Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Philemon and Baucis

As the embers of the current year die away, it is a time of reflection between these last moments of 2009 that are otherwise shared between finishing off a grant proposal to fund the next few years of my research and processing yet more manuscripts that await editorial decisions (it is perhaps not surprising that many reviews were submitted in these last days of the year). And as a part of that reflection, I reprint here a poem written by, of all people, my own father. Ostensibly, it is a poem about an old married couple, Philemon and Baucis, who, having given sanctuary to the god Zeus, were granted the wish that each should die at the same time. My parents are (I think, but cannot be absolutely sure!) 87 and 85. And I have learned much from them.

Philemon and Baucis

They no longer remember their actual age,
every night’s a new night on their hard bed.
They search for their old bodies and embrace.

Every night new, every night the same:
sharing of experience gives their love strength.
They no longer remember their actual age.

Time’s measure they now reject as strange,
the time that matters turns to love instead.
They search for their old bodies and embrace.

There is never in their love such careless haste
that forgets the affection of caress.
They no longer remember their actual age.

They now rejoice that they have learnt to tame
the youthful follies that helped create stress.
They search for their old bodies and embrace.

Their love does not seek greatness nor fame
but at last is all about and much more than sex.
They no longer remember their actual age,
they search for their old bodies and embrace.

I have never really understood poetry. Yes, I know that makes me a philistine. But this is one poem I do understand. I reproduce it here to remind myself that there is more to life than writing (and reviewing) grant applications, editing a journal, or coveting expensive bean-to-cup coffee machines...

poem © Simon L. Altmann

Thursday, 24 December 2009

it's almost xmas...

So... it’s that time of year again... Xmas is upon us. As is lots of chocolate.

Have a good one. And a great 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Just in time for Xmas, I’ve cleared my queues at the journal. All the manuscripts I was handling that had received the required number of reviews have been cleared, and all the manuscripts waiting to go out to review have been sent out (or have been politely turned away through a process of triage). I even received one email today saying “this is surely the nicest rejection letter I have received yet.” Life can barely get better!

In the last two weeks I’ve accepted 11 manuscripts, rejected 29, and sent around 15 back to the authors for revision. And I only sent 9 out to review. At the very beginning of the New Year I’ll post more complete statistics about the journal, but it turns out I triage (i.e. politely turn away without sending to review) 40% of the submissions I deal with. This is the exact same number that I send out to review but then reject when the reviews come back. Pure coincidence, of course. Particularly quick-witted readers, or those that have a calculator to hand, will be able to work out that this means I accept 20% of the submissions that come my way. I can’t currently speak for the other Associate Editors - I’ll be calculating their combined accept/reject rates on New Year’s Eve... it’s something to do while listening to the year tick slowly away.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

it's very, very cold...

Last night it went down to -11C (that’s 12F). There’s an inch of ice on the pond. Or at least, there was until I dug a great big and unsightly hole in it...

Things I’ve discovered over the past couple of days:
  • Chocolate fountains and children do not mix. Or rather they do. All over the carpet: what goes down does sometimes come up again.
  • It’s actually quite pleasant doing absolutely no work at all over the weekend.
  • Delonghi have released the ESAM6700 - successor to the ESAM6600 that I really, really, covet. The new machine costs a few hundred pounds more, which makes it all the more covetable, and all the more out of reach. Anyway... I make a perfectly fine cappuccino each morning, and it’s almost as good as the cappuccino they make at La Colombe in Philadelphia. It’s true that I can’t do the Latte Art... but I want to drink the stuff, not hang it on my wall...
Things I’ve done over the past couple of days:
  • Turned the AMLaP 2010 page into a blog; I can now add information as I get it.
  • Almost nothing else.

Friday, 18 December 2009

life's ups and downs

UP: The snow is beautiful. It’s -2C and it snowed most of the night.

DOWN: We’re snowed in.

UP: My new contact lenses. I no longer need reading glasses! My left (dominant) eye is set to focus on distant things, and my right eye is set to focus close-up for reading. So wherever I look, one eye is in focus and the other is blurry... but the mind is an amazing thing, and I already am pretty much adapted, after just two days of the new prescription, and I barely notice the blur. Soon, I am told, I won’t notice it at all. Surprisingly, it takes no effort to switch from close-up to distant viewing. This is life-changing!

DOWN: The snow is indeed beautiful, but the burst pipe which flooded the kitchen and has left us with no water until the emergency plumber comes (at exorbitant cost) is not beautiful at all. It only took 90 minutes with two bath towels to soak up the water and leave the floor looking strangely dry (I have the central heating to thank for that).

UP: Morning coffee made with bottled water. Sparkling water. You just can’t beat a fizzy cappuccino...

Sunday, 13 December 2009

unfinished Finnish coffee

Am somewhere in the skies over Sweden, or possibly Norway, on the way back from Finland. Evidently, the civilised coffee world has not yet reached these dark frozen climes. Nescafé was the best you could get. I decided I’d give the instant cappuccino a go. The technology is clever, and it is worth watching the stuff froth and foam. But before you go off and try it for yourself, you should know that powdered cappuccino tastes very much like the regular instant coffee, except for the shot of Gillette shaving foam they’ve magically mixed in. I can assure you it is completely undrinkable and best treated, and disposed of, like any other biohazard. Anyhow, am drinking far better stuff on the plane back. Foolishly, I have just eaten the very worst idea in airplane vegetables - finely chopped beetroot. Yes, the stuff that, if accidentally dropped down your white shirt, makes you look like you’ve been stabbed multiple times. And to facilitate the stabbing, Finnair provide you with the tiniest of plastic forks, a more adequate description of which would include the words ‘over-active’ and ‘slingshot’. Accompanying this vegetable equivalent of an indelible marker pen was some unrecognisable seasonal meat - I guess that means it was either reindeer or elf.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

lucky Sam... unlucky me

It’s my eldest’s birthday today. 15. Bear in mind, now, that I’m a die-hard Mac user. I’ve been using Macs since 1988. So it was with considerable pain that I succumbed to his constant pestering for a netbook (at least it has Windows 7, rather than XP). The aforementioned pain was considerably eased, however, when he unwrapped the gift from his mum. Underwear. Ok, so it was high-quality underwear that requires a certain coolness factor to be worn. But even so... it’s underwear, for goodness sake! Of course, as a Mac man, I believe that his mum’s gift will prove the more useful in the long run...

I, however, am not as lucky as Sam. Despite the opportunity two weeks ago to return to my favorite coffee shop in the world (La Colombe, Philadelphia), and then to visit Boston, I have finally succumbed not simply to netbook-mania but also to some variant of the ‘flu. I took a cold with me to the US (I carefully hid it from immigration officials, lest they quarantine me), maintained it lovingly in Philadelphia and Boston, and then re-imported it, suitably mutated, back into the UK, where it returned in fuller force to bite me in the proverbial you-know-where. Yesterday’s rant/vent/post was written under the influence of that same virus, added to which was a concoction of paracetamol (Tylenol), neurofen (Advil), and caffeine (Illy) - you can tell that I feel better today. Not physically - just mentally. Must be due to having been woken by an excitable child at 6 in the morning (no, not Sam, his younger brother who seems to delight as much in other people’s birthdays as in his own).

The day before yesterday was Thanksgiving in the US (not in Canada, though - they wouldn’t want to share with the US their public holidays as well as their international dialling code). I did remember it on the day, but events overtook me (or rather, ‘flu did), and I failed to post anything appropriate. So despite feeling thankful most of the time for the various friends and colleagues I have scattered across the globe, I shall take the opportunity now not simply to feel it, but to give it also - thank you.

Friday, 27 November 2009

peer review

It’s been a trying few weeks at the journal I edit. It is not atypical for authors to complain about the injustices of the review process. For these people, I offer some consolation below, and a newly invested prize: the “Poke the editor in the eye with a stick” award. Identifying the winner has not been easy in the face of some quite considerable choice. This year’s winner of the coveted jab’em-in-the-eye award goes to the person who was unsure about the legitimacy of the concerns I had expressed when returning my editorial decision. In questioning their legitimacy, he listed a bunch of reasons why my concerns were unjustified, and then mentioned in passing that he had in fact reported the wrong data in the paper...

Regrettably, such complaints are typical. And increasing in number. And for each one of these that I receive, there are countless others that are no doubt discussed in coffee rooms and conference halls up and down the country (pick any country), and for which I and the reviewers are the minions of the Devil. The sad fact is that unless we hear about such cases, we can neither reconsider the facts (and perhaps change our earlier decisions) nor defend our decisions in the event that, like the case above, there is nothing to answer for except a rigorous and professional review process. One time, an author complained that the review process can’t be any good because after I had rejected his manuscript, it was accepted almost unchanged at another journal. With a little probing, the author eventually acknowledged that before submitting to the new journal, he had in fact added in the additional study that the reviewers and I had requested when the manuscript had first been submitted to us.

Each time I receive, or hear of, a grumble, it is my job to investigate it. It is inevitable that mistakes will be made, and regardless of ego it is our job to root out such mistakes and correct them accordingly. If authors do not believe that they have been dealt with fairly, the field as a whole rightly loses confidence in those it has entrusted to help the passage of its science. But we should not forget that editors and reviewers deserve fair treatment too.

For an accurate depiction of the typical author response to a decision letter, I advise all readers to watch the following instructional video. I do not know who made it. I do know that, last night, within the space of 30 minutes, I received links to it from two separate academics living in two separate countries. So my thanks to John and Ellen for making me realize I am not alone in the perennial editorial struggle...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

hotel rooms

There is nothing worse, I've decided, than sitting in a hotel room, working. At least my office is *my* office - full of some of the paraphernalia that defines my existence, if not also aspects of my identity. According to (which I use for managing my travel itineraries), today is the 54th day this year I've spent in a hotel room. By the end of the year I'll have spent 61 days in hotel rooms spread across 31 different cities, 9 different countries, and 72,000+ miles.

It's time to stop. And go home.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

display configuration

For reasons unknown to me, more people are visiting this site than ever before. Have the TV networks stopped showing repeats of Friends? Is The Simpsons no longer broadcasting? The problem I'm faced with is that I now feel obliged to update this blog, simply to prevent the disappointment that would result, I suppose, from people coming back, time and time again, in the vain hope that it would have been updated. I can't blame these poor hapless souls as I do the same thing. No, not with this website, as I actually have inside information on the timing of its updates, but with the websites that currently interest me most... those that offer the cheapest price on the De'Longhi ESAM6600. Regrettably, those prices do not change, and if they do, rarely in a downwards direction.

I used to be a Gaggia man, but the machine in our lab is ageing even more rapidly than am I. And as I researched a replacement, I discovered that Gaggia were taken over by a bigger fish - Saeco - a company founded, oddly, in a place called Gaggio (Gaggio Montano, to be more accurate). But then the bigger fish was eaten, just this last summer, by an even bigger fish - Philips (you have to love their toothbrushes, if nothing else). So that just leaves De'Longhi as one of the last Italian firms making bean-to-cup coffee machines. Not that I really care about all this historical stuff (if I did, I probably would avoid wanting to buy a coffee machine from a company that in fact specializes in heating equipment and radiators...) - what I really care about are the resoundingly positive reviews that their machines tend to receive, and the even more resoundingly positive reviews that the 6600 receives. But it costs megabucks. So I continue to check the price comparison sites, and continue to dream of a day when I either win the lottery (unlikely since I haven't bought a ticket in years), or miraculously save the life of a De'Longhi executive who will reward me for my courage with precisely the machine I covet. It is a sad fact that winning the lottery without a ticket is probably the more likely of my two fantasies...

A more manageable fantasy over the past two weeks (since we switched from BST to GMT, or as our American cousins would say, since we came off daylight savings time) has concerned the clock in my otherwise fully-functional car (a Peugeot 207, which, I sadly realize, is a quite paltry vehicle compared to the BMW convertible that one of my colleagues has recently purchased... an extra heavy load of manuscripts will shortly be coming his way...). The fantasy was a simple one - to get the thing to show the right time. But the challenge proved too great. I failed to figure it out because no matter which buttons or combination thereof I pressed, I kept coming back to a menu item on the dashboard display which promised to "display configuration". This wasn't particularly useful as I didn't want to display the configuration, I wanted to change it. So eventually I resorted to the manual. It contained the following information:
In the event that you wish to change the time on the clock, abandon the prejudice you have to interpret "display" as a verb and "configuration" as a noun - instead, adopt the less frequent reading of these two words, with "display" as a noun and "configuration" as the second noun in a noun-noun compound. You will then have successfully found the one menu item which allows you to change the "display configuration" - on encountering this menu item, press 'ok' and you will immediately see a message offering to change the hours and minutes of the clock. If you are too dumb to realize that "display configuration" has two meanings, and that we the manufacturers will naturally have pre-selected for you the least likely meaning, you barely deserve to drive this car.
It really does say that in the manual! And I feel suitably ashamed at my linguistic prejudice. Needless to say, with such cognitive infexibility, the chances are slim of being able to get the coffee-machine equivalent of a BMW convertible to do anything as impressive as grind a bean. So it's probably just as well I can't afford it. Even better is that I will miss out on the joys of having to figure out, each spring and each autumn, how to change its clock...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Broken promises

So I made the mistake, in that last post, of promising to update this page with greater regularity. Yeah right. I instead, rather foolishly, decided to fulfill my obligations over the past two and a half weeks to:
  • NIH (7 grants reviewed)
  • Cognition (18 manuscripts sent out to review, 51 action letters written)
  • Carbon Emissions (3677 miles flown, 124 miles via train - I've still to take the return journey)
  • My stomach (dinner at Vidalia in DC and Amada in Philly were highlights of my gastric experience, as well as La Colombe which still serves the best cappucino on the American continent)
  • My research (and more specifically, a collaboration with a bunch of people in Philadelphia that will shortly culminate with a bunch of other people being stuck in an MRI scanner - and by 'stuck' I mean 'placed in' rather than 'unable to be retrieved from')
  • Hotels (3)
  • The Wine & Cocktail Industry (I think, but can't quite remember...)
  • Casio (I bought a new watch - radio-controlled from atomic clocks in USA, UK, Europe, Japan, and China; solar-powered; 200m. water resistant; and in many ways, though perhaps not aesthetically, highly desirable)
  • (various)
  • Marks & Spencer (underwear... what else?)
So details of my dare-devil attempts to windsurf in Turkey will just have to be left to the imagination. Sorry.

[UPDATE, posted from a Starbucks back in London...] The BEST pasta ever was served on Thursday 15th October, 2009 at Vetri, Philadelphia. It made one gasp. As did the wine, which cost as much as the meal...

Saturday, 26 September 2009

advertising feature

After a period of abeyance, this blog is, once again, in a 'go' phase. Planned updates over the next couple of weeks include:
  • Turkey: windsurfing, ringo riding, and Jamie propelled at speed into the depths of the ocean...
  • Barcelona: conferencing, electricty blackouts, and a foolish offer to host AMLaP 2010 in York next year (dates most likely to be 6th-8th September, 2010. You read it here first!)
  • A publicity photo for a public lecture in which, miraculously, I had grown hair where no hair will ever grow again... (I did manage to intercept, and depilate, the photo before it went to press...)
  • Altec Lansing Expressionist Bass computer speakers - unbelievably good. Too good. Can't use them in the office without the entire corridor rumbling to the beat...
  • - grocery delivery via iPhone... geek heaven!
  • Bearded Dragons on the horizon, if Jamie has his way and I can't think of a good enough reason why we *can't* fit a 120cm vivarium into our living room...
Of course, anyone reading this won't care about what updates are planned. I merely put them here to remind me in the coming days to fulfil my promise and make public the memories I hope to recall in future years. Not even 6 NIH grant applications to review, scores of Cognition manuscripts to process, new data to analyze, two theses to read, experiments to be run (because I was so stupid that I need to re-run the last one..), and students to supervise, will get in the way. The only limiting factor, as that last sentence makes clear, will be my grammar.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Alan Turing

Excerpts from the BBC News website, Monday 31st August 2009:

"Thousands of people have signed a Downing Street petition calling for a posthumous government apology to World War II code breaker Alan Turing.... In 1952 he was prosecuted under the gross indecency act after admitting to a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself...”

To read the full article, click here (opens in new window).

To sign the petition (British citizens only - bizarre - does no one else have an opinion that the UK government is willing to listen to?), click here (opens in new window).

Many of us who spent time working on “artificial intelligence” will know Turing for his seminal contributions to that field (amongst others). It is fitting, to me at least (and the other signatories of that petition), that we acknowledge the mistreatment he suffered through the institutionalized discrimination of the day.

An update describing my windsurfing (and ringo-riding) antics in Turkey will follow...

[update - 11th Sept: Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister, wrote the following in a statement to all signatories to the above petition: "[...] Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction [...] So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better."]

Monday, 10 August 2009

three months, three continents

I just realized, as I gazed wistfully at the Patagonian moon, that in the last three months I’ve been on three different continents. The two trips that preceded this one were:

Stockholm. The most expensive city in Europe, I believe. Even the cheapest-looking restaurants are just that: cheap looking. But you won’t get much change out of your month’s salary if you have anything more than bread and water. Admittedly the bread was fantastic... Almost as fantastic, but a definite tourist trap, was the Absolut Ice Bar - essentially a room that has been turned into a large fridge, into which they have fit a fairly standard-sized bar. It’s so cold that they give you protective clothing to wear and limit you to some small number of minutes. Not because they’re afraid that any harm will come to you, but to save the ice inside from melting from all that body heat... So the idea is you go in and marvel at the ice walls, the ice bar, the ice bench, the ice table, and the ice sculpture, and you then down a vodka that’s so sweet it makes a sugar cube taste bitter by comparison, and you then leave. The sugar, apparently, is to help you burn up the required calories with which to keep the frostbite at bay. I can attest to the cold, and the fact that if you do attempt to lick the walls your tongue will stick... Overall, the trip (to attend a conference) was worthwhile. Largely due to a couple of friends whom I went with, and various others whom I met over there. It’s just a shame that it cleaned me out financially.

Philadelphia. I went to the USA’s historical heartland to set up a collaborative project with a group there that do neuroimaging (brain scans, for any reader fortunate enough not to be an academic). The folk there were fantastically nice. Made me feel incredibly welcome. I guess they took pity on the visiting Brit who knew nothing about neuroimaging and had a bewildered look on his face most of the time... so the combination of friendliness and patience was much appreciated, as was the visit to the Barnes Foundation, which is an astonishing and unexpected place. The night that I arrived, I got off the plane, found my hotel, and made my way around the corner to a bar called Tria - the place for cheese and beer in Philadelphia. It was so noisy, full, and exhilarating that I barely stood out as the oldest person there by a decade or two. I did try my best to hide the fact that I couldn’t read the dimly illuminated menu without my reading glasses... but I failed miserably when it came to reading the bill... or rather not being able to read it. Or the pin machine that was thrust at me after I handed over my credit card. Someone recently told me that the best thing about reaching 50 (I’m not quite there yet) is that one ceases to care about such things. Yeah, right... The other thing I failed at, apparently, was being sociable.THE thing to do, I’m told, is to sit at the bar and just start chatting to whoever is sat next to you. I’m just too shy to risk anything as exciting as that. I also discovered on this trip, around a further corner just off Rittenhouse Square, the best café on the American continent: La Colombe. They don’t do sandwiches, or toasties, or fruit yoghurts drizzled on a bed of cereal and salad leaves... they just do coffee. Cappuccino to rival any cappuccino in Southern Italy. And the effortless way in which artistic patterns were poured into the froth was inspiring. So much so that I tried it myself when I got back home. It worked a treat - artistic patterns were poured, by an excited me, onto my coffee, the surrounding counter, and a substantial portion of the floor. Probably I shouldn’t have been quite so optimistic that anyone without years of experience could so instantly ascend to the level of a black belt barrista...

And now I am in Argentina, where I have been for the past two weeks. Next week I fly off again, after a day and a half in the UK, to Turkey for a week’s holiday with my kids (and most definitely without the journal). A couple of weeks later, I’m off to a conference in Barcelona. And then I’ll have an only-slightly interrupted 4 weeks before flying back to Washington. Maybe I’ll make a small detour and drop by La Colombe again...


Not the city. The café. Am back in Neuquén (still in Patagonia). One of the great things about Argentina is that many cafés and restaurants (and petrol stations - “gas stations” for the one N. American reader who I know will read this) have free wifi and internet connection. So am about to upload several entries to this blog, a chapter to a very patient editor (sorry, Simon!), and various emails to various people. All while downloading a system update for my MacBook Air, and various application updates for my iPhone. Needless to say, these updates could perfectly well have waited till I got back to the Northern Hemisphere. But where’s the fun in traveling the world with out-of-date software?

The drive back from Bariloche to Neuquén was stunning - with mountains, desert, huanaco (llama-like creatures that you can see by following the link in my last entry), condors, eagles, even an ostrich!

It’s now 4 days that I’ve done nothing for the journal. I feel like I’ve been given a new life. That’s not to say I haven’t done any other work. I have, and I enjoyed it. I finished the chapter that I’ve just emailed off, and that I needed to finish for a Handbook of Eye Movements (yes, such things do get published, and people even buy them!) It’s only about 6 months late. Probably that ever-so-nice editor will write back to say I’m too late and the boat has sailed (I’m hoping he didn’t forget I was meant to contribute to the volume). In which case you’ll shortly have exclusive access to the chapter here.

I’d best get back to the coffee. And I’d best just loosen that trouser belt a little more to accommodate the pastry...

Thursday, 6 August 2009

what not to do when traveling

  • Fly Air France to Buenos Aires and uncomplainingly accept, despite checking in ages in advance (and apparently before three quarters of the other passengers), that the rude and unhelpful ground-staff will have no option whatsoever but to allocate you the two rear-most seats in the plane - the ones that don’t recline.
  • Squirt liquid soap onto your hands before checking whether the taps are more than just decorative and actually dispense running water. It’s not exactly easy to wipe the sticky stuff off with tissue paper.
  • Visit a sister (Silvia’s sister) who lives in the most idyllic spot in the Andes, by a lake, surrounded by trees, mountains, and astonishing peace and quiet. I now no longer wish to return home.
  • Bring work with you (or worse still, do the work you brought with you).
  • Bring your cellphone with you (or worse still, use the thing).
  • Gain three kilos in just 11 days. I so hope the scales are wrong - but the weight gain is totally plausible.
  • Climb up a modest mountain in freshly fallen, but rapidly melting snow, forgetting that if you have to scramble up the slippery slope to reach that very special rock from which to view the condors, the way back down will most likely end, or even begin, in an uncontrollable but strangely graceful fall that will remind you of the good fortune you had in taking out health insurance.
  • Buy more clothes in the local town than you need, can use, have space for on the flight back, have space for in your closets back home, or, perhaps most importantly of all, can afford.
  • Drive. Better to let your partner drive so that you can take in the herd of huanaco, the ostriches, eagles, condors, and miscellaneous horses, cows, and goats (those that you hadn’t previously eaten at an exceptionally nice grill) that can be seen on the drive to/from the Andes.
[update: I’m only writing this entry because I today stayed in, except for a quick limp to the lake, to finish those remaining manuscripts I mentioned in yesterday’s entry. I’m now officially on strike. Anyone expecting me to do anything for the journal over the next few days had better not hold their breath! And whatever work I do next week will be research-related and will not be in service of Elsevier, the journal, its employees, or their dependents. Terms and Conditions apply.]

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

under a pile of snow... and a pile of manuscripts

Am now in Bariloche, in the Andes. Snow everywhere. It’s amazingly beautiful. My calm is interrupted only by the occasional sound of the melting snow falling from the trees, and the incessant Tourette-like swearing that I hear emanating from a voice inside my head each time I think about the manuscripts that I’ve dealt with since my last entry and the ones still to do. My sense of well-being would be complete if I could just find that little homunculus editor inside of my head and shoot the bstrd...

The drive to the Andes was spectacular. The only problem with the Andes is the existential angst brought on by the contrast between their calm beauty and the unstructured chaos that is my life back home. Much of the drive here was through desert. Very low scrub-like bushes punctuated by the occasional horse or cow. As we got higher, what should have been a rainstorm became a snow storm, and seeing the desert covered in snow was a once-in-a-lifetime experience... unless, that is, you live here, in which case it’s a several-times-a-winter experience. But if you do happen to live here, you probably don’t have internet access so you won’t be able to contradict me...

Silvia’s sister lives just by a lake near Bariloche in the Andes. Bariloche is the equivalent of a Swiss ski resort (or whatever the equivalent would be in Colorado...). Except there are almost no Europeans or N Americans - the majority of tourists are Argentinians, Brazilians, and Chileans. The economic crisis is hitting hard, although Argentina is permanently in crisis - in part due to the corruption that is endemic amongst politicians. Apparently, the President and her husband, to take one example, bought a ton of state-owned land, near Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost point of Argentina), at a much reduced price of course, which meant that they made very many times more than they had paid for it when they sold it within some very short time. Anyhow... the economic crisis means that Bariloche is not heaving with tourists as it has done in the past (when I last visited, 18 months ago). So the peace and quiet is even more peaceful and quiet than usual. Nice for us, but not so nice for the people who rely on tourism for their livelihoods.

But I have done my bit to prop up Argentina’s ailing economy, and have bought not one but two leather jackets. And a rug. And the obligatory t-shirts for my kids. You may ask what I could possibly do with two leather jackets when most people only need the one... Undeniably a good question to which there is no satisfactory answer.

Friday, 31 July 2009

this is it...

I know, I sound like a broken record... but here I am, in Argentina, and I’ve done nothing since I got here 3 days ago but work on the flippin’ journal. It’s not like I’d not been working on it before leaving for this trip; I had. But this is the peak season for submissions (of both new manuscripts and reviews of manuscripts sent out to review). So I got here with 44 papers to make editorial decisions on, and 28 manuscripts to send out to review (or to ‘triage’ if they would be more appropriately submitted to a different journal). So far I’ve managed to get through a meagre 37 of the 72 total manuscripts that require my attention (there are others too that require more minor attention, but I’m disregarding those for the sake of my sanity). Which means I still have 35 to do. So when I say, in the now immortal words of the King of Pop, that “this is it”, this IS it: Unless something changes, and Elsevier come through with the additional support I’ve requested, this most definitely IS IT. Otherwise the risk that I end up like Whacko Jacko is just too great. It’ll either kill me, or I’ll go completely whacko. Are you listening, Elsevier?

Once I’ve calmed down, I shall write a more interesting entry, including why I shall never fly Air France again, why an elasticated waistband isn’t such a bad idea, why you should never dispense soap before establishing that there is running water with which to rinse it off, and why going to Philadelphia and to Stockholm were recent highlights on my calendar. With a bit of luck, this trip to Argentina will also turn into a highlight. But for now, a pile of manuscripts beckon as dusk draws nearer in the Patagonian winter...

Sunday, 19 July 2009

editorial mortality

I have neglected this page. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, whereas only 3 weeks ago the journal queues were cleared, and whereas I have been working on the journal fairly consistently despite a trip to Philadelphia in the interim (more of which in a subsequent entry), there are roughly 50 manuscripts on the queues now that require my attention. No amount of tranquilizers will help (though I suspect that a valium or two to the authors who are getting jittery might not be a bad thing!).

Somewhat disturbingly, when talking with another editor (of another leading Experimental Psychology journal), this other editor said to me, on hearing about my workload: It will kill you. He meant it literally. I fear he is right.

Saturday, 27 June 2009


Damn! I’m meant to be somewhere else. Not here!

Saturday, 20 June 2009

the piano

Two seemingly unrelated events, one in the northern hemisphere, 38 or so years ago, the other in the southern, about 25 years ago, finally came together this weekend:

1972. Oxford, UK. When I was around 12, I saw the movie If, directed by Lindsay Anderson, and starring Malcolm McDowell. As a British schoolboy, the movie was notably poignant. But more poignant for me was the soundtrack - the Missa Luba. I asked my parents for it, and somehow, they found a copy (an LP, in fact). On the reverse side was Grieg’s Piano Concerto - the first piece of classical music I ever owned, and still to this day my favorite piece.

1984. Neuquen, Argentina. About a month ago, Silvia received an email from an Argentinian living in Germany. Emilio Peroni. He remembered her as his first piano teacher, from when he was between 7 and 10 years old (i.e. around 25 years ago). She was paying her way through University in Neuquen by teaching piano at the local music school. He had found her web page, and wanted her to know that he was now a professional concert pianist.

2009. York, UK. This weekend Emilio came to visit, and we were talking about favorite pieces, and I mentioned the Grieg piece. He sat down, and started to play it. I cannot describe what it felt like to hear someone sat at my own piano playing that... It was like I’d been waiting 38 years in anticipation of that moment, without realizing it until suddenly, unexpectedly, these two unrelated events, one in Neuquen, the other in Oxford, came together.

I write about this here so that, in the future, I perhaps find this page again, and can relive the pleasure of that moment, and the intensity of the emotion that accompanied it. And because what happened to Silvia - a student contacting her 25 years later to say “look at me - you helped make this” - is what some of us can only ever dream of. And as I sit here writing this, to the sound of her student playing for her, I feel that something extraordinary has happened.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

back for a brief stopover

For reasons that only an expert psychiatrist would be able to deduce, I’m about to leave for Stockholm having just returned from New York and Washington (DC). The flight over, to New York, was uneventful, despite flying an airline I haven’t flown in years: Continental. I used my remaining air miles with them to upgrade to Business, an experience that included, as a special treat, an in-flight cheeseburger that made me appreciate the culinary craftsmanship of McDonalds...

New York was, quite literally, legendary. We were staying with friends on Washington Square, in the exact apartment that was Will Smith’s in I Am Legend. The highlight of the trip was when a tour group stopped outside to be given a quick synopsis of the movie. I couldn’t resist, and stuck my head out the window and announced that this was indeed that apartment and that the owner would be only too happy to show everyone around.. ok, I exaggerate… I confirmed that this was that appartment, and that our host (let’s just call him “Brian” for the sake of preserving his anonymity) was also a legend. Regrettably, the entire tour group found this all too entertaining, and “Brian” is now expected to deliver an impromptu show each time they return.

Serves him right, I say. This is, after all, the same person who, seeing my roving eye on my home page, felt that my time would have been better spent doing something else. Or even doing nothing.

But in all fairness, we did discover that our legendary host had hidden a couple of rather nice jazz CDs in Silvia’s suitcase before we left. Seeing as her suitcase and mine were identical, and the only way to discriminate between them was on the basis of our respective tastes in underwear, I can only guess how he figured out whose was whose...

So anyway, I’m back, just long enough to cut the grass, outstare the ducks, feed the fish, process a few papers at the journal, grab a bite to eat, pack, and leave.

Bye, then.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

another trip...

Am off, almost. To New York, then Washington. Then back to (old) York for 4 days and then to Stockholm. Two weeks later, Philadelphia. No time even for a quick nervous breakdown. But here is my achievement of the week:

This is the state of play at the journal - I’ve cleared the queues ... the Associate Editors may still have some manuscripts on their queues, but for now, as a flight beckons, I barely care! What matters is that for the first time in about 3 years I can take a plane trip without taking with me a zillion manuscripts to make decisions on. Not that I can relax and watch the inflight movies - I have a chapter for a Handbook of Eye Movements that I need to finish.

Traveling with me will be my latest gadget (as well as various not so recent gadgets): a LaCie iamaKey USB key. Only disadvantage - unlike my other USB key that I’ve just given away to one of my kids, I’m not yet sure that this one will survive a 50 deg. 90 min. cycle in the washing machine. But I bet it would!

I’m sure there’s more I could say, but it’s a sunny 20 degs. outside, and there’s more to life than sitting here, typing this. At least, that’s what the self-help books say. Not that I’d know ... because if I had any, I’d not have the time to read them. And if I did, I’d probably simply scribble “not acceptable without major revision” on the cover and move on to the next...

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

soy sauce, sweetbreads, noodles...

Have recently returned from two conferences, each at opposite extremes of the gastronomic experience:

The first was at the University of California at Davis. Davis is just down the road from Sacramento, famous for housing the Californian governor who is, of course, not Californian. The second was at the University of Lyon, which, unsurprisingly, is in Lyon (that’s France, just in case you needed a prompt). Culinary highlights included:
  • Davis: beer, wine, margarita, martini, noodles. not unreasonable coffee.
  • Lyon: beer, wine, steak, sweetbreads (thymus gland), kidneys, bone marrow, fish, duck, paté du fois gras, steak tartar (raw beef), rubbish coffee.
The soy sauce from the title of this entry accompanied a part of my journey on a train from Oxford back to York until I spilled it on my MacBook Air. I’m happy to say it licked up a treat. But seeing as I had only recently spilled my iPhone down a toilet, I’m worried that this is becoming a habit (the spilling, not the licking... the iPhone is definitely off-limits, now).

And finally, a confession to share: a friend recently complained that my emails were resembling this blog more and more. And yes, said friend had already heard about the food, the soy sauce, and the toilet before they just this moment graced this URL. So I admit it: Today’s entry has been recycled - my small but valiant attempt to make this a greener blog.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

find of the day

I’ve just discovered The following “blog badge” shows how many miles I’ve travelled since the beginning of 2008 (it updates in real time - if you visit this page while I’m away, it will tell you where I am):

Each time I book a flight/hotel/train/etc, I just forward the confirmation email to, and it automatically creates an itinerary that I can carry with me, or email, or check for last minute changes (e.g. flight times). The really smart thing is this forwarding feature. It’s effortless - it works out for itself that anything that’s been booked within the same period is part of the same trip (and if it gets it wrong, it’s almost as effortless to correct). So each trip will show the trains, hotels, flights, etc. all conveniently filed in a single place accessible from the web, or my iPhone. It’s so very easy that I got a bit carried away and forwarded all my trips from 2008. For no good reason, really.

I did think about putting the “badge” into the sidebar on the right, so that people could see when/where my next trips are. But... (a) I’m not sufficiently organized enough to organize all my trips in advance, (b) it’s too wide, and (c) I’m not convinced it’s stylish enough for this blog.

But then neither am I.

Happy Easter.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

the good, the bad, and the ugly

The Good
  • submissions to the journal are slowing down – in the first 14 weeks of this year, we’ve received only 15% more submissions than we received in the first 14 weeks of last year. Phew. So at this more reasonable rate (after 10 weeks, we were up 30%), I anticipate around 825 submissions this year. We can do that. We can do that. We can do that (if I say it enough times, it sounds almost believable).
  • two new Associate Editors are due to join the journal later this year.
  • the ducks have laid three eggs in the garden.
  • I have never booked a flight for the wrong day, let alone for a date a whole week after I was meant to travel. Unlike some.
  • I have been working surprisingly effectively (for me), and even getting some research done, and a bit of writing.
  • my new pen.
  • my new car.
The Bad
  • I still haven’t cleared the queues on the journal - I’m about 10 days out of synch. Oddly the exact time I lost through going to a conference in the US. I’m currently down to four Associate Editors at the journal, which is why my load has been relatively higher in recent weeks.
  • The ducks didn’t actually sit on the eggs, and I now regret not swiping them instantly and cooking up a duck omelette...
  • It’s Easter, and I’m off chocolate (nothing to do with giving up something for Lent - more to do with not wanting to give up my trousers...)
  • Yeah well, I so wish that was my new car. The only thing my new car has in common with a ferrari is the color red... not that I have it yet - apparently no one is crazy enough to want the model with sufficient airbags to cushion anyone other than the driver, so mine’s a special order from the factory (somewhere in France).
The Exhausted
  • Yesterday, despite having slept almost 10 hours overnight, I was so exhausted I could barely work, and I in fact slept another 2 hours in the afternoon. My body (and mind) are telling me I need a break.
  • Equally exhausted is my bank account.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

down the pan

I don’t know whether ‘down the pan’ will mean anything to speakers of any dialect of English other than the UK one, but if it doesn’t, recounting the details of how it is that my iPhone ended up down the pan will be of little interest to any readers from across the pond. Though now that I come to think of it, the details are probably best kept out of this...

But needless to say, aforementioned iPhone survived the trip intact, clean (perhaps even cleaner than before), and fully functioning (although early on in its recovery period, the screen would flicker on and off in a mesmerizing, but strangely troubling, way).

And just in case you’re thinking ‘what kind of idiot lets their iphone tumble freefall into the sewage system?’, let me tell you that I’m not alone. Or rather, I was alone when it happened, of course, but I’m not alone in respect of having suffered this particular kind of trauma – within moments of my advertising the calamity, a friend wrote:

“Glad I'm not the only one that has happened to. The first generation ones are apparently toilet-proof”

I can hereby attest that the 3G iPhone is also toilet-proof. Or perhaps it was simply that Starbucks offer a better class of toilet...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

from nut crackers to garlic crushers

Actually, this has nothing to do with nutcrackers, except for the fact that I have today received what is to garlic crushing as my prized nut cracker is to nut cracking. I can absolutely guarantee that this garlic crusher is the bees’ knees. It is the Porsche of garlic crushers. I can further guarantee that were you to give one or other or both of the nut cracker and garlic crusher to your loved ones this coming Xmas, you would be the most popular person around the Xmas tree. Of course, you may wonder why I’m thinking about Xmas already when the last snowfall of Spring has yet to come, and the yuletide spirit has another 9 months to gestate. The answer is simple: the combined cost of these two items is sufficiently high that you need to start saving now. But you get what you pay for, right?

And let me add, the cost of the garlic crusher was as nothing compared to the intense pleasure it gave me to receive it this morning and parade it in front of various of my colleagues. And yes.... they gasped. They really did...

I know... I know... I’m going mad. Blame it on work...

Saturday, 7 March 2009


I despair. Evidently the credit crunch means that instead of going out and spending whatever little money they have, folk are sat at home writing up their data and submitting to the journal I edit. Currently, submissions are up 30% on the same 10 week period (since Jan 1st) last year (and this is not due to just one or two weeks - it’s a consistent trend as the graph shows). And traditionally these first weeks in the year are a quiet time! So I hate to think what will happen as summer approaches. Bear in mind that last year, we received 725 submissions - i.e. roughly 6 times more than we’d received in the first 10 weeks of the year. Which means that, if the same happens this year, we’ll be heading for 945 submissions by year’s end. Anyone know where I can get cheap supplies of Paxil (for the stress), Zantac (for the ulcers), and Ambien (for those sleepless nights)? Oh wait, forget the Ambien - I can take advantage of those sleepless nights and stay up working on the journal. Phew. I thought for a moment we were in trouble...

So anyone reading this who wonders why I’ve not replied to their emails, facebook pokes, or offers of money will now better understand the reasons. Of course, I should add that if I had received offers of money I most likely would have replied. So if you want a more immediate response, my PayPal account accepts all major currencies...

Sunday, 22 February 2009

It's officially spring

Well... it’s not. But it ought to be: The fish are eating, the frogs are spawning, the manure's been spread, the pheasant are back in the garden, and the owls keep me awake at night.

And snow is forecast. A sure sign of spring.

Friday, 20 February 2009

my first orgy

Ok so it wasn’t exactly an orgy. It wasn’t exactly ‘mine’ either. But it was taking place in my pond. Toads... going at it like there was no tomorrow. Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, as they were in fact completely motionless. But it was quite impossible to determine how many toads were piled up on top of one another without counting legs. I counted 5 pairs (of legs, not toads), from which I then managed to deduce three bodies in one pile, and two in another. So maybe in our world that wouldn’t count as an orgy. But in their world, I’m sure it won’t be long before the photos get posted on the World Wide Webbed internet.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

San Francisco and back

Life never stands still. Wednesday I flew to San Francisco, where I stayed for less than 48 hours before flying back and catching an early morning coach to Oxford (where my parents and one of my brothers and his family live). And now I’m on the train back to York, with Silvia and Sam (Jamie has mumps... despite having been eagerly given the MMR vaccine by his parents!)

The flight to SF was uneventful except for the fact that, as usual, the United Airlines staff were incredibly attentive and helpful. I worked non-stop for almost 8 hours, and then managed 3 episodes of Heroes (I know.... but a bit of escapism never harmed anyone). I regret whatever personality defect I have that meant that I was embarrassed to be seen to be watching movies rather than working for the remainder of the flight. I have little recollection of the flight back, thanks to industrial quantities of Ambien (Zolpidem Tartrate). I SO love the pharmaceutical industry!

The last thing I wanted to do on the trip back from Oxford was work, but I managed to read a couple of really excellent papers (one a draft of a paper that I did not write but which I’m an author on, having been involved in the research, and the other a recently published paper by someone I’m hoping to collaborate with on some neuroimaging work). And reading these (especially the one I had nothing to do with) got me really excited again. So life isn’t too bad. I just wish I hadn’t received, last week, a quotation for a piece of equipment that would, if I bought it, cost almost £13,000... That’s £13,000 more than I had budgeted for! So I’m not sure what I’ll do about that, as I REALLY want that piece of kit. But the chances of persuading the manufacturers to drop their asking price by £5K is negligible.

So, with the jetlag receding (I did feel it badly this weekend), a new week awaits. Yum.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Mars Attacks!

Ok, so not Mars... but a flippin’ (and flappin’) Heron:
The pond in fact had about an inch of ice on it, which was thawing (there was water on top of the ice because of the thaw), so the Heron is in fact stood on the ice. The photo was taken with my Casio Exilim 7.2M pixels at 3x zoom from my bedroom window which is about 30 metres away, and was then blown up in iPhoto. I wish I could’ve blown up the Heron, because not content to be chased off, the assassin (yes, he did kill at least one fish on a previous fishing expedition) returned a few days after the thaw:
Here it is again, a little further away (but there was more light, hence less grainy) up a tree that overlooks the pond. I do admit to being torn, as they are quite beautiful. But I swear that if it eats one more fish, I’ll take countermeasures... Searching on Yahoo Answers reveals a range of options, including adding garlic to the pond, getting a large dog, or my favorite: “shoot the bastard”.

new archives!

I can’t take credit for the amazing tidy-up that has just occurred. The pulldown menu on the right is due to Mike Robinson, a contributor to the RapidWeaver forums.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

my first time ever...

As a child, I was hopeless at anything requiring physical activity - I couldn’t climb the rope, jump the vaulting box, or clear the hurdles. Inevitably, in any team sport that required two of my schoolmates to choose their teams, I was chosen last. Nice. So imagine my delight when, for an impromptu karate contest in my club earlier this week, I was chosen first!

Other highlights:
  • fantastic new postdoc in the lab, likely to revolutionize our eye-tracking facility
  • fantastic page proofs for my most recent paper (I’m being ironic, or is it sarcastic? - the wrong figures were typeset, and even if they’d been the right ones, they were in the wrong place - but the words were all in the right place, and seeing as I wrote them, I can attest to just how fantastic they are)
  • fantastic progress on the journal front (I’m being neither ironic nor sarcastic - just untruthful)
  • fantastic progress on all other fronts (if turning up 10 minutes late to a committee I chair counts as fantastic)
  • fantastic over-use of the word ‘fantastic’.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

it's not fair...

...that I feel guilty at only having dealt with 35 manuscripts in the past 5 days – which involved working on the journal today (Sunday) and yesterday, as well as each of the previous 3 days. I also wrote a couple of NIH reviews, ordered a ton of groceries (online), fantasized about buying a new coffee machine for my office, and a new multi-function printer for home. I did neither of the last two things. Am now thinking it’s about time I could stream music from my laptop to my home hifi. Easy in principle except that I tend to work in the kitchen and the hifi there doesn’t have aux input. Unlike folk I know who spend thousands of dollars on amps, speakers, and Sonos controllers, I’m more inclined to go for a low-tech solution - streaming music from iTunes via my wireless network. But that’s for another day, or more likely, another life, in which time does not slip away like water through a sieve. Hmm. I need to buy a sieve also...

Saturday, 10 January 2009

the nutcracker suite

An assorted list of Xmas highlights and New Year realizations and resolutions:
  • My new watch (there’s a photo in last month’s post), branded by some as ‘pretentious’... I don’t understand why it is pretentious to have a watch with just one hand – surely having an additional hand is pretentious when one hand is just as good?
  • My new nutcracker. The nutcracker I am in fact referring to is not the one I received this year as an xmas present, which just happened to be the world’s worst nutcracker. In fact, words cannot express just how bad it is. So after a bit of research, I discovered this one, which I promptly bought. And believe me when I say it is the bee’s knees. You can buy it on Amazon, though I in fact bought it here (just in case you want to get it cheaper). I have thus far tried it on hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts. Jamie’s addicted to it, and won’t put the thing down. This is the ultimate nutcracker - be very confident that I am likely to recommend all sorts of things to all sorts of people in the course of my life, but none will be as good a recommendation as this one.
  • Jamie’s remote control car that really does drive up walls and across ceilings (the link takes you to a video). I thought it would be total junk, but I was wrong, and it would certainly be high on my list of recommendations (though not as useful as the nutcracker nor as smart as my minimalist and unpretentious watch).
  • Clearing the queues at the journal just in time to have them fill up again as everyone submitted manuscripts or reviews in advance of the Great January Hangover.
  • Spending Jan 1st compiling all sorts of statistics about the journal: 725 submissions in 2008; 35% rejected without sending out to review; an overall 81% rejection rate; 2267 requests to review sent to 1439 reviewers, with 65% of these requests resulting in an actual review.
  • The sudden realization as New Year celebrations reverberated around the pages of Facebook that it (Facebook) is not all it’s cracked up to be: Sure, you get an immediate sense of a whole bunch of people doing a whole lot of stuff, but it’s a whole lot of stuff which you’re not a part of. Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
  • My New Year’s resolution to be the first to start up a Psycholinguistics Research Laboratory on Second Life. Perhaps others will follow suit, and then I can start up and edit the first Second Life Virtual International Journal of Cognitive Science (aka ‘Cognition’ in our first life). How cool would that be? I reckon almost as cool, but not quite, as my one-handed watch which, through freeing my other hand, gives me plenty of opportunity to crack my nuts deploy that nutcracker...

Thursday, 8 January 2009

putting the eye in psycholinguistics

Don’t even ask how long it took me to figure out how to create this, let alone embed it on this page. In case you’re curious (in which case you’re too nerdy for your own good), it started life as a photograph of an iris around which the 3D eye was created in Maya by Andreas Argirakis. This was rendered for me as an HD movie, which I then embedded in a background, saved as a movie, and then converted to Flash. You’d think I’d have better things to do with my time...

A quick summary of my Xmas excesses will follow shortly. In the meantime, Happy 2009...

[update] Some folk have wondered what the eye is doing in place of the ‘y’ when it should, according to them, be in place of the ‘o’. So just to spell it out: