Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Skeptical Pub Crawling

I'm stupidly excited to announce that the skeptical movement in Wales is growing! "Skeptics in the Pub in Wales" is soon likely to become an umbrella group. Cardiff should be taking off in September, interest has been expressed in Swansea, and a Twitterer assures me that plans are afoot to set up in Aberystwyth too. But Dean and I are concentrating on Cardiff first.

For Skeptics in the Pub, you need speakers, an audience and a venue. A couple of weeks ago I went to London and Manchester to sniff out, i.e. smile stupidly at and pester ruthlessly, potential speakers. Through that, Facebook and Twitter, I have dragged a "yes" out of Hayley Stevens, Jourdemayne, Evan Harris, Simon Singh, Jack of Kent, and Simon Perry (now to find out whether name-dropping actually does encourage anybody to turn up - let me know - at worst, at least you wonderful people are publically booked in now!). Simon has produced a wonderful PDF of handy hints at setting up Skeptics in the Pub groups, and recommends starting off with a bang. Having nearly wet myself laughing at his "Skeptical Activity and the Quacklash" lecture in Manchester, I'm hoping he will fill that role himself this coming September.

Simon Perry giving his "Skeptical Activism and the Quacklash" talk in Manchester. If you want to know why he's waving his arms or who the person on his screen is, come along in September . . .

While I've been the insane chatterbox, Dean has been doing the much harder work which would doubtless stump me: getting together an amazing collection of venues, as well as seeing what we can get in the way of local publicity! He's also just written two amazing blog posts, one for Birmingham Skeptics and the other for the Twenty-First Floor. Don't forget that he's actually a neuroscientist, too. You can also read more about what being both these things involves here. To be both a scientist and a comedian strikes me as the most marvellous combination. Especially for skepticism. I'm quite envious, being officially neither.

Anyway, after a lot of skeptical planning, it occurred to us that we really ought to actually meet each other, as well as that I should check out said venues. So that was how I spent last Monday. (Yet another train journey. I think I live on the train. I learnt on the way that Cornish Fairings are actually ginger snaps, though I initially misheard it as Cornish Fairies - this took the biscuit!) After a bit of a mixup with the Internet predicting that my train would be half an hour later than it was, and then my failure to realise there was a car park behind Cardiff Central as well as in front, we spotted each other only too easily. I was wearing my "Keep Libel Laws out of Science" shirt, and he was wearing one which said "Science: it works, bitches" and sports a graph of radiation at the moment of the Big Bang on the back. So Dean's wife and then seven pubs were certainly greeted by the best possible nerd deputation! Apparently I am their first visitor ever to look out of the window and ask: "So, where's the brothel and the chiropractor?" But I did have a very good reason. And yes, we did pass them on the way into town!

A Skeptics in the Pub venue needs, of course, to be a pub. It also needs to be suitable for giving a lecture in, which preferably means having a projector and screen of some description - and the room also needs to be the right shape. The first pub we saw was lovely - all wooden and light and airy, with an upstairs floor, amazing looking food, and a sparkling view of the bay. But it was sort of hexagonal, with rooms leading into other rooms and various awkward levels and walls in the way - a lecture would be impossible there. On the other hand, it shouldn't be too lecture-ish. One place had an upstairs room that would have been ideal if it was a bit cleaner and less reminiscent of a school hall - it was perfectly square with a squeaky grey floor and yellow walls. The venue also needs to serve food as well as a decent range of drinks, because a lot of people - especially in this case! - would be travelling to it and probably want to eat when they arrived. The staff, too, make a lot of difference: in one place they barely seemed to notice we were there, and, while friendly, were not particularly interested in hearing about what could offer or what we needed.

It was a boiling hot day so I got to sample one place's ice cream and another place's Coca-Cola. Of course, this gave us more opportunity to chat with the staff. That gave me the opportunity to sell the idea of our lecture series a bit. I told them truthfully how well-behaved the Skeptics are: no brawling, no puking, and so on - at least not that I've yet seen - but as there were quite a few of us coming, likely to buy food, they'd get a lot of money out of us. Some places were willing to let us have a function room for free. Others asked for a fee, of £50 or £100, but upon hearing more about us made some encouraging noises about waiving it if they made that sort of money out of us anyway.

Some of the complications were, well, complicated. Others were simple. One pub was willing to let us have the room but wanted to introduce all sorts of whereases and whereins and were a bit iffy about weeknights. Another was enthusiastic about having us but - I pointed out to Dean when hopefully the manager and barman weren't listening - had an unpleasant smell. Dean was aware of all kinds of technicalities which would have gone way over my head, while my reactions were instinctive perceptions on the look and odour and friendliness of the place. But guess what? We still agreed on the best place. It was the soberest pub crawl I've ever been on, but by far the most satisfactory!

That's that side sorted. There's plenty more to do. Cardiff is a more awkward location than, say, London for most speakers to get to, and the train fares aren't cheap, so we may have to do a bit of fund-raising. We've had an offer to do some advertising for us, but the advertiser in question seems to want to give the impression that it's all their work and idea, so to say the least that one is out. I've promised to draw up a table of what day of the week and what week of the month other Skeptic groups have their evenings, to try and avoid clashing with them for those who might like to travel to both! Now, I must actually do that rather than fall asleep early every evening . . . If you are likely to come to a Cardiff lecture, do please let me know what day of the week suits you. (It will not be Friday or a weekend.) Then we coordinate the speakers. Dean and I both have potential talks brewing, so at least we'll be able to fill in if nobody likes us or the unpronouncable volcano gets at the trains next or what have you. Oh, and we hope to get our own website soon . . .

Well, we're going to make a bit of a change to Wales. Not bad for a summer's work, eh? Hope to see you there!

PS Do check out Dean's version, which contains all the indiscreet comments about individual pubs that I so carefully avoided mentioning as well as awarding me about 8 different names.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Book Review: Horizons of Cosmology by Joseph Silk

Just a quick announcement that my review of "Horizons of Cosmology" by Joseph Silk is now available online at the Astronomy Now website.

It's an excellent book (bar my one criticism, which you'll find in the link - but which does not in any way detract from the many wonderful things). It was also the reason for this blog post about Dark Matter. Seriously, I was just reading it on the train and when that sudden burst of understanding arrived, I practically leapt up and danced for joy. Not being one to want to intrigue my fellow passengers that much (and too lazy anyway), I texted umpteen people instead!

Anyway, I thoroughly recommend it. To the extent that I got it for a friend for his birthday. Give it a read if you want to know about dark matter, dark energy, galaxy evolution and the Big Bang. But not if you want a basic introduction to astronomy.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Crossword Puzzle: Answers

Answers, as promised, for last week's Skeptical Crossword - which, I understand from a very unscientifically selected sample, was way too hard.

Oh well.


2. Pod Delusion
6. Blinded
8. Twenty-first
9. Wales
11. Hari Singh
14. Gimpy
15. Horsehair
16. David Treddinick
17. Back Knight
2o. Allen
22. Ben Goldacre
23. Orson Lewis
24. Anecdotes
26. Closed-minded
28. Innate Intelligence
29. Pub
33. Gillian McKeith
34. Placebo
36. Bad Astronomer
37. Quacklash
38. McTimoney
39. Think Humanism


1. Dr Nancy Malik
3. Dean Burnett
4. FIH
5. BCA
6. Banana cake
7. Mercury
10. Maria
12. Spooky Posse
13. Bath
14. Going Past the Chemist's
18. Dr Evan Harris
19. Zeno
21. Evidence
25. Crispian Jago
27. Skeptic Trumps
30. MMR
31. Happily
32. Bogus

Nevertheless, I do have one cause to be flattered. I have inspired OfQuack to produce one as well. Sadly, I am not going to get a chance to have a go until after this coming weekend! It's all great research - I've just been to two Skeptics in the Pubs, which I'll blog about later.

Well, if good for nothing else, I would love to see my crossword printed out on the world's most awesome Lego printer!

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Skeptics' Crossword

Update: Dear all, I have come to the conclusion that the previous crossword was a bit rubbish - almost none of the words joined up in more than one place, many needed shortening, and the clues needed refining too. Which shows you just what a good crossword maker I am. So here's a new one. If you want a copy of the old one, just let me know and I'll send you a Word document.

Blame this on Jack of Kent . . .

(Click for higher resolution image.)


2. Hide your innocent children from this corruption-filled radio program! It's liberal!
6. In a trial, not telling the doctor who's getting what medicine, to minimise unconscious bias
8. What skeptical floor was that again?
9. The latest country to start an SITP
11. A very skeptical baby who won't be taken to a chiropractor for coughs or colic
14. Inane witterings and bad science
15. A sacred substance against which a homeopath succusses their water
16. A politician of the horoscopes
17. Sir Simon's arch-enemy in a bogus Python scene
20. Key to a great legal name
22. Who said, "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that".
23. A skeptical baby, born 10 hours 23 minutes (within observational error margin) of another one
24. The best promotion a woo can really offer. But it's not evidence.
26. Woos' favourite adjective to describe skeptics
28. Inner high IQ? A silly, spinelss idea, actually
29. An extremely important meeting place.
33. Or, to give her her full medical title . . .
34. Very convincing benefit to woo. "A newt?" "I, er ... I got better."
35. The bird that makes our favourite noise, also the avatar of two skeptics
36. A great skeptic across the pond
37. The sound of a whip and a bird, actually a consequence of unwise legal action, thus named by a medieval knight
38. Our favourite letter!
39. Alan and Maria's forum

1. Our favourite quack troll and woo spammer
3. Employs dragons and Dr Who to create skeptical art
4. The Font of Homeopathic Idiocy?
5. Who bravely sued away, away
6. Burnt by a skeptic and activist - great food!
7. A northern newspaper, and planet which antivaxxers think is in vaccines
10. Get your claws in, she needs an anger management course!
12. Poor spoiled newspaper bloggers are scared of this skeptic group!
13. Tapping into new skeptical centre in England
14. A skeptical astronomer, passing by in favour of card tricks
18. I miss his mum, but not as much as his constituents must miss him!
19. Humanist 001
21. Ni! Hide it - the woos are allergic to this!
25. The indefatigable Cornish git
27. Everybody wants a card
30. No, Andrew, it isn't harmful. Even against your lucrative patent.
31. Blithely, not with deliberate dishonesty
32. We are now allowed to call quack treatments this!

You can also download this version here.

Answers, I still hope, on Wednesday 9th June. Contact me at a _ j _ sheppard [AT] hotmail.com or on Twitter if you fancy sending in some answers. In response to one query, no, I don't know what the prize is, but I'll certainly congratulate you on Twitter and next time I see you at Skeptics in the Pub, if I do!

Update: Make that Thursday 10th June. Wednesday is getting ridiculous.