Wednesday, 29 December 2010


A round-up of the most significant science stories from the year 2010

World’s Largest Particle Betting Pool Nearing Conclusion

Scientists at the World’s largest Particle accelerator (The Large Hadron Collider, LHC) recently announced that they were closer than ever to finding an eventual winner of the world’s largest betting pool concerning elementary quantum particles.

“We’re all getting really excited about the eventual discovery of the ‘God particle’” says leading physicist Professor Brian Delacour. ‘The pool’s been running since before the collider was built, but since then both the theory and the technology have really come along drastically, so we have been able to really expand the number of eventual candidates for the ultimate particle and really flesh out the betting pool.

According to most scientists, the particle that gives rise to mass, the aforementioned ‘God particle’, is the Higgs Boson, although this is yet to be conclusively proven. It is this proof that many of the largest particle accelerators are attempting to discover. When asked about this, Professor Delacour said ‘of course, the Higgs Boson is the most likely candidate, but that option was picked out of the hat by a San-Franciscan at a conference in 2003. He’s not even a physicist, he’s a conservationist or something, but you know how pissed people can get at conferences, nobody had a clue at the time. So now we’re hoping to discover the most elementary particle is not the Higgs, but something a bit more exotic again. Anything so that jammy bastard doesn’t walk away with the prize fund“

When asked whether this was the noblest aim for experiments using equipment costing billions, Professor Delacour was surprisingly frank. “Of course it isn’t, but then to be honest, we probably stopped finding out generally useful things sometime in the mid-80’s, so now gambling and spite are the main motivators for us carrying on. I’m not optimistic about my chances, I’ll be honest. A few of my colleagues have drawn things like types of quark or neutrinos as the most fundamental components of matter. What do I get? Odd socks! That would help iron out some issues in the whole missing-matter problem, but I reckon it’s a long shot. My co-investigator got Styrofoam pellets, and there’s a Swiss quantum theorist lecturer who got potpourri. We all had a good laugh and that, but we’re not really feeling as motivated as we once were, and that’s a fact’.

When asked when he expected a winner of the pool to be announced, Professor Delacour was noncommittal. “Knowing this thing, it could be anytime from tomorrow to twenty years from now”, he said, before vigorously thumping the section of the LHC he was stood beside for emphasis. “We’ve got to keep it at close to absolute zero. Every time it suffers a glitch we have to reboot the whole bloody thing, and that takes about 14 months. It’s like Windows Vista, but colder.

When asked, Professor Delacour revealed that the prize fund for the particle betting pool currently stands at 458 Euro (£391). “It’s the biggest in the world, but that’s not saying much given the subject matter. Hah! ‘Subject Matter’! I’m writing that down!” He then ran off to find a pencil.

Ancient humans “not quite as Genocidal as first thought” say Palaeontologists

Although assumed to be responsible for the untimely extinction of every species to suffer such a fate, recent discoveries by palaeontologists suggest that one of the more famous extinct species, Woolly Mammoths, may have died out as a result of its own incompetence.

Doctor Michael Lalsow, Head of Prehistoric Studies at the Institute for Anthropology in Inverness, welcomed the findings. “It seems to be taken as read that ancient humans were savage insatiable killers and all other creatures were noble, wise beasts, perfectly in tune with nature. However, research now suggests that primitive humans were weedy half-formed idiots and other animals were lumbering vacuous morons that evolved themselves into unsustainable predicaments”.

Recent research has revealed that mammoths died out as a result of the depletion of grasslandsfollowing the end of the ice age, rather than excessive hunting by contemporary humans. “It’s ironic when you think about it, people complain about deforestation in order to raise cattle, but it was reforestation that killed off even bigger grazing quadrupeds, so if anything the forests are just reaping what they sew. That’s an agriculture joke there, by the way, so it works on two levels” Dr Laslow reassured us.

Dr Laslow also admitted to always being sceptical about the original overhunting hypothesis. “You ever seen a mammoth? About 7 tons of angry orange fur and giant tusks. It’ll take more than a dimly aware primate waving a stick to bring one of them down, let alone ALL of them. They’re not like Pandas; they wouldn’t need round-the-clock attention just to make sure they don’t shit themselves to death after eating the wrong kind of twig. If they hadn’t been so dependent on grass they would still be around today. My mother always said, ‘stay away from that grass! It’ll be the death of you!’ I used to think she meant the ‘grass’ as in drugs, but then she was massive with orange hair as well, so maybe it was racial memory.’

However, not everyone is so eager to dismiss the overhunting philosophy. A contrasting view was put forward by Buck McChickford, professional hunter and president of the Sarah Palin Fan club (Wyoming chapter).

“My great-grand daddy brought down at least 5 o’ them woolly mammoths in the winter of ’38 using nuttin’ but his old colt and a fishin’ pole. Had to build a bigger cabin just to mount the heads.” When asked how this could be true when mammoths largely died out around 10,000 years ago, Mr McChickford laughed and pointed out that this ‘were plum stupid, boy! God only gone done made the world some six ‘hunnerd years ago’. This argument continued, but the rest was unintelligible. When asked if he’d ever killed a mammoth himself, Mr McChickford replied by saying “You callin’ me a Queer?” before scratching his unfeasibly large and suspiciously sock-like genitals.

Brain Scans Reveal Direct Link between Enthusiasm for Brain Scans and Scientific Incompetence

Recent studies have shown that the more impressed a researcher is by brain imaging techniques, the more likely they are to produce studies and data that are about as useful as a rice-paper catheter. A metastudy conducted on a substantial body of recently published papers revealed an inverse relationship between a), a researcher’s reliance on impressive brain scanning techniques in their research, and b), their ability to make even the vaguest sense of all the cool flashing lights they’re looking at.

This came as no surprise to many experts in the field of Neuroscience. Doctor James Van Johnson, head of Cerebrology at the Maidenhead School of Brain Biology, explains.

“The technology to study living, functioning brains was a very important breakthrough in neuroscience. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a painfully complex process requiring extensive analysis and data collection before we can even achieve results beyond that offered by random guessing”. However, many recent studies have reportedly used neuroimaging techniques to link certain behaviours and traits with specific brain regions. When asked if he took issue with these studies, Dr Van Johnson responded by swearing profusely. When he had calmed down (which took 73 minutes, including coffee breaks), the following conversation occurred.

“Do you know what an active brain looks like?” asked Dr Van Johnson. Our reporter suggested that it was probably a warmer, leakier version of an inactive brain, which is reminiscent of a dense grey blancmange trying to impersonate a walnut.

“Fair point yes” agreed Dr Van Johnson, “But I meant on an imaging scanner? It depends on the technique you use of course, there are several, but it’s generally all over the place. That whole thing about us using ‘only 10% of the brain’ is complete bollocks, we use all of it all the time, and that’s reflected in a scan. To find a significant level of activity in a certain area in response to a certain process, that takes substantial time and effort. But some people just see the cool flashing colours that represent someone’s thoughts and they assume it must be like reading a book. Not even a proper book with normal words, but some sort of brightly coloured Fisher-price book, about the alphabet or a monosyllabic story about a dog. An inflatable one that you can take in the bath, at that. Well, it’s not, it’s a damn sight more complicated than that. I have a PhD in this sort of thing, I would know.”

Other researchers, however, disagree with the findings of the metastudy and intend to pursue the use of brain imaging techniques in studies linking bits of brain with hard-to-define abstract behaviours. Recent papers have linked enlarged amygdalas with expanded social circles, political views with differing brain structures, meditation with an above-average sized hippocampus, and a more densely-innervated Shatner’s Bassoon with a love of dark satirical comedies.

“It’s a whole new paradigm” said Doctor Terence ‘Moonbeam’ Gustafson, a researcher in Neuroholistic tendencies at the University of Omnicultural Research (online only). “With this technology we can see directly into the mind, into the psyche, and eventually, into the soul. We are morally obligated to use this technology to take science beyond the crusty neo-fascist restrictions of the established institutions and into the realms of spirituality and oneness”. When asked if he believed the use of scanning technology could ‘bring Phrenology into the 21stcentury’, Dr Gustafson said “Yes! Yes exactly! That’s precisely what we’re doing here”. When it was pointed out that phrenology was based on scientifically unfounded theories and widely discredited during the 19th century, he added “except for that bit”.

Other researchers also object to Dr Van Johnson’s views. Professor Harold Wyszynski, of the Brain Imaging Centre for Investigative Studies in Detroit, wished to give his views on why brain imaging techniques are both crucial and informative for research. In order to demonstrate this effectively, he insisted that the interview be conducted from an MRI machine and that we derive the answers to the questions from the images produced by his brain. When asked why he felt brain imaging techniques were so useful, his answer was BLUE FLASH-GREEN FLASH-YELLOW BLUR-RED FLASH-BLUE SPLODGE SHIFTING INTO GREEN SPLODGE-LARGE DARK GREY STRIPE-BLUE SPIRALLY THING-GREEN FLASH-ORANGE PULSE-BLUE FLASH-LOCALISED BLUE FLASH. He then sneezed and the scanner needed to be recalibrated.

Moon Landing Conspiracy Gets Even More Elaborate

More than 40 years after the original conspiracy to convince the world that man had landed on the moon was initiated, NASA continue to add yet more layers of complexity and detail to this ludicrous but far-reaching notion that humans are capable of travelling to Earth’s natural satellite.

The most recent addition to the vast body of fabricated data that supposedly supports the possibility of a moon landing is the ‘discovery’ of large bodies of water ‘on the moon’. Professional moon-landing debunker Keith Armstrong stated that “this is just yet another example of the elaborately concocted fiction by NASA in order to perpetuate the myth that humans are somehow capable of travelling to the moon”. When asked why he thought it was that numerous international scientific bodies not affiliated with NASA or the US government were treating the information as genuine, Mr Armstrong stated that “That’s exactly how they do things. They buy off all these scientific groups and bodies so they’ll back up their lies. That way NASA gets to keep their budget”. When it was pointed out that NASA’s budget wouldn’t even come close to enough for bribing that many international scientific bodies, Mr Armstrong pointed out that “they’re cunning, you see. They planted that water on the moon in order to fool the scientific community into supporting their agenda”.

When asked about the logical paradox behind the contention that NASA went to the moon in order to perpetuate the myth that they went to the moon, Mr Armstrong accused our reporter of being ‘one of them!’ and ejected them from the premises. Further attempts to contact him for a quote proved unsuccessful, possibly due to a combination of his tin foil hat and poor phone signal in his mother’s basement where he lives.

Other sources take a more optimistic view of the alleged findings. Doctor Nathaniel Price, Conspiracologist at the Centre for Bizarre Beliefs (Surrey), suggests that there is great potential in the claim of discovering water on the moon.

“The nature of the moon-landing conspiracy means it has endured for some considerable time, despite the limited material available from the 60’s and 70’s for effective debunking, which has been repeatedly assessed countless times over the intervening decades and is in danger of growing stale. This new development could lead to a much more extensive volume of claims and data to refute. Moon bases, established communities on the lunar surface, regular transit of the Earth-Moon distance, structures that would be clearly visible from the Earth’s surface with any decent telescope, there are so many possibilities offered by this latest development for conspiracy theorists to vociferously deny in the face of considerable evidence. This ‘discovery’ could breathe new life into the moon-landing debunkers conspiracy, and fire up a great deal more interest and investment for the 21st century. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have the New World Order on the other line…”

Rationalists Suffer Side Effects after Poorly Judged Alt-Med Protest

Alternative medicine practitioners claimed vindication this week after a large group of skeptic protestors were discovered to have suffered serious side effects after a coordinated mass-overdose of homeopathic remedies back in January. The original point of the protest was to demonstrate that the mass-produced alternative medications have no active ingredients and thus cannot lead to overdose or side effects, but pro-homeopathy experts now claim that the protest has backfired.

“The argument that they have no harmful side effects is only valid in terms of accepted medical definitions. However, as homeopathy is clearly an alternative medicine, then logically it would have ALTERNATIVE side effects that differ to standard medicine” claims professional alternative medicine proponent Harrison Ford (no relation). He then went on to detail the significant alternative side-effects suffered by the protestors.

“An excess of homeopathic remedies can have dangerously powerful soporific effects. As such, it’s highly likely that nearly 100% of the protestors will have experienced prolonged periods of unconsciousness, around 7-9 hours on average, within 24 hours of their overdose. In many cases, this can be compounded by some form of minor respiratory obstruction, resulting in excessive noise production of a nasal/throaty sort during the unconscious period. This is most commonly experienced in males”

Mr Ford also pointed out that the benign, alternative mode of action of alternative remedies meant the side-effects occur outside the usual time frames. “Unlike harsh, dangerous traditional medicines, alternative medicines have a more subtle action, and as such most ill effects will take a while to occur, which is why it only looked like they didn’t happen to the impatient protestors. For example, the positive energies resulting from homeopathic remedies mean the immune system is less active and so becomes sedentary, and this means that the protestors will have become more susceptible to viruses. I’ll be many of them suffered some form of cold or similar infection between 0 to 2 or 10 to 12 months of their overdose. But not so much outside their time frames. Outside of those times, the homeopathic remedies will have built up in the skin cells, so they would have, around 6-8 months of the overdose, found the skin on their arms and faces to be browner/redder than normal. The areas of skin normally covered by clothing won’t have been affected as much because of science”.

“Women in particular may have found themselves suffering serious ill-effects for several days every month since the overdose. They may claim that this had been occurring for many years before the overdose, but this overlooks the fact that homeopathic remedies work retroactively; they cure illnesses you suffered before taking them, which means they didn’t happen at all. That’s how good they are”

“In extreme cases, a homeopathic overdose has been known to lead to an insatiable desire to appear on radio talk shows and other media outlets in order to criticise homeopathy. This is because their bodies are subconsciously rejecting to the presence of homeopathic agents but do not know what to do about it”

Several sceptical activists were contacted for comment, but all of them just laughed at our reporters. Renowned Placebologist and raconteur Dr A. A. Alan was also contacted via email, but declined to answer any questions. He did, however, wish us a happy new year and assured us he would ‘be back in the office on January 3rd’.

“I am not playing God!” insists bearded, thunderbolt-wielding Scientist

Despite claiming to have created the world’s first synthetic organism and the subsequent backlash, Dr Craig Venter insisted that he is in no way playing God, in an interview conducted while Dr Venter was dressed in white robes and sat on a large golden throne.

“The accusations being thrown at me are ludicrous” he asserted, “Granted, I have created a completely novel life form, this life form would definitely not exist without me, so therefore I gave it life, and if it were to develop in complexity to the point where it could think and reason then it would be unsurprising if it eventually came to recognise me as its creator and worship me accordingly. I certainly didn’t have this in mind when I performed this ‘Genesis’, if you will, but if it should come about then I certainly wouldn’t interfere, because that’s not how science works”.

Periodically, when confronted with a question he didn’t like, Dr Venter proceeded to shock the interviewer with his fingers, using a nearby Van de Graaff generator to create ‘lightning’. When asked how he responded to accusations that these synthetic life forms could be dangerous, Dr Venter was dismissive.

“Yes yes, old news. Every possible scientific advance has led to the old ‘possible dangers’ accusation, and it’s always people themselves who are the deciding factor in whether something is harmful or not. Now these life forms I’ve created, they won’t do anything deliberately dangerous”. It was asked if this was due to the fact that they are single-celled organisms currently confined to a Petri dish. In response, Dr Venter became visibly uncomfortable and adopted an expression that could be described as ‘vengeful’.

“For now” he admitted, portentously. “But these life forms could develop to unprecedented levels of sophistication. But there’s nothing to worry about, if it turns out they display dangerous behaviours, I’ll instruct them to resist their natural tendencies. See, what’s God-like about that?”

Following an awkward pause, Dr Venter continued “The potential of these life-forms in astounding. We could create medical breakthroughs that are unthinkable to modern science. We could take a damaged organ and they could synthesise a new one, no matter how complex. An eye for an eye, and all that. There’s nothing God-like about what I’m doing here, although I’ll wage war on anyone who tries to copy me. No others other than me, that’s my motto. Anyway, God doesn’t exist, and I do, so if anything I’m better than God.”

When asked if he had any advice for people who were still worried about the potential dangers of his synthetic life forms, Dr Venter gave us a set of crucial instructions for the safe use of his discovery. He urged us to tell everyone about these instructions, despite the fact that they were carved into large stone blocks. He then kicked us out of his elaborate garden.

Dr Venter would like us to point out that his original request to conduct the interview via flaming shrubbery proved unworkable.

Celebrities in “Knowing absolutely piss-all about anything Scientific” shocker

Recent revelations have shocked the scientific community to its core in no way whatsoever by showing that many celebrities hold views that are not only unscientific, but are barely consistent with reality on the most basic of levels. Some of the more wacky celebrity theories and views include wearing bracelets that improve strength and fitness, reabsorbing sperm to improve combat prowess, eating charcoal to mop up ‘toxins’, and worshipping a zombie carpenter who existed 2000 years ago. None of these things have any basis in science, but then neither do the majority of celebrities.

“It’s hardly surprising when you think about it” says Professor Eugene Schmembly, head of optically-compromising widespread data at the Devon University of Humanology (DUH). “Your typical celebrity is someone who’s paid extravagant sums to knock a ball about in some specific fashion, which doesn’t really encourage much rational thinking, or get’s paid extravagant sums to convincingly pretend that a situation or occurrence which demonstrably isn’t real actually is real, and that actively discourages rational thinking. Of course there are also the celebrities who are famous for willingly revealing oversized body parts, but if you rely on them for important information then you deserve everything you get, frankly. If I want medical advice, I go to a qualified doctor, but if you’d rather consult the woman who was in Grease 30 years ago, a coronation street actor or some mindless thug with a thyroid problem who’s only famous for marrying a woman with so many silicone implants she probably qualifies as a cyborg, then be my guest. But don’t expect me to mourn your removal from the gene pool”

Given the relative scarcity of celebrity scientists and the seeming abundance of celebrities who hold unscientific views, is there something about celebrity itself that promotes unscientific thinking? Professor Schmembly believes that there may.

“I’m not a celebrity myself so can’t speak from a completely informed viewpoint, but from what I’ve seen and heard, most celebrities are overly pampered vacuous airheads who get paid ridiculous fees for doing nothing of consequence and are constantly surrounded by people agreeing with whatever they say for fear of them ever being told they’re wrong about something. But again, that’s just my opinion. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that you’d end up thinking that your own opinions are significant enough to alter the fabric of the universe in order to accommodate them, rather than what they really are; meaningless guff spouted by someone whose existence has actually depleted from the pool of human knowledge.”

Professor Schmembly’s application to be in the final series of Big Brother was rejected, and his unicycle act never made it to the live showing of Britain’s Got Talent, but he insists he isn’t bitter about it.

Bacteria sue NASA for Libel in landmark legal case

In what is sure to be a groundbreaking event in legal history, a group of bacteria from Mono Lake, California, are suing the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) for libel, after misrepresenting them in the mainstream media.

According to preliminary reports, the bacteria in question were “grievously offended” and suffered “considerable mental anguish” after NASA held a press conference and engaged with international media where they claimed that the bacteria in question were able to ‘thrive on arsenic’, instead of the more traditional phosphorous, which is essential for numerous critical cellular processes.

Although the American legal system does not have any provisions for allowing a federal institution to be sued by single-celled organisms, the fact that the press coverage was international allowed the offended bacteria to take advantage of English libel laws, which are notoriously complex and archaic, to the point where they take into account periods before multi-cellular life occurred.

A spokesman on behalf of the law firm representing the bacteria (Carter-Ruck) made the following statement.

“Our clients were grievously offended by the accusation that they thrived on the poisonous chemical arsenic, which as most scientists have realised, is incorrect. They were not permitted any opportunity to put their own views or claims across, they were not consulted as to this veracity of this statement, they did not give their express consent to be removed from their natural habitat and studied extensively but incorrectly before arriving at the erroneous, slanderous conclusion. By making the aforementioned claims, our clients have found themselves ostracised from every other known life form on Earth. They have even struggled to find legal representation, but thankfully Carter-Ruck have never shied away from representing poisonous, subhuman claimants”.

A spokesman for the campaign for libel reform had this to say, “The fact that this case can be brought before the courts at all reveals how badly the English libel system needs to be overhauled. In order to be more in-keeping with modern society, it should be limited to Eukaryotic organisms at the very least.”

(All Science News Updates can be found HERE)

Most of the above never happened. It's an attempt at satire. Just so you know.

E-mail: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Hollywood calling...

I did my talk at London Skeptics in the Pub last night. It went very well, according to reports. I'm not sure, but then I am my own worst critic. And the criticism I do of myself? That's crap as well. Awful. I'm the worst self-critic you'll ever come across.

Logically, this would mean I think I'm absolutely brilliant, but I don't. I'm not even capable of basic logic. What an arse!

But anyway, people seemed to like my blatherings enough to stay until the end, so that's a plus.

One thing that struck me though, about this and all my talks I've done so far, is a disparity between the publicity blurb and the talks themselves. Basically, my blurb reads thusly...

Join Dean as he discusses what he has learned and what his experience can offer after many years practicing a novel and rather extreme form of scientific engagement.

Dean Burnett is a recently qualified Doctor of Neuroscience. He is also a stand-up comedian. For the best part of a decade now, he has been using his comedic skills to promote his field of expertise to the general public, which has resulted in run ins and unfortunate incidents with the media, irate activists, Doctor Who fans, drunken hecklers and even Paramount Studios, Hollywood.

I know, classy right? Thing is though, this blurb was written hastily for my Oxford talk before I'd even put it together, so it was just a list of interesting things that have happened to me that I felt I could/should talk about. Most of them made it into the finished article, but not everything did. This often happens when you put together a story/narrative, or a set list for a gig; you have many ideas, but forcing them all in to avoid wasting them means the structure and flow of the whole thing can be severely compromised, which arguably wastes more of the material than just those parts that would have been lost in the editing process.

Who was it who said 'Brevity is the soul of wit'? Some twat, no doubt.

Anyway, one of the things that didn't make the final cut was the whole 'Paramount Studios, Hollywood' story. It's not really as relevant to the topic of the talk(s) as the rest, and it doesn't really have a way that it can be conveniently segued into the overall structure as an amusing aside.

However, it does sound like potentially the most interesting aspect of the randomly cobbled together list of things in the publicity blurb. It's the big closer, it mentions 'Hollywood', and we know what sort of emotions that name invokes. You hear it, and your instantly think "There's a magical place, we're on our way there, with toys in their millions all under one roof, it's called HOLLYWOOD!"

I think that's right.

Anyway, just in case there is anyone who analyses the contents of my talk and cross-references what I say with the blurb and discovers the inconsistencies (and when you talk to mostly scientists and skeptics, this is probably quite likely), here is what happened between me and Paramount Studios

(Also, it's a bit of a Christmassy story, so seems right for this time of year)

It's another tale in the ever-increasing collection of stories about when 'Dean was contacted randomly and out of the blue by someone from a high-up media group because he's a scientific comedian and asked to do something bizarre/weird/embarrassing'. Yup, it's one of them. Check out The Pod Delusion for more of these if you're interested. Or see a previous blogpost of mine. Or come and see me do a talk in the real world, if you can withstand the sheer force of mumbling and gibberish which is my speaking style.

Anyway, some years ago I was minding my own business, when I received a call. I may have been wearing just my pants at the time, or eating a massive bag of nachos and giving myself a sickly yellowish powdery tint to the face/hands. Or maybe I was cleaning the oven and was in a filthy old t-shirt, sweating and wearing rubber gloves. Maybe none of this happened, but it pleases me to think that, when I receive a call from Hollywood, I'd be in as unglamorous/undignified a situation as possible. But that's just me, I love disparity between fantasy and reality.

The call was from a Producer, seemingly a very nice man and I've had no reason to think any different of him since, asked if I was Dean Burnett. I was, so I said so. He called me, after all, so he must have got my details from somewhere. But were these people trustworthy?

Then he said he wanted to contact me because he looked up 'psychologist' and 'comedian' on Google, and I'm what he found. This happens surprisingly often. Arguably, 'Neuroscientist' and 'comedian' would be more likely to lead to me in a Google search, but who the hell is going to look that up? Why would they.

Anyway, he asked me if I would be willing to work with Paramount studios. I said I would (I may have been in my pants at the time, and I wasn't really prepared for being contacted by a major USA film production company, so was a little taken aback). He said that would be great. I agreed, oblivious of any details.

After a few minutes, he explained the project. Basically, what they wanted was a professional psychologist who was also funny to help write and create a short film.

This was fine.

This film would be about the psychology about sibling rivalries and interactions.

This was a little outside my area of expertise. Actually it was quite far out, but I was sure I could do enough research to convey something reasonably accurate. So his was fine.

This film would not be a main feature, but a short film to be used as a DVD extra.

This was to be expected. Nobody contacts a random bloke out of the blue and offers him the lead role in a summer blockbuster. This was fine.

The film would be used as an extra on the DVD release of the movie 'Fred Clause'

This was... odd.

He asked if I knew the film. I said I knew 'of' it. I tactfully avoided using the phrase 'blatant Christmas-season cash in featuring increasingly grating lead actor', I'm nice like that. He asked me if I was a fan of Vince Vaughn. Not wanting to lose the possibility of work because of my principles like the whore I am, I said I had been for some time (again, tactfully avoiding pointing out that 'some time' meant 'since you mentioned his name 4 seconds ago').

He told me that it was still all up in the air at the moment, and this was one of several possibilities that they were working on. I said that was fine, and to contact me when they knew more. Myself and the nice man swapped several more emails after that.

As anyone who reads this who also owns Fred Clause on DVD will know (and I assume there's very little overlap between those two groups), I'm not in it. Much to my total lack of surprise, they eventually decided that an in-depth yet amusing look at the genuine psychological factors underpinning male-sibling relationships wasn't really 'in-keeping with the target demographic' of the Fred Clause DVD. I had to concede that that was the case.

I've not seen the DVD myself, so not sure what they ended up using instead of me and my valuable expertise. Something 'in-keeping with the target demographic', no doubt. So I'm guessing it a 10 minute film which is just a series of primary colours. Possibly with fart noises dubbed over it.

I'm not bitter, why do you ask?

E-mail: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

Friday, 10 December 2010

Meditate on THIS!

It must be nice to be a proper science blogger, having the skills and experience to analyse and assess scientific stories, features and articles, picking them apart where appropriate and presenting a well-rounded assessment of the merits and criticisms as applicable.

Science bloggers can educate, alert people to problems/issues, and further the cause of understanding with their writing. This is unlike what I do, which seems to consist mostly of being flippant and satirical about things that happen to me and/or attract my interest in an attempt to be 'funny' in a forlorn effort to distract from the yawning chasms that are my inadequacies as a scientist, comedian and member of society.

The only way I can possibly hope to contribute to the real world of science bloggers is if there is some sort of news story or something that is about my specific area of expertise, but is also ridiculously misleading and poorly put together.

Sometimes, you get lucky.

Look what was in the Telegraph recently. Apparently, meditation makes you smarter by growing your brain. Dear lord, where to begin...

I'd like to point out that I have nothing against meditation. It is no doubt relaxing, calming and has connections with yoga, a form of exercise practiced by my wife and mother-in-law with much enjoyment. It's unfortunate that meditation and yoga have become largely the property of the alt-med communities, as they are clearly good for you in practical terms. I have been told of an individual who is convinced that yoga can cure AIDS (and presumably other serious conditions). It's as if he believes that all illness is somehow the fault of inflexibility of the body and muscles, and that health can be altered by manipulation of posture and joints and that. Seriously, who would believe nonsense like that?

However, someone has now tried to put meditation and its benefits firmly within the realm of science.

The article begins thusly:

For thousands of years, Buddhists, hippies and spiritualists have claimed that the mental discipline promises a higher state of consciousness.

It has been taken so seriously that schools in America are considering including meditation as part of their curriculums, thanks to the championing by the film director David Lynch who has set up a foundation promoting the technique.

Now scientists have discovered that regular meditation appears to actually increase the size of the brain.

I won't argue the first few lines. What Hippies and Buddhists think is not my business, and I'm not in any position to question these claims. But obviously I understand how any theory/technique has to be taken seriously if David Lynch champions it, known as he is for his commitment to logic, rationality and reason. I've not seen Twin Peaks for years, but I'm pretty sure it was a detailed, well-researched documentary about the geological processes that produce some of the more interesting features of mountain ranges in the Americas.

Seriously though, what else could it be?

Anyway, the last sentence is incredibly loaded. No scientist worth his salt would claim to have discovered anything like this, especially not to the Telegraph. And, in the unlikely event that such an affect was proven to exist, why is this being lauded as a good thing? Our brains are too big for our heads as it is. It is possible for our brains to get bigger, but when this happens it often requires some pretty heavy-duty neurosurgery to make it stop before it kills us.

Admittedly, 'meditation causes severe headaches and death' would be a much more urgent headline, and would probably have been noticed by now if it were the case, by all the hippies, Buddhists, and spiritualists. And David Lynch would probably be arrested. At the very least, Rhys Morgan will have taken him to task.

So the article probably isn't really claiming this is the case. Surely, all will become clear as it progresses.

In the latest research scans revealed "significantly larger" amounts of grey matter in people who had been mediating long term.

The inverted commas tell you a lot about this statement. But what does a 'larger amount' of grey matter (significant or otherwise) actually mean? This statement, to a neuroscientist, is hopelessly vague. Overall, it could be said that, in the brain, grey matter does the processing of information, white matter carries the information around. Logically then, you could say that if you have more grey matter, you can process more information, and are therefore smarter.

Except it's not even close to being that simple. The amount of grey matter we possess is barely, if at all associated with how intelligent we are. People who have had half their neocortex removed at a young age in drastic but essential surgery develop to become grown people of perfectly normal intelligence, despite just over half as much grey matter as your typical idiot. There are also conditions where the brain grows abnormally and with much less overall mass than a 'normal' brain, but these conditions are usually only diagnosed after a scan, as the 'sufferers' show no noticeable ill effects from the condition, despite having drastically below average brain mass.

There is no real defining neurological factor that correlates precisely with intelligence, and this includes 'amount of grey matter'. This statement is of no use, and as potentially misleading as me saying 'I have a significantly higher body mass than a typical featherweight boxer' in a discussion about health and exercise. Used in this context, it's like I'm saying that this fact makes me fitter and healthier than professional athletes, whereas I could just be significantly fatter. I'm not though, this is just an example.

Actually, I most definitely am.

It continues...

High-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed their hippocampus – a key area of the brain associated with memory and learning – was bigger.

I'd love to comment on this sentence, if only I'd spent nearly 4 years studying the hippocampus and its functions.

Oh, yeah. I did.

There have been many experiments that have revealed that certain people have bigger hippocampuses than others. The hippocampus is indeed strongly implicated in memory and learning. It is also a key area for spatial perception and navigation. A very simplified generalisation would be to say that the hippocampus receives information from the myriad sensory inputs and combines it into specific useful configurations for use to remember and exploit when needed, e.g. the spatial layout of a room or area, or the combination of spatiotemporal factors that make up an episode (otherwise known as 'what' happened, 'where' and 'when', commonly known as episodic memory).

OK, maybe that wasn't so simplified. But suffice to say, the hippocampus is indeed associated with memory and learning. And it does appear that the hippocampus, like a lot of neurological regions, has muscle-like properties; i.e. the more it's used, the bigger it gets. Eleanor Maguire and colleagues discovered that London taxi drivers, those who have 'the knowledge', have significantly larger hippocampuses than your normal person (remember that the hippocampus is also implicated in navigation and spatial awareness)

This may be an unfair stereotype, but when I think of the terms 'meditation', spiritualism' and 'inner peace', the first thing that comes to mind is rarely 'London Taxi Drivers'. This seems to be another excellent example of a mainstream media article confusing correlation with causation, which is a common mistake. It could be that those who practice meditation are well travelled, actively pursue different cultures and practices, spend a great deal of time on concentration and self-analysis, all of which would potentially increase your information intake and ergo increase the size of your hippocampus. A tendency to meditate, like hippocampus size, could easily be another symptom of their lifestyle, rather than a cause.

On the other hand, people 'blessed' with a larger and/or more efficient hippocampus due to some genetic or other environmental factor could find their enhanced ability to encode and retain information quite stressful and distracting, and may eventually turn to meditation as a means to relax for once. Maybe the hippocampus size is the CAUSE of meditation, not an effect?

I bet if you performed a similar assessment, you'd find that a significant percentage of people involved in car crashes had suffered fractured or broken bones at some point in their lives. Therefore, breaking bones causes an impairment in driving ability (presumably this increases substantially with how close in time the breakage and attempt at driving are).

Obviously, that last sentence is not the most obvious conclusion to jump to.

Other parts linked to emotion were also larger than in people who did not practise the ancient technique. The finding was made by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who published the results in the journal NeuroImage.

Yes, I expect the parts 'that linked to emotion' were indeed larger. If the hippocampus is larger, I'd be worried if they weren't, seeing as the hippocampus is heavily involved with memory processing, so processes pretty much everything we experience, and nearly everything we experience has an emotional aspect. This is encoded via the amygdala, a neural region closely linked to the hippocampus and also pretty much essential for effective memory processing (I assume this is what they're referring to when they say 'other parts linked to emotion' if you were wondering). To put is as harshly as possible, let me enter incredibly sarcastic mode:

Wow! They found that both the hippocampus AND the amygdala were larger? That's AMAZING! Almost as amazing as that time I found out that very tall people have longer leg bones AND longer leg muscles! I mean, who'd have even expected it?!?!

There, that's enough of that. I think you get the point.

I like how they also felt it necessary to point out both the city and the state the University was in, I imagine that makes all the difference. Not sure how reputable a journal Neuroimage is, but going by this article alone, I'm guessing 'not particularly'. I'm willing to be proven wrong, though.

The authors said that previous research had "confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation. In addition to having better focus and control over their emotions, many people who meditate regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems".

Confirmed? Really? Beware any scientist who drops the C-bomb so casually, there's usually a sharp learning curve approaching. And as for the rest of the statement, it's incredible isn't it! People who consciously choose to spend hours every day practicing a relaxation technique which involves sitting still and shutting out external stimuli, which is strongly linked to yoga and a variety of practices dedicated to improving health, these people have less stress and better immune systems? You don't say.

What does 'bolstered' even mean, anyway? I'm pretty sure it's not a standard scientific term. In fact, I'm pretty sure it usually involves cushions.

But less was known about possible links between meditation and brain structure which is thought to affect intelligence.

The team studied the brains of 44 people – half of whom had practised various forms of meditation for between five and 46 years.

More than half said that "deep concentration" was an essential part of their routine, and most meditated for between ten and 90 minutes a day.

The MRI scans showed "significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators".


Of course less was known about possible links. Until this article, I didn't think there were any. And I'm a neuroscientist.

44 people.

Half of these were controls (it's suggested, at any rate), so that's 22 people in the meditating group.

"[Mediating] Between five and 46 years".

Bloody Hell! Talk about your variation between subjects, the error bars for this group must have been off the chart (and that's the most literal use of that cliché you'll see for a while, I'll wager). People who've been meditating for 46 years? Even if they started as a 10 year old, that still means they're close to 60 years old. That's a lot of life to remember, and this may lead to an enlarged hippocampus. "Living for a long time increases your brain size" isn't so much of a story though, I guess. (Also, I don't know why in the original statement one number is spelled out and the other isn't, but then I'm not a journalist working for the Telegraph).

It's possible that all the subjects were within a very narrow age range and just started meditating at different times, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

"'deep concentration'".

Which is...? Not really something I'd trust myself to measure unless it could be quantified in some way. Perhaps I'm just pedantic.

"most meditated for between ten and 90 minutes a day"

'Most'? Between '10 and 90' (only one spelled out again)? Well, as long as it's between 10 and 90, that's fine. I mean, 10mg and 90mg of morphine have pretty much identical effects, so it doesn't really matter how much a subject gets if you're studying the effects of the stuff, as long as they get some. "Consistency is overrated by science" is a thought I have very regularly (ironically).

The MRI scans showed "significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators".

I imagine if you'd put me in an MRI scanner right now I'd also show increased cerebral measurements as I desperately try to figure out what the phrase 'increased cerebral measurements' means in this context. I had to go to hospital once after an accident. I no doubt showed 'increased physiological measurements' at the time, due to my injuries. Exactly what anyone would have done with that information is anyone's guess, as it's so generalised as to be meaningless.

The lead researcher Eileen Luders said the changes in the brain could explain why people who meditate "have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions".

Do people who meditate have 'a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions', then? Exactly how would you measure or even quantify such a thing? We're not talking about mass or speed here, these aren't things that can be worked out with an equation or set of scales. I'd really like to see some evidence for this beyond the anecdotal/observational. A lot of people who practice meditation would logically be in a position where they are educated enough to discover it and learn it as a practice, have enough free time to indulge in it for prolonged periods, and find that it works for them so continue. What I believe we have here is a sampling bias and a lot of wishful thinking.

"The differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue as to why meditators have these exceptional abilities," she added.

Not arguing that, if these exceptional abilities can be said to be real. But this in no way automatically means that meditation is behind all this. These people all meditate. Do they all wear black underwear too? Maybe they all had a dog when they were younger? It's easy to make associations when you pick and choose your data.

Previous studies have shown how the brain can change its structure over time.

[...Slow ....Hand ...Clap]

The researchers found significantly larger brain measurements in meditators compared with others, including larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased grey matter in the right frontal cortex.

Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Ms Luders said, "these might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators' the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way".

This seems to be the article reiterating the same points in a different way in order to make it look more substantial than it really is. I won't do the same here, I think you've got the gist now. I don't know how many 'brain measurements' they took (seriously, what? This article is starting to cause fluctuations in my 'health numbers') but I've gone over the issue with grey matter and all that already.

I like how they've dropped the whole 'makes your brain bigger' angle by the end though, as that was misleading even by the standards of this article. As it happens, the biggest brain on record was about 3.5 kilos, and belonged to a mentally-retarded* epileptic. So claiming that meditation makes your brain bigger could be interpreted as 'meditation makes you retarded*', it's just as tenuous a link as a lot of the arguments put forward here.

There we go, my first piece that combines my passions for Neuroscience, cynicism, skepticism, nitpicking and sarcasm. I think I need a cigarette...

* = This is the term used when I read about it, I mean it purely in the scientific sense.

Email = humourology (at)

Twitter = @garwboy


Saturday, 4 December 2010

A step by step guide to a 'revolutionary treatment'

This was part of an episode of the Pod Delusion a few weeks ago. Meant to put it up here then. Forgot. Doing it now. Don't worry, it's no more-or-less relevant now than it was then.

The following semi-coherent diatribe is step-by-step guide about how a ‘revolutionary treatment’ or ‘medical breakthrough’ comes into being in today’s society. What follows is theoretical chain of events based on my own experiences and understanding. As far as I know, these events has never actually happened as detailed here. As far as I know. But as far as I know, they easily could. As far as I know.

Step 1: Researcher A completes a research project. The project in question investigates the effect of substance A on biological process A. Biological process A is one of dozens that contribute to unpleasant disease X. Researcher A’s results indicate that substance A significantly reduces the rate at which biological process A occurs when administered to a small group of subjects that have been genetically modified so that process A occurs in them. The subjects are members of species A. Otherwise known as mice, because they definitely do exist.

Step 2: Researcher A, having spent 6 months on the project, writes it up as a paper for submission to a relevant scientific journal. He then forwards it to his immediate superior for checking before it is submitted. He then goes out to celebrate, become dangerously inebriated by consuming excessive amounts of alcoholic substance A, tries to chat up unknown attractive woman A, makes several appalling conversational errors due to drunkenness, eventually receives a vicious kick to testicles A and B, then limps home and sleeps for 18 hours straight.

Step 3: Researcher A’s immediate superior, Professor A, eventually reviews researcher A’s paper and considers it sound. However, Professor A is also putting together a large grant proposal and is keen to cite impressive research his department has produced, in order to improve its chances. As soon as the paper is accepted into a journal, Professor A sends an email detailing (and somewhat exaggerating) the results and implications of researcher A’s project. He includes the role of process A in disease X. The email is sent to the public relations department of his institution (Institution A), with the intention of getting his department some publicity, which could potentially aid his grant proposal.

Step 4: The public relations department, understaffed and underfunded after recent budget cuts, are similarly keen to gain attention for institute A and hopefully obtain extra funding. They quickly read Professor A’s email, and after adjusting it for succinctness by removing some of the ‘minor details’ they include it in their regular press release, which is sent to a wide variety of media sources.

Step 5: Journalists at a number of media outlets receive institute A’s press release. Several of the less-scientifically literate journalists read through it quickly and notice the phrases “results show” “substance A” “reduces occurrence of process A” “which is” “an” “important” “part of” “disease X”. There is also a collection of numerical results and analyses accompanying this, but numbers are boring and tend to put readers/listeners off so these are ignored. Many of the journalists know a relative/acquaintance/celebrity who was a victim of disease X, ergo many people must know/care about it. Logically, this discovery is newsworthy.

Step 6: After the story is passed between seeral people, becoming distorted with each retelling, public relations department at institute A receive dozens of phone calls regarding the discovery of a cure for disease X. After 2 hours of noncommittal responses made in purely to buy time, someone in the department recalls mention of disease X in the recent press release. This is traced to professor A, and all subsequent requests for information are directed to his office.

Step 7: Professor A spends an afternoon responding to enquiries from journalists about his ‘discovering a cure for disease X’. Mindful of the danger of making unsubstantiated claims, but also aware of the positive effect publicity could have on his grant application, he responds cautiously, but plays up the possible implications of the research while downplaying the fact that it is just a small result from a small study on a small component of a complicated disease, expressed entirely via an analogue of the disease as experienced by a non-human species. Mice, in this case.

Step 8: Professor B, of institute B, who is widely known for his work on disease Y (which affects similar areas to disease X) is contacted by journalists and asked for his opinion on professor A’s ‘revolutionary treatment’. Professor B, currently on holiday in Cannes, points out that he has not seen the findings of the experiment, is not an expert in the area in question, and doesn’t actually know who it is calling him and interrupting his holiday. After much cajoling, he admits that the results sound ‘intriguing’ but expresses his doubts at the ‘cure’ claims, given the scant information provided to him. Following several calls of this nature, he experiences an uneasy feeling for the rest of the day. He switches his phone off for the rest of the trip, and then spends 2 days on the toilet, as his uneasy feeling resulted in him being distracted and eating shellfish, which he had forgotten he was allergic to.

Step 9: A news story hits the media outlets about the new ‘revolutionary treatment’ for disease X, accompanied by pictures of a celebrity sufferer. The story is reported via each source in a manner alarmingly similar to the original press release, but with the removal of much of the data and experimental description, and with the inclusion of ‘criticism from professor B’ and a great deal of worrying but ultimately irrelevant statistics about the prevalence of disease X in society. In some media source, names and pictures of a few more famous sufferers are also included as an afterthought, mostly female ones who have at some point in their careers been photographed wearing a bikini.

Step 10: A nightly news programme features the ‘revolutionary treatment’ as part of the news round-up. Researcher A, watching this in his pants while eating corn-based chip-snack 'A' at home, recognises some of the terms and names used, but concludes that it can’t be anything to do with his research; he wasn’t investigating anything so ground-breaking (process A only occurs in disease X in 15% of reported cases at any rate), and anyway, somebody would surely have told him if his research was in the news. Surely…?

Step 11: Support groups for sufferers of disease X welcome news of the new treatment, substance A. However, they react angrily when they discover that it is not readily available on the NHS. Attempts are made by representatives to explain that the NHS does not treat patients with untested, unproven substances that are not readily available and would only work on a small percentage of sufferers if they were. However, the only aspect of this that registers is the term ‘small percentage of sufferers’. Accusations abound about the NHS sacrificing people in order to save money.

Step 12: Professor A is more regularly contacted by people asking him to explain or defend things he never actually said. Other experts in his field criticise Professor A for his ‘self-aggrandising’, ‘dangerous exaggerations’ and ‘bringing the profession into disrepute by potentially costing lives in order to satisfy his own ego’. This means he is dropped as a speaker form several conferences. After every third phone call or email, he finds himself searching the job vacancy listings for anything with the word ‘farm’, ‘library’ or ‘monastery’ in it.

Step 13: In response to the extensive media coverage of the ‘revolutionary cure’ for disease X, GPs report a significant increase in patients claiming to be suffering symptoms of disease X. Although disease X is a complex one with features and symptoms varying between sufferers, the symptoms reported correspond significantly to the ones described in the more popular results provided when ‘disease X’ is googled. GPs attempting to suggest a psychosomatic issue (as well as pointing out that ‘revolutionary treatment’ substance A is only shown to affect one facet of the disease in specially bred mice who don’t actually suffer from disease X in the strictest sense) become the subject of a media campaign attacking ‘uncaring, unfeeling health professionals’. This campaign has the opposite effect to that which is presumably intended, as it increases the level of contempt GP’s feel toward typical patients, and the general public overall.

Step 14: The journal in which researcher A’s original paper was published report that the paper has been requested/downloaded no more or less than what is typical for a paper in that area.

Step 15: Researcher A begins a new project, studying the effect of substance B on process A. He notices no change in his daily life, except that Professor A doesn’t answer many of his emails any more.

Step 16: The shadow government accuse the government of ‘spending lives, rather than money’ by neglecting to provide substance A on the NHS. The fact that ‘providing a relatively unknown substance which has not been deemed fit for human use to sick patients’ is a perfectly acceptable method of not risking lives is never mentioned by either political party.

Step 17: A pharmaceutical company that began a ridiculously accelerated drug development project to develop and patent a substance A based treatment for disease X decides that the marketing opportunity has passed. The project is slowed, and then abandoned as the realisation occurs that the accumulated data was obtained via such a rushed and haphazard method that it is effectively useless.

Step 18: Interest in substance A as a cure for disease X abruptly vanishes when researcher B at institute J discovers that common substance epsilon may contribute to disease J. The media then focuses on that for a total of two weeks, then lose interest entirely as a famous posh person reveals that they are engaged to a slightly less famous posh person.

Step 19: Researcher A begins actively asking people in his department where Professor A is. He is told that he is ‘on sabbatical in Nepal’, probably not returning. Researcher A is offered his vacant job. Researcher A is confused, but accepts. Occasionally he receives emails asking him to speak as ‘the discoverer of the cure for disease X’. He deletes them immediately, assuming that they’re spam.

Step 20: Disease X effectively dies out as, over time, an effective vaccine is developed. This is not given the same level of media coverage as the supposed ‘revolutionary cure’ as 1) it was a gradual development, and 2) a vaccine makes sure something doesn’t occur; thing’s not occurring are not newsworthy.

Step 21: Disease X sees a sudden resurgence when, years later, a ‘maverick doctor’ makes a fatuous link between the vaccine and illiteracy in children.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Too rational for a Restaurant

You may have noticed a bit of a dearth of blog entries lately. If you have, this suggests that you have been checking regularly enough to notice a lack of regular updates. If this is the case, it implies to me that your life has even less going on in it than my own. In which case, kudos to you for not going stark-raving mad. Assuming you haven't. If you have, that's understandable. I probably would.

The reason for my lack of updating is that, during November, I swore I'd take a break from the online activities to concentrate on:

A) Things I'm being paid to do.

B) Finding more things that people will pay me to do.

I'm looking for regular work, essentially. I have several projects on the go that keep me active, but nothing concrete and reliable as of yet. So, as much as I enjoy my cynical waffling, skeptical networking, science satirising etc., I decided to put my virtual procrastination to one side and find some real work.

This provided some interesting results.

One of the things I've found when you apply for work in the scientific/academic fields is that they take quite a while to reply to you, if at all (this may be just me, admittedly). Once an application has been sent, I often find myself in some form of employment quantum superstate, in which I must keep applying for jobs because I don't have one, and must refrain from making too many applications as I might have an interview to worry about soon. If they don't bother telling you, being rejected instantly and being considered for interview feel exactly the same.

But one piece of advice I've been given is that if you're already working you're more likely to get a job than those who have been unemployed for a long period. This seems like a weird system to me, but I'm not in charge, so don't get to do anything about it. So, as a result, I've been applying for more 'mainstream' jobs in and around my local area.

So, I give you the story of why rational thinking meant that I'll never be a marketer

I recently applied for a role in a marketing company in the city centre. I saw the vacancies notice, sent off my CV, and thought no more of it. The ad read like some standard admin role, possibly with some events organising included (which I do definitely have experience in). I didn't have long to not think about it though, as I got a reply within 10 minutes. This struck me as odd, and it said something along the lines of 'can you come for a quick 10-15 minute interview next Monday?' The words 'cattle call' were at the forefront of my mind; this was obviously one of those occasions where they just invite everyone who included enough correctly spelled words on a CV which wasn't written in yellow crayon to turn up, and see if they're suitable face-to-face. Reading just takes time, doesn't it? And as for having to assess information...

I never enjoy this sort of thing, but I had Skeptics in the Pub that evening so needed to be in town anyway, so thought 'why not?'...

Why do I never attempt to answer the question 'why not?' I don't really know anything about marketing companies apart from what my Dad tells me and what I read in Dilbert.

Anyway, I went to the interview, suited and booted, with another copy of my CV as requested (I'd emailed it to them twice already, but I guess they were low on printer ribbons). After filling in a form with all my details which I had already emailed them (printer issues again, I guess) and waiting for about 30 minutes, I was ushered into an office, introduced to a guy who's name I instantly forgot (not deliberately, I'm bizarrely crap with names) and began the interview. It was basically a monologue about the company, how it's expanded 40,000% during the recession (not an exaggeration, that's what he said, which suggests that this company covers a decent fraction of the Earth's surface), how they were desperately looking for people to train up to management level within 6-10 months, as opposed to 3-5 years. It was lucky he had a copy of my CV, as he needed something to doodle rough diagrams on while he spoke, just in case I had trouble understanding what was being said. I'd have brought him a load of scrap paper if I'd known in advance that's what they wanted to do.

[by the way, it may seem like I'm being quite condescending towards the company and people involved, as if I'm some sort of superior being with my doctorate, mocking the intellectual proles who have to make a living in the commercial sector. I assure you that is not the case, my scorn is undeniably deserved, as will become clear]

He asked how I felt about the company and position they were offering. I felt 'OK', seeing as I was still unsure what they were on about. Asked how soon I could come back for a second interview/observation day, to 'see how the company operates and were you'd fit in', I told them the following week, already having prior commitments for the rest of that week. Apparently, this was too long, they were looking to hire people right away. I conceded this and apologised for wasting their time, and left.

When I got home, there was an email waiting for me, telling me that they had been very impressed with my interview and wanted to invite me to an observation day in 2 days time. This was followed by another email saying that they had rearranged the day to the following Monday in order to suit my schedule, but would be unable to change it again. Not bad for a 20 minute walk, I thought.

I was reluctant to go spend an entire day at this weird company, but as my wife said, "what have I got to lose?"

I really need to stop assuming questions like this are rhetorical.

The email explained that the day would be spent shadowing other members of the company as they go about a typical day, so I could learn the ropes, so to speak. I'd been assured that they didn't do cold-calling (something I could never do, I genuinely balk at the thought of it), they only deal with big corporations, and they operate at a number of levels. I assumed this day would be spent travelling round the various offices, seeing what's what and who goes where etc. I was advised to wear comfortable shoes as I'd be on my feet all day, which makes sense.

So, I arrived at the office again, in my suit and shoes. I had to fill in another form (I guess they lost the last one), and was eventually introduced to the manager on duty; Mitch.

Mitch was as Mitch sounds; every cliché of the slick marketing manager you could think of. Custom made suit, highlights, false tan, overbearing bonhomie, a tendency to speak very loudly in corporate jargon. Needless to say, I did not take an instant liking to him. My friend Dave puts it best, when he says you just known Mitch is the sort of guy who uses his own name as a verb. As in "You just got Mitch-slapped!" when he beats someone in a drinking game or pissing contest, or some other meaningless display of macho prowess. Mitch introduced me to the guy who would be showing me around all day, who wasn't objectionable enough to warrant naming here, so let's call him Phil. Mitch said the following.

MITCH: "Hi Dean mate, this is Phil, he'll be showing you around today. The good news is, we're looking to employ 3 people by the end of the day. The bad news is, we already have 15 guys out in the field, so you'll have to pull all the stops out if you want to impress me today"

Unfortunately, I didn't really feel the need to impress Mitch. I'd met him 30 seconds previous, and had already thought of about a dozen ways in which he could meet his untimely demise. Arguably, this is impressive, but I doubt he'd have seen it that way.

So, Phil leads me out of Mitch's office, out of the reception area, toward a nearby bus stop where we're picked up in a car by 3 other marketers, then driven out of Cardiff for a 40 minute journey, and dropped off somewhere. Where? No idea, somewhere I've never been at any rate. Apparently, this is the territory Phil has to cover. And I have to follow him.

Remember when they said they didn't do cold calling? They don't. They do cold-knocking. My observation day was basically following a guy as he went door to door, trying to get complete strangers (in their own homes) to sign up to a different internet provider. I won't say which provider, but it rhymes with 'balk balk' (appropriately enough).

This was unpleasant for many reasons. I hate bothering people, I hate invading the privacy of others, I loathe the whole pressure sales thing, I hate the thought of having to talk about the merits of a major corporation as if I genuinely believe them, I resent wandering around unknown housing estates in winter in the freezing cold for 6 hours (I found out what we were doing and how long we'd spend there once we arrived, of course, they didn't think I needed to know beforehand so didn't have a coat). These were all negatives about the situation as I saw it.

However, this came to a head when, faced with a disabled man in his own home who claimed he hadn't heard of 'Balk balk', Phil says 'you must have, they sponsor the X Factor". Disabled man said he didn't watch that sort of thing. Phil told him he should because 'it's really good'. He then turned to me and said 'isn't it!', expecting confirmation.

As someone who has handled corpses for a living, I can say with certainty that there are many things I'm willing to do for money. Lying to the face of an innocent disabled man in his own home on behalf of Simon Cowell is not one of them. Poor disabled man jumped on this clear break in the ranks and pointed out that I didn't like it, so it must be no good. Phil responded by saying it's worth watching for the early rounds, where they show all the 'mental people' who can't sing, and it's a big laugh.

I'm not a sales expert myself, but even overlooking the major ethical concerns of that view, is bragging about how you like to mock the possibly-handicapped really a good way to win over a disabled person? Disabled person felt the same, and we were eventually ordered to leave his property. Rightly so.

At this point, Phil must have realised that my heart really wasn't in this job which I didn't have and was deceived into doing. He must have assumed it was because I felt it was beneath me (a fair assessment, I feel it's beneath anyone with a conscience). He decides to explain to me why it was a necessary task, through the medium of what he called 'the restaurant story'. Here is the genuine conversation that ensued.

PHIL: You know why everyone has to start at the bottom level, don't you?

ME: I can guess...

PHIL: It's because of the restaurant story.

ME: The restaurant story?

PHIL: OK, so, I own a restaurant.

ME: Really? OK... well done.

PHIL: No, in the story. I own a restaurant.

ME: Ah.

PHIL: I own a restaurant. It's really successful, it makes a million pounds a month.

ME: Wow. You ever think about franchising that out?

PHIL: No, it's just one restaurant, it makes millions.

ME: ...OK Heston, go on.

PHIL: SO, I make so much money, I realise I don't need to work there any more, I decide to go on holiday and hire a manager to run it for me, which is you. I give you the job of manager, how much do you think I'm paying you?

ME: Well, a first time manager, but in a high profit business, I'd guess £30,000 to start off with?

PHIL: No, £100,000!

ME: ...well, if you insist. I must be a good negotiator, yeah?

PHIL: Anyway, I go away on holiday, it's your first day. First thing, one of the kitchen staff comes in and says they can't find the washing powder. What do you do?

ME: Well, look for it I suppose. It'll probably be under the sink, or maybe in one of the stock rooms. Is it delivered in the middle of the day? I mean if it's first thing, we can't have got many dishes yet.

PHIL: ... no. See, thing is, you don't know. You haven't worked in the kitchens, so you don't know where things are.

ME: Well... if I'm managing the place I'd probably have a good look around before I start, I can't just turn up and wing it.

PHIL: Yeah, but, you don't know. And then people are coming in asking you where the washing powder is and the dishes are piling up. There's nothing you could do.

ME: Well, if I'm on £100,000 I'd send someone out to buy some. They could get two lots, I won't mind, I can afford it.

PHIL: No, you can't do that.

ME: Why not?

PHIL: Because you don't do that.

ME: Um...

PHIL: So then later on, a waiter comes in and says a customer has a complaint. What do you do?

ME: Depends, what's the complaint?

PHIL: No, it's just a complaint, it's not about anything.

ME: How can you have a complaint that isn't about something? I don't think you can logically have a generic complaint. Every complaint is about something.

PHIL: Well, this one isn't, what do you do?

ME: I have no idea, this isn't a logical problem.

PHIL: Thing is see, you can't do this job because you haven't done the job where you have to deal with complaints.

ME: Isn't that the manager's job?

PHIL: Yeah.

ME: But I am the manager, aren't I?

PHIL: Yeah.

ME: So I need to be the manager before I can be the manager?

PHIL: Exactly.

ME: Uh...

PHIL: So I come back from holiday and find you've not done the job properly. You've lost me £70,000, you're not experienced enough to be a manager.

ME: Well, I would have tried to tell you that in the interview...

PHIL: So anyway, I fire you, but you say you really need a job, so I agree to put you to work in the kitchens, and then you can work your way back up properly.

ME: So... I've gone from £100,000 manager to minimum wage pot washer in the space of a day?

PHIL: Yeah, because you didn't start at the bottom.

ME: But I have worked as kitchen staff before.

PHIL: Yeah, but not in this restaurant.

ME: So, everyone who's a manager in this restaurant used to wash dishes when they started.

PHIL: Exactly.

ME: So... how did it first start? You can't have a million pound restaurant staffed with just dishwashers.

PHIL: No, well, obviously I didn't start in the kitchens when I set it up.

ME: But you know where the washing powder is?

PHIL: Obviously, I'm the manager.

ME: ...

At this point, I decided that was enough for me, and said I wouldn't want to take the job even if it was offered to me. Phil, meaning well I think, offered to take me through the career path I could take. Turns out, if I did get the job, I would be able earn up to £150 a month! Until I hit my sales quota, at which point my monthly wage would increase by over 150%! Wooo! At one point he even used the dreaded C-word (commission)

Rather than wait until 9pm for the prearranged pick-up (prearranged without my involvement, of course), I decided to make my own way home. After walking randomly for 10 minutes, I remembered that I didn't have any idea where I was in relation to my home. So I had to take several busses, ask direction many times and make my way to the nearest train station, all while wandering in the freezing cold in my stylish but thin suit.

As I was sat on the train coming back, contemplating the wreckage of my potential career, realising that my tendency to apply rational thought and logic was not only off-putting to many people but actually made me less employable overall, and with no hint of opportunities in sight, that's when I finally came to a sudden realisation.

You don't use washing powder to wash dishes, you use washing up liquid! Who the hell uses washing powder to clean pots? This guy insists that he runs a million pound restaurant and he can tell the difference between powder and liquid? Maybe he is Heston Blumenthal?

"Here's the soup of the day, would you like a slice?"


email: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy

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