Archive for the ‘About Just A Theory’ Category

2 Comments » Posted on Monday 14 February 2011 at 9:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

With nearly 4 months gone since my last blog post I feel that it’s time for an update, in case anyone is still reading. When I started Just A Theory, I aimed to post something ever day. Amazingly, I managed to do so for an entire year, but when I started working full time as a freelance science writer I found it much harder to blog.

Part of the problem was working at home – after a full day spent writing, I struggled to sit in the exact same chair, in the exact same room, and bash out another blog post. Now, I’ve started a new job at New Scientist as technology reporter, so perhaps that won’t be a problem – but I don’t think I’ll get back to regular blogging any time soon.

I’m really glad I started Just A Theory, and I’m very grateful to everyone who has read or written for the site over the years. I hope to post things here occasionally, but for the foreseeable future you’ll find my work over at New Scientist. If that’s not enough, you can also follow me on Twitter – I’m @jjaron. And now, back to your regularly scheduled silence…

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 April 2010 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Pac-Man in the moon

Mimas is fast shaping up to be the nerdiest object in the solar system. The tiny moon of Saturn has already been compared to the Death Star from Star Wars, but the Cassini probe has revealed another geek-culture icon – Pac-Man.

Nom nom nom
Nom nom nom

The appearance of the classic video game character during a thermal scan of Mimas has baffled scientists. It could be due to differences in texture on the moon’s icey surface. Old, densely packed ice conducts heat away from the surface, while recently fallen snow acts as an insulator, trapping heat to create the distinctive Pac-Man shape.

Just A Review: Just A Theory

Physics World has published a rather nice review of Just A Theory. You’ll have to register on their site to see it in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Just A Theory offers a moderately UK-centric perspective on science news for interested members of the public and busy professional researchers alike. You will not find too many detailed, hard-science articles here, but sometimes that is not the point. As a student or professional physicist, it is easy to develop tunnel vision as you dig ever deeper into a relatively narrow research topic, but keeping the “bigger picture” in sight can be a time-consuming process in an ever-more-crowded media world.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 7 October 2009 at 2:33 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

By now you’ve probably noticed the large “your ad here” signs to the right of this post, and on the front page. I thought it was worth taking to a moment to explain why I’ve chosen to put adverts on the site, and how they will work.

Just A Theory has actually always had adverts; a small box of text provided by Google. It fits in easily on the site and is generally inoffensive. It’s also, for the most part, ignored. Now, while I’m not looking to make my fortune writing on Just A Theory, I would at least like to cover the hosting costs. On the other hand, I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the site by filling it full of adverts.

Recently, I was introduced to Project Wonderful, and their model for advertising immediatly interested me. Rather than providing adverts based on the content, as Google does, Project Wonderful lets advertisers bid on spaces. As you can see, the advert on the right will currently cost you $0.05 a day to fill.

This method has two immediate benefits. First, advertisers actually look at the site and decide if their product/service fits in with Just A Theory. Second, all adverts must be approved by me before appearing on the site. As a result, readers will hopefully find that they are actually interested in clicking on the adverts, and everyone is happy.

I’ve seen it work on other sites, and actually found myself clicking on a few Project Wonderful adverts because they were well tailored to my interests. I’ve decided to take Project Wonderful for a trial run, and see how it works out.

It might be that no-one bids, in which case I’ll probably take the adverts down and forget all about it. Or, we could get some interesting advertisers who are actually offering thing you want. We’ll have to wait and see.

Please do let me know how you feel about the adverts, and whether you think they interfere too much with the site. Alternatively, if you have something you’d like to advertise (and that you think the Just A Theory audience would be interested in), why not click on the adverts and set up a Project Wonderful account?

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 28 August 2009 at 5:48 pm by Sam Wong
In About Just A Theory

Hello Just A Theory readers.

It’s been a while since I posted here, so sorry about that. Clearly when Jacob decided to stop posting every day, it wasn’t the ideal time for me to drop off the radar completely. Happily though, I was blogging elsewhere, and if you ever look at the Guardian’s science site, you might have seen some of my work there. I had a great time on my three week placement, and got plenty of stuff published on the web. In case you haven’t seen any of it, the highlights included:

I also managed to get on the podcast: you can hear me asking museum-goers about venereal disease and talking to Prof Will Stewart about autonomous vehicles. I hope to write some new stuff for you here soon, but like the other JAT bloggers, my dissertation deadline looms so I’m not making any promises.

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend. Mine will be spent at my desk.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 15 August 2009 at 8:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’m moving house tomorrow, and so will be without internet access for a week or so. Whilst I’m hoping to grab the occasional cheeky connection, it’s going to be hard get online enough for regular updates. Don’t worry though; as soon as I’m hooked up I’ll be back to blogging as normal!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 August 2009 at 10:52 pm by Thom Hoffman
In About Just A Theory, Inventions & Technology

So I wrote a post a few weeks ago about some new software that looked to help emails self destruct, hoping to spark a debate about online privacy. I got in touch with the producer of the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet and got commissioned to do a radio piece on it. You can download the podcast here, my piece starts at 13.40. It is also available  on the website to stream directly (Episode 11/08/2009).

I interviewed one of the inventors Yoshi Kohno, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Peter Sommer, a Digital Forensic Specialist and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

It was great to make the blog go auditory and hopefully there will be more to come soon.

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3 Comments » Posted on Monday 27 July 2009 at 8:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

It doesn’t seem possible, but somehow I have been writing on Just A Theory for an entire year. Yes, on 27 July 2008 I introduced myself to the internet, and I’ve been posting daily ever since.

The site has grown from having a readership I could count on one hand, to getting thousands of visitors a month. Along the way I’ve been joined by friends from the science communication course at Imperial College; thank you Seth, Jess, Thom, Emma, Colin and Sam for everything you have added to the site.

Starting this blog is one of the best things I ever did. It’s opened a lot of doors for me – when people asking for writing samples, I can offer 365. I’ve written so much that the WordPress word count plugin actually broke – it ran out of memory. At last count, the blog was pushing close to 200,000 words.

People always ask how I manage to write every single day. The answer is simple: to be a science writer, you have to write about science. Posting something every day has definitely improved the quality of my writing, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. Even on those days when writing seemed like a chore, I often found myself having fun by the time I hit “Publish”.

Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where blogging every day is no longer possible. I’ve still got another week to go at the Guardian, and my final dissertation date is looming with precisely zero of 10,000 words written. Rather than produce a token post every day to keep up with the quota, I’ve decided to go for quality over quantity.

I haven’t quite worked out a new schedule yet, but I’m thinking Monday, Wednesday, Friday with the obligatory Sunday roundup could work quite well. I’m hoping that there will still be something new on Just A Theory every day from one of the other six contributors, but they’ve also got work placements and dissertations to contend with!

So, things will change around here, but I think that’s inevitable as I make the transition from “science communication student” to “professional science writer”. I’ve still not got used to calling myself that, but I guess I probably should. And whilst I may be updating Just A Theory less, I hope that you’ll see my writing cropping up in other places as well.

All that’s left to be said is thanks to everyone who has read and commented on the site in this past year. Your suggestions, criticisms, and maybe even praise are all welcome at any time. I look forward to what the next year holds.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 July 2009 at 12:44 pm by Colin Stuart
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

As you have been hearing from the Just a Theory team, this week has been a special one for everyone and particularly those of us involved with astronomy and space science.

With Jacob pipping me to writing stories both about the moon landings and Lord Drayson’s announcement that the UK will once again fund UK astronauts, you can hear my take on it, as well as a shameless plug for Just a Theory on this week’s BBC 5Live Pods and Blogs podcast.

Head on over to the BBC website to check it out (21st July episode, I’m first up)

More to come from me on tomorrow’s solar eclipse soon!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 3:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

By which I mean Thom Hoffman, another friend of mine from Imperial College. Having studied psychology at Southampton for three years he decided to join the science communication course and study the media as well.

He’s also the other half of the Papercuts podcast, a weekly topical news show that he does with our very own Sam. Look out for posts by Thom soon.

In the meantime, perhaps you would like to enter this competition to have your radio message bounced off the Moon. Simply come up with something better than Neil Armstrong’s immortal words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Any suggestions?

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 April 2009 at 5:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Just A Theory has expanded once more! You’ll already have noticed Colin Stuart, who has managed to squeeze in two blog posts in as many days, but then he does like to get about a bit.

Having studied astrophysics at Manchester he set out to be a science communicator in all manner of outlets. He gives planetarium shows at The Royal Observatory, contributes to the popular Jodcast and also runs Science Made Fun, a website devoted to exciting children with science.

As well as Colin and the rest of the gang, you’ll soon be hearing from Jessica Bland. After graduating from Oxford last year with a degree in Physics & Philosophy she joined the Imperial course, and she is particularly interested in science policy and politics. Look out for her first post coming up this week. Welcome Colin and Jess!

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 15 April 2009 at 1:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve already got updates on Just A Theory being pushed to my Twitter feed, but I’ve been trying for a while now to do the same thing on Facebook. If you’ll forgive my diversion from our usual topic of science, I thought I’d explain how I did it so that others can avoid hours of wasted Googling.

What I wanted was an automated process that would take newly published blog posts and put them into my News Feed on Facebook. If you want people to read your posts that’s the best place to put them, as when ever you login to Facebook the first thing you see is your friends’ News Feeds.

After trying many plugins it seems that the only one with this functionality that actually works is Full Circle. Its rather undescriptive name makes it quite hard to find, but its the one you want. I’m not going to explain how to install plugins – I’ll leave that to the WordPress help – but once you’ve got the plugin running on your blog, you’ll find it in the Dashboard under Settings > Full Circle.

Full Circle can actually update Twitter as well, but I’ve only tried it for Facebook. To get this working you must first “Enable posting to Facebook account” then go here to install Full Circle on Facebook. Allow Full Circle to post updates, then return to your WordPress settings and follow the link to connect Full Circle on WordPress to Full Circle on Facebook using the code it generates. Back in WordPress, you can set a couple of options, and then if everything works your next post should be published on Facebook as well. Phew.

Author of the plugin James Andrews is asking for donations to support the plugin. Normally I wouldn’t bother, but since this plugin has finally done exactly what I wanted, I’m going to swing him a few quid. Cheers James! Now, back to the science…

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

You’ll now notice a little picture of myself in the upper left corner of this post. With the introduction of new writers to Just A Theory, hopefully this will help distinguish between the many voices on the site. Emma and Sam also have their own headshots, so now you can put faces to the names.

Those guys will of course have their weekly posts coming shortly, but look out soon for the inaugural post by the latest member of the Just A Theory team, Seth Bell. He graduated from Cambridge University in 2007 with a degree in natural sciences, specialising in philosophy of science.

Naturally, he’s now studying science communication at Imperial like the rest of us. Seth and I love to disagree for disagreement’s sake, so be prepared for some healthy banter here on Just A Theory. Welcome Seth!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 April 2009 at 11:33 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Before we get on with the Weekly Roundup, I should introduce the latest Just A Theory blogger. You may have already noticed Emma’s post yesterday about tasty vaccines, but if not go and have a read. She previously studied pharmacology at Newcastle University before joining the sci comm course at Imperial, and works part time at Understanding Animal Research. Welcome Emma! Now, on with the roundup.

Finding the science behind the news

It’s terribly annoying to read an interesting science story with no link to the original paper. Ever since I started writing Just A Theory, I’ve come across this problem again and again. When I write something, I’ll always link to the paper if I’ve been able to track it down.

A new tool will hopefully make this a little easier. Recently launched, the science behind it will hunt down those pesky papers for you. It currently only works for stories on the BBC and Reuters and since it uses PubMed it’s generally only of use for biological or medical research articles. It seems that designer Adam Bernard is planning to expand its scope though.

I had a go with the “robotic scientist” story that Sam wrote about on Friday, and it seems to work quite well. The result could be a bit prettier, but that’s a fairly minor complaint if it means I can get my hands on a few more papers!

Life on Mars Russia?

Ah, David Bowie, where would we be without you? Having to come up with original headlines for stories about Mars, that’s where. Earlier this week the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow began a 105 day experiment to simulate a journey to the Red Planet.

Six volunteers climbed into their new home, three windowless steel capsules only 550 cubic metres big – just enough space to hold a tennis court under a moderately high ceiling. Inside, each volunteer has their own cabin furnished with bed, desk and chair. They will be able to contact the outside world, but only with a simulate Earth-Mars delay of 20 minutes.

Although it sounds like a potential Channel 4 reality show, the volunteers will be conducting serious science. As well as finding out how astronauts might deal with a cramped journey to Mars, they will conduct experiments and wear electrodes as they sleep to monitor brain activity.

It could be worse. If this experiment is a success, a subsequent experiment lasting 520 days will simulate a round trip to Mars with a 30 day stay on the surface. Unlike a real Martian mission however, the volunteers will be allowed to leave if they wish to abandon the task, though this will be counted as “death” for the purposes of the experiment…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve been writing daily on Just A Theory for just over 7 months now, racking up a total of more than 100,000 words published. I’m pretty pleased with myself, but why should I have all the fun?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing new writers to the blog. They’re all on the Imperial science communication course with me, and will each be posting around once a week. Whilst I will continue to post every day, I might take the occasional break and let the new guys fill in.

My first new blogger is Sam Wong. Sam studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge before enrolling at Imperial, and as such knows much more about biology than I do. His first post will be up in a minute – glad to have you on board Sam!

With the new writers will come a few changes in the blog layout, most notably author images so that you can tell who’s work you’re reading. These will hopefully be implemented in the next few days, so don’t worry if the site has a small amount of downtime. Now I’ll hand over to Sam…

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3 Comments » Posted on Monday 2 February 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve just moved the Just A Theory RSS feeds (for both entries and comments) over to Feedburner. The move is mainly to make it easier for people to subscribe, and for me to track subscribers. If everything has gone according to plan, existing subscribers should find that their feedreaders are now redirected to Feedburner automagically…

3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 27 January 2009 at 10:57 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Believe it or not, today marks six months since I started Just A Theory. I won’t lie, it has been difficult at times, but I’m really glad that I have managed to post every single day since 27th July 2008! I really feel that my writing is improving, and it’s nice to see from that stats that a fair few people check out the site every day – even if I don’t get very many comments!

More on stats in a second, but first I want to point out a new feature on Just A Theory. At the bottom of each post you will now find “Web2.0″ style sharing buttons. These will allow you to add any post you find to a variety of websites in order to share the goodness with your friends (or indeed random internet strangers) and hopefully drive a bit more traffic to the site. A few posts have already been added to StumbleUpon by someone, with some success, so I thought I might as well make it easier to do. If your favourite content sharer isn’t represented below, just let me know and I can add it.

In further Web2.0-ness, I am now on Twitter. After a lecture on the use of services like Twitter in science reporting, I thought I’d try it out. You can follow my activities here, though I can’t guarantee that I will write anything interesting there! So far my most interesting “tweet” has been this video of a goat. Perhaps Twitter can be used for grander things, but unfortunately I am yet to discover them.

On to the stats. Being a maths geek at heart I do love me some numbers, and so have all sorts of WordPress plugins that allow me to keep track of various things on the site. Here are the most interesting nuggets:

Posts: 185
Comments: 64
Total word count: 77,977
Average word count per post: 414
Total page views: 5,148. Interestingly, almost half of these occurred in January alone.
Average page views per day: 20 in 2008, 83 in 2009.
Most popular post: Waiting for sex – a “formula” story with a difference, with 356 page views. I attribute the popularity to a combination of being posted on Research Blogging, the RSS feed of which has recently been syndicated on the ever-popular ScienceBlogs, and of course the use of the word “sex”.

So there you have it. The stats seem to indicate that the site is growing, which is nice to see, and I hope that the next six months will be as good as the last. As always, if you have any suggestions for improvements to the site, or ideas on what you would like to see me write about, just leave a comment.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 November 2008 at 11:30 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

I’m in Cambridge this weekend, so I’m afraid all I have for you today is the image below. It’s a recently restored photo taken in 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1, and represents the first glimpse of the Earth from the Moon. I’ve lifted it from Astronomy Picture of the Day, so go there to check out the full resolution version. Have a look around whilst you’re there, it’s a great site.

If you’re still hungry for some science, might I suggest watching Einstein and Eddington this evening on BBC2 at 9.10pm. Starring Andy Serkis and David Tennant in the titular roles, it tells the story of the relationship between the two great scientists. I’ve been looking forward to it for some time, and you can expect a full review next week. See you tomorrow for the usual Weekly Roundup, but until then I’ll let the picture do the talking:

The first ever image of Earth from the Moon
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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 October 2008 at 4:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

(Sorry if this post seems to be springing about all over the place – there was a mixup with the timestamping and it got posted to Saturday rather than Monday…)

This week I will finally be starting the Science Communication MSc at Imperial College. Term officially started on Saturday (yes, I’m not quite sure why either), and there is a welcome event this afternoon, but everything really kicks off tomorrow. I thought I’d lay out how I see Just A Theory changing once the course starts.

Me, Myself and I

When relevant, I plan to post about myself a little bit more. How the course is going, highlights from interesting lectures, that sort of thing. If you’re just here for the science, feel free to skip over these posts – they will all be in the Happenings category. I will try and keep it focused on actual science communication however, and not just “this is how my day went” type posts.

The Secret Ingredient Of Primary Sources

As a member of Imperial College I will have an Athens username. This incredibly useful system allows you to access hundreds of online scientific journals from any computer, courtesy of your institution’s blanket license. At the moment, it is very rare that I can write about new research directly from the peer-reviewed paper – an individual 24-hour license for one journal can cost as much as $20, and I just can’t afford that. This has been bugging me ever since starting Just A Theory, but using Athens I will be able to rely less on press releases and more on scientists own words.

Things Can Only Get Better

Or so I hope. The whole point of this course is to make me a better science communicator; I would like to think that as I progress the quality of my writing will increase. I think that in the two months or so I’ve been working on Just A Theory I’ve already made improvements, but I’ll let you be the judge of that!

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

I’m really looking forward to starting the course, but I’m also under no illusion – it’s going to be a lot of work. So far I have posted every single day since starting, but if course commitments become too intense I may have to scale back a bit. At the moment I tend to write two or three days ahead of myself to allow a bit of breathing room, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up on the daily posts. We shall see.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 27 August 2008 at 11:36 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Just A Theory has now been running for one whole month, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect on how well it is going. I’m happy that I’ve so far managed to post every single day, leading to a total of over 13,000 words published so far! I’m not going to pretend that everything I’ve written has been absolutely amazing, but I’m quite pleased with a few of my posts – these three on combating climate change, Prince Charles’ GM food bashing, and my review of The Genius of Charles Darwin in particular.

I’d be interested to know what my readers think. I know at the moment it is mostly friends and family (along with random Google searchers) checking out the site, so what do you guys think so far? I think my posts break down for the most part into three types: talking about science in the news (“This new thing has been discovered, isn’t it neat?”), talking about others talking about science (“Check this out, they’re getting it wrong/right”), and talking about science in general (such as the two posts on Euler’s equation this week). Which type of post do you prefer?

To encourage people to comment I’ve made it a bit easier by sticking a link to the form at the bottom of every post, in nice, big, friendly letters. Now you don’t have to scroll back up to the top of the post to make yourself heard! So, let me know what you think I’m doing well, and what I could do better.

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 27 July 2008 at 5:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Welcome all, to Just A Theory, my own little corner of the internet. Hopefully you are here because you have at least a passing interest in science. I love science. I love opening a newspaper to read about an amazing new discovery, with the potential to change the world. I love watching documentaries about passionate people explaining their ideas. I love the beauty of Euler’s equation, which communicates a world of mathematics in just seven symbols. I even love science fiction, despite its propensity to get the science wrong.

I think my passion for science stems from simply asking the question ‘why?’ By the time I was 7 years old, my parents had clearly had enough of answering ‘why?’ and bought me a copy of the Oxford Children’s Encyclopedia. A fantastic set of books, I still have my copy, although it has been horribly abused with broken spines, ripped pages, and everything else that makes a book lover weep. I like to see its dishevelled state as a testament to how many times I read it, as I enjoyed learning about exciting concepts such as black holes and gravity for the very first time.

Most children like learning about science (after all, who doesn’t like blowing things up in experiments) but many are turned off when the fun gives way to SATs, GCSEs, and endless learning of facts by rote. When they grow up and become adults, exposure to science is often in the form of scare stories – hardly inspiring.

It’s such a shame that these people are turned off to science. Science provides so much for us, but it is also very misunderstood by those who benefit from it every day. Part of the problem is the majority of scientists are not expert communicators. The stereotype of a bearded man in a lab coat who wanders around in a world of his own is of course exactly that, but not completely untrue. When you have devoted your entire life to one area of study, it can be very hard to explain your ideas to a media that thrives on sound bites.

In October I will be starting a course on Science Communication at Imperial College. I hope that this will lead me into a career as a science communicator, someone who can take these grand ideas and present them so they will be understood, appreciated and enjoyed by the public at large. As such, I had been planning to start this website for a few months now, but as is so often the case I put it off until the proper motivation arrived, in the form of Science Blogging 2008. I’m looking forward to the extensive programme, as well as meeting other science bloggers. Of course, I’ll post a full account after the event next month.

I hope that you enjoy Just A Theory, and find it both informative and entertaining. Feel free to leave a comment with any thoughts or suggestions you may have. Your first comment will be held in a queue for moderation before appearing on the site – annoying, I agree, but comment spamming is almost as bad as the email variety. Once it has been approved, any further comments will be published immediately. Thank you for visiting, and once again – welcome.