Administering a rebuke

December 14, 2013

In which Dr Aust has a small whinge.

As I’ve been struck by one of the annoying Winter viruses, and every bit of me is aching, I have been exempted today from fatherly duties taking Aust Jr to play football (soccer for any US readers). I shall take the opportunity to post a small grumble that I penned in a cathartic hour or so yesterday evening.  It relates to the ever-rising tide of online tick-boxing that laps around the feet of all professions these days. Would be interested to hear if any other readers (readers?) have similar stories.

One of the things that has added tremendously to the general irritations of working as a University academic this last decade has been the decision that vast amounts of administrative form-filling should now be done online.

This is routinely justified as ‘more efficient’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘more transparent’, though a cynic might say it mainly serves to shift the burden of record-keeping off administrators and onto academics. Not that that then leads to a decrease in the number of administrators required, you understand. You seemingly now need twice as many of them to nag all the academics, by repeated and increasingly insistent email, to fill in the latest ‘e-form’.

Anyway, being a miserable old ***!*, I tend to the view that it is not my job to fill in e-forms that I don’t know how to fill in, and would thus have to spend ten or twenty minutes, first of all finding – “It’s on the Intranet”, you are told –  and second, working out how to fill in.

It seems to me I should just be able to tell the administrator the information by email.

They want it on the form? They can fill it in.

The other point here is that the administration folk use said e-form system, which after all is THEIR system, designed by them, about fifty times a day – so they can do it in a trice. Getting me to do it – which is some cases I might have to do once a year or even less- is an utter waste of (a lot more) time. [Of course – have you spotted? – now it is my time, and not admin’s. So they come out ahead. Funny, that.] This is because, even if I used the system before, there is no way I will remember how a year or more later. So I have to take the same amount of wasted time as I did LAST time re-learning it.

Comments on these lines end to be met by references to ‘the regulatory environment’  or responses to the effect that ‘the system and forms are self-explanatory’.


Coincidentally, I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme the other day featuring a bloke whose job is to read, on a computer screen, the ill-formed and mostly illegible addresses on those envelopes that the Post Office’s character recognition software can’t decipher. He can do thousands of these an hour, according to the programme. This, it was made clear, is because it is what he does all day and he is consequently the Ninja-Style 96th Dan Grandmaster of said task.

I wonder if the Post Office have ever considered getting random other people in their organisation, like, say, the folk that maintains their computer network, or the van drivers, and telling them that it would be much more efficient if they did the character recognition job instead, but only for an hour once a year each?

Answers, as they say,  on a postcard.

Anyway: yesterday’s example of eAggro:

A few weeks back, I agreed to be Internal PhD Examiner for a PhD Thesis. We have arranged a date for the viva in January.

A few days ago I got an email from the student’s supervisor.

‘Can you put the viva details into eWatch [our online in-house version of the NSA for watching over the progress of graduate students]?  We’re getting flak from the admin people.’

I wrote back, not unreasonably, I thought, as follows:

‘Haven’t a clue how to use eWatch. Do admin have an actual, y’know, email address?’

Lo and behold, I next received an email from an Important University Person bearing their title ‘Institute Postgraduate Research Director’, or something like that.

“I have attached the Guidance Notes for Examiners. It has the links and detailed guidance on the exams process.

You should have received this with the request to act as Internal Examiner.”

I looked. On the 3rd page of the ‘Guidance Notes’, I finally found the right bit. It said I could log in to eWatch with my University username and password. Well, that seemed straightforward, at least. And there was a clickable URL. Brilliant.

I clicked. Hopefully, if somewhat warily.

The following screen appeared:


Access Denied

Return to previous page

You do not have permission to access this page.

Page security is managed through GWE role membership. If you think that you should be able to access the requested page then please use the contacts information for the relevant GWE service to request that they add you to the appropriate role.


I hardly need add that nowhere was the abbreviation GWE explained. If you can work out what it means, I dare say you are probably an administrator.

Anyway, I decided to ‘role’ with the punches and leave it until after the weekend. Or later. ‘Role’ on the Christmas break, say I.


Plants make chemicals too.

July 28, 2013

It’s been a long (very long!) blogging hiatus for me.

Whilst there are a large number of contributing reasons – more work at the Univ, kids getting older and requiring less sleep (and thus more keeping an eye on and even the occasional bit of help with homework), new hobbies (blog and work-unrelated) etc.etc. – there are a couple that stand out.

The first is running out of things to say – or at least things I didn’t feel I’d said already, and possibly better, if it was the first time around and I was thus relatively fresh to the topic.  To take just one (recurring) example. how many new ways can one find to point out that homeopathy is nonsense?

The second reason is  Twitter. 150 characters is great for bashing out a quick thought, and if the ‘extended version’ is something you’ve already done, you can just post a link. No need for long conversational and/or explanatory posts. So I am pretty sure much of my ‘blogging impulse’ has transferred to Twitter. I assume the hits here on the blog – I’m interested to see they still run at a few dozen a day – are ‘referrals’ from the Twitter feed.

Actually, there is a third reason too, though not entirely separate from the two just described. That is the feeling that the main work of explaining / exploding ‘Alt.Reality’ has been done, at least for those who are actually seeking explanations. For instance, I find it difficult to imagine that people who are mostly ‘undecided’ about alternative therapies CANNOT now find reliable information about them if they hunt around.

Of course, this may not apply to Conservative Secretaries of State for Health, or to members of the British Royal Family (Warning – links to the Daily Mail). But then again, those people pay a lot of money to be permanently surrounded by people whose job it is to agree with them, no matter how idiotic, evidence-free or nonsensical the view expressed is.

Anyway, these days, it takes a really ‘out there’ Alternative Therapy story to make me sit up and take notice.  I thought I’d seen it all.

So what has picqued my attention this week? Well, it is this terrifying story, which was re-tweeted by Frank Swain, aka The Sciencepunk, who BTW is now a published author.

If you’ve not seen the thread, which is from a ‘natural treatments for skin cancer’ forum , you will be quite unable to do so without gasping. That was certainly my reaction.

I am utterly, utterly unable to fathom what would make someone do this to themselves – in essence, give yourself a completely uncontrolled chemical burn in the middle of your face  It is so wrong, on all sorts of levels, that to list them would take pages.

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the people on the forum offering advice and encouraging the person to keep on going. At a scan down the thread, I couldn’t find a single person saying ‘Run, don’t walk, to a conventional dermatologist’ – not even once it became abundantly clear that the treatment was burning a big hole in the patient’s nose.

Anyway, I feel very sorry for the person at the centre of it all. Hopefully she will stay cancer-free, and the reconstructive surgery to rebuild her nose will be a success. But I am still left with that question:

What, for goodness sake, would leave you so phobic about mainstream medicine that you would go, instead, for giving yourself a serious chemical burn across the middle of your face?  When the conventional treatment would be minor surgery designed very specifically to remove the least possible tissue?

Answers on a postcard, please.

And coming back to an earlier point about ‘finding information’, the patient refers a few times on the thread to ‘doing my research’ on the alternative treatment. Which again is one of these phrases that I cannot compute.

Research?  Really?


In some ways I’m amazed people are allowed to sell products that do stuff like this, even over the internet.

Anyway – perhaps blogs explaining basic science-y stuff, like that a chemical burn can just as easily come from chemicals from plants as from ‘petrochemical products’, are still needed after all.

(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.

The sky fell on me head

September 23, 2011

The ‘bits of satellite might fall on your head’ story that has been all over the news this week (see e.g. the Telegraph here) has provided a nice chance for people to get the wrong end of the statistical stick.

For instance, as I was having the last of my breakfast this morning I heard the BBC Today programme bods responding to emails and texts. Paraphrasing:

“In response to messages, we should make clear that it ISN’T a 1 in 3200 chance that you personally will be hit by a bit of falling satellite. It is a 1 in 3200 chance that someone, somewhere will be hit by some debris. The chance of it being any one particular person are millions and millions to one”

Which is, of course, the exact inverse of the lottery logic used to sell you tickets. The chance of you, personally, winning the lottery is many millions to one against. But the lottery company advertising plays strongly upon the idea that SOMEONE has to win:

“It could be you”….

…but only if you’ve bought a ticket. Or better still, several tickets – that’ll be five pounds, please.

The point is that they are deliberately playing on many people’s tendency to have trouble distinguishing logically between the odds of a rare event befalling somebody, and the odds of it befalling you in particular.

(BTW, for the satellite example, MSNBC have a discussion of where the numbers come from here).

Mind the reindeer

The mention of satellites falling to earth always reminds me of a famous story about “risk perception”, and one that I  sometimes use when teaching the medical students. The version that I know appears in Michael O’Donnell’s entertaining compendium Medicine’s Strangest Cases. I’ve told this one before on the blog, but it seems apposite here.

The story was that debris from a satellite in a decaying orbit was predicted to fall in an remote area of Lapland that was virtually unpopulated save for a few nomadic reindeer-herders. The Swedish Govt. offered to helicopter airlift the reindeer herders out of the area, at significant cost to the Swedish taxpayer.

Hermann Bondi, a famous British mathematician and Government science adviser, heard the story, crunched the numbers and confirmed that the probability of any reindeer herder who stayed put having the satellite land on them was several orders of magnitude less than the chance they would be killed in a helicopter crash on a routine helicopter flight.

So the Swedish Govt’s decision was plain daft.

Well, that depends.

Purely on the statistics, it was a wholly illogical decision. But Bondi pointed out that the Swedes had undoubtedly factored in that if they didn’t offer to evacuate people, and the satellite then landed on someone, the headlines would scream

“Heartless and negligent Govt leaves reindeer herders to die”.

While if a chopper crashed, the headline would be

“Tragic helicopter crash kills herders”

– and the Govt. would be off the hook.

The point being that it was less about the actual risk of events, and more about how people felt about both the event and the risk of it, and who was to be held responsible.

And also, looking at it from a 2011 perspective, how media reporting plays a major role in what things people worry about, and how much

Anyway, given the above, I dare say that the people hoping most fervently that the satellite debris splashes down harmlessly in an ocean somewhere are the men from NASA.

Perceptions not risk. Unfortunately.

Finally, there is another interesting point about people’s differing perception of the risks of different kinds of rare event.

Though the Today programme has obviously had some worried callers this morning, I dare say that relatively few people will be altering their actual behaviour much due to fretting about being hit by a bit of  communications satellite falling from the sky.

Similarly, the finite risk of a plane crashing does not seem to put the vast majority of people off travelling on airplanes.

But then compare the number of people – some of them among the parents at my kids’ school – who seem to believe that the exceedingly small risk of adverse events following vaccination is a good reason for not having their children vaccinated.

Risk, and perception of risk.

It’s a *****


Update – Sat 24th: the reports are now telling us the satellite probably came down ‘somewhere over the Pacific’. Wonder if any of the bits will turn up on land?

Update – Sun 25th:  reports are still suggesting the debris probably fell into an ocean, with none reported on land. An amusing sequel is that someone apparently hoaxed some of the Canadian media with a video clip purporting to show the satellite burning up other Northern Canada.