly-quiet Building 85 at 0800 hours prompt to set up the rest of our kit and get everything up and running. Thankfully for my sanity (and probably the safety of the general public), the University had elected to open the cafe in Building 85 at 8:00 am, and we were able to procure caffeine-filled beverages and sugary goods straight away to fortify us for the rest of the day, which was due to begin at 10:30 am and run until 4:30 pm, followed by packing up all the kit and hauling back to our offices for storage. A long day, then, but all in the name of science and trying to encourage the youngsters of today to get excited about all things ‘Space’.

Our touch-screen PCs were unpacked and booted up, our digital photo frames secured to our 2 m x 2 m backdrop banner, and the rest of our display materials dotted around our allocated ‘zone’, leaving us the remaining time to sort out the major new addition to our exhibit: Aquabot, the water-collecting Mars rover made from LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0:


Aquabot was conceived, built and programmed in the ten or so days prior to the event, after Ben and I had gotten hold of a current-generation Mindstorms kit in order to evaluate its usefulness in outreach for the Astro Research Group and in undergraduate teaching/projects: we’re hoping to use multiple kits when the next-generation is released later this year, to allow students to develop simple group projects looking at spacecraft control and formation flying (among other things). Our main focus, at least for NSEW, was on making something cool and vaguely space-related to encourage youngsters towards the space industry, and getting them excited about engineering in general. The result, then, was a rover of our own design (and vaguely anthropomorphic qualities) constructed to ‘rove’ around a table (without falling off), collecting up balls and doing some basic colour-sorting; something like this:


Attached to the front of the rover, pointing downwards between the ‘jaws’ of Aquabot‘s maw, was the NXT colour sensor. To simulate the Mars environment, we used black card as a base, placed on a few large tables to make an area around 7 x 5 feet of black landscape. The colour sensor was programmed to catalogue the colour of the table surface and also of any balls that happen to roll into Aquabot‘s gape; and to ‘carry on as normal’ if sensing a black response. The rover was powered using two motors, and was run on caterpillar tracks to aid manoeuvrability and response. At the front of the vehicle, a funnel was placed to collect balls as the rover moved around the environment (although it kind of just ‘punted’ balls across the landscape rather than funneling them in, but oh well). The third motor from the kit was installed at the front of the rover, to which was attached an arm with the NXT colour sensor: when a blue ball rolled into the ‘jaws’ and was detected by the sensor, the arm retreated to allow the “water molecule” into a storage area beneath the rover; when a yellow or red ball was collected, the arm rapidly swung forwards to ‘kick’ the unwanted “martian rock” away. When it worked, it worked pretty well; although if multiple balls rolled in at the same time, it would still be doing the operation for the first ball when the second ball arrived, and so wouldn’t accept/reject the second. Still, such times were comparatively rare, and it was always satisfying when the rover detected an unwanted ball and punted it away with great force.


Around the edges of the black card, we made a border of green card to make a ‘buffer’ around the edge of the table, which Aquabot would detect and subsequently turn round and return to the black region. But, because sometimes Aquabot would decide to choose its own fate and plough on through the green area regardless (for example, when there was already a ball in the jaws, and the sensor couldn’t see the ‘green’), we put up a barrier (of more card) around the edge to stop the rover (also any stray balls) from leaping off the table and plummeting to the floor. We managed to get to the end of the day with Aquabot pretty intact (minus the sum of around 12 fresh batteries) and all of the balls we started with, so I call that a success.


All in all, I think our LEGO Mindstorms experiment were rather well: the publicity of the recent Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) mission has highlighted the current activities using autonomous rover in space, and many visitors were familiar with this mission and could draw comparisons with our simple reconstruction of a Mars rover. It was also encouraging that so many children (and parents) grasped the basic concepts of the system, and how even a simple robot could be programmed to carry out a range of functions without human interaction.

In terms of our regular activities, we had a lot of kids try out our Space Junker game on the large touch-screen PCs (developed by the Science Museum with our involvement), and plenty of parents and other adults reading our research posters and talking to us about our research into space debris and the problems that ‘space junk’ poses to space operations. Our other display materials also went down pretty well, which included our big stand, leaflets & pamphlets about the undergraduate programs in Space Systems Engineering, and these natty little cubes which I made to communicate some of our research into space debris and some of the problems:


Anyway, a fun day was (I think) had by all, and we seemed to get a pretty great response from the Science & Engineering Day hordes that came to campus despite the dreary weather. For our point of view, it was yet again an entertaining, rewarding and uplifting outreach event, and getting a whole load of exposure for our research activities. A hugely exhausting event that seems to expend so much energy and brain/musclepower, but immensely fun.

Nonetheless, we’ll be doing it all tomorrow for our second activity in NSEW, which is the Big Bang Solent science fair, happening on campus at the University of Southampton. We’ve mainly got the same set-up, but this time Aquabot will be replaced by the second iteration of our Mindstorms display, Debrisbot: instead of wandering the Mars landscape looking for blue balls, Debrisbot will be navigating “outer space” (albeit an ‘outer space’ that has been transplanted into two dimensions), trying to “collision-avoidance” manoeuvres with various objects (“space debris”) placed in orbit. Not quite sure how Debrisbot will perform as yet, but hopefully it should be another entertaining and engaging day of science, engineering and being a big kid again.

Anyway, before I head off, here are some more photos from Saturday’s event; hopefully some of tomorrow will manifest in due course. Enjoy!


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PhD Fraud #07: That Sinking Feeling


My attitude to this whole PhD business has calmed down a lot lately, despite the rapidly-ticking clock that’s now deafening me as it counts down to the final deadline I can submit a thesis. I’m yet to come to a conclusion as to whether this is a Good Thing or not.

I think I’ve just reached the point with my research that it’s just over, now, and that there’s not much more I can do with it (or time to do it in) except to just “finish it off” and hope that it’s good enough. I certainly don’t have time to go re-doing a lot of my work if it isn’t good enough, so in that respect, I’ve reached some sort of ‘epiphany’ that it doesn’t really matter anymore; the decision has essentially already been made as to whether I get this damned PhD or not, I just need to ride the train and see where it ends up. All I can do now is just continue with the work I’m still finishing off, continue with the thesis-writing I’m still in the process of, and make sure I keep turning up each day and picking away at it all. It’s too late to do anything major [not least because I’m also working part-time as a Senior Research Assistant on two EU space debris projects: ACCORD (Alignment of Capability and Capacity for Objective of Reducing Debris) and ReVuS (Reducing the Vulnerability of Space Systems)] so even if my work is all wrong, or just not ‘novel’ enough, then there’s not much I can do about it anymore.

I’ve also relaxed my position towards what my four years of research will get me in the end – in the beginning, it felt like  attaining a PhD was the be-all and end-all, and that if I didn’t achieve that, then I’d be some sort of ‘failure’; from both the point of view of my department/supervisor, but on a personal level as well. At around the 18-month stage, I successfully transferred from the original MPhil/PhD course everyone is registered on to begin with, and was stuck on the final PhD course: so, I’d like to think that, if my work isn’t quite enough to get me a doctorate, I will at least be awarded an MPhil for it. Depending on who you talk to in academia, getting an MPhil is either a legitimate qualification, or just a massive, neon sign saying “Hey, so I wasn’t good enough to get a PhD!” Previously, I was considerably worried that I’d end up with just an MPhil (or worse, nothing) and that I’d be considered a ‘failure’, particularly since so many of my RockSoc friends have successfully survived the PhD process and come out the other side. Such a result would be an acceptance that I’m not “clever enough,” or somehow less good than everyone else who tried and succeeded.

In the final years of my undergraduate degree, I’d kind of ended up feeling a little bit disappointed by my efforts on my individual and group projects (3rd and 4th years, respectively), and had built up a mental reputation of being someone who tries very hard at their research, but ultimately ends up with very little. Of course, when starting a PhD, everyone dreams that their research will change the world, or at least lead to some new way of thinking or solution to a problem; naturally, this rarely ever happens and it’s all about making an incremental step forward in your field, even if it’s just a minute step forward in a very specialised area. Have I managed that with my PhD work so far? Well, I kind of have ( I tried some new stuff, and some old stuff in a new way) and kind of haven’t (the stuff I did didn’t really work, and there are a bunch of problems with the theoretical basis of it all), so it’s very ambiguous. My thesis won’t be my greatest achievement ever, but I’ve kind of reached a plateau where (I think) I can finish it up in its current state without undertaking a major amount of new work. I think.

So, everything’s been kind of going okay recently until, today, I received a reviewer’s (uh, review) of my submitted journal paper and it was… not so good. This was a paper I submitted to an open-access journal around 5/6 months ago, and after receiving one critical but largely positive comment early on, there has no other review discussion since. The most recent comment, from an anonymous reviewer is, however, fairly critical and calls into question most of the results I’ve presented in the paper. I know that, technically, no criticism is bad criticism as it will strengthen the final product, but it’s still not easy to take negativity when it’s thrown quite liberally at your own endeavours. I’m yet to fully process the review (I only skim-read it, and need to sleep on it before I can start to think properly about what it means), but it’s not exactly what I want to hear. It’s amazing how quickly confidence can get knocked; particularly in academia, where your importance to your institution, or scientific field, is based almost purely on your ability to string together publications and gives rise to the “publish or perish” mantra.

So, what does this mean for me? Well, by and large, I think I’ve worked out that I don’t want to stay in academia after my current time is up; not in a direct-research role, anyway. I’ve got thoughts about what I want to do when I finish, and a lot of them revolve around teaching, or expanding on the outreach/public engagement activities I currently participate in. I’ve no idea whether this is a sustainable career, or indeed whether the ‘ideal’ job exists, but it’s worth a shot. With that in mind, then, perhaps I’ve reached the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether I have a PhD or an MPhil; whether I’ve got journal publications under my belt or not. These things largely only matter in academia; so, who cares? Certainly,  the trauma of ‘doing’ a PhD is worth more than the letters after your name or the ‘published’ status anyway, so if I’ve already reached that conclusion, then I’ve got nothing to lose.

‘Dr.’ or no ‘Dr.’, by October I will have gone through the PhD process and be all the stronger for it: most people in my situation would have given up long ago, so if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s Carrying On In The Face Of Vastly Superior Adversity. In fact, maybe that should be the tagline for my CV:

Simon George.
Good at facial hair, making a mean cup of tea and bloody well not giving up.

And if that doesn’t make me a shoo-in for any job placement ever, then there’s something very wrong with this World. Something very wrong, indeed.


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PhD Fraud #06: Hashtag Overly Honest Methods


Okay, as we’ve just enter a new year, I thought that it was time for an update on my ride on this crazy PhD Research Train. What’s changed? Well, a few things, but not a great deal.

Around the end of October, I started doing some additional, part-time post-doctoral research work to help pay the bills now that my PhD funding has come to an end. Thankfully, it’s completely unrelated to my PhD work, which means it’s actually pretty interesting and a nice distraction from the thesis slog. The work is more temporal though, meaning that the post-doc stuff has weeks where lots of work needs to be done and 100% of my time is spent on it; and others, like now, where there’s not much to do at the moment and I’m focussing pretty much entirely on my thesis. This blog was always focussed on the PhD struggle, so I’m not going to talk too much about my other research commitments, but stick to my thesis work. t’s probably not a huge surprise to say that I’ve lost almost all my motivation and interest for finishing my PhD – this comes despite the fact that the sooner I can finish, the sooner I can work on something else; somehow, I’m finding it hard to muster even the motivation to just “GET IT DONE”), and can find infinite amount of other things that I’d rather spend my time on. This has been made doubly hard, since I technically already have the job (the post-doc position) that I needed a PhD for in the first place, so it’s not like I need that Certificate of Graduation for a job interview or anything.

So what’s going on? The past few months have been super frustrating, as some significant problems were been identified with my scientific technique and have led to me kind of not being sure whether what I’m doing is right, wrong or whatever. I’ve had doubts about my results for a while, but have largely put these to the back of my mind because the scientific models are complex and the theory is very confusing: recently, though, I’ve had to really tackle the mathematics and it’s left me completely baffled. It’s time like this that I wish that my project/thesis was on something that somewhere here (i.e. my university) knows about, because no-one aside from me really does and neither are there a bunch of resources (aside from those I’ve collected) that I can draw on if I’m in a bind. My work is quite distant from my supervisor’s field, and so he’s not really able to help with any of the technical details, use of models or analysis of results except in a vague quantitative way. My PhD always started from a position of isolation, as my main remit was to do some exploratory research into a dark region that no-one’s really looked into before, and essentially been given a flashlight and told: “right, go and find something interesting, and bring it back here when you’re done.”

It’s a matter of slight pride that, with everything I’ve done, I’ve done off my own bat: except some gentle comments from others, I’ve gotten where I have purely because of my own work. All the way, I’ve largely driven myself in the direction that I have, and have been given limited guidance on what exactly I should be looking at. From a research point of view, maybe that reflects well on me in that I’ve managed to be pretty much autonomous for the last 3 years, and developed things of my own accord; on the other side, though, this means that I’ve had to search everywhere for the ‘right’ way to do, hitting many dead ends along the way and absorbing considerable frustration. Of the work I have done with my results, I’m pulling together ideas and concepts from a number of fields and trying to make them compatible, but in a way that I’m not really an expert in any one of them and there are considerable problems in integrating the scientific model in the way that I have. I’m woefully aware of the meaninglessness of my results (or what results I’ve actually managed to get) and am not entirely convinced that my efforts are truly at the sort of standard to which they hand out doctorates. Maybe I’m overestimating how ‘good’ or ‘novel’ the final thesis needs to be, but I’ve got super-mega worries that what I have so far is painfully below the mark.

Over the whole of my PhD research, I kind of feel like I’ve squandered my time and expertise. I feel like if I’d have focussed on the right things, I could be somewhere good with my research, but that in reality, all I’ve managed to do is find problems everywhere with what I’m doing and flaws in the models/techniques that I’m using. Sure, this might be valid ‘research’ in finding out the wrong way to go about science/a PhD/[insert relevant title here] and technically no science is ‘useless’ science (unless someone already proved it), but it’s no match for actually doing something positive with your work. I kind of feel like the only positive thing that will have come out of my PhD is that someone, somewhere might read my thesis and not have to go through the same three years of frustration and errors and wrong directions that I did. I’m currently trying to formulate a title and general approach (the story, say) that my thesis will describe, and it’s a brain-breaking task. My work feels just like a smattering of ideas that people elsewhere already came up with, but thrown together in a way that things haven’t quite been looked at in this form before, or with these methods. Maybe my thesis can be called: ‘A Bunch of Science Thrown Together with Blunderbuss Accuracy‘ or ‘How Not to do a PhD (and 101 Other Useful Tips for Going Completely Crazy Before You’re Thirty)‘, and that’ll summarise things quite well.

Yes, yes, I know I’m being pessimistic. I know that I just need to Yvan Muller the PhD, and get the bloody thing down. Maybe it won’t be the best piece of research ever, but maybe I can fill it with enough pretty pictures or flattering writing that the examiners will overlook the significant lack of content and ‘pass’ me, largely out of pity. We can but hope.


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Bestival 2012 Round-Up

I’ve been quiet on here for a while, but with good reason. A couple of weeks ago I landed back in Southamptonland after a mightily enjoyable 4/5 days on The Island attending Bestival 2012 as part of the University of Southampton Roadshow. Having now had a few days to recover both my brain and body, here’s a quick summary of all of the cool stuff that went down and the major discoveries.

I’ll start with some discussion about the reason we were there: As a group, populating the Bestival Science Tent with various stands and science and stuff, and on a personal level, to give an hour-long talk in the Besti-versity Tent on human spaceflight. The Science Tent itself was open 10am-6pm Thursday-Friday, but the UoS stands inside it swapped over on Friday evening, so our Astronautics stand stayed up only for the Thursday and Friday, giving us Astro Boys time off on the weekend to watch bands and generally lark about. Thurs/Fri was pretty busy in the tent, and we met a whole load of new people to talk about space debris to and to get the involved with the DAMAGE simulation and the Space Junker games we had running. Overall, we had lots of engagement and lots of questions from lots of people, so in those terms our presence at Bestival 2012 was pretty rewarding. It’s been estimated by higher forces that we directly engaged with 10% of the festival audience (6,000 or so) and had 20% at least pass by (12,000) or so, so those are some nice statistics.

Besti-versity wasn’t running on the Thursday but followed schedule of 12pm-7pm on Friday to Sunday, of which I was the inaugral speaker at Midday on Friday. Nerves were pretty wracked beforehand but I calmed down enough to deliver everything I had to deliver with increasing confidence; I imagined a kind of blithering, Boris Johnson-style performance but everything came out relatively well and in a relatively relaxed manner, so I guess that’s a positive thing. I didn’t count the capacity of the tent, but I reckon 40 or so people watched the talk, plus a few who came through and left or just stuck their head through the door. Not bad going, given I was expecting no-one to come at all. The tent itself was pretty baking in the beating sunshine, and also very bright, meaning that it was a little hard to see the Prezi slides I was projecting, but that wasn’t too big a deal. The tent itself was populated inside by armchairs and sofas to give it a relaxed atmosphere; so much so that there were a couple of people catching forty winks in there at various points, but I’ll put that down to the festival atmosphere/too much party rather than my failings/dullness as a speaker. I had a few people come up to me afterwards and ask a few questions, and even had people over the weekend recognising me out-and-about and saying that they’d seen my talk, which was nice. I also now have an official Bestival 2012 programme with my name in it, which is a super feeling.

What of the music? Well, I went Bestival with  only a few bands that I really really wanted to see, primarily Justice, Nero and New Order, and happy to wander around and discover new stuff the rest of the time without having to worry about missing things I wanted to see.

Thursday was closed on the main stage but open everywhere else, and things kicked off with The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing  in the Bandstand, and my, how they kicked things off. The Men blasted out all the hits and easily were the loudest thing I heard all weekend. I had to scurry off at the end of the set in order to sort out Science Tent closing stuff, but since the bandstand was pretty much right next door, the rest sounded just as good. Alas, their second performance on the Saturday clashed with both New Order and Justice and so I didn’t see them again, but so pleased I heard them at some point. Thursday evening I went with the flow and went to the Big Top to hear Alabama Shakes, who were kind of okay but largely not my scene but everyone seemed to be having a good time. I think I poked my head into a few other tents across the night and heard some other bands, but I can’t for the life of me remember who they were.

Friday was the first main stage day, and the troops rallied to go watch The XX followed by Florence and the Machine, both of which were accomplished by relatively unknown to me. I actually preferred The XX, and they sounded epic in the live setting; much more so than on the records that I’ve since sought out. Florence was alright, and I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and did a little dancing, but it did kind of feel that the whole set was balanced very carefully on her and she seemed engulfed by the sheer size of the crowd and dwarfed by the stage. Not bad, just a little underwhelming to a newcomer to her stuff.

Saturday was my main day, with everything building up to Justice at approx. 11pm., and I wasn’t disappointed. The Big Top was absolutely packed and full of fluid, sweater festivalgoers dancing their minds away to ‘Genesis’, ‘D.A.N.C.E.’, ‘Civilisation’ and a mind-blowingly awesome live DJ set from the French house masters. If I hadn’t already seen Andrew W.K.’s glorious I Get Wet 10th anniversary show at London Forum (probably the best gig ever, solidified by Kerrang’s unprecedented 6K review), then this would easily have been the best gig of the year. As it is, it has to settle for a (very) close second. Earlier in the day we’d watched Earth, Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay, Two Door Cinema Club and the first half of New Order; all of which were entertaining and engaging, and we followed Justice up with Nero‘s late-night set in the Big  Top, which was as packed and sweaty as expected, with a ground-thumping Wub Wub that could be felt from across the festival site. Badass.

Moving to Sunday, I ducked out of the Science Tent during the afternoon to go watch 2:54 at the Psychadelic Worm tent (as brilliant live on record) and then Rizzle Kicks on the main stage (didn’t know any of their stuff, danced like a loon anyway). The evening’s events on the main stage kicked off with Sigur Rós, who were spectacular. Not a band that I knew much about, but now I’m pretty much a convert. This was then followed by Stevie Wonder, who did a fantastic job of closing out the festival. Musically superb and a brilliant showman, he even took technical failure of his piano in his stride and improvised with the rest of his kit. A solid effort, and followed up with a spectacular fireworks display to round off the night. Good stuff.

Anyway, I had an awesome time at Bestival 2012, and no mistake. So much so that I’d consider going back again next year, with the Roadshow (which has been making encouraging noises about returning in 2013) or under my own steam. Who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing by next September (thesis pending), but I’ll certainly keep my ear to the ground. If anyone wants to come along and join me, well that’d be rad. Godspeed.


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Big Bang Regional Science Fair 27/03/2012 – Personal Debrief

A few weeks ago, I was part of the University of Southampton‘s roadshow team at the Big Bang@Southampton Rose Bowl young scientists and engineers fair helping to promote the University’s research and get kids interested and excited about Science and all that schizz. I was there presenting (with some of the other guys in my office) as part of the demo/information stand for the Astronautics Research Group, in which I fail relentlessly at research for money. Here’s a picture of the whole research team, including Ben, Dan, Adam and Marius who were also manning our stand on the day, plus me somewhere in the rabble, smirking like a goon:

This is mainly a personal note debriefing myself about the day’s activities and what we can do it improve stuff, but I figured others of you might be vaguely interested in what’s’a happenin’, so thought I’d make this a public post.

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