Archive for the ‘Humour’ Category

(Y)ear-ily quiet

December 31, 2011

It’s been a considerable while since I posted here (even by my laggard-ly standards), so I thought I would use the end of the year – and a real kidney stone of a year it’s been, all in all – to reassure any remaining loyal readers* that I have not joined the choir invisible, but am merely lurking. Blame ‘blog fatigue’, among other things.

I don’t know how many of these who are still visiting are users of Twitter (anyone care to confess?). Anyway, given my seemingly ever-diminishing attention span, Twitter is probably the best place to follow my abbreviated (if inevitably rather repetitive) rantings. Should you be so inclined, of course.

Meanwhile, while wondering what I could possibly write about today, I found myself re-visiting my last year’s predictions for the year ahead. Or rather – what I thought I could predict with a fair degree of certainty would still be true on Dec 31st 2011.

When I did this, I was slightly surprised to find that almost all of them were broadly correct.

Indeed, some of them were depressingly accurate.

Perhaps most depressingly, I predicted that:

‘The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms”

Well, not a difficult prediction to make, of course. But I have to say I really am profoundly depressed by what is now being proposed – which seems far too likely to be a form of asset-stripping by the big private multinational Healthcare Cos that have been assiduously dripping their syrup into the ears of politicians of all parties, and their advisers, for the last decade and a half. I was reading this article earlier today, and it was – is – very scary.

Getting back to the 2010 year’s end predictions, the major exception to their correctness is the one about Jr Aust #1 losing interest in Harry Potter – though her interest did wane a bit though the Summer, when it was displaced by a taste for the adventure stories of Enid Blyton (sic). However…after we were all compelled to watch some near-interminable programme of Harry Potter movie highlights this afternoon, I think we can conclude that, though Jr Aust #1′s Potter-ism seems to be of the relapsing-remitting type, it is definitely chronic.

Talking of the sprogs, I continue to be given regular lessons in Karmic Payback by Jrs Aust #1 and #2. Jr Aust #1 achieved the goal of out-talking dad around the age of four, and for the last couple of years has been out-arguing me too. By out-arguing I mean talking over me, refusing to admit she could ever possibly be wrong, never giving an inch, indulging in casuistry of Jesuitical deviousness, continually shifting the goalposts, and retaining the final sanction of storming out of the room still loudly insisting she is right.

Mrs Dr Aust and I continue to hope this prefigures a well-rewarded future as a lawyer.

(Though reading that again, I’m slightly worried that it sounds like the rhetorical repertoire of most politicians)

Until earlier today, though, Dr Aust had usually managed not to be verbally outsmarted by Jr Aust #2 (formerly Baby Aust, but as he is now three and a half that doesn’t seem all that appropriate a handle any more).

As I was saying – until today.

When we were having dinner earlier Jr Aust #2 insisted on doing all his eating whilst lying on his back on his chair with his feet (none too clean feet, I should say) on the table.

Naturally I told him to get his feet off the table.

“No feet on the table at dinner”

I said in my sternest paterfamilias voice.

Upon which he lifted his feet until they were hanging some foot or so above the table, in the air, propped on the side of the table.

He simultaneously fixed me with a triumphant look and said:

“Not ON the table”.

After Mrs Dr Aust managed to stop laughing, which took some minutes, she noted that New Year’s Eve 2011 would live in family history (infamily?) as:

“The Day Dr Aust was Out-Lawyered by BOTH his children”.


Happy New Year All

PS Should you be of a celebrating mind (as opposed to collapsing into bed in the next hour or so), I should also add:

“And the same procedure as every year


*The visitor stats do suggest that a few regular remain. For which thanks.

Be Careful What You Wish For – Even in Jest

June 25, 2011

As we never tire of repeating here, one of the problems with satire is that you regularly find yourself dealing with reality so surreal that a satirical take on it would be … indistinguishable from the real thing.

I think I would like to christen this ‘Lehrer’s Paradox’*.

There is also a sub-category of this, which might go by the title of this post, namely:

“Be careful what you wish for – even in jest”

This came back to me this week because, at a Skeptics in the Pub social night I trotted along to, we got talking about ‘Electrosensitivity’. The topic has, of course, been back in the news recently with the kerfuffle over the WHO’s comments on mobile phone use.

Now, I recalled that, back in the far-off days before I had a blog of my own, we had had some lively discussions of ‘Electrosensitivity’ over at Ben Goldacre’s Badscience site. So I went to have a look at them.

I spotted that, in one particular thread from early June 2007, I posted the following comment:


“BTW, I have come up with an invention for any electrosmog-sensitive who might need to carry a mobile phone: the NoWavePouch™

- this will look just like a mobile phone holder but will be fully lined with special copper mesh, to prevent those nasty waves getting out.

Combined with the not-conductive earphones the ElectroSmog Nuts are already selling, this will provide TOTAL RADIOSMOG SAFETY.

Well, not quite. For that you will need my patented

Mobile EarthGuard™

- which connects a wire from the NoWavePouch™ down the inside of your trouserleg to a special conductive pad which glues to the bottom of your shoe. Then the evil waves can be properly earthed at all times.

Can you spot the snags with these inventions? (Apart from the obvious ones that they are fictitious and useless, at least until some ElectroSmog Nut starts flogging them online.)”


Well – be very careful what you wish for.

For there are numerous mobile phone pouches for sale on electrosensitivity sites that claim to ‘protect you from cell phone radiation’. Indeed, they now seem to be a pretty common item on all sorts of ‘natural living’ websites.  Some examples can be found here and here.  For a further taster, quite a detailed site for one particular product can be found here, which also links to a Youtube demonstration video, and has a Factsheet and even  - I kid you not – a full Tester’s Technical Report.

And some of these sites also sell – you guessed it – all kinds of earthing paraphernalia. Though thus far I have not found a specific down-the-trouser-leg earthing wire and grounding-to-earth-whist-in-motion footpad.

The question, I guess, is whether I should patent that idea and start selling it – after all, there is clearly a market, with entire websites devoted to, quote, ‘cellphone defence’, unquote.  And the way things are going in the UK Universities, I may soon be in need of a new source of income and employment.

Finally, I wonder if any of my medical friends have had any patients turning up in their surgeries or clinics recently reporting unexplained symptoms that the patients are attributing to their mobile phones?

After all, if the People’s Medical Journal Daily Mail says so, then it must be true.


PS:   Down in Dr Aust’s department at the University of Grumbleton we do, of course, have lots of things to block stray electrical signals…  They are called Faraday cages, and look a bit like this.

An EMF repeller - you could probably sleep in it, but it might be a bit cramped.

If you put your mobile phone in one of these, I dare say it will be totally harmless. Of course, it probably won’t receive any phone calls either.


* The reference is to the great Tom Lehrer, one of my heroes, who famously commented that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete (for an introduction to why, start here).

Wanted – dedicated or alive

June 18, 2011

In which we ponder the language of advertisements for University science jobs..

I was amused recently to see a Tweet from one of my friends in the scientific blogosphere, Stephen Curry (do check out his excellent Reciprocal Space blog), saying that he was:

‘arguing’ – I presume with his HR Department – ‘to be allowed to ask for someone ‘enthusiastic’ in a job advert’.

Now, this struck me as a little surprising. As I tweeted back:

For, as anyone who regularly scans the academic job ads in (e.g.) the Times Higher will know, language tending to the hyperbolic has become such a regular feature of advertisements for jobs in British Universities that it no longer seems even slightly remarkable. I remembered that I had once written a short satirical piece on this, so I headed off to my archive (the pile of mouldering papers in the corner of my spare room) to try and find it. Turns out it was a full six – yes, six – years ago. I have reproduced it, with minor amendments, updates and hyperlinks, below.

I leave you, dear reader, to judge if you think anything has changed in academic job-ad-speak in the meantime.


You used to know where you were with advertisements for academic jobs in science.

‘The Something-logy department of the University of Grumbleton requires a lecturer. Duties will be teaching, supervision of graduate students, and conducting research in something-ology.’

Of course, these adverts often concealed a whole raft of hidden agendas, and more often than not some research areas would be ‘preferred’, but at least the language in the advertisement was to the point.

Not any more.

Nowadays most academic job advertisements in the UK give the impression of having been written by a committee consisting of a Head of Department with messianic delusions, one or more human resources ‘professionals’ (the inverted commas are mine), and a public relations flack in the grip of a Prozac frenzy. And all of them seem to have been on some special course in mangling English.

These adverts now have a language all of their own. The odd thing, though, is that they are all so similar – despite the hyperbole and obscurantist/coded vocabulary – that they could practically have been written by a computer programme.

The simplest change is the proliferation of superfluous adjectives, or, to be more precise, Obligatory Adjectival Qualifiers (OAQs for short). An OAQ is an adjective that must automatically precede a noun every time that particular noun appears. Some examples:

‘world-class’ (institution, or research)

‘outstanding’ (individual) [also ‘exceptional’, ‘pro-active’, ‘committed’, ‘energetic’]

‘exciting’ (opportunity)

‘state-of-the-art’ (facilities, buildings)

‘leading’ (centre) [also ‘world-leading’]

‘proven’ (ability)

Then there are the phrases that have both a literal and a shorthand, or parallel, meaning. Examples:

The institution:

‘An exciting, vibrant, research-led academic community’: Research-intensive ‘old’ University / Russell Group.

‘Progressive and innovative’ (also ‘modern and innovative’): Former polytechnic / ‘post-92′.

‘High-quality student-centred learning environment’: We have a new building and are desperately trying to enrol enough students to fill it.

‘Committed to anticipating and satisfying students’, employers’ and clients’ needs’: Staff will work for food.

‘One of the countries most popular student destinations’: Nothing stands out about our University, but thank heaven the night-life and the cheap booze still brings in the punters.

‘Offering opportunities to work with leading international academics whose visions are shaping tomorrow’s world’: I don’t think they’ve got my antidepressant dose quite right at the moment.


‘A committed and work-focused individual’: Prepared to work 50+ hrs a week for little money on a fixed-term contract.

‘A high-calibre and driven individual’: You should be unashamed, or at least unaware, of your Borderline Personality Disorder.

The job, and department:

‘We are committed to personal development’: We have a widely loathed staff appraisal scheme.

‘An innovative, challenging work environment’: You might get a desk.

‘We have pursued a focused strategy of appointing world-class researchers’: In: Professors with 5-year (Programme) grant funding; Out: Teaching staff over 50.

‘Staff are integrated into cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary themes’: Our senior management believe strongly in putting their oar in.

‘We aim for the highest levels of research excellence’: Five-star in the next Research Assessment, or early retirements all round.

I should say that all the above examples are real: you couldn’t make this stuff up. And this is only a starter pack. Anyone got any more particularly choice examples?

Finally, to end on a positive note (sort of) – the observant among you will have noticed that, should you ever need to, you can now write your own University job advert simply by selecting the appropriate phrases from the lists above. Think of the time you’ll save!

Assuming, of course, that HR will let you.


If you’re not part of the solution, you’ve clearly precipitated something.

June 10, 2011

In which Dr Aust stalls for time. Again.

It has now been two full months since anything new has appeared here. Sorry.

Like many bloggers in such a situation, I feel a bit, well, guilty.

As usual it is hard to pinpoint an exact reason for the barren spell – well, other than that I haven’t written anything, of course. Busy writing for other outlets (a bit); busy marking exams (some of the time); a new hobby (I’ve been re-discovering some of my adolescent enthusiasm for chess – anything for a new way to procrastinate); easier to comment elsewhere than to buckle down to something extended (definitely); other people cover stories first so it isn’t worth posting on them (certainly true); the feeling of repeating myself (very definitely)… and finally the Summer, which means the children are not usually in bed until somewhere towards nine, after which I find it hard to muster up the drive to blog. Or to do anything very much apart from slump in a chair with a beer.

On the other hand… there are still a bunch of three-quarters-, two-thirds, or even half-finished posts kicking around on the hard drive. it would be a shame to let them languish there forever – assuming I can find them at all. And perhaps the drive to blog goes in cycles. I see, for instance, that the excellent AP Gaylard, one of the original BadScience blog-derived skeptical crew, and renowned for his forensic dissections of the evidence (or lack of) for complementary therapies, has returned to blogging after a long absence and is now cranking out meticulously researched stuff at a punishing pace.

Anyway, what has brought me back to the keyboard this time?

Well, two things. Or three.

The first was the just issued Mea Culpa.

The second thing is an idea.

Yet another of the likely reasons for my reduced blog activity is that some of my ideas now end up on Twitter – which has the advantage of being much more immediate than blogging, and only requiring 150 characters at a time. Since I probably fire off at least one tweet (and probably considerably more – *cough* ) per day, I have been thinking about setting up a permanent archive of them here – perhaps on a weekly basis.

Talking of ‘regular features”, any long term readers still hanging on will perhaps remember I did a David Colquhoun-style occasional diary for about a year, before it too bit the dust. A Twitter archive might work a bit like a diary, only with the advantage that the material already exists, and would only need to be cut and pasted onto a kind of blogpost. I suppose that might even salve my guilt at not blogging enough, which might in turn get me fired enough to do the occasional proper blogpost. That is, it might be easier to blog, if I didn’t feel pressure to do it. I know that doesn’t make sense, really, but there you go.

So what do we think? Twitter archive? Yes/No ? Trial run?

And… the third thing.

All bloggers, of course, like comments and emails. I got a nice email the other day from occasional reader Nick Kotarski, who pointed me to a very funny site I hadn’t seen before,, and particularly to their “Demotivators” range.

Now, you will recall that I have been a bit snarky in the past about tedious motivational language, and the kind of trite sloganising with it that is so prevalent in modern life, including the public sector. subvert such stuff quite nicely.

I have been checking out the ‘Demotivator’ coffee mugs in particular, and I think the one that says:

Retirement: Because you’ve given so much of yourself to the company that you don’t have anything left we can use

- might be just the thing for my long-serving research collaborator who is taking voluntary early retirement from the University this year, just shy of sixty, to do some voluntary work and (he says) “learn dry-stone walling”.

It might also appeal, perhaps, to the Jobbing Doctor and Dr Grumble.

Nick did tell me there used to me a mug that said:

Customer (Dis)Service: Because we won’t be satisfied… until YOU’RE not satisfied

- which is also very apt, especially if you have ever travelled on Virgin Trains in the UK. But I can’t seem to find that one.

Finally, one of the curses of the modern workplace in both the private and public sector is the experience of having the consultants in. Consultants are, in the immortal words of Scott Adams’ Dilbert (though I am paraphrasing slightly):

“People who are way too smart to work for your employer…

You can tell this because, when they do come in to do your job, they ask you how and then do it exactly the same as you would… but they get paid twice as much.”

Now, some of my friends in the University had some dealings with the consultants recently (no names to protect the innocent), and of course I hear many stories about consultancy from my friends in industry, in the NHS, and even from a couple of my university mates who have ended up in consulting. So I was particularly taken with the mug that summarised this thus:

Consulting: If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

I don’t think anyone who has had any dealing with the consultants could doubt the truth of that.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,990 other followers