Brain Reel #28

Coronavirus crooks | Join my street team! | Running: be fast or first?

Hey gang,

What a strange world we’re living in right now, eh?

I’ve been struggling to write over the last few weeks, for various reasons beyond, you know, the global pandemic, but I’ve been missing writing my wee newsletter.

So in an effort to get back on track and get the words flowing once more, I’m currently doing an online writing retreat with Urban Writers’ Retreat (it’s free and on again tomorrow, get involved!) and one of the things I told all the folk on the very active accountability Facebook group is that I’d write my newsletter today – so here goes…


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

What is there to talk about beyond Covid-19 in the science section my pals? I must admit, it’s quite a strange time to be a science writer – I’m struck by a feeling of duty to write about the virus, but I’m not an epidemiology or virus expert, and public health isn’t usually my beat, so I’m also struck with a sense of ‘how on Earth do we navigate all this information?!’ much like most people.

One thing I do keep an eye on though is the world of science startups, and the process of taking what’s in the lab out into the market. It means I receive a lot of press releases from small businesses in the biotech sector. One caught my eye the other day – a startup which analyses your DNA, much like 23andme, offering a Covid-19 test for about £120 (and proudly releasing that info to journalists to hopefully help market it for them). You order one, it’s delivered to your door, you do the test at home, post back, and get your results online after a few days.

I couldn’t work out if this was blatant conning of the wealthy – offering a test that wasn’t accepted as good enough by Public Health England to be offered by the NHS – or blatant proof that we do have capacity and capability for more testing, and that which is safely done at home, but private companies are taking up space in the analysis labs. Turns out it’s a bit of both.

A few days later, I saw this awesome – if slightly depressing – piece in the New York Times about the British businesses making a dime off Covid-19 testing.

I guess one thing we can all do is keep an eye on who is doing what over the next few months, and adjust our actions, spending and votes accordingly. The pandemic will eventually start to ease – we must ensure a better, fairer world comes out the other side.


📖 Book Reel 📖

So my very first book, Smoke & Mirrors, comes out in less than 4 weeks! April 23rd 2020 doesn’t feel so far away any more…

It was an exciting day yesterday as I received my very first author copies! Pretty emotional seeing it in print, to say the least…

Image may contain: Gemma Milne, standing and indoor

Of course, I’m pretty gutted about all the events I had booked around the launch being cancelled but I’m still extremely excited to get my words out into the world (and y’know bigger things and all that).

I’ll be gathering as many online events and podcasts and livestreams into a ‘digital book tour’ of sorts, starting with the few I have down at the bottom of this newsletter!

I’ve had a lot of lovely people ask how they can help get ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ out into the world, so I’ve decided to create what the cool kids in the book industry call a ‘street team’.

It’s essentially a group of lovely kind folk who want to help boost the book when it comes out – whether that’s a simple sharing of a tweet or a LinkedIn post on launch day, or reviewing the book on Goodreads or Amazon, or connecting me up with your pals with podcasts, YouTube channels or another kind of audience who might like the book, or seeing if your company fancies doing an (online) event with me around its themes. As Tesco has reminded us for years, every little helps!

I’ve created a wee Typeform (only 8 questions!) which I’d be so grateful if you could fill in if you fancy giving Smoke & Mirrors a wee helping hand, and over the next few weeks, I’ll share some sample social posts and a few other bits and bobs to make it easy to give Smoke & Mirrors a wee boost - I know you’re all super busy!

Join the Street Team!

Pre-order links for ‘SMOKE & MIRRORS: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, released April 23rd 2020: Amazon / Foyles / Waterstones / Blackwells / Wordery / Book Depository

Or if you prefer a big fancy green button:

Pre-order and feel great about life!


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

I watched this interesting Wall Street Journal video about the Nike Vaporfly controversy. It’s a great wee video so I recommend giving it a whirl, but in short, Nike created this trainer which might be giving those who wear it an unfair advantage, due to the dimensions and material of the sole (seemingly it’s like running on a cloud!)

The video introduced to me the idea of 'mechanical doping' - doping not with drugs, but with the equipment you use in the sport; in this case, the shoes you run in.

It brought up an interesting question around what competitive running is about: is it about getting the fastest times possible, or about competition between athletes? It is about being fast, or is it about being first?

If competitive running is about pushing our human bodies to their extremes to get the fastest time, then you could argue that the shoes are fine provided everyone can wear them - which, of course, they can. It’s the argument some make for allowing drug doping in sport: that it would be interesting to see how far and how fast we can go if everyone was put on steroids - they’d all be starting from the ‘same place’. (It sounds eerily similar to those who advocate for brain-computer interfaces, might I add..)

But then where do we stop with adding in other mechanical or chemical advantages? Are we just getting closer to putting athletes in cars and having them drive to the finish line? Where’s the fun in that?

We then start opening questions up about what is the maximum 'help' that athletes should be allowed if we really want to work out what counts as a 'best time' ever. I mean, athletes are really only competing with other athletes alive right now anyway - versus competitions in the past, we know more about nutrition, the tracks are better maintained, the coaching is getting better every year…heck we could start talking about wealthier athletes having access to more expertise so should there be a limit in how much can be spent each year on coaching?

Of course, running can be about competing with yourself, and the fastest times to beat, and it can also be about being the best on the day. So the other side of the coin is: ‘well what about strategy?’ - i.e. surely running isn’t just about being super fast, but by running intelligently: getting to the finish line first, the hare and the tortoise have taught us, isn’t just about speed. It shouldn’t be about the shoes you wear but how well you train and how cleverly you compete. But then, what else do we remove as ‘advantages’ to get it down to ensuring everyone is competing on strategy alone, fairly on the day?

Sport - much like many facets of life - can never truly be fair. But this wee example shows that sometimes it’s less about the technicalities of the advantage and more about the ultimate goal those involved consider most important. Maybe when we see things as unfair and can’t work out why others don’t, it’s because we’re only looking at them through the lens of our own goals - and maybe the way to fix things, or make them fairer through our own eyes, is to find ways to reorient the target for those with a different vantage point.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

I’m currently reading a few books and, so far, they are all incredible:

If you’re looking for an anchor to mark each day right now – I was feeling very out at sea as I’m into my fourth week at home now (started early due to being ill) – I highly recommend finding a movie series and watching a segment each night, one after the other. We’ve done the 8 Harry Potter movies twice now (16 days of glory!); pure escapism, something to mark the end of our workday each night, and gives a sense of progress. A wee thing, but something I’ve been finding very helpful.

This little Vox video on how they colourise old photos was fascinating.


📚 (Digital) Book Tour! 📚

23rd April: Ctrl Alt Delete Podcast with Emma Gannon (pre-recorded)

29th April: FUTURES podcast (live) - get tickets HERE

(Will keep adding to this over time… have lots still to announce but waiting on dates for a few things to be confirmed!)


Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, has her very first book (about hype and idealism in science and tech) coming out April 23rd 2020, is co-host of the Science: Disrupt podcast, and loves a bit of public speaking.