Archive for the ‘procrastination’ Category

In one (y)ear and out the other

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

And just to let you know: I shall refrain from posting an end of year round-up.

I will however, make some predictions for this time next year – in case I am doing a round-up post then.

–  We will all be a year older (On the other hand, considering the alternatives….)

–  I will still feel knackered

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still feel three times as knackered (or more)

–  The kids will still be engaged in their ongoing competition for attention / psychological guerilla war / life-or-death struggle for access to their mothers’ lap

–  Junior Aust will have lost interest in Harry Potter and will instead be telling me the plot of some other complicated book.

–  The house will still be a tip.

–  UK Universities willl still be under financial pressure

–  The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms.

–  I will still be pondering whether it is time to jack in blogging.

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still be mystified as to why I bother blogging at all.

–  The Homeopaths will still be talking utter transcendental raving nonsense.

[a classic recent example is here, which I think should really have the same title as the present post, given the author’s utter imperviousness to reason and reality]

–  So will the rest of the Alternative Medicine Fraternity (be talking nonsense, that is).

–  They will still have the enthusiastic support of Prince Charles, and of various medical grandees who suffer from “knight starvation”, or who crave HRH’s patronage

–  They will still get lots of laughably credulous media coverage, especially in the People’s Medical Journal

Now, I would usually add to this list

“-  I will still be pondering my next series of lectures”

But given what is happening in the Universities, and what is likely to happen this coming year, I’m not at all so sure about that as I would have been even a year ago. One of my best friends and scientific colleagues, who does his own experiments and busily cranks out three papers a year, is taking voluntary early retirement next year.

He is 59.

Several other scientists I know in their mid to late 50s at other Universities have also bailed out. Most of them still had active research programmes and laboratories. One, I hear, has taken a part-time job as a lab technician. Another is teaching physiology in a medical school in Trinidad. Another is writing a book about fishing and working as a fishing guide.

Where that leaves those of us still aboard the Titanic, I mean “in the Universities”, is anyone’s guess.

I guess we will see.

Anyway, in the meantime, and ignoring the dark clouds on the horizon, I thought I should follow the always-excellent Dr Grumble and declare:

“The same procedure as EVERY year!”

Und ein fröhliches neues Jahr!

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It’s three years of Spleen – anyone still out there?

September 22, 2010

In which Dr Aust is vaguely astonished he has kept going this long – and asks readers if they’d like to tell him who is (still) reading.

Amazingly, it is exactly three years today since Dr Aust’s Spleen went live, and three years and a day since the first major post, titled

“Patrick Holfords friend and mentors – but who are they exactly?”

Now, one has to beware of writing “blog landmark” posts, as they obviously:

(i) do not carry information of any great import except to you, the blogger;  and therefore

(ii) almost inevitably make you seem a self-important arse.  (I’m a University lecturer. What did you expect?)

Given this, I have avoided posting any others of this type since the first anniversary celebration. The second anniversary came and went a year ago, as did the 100,000th page load some time over this Summer, and also the 111,000th and the 111,111th. As a middle-aged cricket fan I was almost moved to comment on one or both of those last two, but inertia (rather than modesty) got the better of me.

Anyway, in the three years of the blog’s life, posts have appeared sporadically, but a count of ninety-three averages to somewhere between two and three a month – which probably exceeds what I would have predicted I would manage over the long haul. (I notice it was thirty posts in the first year of operation, so the yearly posting frequency has not changed). This Summer, though, things have been very slow, for which apologies.

Thanks for Commenting. Really.

There have also been 1600-odd (printable) comments on the blog – especially pleasing since I enjoy comments threads much more than actual blogs. Similarly, I find that these days I like the discussions and “unconference” bits of conferences more than the actual set-piece speeches. So I guess I am by nature a conversationalist rather than an essayist. Though perhaps a “monologue-within-conversation-alist” is closer to the truth.

[Alternatively, it might be that my attention span and ability to focus are shot to hell from too many nightly hours of frantic clicking round De Interwebz, like that nice Dr Greenfield keeps warning about.]

Still on the conversation theme, I am one of those people (apparently rare in the blogosphere) who tend to actually read all the way down long comments threads, at least if the topic is something I’m interested in. Perhaps this explains why I don’t actually blog so much. Anyway, even taking the view that several hundred of those 1600+ comments on the blog will have been written by me (!), it is still gratifying to see how many people have come by to comment over the three years. Blogging is, to my way of thinking, in large part a cyberspace conversation initiated by the post itself; so without the comments the whole thing would lose much of its point. This is a live issue at the moment, as talk in the blogosphere is that commenting on blogs generally is down, with some people attributing this to the “conversations” moving over to Twitter. I reckon there is some truth to this, which makes me all the more delighted that threads here still have comments and discussion.

There has also, of course, been a ton of spam, which outnumbers real comments about ten to one. Though thankfully the filters catch most of it.

Now, inevitably with time one does tend to get a bit stale as a blogger – or other sort of writer. I even spotted Gimpy opining the other day over at his Posterous site that perhaps bloggers ought to be compulsorily shut down after a certain number of posts.

“Maybe a solution is to have some sort of Logan’s Run style time limit on bloggers. After 5 years or 500 posts bloggers should retire….or be retired?”

..though of course he was saying this as a solution to the perceived problem of bloggers becoming too popular. Which is unlikely to be a problem here.

One approach to combat the staleness is to try to change things a bit every now and again. So for instance, a few months past the first anniversary I tried a Diary page (modelled fairly consciously on David Colquhoun’s one) which I updated sporadically for a year before I ran out of steam around last Christmas.

Or one could try to alter the subject matter a bit. In the first anniversary post I wrote:

“When I started [blogging] I did think I would try and blend science explaining in with the snarking, but I have the feeling that over the last six months or so snarking has become rather dominant. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, because explaining science is my day job, it is less attractive as an off-duty blog-hobby.”

I think the preponderance of snark over science has probably been maintained through years two and three – though looking over the posts, the ones that have tended to be most read were often the ones with the most scientific explanation-type content. So perhaps more science exposition would be a possibility.

Let’s hear from you. De-lurk!

And that last sentence brings me back to commenters. And to readers.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where there was an extended discussion of science and the internet, including blogging. The subject of what audience one was writing for got an airing. One very well known science blogger offered the opinion that one of the best things he had ever done was to have an annual “delurk”  or Open Thread – basically one where he asked his readers to tell him something about themselves, so that he could get an idea of who his audience were.

So – over to you. Who are you (no real names, of course, unless you want to leave them – I mean things like profession and level of science education, if any), and why do you read the blog? And are there any things you would like more of, or less of? More science? Or less? Less pseudoscience and alternative medicine? More academic life? Did you like the currently-in-abeyance Diary?

Anyway, while I am thinking about what I could do in the way of renewal, all comments (as ever) gratefully received. Especially if  you are a reader-but-not-commenter-til-now.

Fifth Column

June 28, 2010

In which Dr Aust does his own little bit for “Spoof Jenkins” day.

You know, there’s so much opinionated waffle on TV and in the papers these days.

I mean, I love reading predictable off-the-cuff grumbling penned by overpaid middle-aged metropolitan arts grads. After all, I‘m one myself. Well, except for being an arts graduate. And metropolitan.  And one can’t be overpaid these days unless one’s on at least £ 200K, like all those whining scientists with their Chelsea townhouses and Porsches.

But let’s not get into that.

Where was I?

Oh yes – columnists, of course.

As I say, I love a good splenetic column. After a four course lunch at the Garrick, finished by a few excellent brandies – sixty year old, naturally, anything good is always old and beautiful, far better than all this new rubbish – there’s nothing that rounds things off better than perusing the thoughts of some well-read chap of my own vintage… …putting a judicious boot into the backside of those jumped-up little technocrats over at the Royal Society.

But this time, Simon Jenkins may – just may – have gone a bit too far.

Not in giving the scientists some stick, of course. Richly deserved. Did you see all that nonsense they pumped out about swine flu?  Utter rubbish – it was no worse that the common cold, naturellement. Just like that ridiculous song and dance they made over foot and mouth. And as for grounding all the planes because some unpronounceable volcano erupted and stuck a bit of ash in the air – quite preposterous. Do you know, I would have missed my cultural tour of the best vineyards of Jerez if Binky – wonderful chap, he’s in banking, I was at Oxford with his brother – hadn’t lent me the company jet to get there.

Anyway, anyone listening to the scientists would think that that “HIV was the cause of AIDS”, or that “vaccines were good things”. And of course, it’s all just about money – they get paid to say that stuff, and they’re just touting for more business. Quite unlike columnists, who are ferociously independent and simply write from a sense of duty. We don’t make a penny. Well, except for trousering the weekly cheque, which frankly is hardly enough to be worth bothering about.

But anyway, Simon has perhaps slightly overdone it, and this time rather a lot of people seem to have noticed. Which is a worry. After all, we don’t want people getting the idea that columnists are behaving like the New Priesthood. It was bad enough the bloody Scientists giving themselves quasi-religious airs – like little Rees, and that tiresome Dawkins chap, and the rest of the Scientific “Bishops”. Who are just like the real C of E, by the way – no sense of history. The useless C of E can’t even look after its own historic buildings, and that ineffectual beardie Archbishop is too busy turning up on Melvyn Bragg’s show with the scientists to do anything useful. They’d rather have new Church Halls for coffee mornings than proper old buildings. The scientists are always moaning about “needing new buildings” too, of course. Did Galileo need a state-of-the-art Mammoth of Research to discover gravity? Of course he didn’t – all he needed was a tower and some balls.

And as to where science ends up if you let the pointy-headed little blighters have their way – well, there was a person who tried to harness technology for state ends, and got all the scientists with their hands out for research grant money to sign up. His name was Adolf Hitler. And he had his Gestapo to go around locking up anyone who disagreed, just like the Catholic Church had the Spanish Inquisition. Which is just like the scientists coming after Simon Jenkins now. I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see a crack Royal Society snatch squad of men in white lab coats bundling poor Simon into a strait-jacket and hauling him off to Porton Down for “compulsory science re-education classes”. After all, they have them for MPs now, so I’m sure columnists will be next.

And that’s why I think Simon has been a touch unwise. He’s simply drawing a little too much attention to us. If he goes on like this, people will start to turn on the columnists.

And, frankly, strictly entre nous, there are too many columnists about these days. A bit like scientists. Or Badgers.

I can see it now. They’ll say:

“For too long these opinionated arts, politics, and economics graduates, with their Notting Hill addresses and children at St Pauls and Westminster school, have been allowed to agitate for a privileged position in the national newspapers and the BBC”.

Then they’ll start saying that we just endlessly re-cycle the same old tired schtick, so that we can dash off a column that gets up peoples’ noses in the two hours between the after-lunch nap and dinner and collect our wages.

I’ve even heard some people asking what it is columnists actually do to help. One or two of the scientists have had the cheek to say that science was at least “trying to move the world forward” and address some of humanity’s pressing problems, like global warming, or famine, or disease.

Which is utter self-serving balderdash, of course. Columnists do their bit, too. Think of the work creation. All those people writing in via the internet – which was probably invented by an arts graduate [Note to Ed – please check] – to complain about Simon. That’s obviously creating wealth, surely? And look at how newspaper sales are rising.

And as for the problems of the wider world, I personally think a lot of it could be solved if we simply had more newspaper columnists. Imagine: a newspaper read by almost no-one in every impoverished sub-Saharan hamlet, complete with highly paid weekly “opinion formers” with Glyndebourne season tickets.

In other words – a columnist in every kraal.

Now there’s a vision to give the world hope.

Cancer from your pen top

March 29, 2010

In which Dr Aust enjoys some musical wit and whimsy

Via some of my new friends from Skeptics in the Pub, and Twitter, I encountered this rather wonderful song about One of the Twin Powerhouses of British Media Ghastliness (along with the Sun), the Daily Mail:

The Tweet that alerted me to this little masterpiece (and which came from a skeptical arts blogger) referenced the brilliant line:

“Cancer from your shoes, from your dog, from your pentop”

– which I think deserves instant classic status. The Daily Mail is, of course well known in UK bad science circles for what Ben Goldacre likes to describe as:

“[Its] bizarre ongoing ontological project to divide all the foodstuffs (indeed all the inanimate objects) in the world into those that either cause, or cure, cancer.” (see also here)

– to which I would only add that it is not unknown for the same foods, or inanimate objects, to show up in both of these lists, often at surprisingly short intervals.

Private Eye routinely refers to the Mail as the “Daily Fail”, though my favourite title for the paper, which I think was coined by much-missed recently retired medical blogger Dr John Crippen, is the “Peoples’ Medical Journal”. This owes its origin to what all my doctor friends regard as the misleading medical and NHS stories that the Fail runs, mostly about how doctors are useless/grasping/sinister. But it serves equally well for the Fail’s seeming obsession with cancer, and multiple credulous stories about Alternative Medicine.

For any non-UK reader who would like to learn more about the Peoples’ Medical Journal and its long and not especially illustrious history, Wikipedia offers a useful introduction.

Anyway, the video, which is both brilliant and funny, and is now getting quite a bit of re-tweet and blog action, comes from this/these chap(s).

And now – a  random musical discursion

If you’ve watched it, the discarding of the copies of the newspaper as a dramatic device rather reminds me of a famous early pop clip, the one for of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The Dylan video is actually the opening sequence of the famous documentary Don’t Look Back by DA Pennebaker. (The film itself is an absolute classic, and anyone even vaguely interested in the music of the 60s should seek it out at once,  if they’ve not seen it.)

Now, while the newspaper discarding conjures up Dylan, Dan and Dan’s general style puts me more in mind of the (sadly departed) Jake Thackray. Most younger people in the UK now will not remember Thackray, a whimsical and often very funny singer-songwriter most famous in the UK in the late 60s and 70s. Thackray, whose distant influence can perhaps be seen in a song like Pulp’s Common People, was himself much inspired by the French singer-poet Georges Brassens.  So here, as an introduction, is Thackray singing his (rather good) translation of Brassens’ famous anti-capital punishment song Le Gorille:

and the Brassens’ original for comparison (with subtitles from this blog):

Upcoming highlights (which may never appear)

If you listen to Le Gorille you will notice that it evinces a less than respectful approach to the gravitas of the judiciary. Which reminds me that we are expecting the formal Appeal Court ruling on the BCA v Singh “appeal on meaning” some time soon, and possible before the weekend. I am aware that I have been very slack about posting recently, so perhaps I will try and comment on the ruling when it appears, as Jack of Kent has been nagging me to do. And then there is World Homeopathy Awareness Week to come after that….

In the mean time, enjoy the music. And I’ll close with one other completely unrelated – though appropriately seasonal – musical favourite; in this case a song I like to sing to Junior Aust when we go for a walk.  Enjoy.

PS AND UPDATE – March 31st:

One of my senior academic colleagues reminds me of another piece of British newspaper-related beat poetry, this one from our youth back at the end of the 70s, and dealing with another mid-market tabloid, the Daily Express. In an interesting piece of serendipitous co-incidence the writer/performer, the wonderful John Cooper Clarke, famously pinched much of his own visual style from the early 60s Bobby Zimmerman, though its not easy to see that in this rather low-quality live clip. However, the poem makes up for the quality.