Friday, 29 July 2016

Debs 2016

Yo! I had my Debs ball the night before last, and after sleeping from 8 am to 4 pm the day after, I think I'm ready to describe it now.

Overall, the Debs was a good experience. I brought my best friend Chloe from CTYI, got to hang out with a lot of school people for probably the last time, and won an Oscar as a result of being voted "Most Likely to Become a Billionaire" out of the 200 in my year (very emotional!). The décor was also great - really went all-out with the Oscars theme.  On the other hand, the music was absolutely awful, and since Chloe and I don't drink we were acutely aware of it the whole time. Seriously - would it have killed the DJ to play some decent songs? Teenage Dirtbag? Stacy's Mom? Anything nostalgic? He played Mr. Brightside, but that was about it - the rest was mostly techno, and I swear to god he played the same five songs about four times each. 

Moya did my makeup (pretty well too, thanks sis) and took the photos - which I like because they're fun.

The nightclub was strange. Firstly, it was decorated as if it were a dystopian warehouse for some reason - scrawled on the way outside was "CAN'T TALK - THEY'RE COMING" and various walls said "LOADING" + a number. There were scribbles and bloody images all over the walls, plus bright yellow emergency strips and just a lot of general conflict stuff. The dystopia's theme was Industry, and I kept seeing signs saying something like "The most important thing is INDUSTRY". Weird. Secondly, the signs on the bathroom doors were ridiculously sexist for no apparent reason - the men's said "MEN AT WORK" while the women's said "GIRLS AT PLAY". This is awful for two reasons; it implies that men do the important work while women just faff around looking pretty, and it said girls instead of women, again trivialising women. 

The meal was very good, even though I got a lecture on vegetarianism in the middle of it from Chloe (in fairness I did ask), which destroyed my appetite to eat the ham. I loved the soup and the main course was grand but wow, the dessert was incredibly tiny. We were all very full though, so it made sense. 

After the meal, they held the awards. They announced the winners of around 7 awards that had been voted on by the whole year. The first one was Most Likely to Become a Billionaire and I 100% did not expect to win anything because I never do well in popular votes, but my name was called out! I was thrilled and everyone was lovely about it afterwards too and cheered. The Oscar I got is great too - so heavy and shiny it feels almost like the real thing ;) The awards for Biggest Hun and Most Attractive Brother went to the people I voted for too, which was cool. 

I was prepared this time and brought runners, which I put on to replace my high heels right before we went down to dance. I'm so glad I brought runners - didn't want a repeat of Ciarán's Debs. We were delighted to discover that water was free so we could just drink that all night. 

So yeah, it was great to see everyone and to partay. The night seemed to go really fast and it was strange (and disappointing, because the music had all been terrible) when we heard the last call for breakfast and then got on the bus. After that, we walked in the rain in our dresses for a bit until Dad collected us... and then the sleeping for 8 hours in the middle of the day happened. 

So yes - my debut has occurred. <em> Hello, world. </em>

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Review: A Brief History of Time

Hi all! I’ve just finished A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, which I started back in April or May but put down by about page 20 because I just couldn’t get through it at the time. But I started reading it again a few days ago and have at last managed to finish it.

In short, it covers an enormous range of important topics in cosmology and quantum physics in only two hundred pages, and thus it is not by any means an easy read. Some topics it covers include redshift, the cosmic microwave background, Friedmann models of the universe, Penrose & Hawking Big Bang proof, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Pauli’s exclusion principle, the six flavours and three colours of quarks, the concept of spin, antiparticles, photons and other virtual particles, Z and W bosons, The Higgs particle, the relationship between mass of a particle and range of a force, quark confinement, the effect of high energies on the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces, grand unification energy, CPT symmetry, light cones, and, surprisingly, the Catholic church and its follies in physics.

So … a lot, basically.

The book has some major cons: being a very heavy read, being out of date (published in 1988 originally), and being incredibly bloody frustrating. Now, the frustration comes not from any flaw in the writing, but in Hawking’s information on the latest theories in physics (well, in 1988) which unfortunately were not at all to my taste. Heisenberg uncertainty and the finite speed of light and wave-particle duality and the idea of force-carrying particles all deeply annoy me, even though they’re well-established. I miss the times when physics wasn’t completely counter-intuitive.

Presumably I’ll get more used to these ideas once I’m studying Physics in college this September, but in a way I suppose my scepticism is good, because it lets me look at the evidence from scratch(ish) and come to conclusions rather than just being brought up with the idea of string theory etc. It means I’m more likely to have fresh perspectives on it (and also more likely to find out that, oops, someone already thought of that thirty years ago).

Hawking was quite witty throughout the book, and I especially liked his account of a conference held in the Vatican for the world’s leading cosmologists, in which the Pope told the cosmologists that it was alright to study what happened after the Big Bang, but that they shouldn’t meddle in understanding the Big Bang itself because that was God’s work. You’d think the Catholic Church would have learned with Galileo not to mess with physics, but clearly not.

I also enjoyed the deeper level of understanding the book gave me of a ton of concepts mentioned briefly in Leaving Cert Chemistry – an explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for example. In LC Chem, we learned “The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to determine at the same time the exact position and velocity of an electron”, but in A Brief History of Time Hawking explains that the more precisely you know the position, the less precisely you know the velocity, because you have to use a quantum of light to “see” the position and that disturbs the electron, changing its velocity.

The death of scientific determinism saddens me, even though it happened a hundred years ago. Einstein clearly felt similarly, with “God does not play dice” – it’s so disappointing to spend thousands of years slowly understanding the world and then hit up against this insurmountable physical barrier, that doesn’t care how smart you are or how good your instrument is. I’m very frustrated by the idea that there are some things you just can’t know, and honestly I haven’t yet accepted it (or particle-wave duality).

Another thing that frustrates me is how Physics in some ways seems to be doing the annoying that biology does, which is just classifying things. Dear Physics: please keep answering the ‘why’s. I didn’t know I’d grow up and want to be a physicist, but I did know I spent most of my waking hours playing the why game, and I don’t want that to stop.

Also: UNIFYING FORCES. I enjoyed reading about the grand unification energy, which would be a high energy at which the strength of the strong nuclear, weak nuclear and electromagnetic forces is the same, because the strong force is weaker at high energies while the weak and electromagnetic forces are stronger. But yes, hopefully gravity can get in on the game.

I’m still waiting for the theory of everything, and by waiting I mean starting out on my journey of learning physics properly so I can contribute and understand the universe. I hope this grand theory is discovered in my lifetime, and that I can have a part in it.

Final thoughts: space. It’s cool.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Pros and Cons of Starting Young

By "starting young", I mean people who practise adult professions as children or teenagers, i.e. prodigies, and also people like me, who started doing work in their chosen field(s) at a young(ish) age. (Much as I wanted to be a prodigy as a kid, the only things I was close in were reading - which isn't a very marketable skill - and the mechanics of writing). Essentially, kids and teenagers doing things kids and teenagers are not typically known for doing.

As with most things, there are upsides and downsides to starting young. Here are the ones I could think of, from my experience.

Pro #1: Lots of Awards

This is one very obvious benefit - there are so many competitions designed specifically for under-18s or other young age groups, and they're pretty big deals - international science fairs, for example, come with prizes like $50,000 or $75,000 for the winners. If you're a young person with talent and/or work ethic, there are bound to be tons of competitions for you to enter, from school-level to international-level. With adults, the competitions are a lot rarer, harder to access and of an extremely high standard. That's not to say competitions for young people aren't difficult, but since there are a lot more of them, there are going to be some that are pretty easy. 

Almost all of my awards are based in part on my age - they're not going to give a forty-year-old "NI Young Scientist of the Year", or call them a "Global Youth Leader in Nanotechnology".

Con #1: Condescension

Condescension really annoys me, and unfortunately it's very common when you do things with some special condition e.g. you're young, or female, or a minority race. You get comments like "This is great ... for a teenager". Now, I don't know how you feel about it, but I'd rather be known for doing work that's great on its own. Not that I'm going to give up those great age-dependent prizes.

That's why I love online freelancing, which I do occasionally by selling articles to various small companies and outlets - nobody knows or asks what age I am or what educational qualifications I have. All that matters is the merit of my work, which makes my five-star reviews from satisfied paying customers even better, because I know it's not being good "for a teenager/girl" - it's because it's good work, simple as that. 

Pro #2: Community

Because you're doing something fairly unusual, there aren't too many other young people in your area doing it - so you get to know everyone fairly quickly. It becomes a very small world when you see the same young people at conferences all the time, and it's nice, because if there are some young people there you'll definitely have people to talk to. My sorta-professional sphere lately has been the Irish teenage tech/science scene, and honestly we pretty much all know each other, at least from Twitter.

Con #2: Balancing School 

This one is a pain. As a young person, in most cases you can't just decide to go full-time on your project the way you could if you were an adult, because you're, y'know, legally obligated to get an education. Now, I absolutely loved school, but it's a hassle when you're up in a university lab one day a week, spending your free time writing and reviewing the scientific lit and emailing (so much emailing) and working on your website and all the other things you're doing, while also balancing the workload of school and teachers who Do Not Like it when you miss their class, especially in an exam year. 

Obviously everyone has to balance things with school, but when it's adult-y stuff (a) work often has to be done during school hours, because those double as normal adult working hours (b) it kinda changes your perspective on school. Like, when I was getting paid to write dozens of articles on all sorts of interesting and not-so-interesting topics, it definitely made me more reluctant to write about boring things for English homework, for free. My teacher might give me a C on an essay because I didn't use four adjectives for every noun (???) and I'd be very tempted to show that people are happy to actually pay real money for me to write useful stuff for them instead of needless decorative language. Like, yes, I do have a large vocabulary, and I could absolutely pack my sentences with fancy adjectives and flowery adverbs if I wanted to. But that doesn't make the writing clear, readable and useful, so why bother? 

Pro #3: Fewer Obligations

This is the other side of the coin of Con #2 above. While school is a big obligation, at least as a teenager your free time is mostly free (then again, adults usually don't get homework...). You might have to do some housework, but at least you don't have to worry about providing for children, or running errands, or filling up your petrol tank, or buying groceries, or getting an NCT. People usually aren't relying on you. So you get time to explore your interests and try out different things you might like without worrying too much about how this is going to provide for a family.

Con #3: Media Mishaps

I am no stranger to media mishaps, let me tell you. I've done quite a few interviews and oh man - while I'm not exactly great at them yet, I've improved so much from how I started out, being interviewed in 2014 as a 15-year-old by radio people and judges at my first Young Scientist. I have said so many embarrassing things, and occasionally I remember them and cringe, so much cringe. 

So part of it is interview experience, and part of it is just life experience. I think if I was older when I started to do them I wouldn't have said so many embarrassing things because I'd have more practice in being diplomatic, in simplifying things into (accurate) soundbites and in coming up with things on the fly when questions are flung at me out of left field. I imagine the effect must be much more pronounced for people who (a) started younger (b) are much more successful (not hard). 

Then again, I'm glad I now have those skills. Trial by fire, I suppose - taking a grilling at science fairs (being judged by 11 judges in about two hours at Sentinus Young Innovators (NI Young Scientist, for example) makes you learn a ton of skills fast - how to stay bouncy when you're exhausted, how to think on your feet, how to explain things so they're understandable to people from many different fields. I also had to learn the difference between science judging interviews and more mainstream media interviews, where they really don't want the nitty-gritty details of your procedure. It's a tricky balance, expressing science as simply as possible - but no simpler (to paraphrase Einstein). 

Pro #4: Support & Generosity

There are many kind souls out there who'll see a budding young scientist or writer or artist or musician or whatever and give them help out of the kindness of their hearts, with no prospect of immediate reward, and I am so grateful for those people, as are, I'm sure, all the other people who do this sort of thing. My lab supervisors, for example, who made most of this possible - Sinéad, Nina, Prof Duesberg, Mary and Éilis in ASIN; Yuri, AJ, Laura, Adriele and more in St. James'; Margaret, Colm .... you know the drill. Teachers, too - students have a readymade collection of knowledge fonts whose job it is to help them. How lucky!

Basically, people seem to see young passionate people as especially worthy of help, so that's a huge benefit to starting young. If you can get people to listen to you and take you seriously, they can be very generous. (Side note: I'm really looking forward to the point in my career where I can be the helper, instead of just the helped -- it's already happening to a small extent, but yeah, looking forward to it.)

Con #4: Disbelief

It can be very, very difficult to get people to believe in you. Even once you've managed to find help and you've done the work, there'll be people who refuse to people you actually did the work yourself - like suspecting your parents wrote the report book you toiled over just because it's well-written, or nobody believing you came up with your own ideas. Like sure, everyone gets guidance and that's a great thing, and I'm very grateful for those who've mentored and guided me -- but you still have to do the bulk of the work yourself, and when people don't believe you did that it's very disheartening. It can also be very difficult to access facilities that an adult would find a lot easier, because as a teenager you probably don't have a college degree, and besides, many places require you to be 18+ for insurance reasons. 

Pro #5: Passion

This is the biggest thing of all, and this is why I and presumably many others do it despite the cons. 

When you start young, you get a headstart on exploring your passion. It's something you love - why wouldn't you start as soon as possible? It means more time spent developing yourself and your interests and doing something you get fulfillment out of.

Without this final factor, the awards and community and all the other pros would be nice - but this is the crucial one. Passion is what outbalances all the cons. Sure, you probably don't have your whole life figured out yet - but if you've found something you're good at and can bring you closer to your dreams, starting early is a no-brainer. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Day of 3 Festivals (sorta)

Hi all! This is a strange summer, I must admit, but at least some things are happening this week. I spent yesterday at Dublin Maker and a festival in Swords and (very briefly) saw a festival in Malahide, all while hanging out with some nerds (Kate, Paddy and Anthony).

Dublin Maker was cool, although sadly I couldn't stay very long. I did get to make a rocket in Minecraft by painting with a physical paintbrush onto a circuit board, and saw Vanessa of Echoing STEM and Laura, who I first met as a fellow Stemettes panellist in November and saw again at Inspirefest. At the paintbrush-Minecraft-dots activity I got talking to Andrew (Vanessa introduced him as a Raspberry Pi friend of Amy-from-Outbox's), who was cool and found out that Amy will be in the country soon, so that's cool. There was a duo onstage playing country music with a double bass and an electric guitar, which was definitely a new experience. Unfortunately I didn't get to see the modular origami again, but that was so cool at Inspirefest and I'm glad I got to talk to Jennifer (who makes these amazing craft pieces) then. 

After an hour or two, Kate and I went to the Swords festival and climbed up the spiral staircase of a reconstructed castle. Now, I have a spiral staircase at home, so I thought I was used to them, but there were some important differences: (a) my staircase is made of metal, not half-eroded stone (b) there's free space around my staircase, rather than very very close walls. Both of those factors made descending the stone spiral staircase a rather precarious task, especially with a ukulele in hand. Managed, though! Kate and I enjoyed seeing the tremendously sophisticated apparatus people used to use as a toilet (a raised wooden board with a circular hole cut in it) and sitting at what was presumably once a royal dining table.

Overall, not the most impressive castle, but pretty cool nonetheless. 

The rest of the festival seemed to be made up of a ton of bouncy castles. Like, a ridiculous amount of bouncy castles, as if a bouncy castle convention had been kidnapped by the festival. There was also some pretty good music with a cute girl fronting the band.

When we were done with the festival, I visited the famous JC's for the first time and then we got a lift back to her house and watched some stand-up comedy. I showed her Bo Burnham's second special, Make Happy, which I recommend but only if you've watched his first special, what. Make Happy is very good, but it's funny in a depressing way, whereas what. is just straight-up funny and won't leave your emotions in a mess afterwards.

It was awesome spending time with Kate, especially since we've both been busy lately. But all good things come to an end and so I hopped onto an incredibly packed train and read about thirty pages of A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking until it was time to get off.

Pretty good! Next blog posts will be about my Debs, the pros and cons of starting your career young, aphantasia, and impostor syndrome. Probably.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Review: Demon Road by Derek Landy

Author: Derek Landy
Publisher: HarperCollins
Source: Borrowed 
Pages: 507
Reader Experience: *****
Technical Rating: ****

Blurb: Full of Landy’s trademark wit, action and razor sharp dialogue, DEMON ROAD kicks off with a shocking opener and never lets up the pace in an epic road-trip across the supernatural landscape of America. Killer cars, vampires, undead serial killers: they’re all here. And the demons? Well, that’s where Amber comes in...Sixteen years old, smart and spirited, she’s just a normal American teenager until the lies are torn away and the demons reveal themselves.

Forced to go on the run, she hurtles from one threat to another, revealing a tapestry of terror woven into the very fabric of her life. Her only chance rests with her fellow travellers, who are not at all what they appear to be…

Demon Road is special, because I haven't had the attention span/time to finish a book for months, but yesterday I picked this up and was gripped by the very first line and carried through all 507 pages by the relentless pacing in about 5 hours. 

Seriously. Really fantastic. I don't know how much of that was the love I already have for Derek's writing thanks to Skulduggery Pleasant or my joy at finally getting into a book again after months, but I just really really enjoyed the experience of blasting through Demon Road

(I'm very out of practise with this whole book reviewing lark. Also, I should really get back into Netgalley). 

Here's what I loved:

Dialogue: Derek has a gift for dialogue that I've never seen in anyone else's writing (look, if his ego hasn't knocked his head off yet it never will). It's just hilarious - very reminiscent of Skulduggery Pleasant in this book, but I wasn't complaining because I love that. The sarcasm and snark is constant, even in life-or-death situations, and it's wonderful. The dialogue from Imelda on page 50 is particularly delicious, so look out for that.

Twists: I can't necessarily say I enjoyed this aspect, since I like seeing my characters happy and well, but those twists were masterful and basically taught me not to trust anyone. ANYONE. I can't really talk about this part without spoilers but I will tell you this: fifteen minutes after I finished the book, my legs were still shaking. What adrenaline.

No romance: I like Derek's approach to romance, both in Skulduggery and here. He diverges from average YA fare by, in Skulduggery, showing both the breakdown of a normal teenage relationship (these things happen) and an unhealthy relationship. Here, the main character just isn't interested in a relationship - and while I like romance when it's subtle and done right, I liked that there was no distracting romantic subplot here. 

Imelda: I really liked Imelda and her secret, but I can say no more without spoilers. Read the book! Read it!

Action: Derek's action is just flawless. He's so knowledgeable about hand-to-hand combat that it makes for an amazing reading experience.

Pacing: The book starts off with a bang - the first sentence is "Twelve hours before Amber Lamont's parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal's office, her hands in her lap, stifling all the things she wanted to say."  Way to make an impression! The pacing rarely drops after that so it's definitely a breathless read - I don't know how he succeeds in continuously ratcheting up the tension (I mean, the time limit is definitely a factor) but he's damn good at it.

Stuff I'm conflicted about:

Characters: I'm not sure how I feel about the main characters. I've seen Amber, the protag, criticised for wanting to go back and reason with them after she found out her parents were psychopathic murderers - but honestly I can empathise with this. No matter what your parents have done - to you or to others - they're still your parents, and it's hard to let go of that. That said, I still didn't get much of a sense of her as a person with any standout traits. (PS -  It's so strange reading about sixteen-year-olds doing all these things when I'm seventeen. Am I aging out of YA?!)

 Glen was a bit annoying without being cute enough to make up for it, like Fletcher. Milo was cool but too mysterious - I would've liked to know a lot more about him.

Grey Morality: Amber makes a lot of bad choices and has to do a lot of harm and kill people. As a sixteen-year-old. 

Names: The names aren't awful here, but I do miss the cool/meaningful names from Skulduggery Pleasant

Stuff I dislike:

Repetition - I didn't actually notice this until I read other reviews, but it's true that the plot is just a road trip interrupted by fights. Like, drive, attack, drive, attack, drive attack, with bits of sleuthing mixed in that always turned into fights anyway. I enjoyed it, but it was pretty predictable plot-wise. 

Sequel - Sequels just annoy me in general. Why can't I just get one good standalone YA?! Actually, you know what? It doesn't even have to be a standalone, you can leave some threads untied - but give the first book in the series a goddamn ending. This book had a beginning, middle and climax, but no resolution.

The Inevitable Skulduggery Comparisons
1. There were vampires, although their rules were different from those in SP.
2. The hand-to-hand/gun combat and other action was very similar.
3. The pacing in SP was also fast.
4. Both this and SP are full of wit and sarcasm and hilarity.
5. Repeated characters - Amber is like Valkyrie, Milo is like Skulduggery and Glen is like Fletcher in terms of the roles they play - but they're all flatter, less funny versions of Val, Skul and Fletch.
6. The morality was darker here than it was in SP - in the first few SP books, the morality was pretty white and only got grey later on, but this just gets very dark very fast. 
- morality

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Syndicalab (Renamed to Lablinn!)

Hi all! This is my 300th post on this blog, and I'm using it to announce a big project I've just started working on called Syndicalab Lablinn. Read on for details.

Lablinn is a network of local community labs where people of all ages carry out scientific research projects, supported by volunteers who teach the scientific method and basic skills, and give the users guidance on devising and carrying out their research projects. 

If you want to carry out real scientific research projects, then you'd better be either an adult working in research or a second- or third-level student, because if not there is essentially nothing to facilitate you.

Say you're a retiree who never got a chance to study science, but you want to find out more about the world around you. Say you're a primary school kid whose school doesn't teach science (mine pretty much didn't) and you want to try out some simple projects because you're incredibly curious and want somewhere to direct that curiosity. Say you're an accountant with an interest in science you've never really been able to fulfill. Maybe you are a second-level student, and you're sick of the way school science experiments are never actually experiments, since the teacher always knows what's supposed to happen at the end. 

You could all come to Lablinn and become supported citizen scientists. 

I also think Lablinn could alleviate public fear and distrust of science e.g. anti-vaxxers. If people saw what hands-on science was actually like and could do it surrounded by members of their local community, they'd see that it's not suspicious or intimidating. Citizen scientists can make real contributions to science, both in their local area and in general.

So who's going to be doing the supporting? Well, I'm looking at this like a 
CoderDojo for citizen science (without the age restrictions), so it would be 
volunteer-led, and once users gained some experience they could become 
mentors too so everyone would be teaching each other. Before and alongside 
that, though, volunteers would be adult researchers, college students and 
second-level science students. 

I imagine a model similar to CoderDojo, with many regional centres. People of
 all ages would come on weekends and pay either nothing or a small 
contribution. We’d have a curriculum to teach participants the scientific method
 and have them study important experiments to pick out good and bad features
and develop their critical thinking skills in terms of experiments. We’d teach 
basic skills e.g. titrations, dilutions, measurements and – most importantly – 
coach members in devising and developing research projects, with resources
 and facilities to carry them out provided at the centres.

The big thing is the actual hands-on research projects, the finding out of new 
things. That's the only way to teach people that science is more than just a
corpus of knowledge; it's living and it belongs to all of us.

These projects don't have to be fancy - you don't have to prove string theory - 
as long as it's safe, doable with the resources available (see next paragraph) 
and something the user is actually interested in. Want to explore the vitamin-
whatever content of the strawberries you grow in your back garden compared to
store-bought ones? Go on ahead. If it's making science part of everyday life, it's
good to go. 

Obviously this isn't easy, that's why it's not a thing already. The main challenges
I see are:

- Enlisting volunteers to draw up basic curriculum, teach skills, guide projects
- Funding to buy chemicals, basic equipment etc/way to borrow
- Insurance
- Health & Safety
- Venues available on weekends

I'm trying to get this off the ground at the moment, so if you're interested, have
an idea, want to help or know someone who could, let me know at or comment below. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Hamilton Review

The next post on this blog was supposed to be an in-depth one on aphantasia, but that is a seriously big project so I'm going to go for something slightly less heavy-duty and review Hamilton!


I've loved Hamilton since my friend Chloe first introduced me to it on the plane back from London in March, so I'm going to attempt to dissect my reasons for that a bit here. I'll go ahead and assume you know what it is already because honestly, you should. If not though, go to Spotify and listen to Hamilton - Original Broadway Cast Recording before reading.

Fun fact: it's so good that I know pretty much the whole thing off by heart.

Author/Composer/Lead: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Rating: 5/5

Overview: Hamilton is an absolute work of genius, and has been deservedly recognised as such by the Tony awards, a MacArthur Genius grant, the Pulitzers and more. In 46 songs over 2 hours and 22 minutes, this revolutionary ;) musical eloquently and passionately tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, First Treasury Secretary of the United States - in other words, someone I otherwise would never have heard of, even though now I see the name Hamilton everywhere, and not just in relation to the musical. Hamilton is mostly told through rap, with only the occasional song sounding like a conventional musical. It follows Hamilton from his disadvantaged birth (opening lines: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, somehow defeat a global superpower?"). 

Reasons I Love It
1. Wit

Hamilton is lyrically inspired. It's difficult to express just how witty it is - really, I hope you've listened to it. It's bursting with inventiveness and style and rhythm, and is extremely fast-paced - the fastest verse, which occurs in Guns and Ships, has 6.3 words per second, with a total around 20,000 words sung over 2 hours 22 minutes. It's incredibly dense; there is just so much packed into its runtime. Nevertheless, I'll list a few lines that I love for their lyricism.

My Shot - "I'm past patiently waitin', I'm passionately smashin' every expectation, every action's an act of creation! I'm laughin' in the face of casualties and sorrow - for the first time I'm thinkin' past tomorrow!"

Wait For It - "I am the one thing in life I can control! I am inimitable I am an original."

The World Was Wide Enough - "What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."

Hurricane - "I wrote my way out of hell, I wrote my way to revolution I was louder than the crack in the bell. I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell, I wrote about the constitution and defended it well. And in the face of ignorance and resistance, I wrote financial systems into existence. And when my prayers to god were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance!"

2. Musical Talent

The beautiful lyrics would be pretty amazing on their own, but it's the music that really takes this over the edge. The beat, for example, is absolutely on point at all times - everyone stays in time and so the musical has this incredible sense of furious pace. 

There are also some gorgeous soaring melodies, particularly in Burn, which is sung by Hamilton's wife Eliza. 

3. Identifying with Hamilton

Aside from how obviously talented everyone in this musical is, I adored it because I deeply identify with Hamilton in many ways. I think you can most easily see why in Non-Stop, Alexander Hamilton, Hurricane, My Shot and Satisfied. 

I really identify with Hamilton's ambition, drive, passion and sharp, engaged mind. If anyone reading is, like me, ambitious as hell, listen to Non-Stop and My Shot to get incredibly fired up and ready to work. 

Non-Stop - "Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John J. to write a series of essays defending the new United States constitution titled the Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of 25 essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote 85 essays in the span of 6 months. John J. got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote 29. Hamilton wrote THE OTHER FIFTY-ONE." 

Non-Stop - "How do you write while you're running out of time? Write day and night like you're running out of time? Every day you fight like you're running out of time like you're running out of time are you running out of time? How do you write like tomorrow won't arrive? How do you write like you need it to survive? How do you write every second you're alive every second you're alive every second you're alive?" 

My Shot - "I am not throwing away my shot! I am not throwing away my shot! Hey yo I'm just like my country I'm young, scrappy and hungry I am not throwing away my shot! Imma get a scholarship to King's College. I prob'ly shouldn't brag but dag I amaze and astonish. The problem is I got a lot of brains and no polish I gotta holler just to be heard with every word I drop knowledge, I'm a diamond in the rough, a shining piece of coal. Tryna reach my goal, my power of speech unimpeachable. Only nineteen but my mind is older, these New York City streets get colder I shoulder every burden every disadvantage I've learned to manage I don't have a gun to brandish I walk these streets famished. The plan is, to fan this spark into a flame ... "

4. Relationships

There are some really interesting relationships in Hamilton, particularly between Alexander (Hamilton) and Aaron Burr, between Hamilton and the Schuyler Sisters and between the rebels and King George. 

The frenemy relationship between Hamilton and Burr is a huge theme throughout the musical - Burr's songs act as bookends to the whole thing; Burr's life story shares a lot with Hamilton's and yet Hamilton became incredibly successful very fast "even though we started at the very same time, Alexander Hamilton began to climb". So it's this really intense rivalry that's part of the musical's pulse, with this huge contrast between Burr's reticence, charm and hesitation and Hamilton's daring, fiery conviction and certainty, even though they're both highly intelligent and ambitious orphans. Burr ends up killing Hamilton in a duel though he doesn't really want to "this man will NOT make an orphan of my daughter!" and only later realises "the world was wide enough, for both Hamilton and me"

Hamilton also has a really interesting relationship in the musical with Elizabeth and Angelica Schuyler. I think Hamilton and Angelica hit it off immediately, and that ambitious, intelligent Angelica would be the better match for Hamilton, but he ends up marrying Eliza. Throughout his marriage with Eliza, both keep in close contact with Angelica and it's honestly, at least emotionally, more of a triangular relationship. 

The relationship between the American revolutionaries and King George is, of course, fraught. But I just want to draw attention to one of his three songs, in which he sings "I will kill your friends and family ... to remind you of my love". It's such a jovial tune, and I think it's really thought-proving that he says it's his love of which he's reminding them, as if England loves America and that's why they want them part of the Empire. So his "love" is really just ... colonialism. 

5. Repeating Motifs

Hamilton is full of repeated motifs that tie the whole thing together. Counting to ten (in English and French comes up in several songs, whether it's the countdown to a duel or Eliza teaching her son Philip to play piano), and "wait for it" vs "taking my shot" is repeated often to symbolise the Hamilton-Burr conflict. But my favourite motif is --

"Death doesn't discriminate, between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes" which is repeated with slight variations like replacing death with life or love. 

6. Colourful Side Characters

I'm going to count everyone except Burr and Hamilton as side characters just so I can discuss them here. Hamilton has tons of great side characters; my personal favourites are Lafayette, Angelica, Eliza, and Washington. Lafayette aka "America's favourite fighting Frenchman!" is incredibly stylish and raps fast, which I enjoyed. Oh, speaking of style - Jefferson in What'd I Miss just epitomises it. I love Angelica for her brains "I've been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine - so men say that I'm intense or I'm insane - you want a revolution, I want a relevation, so listen to my declaration" and Eliza for her ballad (Burn) and the orphanage she set up and campaigns she ran late into her life e.g. against slavery. 

7. Theme of "Time"

Time is an important theme in Hamilton all the way through. From my favourite song (along with Burn and It's Quiet Uptown), Non-Stop, where Hamilton writes like he's "running out of time" to the very end, where Eliza ruminates that God "gives me what you always wanted, he gives me more time!"  and "I'm still not through, I ask myself what would you do if you had more time".

8. Revitalizing History

You'll all probably know that I detested History in school, but this makes it all about the people and makes them real and fascinating, in a way they just wouldn't be had I been reading about them on paper instead. Cabinet Battle 1 and Cabinet Battle 2 are great examples of this; the Founding Fathers thoroughly(ish) explain the issues they're debating ... through rap battles. This is from their debate on whether to get involved with the French revolution: "You must be outta your goddamn mind if you think, the President is gonna bring the nation to the brink, of meddling in the middle of a military mess a game of chess, where France is Queen and King-less. We signed a treaty with a King whose head is now in a basket, would you like to take it out and ask it? "Should we honor our Treaty, King Louis' Head?" "Do whatever you want, I'm super dead""


So there you go: It's a hell of a lot of Hamilfun (blame that one on Chloe) and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a blessing on this earth. 

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Review: June 2016

Hi all! So, obviously there was one thing that absolutely dominated my June, and that was the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Cert is effectively the culmination of your entire second-level career so, y'know, pretty important. But there were also a few other things - I saw my bestie, took part in an international collaboration for high-ability students and went to Inspirefest!

EXAMS: I blogged about how I think the Leaving Cert went here, but overall I'm hopeful that I got the points I need (515). I really hope I got either that (Science at TCD) or my second choice (Science at UCD, 510), because I missed the change-of-mind deadline so now my 3rd choice is still Maynooth and I really don't want to commute that far. Anyway, it's just a waiting game now and I have to try not to regret moments of awful exam technique and avoid guessing what I got more than I already have. I think overall my performance reflected the work I put in, so hopefully the results agree! I'm going to write up a Leaving Cert tips post but I won't post it until after the results, just in case it all goes up in flames. The main point, though, is: keep the head. Don't get intimidated, just keep the head

Oh, also, in the first few days of June I totally burned out, and honestly I still haven't fully recovered and gotten my drive back. I really miss it - I never appreciated it until it was gone! But I'm soldiering on and hopefully the proper self-motivation will come back once I'm over the whole Leaving Cert thing.

CTYI/ECHA: I was absolutely delighted to be chosen a few months ago to represent CTYI in a European collaboration along with Gabi. In late June, I had a call (at 7 am! Timezones are awful) with people from the Czech Republic, California, Spain and others to talk about a virtual reality space that's happening and likely to be trialed on high-ability students from various talent centres around Europe. So that was pretty cool. 

BESTIE: I got to see my lovely bestie Ben for the first time in about three months, once we'd both finished our Leaving Certs. Such a great reunion. Pity he then immediately fecked off to Gran Canaria for two weeks!

INSPIREFEST: I've written three blog posts about Inspirefest 2016, so check those out here - Highlights
- the Speaker Experience
- Inspirefest's Winning Formula

Overall, as a month it wasn't particularly busy as in there weren't loads of little things I was running around doing all the time, which is because the Leaving Cert was so important it gave me an excuse to focus only on it. Finally, in terms of entertainment -

READING: Political analysis, stats and news on and
WATCHING: Stand-up comedy on Netflix - nothing like burnout to send you to Netflix for the first time. I especially enjoyed Bo Burnham's Make Happy, Michael McIntyre's Showtime and Ali Wong's Netflix special

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Inspirefest's Winning Formula

You may be relieved to know that this is my last Inspirefest post for this year - after this, I'm going to do a June review and then talk about a variety of things from aphantasia to impostor syndrome to Brexit to space debris.

But for now, I want to explore why I think Inspirefest has had such an impact on me and many other people. What is it about its model that makes it work?

I can think of five elements to the formula. Here they are in no particular order. 

I think a major asset Inspirefest has is that it gives you a whole range of speakers you might never hear from otherwise, like hidden gems. But at the same time, they do it without compromising on quality. I met so many amazing people who are doing awesome things but aren't necessarily in the public consciousness. I like that they give a big rebuttal (less diplomatic way: give the finger) to that idea that to find new people you have to sacrifice quality. 

Similarly, Inspirefest has a big focus on diversity, particularly gender and race but also sexual orientation. Personally, I get sick of people harping on about diversity very fast, but I think it was done well here since it was mostly about sci/tech/design. Also, it was quite funny that instead of token women there was a token man on almost every panel.

Inspirefest benefits hugely from taking place in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, in my opinion (although I do find it hilarious that the Theatre is on a place called Misery Hill). The theatre set up with a huge, well-lit stage and a big, dark, comfortable auditorium makes it easy to pay attention to the speakers and lends a magical, dramatic feel to the whole event. I also love that there's only one talk/panel on at a time, so the whole audience experiences things together and have lots to talk about later, plus you don't have to choose between talks and potentially miss out on something great.
I haven't been to many conferences, but I've been to a few, and I think Inspirefest definitely has the best extras I've seen so far. The way they took a tech conference and added the Fringe, with its focus on connecting tech to art, theatre and the real world and facilitating relaxed networking and wind-down time after a busy day of keynotes and panels is very clever. ResearchFest was a new addition this year and I really liked that - it's similar to other things like thesisinthree and FameLab, but it was cool to have it happening right in front of me. I would've liked a bit more explanation of the actual science though - maybe if they had links somewhere to the research? The analogy-based explanations were very interesting but I'd love to actually know the details of the science. 

Okay, this one seems obvious - every conference/big event requires a ton of planning. But I want to give special props to this one because it just flowed so smoothly. Quite amazed nothing (visibly) fell apart over those two/three days with so much stuff in them.

A large part of Inspirefest's atmosphere of unity, progress and acceptance is created by the people, from the organisers to the volunteers. I don't really know how they attracted such great volunteers and staff, you'll have to ask them that, but I feel like there was this good sense of everyone having similar goals and working together. It also helped that they had a tech website basically dedicated to covering it for the few days.

So that's the best explanation I can come up with! Also, I'm probably very biased but I do love Grand Canal Dock in Dublin so I think that definitely helped. Even though, as one American speaker commented, it cycled through all four seasons within twenty minutes! 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Speaking at Inspirefest

On Friday 1st July, I spoke with three of my Outbox sisters, Vanessa Greene, Niamh Scanlon and Edel Browne, plus Outbox fairy godmother Mary Carty on the Future Leaders panel at Inspirefest chaired by Ann O' Dea. 

It was an amazing experience all round, from the moment I heard I'd been chosen as one of the Outbox representatives. Honestly, I think I just pestered Ann so much that she let me do it but I like to think it wasn't just that. Anyway, when Ann emailed to say I'd be on a panel with Vanessa and Edel (found out about Niamh later), I was excited because I was starting to wonder by that point if I'd get to go to Inspirefest at all!

I'd done a little bit of speaking before - the Soroptimists public speaking competition, work with the British Science Association's Youth Panel, a keynote at the World Youth Organisation's International Women's Day event and a Stemettes panel included. But I was particularly looking forward to this because I attended Inspirefest last year and really loved it. 

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't nervous - I'm a very anxious person so I was definitely nervous at points leading up to appearing on stage, even though it was just twenty minutes of chat in front of a few hundred people (I'm not sure how many, though I think Ann said in a podcast they were expecting two thousand people at the event). But I just put together some points on Outbox and what I'd been up to over the past year in case I got up there and suddenly forgot everything that's ever happened in my life. 

So, the first part of the speaker experience was noticing a lot of (optional) segregation between speakers/VIPs and attendees. We went in through different doors, had different areas to hang out in, ate different food, different areas of the auditorium ... We were spoiled! Isn't that weird, actually? For a ten/fifteen/twenty-minute keynote or panel, we got two whole days of royal treatment. I mean, I loved it, but you'd swear they were trying to give us/me impostor syndrome - who could possibly deserve all this? 

(On that point - I am so appreciative of the lovely hotel room Inspirefest HQ provided, and terribly sorry to have been a hassle about it.)

The VIP lounge was lovely; full of sofas, lovely view of Grand Canal Dock, buffet-style fancy food (although the pasta was cold and I refuse to accept "pasta salad" as a thing, hot pasta forever, plus I would've loved some chips or other food I could actually name). The best part, in my opinion, was the bar. The drink in glass bottles was kinda strange, but the hot chocolate was absolutely gorgeous. And I'd never seen hot chocolate made by swirling a cube of chocolate on a stick around hot milk before, so that was a cool novelty.

It was also good for chatting to people - I spent a lot of time hanging with the youth crew, but also got to have great chats with people like Liz Jackson, who is so cool. And Sinéad Burke, who kept insisting I made her feel old which is honestly ridiculous. Sinéad, on the off-chance you see this, you're awesome and admirable and in your goddamn 20s. You're a young person, deal

The volunteers were unbelievably helpful and generous and lovely, but it was a very strange experience because I felt like I should be cleaning up after everyone with them, not having them clean up after me! They were all great, but I have to give special shoutouts to the people at the doors of the VIP lounge who for some reason insisted on opening all doors for me before I could soil my delicate speaker hands on the wood, and to the SNP staff on the way to and in the green room and backstage. I appreciate the water you got me, for which I suddenly had a desperate need right after we left the green room! 

About the green room itself: oh man, that was cool. There was a classic mirror with lights all around it, a bathroom complete with shower, and then in the room beside it snacks and drinks and places to leave your stuff. Also, thanks to everyone who minded my stuff because frankly I carry an excessive amount of it around with me at all times. 
It was cool getting to hang in the green room with friends because knowing we were all in it together made things more relaxed. We could also make fun of each other (mostly Edel, for forgetting to mention that she'd literally won a goddamn car the previous day) and banter about stupid things we could say on stage (but didn't actually). 

All five of us who'd be appearing on stage around the same time (me, Edel, Vanessa, Niamh, Mary), accompanied by Claire (I want to make a rhyme here with extraordinaire...) went up together to get mic'd up and then wait backstage. Mary went on first and gave a brilliant and quite emotional talk about Outbox, then Niamh went on, and finally Edel, Vanessa and I went on along with Niamh and Mary and our panel began.

Like I said, I had been nervous for the panel, but there was no need. Even though we were being watched by hundreds of people, something about the design of the stage, being surrounded by friends (more Outbox execs filled the front row for moral support) and the atmosphere of the conference made it really comfortable, like we were just having a rather formal conversation. We talked a bit about ourselves, then about Outbox and its benefits, then about stuff like CoderDojo and BTYS and probably more things but I honestly can't remember them because after the first few minutes I seem to have gone into that stage state I always do where I can't remember anything that happens while I'm on stage. Oops. 

Fortunately, it did seem to have gone well, judging by the 60 (!) Twitter notifications I got over the next hour (how did they even get my Twitter handle?) and lovely comments from attendees and other people afterwards. Ann was such a good chair and so lovely when we got backstage too, so that was reassuring and I left delighted with it.

I was on a massive high for about an hour after the panel, and felt similarly to Vanessa about my lovely Outbox compadres. 

So to anyone who's considering speaking at anything even remotely similar to this, I'd definitely say go for it. Over the last few months, I've discovered that even though it's nerve-wracking, the high you can get from public speaking is definitely worth it. Why get into drugs when you can get your highs legally?

Some other benefits of speaking, as well as all the undeniably enjoyable compliments,  were the connections and increased investment in the conference. 

The thing with speaking is that people tend to come up to you. So you don't have to do all the work in seeking people out to talk to, and I got to have some really interesting conversations with possible collaborators and just generally cool people. Although there is at least one person who came up to me and I seem to have lost her contact details when I really wanted to follow up D: Also, the VIP area at the Fringe was excellent for talking to people. I remember someone on Twitter thanked me for providing a new phrase for networking, "building a community", but honestly I wouldn't call it a direct synonym for networking as I think that cheapens it. Building a community means genuinely creating a community of people who love and care for each other outside of the tangible benefits they can offer each other, and that's what we did at Outbox, CTYI, etc.

Secondly, being a speaker (almost by necessity) means that you'll have a greater personal investment and involvement in the conference, which I really like because this is such a great event. If I wasn't a speaker, I wouldn't have gone to the launch party or afterparty and wouldn't have paid such close attention to the whole event, so I would've missed out on a lot. So I think being a speaker really makes you care.

In summary: speaking at almost any event is a rewarding experience that I'd definitely recommend, but Inspirefest takes it up to 11. I had a really fantastic experience and was treated so well, so thanks to everyone. I feel like at this point I should particularly mention Outbox and our Stemettes, who made a lot of this possible.