Tuesday, 28 September 2010

An article about an article

Here's a brilliant spoof by Martin Robbins at the Guardian's Lay Scientist - how to write a science article of thoroughly mediocre quality that gives science its current illustriously stupid and confusing name.

The comments are also a good giggle, and don't forget to move your mouse over the links at the end to see what they really are. (You don't have to click on them.)

I hope you laugh as much as I do. And rap my knuckles if you catch me doing any of it.

If it made you grin, you might also chuckle at the "Daily Mail Reporter"'s tweets, too. (If you're not in the UK, the Daily Mail is one of Murdoch's many tabloid newspapers and is not famed for its sense of civilisation, proportion, rationality, or . . . well, you get the picture.) I first noticed this guy (or girl?) when they tweeted: "Have you ever known, met or slept with anyone famous? The Daily Mail would like to hear from you." Scenes of a mass bombardment on the way . . .

Update: Martin has followed up his post with a serious look at what could be done to improve science journalism, also very well worth a read.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

We did it.

Skeptics in the Pub arrived in Wales on Monday night. I'm absolutely gobsmacked at how many people came along. And I'm pretty sure it's going to grow fast.

Dean had the sense to nip over to the Promised Land earlier that afternoon to arrange rows of chairs. I arrived some time after six with Ray, who's set up the West Wales Skeptics, and was on the same (delayed) train as me from Swansea. We were bemused to find a sheet and bag of drawing pins on the windowsill, but put it down to Dean's mysterious comedy routine.

It turned out Simon wanted them. He preferred to project his talk onto a sheet rather than use the rather giant TV-like screen. We had to wait until it got dark, as the daylight shone through the sheet. Oh well. Each to their own. (For those who can't see the big grin on my face while I type, the TV-like screen wouldn't have shown some of the gloriously funny detail on Simon's slides!) Simon and Dean looked highly amusing pinning a sheet up to the window.

They got their revenge, though. I was grabbing a bite to eat while they were doing the heavy work, and Dean said, "Don't tire yourself out, Alice." That did make me feel guilty, looking at all the rows of chairs, the microphone in place . . . Oh well. I'd had an entirely out-of-proportion fight with the Mac and printer to print off some sweet little tickets (not something I'd ever seen at a Skeptics in the Pub before, but I thought they'd encourage people to pay up!), and came with a big plastic jar to collect the money in.

I was beginning to wonder where everybody was when one of the bar staff popped upstairs to say: "Some people arrived a while ago, shall I start sending them up?"

After that it was a steady trickle - with the occasional whooshing flood that kept half a dozen folks at a time queueing on the stairs while I fiddled with change and tickets. After a while I had to fish between notes to get out change (what a good job my nice mum had given me a little float of £1 coins!). There wasn't much time to think clearly between the meeting and greeting, judging who needed reminding that they needed to pay, who needed reassuring that we'd be friendly, who needed urging to rush and grab a seat, who I ought to recognise . . . Looking back, my memory supplies me with lots of members of both sexes, lots of various ages, and lots of different colours. I couldn't be more pleased with this. Skeptics are coming in for a lot of bashing these days, mostly from ourselves, and one of the criticisms is that there seems to be a white male majority. The other thing that excited me was so, so many folks arriving who I didn't know. They weren't coming to please me or anything. They'd heard about us and were interested. Which is so much better!

One of the first people I knew was Rhys Morgan plus his dad. Then there was PaulNUK2O1O, Hayley, Andrew Holding who will be our January speaker, Rhys Philips who interviewed me and Dean on the radio for Pythagoras's Trousers, and - albeit late due to council activities - Councillor John Dixon whose #stupidscientology hearing is Tuesday 28th (oh, and if you haven't seen Crispian's take on #stupidscientology, it's a must! Sorry, any scientologists reading this, but . . . .). Who else? I bet I've forgotten someone. What I'll never forget is that even my parents came along. It was a long journey for them, especially after a working day at the hospital.

We were sadly missing the illustrious Jack of Kent, whose legal work was consuming all his time - it would have been a long journey for him too. He'll come and give us a whole talk another time. Dean and I filled in for him. After the fire alarm had finished going off, that is. I'm still uncertain why it went off, other than that it got exceptionally hot in there. The windows didn't open far and the road was being dug up (yes, at eight o'clock in the evening!) - reminiscent of Alicia's first Maths lecture in "A Beautiful Mind". The first time it went off, everyone just looked around uncertainly and, well, sat there. There was no commotion downstairs either. There was a cheer when it stopped, and a roar of laughter when it went off again! I think they put the air conditioning on after that!

Dean did the official health and safety routine, warning us about the elephants in the loos or something like that, and reminding us to leave the building if there actually was a real fire. Then I made a prat of myself trying to explain what Skeptics in the Pub was by telling silly stories about it and keeping on remembering one more thing to say. My parents did not look at me while I did. Afterwards my mum said sympathetically that it was a good thing that I got Dean to do most of the speaking and that I would eventually get better at it. Well, I wasn't helped by a dear friend of Dean's who decided to spend a few minutes howling pitifully on the stairs!

Dean then took over again, shortly followed by Simon, who told us that he'd been a troublemaker for a long time and gave us an example of a complaint he made to a supermarket because their "Taste the Difference" Cumberland sausages all tasted the same. Then things descended from there. Even though I'd seen his talk before, I was slightly miffed to miss even five minutes of it by sneaking downstairs and asking if they could turn the music down. I'd love to blog about it in detail as I did Jourdemayne's, but . . . they're different. Jourdemayne's is special whether you've read it or not. Simon's contains a lot of special surprises which I don't want to spoil by revealing! I can't resist one more snippet, though. A thoroughly ridiculous, misleading and generally illegal product was defended on the grounds that it conformed to standard this stroke that stroke the other stroke thingummybob. Simon looked up said standard, and found that it was only part of a huge list of such standards to which it should also conform. The single one to which it did was merely that they'd filled out a form about it . . .

Anyway, general hilarity reigned! Rhys Morgan (who got a special cheer - he's been written about by Martin Robbins now, and the Kenyan newspapers are issuing warnings about that horrific pseudo-medicine being peddled there) was picked as a prop for a demonstration. A lot of people were standing, and a couple of them were chattering away distractingly at the back (but I think Dean had a Quiet Word with them). I was near the back and it was hard to hear. Bodies absorb an awful lot of sound. I tried sitting on the floor but I was the only person who did, so it felt silly. (Not to mention worrying among all those legs, and I couldn't hear a thing). I wonder if we can borrow twenty-odd folding chairs or so. Perhaps some kind fan might have some . . . ?

Simon got a very big clap and we had a break to grab a drink before Questions and Answers. In Manchester he'd got some tough questions such as whether his crusade against scam products ever made him feel guilty for those who were trying to earn a living, and whether it was morally right to deprive people of placebos. The questions in Cardiff were, to my surprise, all very supportive. Somebody asked him: "Given the events of the last few days, would you say you're a militant atheist?" which got a roar of laughter. Simon suggested that Dawkins is actually doing a useful job by being what seems to many of us aggressive, because he demonstrates just how moderate most atheists are by comparison - and therefore what "moderate" actually means. In fact, he suggested that there is a continuum between religious fanatics and atheists, with religious fanatics at the most warlike end, atheists at the most peaceful, and "moderate" religious folks in between. Food for thought there. You can make up your own mind what you think of that one.

It was actually my mum who pointed out one of the nicest things about Simon's talk and his questions and answers: that his answers were so incredibly honest. For example, someone asked him what his family thought of his crusades, and he simply told them. No soundbites, no dodgings, none of the evasiveness and condescension we're so used to. Just honesty. And fun.

Another question was "Don't you ever worry that you might wake up with a horse's head in your bed?" Simon told us a story about a rather huge and aggressive-looking aromatherapist who nearly attacked him in public - Simon was examining this chap's wares; the chap asked him what he was looking for and got the reply, "Oh, I was thinking of reporting you to Advertising Standards, actually."

When the questions were over, Simon got a big round of applause - and then was kind enough to raise one for me and Dean for putting this all together. I remembered to remind everyone of the next one: How to be a Psychic Con Man with Ash Pryce, 18th October, same time, same place. Then it was time for beer and photos!

View from the back (standing at the front include Rhys Morgan, Cllr John, Andrew and I think the Aberystwyth folks):

View from the front:

According to Dean, Simon and Cllr John must have been debating about who's caused the most trouble of the two of them . . .

. . . but they seem to have reached an amicable compromise!

Here are Dean and Andrew, whose huge number of chemistry corrections for my #Bleachgate post I really must go through one by one:

The three woo botherers debate best tactics . . .

And everyone here in this picture is a Skeptics in the Pub founder!
(Andrew is Cambridge, Ray is Swansea/West Wales, and Simon is Leicester.)

My mum told Simon he reminded her of one of our cats, Izzy - small, lithe, innocent-looking and absolutely impossible to discipline. That must be one of the more unusual compliments Simon has received in his time!

One of the best bits was Simon coming up and asking me how we managed to get so many people - he's been to Skeptics in the Pub in larger cities that have been running longer, with far fewer people. Judging by our takings, we got an audience of about 60. I honestly don't know how we did it. We've got our webpage, and we went on Twitter and Facebook, and I am sure Dean spread the word around Cardiff. I'd be fascinated to know how you heard about us - do let me know!

I think Andrew was the person who came from furthest away, namely Cambridge. (He very kindly timed a holiday in Wales to coincide with this!) We also had folks from Aberystwyth and Swansea, who I thought to get to wave at each other so they could all join up and discuss things later. In fact, one of the folks from Aber came up to me after Simon's talk and said, "That was brilliant! I've decided, we've got to do it in Aber!" There are rumours of Skeptics starting in Bangor too. I have an image in my head of several lines of dominoes placed across Wales . . .

Sadly, I had to go earlier than most, so as to get back to Pembrokeshire. We then managed to miss the last fast train and had a half hour wait, and got home just before two in the morning. It was a long time after that that I got to bed, because lots of great messages were already waiting on Twitter and Facebook! The best included: "Great talk last night on quackery and being an alt-med-botherer by Simon Perry. Well done @CardiffSITP", "Looking forward to more jam-packed Cardiff Skeptics meet ups, great talk from @Simon_Perry" and "Very much enjoyed @simon_perry talking at the @CardiffSITP event this evening. He is the @markthomasinfo of the skeptic world! Hilarious." Despite very little sleep, I woke early next morning still grinning my head off.

Dean put some of the meeting (not Simon's talk, obviously) on youtube. One of my colleagues found it and played it at top volume in the office yesterday. I ran and hid in the kitchen. I haven't dared watch it, but he tells me I fidget too much, which is probably true and useful to know. I've lived in Spain you see, and picked up the habit of waving my hands around when I talk! At any rate, that's my excuse!

Anyway, you know? I've been a teacher and I've learnt to care a lot less how I look when I talk. The thing to do is just get on with it. None of us got covered in eggs or rotten fruit, and all in all, as Dean put it, "I think that worked."

I hope to see you next time!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Welsh Skeptics head west

Is "sorry I haven't been blogging lately" the most tedious way to begin a blogpost? Probably. I'm writing an article about Cassini. This is exciting in a different way from my Galaxy Zoo one, because this is a subject I know very little about. Which is a great challenge, and allows me to prove my worth as a researcher of new things. I never knew I could get so fascinated with the intricacies of elliptical orbits and dust damage prevention . . .

Anyway, wonderful news: it looks like Wales is suddenly getting very interested in skepticism! Look - there's now a West Wales Skeptics, who have also set up a blog. These folks will actually be easier for me to get to (harder for speakers, though, I fear) than Cardiff, which of course is mine and Dean's. I am thrilled, folks - many congratulations, please use me as a speaker (I have a topic brewing . . .); and if you're in west Wales and could attend or indeed be a speaker, do please get in touch with them.

Here's their current logo, though they're looking for more - among other things. You can follow them on Twitter at @SITPWestWales. Now that Skeptics in Wales is actually splitting into regions, we've renamed our @WalesSITP twitter account to @CardiffSITP.

And Cardiff? We kick off five days from now! I'm beginning to get nervous. But realistically I shall be genuinely surprised if the night doesn't turn out to be wonderful. We'll have Simon Perry and Jack of Kent as speakers; we'll have Councillor John Dixon of #stupidscientology and Rhys Morgan of #bleachgate as guests of honour. (Cllr Dixon, have you got a preferred link for me to use to describe you? There's a lot more to everyone than who decided to launch stupid complaints about them!)

If much of the above might as well be in Outer Mongolian to you, don't feel left out, please just come along anyway - Simon's talk is absolutely hilarious; you'll learn a lot about science, evidence, trials, and how to be evil; and it's a nice social evening too. You can chat or just listen as you please. I'll make every effort to come and say hello. Dean is also a great comedian, even if he is planning to fling Rhys out of the window if he repeats too many counterarguments. You can have dinner while you're listening to the lecture (or before or after, of course). It's £3 per head, which we hope to reduce with time - we're getting two speakers in from far away and may have to pay for the room too, so right now we need to get some funds in!

On another totally unrelated subject, today's Internet trophies include a funny-smelling planet and a bunch of animals that want to join in sports games. And the Zoo limericks are starting to involve Biblical adventures. More seriously, if you haven't yet, you should read about the proposed science cuts. A great many other countries are not doing this because science is a major contributor to the economy - 45% according to Brian Cox! I have nothing to say besides what's already been said by so many people; the only new angle I can possibly come up with is this: although I want projects like the Zooniverse to become even more a part of science and education than they are, I hope they won't be expected to pick up the pieces. Because then we'd probably have to be cutting costs and jumping through somebody else's hoops. That's my gut feeling. I could be wrong.

Yes, my life is as chaotic as this post right now. Random, I know. I haven't given up plotting with the Pembrokeshire Tea Company either . . .

Hope to see you on Monday evening. 7.30 p.m., the Promised Land pub, Cardiff. We'll keep slightly better on topic than this post has. Maybe.