Diary (and attendant minor musings) – latest entry 22nd/23rd Dec and w October retrospectoscopy
Jan 9th - It has been the first week back at work for Dr Aust, and I have to say I am feeling a heavy dose of winter lethargy – perhaps I need a detox.
It could, though, be time to get out the UV lamp for a daily dose of artificial sunshine. No, no, not a tanning lamp – there are far too many suspiciously burnt-orange-coloured people in Dr Aust’s largely sunshine-free part of the world already. I even have one student whose terrifyingly orange skin tone got me quite worried about him, until he told me his parents owned a tanning salon.
No, the kind of light I am thinking about is the “one-hr-a-day-of-artificial-sunlight in the morning” kind.
Now, before you accuse me of giving in to the Siren call of Alt.Reality, can I point out the following:
(i) The thing was recommended to me a couple of years back by the GP (though she was smirking, or at least smiling, at the time)
(ii) There is at least a bit of proper evidence that us gloomy types (and we Celts are famously big on gloom) could probably do with a bit of add-on daylight up in these Northerly latitudes;
(iii) The light only cost about a hundred quid, and you can buy one VAT-free (no sales tax) if you tick a box saying “I have SAD – honest”;
(iv) My office is so dark that any extra lighting is useful;
(v) The chances for whizzing off to the hills at the weekend for a therapeutic turn in the daylight are currently not enhanced by Junior Aust (with the impacable determination typical of 4 yr olds) staging a sit-down protest whenever we suggest going anywhere that doesn’t have a childrens’ playground and scooter access;
(vi) Cycling to work hereabouts involves the risk of being held up at knifepoint or mown down by psychotic drivers, quite apart from being regularly drenched;
(vii) I am too old and lazy to become a runner like Euan the blogging Northern Doctor.
Anyway, from next week I will probably be trying out an hour of bright (artificial) light every morning. But since I am not really of the healthy living persuasion, it will be combined with a large cappuccino (with extra shot) and possibly a biscuit. And Radio 4.
Jan 16th – more rumblings of Winter discontent
As you will already have gathered, this is not one of Dr Aust’s favourite times of the year. The weather is cold and dismal and the days short (though getting marginally longer). The University teaching semester is soon to start and Easter seems a long way off. I am also in the process of moving buildings, and swiping in and out of so many card-entry doors that I seem to mislay the swipe card on an almost daily basis…
All of which is making Dr Aust GROUCHY. And possibly over-sensitive to minor aggravations.
For instance, here at the University we were just told that in future we would have to “process” all our own expenses claims, which means carrying them from one office to another on the campus (and back again). Apparently the forms have to go to about four different places. And at the same time, all such forms now have to be “signed off”, but the number of people who are allowed to do this “signing off” has decreased. So it will be harder – and probably more time-consuming – to find any of them to get them to sign (I seem to remember David Colquhoun has been having some of the same sort of problems – see his Diary entry for 21 November here)
The rationale for us having to do this is apparently that it is costing the University too much to process expenses claims.
Now, I am at a loss to understand how making all the academic staff (including, presumably, Professors on £ 100K-plus a year) trot about the campus carrying expenses forms is going to save money, compared to having the job done by a fairly junior person in finance who presumably carries a dozen-plus forms at a go. The only conceivable answer would seem to be that if the junior accounts person doesn’t do it, his/her job can be reallocated – while the time the academic staff will waste doing this stuff will simply be “absorbed” by their taking time off from their other tasks.
Personally this seems to me to be an obvious example of a net loser for the University. But perhaps that’s just me being dim.
I reckon one can save on the time and money an administrative task like this takes by decreasing the need for it to happen at all, or by making the “processing” more streamlined and efficient. But simply making a hundred relatively highly-paid people spend time running about doing it, instead of one relatively lowly-paid person, doesn’t do it – at least, not to my way of thinking. As one Professor commented:
“Can you imagine GlaxoSmithKline getting their lab group heads to carry their expenses forms to be signed by a bloke in another building, then pick them up later from the finance department in a third building and take them to a fourth building to hand them over to payroll?”
Which example of illogical bureaucracy and the sometime petty absurdity of organisations triggered a memory that over at Holfordwatch the other day we were discussing legendary late 70s British TV mid-life crisis sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, starring the late (and much missed) Leonard Rossiter.
I was a big fan of Reggie Perrin when it was first out back in my teenage years, and I have been enjoying re-watching some of the video clips on Youtube. When I first saw it, the subtext of the absurdity of adult life was one of things that I liked. Re-watching bits now, the thing that makes me laugh the most is the impotent middle-aged rage at life and its absurdities. Of course, when it was first out I suppose my dad might have been having his mid-life crisis, whereas now the grumpy middle-aged male is me.
For those who don’t know the show, a good 3 minute intro is this clip of some comedian fans talking about the show.
There is an extensive official site with lots of clips here, though I can’t yet persuade them to play without installing the ghastly Windows Media Player. A personal favourite is the classic in-car sequence of Reggie losing it with the family from one of the very first episodes, which is on Youtube here.
One thing I hadn’t heard until this little fact-finding exhibition was that the BBC have apparently commissioned a remake (of sorts), possibly even filming as we speak, with Martin Clunes in the Reginald Perrin role.
Finally, a brief clip of the hippo that always represents Reggie’s mother-in-law in the series – and which is the thing that, by a roundabout route, brought Reggie Perrin up in the Holfordwatch thread – is here.
Jan 26th – take a number, please.
It has been a busy couple of weeks Chez Aust. All blogging was cancelled last weekend as we had to make a family expedition to get Baby Aust a passport. For obscure technical and bureaucratic reasons, this involved us all presenting ourselves in London at 10 am on a Monday morning, followed by queue-ing up successively in four separate queues. I say “all of us”, because Junior Aust refused to be left with any of her relatives or friends and insisted on accompanying us.
It is uncanny how passport offices always manage to retain an air of grim tedium reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, or perhaps a grungier version of the scenes of “heaven’s waiting room” in one of my favourite films, A Matter of Life and Death. More prosaically, on entering the office and seeing the lines of depressed looking people, the booths with the bored-looking officials, the take-a-ticket machine and the red flashing numbers (“serving number 112″, as you look down at number 128 in your hand), I was reminded of my distant youth back in the days when students were allowed to sign on for “supplementary benefit” down at the dole (unemployment) office. Decades come and go, but bureaucracy remains a constant.
Actually, a few years ago a visit to the Unemployment Office (now re-christened in NewSpeak style as your “Jobcentre Plus Office”) used to be a jolly part of starting work at a UK University if you came from a country outside the EU. I remember taking several of our Japanese postdocs through the process in the early to mid 90s. The first stage was to take them, and family if any, down to the city central police station to register as “Aliens”. After that they would have to go to the Social Security Office to get given a temporary National Insurance number (equivalent to a US Social Security number) Imagine: you arrive in Britain from a nice clean Japanese city, and your first two ports of call in dealing with UK officialdom are the main city police HQ and a grim inner city Social Security office. Both places, of course, full of the classier local characters. We often used to joke that it was amazing more postdocs didn’t just take one look and hop the next plane back to wherever they had come from. I haven’t had to babysit anyone through the “induction” process recently, so I don’t know if things have changed. Perhaps some reader can advise?
When I worked in Washington DC there was a vaguely equivalent experience, which was getting a DC driving licence. This required a trip to a bleak downtown city administrative building, complete with metal detector and armed guards on the door following a fatal shooting inside a year or two previously. We rich countries do love to make our newcomers feel properly welcome…
Jan 27th – I’m not a failure – I’m just interesting…
While browsing through an old copy of the Times Higher Education in a rare quiet moment yesterday, I found out why I am not a desperately successful scientist. According to a Professor of Theoretical Medicine (?) at the University of Buckingham, it is because I am not dull enough.
At least: that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Meanwhile, another survey suggests that our ex-students are earning more than me and my lecturer buddies, which is what we suspected all along. We are told by the THE, in the same edition from 27 November, that a third of our Russell Group Univ science and technology graduates are earning between £ 30,000 and 50,000 three years after graduating.
Now, Dr Aust earns more than £ 30,000, but less than £ 50,000, too.
The difference is that I graduated a quarter of a century ago.
When I started my first paying job in the late 1980s, having done the six and a half years at Univ (so roughly three and a bit years after getting the first degree) my pay was about £ 8,650 pa, which I seem to remember was the least a person with a PhD could earn in a University lab job. Of course, it was more than I had ever earned before! Anyway, sticking this through one of the online “equivalent value” calculators suggests that this is equivalent in purchasing power to an annual salary of around £ 17,500 today.
As ever, it is no great wonder that in times of relative boom, the number of people wanting to do PhDs and work in scientific research tends to drop. Recessions, however, are a bit different. I am pretty sure it is the private sector paying the high-end wages to recent science and technology grads. And in the current recessionary climate, it is the private sector that is going to be laying people off.
While £ 17,000-18,000 pa seems pretty dismal compared to the £ 30,000-50,000 the management and legal trainees are getting, it would be a damn sight better than nothing, even today. And there is some good -well, less bad – news; the bottom of the RA1A (postdoctoral) pay scale has risen to £ 20,267, so UK postdoc pay has (amazingly) actually increased significantly in real purchasing-power terms over the last two decades.
So as the recession starts to bite, we confidently expect more competition for those PhD studentships….
Sunday Feb 8th – What a fortnight.
What with Jr Aust on antibiotics for tonsilitis, Baby Aust coughing and spluttering (interspersed with the odd regrettable regurgitational incident), and Mrs Dr Aust prostrate most of this week with something rather like the ‘flu, Dr Aust’s legendary hypochondria has been in overdrive. And it has also been the first teaching week of the Semester (January being given over to exams). So I had to finally take the plunge at the end of January and replace the late Aust-mobile, essentially in order to make sure I would get to my classes reliably.
Talking of which – thankfully we missed most of the snow hereabouts, though there was still enough to cause a decent amount of travel chaos on Monday morning. It is only 5 miles or so from Dr Aust Acres to my place of work (familiarly known in the family as “The Bunker”). The problem is that the back route to the office goes past a local private school, so from 8 am onwards the whole area was gridlocked with 4x4s disgorging little Tobys and Tabithas. The journey (normally 20 minutes if not too busy, or 30-35 minutes peak-ish times) took 80 minutes.
The thing I couldn’t work out was this. The through roads, even my short-cut, had been cleared of snow. Cleared. So why the snarl-ups? Well, the school run is one obvious answer, but not the only one. The other, I suspect, is the manic stop-start way English drive once the white stuff starts coming down. What is it exactly about the English and snow? While we don’t get a great deal of practise driving on the stuff, you would think that “slow down, steady pace, no sudden accelerating and braking, and keep more distance than usual from the car in front” isn’t that hard to work out.
Mrs Dr Aust, who grew up in a place where this sort of snowfall was an event repeated many times in a typical Winter, was suitably sarcastic. “If we had behaved like the Brits do when we had this much snow back home, we would have had to shut the schools from November until the end of March” was the way she put it.
Turning to science, the Bad Sci blogosphere has been in overdrive this week dealing with the fall-out from LBC radio presenter Jeni Barnett’s dire show on MMR, and LBC’s lawyers telling Ben Goldacre to take down the chunk of the programme that he had posted online. So far I haven’t really got much to say about this that hasn’t been said better already by others – the amazing list of those that have chipped in is over at Holfordwatch, but I have updated my January post on “Measles – Spot the worrying trend” with a bit of new material.
Wednesday February 25th. Knackered. I’m getting old.
Down at Casa Aust we are finally emerging from the Winter wastes of multiple Aust family illnesses. We are all completely knackered.
Aside from the knackering effects of family life and the Winter nasty season, work at the University seems to get busier with every passing year. This year I have been catastrophically late with every marking deadline – even later than I am usually late, actually – but, on the plus side, the final year undergraduate research project students seem to be generating actual data at last… which is nice. Of course, the typical pattern is that as soon as everything (cells, machinery, students) finally comes together, it is time for the project to finish. I am relieved they are getting somewhere, though. You could see their faith was wavering as I was forced to repeat for the nth time
“No really, you always have to fiddle about to get the microscope set up properly, and all the recording systems working, and then the cells are sometimes dead…”.
Since Christmas I have been “between buildings”, with about 20% of my office stuff moved to the Nice New Building (where I have shifted 85% of the lab stuff to) and the other 80% still in the old office, situated in an older building where I do almost all my teaching. This has the upside that I still have a base to retreat to in the same building where I am teaching 4 mornings/wk. On the other hand, it has the downside that I periodically find that the thing / document / file / spreadsheet / bit of paper I want is in the other office. Anyway, this state of affairs is ending as I have been told I have to vacate my old quarters (office and labs, which still contain some equipment I haven’t yet had time to shift, or for which there is no room in the much smaller labspace in the Nice New Building) completely by the end of next week. Since the packing alone would take at least two clear days, I told them it couldn’t be done. We are now negotiating.
Amid the family madness back at Aust Acres, Baby Aust has finally achieved lift-off or, to put it in non-brain-frazzled non-parent language, he has learned to crawl. Well, he mastered crawling ten days ago, and within a couple of days more had managed to get up a single step, thus allowing him free range of the ground floor. Five more days and he is now pulling himself onto things in a determined attempt to stand. He also speeds up noticeably with each passing day.
His elder sister was walking at nine months – so as Baby Aust just passed seven months we clearly don’t have much time before he is “mobile and dangerous” too. Must re-fix those stair gates this weekend, and reinstall all the kitchen cupboard “baby-catches” that Jr Aust has trashed.
Any parent is feeling today for David Cameron and his wife, who just lost their little boy Ivan.
Something happening to your children is, it pretty much goes without saying, every parent’s darkest fear. As the Jobbing Doctor put it, talking about the Prime Minister’s moving statement:
“[David Cameron] and his opposite number [Gordon Brown] are members of a club that nobody wants to be a member of.”
The Jobbing Doctor is a member too. I hope that I never am.
Friday March 6th. Still knackered. And busy.
One of the things filling my time at work recently has been teaching. Of course, University academics don’t teach solidly 9-5 – though our Teaching Fellows often do – but the last few weeks I have been teaching several hours a day, 3 or even 4 days a week. This means everything else has to be fitted in around it. Mostly I try to do the teaching in the mornings and leave the afternoons free for other stuff, but I have been finding this week that I am so disconnected that afternoon time passes just staring blankly at the computer. Perhaps I need to eat more lunch. Or re-energize myself with a wholefood low-GL Holford diet
Anyway, it’s a good thing I don’t have one of those jobs where you have to pay attention all the time, like being a GP or a hospital doctor.
A significant amount of this teaching is stuff I have been doing for quite a few years – indeed, one bit is a course that has run largely unchanged for well over a decade, with me doing my stuff (technically called “Problem-based learning”, or PBL, tutorials) every year.
Obviously a major problem with teaching on the same courses every year is how not to get stale and bored – since one of the most important things academics can bring to any kind of University teaching is interest and enthusiasm. “If you can fake that, you’re home free”, as one senior colleague once told me. Anyway, I find I don’t get bored, which is good, despite running over the same material for the umpteenth time. The main saving grace of PBL, I think, is that it is a different group of students every year. Since it is basically a talking-in-the-round process, that means the discussion is different, even if the material is the same. Provided you are basically interested in people, and like to talk (! – not a problem for Dr Aust), then it can actually be quite fun.
Something that cheered me up yesterday evening, after a particularly busy teaching day, was noticing that a thread over on Orac’s Repectful Insolence blog that I had a hand in is still going strong. This thread, which was titled “The Silliest Kerfuffle Ever?”, was originally just about precisely who was allowed to call themselves “Doctor”. I made a sideways snarky comment at one stage about one of our Chiropractic friends, and on looking back at it yesterday I saw the thread has developed into an epic struggle between “A Chiropractic Physician” and several of the resident sceptics, notably the indefatigable Robster.
Personally I think the latter part of the thread – which is so protracted that I likened it at one stage to the Chiropractic equivalent of the Battle of Stalingrad, with the resident annoyed Chiropractor playing the Wehrmacht – demonstrates clearly how Chiropractors (along with all the other Alt.Reality “professionals”, IMHO) are constitutively incapable of self-critique. But take a look and see if you agree.
And today, as a kind of apology for the long silence, I finally got around to posting a token comment in answer to the latest Anti-Vaccine loon that has shown up here at Dr Aust.
Anyway, I hope there may be an actual post up some time over the weekend – even if it is only a boring update of the “About Dr Aust” page. But I won’t promise, as I have a reference to write and some MCQs to edit. Fun fun fun.
Monday March 9th. Almost. A post..! A vaguely plausible post.
Yes, finally, the first new post for a month. Even though it is not all that terribly original, being more of a snarky commentary on other posts by other people. But still, perhaps it will break the blogger’s block.
MCQs done. Now to finish that reference. Or maybe have a beer.
Monday March 16th. 50,000 views! Thanks for dropping by…
Yesterday and today felt almost like Spring, even here in T’ Grim North. I was tempted to do an early runner from work today, but had to hang around and interview a bunch of students (individually in 1o minutes slots – I don’t know how GPs do it for hours at a stretch), and then do some overdue admin jobs I had forgotten to do.
Oh well, maybe tomorrow.
I just noticed at the weekend that the surge of traffic following last week’s first-new-post-for-ages included the Dr Aust blog’s 50,000th view. (On the day the post went up, March 10th, to be precise).
This is, of course, pretty feeble compared to the Big Beasts of the sceptical blogosphere – and after all, the blog has been going a full eighteen months now. But it is pleasing nonetheless.
And even more gratifying for a professional procrastinator, sorry, talker, like Dr Aust, there have been over 800 comments since the blog went live. It is always hard to estimate from the hit counts how many regular Dr Aust readers there are out there, but it seems plausible that there might be as many as several hundred.
Having regular readers of your ramblings is an especially gratifying thought if one of your main professional outputs is, like mine, rather under-read scientific papers in obscure learned journals.
For reasons I won’t bore you with, I have just been counting the number of times my scientific publications have been cited. A fair few have made it to forty citations, but none have yet reached a hundred. Which is a bit chastening after two decades plus in the biz! Though at least there aren’t any that have NEVER been cited, which really would have been depressing.
Anyway, it is quite probable that far more people read my blogposts than read my papers – although I do know a few people that have told me they read both – and it is almost a certainty that the blog posts generate more dialogue.
So thanks to all readers for reading, and especially for commenting.
July 7th …after a long absence… very long…
Alright, so perhaps writing a diary wasn’t such a great idea. The word “diary” rather implies regular entries.
Perhaps the real answer is that nothing much dramatic has been happening Chez Aust this Spring and Summer. A life of blameless suburban parenting and minor University aggravation, plus the rather too occasional Bad Science counterblast. All rather more Mister Pooter than Life in the Bad Science Fast Lane.
Anyway, I have temporarily escaped for a few days to a conference, where I have come to the realisation that I shall finally have to invest in a laptop with wireless capability.
This is because the halls of residence where Dr Aust is holed up have free wireless internet access.
Unfortunately, this is not desperately useful if you don’t have a suitable computer.
The only other alternative is a single rather clunky desktop – with one of those annoying non-standard Dell quasi-laptop keyboard layouts – in the hall of residence reception. Since we science geeks are sharing the hall of residence with hordes of 15 yr old Italians doing English language courses, all of whom are trying to conduct elaborate teenage social lives on Facebook and the like, it is hard work to get at this machine. And they charge.
So perhaps it is a mercy that I don’t really have anything to say.
I will have to save my parenting joke for when I have a computer that I can actually type on properly.
On the other hand, at least that will give me an excuse for another diary entry. Eventually.
Thursday August 13th. Where did the Summer go?
Feeling rather inert after a hectic last week. Both children successively ill, and then an all-weekend rush to finish several small-ish written pieces by a midday Monday deadline. Another lesson as to why Dr Aust would never have made it as a journalist: he is not nearly a speedy enough writer. Possibly an editor, though. Dr Aust is a better, and certainly faster, editor than he is a writer.
The children’s viral whatever-it-was highlighted something for me, namely just how difficult it is to tell precisely what particular childhood illness it is. When Baby Aust came out in a rash, after a couple of days of fever and a bit of a gyppy tummy, we were betting on chicken pox, especially since a child in the next street had it recently. But Mrs Dr Aust never quite convinced herself that the spots looked and behaved exactly right for chicken pox. And then a similar spot appeared on Jr Aust, who we are pretty sure had chicken pox a couple of years ago, and who also spent a couple of miserable days last week feverish and clutching a bucket..
And we don’t think Baby Aust had the currently fashionable Swine Flu, since that, we are told, doesn’t give you a rash.
All rather mysterious.
Anyway, no harm done, the children are fine now. But it does emphasise how difficult it can be even for medical professionals (like Mrs Dr Aust) to be sure what childhood illness a kid has. A lot of the time it doesn’t matter. But sometimes it does.
Meanwhile, I have finally taken the plunge and bought myself one of these nifty gadgets. No more internet-free conferences! I shall also enjoying producing it on the train next time I am on my way to London so that I can pretend I am a cool and important person rather than a moth-eaten middle-aged academic. As anyone who has seen a clutch of eminent Professors successively connecting their ultra-slim high-end laptops to the projection system at a conference will know, in laptops “less is more” (as in, smaller means higher-status). I wonder if a cheap-as-chips netbook allows you to fake it?
Roadtrip! – Dr Aust is attending Science Online 2009 in London, sandwiched between some time catching up with the rellies in Oxford. I was going to do a trip diary here, but it reached such length that it has become a post on the main blog.
As the weather is nice (having been dire yesterday, with more rain predicted for tomorrow) Dr Aust is taking a family day. Drag whole crew (including protesting Jr Aust) off for bramble- picking expedition around the local hedgerows We are fortunate that in our urban suburb, where most people only have small back yard-style gardens, there are so many wild brambles. We have a disused railway line with overgrown bramble-rich verges close by, which helps.
Anyway, a good few days collecting, and two 20-jar batches of bramble jelly, usually sees us through til next Summer, even when we hand a few Christmas jars out to the relatives and neighbours.
Elderberry is good too (v. interesting flavour) but there are a lot less elderberry bushes than brambles locally. We usually make elderberry jelly on our late Summer Brittany holidays, but we didn’t make it there this year. And I see from the Alt.Reality fringe that elderberries are being touted as a swine flu remedy, so they may be scarcer than ever this year if we are going to have to fight hordes of fanatical herbalists for them.
Perhaps if we make it to Brittany for the Autumn apple harvest we can try some spiced apple chutney. Most of the apples usually go in the cider, though..
The weather oop ‘ere in Dr Aust’s adopted city has been distinctly Autumnal lately. Last night was the coldest yet, requiring getting up in the middle of the night to find an extra duvet. The start of the new University academic year is beginning to feel ominously close. Must remember to have six-monthly hair-cut. And time to lay in a good supply of Beta-blockers and Prozac, the chemical aids of choice for the modern academic.
Since this is the last day before Jr Aust starts back at school, we decide to take a trip to the beach. We leave Gloomingham under slightly overcast skies, and with the temperature hovering near a tolerable 19 deg C.
Unfortunately, as we approach the seaside the rain starts, and the temperature heads rapidly south. By the time we arrive on the seafront, the rain is practically horizontal, the wind is like knives, and the temperature is down to 13 deg C, even without the wind chill.
…The joys of the British Summer.
After a cramped picnic in the car, the rain lets up a bit and we manage a rather chilly hour of beachcombing. The trick is to lean into the wind and not to move too suddenly, in case you get blown off your feet. It doesn’t seem to bother this bloke and his mates much:
– but then they are made of sterner stuff than us.
Retreat to the car as another rain front moves in, cursing that we forget to bring a Thermos flask of Dr Aust’s best triple strength lifesaver Expresso coffee. Ah well. After treating the children’s frostbite, and applying placebo therapy to Jr Aust’s cut finger with an oral instillation of ginger beer, we head off to aquaplane the hour and a half back to Gloomingham.
Back at the office.
Grant money seems in short supply all over at the moment. This is certainly the local impression in our research group, but it seems to be universal. Just read thoroughly depressing article in the Times Higher Ed which says that the overall funding rate for research council grants is down to an “all time low” of 23%.
Actually, 23% sounds implausibly high to me. Was talking today to a colleague and ex-collaborator who was telling me he had just had a grant turned down by BBSRC. The committee considered 140 grants, and funded 15 (!), which I calculate (if I round up) to be a truly measly 11% funding rate.
With the prospect of a Conservative Government in power within a year or so, and thus likely swingeing funding cutbacks to follow, it is not cheering news.
One wonders if it will ever dawn on the Scientific Great and Good that it might be an idea to reconfigure the grant funding system – e.g. with a large pool of much smaller grants that are easier to get – so that one can do scientific research without the a £ 60-100K / yr research grant that employs a full time research assistant. Such “minimally funded” research was common when I came into the system, but is getting rare now.
Probably not, though, This would just be viewed, I suspect, as “defeatist”. I have little doubt every University will instead be exhorting its staff to greater efforts in the grant – submission stakes – six submissions per year! eight! ten!- so that we can make sure it is those other Universities which go into financial meltdown as their research income drops.
September 28th – “The yips”, “writer’s block”, or just plain stasis?
In the five weeks plus since I came back from Science Online 2009 I have started at least half a dozen posts. Nearer to a dozen, probably.
Somehow, though, I haven’t managed to finish any of them.
I had been thinking of my impasse as writer’s block – which sounds splendidly grand – combined, as ever, with my short and ever-decreasing attention span. But “the yips” is a neat way to put it.
My only misgiving with adopting this description for my own “blogger’s stall” is that it could be seen as pretending to a serious level of ability pre-yips – it is usually used to described pro sports folk who suddenly can’t hit / kick / throw a ball. Dr Aust would love to have been that good, but realism intervenes.
In Dr Aust’s case the core of the stasis problem is a catastrophic and pathological inability to finish things, something much noted by successive Heads of Department in my annual Performance and Development Reviews (ugh). Anyway, absent any finished posts, I have been falling back on reading, lurking, and posting on other blogs. This allows me to procrastinate whilst pretending that I am “practicing the swing”, to borrow another golfing metaphor. Actually, I think I once commented on here that I suspect I am a better “reactive mode” writer than an essayist. Or in blog terms, a natural lurker and off-the-cuff commenter rather than a blogger. [In fact, some of the stalled posts have morphed into, or been edited down to, comments on other blogs, or even on this one.]
Meanwhile, of course, the real life does keep on turning over, piling up work stuff – editing articles, preparing courses, re-vamping lectures, organizing tutorials, reading reports and the odd Thesis. And that is without mentioning the neglected research, currently back burner-ed to an alarming degree. I was lurking on a thread the other day where someone commented about digging out their unpublished Ph.D. data after fourteen years. As I read this I realized I had unpublished data sitting in files from the early 1990s…!
Oh dear. It is almost certainly unpublishable by now, and the postdoc that produced it quit science in the mid 1990s to become a jobbing gastroenterologist. So no great harm done in one way – just one less obscure paper in the scientific literature, which is certainly not short of them.
I still feel guilty, though.
October 6th – term has started
– and Dr Aust has even been doing some – gasp – teaching.
Though I should have said “Semester has started”, as we have semesters now rather than terms. We are heavily into international-style terminology, rather than parochial British equivalents, at the Univ where Dr Aust works . For instance, we are now told we must say “advisor” instead of the traditional “tutor”. Thus I am now “academic advisor” to a bunch of students, and “personal advisor” to another bunch.
“Academic advisor” is fine, but I don’t much care for the term “personal advisor”, as I think it makes you sound a bit like a spiritual guru. In my youth, when someone talked about, say, President Nixon’s “personal advisor”, it usually meant some flaky religious figure that was providing “spiritual counselling and guidance” to the Pres. Some world leaders , particularly in the US, used to have a whole flock of these folk to turn to in time of crisis – usually, actually, when they were caught (in flagrante?) doing something that indicated they hadn’t been getting enough, er, spiritual guidance.
Anyway, over the years I have occasionally had students tell me their personal (sometimes very personal) problems.
But I draw the line at dispensing spiritual guidance.
Comments on the blog have been slow lately, no doubt mainly due to the lack of new posts.
Even when comments have been plentiful, there has rarely been much of the kind of fire-spitting trollery that people like jdc seem to attract. Perhaps I am too polite.
However, today there was a first – a slightly miffed author, who dropped by to chide me about a mildly sarcastic caricature of their paper that I had penned back when the blog was young.
I have responded (politely… I think).
October 7th – Tories – no thanks
10 am - Dr Aust is on a train down to London this morning for a lunchtime editorial meeting.The train is chock full of sharply-suited types. Well, nothing unusual there, this is the London train and it is “business” hours. However, most business people on trains are relatively quiet – often tapping away on laptops – apart from the odd irritating salesman who spends the entire journey yakking in to his mobile. Not today, though. This lot are thoroughly talkative. Loud and talkative, either to their phones, iPhones, “Crackberries”, or to each other..
After a moment I work out why. They are political or meejah types, or at least hangers-on. And why are they on the train this morning? Well, the answer is here.
One amusing piece of media political gossip that I overhear. One person is asking why all the main platform speeches were so flat, and free of stirring rabble-rousing. Another confides that, according to his insider contact, this was deliberate – the platform speakers have been told to keep it flat and sombre to avoid upstaging the key pre-election speech by “Call Me Dave”.
As a public sector worker I can’t say I am overjoyed by the prospect of the Tories being in Government. Admittedly, over last 15 years it has become increasingly difficult to get as much as a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories (except on Europe and European integration, which the Tories remain, as ever, desperate not to talk about). However, I retain a visceral distrust of the Conservatives. This is partly upbringing – Dr Aust was raised in a left-wing, politically-active, Labour-voting, CND-supporting, New Statesman and Guardian-reading family, with an academic for a father and a teacher for a mother. It is also partly to do with coming of age just around the time Mrs Thatcher was elected, and spending the whole of my twenties with her in No 10 Downing Street.
It is also to do with privilege. The Tories in Britain have always been, and remain, the party of privilege – whether inherited or bought – of inherited wealth and moneyed elites, and of access from birth onwards to special things unavailable to everyone else – better health, better housing, better education. All the privileged access that money can buy, propagating down through the generations. Mr Cameron seems to me to exemplify this more than any Conservative leader since the early 60s. Is he a “decent bloke”? Well, perhaps he is. But the idea that the last thirty years in Britain have completely failed to produce any meaningful shift towards equality of opportunity fills me with depression.
6 pm - arrive home and check today’s work email – a delightful Smorgasbord of 20+ spam, circulars, and meaningless garbage (much of it generated by University administrators). It winds me up so much I have to write something about it to “vent”.
On the other hand, perhaps I should be thanking all the memo-generators for temporarily relieving my “Blogger’s Block”.
Friday October 23rd – Homeopath (-ological) humour
Late in the working day major comic relief arrives in the form of the hilarious Lionel Milgrom and his latest bombastic fact-lite call to arms in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The first page alone (which is all I can read from work – the Univ of Gloomingham doesn’t subscribe to the JACM, a good thing on balance) is enough to render me near helpless with laughter, and the rest (received from a helpful contact later in the evening) is pretty choice stuff too. Anyway, pure Comedy Gold. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last BCA Press Release, sadly now removed. Sit up late finishing a post on Milgrom’s Quantum Alterrnative Parallel Reality (QUAP-Reality for short).
Saturday 24th – plenty of people accessing the post, mostly arriving from Jack of Kent’s excellent forensic dissection of Milgrom’s legal scholarship. Jack is much wittier that me – I rarely rise above snide. But on a good day I like to think it’s well-crafted snide.
Further choice laughs when Mojo comments to remind me that Milgrom had spitefully written to the UCL management about David Colquhoun when an obsessed chiropractor tried to mount a campaign to discredit DC. Milgrom insinuated DC was a careless scholar, using the words “hypocrisy” and “cant”. Remembering this makes the self-inflicted bursting of the bubble of Milgrom’s pretensions to “scholarship” all the more amusing. Almost has me believing in Karma.
And I reckon it is precisely the sort of situation for which the Germans would use that (oft misunderstood) word Schadenfreude.
Sunday 25th – grab a bucket (not in a good way)
We have had a joyful family weekend with both children suffering from the Winter Vomiting Virus, which is doing the rounds of our part of the world. Jr Aust revs into gear regurgitation-wise on Sunday night just as Baby Aust is getting a bit better, thus ensuring the full 72 hour puking-children-in-stereo experience. For some reason the sickness always seems to come on once a child has gone to bed, with sadly predictable results for the bedclothes. The Aust Family washing machine and dryer have been running white-hot all weekend. I feel guilty about the greenhouse gas emissions, but what can you do?
Mrs Dr Aust is bearing the brunt of the sick child care. She tells me that has previously done three nights in a row without sleep as a junior doctor, but such things are now illegal. Except for parents, of course.
Wednesday 28th – still buckets
Family life still kicking arse. Jr Aust is mostly better, having only been really poorly for a night and a day, but poor Baby Aust is still vomiting – now into his fifth day of being unable to keep anything down. He also has a fever, which appeared as the vomiting frequency decreased at about day + 4. Luckily, even with the vomiting he is taking in enough fluid not to get nastily dehydrated (we know because he is still producing pee, for the technically minded). Still, it is not much fun. Mrs Dr Aust is displaying top notch paediatric nursing skills, but after the fifth successive sleepless night even she is beginning to fray noticeably. She is also running a bit of a fever. If she goes down with the bug then things really will get close to DEFCON One.
Saturday 31st October – don’t you just love half term week?
Phew. Baby Aust finally seems to have stopped vomiting, after a whole week of being unable to keep anything down. He has lost about a sixth of his body weight (down to 10 kilos from 12) due to the lack of calorie intake, but is now drinking clear soup without instant regurgitation. It has been a draining week, though in a way we have been lucky – it is a pretty sure bet that without Mrs Dr Aust’s medical and nursing skills and iron constitution, Baby A would have ended up as a paeds inpatient at some stage this week. Which would have been even more stressful.
Anyway, definitely a half term week to delete from the memory banks – if we can. Luckily children have the gift of forgetfulness about such things. Not so easy for the parents, especially for committed hypochondriacs like Dr Aust.
Becoming a parent has a way of making you feel guilty for being such an ungrateful baggage when you were younger. You often find yourself feeling you should apologise to your own parents, now you have some idea what it was really like for them. Fortunately, mine are both still around so I can do.
December 3rd -oh dear oh dear -Diary Epic Fail
It’s official – I have proved comprehensively that I am a wash-out as a diarist.
I guess to do it right one has to have the discipline to make oneself sit down periodically and write something, and also the resolve (or lack of obsessional editing tendencies) to be able to declare any entry complete – that is, post things without too much turning then over and over (and over and over, in my case). Anyway, bit of an “Epic Fail” on both of those. Though no doubt there is a half-written diary with several entries since Oct 6th (!) mouldering away in my “In Preparation” (sic) folder.
Perhaps I will have a look and put anything that looks half interesting up “retrospectively”.
[Update – have found several. Will add them as I have time – have now added all October ones. Doubt anyone will read them, but at least that way I can feel I wrote them for some sort of purpose]
Meanwhile, there are only two and a half weeks to the end of the pre-Christmas teaching period. I have completed most of my annual quota of lectures, and a fair bit of other teaching… roll on the holidays.
A quantum of… solace? Insolence?
I was posting earlier this evening over at the Respectful Insolence blog in an interesting thread about the Big Dog of Quantum (W)holistic Wellness-babble, Deepak Chopra, when the subject of religion came up. Chopra mentions God from time to time, and it is fairly clear that the particular New Age-y strand he personifies appeals to those who don’t really like “religion religion” (if you see what I mean), but like to believe in some kind of “spirituality”. Anyway, I was suddenly reminded of my old School chaplain, a voluble if not terribly intellectual Welshman with whom with used to have to sit and disagree for a couple of hours a week in Religious Education lessons. Here’s what I wrote (the first bit in orange is a quote from something an earlier commenter, Calli Arcale, had written):
“Some say that you should believe in God just in case. (In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, there is a bit about a guy who espoused this belief. He was shortly thereafter struck by lightning, because on the Discworld, gods are real, but really hate smart-alecks.) I think that’s silly. If God is real, then surely He would know if you really believed or just said you did so that you wouldn’t go to Hell. In which case, what’s really been gained? Whereas if God doesn’t exist, then you haven’t wasted a lifetime in useless religious practice.”
When I was a teenager we had a school chaplain who used to try and use the “Just in case….” line on us.
(NB – for international readers, school chaplains, i.e. ordained ministers of religion who were employees of the school, were common in British private schools in my youth and may still be. This guy was an Anglican, so Episcopalian in US parlance)
Apart from regaling us with accounts of the “terrible things” he had seen in his time as an Air Force chaplain in the Far East (usually involving venereal diseases and dripping/rotting appendages, a line of talk presumably designed to put us off having impure thoughts about girls) he would often treat us to:
“Well, if God doesn’t exist, like all you chaps believe, then I’m not losing anything by believing, am I? But if I’m right, and He does, well, all of you are going to Hell, aren’t you?”
The general view in the class was that, if that was the best argument he could come up with, it wasn’t a tremendous advertisement for his beliefs.
This was three decades and more ago, so I’m actually oddly curious to know if the school still has a chaplain, or whether he might have been replaced by a multi-faith New Age Chopra-type School Guru…
Dec 22nd – winding down amid the snow
Dr Aust’s corner of the North West has not had the kind of snowfall seen in the South and East of Britain, but we have still had a decent bit of snow – at least, considering that most years we don’t see any. The snow started falling on Thursday, stayed on the ground due to the freezing temperatures, and then got several top-ups from flurries which went on for a large part of Sunday. Today, just as the forecasters were telling us we had “only a 10% chance of more snow“, we got another decent-sized delivery, so that we have probably had 8-10 inches of snow over the last six days. We have built several snowmen, though Jr Aust seems keener on hacking snowmen to bits than building them.
Christmas TV has become a bit of a desert. Several of my favourite shows have finshed their Autumn run, with only Misfits and the terrific True Blood still with episodes to show. Worst of all, the Sci Fi channel has paused the late-night “from the beginning” re-run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hitherto one of the highlights of my evenings.
However, last night I did get lucky, finding an old (2000) Christmas Special by the wonderful Victoria Wood. I enjoyed the parody of Brief Encounter, but my absolute favourite sketch was the extended one of the Womens’ Institute (WI) jumble sale done in the style of ER, which you can see here (starts at 4.05 minutes in).
Hunting around the other Victoria Wood clips on Youtube, I came across this one expertly sending up the old-style medical school interview. At our medical school, we bioscientists no longer take part in the interviewing process for prospective medical students, so I can’t tell if this is still true to life. Perhaps Dr Grumble or some of the other medical bloggers can enlighten me.
Dec 23rd – still snowing.
Which reminds me that one can have too much of a good thing.