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

June 10, 2011

In which Dr Aust stalls for time. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, two things. Or three.

The first was the just issued Mea Culpa.

The second thing is an idea.

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

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

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

And… the third thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spam spam spam

April 11, 2011

If one maintains a blog, one gets, inevitably, a lot of spam.

No joke. The ratio of spam comments to real ones for this blog, over its three and a half years of operation, is something like 15 to 1.

And if one maintains a blog over a reasonable period of time – like three and a half years – one starts to notice trends in the spam.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – what kind of saddo looks at the spam comments on his blog? Well, some bloggers, doubtless of greater moral fortitude than me, never look in their spam folder, but I admit that I check mine once in a while. After all, at 15-to-1 spam-to-real, one doesn’t want to throw out any real comments along with the spam.

So over the years. I have become something of a connoisseur of spam

There is, of course, a permanent background level of the stuff in the usual categories you would expect, like P*rnSpam (offers of sites with rude pictures) and DrugSpam (offers of cut-price pharmaceuticals). There are also the hybrids, like P*rnDrugSpam – which typically offer a range of, er, chemical enhancements, mostly, but not limited to, cut-price knock-off versions of Pfizer’s most celebrated product.

Over the years, though, there has been an interesting tendency for the spam to become less obviously spammy – far less multi-URL LinkSpam, for instance – and more sneakily comment-y.

Some of this stuff simply offers a random comment like:

“Cool blog!”

– and the link back to the spamsite. Or often the link appears only in the supposed title of the blog that sent the Spam-comment.

Others offer longer comments than this, though typically not much more interesting.

Then there are the odd ones that seem to have been generated by random cut-up of words or phrases. This is a particular favourite Spam Category of mine. Who knew spam-bots were William Burroughs fans?

And very, very occasionally, one happens across something inadvertently funny.

For instance, the other day one arrived that began:

“Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for.”

Heh. Was the spam-bot related to Forrest Gump, I asked myself?

Or was the Spam-bot a Spam-bot-philosopher? Because the next line was:

Un-returnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates.”

Anyway, for some reason this comment, with its philosophical gloom, reminded me oddly of the line Mrs Dr Aust usually uses when I am complaining – as I often am during busy parts of the year, or when the kids are sick, or when we are short of sleep,  or all of the above at the same time, like several points this Winter – about being fat, or feeling knackered, or old. Or, indeed, whenever I say something like:

“!**!! – why does life have to be such a bloody struggle?”

To which she responds, far more philosophically than I can muster, with:

“At least it’s better than any of the alternatives”

Which, if you can believe it, usually leaves me quite without riposte. Apart from a ruminative:

“Hmmm”.

Of slime and childish curiosity

March 26, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders slime. And scientific tendencies.


Reproduced from the wonderful xkcd.com, the comic strip that regularly captures the spirit and the reality of science

Last weekend the Aust entourage, including Junior Aust (aged six-and-a bit-well-nearly-seven-in-a-few-months) visited this event at one of the nearby museums, run by the people from Manchester University’s Life Sciences Faculty.

In the event you could, as it says, “Come on a tour of the human body” and learn “how the heart works and how your lungs help you breathe”, among other things.

Junior Aust was fairly unimpressed by the nice chaps with their two-electrode ECG trace, even when I told her it was one of the things dad gets his students to measure on each other. I think the ECG wasn’t participatory enough for her, as they weren’t allowed to wire up members of the public (a shame, really, but understandable).

I DID manage to persuade her to blow into the spirometer and have her Forced Vital Capacity measured – another of those things you can find me getting students to do in their lab classes. I also measured myself for comparison, though I’d already done my annual Hypochondrial Full-service Multi-parameter Respiratory Function Self-assessment while I was running the student classes earlier this Semester.

She was a bit more impressed with the video of the view of the inside of your airways during a bronchoscopy (not done live, before you ask!), which I was able to tell her was the kind of thing mummy used to do to patients.

But the thing that REALLY made a deep and lasting impression on Junior Aust was the “make your own mucus-alike slime” stand. Kitted out in disposable plastic pathologist-style apron and dashing purple nitrile gloves, she was helped to concoct some truly disgusting-looking greeny-yellow slime out of acrylic glue, water and food colouring. I reassured her that the yellow colour was just enough to made it look properly yellow phlegm-like and grungey, and she was given some of her confection (tied up in another nitrile glove, no plastic bags left) to take home.

Now, we assumed she would lose interest in the stuff quickly enough, but this turned out not to be the case. For the rest of the day we were repeatedly called into action to stop her turning the slime out over the table, or the chairs, or the floor. Despite our best efforts, small chunks of it made their way onto her and her brother’s clothes, and onto the furniture. Yum.

But then we made a truly catastrophic error.

** Warning – you may find the next bit slightly disgusting. **

In a moment of attempting to out-gross Jurior Aust, The Boss (Mrs Dr Aust) remarked “That slime” (which was now semi-congealed) “looks exactly like what was in Junior Two’s nappies when he was ill the other week*”

Oh dear.

Big mistake.

Big, biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Mistake.

Huge.

For, thoughout the week since this conversation, we have been regaled daily (or indeed several times each day), by one or both children, with the useful information, faithfully and exactly repeated, of just exactly what Jr Aust’s slime resembles. Typically combined with a display of THE GLOVE, turned inside out so we can have a good look at the congealed yellow stuff.

Nice.

Note to self:

Take care what information thou doth impart to those under seven.

For verily, thou canst not take it back.

Anyway, we are trying to look on the optimistic side. You certainly have to applaud Junior Aust, and her younger sibling, for their impressive curiosity. Even curiosity into slightly gross stuff.

Which explains why I found the cartoon at the top of the post, from the brilliant xkcd.com, so funny when I saw it earlier this evening.

Now, Mrs Dr Aust and I have sworn an oath, in blood and in at least two languages, that the Aust-Sprogs are to be discouraged at all costs from going into any career related to science, or into medicine.

But there is, I fear, the chance that genes, or conditioning, will out.

Time, I guess, will tell.

 

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* It was almost certainly a rotavirus infection, BTW. Most unpleasant, and not a week we are keen to remember.

Holding back the tide – it’s alkaline, by the way

March 5, 2011

In which Dr Aust tries to keep things in proportion

A common feeling of those who write about pseudoscience is that one is a bit like King Canute, the man who was supposed to have ordered the waves to retreat.

For instance, for all that has been written about what a total con water ionizers are, people still sell them, and other people still buy them.

And for all that has been written about how “alkaline water” is a bunch of bullshit and a scam – including by me – there are still preposterous claims for its health benefits everywhere. Blogger Andrew Taylor just posted another such claim, which he says he got as a spam email. It is a particularly daft one as it talks about water being ionized, or separated, by their machine into “alkaline water” and “acid water”.

Now, this kind of stuff always claims “alkaline water” is good for you, and the email Andrew got is no exception:

“Alkaline Water being the healthiest drinking water available to us, because it will increase the pH of your body, detoxifies and has an abundance of anti-oxidants”

[Hmm. It can only have antioxidants in it if it has lots of dissolved organic material, actually. Not convinced lots of dissolved organic material is really something you would want in your drinking water. But I digress.]

Having read that boilerplate, but typically overblown claim – “the healthiest… detoxifies…” – I’m tempted to ask sarcastically whether the stuff cures cancer too. Depressingly, the people selling this are there already:

“Due to restrictions on regulating the things we can claim publicly, we can not say certain things, that’s why I want you to do your own research specially on the “C” word”

Sigh. As all too often, the hyperbolic general claims about “detoxifying” are just the scene-setting for the subsequent hint of something miraculous that will cure real, and serious, diseases. (It won’t, of course.) What this suggests is that the sellers are targetting their claims at the sick and desperate, as well as the “worried well”.

Now, remember also that this piece of sales pitch claimed to “separate” water into alkaline and acid fractions. While most quacks tend to claim routinely that “acidity” is bad for you, this email makes an extra virtue of the claimed “acid” water (which won’t actually be acid in any meaningful sense, but that’s another story) by claiming:

“The Acidic Water that is produced is a cleanser and is very good for skin conditions such as the eczema, cleaning vegetables, fruit etc”

Remarkable. No wasted water with Woo-water.

I am oddly reminded of a spa town in southern Spain where I once went for a conference years ago. The major product of the town was its bottled water, and the people in the hotel bar used to tell us how good it was for you. “Good for drinking. For your insides. Makes you healthy”. And if you didn’t like the taste, no problem: “Good for bathing in. For your skin. And for people with arthritis” Good inside OR out. Good acid OR alkaline. Just send money.

Anyway, faced with this daily tide of garbage, it is possible to feel rather like old Canute.

Except that…. the story (which is almost certainly apocryphal anyway) is not supposed to carry the meaning that Canute (or “Knut”, since Canute is an anglicization of Knut) really thought he could turn back the waves.

According to the story as commonly told, he did his commanding-the-waves routine as a lesson to his courtiers that he could NOT actually command the waves to retreat, even if they – the courtiers – kept buttering him up by telling him he was a great king, mighty and wise, could do anything etc etc.

Would that many modern leaders, whether political or in large organisations, were as aware of their own limitations.

Anyway, in the story Knut/Canute is presented as a man with a bit of insight, and not someone who would beat himself up if the tide refused to retreat on command.

Which brings me back to alkaline water. I wrote a post on this almost exactly three years ago (it went live on March 1st 2008) called:

What Could Be So Fine… As to be Alkaline (Warning: Irony)

The post has logged over 1200 “page loads”, so most days, on average, someone has at least had it open in a browser. Last month there were twenty-seven. I hope some of those people read it. I hope some of them found it useful, and that perhaps it helped to clarify for some of them why alkaline water is a scam.

And like the Knut of the story, I am not hoping for miracles. So I will settle for that.