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ZooConPort

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I still owed you the pictures of the Zooniverse Conference in Portsmouth last month! So here they are. It was another great weekend, as expected. And before I left, I felt I very much could use one of those, to be honest. Besides the good science we discussed, it is also always nice to see everybody again, although this seemed a smaller group than we had in Oxford a few weeks ago.
 

Anyway, you can see some of the science discussion in this video below, which we livestreamed at the event too. The Zooniverse’ community manager, Grant Miller, tells us how the Zooniverse is expanding very much like the Universe itself. In fact, there are so many good ideas for new Zoo projects that they don’t have time to build them all. To deal with this demand, the next step will be to let people develop their own projects. This is of course very new and exciting! Other news included how we’re going to teach computers the difference between a penguin and a rock, we’re going to analyse data from the Kepler Mission phase 2 at the same time as the scientists at NASA and a new pure physics project is coming up, using data from the Large Hadron Collider.
 

Besides this official part, we were invited to participate in a Wikimedia session. After an excellent explanation from Michael Peel, the idea was to improve Wikipedia articles related to the Zoo. And while we were doing this, we ourselves were subjects of a study done by the people of the Volcrowe project. Apparently, our motives as volunteers to participate are very interesting to economists too. So we were also interviewed about why we still classify. Personally, even if I leave the Voorwerp out of it, I’m still here because I’m still helping scientific research. Which was the reason to sign up in the first place (that and the pictures looked amazing). But I also find that the social side of it is very important to me too.
 

And on that note we went to the pub. I gave Julianne a (late) birthday present, I learned something new from Chris (that there is such a thing as banana bread beer) and I enjoyed the view of Portsmouth. How wonderful it was to be back here after all those years. Portsmouth definitely still has a special place in my heart. I travelled back with Geoff to London though and the next day we had lunch in the Union. We took the DLR (zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a, my oh my, what a wonderful day) and we went for a walk (under the Thames), before I had to take the train back. Besides all of this, you can see Grant trying to make a wineglass sing in the pictures on my flickr account. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of the huge beetle I found in the bedroom, which I thought gave a whole new meaning to ‘bedbugs’. It was an interesting weekend.
 

Thanks to everyone who has made this weekend possible, to everyone who has participated in the fun, and a special thanks to Zookeeper Karen Masters for hosting the event.
 

TEDxGhent – videos online!

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A couple of weeks ago, I did a TEDx talk and I wrote about that experience, showing pictures of the event, here on my blog. A couple of days ago, the videos appeared online. Looking back at my talk, the perfectionist in me thinks I could’ve done this a lot better, but as I said in the interview (also shown below) I addressed everything they wanted me to and from the replies I got afterwards I gathered the Zoo should have some more Zooites. So I’ll let you see and decide for yourself. It was great fun to be part of this in any case.
 
 

My Ice Bucket Challenge

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If you’ve spent any time on the net this summer, I’m sure you’re aware of the Ice Bucket Challenge trend. You might even be one of those who are annoyed by it. Well, here’s mine.
 

As I explain in my video below, I found out about it first through Anthony Carbajal – you can see his video below mine. Like many others worldwide, Anthony has ALS and his video went viral with the message ‘if you just watch one challenge, make it this one’. It indeed inspired me to participate.
 

I didn’t dive in unprepared; I read about the disease and the challenge first and I think this is a great idea to raise awareness and money. In between uploading my video and writing this, I have made a donation and you can do so too at: alsa.org.
 

Apparently, those who criticise the challenge are worried about their favourite charity and even about the water we have wasted by throwing it on our heads. As for the first argument, I can tell you that I support other charities too and as for the second: I’m skipping my shower today, so there.
 

I also mention in my video that so far I’ve only seen one of my friends (Brian May) doing the challenge (while I was still waiting for my ice cubes to freeze) and with this I’m sharing his video below too. I hope many of you reading this will follow our example and I hope a cure will be found soon.
 

Schier 2014

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You can see a selection of our pictures from this weekend on my Flickr account.
 

Ever since I’d set foot on the island Schiermonnikoog (which for abbreviation and as a pet name I call ‘Schier’) I knew I’d be back some day. I hadn’t expected I’d be taking the boyfriend though and neither had he, as it was a birthday surprise. (I’m such an awesome girlfriend you see). Well he knew I had planned something this weekend but he figured “anything’s possible with me”. I had thought he would’ve guessed it sooner though. Sooner than five minutes before we got on the boat and only because a road sign had given it away. Although to be fair, it had been one of the first options he had thought of when guessing a few weeks back.
 

I knew he would really enjoy it. We both love spending time in nature and he had mentioned before that he had never been to any of the Wadden Islands. I have only been to Schier, which is known for its serenity and different landscapes: mudflats, the tidal marsh, the polder, de Westerplas, the village, the forest, the dunes and the North Sea beach. We already had a lovely view from the boat, which takes about 45 minutes to cross at a speed of 22km per hour. Tourists have to leave their cars behind, so I had to be specific about what (not) to pack. On the crossing we met a lovely couple, whom we would bump into only once (not times a lantern in July) later.
 

We could’ve taken the (electric!) bus, but I had arranged bikes for the weekend. This is really the best way of getting around on the island. Another thing I love about the island: it has the perfect size. It’s even hard for me to get lost here. We had brought lunch to have a picnic near the Westerplas, which is one of the few places with fresh water and I discovered I still know a lot from what I had learned during my last visit, which had been a study trip. Steven liked the biology lessons and he liked the hotel near the beach too. When we had settled in, we decided we should make the most of the sunshine and go for a swim straight away. The waves were huge.
 

Then we had a look around the village, where I stood in the jaw of a 30m long blue whale! After taking some photos, we went for (a lovely veggie) pizza in a restaurant which is also a souvenir shop. Here we met Ollie, a cute little dog who had escaped from his garden. Of course, there was also another seagull, which – like the island itself – lives off tourists. This one gave me a feather in exchange though. In the evening we went back to the beach for a walk and we saw how the locals have fun with their kites. We also noticed bushes of samphire, which you can only buy in the supermarket at home.
 

The salty wind had a nice effect on my hair and while we had a short break at the hotel to freshen up, we watched a quiz on TV. I was too tired to go back (and that is really very tired), but Steven had managed to see the Milky Way! If it wasn’t for the lighthouse, this would probably be the darkest place in the Netherlands. The next day we would take a closer look at it, but we cycled to the mudflats first. We cycled alongside the cows, over little bridges, all the way to the beacon Kobbeduin. I had only seen this from a distance on my last trip. We also saw a halo around the Sun; always looking up, you know.
 

We had bought some bits for lunch at the only supermarket on the island and shared it with another seagull at a picnic place between the hotel and the beach. Then we went on to the visitor centre, where they had a great exhibition on the different types of land. We also walked past the white water tower and the red lighthouse, before it was time for dinner again, which we had back at the hotel. The owners are great by the way; very friendly. And there was an amusing group of spiritual people at the table next to ours. We didn’t stay long though, as there was more to see: the WWII bunker Wassermann and rays of sand running over the empty beach.
 

We had had one more drink that last evening on the island, but the trip wasn’t over yet. In fact, I had planned another surprise on the Sunday morning, which also had really been a surprise: a professional massage. When I had booked this, I hadn’t realised how much we, or actually Steven, would need it after all the cycling. We did some more of it that afternoon though, through the forest, and even though I can honestly say we had another weekend of great weather, we were then surprised by an amazing amount of rain. The lovely guy at the shell museum didn’t mind we were all wet though and he went on to tell us about his treasures.
 

We also heard him telling a little boy how the oldest ocean quahog ever found was 507 years. Impressed the boy asked of that was more than a hundred. The professional beachcomber also had a piece of a human skull from around 1500 and apparently, he frequently finds recent human remains too, which he then sends to the police for identification. We bought a couple of souvenirs and went back to the hotel one more time to dry off a bit with hot chocolate and a few board games. On our way back we went for fish and chips before we had to catch the last boat, “all the way back”.
 

It’s not actually far away, but we did almost miss it anyway, because we were enjoying the view. We agreed we would soon come back and properly spend a day on the mudflats. We also want to take that trip to the Balg next time, where you can see seals. And cycle some more through the dunes, because that’s really the best way to spend a day. Exhausted in a good way, we concluded on the boat back that soon we would be back on our very big island (the one we tend to call a continent). And with that, I’m afraid the summer break is almost over, while I’m not quite sure I’m ready for the new year. I’ll have to be soon though. And I have a great summer to look back to in any case.
 

The meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything?

Although I have claimed before I already have the answer to this question (and it’s not 42), I recently ended up in a conversation with my partner about religion and I said to him: “The next time someone rings my doorbell to talk about their God, I will let them in and have a chat with them”. I don’t know why to be honest; chances of either of us changing the other’s view would be slim, but I guess the persistence of a non-explainable faith (of which I wish it would evolve quicker) fascinates me. The next day my doorbell rang, while I didn’t expect anybody.
 

Sure as hell, it was actually a Jehovah’s Witness who wanted to talk to me about God. (Don’t you love those beautiful coincidences life gives us often?) It was this morning; a Monday morning in my summer break. So why not? I had time and even though I wasn’t properly dressed yet, I was decent enough to answer the door. A guy in his late fifties walked up the stairs (a bit surprised?) with a bag full of leaflets, of which he handed me one. I figured it would be fair to let him know what he was dealing with right away, but he said my atheistic views wouldn’t bother him.
 

I agreed we could still have a chat, respecting each other as a person and he continued to show me a video on his iPad which made it clear God is not to blame for all the agony in the world: the devil is. I’m still not sure why this guy rang my doorbell, as his only answer to that was God had told him to do so, but I took the chance to ask him some more questions. When he said the devil controls me like a marionette, for instance, I asked if it isn’t far better I’m taking responsibility for my own mistakes, rather than passing the blame to a mythical creature. He agreed to that part saying he does feel guilt.
 

I helped him out using the “free will” card, but I still think it’s better to use your own moral compass, instead of acting out of fear of punishment. I do think they got that “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” part in the Bible right. I have actually read a lot of it. He interrupted me though, promoting his God as the God of love. So I asked him why He doesn’t love his homosexual children. I mean, I know we’re supposed to read the Bible being aware of the time it was written in and very few people actually think you should still murder a man who “lies with a male as with a woman”, but it’s still clear on the abomination part.
 

The man at my doorstep, who had refused to come in because he was on his own (fair enough, very sensible), explained to me that love between same-sex couples is not forbidden; sex is, as it’s not “natural”. Obviously I’m convinced nobody should judge anybody’s lifestyle like that, but as a biology teacher I thought I’d go with the “natural” argument, teaching him about homosexuality amongst many different species. He ignored my argument and went on to say I must think, when I look at the human eye or a butterfly’s wings, that they have to be created by a higher power?
 

And that’s when I asked him why he prefers taking God as an answer, instead of enjoying the quest for answers which can be tested and proven and criticised by peer review; the journey to learn new things, to develop and become better. Why would you choose to stand still when a scientific view can lead to understanding of this beautiful, complex universe we live in? I’m still guessing the answer is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of death, but he again didn’t answer. He used my science argument to say the Bible is based on facts, to which I explained the definition of ‘believing’ to him.
 

To which we agreed to disagree. Both none the wiser, as expected. Except that I was reminded of how much I appreciate my parent’s decision of not forcing their beliefs upon me (mum’s ietsism nor dad’s Christian beliefs). I’m happy I realise how lucky I am to have had the chances I did in life, without thinking they were fate. It’s good to know my hard work makes a difference, rather than thinking I can’t influence a predestination. And it is nice to be aware of the fact that this is the only life I’ve got, so I’d better make the most of it.
 

I do consider every day precious and although as a biology teacher I’d say the answer to the meaning of life would be 1) to survive and 2) to reproduce, I think the answer is to enjoy. And God, do I enjoy life. They didn’t have to tell me in school that I would look back one day thinking ‘those were the days of my life’, I think this pretty much every day. Even on rainy days. I appreciate little things and I value people I meet. High on life, I realise I may sound like a hippie, but I thought I’d put my thought process of this morning in writing. Saves me going door to door. Have a nice day!

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