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(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.


Who should be voting on electoral reform?

May 13, 2010

In which Dr Aust lets another member of the family have the pulpit.

This will probably be the last UK election-related post – something I suspect some readers will be glad of – unless I write later about our new Minister for Universities and Science. However, as you have probably heard enough from me on politics, I thought I would let another member of the family have the last word on events last week.

As those who read my “Electoral Eve Wavering” post may remember, my dad, who is the real scientist in the family, was a Labour candidate for Parliament back in the 60s. Later, in the 80s, he was an early member of the now defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP).

As you will see from the letter below, which he wrote to send to one of the national newspapers, he is not a tremendous fan of our current voting system.

People with long memories may recall that the SDP allied itself with the Liberals for the general elections of 1983 and 1987. I will quote from the Wikipedia entry:

“The Alliance did well in the 1983 general election, winning 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour’s 28%. Because of the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system, only 23 Alliance MPs were elected.”

You might detect a pattern there.

Anyway, I will let my dad speak for himself.  He has chosen his own pseudonym.


“In the 1966 General Election I failed to get elected to the House of Commons by a margin of considerably less than one thousand votes, running as a Labour candidate under the leadership of Harold Wilson. At the time I was sad about this; though those were the days of Wilson’s ‘White heat of scientific revolution’, I was the only working scientist who came even close to election in that Parliament.

About a year later, I received a letter out of the blue from the former Liberal candidate who had run against me and had gotten around 3,500 votes. He wrote that he thought that he and I were of a single mind about most things, and that he was sorry that by splitting the left-of-centre vote he had facilitated the election of the Conservative candidate.

On Election Day last week I voted tactically in Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Dr Evan Harris, who had been a progressive Member of Parliament for our constituency since 1997 and is outstandingly supportive of the scientific community. Dr Harris was beaten by 176 votes after a recount, but there were 5,999 Labour votes in the constituency – 10.6 % of the turnout – and most of them, I feel sure, would have preferred Harris to the Conservative who was elected. Why did not more of them vote tactically, as I did? The answer must be that tribal loyalties run strong. That is fair enough; the result is not democracy by any sensible description, however.

In retrospect I am not sorry that I did not get elected in 1966: I am sure I have been a better scientist than I would ever have been a politician. For Dr Harris, though, and for many like him, the outcome is tragic and undemocratic. I was born in the latter days of the second Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald – later reviled for leading a governing coalition in the national interest. I shall now probably die under a Tory Prime Minister. It saddens me that in the 80 years in between we have still not mastered the art of democratic electoral compromise that has served our German neighbours so well since 1949.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had an historic opportunity early this week. They could have insisted on a free and binding vote in the new House of Commons on an Alternative Vote system for the next General Election as the price of their support for David Cameron’s government. The Liberal Democrat Party owed this opportunity to the country, and especially to their supporters, and Clegg certainly owed it personally to Evan Harris. There is, I believe, now a majority within the 2010 Parliament for this minimal first step in progressive change, as there was among the thinking electors who made up the left-of-centre majority vote on May 6th.

I am now sad that Mr Clegg has dissipated the opportunity. Though he did not actually renege (as Tony Blair did after the 1997 General Election) he has settled for a meaningless commitment to a referendum on electoral reform, with the precise question to be put not specified. It is a certainty that the Tories will fight furiously against this reform: time and again we have seen how ‘First Past the Post’ fosters their cause. It is the politicians, though, and not the populace, who must sort this matter out. Regrettably, most voters do not understand the subtleties of the system they use already,  so a referendum for change will almost certainly prove abortive.”


Oxford, 12th May 2010


PS  from Dr Aust: For those curious as to what the coalition parties actually agreed on electoral reform, here is the actual text:

“The parties will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. Both parties will whip their Parliamentary Parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.”

(Italics mine)


PPS An interesting game for conoisseurs of British political “third party” trivia is to spot the former SDP members in the current cabinet. Interestingly, they are by no means all to be found among the Lib Dems. As best I can tell, the list is as follows (Cabinet Ministers in bold):

Ex-SDP Tories:

Andrew Lansley (Sec State, Health), Greg Clark (Minister, Decentralisation), Chris Grayling (Minister at Dept of Work & Pensions), Stephen O’Brien (Minister at Dept for Int’l Development).

And ex-SDP Lib Dems:

Vince Cable (Sec State, Business), Chris Huhne (Sec State, Energy & Climate Change), (Lord) Tom McNally (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice) Paul Burstow (Minister at Dept of Health)

Are journalists “channeling” Dr Aust?

May 12, 2010

In which Dr Aust is left feeling that British politics has “Gone Four Weddings“.

So we have a brand new coalition Government here in Britain…. run by a couple of frightfully nice well-spoken chaps.

So well-spoken and self-deprecatingly jolly, indeed, that they seem almost to have stepped out of some splendidly British drama about…. well, nice chaps. And chap-esses, of course.

Dr Aust, no doubt like many others, had already noticed this feature of some of our political leaders.

For instance, here is a comment I left on Dr Grumble’s blog back in early January:


” Perhaps this is my chance to repeat my line about “Call Me Dave” Cameron being:

“a genetically engineered hybrid of Mrs Thatcher, the Blessed Tony (Blair) and Bertie Wooster

..although you could just as easily substitute the Hugh Grant character in Four Weddings and A Funeral for Bertie Wooster. I can’t watch Four Weddings now without the eerie feeling that “Call Me Dave” is going to stroll into shot at any moment.”


And here is Telegraph political correspondent James Kirkup, on Twitter just now and widely re-tweeted:

“oh god. The country is now being run by two characters from a Richard Curtis film. “

And the same idea at more length here.

I wonder if James has been reading Dr Aust? Almost certainly not. But it does show that the triumph of the (largely privately-educated) British political class is clear to those with any sort of an eye.


Addendum: You can follow the additions to the cabinet, and get an at-a-glance guide to their educational background, here.

And of interest to scientists in the UK, David “Two Brains”  Willetts MP has been named as Minister for Universities and Science.  The first reaction from non-Tory University scientists appears to be “Could have been a lot worse”. Willetts is certainly viewed as a more heavyweight Tory figure than Adam Afriyie MP, who held the shadow portfolio for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

Addendum 2: More on David Willetts in a useful post by Mark Henderson.

and another from Michael Banks at Physics World.

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.