One of the things I got to do during my solitary Christmas was watch a lot of videos on YouTube. A favourite channel of mine is TEDx Talks, partly because I’d really like to do one myself one day. I really enjoyed this video from TEDx Jaffa, Are brains male or female? presented by Daphna Joel. It’s related to many of the topics and studies discussed in Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender, which I mentioned in an earlier post.


Christmas is a very different time of year for me, compounded by the fact that as well as not celebrating it, I don’t have anyone to spend the day with. I don’t object to the festivities at all; it’s great fun, and I enjoy spending time with my friends and getting involved in the celebrations. But it doesn’t have any meaning for me beyond that, and I’d actually like to work on Christmas Day (which I sort of did, with a token piece of university study).

In the below (almost certainly staged) Twitter exchange, it’s not so much the predictable retort that got me thinking, it was the original question.  Why shouldn’t I be able to work on Christmas Day?  At least one other person in my office feels the same way, but we have a mandatory Xmas holiday, in which the workplace is closed.  Of course, some people do work over the holidays but it’s viewed as a major chore (because apparently work at all other times is not a chore?).  And so little is open or operational on Christmas Day that if you want to make it a normal day, it’s just not possible.

probably fake tweetSo what about my day?  And what about my Christmas in general?  As for most people, it began long before the 25th.  I attended five Xmas dinners and parties before we even finished work for the holidays.  I’ll be attending more parties and doing Christmassy stuff for the rest of the holiday, as well as the all-important New Year do.  But Christmas Day was mine alone.

I started the day with some volunteer work – I figured that seeing as I wouldn’t be celebrating the day, I’d do something for people less fortunate than me.  I spend Christmas alone through choice, but the day isn’t always a good one for many people, alone or not.

I finished work early in the morning, so I got some well-earned sleep until 2pm.  I didn’t feel bad about wasting half the day in bed because, hey, the day is mine to do with as I please, and I have to sleep at some point.  After this, I had a hearty breakfast of crisps and Wagon Wheels, and set off on an epic walk.  I probably did about 10 miles in all, with a pit stop halfway for a Christmas Curry.  A pretty good Christmas dinner by my reckoning, and I didn’t have to cook a thing.  Thank goodness there are still kebab shops open on Christmas Day (they said they were doing a roaring trade and opening up on the Thursday – the 25th – really suited them as they could gear up properly for the weekend).

When I got home, I started my evening watching videos on YouTube.  My favourite channels are TEDx Talks and The Atheist Experience. Then I decided to get off my butt and do some chores (but not too many, it’s Xmas Day for crap’s sake!).  During my mini tidy-fest, I cleared out my wardrobe and realised that I really need to buy some new trousers:  everything is too big – hurrah!

Then I did a tiny, tiny bit of my Literature Review.  But it all counts, right?  The day was completed by two hours of Fallout 3, accompanied by vodka and orange, and the odd cup of tea.  Now if that’s not a perfect Christmas, I don’t know what is.


My next foray into research volunteering involved a visit to the clinical psychology department. I was being tested for my ability to perceive randomness. As I had expected, human are rubbish at this, but I did get to talk a little about why this is and what people typically perceive as random.

I was first shown a number of 20-character long sequences, made up of ‘H’s and’T’s, to represent the results of a fair coin being tossed. I was asked to rank these in order of how random I thought these appeared. After evaluating the sequences, I then moved on to a computer task. During this test, I was firstly asked to generate a sequence that I thought looked random. I did this by typing ‘H’ or ‘T’ in a 200-letter long sequence.

Then things changed, and I viewed a 200-character sequence broken down into blocks of five letters.

I was then asked to repeat the computer exercise, but by creating forty 5-letter long sequences instead of one huge 200-character long chain. My behaviour in relation to the representation of randomness changed between the two tests. One of the measures that the researcher was considering was the number of times I changed between ‘H’ and ‘T’ – the more changes, the less random overall.


As is typical for many of the research volunteering opportunities at Manchester University, I was rewarded with a £10 Amazon voucher for my participation.


This is a very useful tip suggested to me by one of my first-degree uni mates.  It’s quite an obscure and specific one, but it solves an age-old student dilemma: what to do with half-consumed cans of baked beans.

Take a look at the picture to the right. The can of dee-lish Heinz baked beans is almost the same size and shape as the tin of Kenco Millicano next to it.

The bean can is half-full, because I’ve enjoyed a Beans On Toast For One.  So I could just bung it in the fridge door as is, leaving it to stink out the fridge, or construct a neat little tin foil hat for it (stylish, but like all tin foil hats, not very functional).  I might even decant the contents into a tupperware box (yeah, right).

The two staple components of my diet
beans and coffee


You often hear that it’s a bad idea to leave open cans of things in the fridge – why is this? Some people say that the food will react with the metal on the inside of the can once it’s been opened, either giving it a bad taste, or causing everything from metal poisoning to botulism.  There’s plenty of discussion about this on the Internet (not exactly a surprise), but I usually just assume that it’s good for a couple of days as long as it’s covered.  You can make your own mind up about this – I ain’t doling out food hygiene advice here.

So given that I don’t have a problem with leaving things in cans for a couple of days in the fridge as long as they’re covered, imagine my joy when I learnt this neat little trick:

Take the flexible plastic lid from your empty tin of Kenco Millicano, and apply it to the top of the bean can. The lid will form a seal under the lip at the top of the can, making it airtight. Happy beans, and a non-stinky fridge. Just don’t forget about them or it will be properly gross when you rediscover them!

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I’ve had the unfortunate experience of working on a team that’s understaffed.  The company was taking on more work than we had people to perform it, and we were all stretched way beyond the limits of time and sanity.  I was already allowing my studies to suffer because of the pressure to work longer hours than is reasonable, encroaching on the time that I should have been spending at university.  But I felt a strange sense of satisfaction at being just that little bit too busy.  My brain needs stimulation, and in that role, the work just wasn’t very intellectually demanding.  The juggling of many repetitive tasks provided a breadth of work that sort of replaced the depth of a more engaging research project.  Sort of.  It was a poor substitute, but it was what I had to work with at the time.  Churning, not learning.

That sort of thing’s not good for me, and it’s not good for my projects. I didn’t expect to still be working at that level 15 years after university, with less responsibility than I had in my mid-20s. Sure, someone had to do it, but I felt that my ambitions were being overlooked. I was rushing to complete a thousand trivial deadlines, with none of them getting my fullest attention. My drive and enthusiasm for my work dwindled to the point where I was really just paying the bills and looking for an exit strategy. Academia has a terrible reputation for being harsh and non-meritocratic, but it’s my best hope of actually finding work suited to my abilities and being taken seriously.  And, in the long run, it’s where my heart lies.  It  doesn’t matter whether it’s me or anyone else who’s having a boring time.  I believe people work best when they’re achieving things for themselves.  Being emotionally invested in the work gives more reason to succeed, both individually and as a team.  This report from Kingston University Business School covers a lot of the things I’ve identified in my own life, and I hadn’t even read it until after I’d started writing this post (amazing coincidence, huh?).  I’d recommend you read the whole thing, especially if you’re an employer.  It’s based on evidence collected by the Kingston Business School Engagement Consortium, and an analysis of previous work in this area.  Although direct interviews with employees on the topic of engagement at work are rare, this document references around 40 other studies.

I want a challenge, and I want to take calculated risks.  If I  find that  my work feels really ‘safe’, I’m not innovating and I’m not doing myself any justice.  I grew up in a family with very low aspirations, and as a result I loved attending school – where I knew I would find that challenge my brain craved.  If I find things too easy, I get lazy, and I’m really worried that might happen to me.  It’s one of the reasons I write here – I’m looking to write more and maybe do this to earn a crust if I get the opportunity.  I’d love to stay in academia, but be a science communicator / journalist.  Independence, baby.


When I was at high school, a legend prevailed that if the temperature fell below a certain level, then you got to go home.  We never did get to go early, no matter how frosty it got in that hellhole. But is there any truth in this?

The answer is: yes and no.

In terms of the pupils, there aren’t any rules governing the permissible temperature range. For the grown-ups, who are classified as workers (what the hell did they think the students were doing all day?), they are covered by The Workplace Health and Safety Regulations 1982. But even then, it’s not clear-cut. The Act says that employers must make their workplace ‘suitable’ in order to meet the health, safety, and welfare needs of everyone in their workforce. So how do we define suitable?

There is no official definition of this term. When designing a heating system, the parameters are selected based on guidance documents and confirmed in the design brief by agreement with the Client. Suitable can mean different things in different contexts. The HSE advises that sedentary workers should normally not be exposed to ambient temperatures lower than 16C, and manual work should not take place in environments cooler than 13C.

What about the upper limits? I haven’t been able to find a defined figure for this. The HSE provides guidance on thermal comfort and the avoidance of heat stress, which is complex and not easily remedied by applying a blanket figure. With predicted climate change, it is likely to become a greater concern for employers in the coming years.