Real Name:



Posts by

25th January 2016


Filed under: Uncategorised - 25 Jan 2016

There was a local patch of scrubland, just a large pit on the side of a hill in my local suburb. Some summers, before I was of school age, a small travelling show of sorts would appear, unannounced. What we called The Carnival was actually just a shanty town of well-worn stalls with coloured paint, throbbing generators and grassy sand underfoot.

Somehow my Dad was convinced to take me to this, after work.

The two activities that made an impression on me were the air rifles and the dodgems. I wasn’t allowed a go at throwing the rings over prizes…it was obviously a waste of money. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d have got some candy floss at that stage, had there been any on sale.

All of this took place before my father decided I wasn’t important to him.

I was small enough not to be able to hold the air rifle and had to balance it on the counter, according to my father’s advice. He steadied my aim to avoid any embarrassing dart-in-the-stallholder dramas. I watched his huge hands feeding the pellets into the barrel, each with a coloured tuft of yellow or magenta. This was long before anything weapon-like was legally banned from use by the law-abiding. Fireworks went the same way when I was seven. I never managed to hit anything…certainly no eyes were put out nor prizes won.

The most vivid recollection is of walking onto a raised, tented floor area filled with a random field of cars. You could choose one. I was soon seated on leather with my dad’s arm around me (what passed for safety measures in the 60s). The steering wheels seemed huge. Each was wrapped in bright red, white or blue tape. The look and texture of these grips is still alive in memory. Overhead, I can see in my mind’s eye, afterimages of the glowing, coloured bulbs. Their magical passage was punctuated by intermittent, sharp collisions and the appearance of a dirty youth collecting fares; flitting between dodgems.

Nobody ever explained that these were so-named because you had to dodge the other vehicles, so I did my best to drive straight at them. Many things went unexplained at that time.

The overriding feeling was of unbelievable power. The ability to have a machine respond precisely to my direction is something by which I’m still enthralled.

The next year they built a small supermarket and a string of cave-like shops on the site. Wool and holidays abroad were on sale now. It was soon as if the carnival had never existed.

28th September 2015

Cringes of conscience

Filed under: Uncategorised - 28 Sep 2015

At 55, I’m not aware that my life is about to end suddenly, so this is not any kind of deathbed confession. I have, so far, done lots of things which could be considered wrong…like lying in court or physically attacking people who annoyed me or stealing stationery. I have, on occasion, been a selfish fool and even cheated in an exam, once.

I’m not proud of any of that, but there was always some justification for my actions, however regrettable they appear. At least in my own mind, they were more the result of events, than of any significant moral failure on my part.

The events of which I’m actively ashamed are limited in number but not in intensity. In no particular order, here they are:

1) Driving whilst drunk. There is an explanation, but there can be no excuse. In the same era, whilst sober, but distracted, I creased somebody’s Volvo in a Waitrose carpark, leaving no note.

2) Investigating other people’s private parts whilst they were unaware of what I was doing. Childhood curiosity, and I don’t think anyone was harmed but, still, deeply yuck.

3) Running out on a job without talking things through and then hiding when confronted by my pathetic behaviour. Jesus, that’s cringeworthy.

4) Failing to take proper care of somebody I loved when there was a distant prospect that a previous ‘partner’ might not have been 100% sexually healthy.

5) Lying to my mother. It happened very rarely, but it was always wrong. I think she forgave me but she deserved better.

Does this make things somehow all better?


Would it help to undertake some acts of atonement? I mean in the sense of helping others, rather than just to ease my guilt?

Probably not.

My hope is that this entry will act as a reminder to me about how bad guilt really feels and allow me to avoid any further moral screw-ups. I suppose I’m really lucky, at this stage, not to have a longer list. Lucky, rather than virtuous.

13th January 2015


Filed under: Uncategorised - 13 Jan 2015

(This was my entry to a New Scientist screen writing competition January 2015)

A man wakes up next to a woman he doesn’t recognise: exactly as usual. His face-blindness no longer perturbs him, since he has strategies for checking people against memories of their distinguishing features.

Later, his robot car encounters not just the usual freeflowing traffic, but almost no vehicles at all. The guard at his office, the one with the freckles near his temple, looks agitated and waves him through, without opening either of their windows. Without smiling.

A news summary in the lift to his lab refers to some kind of bio-weapon atrocity.

“A virus…damages face and voice recognition…unknown attacker…advise the use of Quaerex smart goggles…”.

Perhaps people will understand now what his life has been like. As a Quarex employee, at least his small shareholding will now ratchet up in value.

Two days later and everyone is reliant on the recommended visual prostheses. The man’s colleagues, still shaken, are goggling an address by the President.

“Situation is now calm…national emergency averted by our ingenious Tech Corporations.”

An out of court deal to stop cartel proceedings against them has been reached.

The man, although now paper-rich, feels uneasy. No mole on chin. Eyelashes too short. Who was that guy?

He taps his ear to call his boss and glimpses what he has learned is his reflection in the wall of the projected-glass cubicle.

His own voice, on loudspeaker, announces to the room,

“Face Not Found. Intruder. Inform the authorities.”


24th July 2014

Several sigmas from the mean

Filed under: Uncategorized - 24 Jul 2014

I was asked by the ‘development’ (ie fundraising) staff at my old college to write something about my unusual career for their alumni blog. I’m guessing the request was made because I’m such an outlier from the bulk of their usual graduates. These guys are acutely scholastic but ultra conformist…you have to be, to gain the required grades for entry.

Anyway, I was surprised and impressed that they agreed to publish this:

In many ways I envy those who’ve always known that they were destined to become partners in international law firms, diplomats or merchant bankers. My career has had no such sustained focus. Eight years ago, at the last of countless job interviews, I was accused of ‘… having only done those things which interested (me).’ I got the job, but had to agree that this interpretation of my random-walk CV was pretty accurate.

Driven by the urge to please parents, a dearth of self-determination, the need to eat and a pathologically low boredom threshold, I have tried a number of different directions. These have included becoming Britain’s first web architect, earning a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, managing an MP employed as a salesman, running a business from internet cafés in Canada, failing two different degrees in computing, advising numerous start-up founders, being sacked several times (once by fax, which ages me), working at universities from Tallinn to Stanford, blogging commercially, and developing some clever software (

At St John’s, I quickly came to accept that I was a mediocre scholar and a glacially slow learner. I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks, however, to Dr Tom Hynes who stepped in to help when my friend and supervisor Fergus Campbell (Fellow of St John’s) was taken ill and died. It was at this time that I had my first brush with the patents system and was recognised by one College Fellow as ‘having ideas incompatible with (my) status as a research student.’ Although not intended as helpful, this comment was actually perceptive and I have since turned having such ideas into an unconventional career.

It began when I was forced to acknowledge that, as an employee, I wasn’t earning enough to afford even a modest midlife crisis sports car. My wife reminded me that I seemed to generate a continuous stream of often viable product ideas. I thus became an inventor (although product developer is my more usual title, since inventors are inexplicably seen as hard to deal with). For the next seven years, I published one new product idea per day, partly as a protest against our silly, unaffordable, IP system and partly as an advert for this unusual skill. It’s easy to overlook talents that don’t get measured by our education system.

I now greatly enjoy running a small company that works to license new product designs and technologies in the US. If you’re unwise enough to drink coffee from a machine in California, there is a good chance that I designed the internal mechanism. Should you find yourself with wet feet on board a yacht, it may be my self-priming bilgepump design that is to blame. Gas piped to your home may depend in some small way on the explosive burst tests I have undertaken on hoses in the North Sea (‘Stand well back – Norway should be ok’).

With my track record, I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice, but the message is that it’s quite legitimate to recognise your real abilities – even if they don’t form the basis of any traditional syllabus.


8th April 2014

Le Mans

Filed under: Uncategorized - 08 Apr 2014

I don’t know why I love this film so much. It’s essentially a documentary
– but without any more information than can be gleaned from the
advertising hoardings flashing past at 225 mph (kph hadn’t even been
invented then). Dunlop, Ferodo, Castrol, Firestone, Girling, Lucas…

Set in 1970s France, it’s nominally about a 24 hours race around a rural
road circuit. The central character, Delaney, is played by Steve McQueen
(who represented the US in the 1968 Olympic staring team after having
won a Frowning blackbelt in the Marine Corps).

It’s 30 minutes before anyone says anything and then it’s not exactly
gripping. The music is forgettable and that Tannoy is as annoying as a
TV commentator who describes only what can be seen on screen. McQueen’s
plot development was several fronds short of a Palme d’Or. “Cars,” he
apparently told the crew, “we film the f***ing cars.”

Beyond that, though, it’s cinematic perfection.

I always find the ambient noise in this movie is genuinely exciting –
reminding me of engines heard in childhood. That ripping-calico sound of
high compression machines in an era when ‘green’ only existed as a
postfix to ‘racing’. Pale blue and orange (yuck) Gulf Porsche 917s blast
around day and night in their brand-war rivalry with Ferrari. It looks
real. Everyone is suitably sleepless and sooty. McQueen even had dead
insects glued to his windscreen -then, after a lot of staring, declared
‘No – wrong kind of bugs.’

The most evocative section of the entire film is pre-race, when McQueen
drives the course alone on an early Summer morning in the slate grey
911s he bought as a production runabout. He looks utterly at home behind
the wheel and there is a marvellous sense of the unsuspecting
countryside: the calm before the storm. In reality, the storm also
included numerous fallings-out with the studio as well as his retinue of
30 or so hairdressers and gardeners. There was a move to substitute
Robert Redford (good at staring, but no petrol head) and several people
were actually hurt in crashes during filming.

It was a time when the dangers of racing were seen as a raison d’être.
Following this theme, the Delaney character had somehow contributed to
the death of a driver the previous year – a driver whose wife is now
mysteriously attending this year’s event, but who seems to be largely
immune to Mr McQ’s gruff charms. Her main function is as recipient of a
few flashed smiles, stares and the most quoted line in a very
tight-lipped script:

When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after… is
just waiting.

9th November 2013

Creativity in research

Filed under: Uncategorized - 09 Nov 2013

This is a note sent to several UK research funding bodies in connection with my concerns that we are now just going through the motions , rather than driving really breathtaking research. I’ve seen this described recently as the difference between hypothesis-  vs curiosity- driven work. Now that we have a culture in which grants have to be big, for reasons of career progression, everything is locked into risk aversion and genuinely new ideas are frozen out by a bureaucracy that has never had an idea.  Next stop, economic stagnation.  Naturally, I’m still waiting for any kind of meaningful response…


Thanks again for making the time for our conversation last week. Here are my suggestions regarding enhancing research creativity. I’d be very grateful if you could direct them to the most appropriate recipients.

As I mentioned, I’m particularly interested in intellectual creativity, having been focused on research funding/commercialisation, generating intellectual property(1) and associated entrepreneurship training(2) for about 15 years.

When I was a research student in Neurophysiology, my supervisor, the late Prof FW Campbell, FRS, instilled in me the idea of research excellence. As well as needing to be original and professionally performed, our work had to be potentially transformative (ie offering the strong possibility of emergent discovery) (3).

As research projects have tended to become fewer and larger, so the tension between efficiency and creativity, as described eg by Bob Sutton at Stanford (4), has become more apparent. There is now huge pressure on academics to deliver research projects, and PhDs, by the most reliable routes. This is especially true in situations where industrial funding is involved and the crucial division between exploratory research and hypothesis testing (or even product development) may become blurred.

I’m increasingly concerned, therefore, that truly creative, exploratory work is being de-emphasised -even in some research groups with a strong track record of winning funding. This shows itself particularly in the way that research supervisors tend to select doctoral students based on

–undergraduate record (despite much evidence that the best qualified scholars are rarely the most gifted researchers)
–similarity between supervisor and prospective student
–the comparative ease of hiring a recent graduate from the supervisor’s institution/department.

There may be many ways to remedy this situation. I’m committed to helping somehow, given that our economic (and cultural) future relies on not just accepting the established practices. Most of the following suggestions apply to doctoral candidates, but might also be extended to other members of the research community (the vulnerable position of postdocs also needs urgent attention). I would suggest that we need to

–recruit people taking into account established measures of their individual creativity. The PhD degree will require them to show evidence of original research. I don’t believe that this only means avoiding duplication.
–select people from other institutions and backgrounds. The tendency to form intellectual monocultures is understandable, but groupthink is deeply counterproductive.
–establish incentives to hire such individuals (think Francis Crick(5)). E.g. provide automatic micro-grants directly to chosen PhD candidates to guarantee some autonomy of thought and resource management experience.
–offer doctoral candidates creative mentors, deliberately from other disciplines…even perhaps non-university disciplines. (I contributed in this way to the EPIS scheme at Edinburgh University. A similar arrangement could be established for junior researchers).
–rethink the way that student intellectual property is now frequently being assigned, in advance of its creation, to the host university. This seems to me to be unfair, unnecessarily expedient and demotivating for the brightest minds.

These measures would, I believe, help to generate more diversity and self directedness among doctoral candidates, especially now that cohort training is becoming the norm. Individually, these researchers need to be able to identify their motivation: what *burning questions* are they determined to answer?

Yours sincerely,

(3) P. Andrews and F. Campbell, “Images at the blind spot”, Nature, vol. 353, pp.308, 1991.

6th October 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized - 06 Oct 2012

I was brought up in a  culture where individuals felt honour-bound to point out other people’s errors, character flaws and factual shortcomings. Diplomacy was considered sinful; a form of deception. This brutal honesty has never made my life straightforward, nor me easy to get on with, but it has often helped me avoid fooling myself in a scientific sense.

So I found myself by accident in the audience for a talk, last week, that I’d never have chosen to attend, based on the subject matter: Media Relations for Researchers.

It was given by a very striking journalist and tv presenter who has worked on programmes that I greatly enjoyed (and which have now been replaced by dumbed-down science-strand meeja).

The content illustrated, unintentionally, a modern version of the Two Cultures -one based on objectivity the other essentially on sales. The reason that scientists can’t cope with sales people in general is that the latter tribe, like barristers and journalists, are paid to present only one aspect of the full picture -to stay on-message. This is anathema to anyone who has had a first-class training in scientific method. It’s also why ‘media dons’ are regarded with contempt by genuine practising researchers.

The lessons we were taught at this event included always being available on one’s mobile phone in case a journalist with a one-hour deadline calls you to summarise some paper they haven’t read, but which an assistant with a degree in History discovered using a keyword search on Have they no idea how annoying it is to be interrupted like that -let alone to be asked to comment authoritatively on unfamiliar work? (Often, they will have based their enquiry on a University press release, itself written by some hapless PR firm).

Only those biddable labfolk who answer their phones will get quoted and can then use this ‘public engagement’ to advantage in their next grant application or specious Impact Statement.

One participant was asked for her ‘elevator pitch’….the one-line summary of her work -as if she were begging some venture capitalist for investment. Using the words ‘artificial photosynthesis,’ she was brought to an abrupt halt and told that her problem was that no-one in her audience would understand a word of what that meant. I’m not sure whether it’s even possible to communicate with people that paid no attention to nature study in primary school.

It’s true that researchers are in general not taught how to build an argument by describing evidence for and against and then performing a kind of qualitative calculus via which a conclusion is drawn from a logical weighing of one set of views against another. I think that’s an omission from technical education that should be addressed eg in writing a thesis -but often isn’t. No such careful consideration happens though when someone calls you in the middle of the day in an attempt to write 1000 words about sperm or quanta or oilslicks.

Explaining research results to taxpayers is really important but the whole process which The Media require is so shallow as to be largely worthless…and vindicates my decision not to watch television ever again.

The ‘advice’ that most enraged me though was “No matter what question you are asked, make sure you say what you want to say”. This drives science into the realm of political soundbites. Don’t answer the question, since the journalist won’t have read your work, or indeed anyone’s work. We need to resist this kind of sub-honesty. Meeja types all have an angle, a ‘take’. Their preconceptions have to be accepted and pandered to if you expect to have any kind of influence via broadcasting. When asked for example “Is it safe?” you aren’t supposed to answer that that’s a complicated question -even if it really is. Journalists are busy people with no time for subtleties.

I’m led to the conclusion that science and broadcast are just incompatible. You only have to listen to the note of derision that switches on when the ascientific John Humphries introduces a ‘piece’ about any scientific subject on Radio4:  “Are we really expected to believe, Professor, that X causes Y? How could we ever know?” Small wonder that science blogging has superseded much conventional journalism -the people who are actually interested in it tend to have worked hard to gain their understanding.

If I’m ever faced by the safety question, I’ll simply answer that I’d be happy for John Selwyn-Gummer’s kids to swallow it, whatever it is.

29th July 2012

Desire engineering

Filed under: Uncategorized - 29 Jul 2012

Design is about making the Future fit better -for everyone.

I particularly love it because Design offers a real-world superpower: to make products and processes which really work (both aesthetically and functionally) so that they become desired, not just utilitarian.

As a discipline, Design challenges my artistic and analytical skills simultaneously -nothing else really offers the same state of ‘flow’ when I can sense that a design solution exists -often just beyond my grasp.

I grew up in a provincial culture where tired, derivative products were the only option for ordinary people (and usually just available in brown). As a young child, I wondered why sewing machines had to be made as grotesque, heavy castings and why every item in the new wave of electronics required such unintuitive, one-off controls. Then, one day, my cousins acquired a Mini Cooper. The engine was misplaced, the wheels minute and yet it was colourful, fun and fast -as well as affordable.

Suddenly, it was as if I had been granted advanced notice of the future.

3rd July 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized - 03 Jul 2012

Lorna was the least selfish person I ever met. She was hardworking and stoic.  Although she certainly deserved much better treatment, Mum’s approach was to ‘make the best of a bad job’.

She could be stubborn and strict but she was never unkind. I could always tell, when small, that she was planning some treat -barm brack toasted at the fire or, on special occasions, iced caramels. Her ‘maybe’ was, for me, actually a guaranteed ‘yes.’

Lorna was a good listener and someone with a rare sense of fun in a dour, tight-lipped time. It was a pleasure to make her laugh that infectious laugh. Actually, it was a great pleasure just to have a conversation with her. When younger (she looked like Ava Gardner) there was a fierce determination not to let standards slip. You couldn’t get away with bad manners or poor grammar.

She always did what she thought was right and was confused and saddened by cruel behaviour.

I can recall her perpetually baking, cleaning, gardening, knitting and making an endless stream of toys – from sandbags for Action Man to secret red indian headdresses, late into the night on the run up to Christmas. Her stuffed steak was incomparably delicious.

My mum came to hate Christmas and family holidays, however. These relied on her preparing and cooking and packing entirely alone. She seemed emotionally unsupported throughout long stretches of her life.

Even at five, I realised that buying her birthday earrings, on behalf of my father, offered no comfort.


Development and alumni

Filed under: Uncategorized - 03 Jul 2012

Governments of every political persuasion in the UK (ie both sides of the class war) are cutting back on funding for institutions such as Schools and Universities. These organisations are now looking across the Atlantic for an example of how to make ends meet.  They see that eg Stanford receives donations from alumni of $3M a day and, understandably they want to emulate that approach to economic sustainability.

There are however a few crucial differences between these regimes:

  1. The US is a vast, internal marketplace with an entrepreneurial culture. Alumni can make money more easily and donate within a tax regime that encourages this.
  2. In general, US Universities don’t try to retain the intellectual property of alumni. They recognise that this is counterproductive and that Universities have no clue about making money.
  3. UK universities believe that academics, being smart, will be naturally accomplished in business and ‘deserve’ investment (-which they call funding). Nobody will talk about generating cash because that’s embarrassing (and requires management skills that academics hold in contempt).
  4. In the US, educational establishments take their academic freedom very seriously. They are happy to undertake research which addresses industrial problems but they won’t be directed by companies. In the UK, universities are queueing up to become low-cost contract R+D houses -they have become too big, too numerous and diluted their excellence.
  5. Universities in the US, at least the solvent ones, understand that they must give their students the best possible education/training. Their economic and intellectual future depends on developing this mutually supportive relationship. UK universities have inherited the belief that the Government will pay, irrespective of how inattentive they are to their charges (Imperial College, I’m looking at you).

Beyond these considerations is the issue that Development is basically begging. What exactly is being developed? If you get a place at Oxford, you can expect to be telephoned afterwards by current undergraduates who will chat intelligently, using information retained from your time among the dreaming spires. Then they will ask you to remember the brand from which you now benefit and get out your (Oxonian) credit card in its defence.

It seems to me that Universities need to stop asking for cash until they can start proving that they added at least corresponding value to their students. Maybe they should also start offering some entrepreneurship courses (run by real entrepreneurs).

How about rejecting begging and deciding instead to buy products and services from their own student startups?

Next Page »