New Marvels, New Lenses: A Podcast

What can relatively young disciplines like information science and the allied health professions tell us about society and pop culture?

This weekend I hosted a podcast featuring scientist-turned-literary-editor Yen-Rong Wong, librarian Rachel Merrick, and occupational therapist Amelia DiTommaso, all based in Brisbane, Australia.

On the eve of a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, these three creative professionals got together to explore Marvel’s superhero movies through new lenses informed by their expertise and experience.

Focusing on Doctor Strange (2016), the discussion embraced magic, mystery, science, history, identity, culture, politics, heroism, and lots of laughter.

From the history of Australian censorship to the dark side of healthcare, challenges in identity and representation, plus the arcane mysteries of  “readers’ advisory”, listen now for a mind-expanding journey.

Cheese, Drugs, and Moonshots: A Science March special for @kylastephan

Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.

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There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.

In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.

So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.

What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?

My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.

I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).

He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.

Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.

An example:

A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?

The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =

After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.

Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.

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This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.

What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?

Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.

Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.

Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.

We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.

But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?

Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?

If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.

What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.

Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?

I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.

I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.

Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.

He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.

How cool is that? Read more

Happy Holidays

Hard even to know what to say about a year like 2016. So much upset and upheaval in the world, but I’m still hopeful for the shape of things to come.

It’s been hectic, but productively so, for us here at the State Library of Queensland. I worked with teams on public projects like Human Library and the Scrub Turkey sessions, adding oral histories from TV chef Bernard King and Doctor Who‘s Janet Fielding to our digital collections, and encouraging digital experiments like the State Library’s remixable comic maker and Ozofarm game.

I also got to partner with a number of outside organisations, including healthcare agencies and allied health professionals across Queensland, from Metro South Health Board to the occupational therapy students of Griffith University. A long-held desire to explore the difficult field of ‘death literacy’ came to fruition with a panel discussion for Brisbane’s inaugural ‘Deathfest’ last month.

I also got to work with the Brisbane Writers Festival and various other events across Australia on devising alternatives to the usual conference formats of panels and presentations.

There was even time to interview some personal heroes like the Kransky Sisters, Matti Bunzl of the Vienna Museum, and the makers of Danger 5. This was part of exploring a different corner of Queensland life every week at Marvellous, Electrical, a project that will return in 2017.

Until then, have a good break.

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Becoming death literate – panel discussion

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After Brisbane’s first Deathfest – a microfestival which explores, challenges, and celebrates our understanding of death, dying, and bereavement – I’m pleased to share a panel discussion which addressed grief, death, and end-of-life care in modern-day Queensland.

Joining me were Fiona Hawthorne, general manager at Hummingbird House, Queensland’s first children’s hospice; Ian Mellor, who manages body bequests for Queensland University of Technology; and Dr Sarah Winch, healthcare ethicist at the University of Queensland and author of Best Death Possible.

In an age when literacy has come to mean so many things – always with a sense of empowering people to read or make sense of some new terrain, topic, or experience – what would it mean for us to become truly “death literate”?

You can listen to the panel discussion now by clicking on this link or visit the State Library website.

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For more on healthcare and wellbeing work during my 2016 Queensland residency, read  “On Health and Wellbeing” and “Giant Robots Need Therapy Too“.

For more on Deathfest, visit the Metro Arts website.

Marvellous, Electrical: Play Both

“I want to see technology used for good, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities for destruction!”

Joel Edmondson, CEO of Queensland’s QMusic network talks digital technology, music beyond entertainment, mysterious orchestras in the middle of the ocean, and the “nefarious, sulphuric beginning of life” in this week’s Marvellous, Electrical.

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Read “Play Both” here.

Brisbane Deathfest 2016

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This weekend sees the launch of Deathfest, Brisbane’s week long microfestival which explores, challenges, and celebrates our understanding of death, dying, and bereavement.

I sat down for a special panel discussion with three guests to discuss grief, death, and end-of-life care in modern-day Queensland.

Joining me were Fiona Hawthorne, general manager at Hummingbird House, Queensland’s first children’s hospice; Ian Mellor, who manages body bequests for Queensland University of Technology; and Dr Sarah Winch, healthcare ethicist at the University of Queensland and author of Best Death Possible.

We talked about green burials, rituals of death in the 21st century, and the largely hidden processes, procedures, and institutions which deal with death in our society.

In an age when literacy has come to mean so many things – always with a sense of empowering people to read or make sense of some new terrain, topic, or experience – what would it mean for us to become truly “death literate”?

Our discussion will be online soon.

For more on healthcare and wellbeing work during my 2016 Queensland residency, read  “On Health and Wellbeing” and “Giant Robots Need Therapy Too“.

Losing control in digital space: Liberact 2016

Last month I spoke at the Liberact conference of digital interactive experiences.

My paper was ‘Play, Chance, and Comics: Losing Control In Digital Space’.

Annotated whiteboard at a Brisbane gym

We explored comics, creativity…and what digital designers could learn from the noticeboard at a gym.

You can see an annotated PDF download of my presentation here.

Marvellous, Electrical: Future Sea Punks

This week’s Marvellous, Electrical explores the Brisbane suburb of West End and its annual Kurilpa Derby, street art, social justice, censorship, and the ways communities get inside your head – for good and ill.

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Read Marvellous, Electrical: Future Sea Punks here.