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This week I got a new laptop. It’s very zingy, extremely thin and is so razor thin I’m afraid I might cut my fingers when I open it. This isn’t a blog entry about the joy of the new, however, it’s about tribes and tribalism. So, in the interests of full disclosure: my new laptop runs Windows. This turns out to be surprisingly important.

Being a scientist and card-carrying geek, things like what operating system your laptop uses and who manufactured it take on a disproportionate importance. In the lab I work in there’s a definite divide between those who use Macs and those who don’t, with some surprisingly strong feeling on both sides and before long a certain amount of joshing was inevitable.

Picture the scene: There’s me at my desk with new laptop looking pleased with myself, up comes an Apple-fan friend of mine. That’s new. Yes it is. Why did you choose that one? It’s thin and light. It’s not as light as my mac. No, but it’s thinner, got a bigger screen, a faster processor, and Bang&Olufson speakers.

And now my friend plays their trump card.

But it’s running Windows!

Gah! Defeated! I can’t stand Macs, I call as my friend vanishes back to their office.

And this little incident got me thinking: tribes. We fall so easily into little entrenched tribal groups. I’m every bit as guilty here as my friend, she likes Apple, I don’t. It’s all very good-natured, but it’s just the same as supporters of different football teams (disclaimer: I’m not for a moment saying that isn’t good-natured too!), drivers of different cars or natives of different villages.

In the end, this tribalism is part of being human. We look to support those close to us and undermine those who aren’t.  It’s something that shows up time and time again is different aspects of human behaviour: support those who are aligned to you, undermine those who aren’t. It applies on different scales, from tiny groups within families or offices up through loyalties to brands and national identity, and presumably would express itself in some way were we ever to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, a theme I’m not sure has ever been meaningfully explored in Science Fiction.

This tendency is also easy to manipulate, and is the reason that branding works as well as it does: convince people to identify with what you’re selling by giving it a symbols and associating something aspirational to it and bingo: loyal consumer base who are suddenly tapping into a very primal force when buying your products.

The day after my thorough taunting at the hands of Apple fan A, I bumped into Apple fan B – Apple fan B is by far the most enthusiastic supporter of the brand I have ever met (which is saying something – Apple customers tend to be very vocal in their support).

I duly braced myself for more cold derision but in act was pleasantly surprised. In fact, he paid me a very high compliment: Is that your new laptop? Yup, that’s the one.

Cool, he said — it looks like a Mac.


This week I discovered that office team-building retreats have an unexpected connection to the Olympics.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw our departmental away day (despite technically being two days). These things always conjure up associations with The Office, where a  group of tired people who don’t like each other are forced to spend even more time in each other’s company than usual and end up depressed and/or psychotic.

Happily, our away wasn’t like this*. There are 50-odd people in the Centre, and we all decamped en mass to a hotel in the Cotswolds known for its puddings. There was strategy, there was team-building, there was a surprisingly large amount of free wine, and a surprisingly small amount of standing around in the rain whilst solving some collaborative problem.

My strategy on these things is generally to cheat as flagrantly as possible. This tends to inspired a trench mentality in the immediate team, and to make the rest of the room laugh. Plus it makes me feel subversive in some small way, which always fun. Best cheating if the trip was when supplied with spaghetti and a marshmallow to turn into some kind of tower, our design was to attach the top of an extremely thin line of pasta to the light fitting with a note attached saying “we acept your criticism, but point out that this is the tallest”. We did not win.

If the point of the trip was to make everyone feel part of a larger effort, and in turn feel pleased, then the trip was a success. Likewise, if the point was to make people feel consulted about the way the Centre is tun, then it was also a success.

At this point, the cynical point of me wants to add “but…” and deliver some pithy comment about the flawed nature of team-building or the inherent contradiction between hierarchical structure and meaningful strategic consultation. Unfortunately I can’t come up with anything, so I am, regretfully, going to tell the cynical part of me to go and sulk somewhere on its own and not bother the remainder. Very much the same reaction I had during the Olympics.

* (I realise I am obliged to say this, but in this case it is actually true)

It’s been an interesting week. I’m a little reticent about this being the subject of my first post as I’m not sure I can properly do the subject justice, but it seems disingenuous not to try.

This week saw a symposium held in honour of Philip Batchelor. Philip was a a researcher in the field of medical imaging who spent a lot of time at UCL, King’s, and St Thomas’s hospital. He was a mathematician who contributed to many different aspects of imaging with a lot of focus on MRI, and he was well known and liked by the UK diffusion MR community. Tragically, Philip died in a climbing accident in 2011.

I knew Philip. I wouldn’t say we were close, but he was a colleague who would often go to the same seminars and coferences as I would, and he collaborated closely with people in my group. It was hard not to like him, he had a mixture of stoicism and wit that was difficult to ignore and his mathematical skill meant he was always someone to listen to.

What was surprising at the seminar on Wednesday was how widely he published and just what an impressive impact his work had. Working no just in diffusion, but in other forms of MRI Philip had brought an impressive level of rigour to a subject that can sometimes lack it. What was impressive, although less surprising, was how well-liked he was. People were literally queuing up to talk about how much they liked him. It was hard not to be moved by it.

The seminar wasn’t just retrospective, though. Several presentations talked about new work based on Philip’s, and here we found something quite surprising: one of the talks seems ideal for my new project. Something I had only vaguely heard of, that uses rigorous ideas that extend approaches Philip used on problems that would have interested him. New beginnings.

So, Philip – I raise my glass to you and send my thanks. I’m not the first to say you’ll be missed.

So, things are up and running. Hello, I’m Matt. I’m a researcher in imaging science at UCL specialising in Monte-Carlo simulation, image analysis (DIffusion MRI and now (new!) EEG for Brain-Computer interfaces.

This is part website, part blog and should contain some musings of life, research and anything else that crosses my mind. I might post some images if anything pretty comes out of my work.

Anyway, this is a place-holder of a post. Back in a bit.

In the words of Pink Floyd… Is There Anybody Out There? 

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