The Science Bit: Part 7 – Oh deer! Christmas trees’ battle with Rudolph

24 12 2010

A lighthearted and seasonal Science Bit for you this month!

Ah, there’s nothing like a real Christmas tree. You can keep your plastic trees, sprayed white and gold or with fibre optic lights – for me, the annual trip to choose and collect our perfect pine tree symbolises Christmas itself and the beginning of festive few weeks of fun with friends and family.

But for some people in North America who also love the real thing, the humble Christmas tree is under threat from a very seasonal character that usually helps Santa rather than hinders him. Forests of Fraser firs in North Carolina are often frequented by deer who damage the Christmas tree crops by butting them with their antlers in order to mark their territory and by nibbling on the young shoots and buds. According to Christmas tree production specialist and agricultural researcher Jeff Owen from North Carolina State University, a single deer can munch a young Christmas tree down to the size of a pencil in no time at all.

Of course, a simple way to keep Rudolph out of the forests would be to erect good quality fencing, perhaps even electrified barriers, however with over 350 Christmas tree farms producing more than 20,000 acres of Christmas trees each year, fencing and fence maintenance is extremely expensive. An alternative is to use commercial deer repellents, but again, this can be prohibitively expensive, with 1lb of repellent costing around $18 USD, and up to 10lbs of product used per acre, two or three times a year.

Funded by the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, Owen and his team have been researching effective deer repellents that would make a viable and cheaper alternative to the existing commercially-available products. Old wives’ tales recommend hair clippings, cayenne pepper and raw eggs to keep deer away, and it turns out that the latter of these isn’t far from the truth. The scientists discovered that a prepared mixture of dried blood and egg powder is the perfect deterrent for Bambi and friends, and can be bought very cheaply at a cost of just $2 per lb of product thanks to the fact that these are common, inedible by-products of the pet-food industry.

Owen says, “These products have an unappealing taste, but the decaying smell actually elicits a fear response in the deer and keeps them away from the crops”.  It is hoped that dried blood and powdered egg could save threatened Christmas tree stocks in North Carolina, and with the team now making headway on extending their research to see if other pet food waste products, like liver powder and fishmeal, are as effective deer repellents, tree farmers all over the States could be spoilt for choice and assured of a sustainable future. Sorry Rudolph!

Back to square one? Mouse virus may have no role to play in prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome after all

17 12 2010

A few years ago in 2006, scientists made what they felt was a breakthrough discovery: the mouse virus XMRV was found in a significant number of samples of prostate cancer. They felt they had stumbled upon something very exciting and if they were right – if this virus was in fact a cause of prostate cancer – the future looked very bright for the development of new treatments, cures and maybe even a vaccine.

A few years later in 2009 and a different group of researchers found the same virus in tissue samples from people with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS; also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME). Sufferers of this syndrome have fought – and continue to fight – a long battle with the medical profession to have their disease recognised as a genuine medical condition with a tangible cause rather than being something psychological or all in their heads, so this news was exciting. In the States, chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers are even banned from donating blood because of the supposed viral link.

Four new research papers published this week in the journal Retrovirology however, have potentially quashed any hope that ME or prostate cancer sufferers may have garnered from the formerly suspected link between their conditions and the virus. One lab claims that rather than patients being infected with XMRV, their tissue or blood samples taken for diagnostic testing have been contaminated with mouse DNA, which itself may contain XMRV virus markers. Another group have gone so far as to blame a particular manufacturer of DNA testing kits with having mouse DNA-contaminated reagents.

I recently wrote a press release for Retrovirology that covered the publication of these four research articles, plus a Comment from Prof Robert Smith from the University of Washington. The story, which has been picked up by UK national newspaper, The Guardian, has caused quite some controversy (see the Virology blog article below and read the comments from disgruntled ME sufferers). I’m chuffed that one of my PRs has got into the national press – again!

Read the original articles at Retrovirology:

Read the press release I wrote at BioMed Central: Back to square one? Mouse virus may have no role to play in chronic fatigue syndrome and prostate cancer after all.

Read some of the news stories on these articles:

LogoBee press releases

15 12 2010

LogoBee graphic and logo design agencyThe team at LogoBee, a Canadian logo design agency, recently approached me to write a selection of press releases to promote their new-look website. The press releases have now been published and I wish LogoBee every success with their ongoing development and growth!

Read the press releases here:

LogoBee logo design press release written by Lisa A. Martin freelance press release writer

Do spelling and grammar matter on social media sites?

15 12 2010

In answering this question, I’m referring specifically to corporate profile pages and communications via sites like Facebook. Though I’ll confess poor spelling and grammar always bugs me (something to which my long-suffering boyfriend will attest), I’m not in any way suggesting that my friends and family should take an English language course before being allowed to update their statuses or comment on my photos. To a certain extent, my attitude is relaxed when considering Twitter in this argument too, since the very fact that you can only write 140 characters per tweet often necessitates the use of “txt spk” in order to fit your point into the required character count.

My editorial eye seems naturally drawn to spelling mistakes, typographical errors, use of the wrong words, word repetition and poor grammar. I can’t help but notice. Sometimes, while reading The Times (a frequent culprit), in a throwback to my days as a school teacher, I’ll circle the mistakes in red pen; I’ve yet to go so far as to send the edited article back from whence it came, but perhaps I ought. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a crime for published media to contain errors, especially those institutions like the aforementioned Times who portray a professional image and, after all, whose business it is to make sense.

But what of social media? Anyone who’s anyone has a Facebook profile, and more and more businesses are cottoning on to the fact that they can meet their clients on a social, more informal level and create opportunities for interaction, rather than just stuffing leaflets through our doors or sending emails to our inboxes and hoping we’ll read them. Facebook is cool, and creating a social media buzz about a product, a company or a campaign is hot right now.

A friend living in Ireland, who clearly feels the same way as I do on this issue, posted a screenshot of this to his Facebook page today:

Be the Difference” is a campaign being run by the Irish branch of O2, one of the UK’s biggest mobile phone and communications networks, to promote their involvement in sponsoring Irish rugby. As my friend pointed out, it helps if you read it in an Irish accent (“we taught we’d help you out!”), but going by the numerous other errors in this short advertorial piece, I’m not convinced it’s meant to be that humorous!

Is it OK to let mistakes like this slip just because it’s on Facebook? I have no doubt that O2 and other large companies have proof readers and editors cast a final glance over their TV, billboard and magazine ads, so why not their social media ads too? Or, to cut out an extra step in the process (because clearly the up-to-the-minute nature of social media marketing means that a large volume of material is generated on a daily basis), why not hire marketeers that can spell and use grammar correctly in the first place? Perhaps there is an argument that most people won’t notice; that Average Joe can’t spell so why should it matter? I strongly contest this. To my mind, correct spelling, grammar and use of the English language – especially in corporate communications – demonstrates professionalism, shows that a company is intelligent and that it knows what it’s talking about. Of course, having a great product or service that people actually want is crucial, but so is the way that that product or service – and the company as a whole – is portrayed to the consumer. Excepting deliberate use of poor grammar and spelling for humorous intent, sloppy standards and dumbing down don’t work for me, I’m afraid.

More from Ecolicious Foods

14 12 2010

Just in case you missed my announcement last month that I’d recently been made chief blogger at the Ecolicious Foods blog, here’s a little update on what’s been going on with the site and the company.

Unfortunately, despite site owner Steve’s infectious enthusiasm for his organic business venture, progress with the main Ecolicious Foods website has been slow. It was hoped that the online store would go live before Christmas, but it’s looking likely that sometime in January 2011 will be a more realistic launch date.

Nevertheless, the Ecolicious blog has got off to a great start with 4 brilliant posts (I can say that; I wrote them!) including a piece about the possible link between pesticide use and the decline in the UK’s population of bees, and, in the midst of the UK government’s spending cuts, particularly in scientific research and education,  an interesting example of how a grant given by the US government is being used to fund research into organic agriculture.

The Ecolicious Foods blog is on hold now until the New Year, but we’ll be back with a vengance in 2011 to unleash Ecolicious Foods onto the world!

BMC Blog V

13 12 2010

I almost forgot that it was my turn again to moderate the BMC Blog last week, but I was glad to realise it when I read some of the interesting posts that we had in store! Find out how you can submit a manuscript to a new journal established for the Herpes research community, or submit a paper for a new series on chronic health conditions to be published in Globalization and Health; read a commentary on the proposed link between depression and the menopause; investigate the uses of clud computing in genomics, and read opinion on open data access from BioMed Central’s head honcho, Matt Cockerill and Journal Publisher Iain Hrynaszkiewicz. Enjoy!

No place for racism here!

11 12 2010

I am quivering with rage as I write this, but I feel I have to share.

I have just trashed a comment that was left on my blog (on this post) that contained some of the most disgusting, racist filth I have ever read. I’m not going to re-post the entire comment (which is now safely marked as spam and permanently deleted anyway) because the terms and language used were extraordinarily offensive, but the gist of “HindusOutOfUSA’s” comment was that we shouldn’t outsource to Indians, “and if Obama had any sense” – India would be destroyed, “along with Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

Please, please, forgive me for using the F-word on what is otherwise a well-written and professional blog, but WHO THE FUCK DOES THIS IDIOT THINK HE IS?

I honestly and sincerely hope that no reader of this blog thinks that I am racist, or that at any point in any of my posts about or freelancing in general I have ever insinuated that I am anti-India or incited such disturbed opinion. I’m completely aghast and very much saddened at the thought that someone felt that my blog was the right platform to air their hateful views.

What I have done on this blog is express my frustration, as a Western freelancer, of competing with low-wage workers on platforms such as, but c’est la vie. The job marketplace is global, especially for remote freelance work, and it’s a fact of life that companies will outsource to where they can get equivalent quality for a cheaper price. My strategy, therefore, is not to sell myself short and compete with my rivals on price – to do so would be unsustainable. Instead, I hope to persuade potential clients that I’m worth paying more for in terms of quality.

I have also expressed disdain for Western companies that are unprepared to pay a fair wage to any freelancer, let alone those in already low-wage countries. Somewhere along the line the emphasis has been put on the “free” in “freelancer” and employers seem to think that we should be grateful to receive a pitiful few dollars for lengthy pieces of work. I am mindful of the fact that people in India and other Asian countries do have lower costs of living and therefore the average wage is remarkably lower than here in the UK, but I would urge all companies who outsource or are thinking of outsourcing to reward high quality with just wages and find the best people for the job, regardless of where they are located. The cost benefits of employing freelancers should come from the fact that you are not responsible for paying employee’s tax, that you do not need to provide them with any equipment, office space or facilities, that you’re not obliged to stump up for holiday pay, sick pay or social security, and that you can employ us for only as long as you need us – not from the fact that we will put up with paltry hourly rates. We won’t.

I digress. “HindusOutOfUSA”, by the way, attempted to justify his xenophobia by giving the example of poor customer service when contacting outsourced call centres; “Have you ever suffered when calling Bellsouth’s customer service and some Hindu girl with heavy accent was just repeating sentences from a script and couldn’t help you with your actual problem?” he asked. Dude, if you can’t understand the accent, try opening your goddamn ears and listening for a change, and if indeed Bellsouth’s customer services team are unable to help you with your queries (which, of course, I am sure you presented in a polite and respectful manner…), the fault lies not with the individual Indian staff, but with the poor quality of training provided by your blessed American company.

Of course, “HindusOutOfUSA” was too cowardly to provide a real email address when he posted his comment (my expletive-filled personal reply to him immediately bounced back),but if anyone cleverer than me with regard to things like this can tell me how to find out who this cretin is so that he can be reported and prosecuted for inciting racial hatred, I’d be very interested to know. For anyone else thinking of plastering my site with racial hatred – don’t. All such comments will be deleted and reported.

Freelancers’ Dilemma: Control (via QuinnCreative)

10 12 2010

I really enjoyed this post from “life coach” Quinn McDonald, who highlights some of the pitfalls that can be experienced by freelancers and their clients, who forget where the line is between “consultant” and “employee”. Some really good tips here for how to regain power!

Freelancers' Dilemma: Control In my coaching practice, I work with a lot of people who are exploring their lives–they get laid off, they look for jobs, and inevitably, they begin to think about being a freelancer. Opening your own business is … Read More

via QuinnCreative

Oz Couriers – Budget Couriers and Removalists

9 12 2010

Oz Couriers is run by the same brains behind USB King and fills a niche in the budget removals and couriering market in Victoria, Australia. It was great working with the entrepreneurial owner of the site, who hired me through and whose straightforward nature made the project process effortless and hitch-free.

As the site design is clean and easily navigable, it was important not to clutter the page with wordy, elaborate copy, yet as a low-cost company in a highly competitive market, it needed to be convincing without being overly “sales-y” or pushy. I hope you’ll agree that this has effectively been achieved!

FAQ: I’ve been awarded a project via Now what?

9 12 2010

So that email has plopped into your inbox telling you that you’ve been selected to complete a project. Congratulations! You’ve clicked “accept” and received your buyer’s contact details. Great. But now what?

Hopefully, if you’ve accepted the project, it means that you’re happy to work for this person. You’ve discussed, via the private and/or public message board, what you are expected to do, in what timeframe and for how much. You’ve been sensible and checked out your buyer’s feedback and Googled their company website just to make sure they’re legit. You haven’t bid on a project that is likely to get your account suspended and, of course, you’re going to play by the rules. In short, this is a genuine project and you are a genuine freelancer, working with a genuine buyer.

The absolute KEY to successful working relationships, especially via a platform like, in which you might never meet your boss or even speak to him or her in person, is good communication. The internet is brilliant for making good communication possible – email, Skype, instant messenger etc. – but all too often it can fall by the wayside. Impatience gets the better of us, or perhaps we think we know what we’re meant to do without having had it confirmed. The old saying, “to assume makes an ass out of “u” and “me”” rings particularly true for remote working.

As soon as you’ve received that email from that lets you know your buyer’s email address, use it. Drop the buyer a quick line to let them know that you’ve accepted the project, and send them your contract (and I HIGHLY recommend that you have one. If you haven’t got one yet, try amending this one for your own needs). Tell them that you’re looking forward to starting the project, but you won’t start until you have heard back from them just in case they want to negotiate some points of your contract or give you additional information to help you complete it.

Once the buyer has given you the go-ahead to start the project, and you’re absolutely sure that you know what you’re supposed to do, then go for it, but stay in regular communication with the buyer. Depending on the project size and your specified turnaround time, you might want to send updates every day, every couple of days, or for larger projects every week. Not only does this reassure the buyer that you’re working on the project and making progress, but it gives the buyer an opportunity to review your work, to advise, make suggestions and give feedback as you go along.

Your Freelancer account won’t be suspended if you don’t stick to the turnaround time you specified, but do try to stick to it as closely as possible – if anything it’s good PR for your career and it also makes it easier to organise your own time. If there’s a genuine reason why you will not be able to make the deadline, don’t rush the job or simply abandon it – talk to the buyer and mutually agree an alternative.  You can’t help it if you are ill, if your broadband company is planning line repairs or if there is an emergency that you need to attend to, and as long as you’re open and honest, there’s no real shame in simply being a bit behind schedule, but most disputes and conflicts can be avoided or resolved through good communication. As a last resort, if you have agreed to be paid via Freelancer, you can always fall back on the Freelancer dispute system, recently clarified and improved, but I stress again that this should be used as a last resort.

The final stage of any project is of course the payment part. If you’ve been sensible, you will have agreed how, how much and when you will be paid before you start the project; it’s important to be crystal clear when talking money so that you get what you were expecting to be paid, and the buyer is under no illusions about how much they will be forking out. I mostly work on writing and editing projects, so I will always state in my contract the price that was agreed for the project AND my price per word and/or per hour. That way, if the client decides that they want more copy than they originally asked for, or the project takes significantly longer than we both thought, the client knows exactly how much extra they will be asked to pay. of course, I never write more copy than is asked for without mutually agreeing this with the buyer first!

At the end of the project, I always send my clients an invoice that breaks down the final fee so that they can see exactly where their money has been spent. I ask for payment within 14 days, but am amenable to negotiate this if, for example, the client has a policy of paying invoices at the end of the month, or needs time for clearance from their company’s financial department. Lastly, when payment has been made, I always thank the buyer and send a receipt.

Good communication and a professional approach are two of the most important rules of business. Many users of Freelancer have a lot to learn, and I’m on a learning curve myself, but I hope this will help some of you to make good choices and be successful in your venture as a freelancer.

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