Animal Magnetism

I have a fun freelance gig, writing up public-facing papers that have won a genomics award. Most of it is embargoed as yet, but I wanted to share something that has me shook.

I get to interview some seriously fascinating researchers, many of whom are very, very generous with their time and explanations. It’s thanks to one of these interviewees that today I learned about ‘salt bridges’ in protein folding, and was reminded, once again, how incredibly intricate and elegant life is.

Figure from an old textbook showing the field of a bar magnet
Opposites attract: the basis of the building blocks of life, as well as being the basis of one of the most unsettling music videos of all time.

The sequence of bases in your DNA determines (in many cases at least) the sequence of amino acids that are assembled to form a protein. There are 20 different amino acids in human biology. Some of these are hydrophobic: they usually make up the core of the protein as they cluster together in the centre, away from the sogginess inside the cell.

But the rest of the protein also needs to fold. And one of the ways this happens is with something called a ‘salt bridge.’ Some amino acids tend to have a positive charge (arginine or lysine) or a negative charge (glutatmate or aspartate.) When two amino acids of opposite charge are close together in the sequence (close here being less than half a nanometer) they *boop* together and fold the protein. All these folds make the protein do whatever it needs to do, whether that’s help metabolise your food, build your body, fight off invaders, or carry messages.

A single mutation in the amino acid sequence can cause major problems. For example, the loss of a single negatively-charged amino acid (replaced with an uncharged version) is enough to cause progeria syndrome.

Just thinking about all these little tiny charges, making these tiny origami shapes, is enough to induce a kind of vertigo. Inside you, me, every living thing, there are billions of these electrostatic bonds snapping shut, time after time after time. The machinery of life is complex, beautiful, and common to us all. We are all fragile, precious beings made of fragile, precious things.

It’s a wild statistical improbability – a more spiritual person than me might just go ahead and say it’s a miracle – that any of us is here.

Bye Bye Extraneous Elephants

I’m doing the desk research for the chapter on perception and attention in the forthcoming book, and I’m struck by how systematically kids’ spotlight of attention narrows over the years until it matches our own, and how much I’ll miss my daughter’s erratic searchlight now it’s starting to settle down. Writing the following kind of broke me:

I remember a supermarket trip with our daughter when she was about 18 months old. From her vantage point in the trolley, she pointed out everything that interested her. Distracted by the task of getting through the shopping list (and oriented solely to the shelves-that-might-have-the-things-I-need-and-for-goodness-sakes-Tesco-stop-moving-them-please!) I was doing that kind of parental echoing thing without fully listening… 


‘Yes, darling, yummy strawberries.’ 


‘Yes, juicy oranges!’ 

‘A elephant!’ 

‘Yes, darling, a nice, big…what?! Where?’ 

‘A elephant in the bananas!’

A picture of a small plastic toy elephant with a raised trunk and a bit of a cheeky look in its eye
Bye bye elephant – picture by Magda Ehlers

There was indeed an abandoned toy elephant in the bananas. Without the attentional shackles of a shopping list, my 18 month old’s attention could wander happily, bringing me wonders like these. 

I miss those days when everything from ‘windmills’ (wind turbines) to ‘pijishins’ (her first attempts at ‘pigeon’) and ‘bishisicles’ (bicycles) was worthy of note. As her spotlight of attention narrows, she’s more capable of navigating the adult world, and of helping me find the cornflakes, but I wonder if we’ll experience the wonder of spotting the rogue elephant in the bananas ever again.

Making toddlers fall over (for science, you monster)

I just saw the most divine figure in a paper from 1974:

Figure 2 from thr 1974 Paper by Lee and Aronson. There are three panels showing a) a stick figure representing an infant standing in the swinging room. b) the infant's internal response to the walls swinging away (which is indicated by a dotted line showing that the infant senses that they are swaying backwards.) Panel c shows the infant stick figure with a solid line arcing towards the front of the room, showing the direction of most infants' motor responses. there is also a dotted version of the stick figure lying on the floor, presumably to indicate the children who fell on their asses - or faces.
In the ‘swinging room’ experiment, which investigates whether vision or the vestibular system is dominant in early balance, Lee and Aronson of the University of Edinburgh successfully made infants fall over 33 percent of the time. Now that’s empiricism I can get behind…

:chef’s kiss emoji:

The setup is a room with a static floor but the ‘walls and ceiling’ are an inverted open box that can be swung at will by the experimenters. This makes it look like the floor is tilting (and is the essence of carnival funhouses from time immemorial.) Adults in this setting will sway a little – it’s hard to ignore your eyes even when your ears and muscles are telling you you’re not moving. But what’s the story for infants? When do they learn to trust their non-visual cues?

“Not by the age of 16 months” is the answer. Poor dotted stick figure in panel c. Lee and Aronson only did the experiment with seven small subjects. Whether that’s because they ran out of time, volunteers, or ability to keep a straight face is lost to history…

The Best form of Defence is a Tax (Adviser)

As a self-employed author, tax and accounting is definitely the second largest administrative overhead (after chasing freelance clients for invoice payments.) I set aside Friday afternoons to deal with my finances – largely because I’m pretty written out by then, and partly because I don’t think it’s a great idea to email anyone after 2 p.m. on a Friday unless you’re happy for them to have forgotten about you on Monday morning.

Person signing in to online self assessment on their phone
I never do this on my phone… I do it with about 600 explanatory tabs open and a litre of coffee.

Even though I’m a girly swot, I still have a serious case of the jitters at the prospect of misfiling my tax return. Do I account for my royalties before or after my agent’s percentage has been taken off? Do I declare expenses payments as payments? What expenses can I claim. Being a timid soul I’ve always tended to declare everything and claim almost nothing.

But yesterday I was lucky enough to attend another Society of Authors event provided by tax specialists HW Fisher. You don’t necessarily expect a two-and-a-half hour session on tax to be exciting but it was incredibly lively and it really brought home how confusing it is to account for multiple types of income from multiple countries, being paid in multiple ways.

It made me realise I’m not alone and I’m not entirely cretinous when it comes to all things HMRC: an author’s life is just really complicates. Our incomes tend to oscillate wildly, we often have some form of employment alongside our writing although this is often part time or on a short term contract. We are, most often, our own accountants, collections agents, and payroll processors rolled into one. It’s no wonder we need advice.

So here are the top 10 things I learned about self-assessment tax for authors:

  1. VATable and taxable income are not the same: all income is taxable (over the personal allowance threshold – 12,500 as of October 2019) but only income earned in the UK is VATable. And PLR income is taxable but not VATable. ALCS income is, on the other hand, VATable… See Barry Kernon’s 2017 guide on VAT for authors for details.
  2. Always declare expense payments as income and the corresponding expenditure as an outgoing. It won’t affect your taxes but it might put you over the income threshold for VAT. However, if the organiser of an event pays for your travel and accommodation directly you don’t need to account for this.
  3. If you are travelling for research/talks/meetings and you happen to tag on a day’s sightseeing then you can include flights, and the accommodation required for attending the meeting, as outgoings. But if you happen to do a bit of work on holiday then sadly you can’t claim for the trip. The primary purpose of the trip has to be business.
  4. If you’re fortunate enough to be an author of sufficient renown that people would pay to own your archives, you will have to pay tax on the income that comes from selling those papers.
  5. Most authors currently don’t benefit from voluntarily registering for VAT, or from setting up as a limited company. The benefits of doing these tend to change as tax regulations change – it’s definitely something you want expert advice on before committing!
  6. HMRC’s flat rate home working allowance is probably far less than you could claim if you actually worked out your expenses. Utilities are worked out on proportion of time and space used for working. Building overheads (council tax, insurance, interest on mortgage/rent…) can be claimed as a proportion of space used (either by square foot or by the number of rooms – not including kitchens or bathrooms – in your home.)
  7. But don’t use a room entirely for work. If it doesn’t have at least some personal use, this has capital gains implications when you sell your house!
  8. Professional subscriptions and training are deductable but only if they relate to the business you’re in. I could potentially claim for a course in shorthand or archival research, but not for a course in taekwando or felting.
  9. Reasonable subsistence: if you have to be away from home – for a training course, to visit a client, or to do research, you can claim reasonable meal costs as expenses. Things that don’t count are: eating out when you could conceivably have home home for lunch, eating out because you chose to work from the library, eating out because the seventeenth trip to the fridge failed to yield anything more appetising than the first sixteen.

    You can’t claim for entertaining. You shouldn’t claim for buying lunch for your publisher or agent: apparently they should always buy lunch for you…
  10. Keep six years of records as a minimum in case of investigations. Keep a diary that logs your meetings and travel (this can be your work calendar – it’s worth annotating this with mileage if travelling by car.) You don;t need to log all calls but keep a sample log of your calls so you can figure out the proportion of business and personal calls.

If you’re a member of the Society of Authors (and if you make or are planing to make money as an author and are based in the UK you really should be – it’s the best investment you could make in your career!) then there is a tax helpline you can call, and you can also benefit from a free, one hour tax review with HW Fisher. You can also benefit from insurance that will pay accountancy fees should you end up being the subject of an HMRC enquiry.

So if tax is giving you conniptions, don’t hide from it. I’ve realised I have been under-claiming on home-working expenses systematically (because of lack of confidence) and that I was likely to make an error on my 2019-20 tax return by declaring royalties/advances as net of agency fees. It won’t make any practical difference, my income wont go high enough to have to register for VAT, but it could have raised an eyebrow at HMRC if I systematically declare an income that is 20% lower than my publisher’s expenditure…

Time to go back to my usual place of work, look in the fridge for an eighteenth time, and fire up my accounting software.

It’s (K) Complex

Figure - fictionalised neural activity showing stage two NREM activations - public domain image by Wikipedia User Neocadre
Figure – fictionalised neural activity showing stage two NREM activations – public domain image by Wikipedia User Neocadre

K-complexes are patterns of activity in which the voltage across the scalp rises then drops. K-complexes seem to kick off a period of reduced firing between neurons, perhaps because of the massive changes in the neuron’s polarity.

To explain why those large large fluctuations lead to a period of quiet, we need to dig into the way that signals propagate through the brain. EEGs measure the combined effect of action potentials in the brain. These action potentials are the electrical signals that travel from the cell nucleus, down the axons. However, the electrical potential is not what is transmitted between neurons. When an axon terminal reaches a sufficient voltage (positive or negative with respect to its surroundings) this opens ‘gates’ in those axons. What is released are neurotransmitters: chemical signals that bind with the receptor sites on other neurons. Those neurotransmitters cause a voltage change in the receiving neuron. If enough neurotransmitters from enough axons reach the dendrites of a given cell, gates open in the neuron, allowing either positively or negatively charged ions to enter the cell. If enough channels open to let in enough positive (or negative) ions then an action potential builds up again. For a K-complex to occur, there must be a large, coordinated flow of neurotransmitters that allow positive ions into the neurons, followed by a large, coordinated flow of neurotransmitters that allow negative ions to accumulate in the neurons. After that, the reserves of neurotransmitters are pretty much exhausted, which is why the rates of neuronal firing fall throughout the brain just after the K-complex. 

It would seem from this that K-complexes are designed to keep us asleep, to exhaust the neurotransmitters rapidly and leave our brains in what is called a ‘down state.’(Cash et al. 2009) However, recent research suggests that there may be more to it than that. K-complexes may serve as a kind of sentry, telling us whether to stay asleep, or to wake up. 

Combined EEG and fMRI recordings show that when K-complexes are picked up at the scalp, the brainstem, thalamus, and sensory areas of the brain are all doing…something.  Thirty-seven incredibly resilient volunteers managed to fall asleep inside a banking, clanking fMRI tube, and their activation levels during K-complexes were recorded and analysed by Professor Kolja Jahnke and colleagues at Goethe University in Frankfurt. For some time it had been thought that K-complexes were largely spontaneous, but Prof Jahnke’s team discovered that sensory processing areas of the brain are active during K-complexes. They particularly noticed that auditory processing areas of the cortex were active. As they pointed out: ‘acoustical scanner noise is unavoidable during [fMRI].’  In other words, between the pumps driving helium around the coils, to the rapid vibrations of the coils themselves, the inside of an fMRI machine is loud. It seems as though, during the up-state of K-complexes, we’re open to processing sensory information, although the parts of the brain involved in conscious awareness (the frontal-parietal area) stays fast asleep. 

That would explain why K-complexes can be useful ‘wake points’ if we hear a worrying noise in the night. But how do they keep us asleep? Activity along the midline of the brain in particular seemed to preserve sleep by triggering the downstate mentioned above.

K-complexes are then usually followed by sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are patterns of activity in the brain that are believed to help us go to sleep and stay there, although this might not be entirely true in very young children: babies whose brains produce more sleep spindles are no more difficult to wake up than those babies who produce fewer. (Horne et al. 2003) But in older children and adults, these spindles seem to be a necessary part of stage two NREM sleep. They might be part of the mechanism by which sleep helps us build memories and retain skills. People are more likely to remember more words, shapes and faces the next morning if they experienced more sleep spindles during the night. (Schabus et al. 2004; Clemens et al. 2005) Sleep can improve our physical skills too. People were asked to type the sequence 4-1-3-2-4 as quickly and accurately as possible with their non dominant hand. Those who napped between the practice and test phases did better than those who spend the intervening time awake. (Nishida and Walker 2007)

Babies and young children show a distinct pattern in their development of sleep spindles. Babies in their first year have rapid sleep spindles, which occur roughly once every 20 seconds, and they last for about 1-1.5 seconds. Children between the ages of four and 16 have slightly faster frequencies and similar durations with sleep spindles lasting around 1.5 seconds and occurring every five to six seconds. But between the ages of one and three, something unusual happens. Despite the density of learning that toddlers are undergoing, sleep spindles get further apart – once every 40 seconds at one year of age, to 110 seconds at 19 months, to every 83 seconds at two years and four months.  The durations of spindles drop too, roughly halving from the length that babies and older children experience. (Scholle et al. 2007) No one is quite sure what is happening during those toddler years, or what other mechanisms might take over to aid learning, but we can be certain that there’s something that is just different about sleep in the toddler years. The development of K-complexes, too, is rapid for the first two years, variable until five, but doesn’t reach mature rates until at least early adolescence. (Metcalf et al. 1971) Perhaps some of this wakefulness is not so much disordered sleep as developmental stages.

Copyright, licenses, and reversion (oh my!)

[Note that this blog post dates from October 2019. After strenuous work by the Society of Authors and its equivalents around the world, EU member states should transpose laws that make rights reversion a matter of statute under thanks to the new Copyright Directive. That means that authors in EU member states will have reversion rights no matter what their publisher says. This is something that needs to be transposed into each member state’s laws by June 2021. How that happens (or whether that happens) in the UK will depend on what kind of Brexit happens… watch this space.]

As writers we create assets all the time. Sometimes – particularly for freelance journalism – we assign the copyright to the publisher. But books have a longer shelf life, and that makes their copyright a much bigger asset.

Book deals – contracts with publishers – aren’t buying your words per se. They’re buying a license to use your words.[1] And that license can broad (all territories, all languages, all formats) or narrow.

But what do you do if your publisher doesn’t exploit that license: if your book languishes, or even goes out of print? In some countries there is a statutory right of reversion. After a period of time – or when fewer than a certain number of copies are sold, the license lapses and you’re free to resell those rights to another publisher. But that’s not the case in the UK, Australia or New Zealand at least in 2019.

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a talk and discussion at the Society of Authors. The keynote speaker was Professor Rebecca Giblin of Monash University. She painstakingly sifted through the archive of the Australian Authors Association to see which reversion rights (if any) existed in writers’ contracts.

Worryingly, 14 percent of authors didn’t have an out of print clause at all, which means that if the publisher just stops printing the book, the author has no right to reclaim their copyright and sell a license to another publisher. Of the other 86 percent of authors, some of the out of print clauses aren’t fit for purpose for the 21st century, Out of print clauses that say you can reclaim your copyright when your book was no longer ‘technically available’ made sense before e-books and POD. But now your book may be technically available, but languish unmarketed and unloved . Prof. Giblin suggested that authors ask for objective criteria (fewer than N copies sold, less than £N in royalties for a period of X months…) rather than rely on a contentious definition of ‘unavailable.’

She also pointed out that many contracts lack a clause that deals with liquidation. In the UK at least, licenses are assets that belong to the publisher and do not revert back to you when they go out of business. If you don’t have an explicit liquidation clause then your license may go to the Crown. And as funny as it is to imagine Brenda working as a publisher, I don’t think any of us fancy the legal nightmare that detangling our copyright from the liquidator’s asset list entails.

Jazzmine Breary of Jacaranda books and Emma D’Cruz of Penguin Random House talked about how their contracts work, and how licenses are what lets publishers stay in business, but also that good publishers only ask for the rights that they know they can help exploit. If your agent isn’t part of a film and TV agency, or doesn’t have a strong overseas network, you may be better selling a licence for other formats and territories to your publisher, rather than hoping your agent can sell those rights on. That certainly worked well for me: Profile Books have a great working relationship with English Language publishers in Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and an agent in the US, whereas my agent, Carrie Plitt, was great at finding new territories for translated versions.

In short – while there are some horror stories out there, your agent, your publisher and you all have a vested interest in getting your book to market and making sure it does great when it gets there: whether that market is dead tree ware, e books, audio, translations, adaptations, you name it. If you’re happy with what a publisher can do with that license, there would be no need to take it back. Reversion should only come into play when your asset isn’t being exploited by the licensee as well as it could be.

If you have any questions about contracts, conditions, or the business of publishing, I urge you to join the SOA. As one of the audience members noted last nigh, as writers, we are business people too. We’ve all got mouths to feed and doors to keep the wolves from. By working together we can try to make sure that writing isn’t just a profession that is open to those dilettantes who don’t need the money {*cough* Jacob Rees Mogg *cough*} when there are far more talented writers out there.

I’m going to stop now before I start singing trade union anthems…

[1] Professor Giblin said that she had seen some contracts in the archives where publishers had requested the copyright per se. This wasn’t usual – and oftentimes the publishers didn’t even seem to know that they’d done this as it was incompatible with other wording in the contract. This is why it’s extremely useful to have a) a knowledgeable agent and b) a membership of the Society of Authors so you can use their contract advice services! You can even join as an emerging member before you sign your first contract.

Natural short sleepers – best. Mutation. Evah

There are some extraordinary people who can get by on about three-quarters of the amount of sleep that the rest of us need. One particular family has a mutation that allows them to function normally on just six-and-a quarter hours of sleep per 24 hour period. This family was studied by geneticists, who found that a single letter change from C to T on a single gene, ADRB1, was present in all the family members who happily got by on less sleep, and was absent in all the other members of the family. (Shi et al. 2019) Only 4 in 100,000 (or 0.004 percent of the population) is thought to have this mutation, so the team genetically engineered mice so that they would carry the same mutation. Mice with the mutation were more active and slept less than the mice without.

John Singer Sargent 'Repose'
John Singer Sargent ‘Repose’

It’s hard to know how the mice felt about this, but according to Professor Ying-Hui Fu of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences who led the study, the people with the mutation tend to be more optimistic, more energetic, better multitaskers, are more tolerant of pain, and don’t get jet lag.   According to professor Fu. ‘Natural short sleepers experience better sleep quality and sleep efficiency,’ she said. ‘By studying them, we hope to learn what makes for a good night’s sleep, so that all of us can be better sleepers leading happier, healthier lives.’ Forget trying to colonise Mars. This is the research that the billionaires should be funding.