Sunday, 30 May 2010

Subluxations, Sex and Socialising Skeptics.

Been a shortage of new entries here lately, hasn't there? Been busy though, as I've been helping set-up a Wales Branch of Skeptics in the Pub. Here's a bit of background and a progress update for those who are interested. (An alternative and nicer, more rational account is provided by Alice Sheppard here, so read that first if you want, but if you want arrogance, sex, abuse, megalomania and obscene flights of fantasy, read on)

I live down Cardiff Bay. It's nice here, although my family all think I'm a snob for doing so (evident from the fact that they keep saying 'Dean lives down Cardiff Bay, the snob!' whenever it's brought up). I live about 2 minutes walk from the central pub/restaurant/shop bit, Mermaid Quay. On my usual route down to the Quay, there are several shops and places.

One thing that has appeared relatively recently is Cardiff Bay Chiropractic. A blatant and obvious Woo-merchant, right on my very doorstop, on the same street that featured prominently in the best ever Doctor Who episode 'Blink'. How awful, a fictional doctor peddling his wares where another fictional doctor so brilliantly saved us all from Gothic statues. The presence of this masseuse with ideas above his station is a constant irritation.

Interestingly, on the other side of the road is a brothel. At least, I assume it is. I guess it could be, as it claims, a 'leisure facility' which has utterly opaque windows and is open at least until after the pubs close. Interestingly, a new Indian restaurant has opened up right next door to it. I sincerely hope the mistake has happened at least once, some guy has gone to try out the new restaurant and found it to be staggeringly expensive but that the waitresses are really over-friendly.

(I say guy, a bit sexist of me, I'd imagine they'd cater for women too if they were willing to pay, but why would that ever happen? If pornography has taught us anything, it's that two women left alone together for even a brief length of time will almost immediately have sex for no discernible reason other than because the opportunity presents itself)

The chiropractor can advertise his business to the public, the brothel cannot. The chiropractor has a website boasting of his abilities, the prostitutes do not. The chiropractor boasts an endorsement from a Welsh Rugby player; the prostitutes don't but I imagine if they were allowed they could manage to get more than just one. The chiropractor apparently has many qualifications, none of which are recognised by Science; Insofar as prostitutes need to possess qualifications, I imagine they'd be anatomical in nature (Science, as it's normally performed by socially-awkward pasty white males, may or may not recognise these).

The chiropractor offers to manipulate your body in weird ways until you feel better. The prostitutes, given sufficient financial incentive, would probably do that too, with the added bonus that any sense of well-being experienced after a session with a prostitute will definitely have a more biological basis than that provided by a chiropractor..

I am not a supporter of the sex trade, but I'm not nearly deluded enough to think it's ever going away no matter how many laws we churn out to stop it. I just think it's ironic that the establishment offering a millennia-old, well recognised and genuine 'service' based on the biological requirements of humans is actually illegal and generally considered immoral, whereas the one offering to pummel people in order to improve their health (based on a system invented by a psycho less than 2 centuries ago) in exchange for obscene amounts of money, that's fine and legit.

I do not like this situation. The fact that this exists in my country's capital and there doesn't seem to be any opposition here at all to this witch-doctery, that's annoying on many levels. We Welsh have a rich and ancient cultural heritage, but at no point does it say 'must accept all forms of bullshit without question' in any of our inherited beliefs (in either language).

This, combined with my encounter with a batty Malaysian tour guide, made me want to do something about this situation.

One thing I've often heard about via the twittersphere and other social networks is Skeptics in the Pub. This nationwide (and beyond) scheme is incredibly influential in forming networks, encouraging rational thinking and opposing the abuse of Science and logic wherever it may be (see the 10:23 protest and the campaign to change libel laws via Simon Singh's court case).

SITP is everywhere. Apart from Wales, oddly enough. I decided to change this, or at least investigate the possibility of doing so, seeing if it's feasible. So I made a few enquiries and suggestions via Twitter (the nerd representation seems to be higher there than on Facebook in my experience).

Then, someone decided to take my suggestions, set up a Facebook group with the same aims, and do all in their power to marginalise, block and discredit my efforts. This is not the first time I've been faced with the possibility of character assassination, and had my hard work stolen from under my by shifty individuals in cyberspace and beyond. My incredible awesomness means this often happens, but I resolve to crush, I say CRUSH, anyone who dares stand against me and my goals. It's time to bring on the pain!

That last paragraph is bollocks, of course. Much like the beneficial effects of chiropractic, it's all in my head. But at least I'm aware of it.

My speculations mean I've linked up via this interweb with Alice Shepperd, who seems to be one of, if not Wales only true Skeptic. Until now, maybe, now that Johnny-come-lately's like me might be realising that you don't have to just sit there and accept the insane ramblings of others. If you've been contacted previously by someone regarding a Wales Skeptics in the Pub meet, it must have been Alice (or me). Alice knows how to do things like email people nicely and coordinate things via the web, she's some sort of professional, clearly. I'm not quite at that level, my own web presence is more akin to a wild pig in a public swimming pool; lots of attention and noise, but nothing coherent or useful and mostly just upsetting the children.

So, thus far, Alice presents the slick on-line face of Wales SITP, I'm the guy on the ground organising things like venues (i.e. me wandering around pubs in Cardiff, occasionally stroking my chin while looking at the layout), publicity (me badgering people I've encountered via the comedy circuit etc. in the hope that they'll give us a mention if I just go away), some pictures and
what have you. Other people are clambering aboard the good ship Wales SITP (well, it's more a raft made of twigs and those cardboard tubes you get in the middle of toilet rolls at the moment, but it seems sturdy at present and it appears to have hit a good strong current to get us going)

If you were wondering why my Science Letters have been on hiatus, this is why. I shall be posting updates as and when they occur, and that should be quite often with any luck. We shall have out first pub gathering of Welsh Skeptics organised before the month is out (or next month, as it's the 31st of May right now, and it's a bank holiday so I can't see anything useful happening today).

One final thing, Alice says that some people, naming no names (largely because I'm not aware of any of them), have been whingeing about us calling it the WALES Skeptics in the Pub project, when it's just in Cardiff. In-keeping with the theme of the evening, let's look at the evidence for our claims.

- Thus far, it IS the only SITP being organised in Wales.

- Nobody ever said just Cardiff, it's just that I'm doing most of the groundwork and I happen to live in Cardiff so know most about this area. I could feasibly do a driving tour and investigate the likely venues of every population centre in our fair principality. Why don't I rent a helicopter and go from roof to roof of every building with an alcohol license in the country, seeing as we're indulging wild fantasies where I squander resources on a mammoth trek in the spirit of inclusiveness.

- We have always had the intention of going beyond Cardiff. We had Swansea venues proposed before we had a facebook group discussing such things.

To be truthful, calling it SITP WALES was my idea, in an underhanded attempt to encourage it to spread further. It shows that all of Wales is welcome to join in, not just Cardiff. But more cynically, I knew it would piss off the type of people who like to whinge rather than get involved. Maybe to the point where they'd set up their own night to prove a point. I could have just called it 'Cardiff'' and avoided the whole issue, and trusted people to take the hint and set up their own in their area, but in my experience, encouragement is nowhere near as big a motivator as spite.

So if anyone does have any issues with this, please take them up with me, not Alice; this isn't her idea and she seems far too nice to have to deal with such crap, whereas I actively enjoy smacking down on-line criticisms, so please, bring it!

Skeptics in the Pub: Wales (or Cardiff, if you like). Lets make it happen. Suggestions/abuse, please post in comments section.

Love to ya all


email: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy

Monday, 17 May 2010

"Dear Joanne the Tour Guide, from Dean" (No.19)

I'm Back Baby!

Been a while since I did this, been on holiday. Back now, and to celebrate, here's another Science letter. But it's not from 'the Anthropomorphic Personification of Science', as they usually are. This one is actually from me, Dean. And I am actually sending it to the person(s) concerned, as I think it's important.

To preface this, I've just returned from a holiday to Malaysia. Some of my time was spent in Georgetown, Penang (lovely place by the way, you should go if you haven't already). One of the things my wife and I visited while there was the mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze. A splendid building, an architectural achievement and lasting monument to the great man that was Cheong Fatt Tze.

I found myself taking issue with our tour guide though. Nothing personal, she seemed perfectly nice, but for someone giving a tour of a historic building she came out with some bizarre stuff which seemed to have nothing to do with what her primary function was. I didn't say anything at the time, for reasons which will become obvious, but I think the following needs to be said.

"Dear Joanne the tour guide.

Hello. Hope you're well. My wife and I visited the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion on May the 4th, which is sometimes referred to as Star Wars Day by people who are under the impression that Jedis always speak with a pronounced lisp.

I doubt you remember us, what with you having only fleeting encounters hundreds of people every week, all of whom are very keen to spend an hour wandering around someone else's house. But just in case, this was the 11am tour and I was the only Caucasian present under the age of 50. Facially I was the one who resembled a cross between Dilbert and a tennis ball, and whenever you mentioned that Penang is a former British Colony I said 'Sorry about that'.

I remember that your name is either Joanne (or Joanna) because you made a joke about how you share the same name as a famous Chinese person. I, an ignorant Westerner, had no idea who you were referring to, all I knew was that the thrust of the joke was that you weren't her. But, for all I knew, you could have been (as a performer, I also sometimes just hang around in public places myself hoping to get recognised, which is one of the reasons I was on this tour). So I'm sorry I didn't laugh at your joke. I also didn't laugh the second time you made the joke when more people joined the group, even though I was more familiar with the famous Joanne person by this point, but that familiarity was only from the first time you said the joke, so not sure that really counts.

The tour itself was fine, maybe a bit long in the heat, but that's hardly your fault. If I choose to go to a country where stepping outdoors provides a sensation similar to that of being beaten up by a very hot ghost, that's my problem. However, some of the things you said really irked me, and here's why.

Firstly, as it's a 19th century Chinese-style mansion, I understand that there will be a lot of mysticism and symbolism, but I have to ask, are you sure so many things mean 'money' in Chinese culture? Every Chinese person I've known or encountered has had a formidable work ethic, so I was surprised to hear they apparently rely on so much mystical stuff to bring them financial fortune. Some of the things you told us that were incorporated in the design of the mansion as they represented 'money' included flowing water, air currents, living on a slope and, bizarrely, Pineapples.

I'm not going to question the logic behind these beliefs, because I worry that there probably isn't any. You may argue that the man who incorporated all these things into his home was exceedingly wealthy so it must be true, but then he had to be loaded in order to build a mansion to such specific designs in the first place. But, I'm not one to dismiss things without even considering them, and that's why I bought a pineapple on the way home and left it in the bathroom with the tap running and the air con on. Unfortunately, I forgot about my little experiment when we went out for the evening, so I ended up flooding the bathroom and we lost our security deposit. So I guess it does affect the flow of money in a way, although I'm sure this would also have happened without the pineapple.

Another thing, the central room is supposed to be Feng-Shui perfect, you say. My wife had actually been to the mansion before, and like you said would happen, she says felt a certain tingling sensation at the spot where the 'energies converge'. She didn't know that was what that spot was meant to be beforehand either. I trust my wife on this as she is very clever and has no need to lie to me, and was quite intrigued about visiting this same spot.

I was a bit surprised, then, to find that this supposed hot spot was filled with large plants. If it works, why do that? Unless the plants somehow benefit from these magic rays? I guess the plants could be susceptible to the same energies as people, but who cares? How do you expect to get postitive testimonials from a Yucca? But my admittedly limited understanding of how Feng-shui works leads me to believe that it is vitally important not to obstruct the flow of energies, or 'chi' as you put it (although whenever I hear that word I mentally substitute the word 'cheese' in its place, which makes life far more amusing, e.g. "the flow of cheese is vital for good health", or "calm down, you're throwing off my cheese", hours of fun).

Just a casual question, but wouldn't half a dozen massive stone plant pots obstruct the 'chi'? I originally would have assumed that it has radiation-like properties and therefore limited interaction with solid objects, but then apparently it can be disrupted by things like clashing colours and a harsh tone of voice, I can't help but think it's a bit fragile? And while I appreciate what you were trying to do to reassure us, telling us that dozens of leading Feng-Shui experts all agreed that there was high energy levels in that one spot doesn't really convince me. Whenever I think of a 'Feng Shui expert', I can't help but recall the person who said they didn't like Twilight films because 'real vampires don't sparkle'. I never realised you could have such definitive knowledge of the defining aspect of non-existent things. Shows what I know, I suppose.

Far be it form me to suggest that people whose livelihood depends on Feng-shui would all agree it has tangible effects, but I can't be convinced by their views. However, if a hundred postmen or glass-blowers had agreed there was a tangible energy in that spot, then we'd be on to something.

But these are just some minor concerns. My main issue with your tour is as follows.

Remember the bit when you were talking about the importance of balance, and suddenly asked 'Can you cure cancer?' (I assume you meant 'you' as in 'anyone', as if you meant 'you' as in myself or other members of the group, that's a bit of an alarming question to suddenly drop into an explanation of the pottery recycling techniques used in 19th century China). The question itself was startling enough, and it was a bit disconcerting how you got annoyed when nobody gave clear answer (for reference, unless people in the group are highly qualified oncologists, the answer is 'no'), but I think your follow up really crossed a line. Just for clarity, you said;

"Yes, you can cure cancer. I can cure cancer, with 4 months of properly balanced diet. If I were to control your diet for 4 months, your cancer will be gone".

Seriously, what response did you expect to get from this? Hopefully, it was 'extremely awkward silence', because that's what you got.

Given the size of the tour group and the prevalence of cancer, it's pretty much certain that several people will know close friends/family or will themselves have had to deal with cancer. How exactly do you think they'd react to your extraordinary claim? A bemused slap on the forehead and a chuckle at their own foolishness? "Who'd have thought? Grandma went through 5 years of debilitating chemo, when all she needed to do was eat a specific amount of chickpeas for 4 months! She'd be laughing about this if she was still alive"

I'm sure you believe what you say, but I think there are two possibilities that underlie your claim, and these need to be assessed.

Possibility 1: You genuinely believe what you are claiming, but have no actual basis for it beyond your faith in the power of Feng-Shui and balance. You won't be the first person to think like this, and you're far from the worst, but still, it's a bit insulting isn't it? Effectively telling the people who have had to deal with cancer that they were wrong to put their trust in professionals from the world of medicine? Why trust the experts when an increased alfalfa intake will sort you out? Idiots!
In seriousness, even if you were correct, that's still annoying. If someone is standing on the side of the road next to a car with a knackered engine, they probably aren't going to appreciate someone pulling up and telling them this wouldn't have happened if they used pixie juice instead of oil, or something like that. But what you said was worse because instead of a busted engine it's the body of a dead loved one.

Possibility 2: You're claims have a sound basis in evidence, meaning you've actually successfully treated a statistically significant number of people and cured them of cancer using nothing but a sustained period where you control the portions/content of their meals. Although this would give more credibility to your claims, this possibility is actually worse than the first one. It suggests that, despite the fact that you've made a discovery that has eluded the worlds medical community for decades and would undoubtedly relieve the suffering of millions, you've chosen to remain working as a tour guide? I would have thought that possessing the cure for cancer would mean you were ethically obligated to share it with as many people as possible, and I don't think announcing it apropos of nothing to a bunch of sweat-soaked tourists is really sufficient. You may disagree though, and there's not much I can do about that.

Just to summarise all my rambling, I would advise you to not keep making this outlandish and offensive claim. I assume you mention it every time you do a tour? Has anyone questioned you about it yet? I did think about saying something at the time, but given the diverse nature of the tour group I figured the sight of a pasty white British man with an incomprehensible accent berating a small Malaysian woman would just reinforce too many negative stereotypes. So I didn't.

Of course, if this was the first and/or only time you've claimed to be able to cure cancer, what was it about our group that suggested 'malignant tumours' to you?

Please don't think this is a personal attack, but the tour experience was somewhat soured for me by your worrying claims. I agree that Cheong Fatt Tze was an incredible figure and an inspiration to everyone. However, I imagine he was probably so successful partly because he didn't listen to wild claims by people who had no idea what they were talking about. Just a thought.

All the best

Dr. Dean Burnett

e-mail: humourology (at)
twitter: @garwboy

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