Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Hiss of Piss on a Bonfire

One of the sad facts about growing older is that, more and more, I encounter people who seem to have serious issues with the manner in which people enjoy themselves, or how they do things which they enjoy doing.

I'm guilty of this myself, admittedly. I've never seen the appeal of night clubs, for example. If I wanted to spend the early hours of the morning in a converted warehouse with eye-wateringly poor lighting, inhaling the sweat of strangers while my ear drums are almost shattered by monotonous music played at volumes that could drown out a nuclear assault by a preening dickhead in shades, all while cradling a horrifically overpriced drink, then yeah, I'd probably go to a nightclub

But I have no problem with people who do go to nightclubs and have a good time. It's not for me, but I'm one non-nightclub-going person. But I've had several arguments with people who do go to nightclubs and insist that I should go too, as 'I'll enjoy it once I'm in there'. My patient explanation that I have been 'in there' several times and never even slightly enjoyed it seems irrelevant. I'm apparently wrong, they know what I like better than I do, and by not agreeing I'm being 'no fun'.

Football is the same. I can't see the appeal in watching 22 wealthy dickheads running around sporadically on a green rectangle, trying to place a sphere in a specific place without using their hands. For nearly 2 hours. But millions of people love it, so it's obviously enjoyable to many. Some of these people can be, admittedly, a bit overenthusiastic (read 'violent thugs' for that last bit if you like), but for the vast majority it's an enjoyable pastime.

But if I were to go into nightclubs, turn the lights on, unplug the amps and insist that everyone put some clothes on, I wouldn't be thanked for my efforts. Similarly, if I wandered onto a football pitch during a big game and told the assembled crowd to go home and do something more worthwhile like put up some shelves, I wouldn't be praised for this. I might be prised apart, but not praised.

As some of you probably know if you've read this before, I do stand-up comedy. I'm also co-organiser/host of Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub, and do a lot of talks for the skeptic community and beyond. These are things I do for my own enjoyment, and for the potential enjoyment of others. But apparently, these things I do voluntarily and for little or no reward beyond the actions themselves, I'm doing wrong.

Alom Shaha, lovely guy, excellent writer, gutsy bloke, wrote a piece in the Guardian about how Skeptics in the Pub is preaching to the choir. It was a while ago, but brought up again in my social circles again recently. What's the point, he argues, in talking to people about what they already know? Why don't we spend our time trying to get other communities and groups (e.g. children, ethnic minorities) interested, rather than catering to those who are already onside.

As well meant as the article is, this is just another example of this I've encountered, and it's getting to piss me off. It's a bugbear of mine. Here are the reasons why (and if you don't want to know, or care, then feel free to stop reading and do something more useful, like make a sandwich).

It's probably something to do with my comedy background. One of the ways I've noticed in which a comedian will try and exert dominance over another is to criticise their performance, and offer unsolicited advice on how to improve. The advice itself is invariably completely subjective and, often, utterly useless, but the group dynamics of these interactions are startlingly clear, as is the thought process involved, for all that it might be completely subconscious.

I've lost count of the number of inexperienced (or just plain shit) acts giving unasked for advice to more experienced and much better comedians (based on audience response, not just my subjective views). By giving advice and 'helpful' criticism, they are (unjustifiably) asserting their superiority over the better acts in order to reinforce their sense of self worth, but to the detriment of the better acts. The fact that this is presented under the guise of 'being helpful' means that social convention often lets them get away with it.

It's teeth-grindingly infuriating to see this happen as soon as a great but fragile ego'd comic (and there are loads of those, the criticisers can pretty much smell them) walks off stage after a storming performance, only to be rewarded with a volley of 'helpful' advice and criticisms. It happens to me more often than not, I think it's because I'm not particularly confident seeming or arrogant (says the guy on his own long winded blog, but please trust me on this). Also, I have a PhD in neuroscience. A lot of comics pride themselves on their superior wit and intellect, me telling them my qualifications (after they've asked, usually about half way thorough the night) tends to be very unsettling for them. Sometimes they even accuse me of being arrogant. The implication being that I've spent over a decade following a difficult, complex and financially unrewarding career purely to upset them. This makes ME arrogant. Logical.

I'm not saying Alom and the others who have expressed concern with the skeptic ethos are doing this, I'm just explaining why it pisses me off so much. I can only speak from my experience, but I don't really agree with much, or any, of the criticisms aimed at the skeptic 'movement', whatever the hell that is. It's true that there may be differences between SITP events in different towns and cities (it being a grassroots voluntary movement with no central coordination, this is inevitable), but seeing as the criticisms are pretty much always generalised to the whole, then I'll do the same with my response.

The main criticisms seem to be that there isn't enough inclusion of ethnic minorities, there should be more attempts to educate children and those who don't hear about skeptical stuff etc. And of course, we're just preaching to the converted, which is arrogant and pointless (like the Pope).

I can only speak for Cardiff, but we get a few ethnic minorities there. We don't actively try to get them along, but we certainly don't actively exclude them. This is because I (and most people I know) don't see any reason to differentiate between ethnic minorities and everyone else.

It may be true that they don't feel as if they'd be welcome at events like SITP, but (at the risk of sounding controversial) how is that our fault exactly? I promise that any publicity we do does not carry a 70's-style 'No Blacks - No Asians etc.' exclusion clause. On the other hand, nor do we include an 'ethnic minorities welcome!' notice. Why not? Because that would be incredibly patronising and, in my opinion, just as racist (albeit in a more well-intended way).

There is obviously much that could be done to encourage more ethnic minorities into these sorts of events. But how much of this should be done? I shy away from any attempt to actively try and change people's minds. And if I start thinking I have the right to decide what people from ethnic minorities should be doing, please don't vote for me when I inevitably ask you to do so.

Obviously there are many factors (social, cultural, religious, political etc.) that might prevent ethnic minorities from coming to an SITP night. Again, none of these are the fault of the rational community, and criticising them for not challenging or changing them seems unduly harsh. If there is a way in which I and my fellow organisers can encourage more ethnic community members to come to these events without being patronising, divisive or just outright racist, I'd love to hear it.

As for the active spreading of our viewpoint for people's benefits, that's the same goal of people who scream about Jesus in the High Street. These people aren't appreciated, nor are they widely respected. By and large, they're ignored, or mocked. They are by me, at least, so I certainly wouldn't want to become one of them.

I've also butted heads with many in the Science Communication business about this whole 'Think of the Children!!' attitude. I'm glad there is an ever-increasing number of people who choose to try and educate and communicate with the younger members of society. I've even done it myself several times, having spoken at quite a number of events aimed at school pupils of various ages.

But for many people involved in these activities, there seems to be some bizarre view that as soon as someone leaves the school system they become a lost cause. I prefer to try and communicate to adults, because looking like I do means it's always a bit weird when I offer children sweets. And also I like to communicate in high-brow sounding gibberish, which most children would struggle with. Most adults do too, but social etiquette prevents them from calling me on it, which would upset me and my fragile non-arrogant ego.

In seriousness, I think adults deserve as much attention as children when it comes to communicating scientific matters. Possibly more so, as they may have children of their own, so it could be a 2-for-1 deal.

And finally, there's the whole 'preaching to the choir' thing. I guessed I missed the memo, but I wasn't aware that having an interest in things scientific and rational meant you weren't allowed to socialise with like-minded people. A group of people getting together with other people who have similar interests, to hear about and discuss the things they're interested in? Such a thing is unheard of! And any people who do this sort of thing are clearly a collection of arrogant smug bastards of the highest order.

That's how I see SITP first and foremost; a social event where people with an interest in scientific things can go and have a chilled out evening with similar folk and hear about something interesting (usually something they DIDN'T already know, despite assertions to the contrary). Any lobbying/campaigning/outreach that comes from it is all well and good, but it's an 'event' first and foremost. This means; People choose to attend, the organisers don't choose who attends

That's what I think anyway, I could be completely wrong in this. It's my blog though, so only got my own views to go on.

It generally boils down to a lot of people saying 'You could do more to [insert preferred thing to do]'. But where does that end? I do comedy in comedy clubs. where people are there to see comedy. Is this arrogant? Should I just start wandering into Mosques and nursery schools and bellowing my material at anyone I find? If I don't, am I just arrogantly preaching to the choir?

We spent a lot on the catering for our wedding, why didn't I just get a black bag full of sausage rolls from Gregg's and give the rest to charity? (It was mostly because many of my in-laws are vegetarian, and Gregg's also don't take £50 notes).

I just find it ironic that anyone interested in science and rationality is seemingly doing something wrong if they have the audacity to enjoying themselves and not spend every waking moment trying to educate others. That would make us the obsessed emotionless robots we're stereotypically believed to be. And as someone with a rural Welsh background, I'm not a big fan of stereotypes.

Email: Humourology (at)
Twitter: @garwboy

Monday, 14 February 2011


I've never had a problem with the Royal Mail. I've always used their services with minimal fuss before, and I've always found myself sympathising with the postal staff when whatever smarmy dick in government cuts their funding, criticises them and generally hamstrings their ability to provide a decent service in what appears to be a rather transparent effort to force the Royal Mail into privatisation.

However, something happened recently as a result of a postal service employee that I can't actually overlook, and have decided that I really must lodge a complaint about it. Of course, I don’t expect anything to be done as a result of my complaining, so I thought I'd share it with the general public (or the select few who actually read this guff), so that at least the incident will be known about.

Here's my complaint, in all its dweeby glory.

"Dear Sir/Madam

Although I have never before had any particular grievance with the Royal Mail that ranks above a moderate irritation, I am sad to say that this is no longer the case. I am writing to you to register a serious complaint regarding a recent delivery I received at my Cardiff Bay address. The rather complex and surprisingly verbose guide to making a complain found on the Royal mail website states that, when submitting a complaint in writing, I should be as detailed as possible. I shall warn you now that, in this case, that may have been an ill-judged request on your part. So, here goes.

Last week I was away for a 5 day period, from the 7th to the 11th of February. My wife and I, who also lives at the same address for obvious reasons, went to Rome as part of her 30th Birthday celebrations. Yes, we had a very nice time, thanks for asking. One restaurant we visited had run out of mussels for the dish I wanted, and my wife did step in some particularly pungent dog 'mess' one evening (suggesting that Italian pet food is also much richer and varied than typical British offerings, but this one encounter provided insufficient data for such a generalisation), but apart from these incidents it was a very enjoyable time.

We returned to the UK at around 2pm on Friday the 11th, landing at Bristol and making our way back to Cardiff. After navigating the baffling route from this low-key airport, encountering numerous delays offered by Friday afternoon traffic along the seemingly perpetual but constantly unoccupied road works on the M4 between Newport and Cardiff, and stopping at a nearby Asda to stock up on perishables that weren't readily available in Italy and/or suitable for transporting via suitcases in the hold of a passenger jet (e.g. Bread, semi-skimmed milk, explosive materials), we arrived back at our address around 3.30pm.

As we live in a multi-story block of flats, our mailbox is located at the rear of our building, in the car park by the back entrance. As a result, we always check our relatively low-capacity mailbox before entering the building. In this case, we were encumbered by 3 suitcases (one of which weighed over 20 kg, according to the Easyjet check-in desk in the Roman airport) and 5 bags of shopping, which we had to carry up 3 flights of stairs. I had also just spent nearly 3 hours driving after a 2.5 hour flight, so was in a rather 'frazzled' state, shall we say. So perhaps you can appreciate that my reaction to what I found in the mailbox was remarkably restrained in the circumstances.

As I said, we had been away for several days, and it was the week of my wife's 30th Birthday. As a result, the mailbox was relatively full. It was mostly birthday cards, several bills, some official correspondence from my wife's workplace, and general flyers and advertising material from local businesses (coincidentally, regarding our recent holiday destination, the latter were mostly from Pizza delivery outlets).

However, among this predictable collection of mail, there was a large, stiff card-backed envelope wedged to one side. Here is what it looked like (minus the other mail, for clarity)

It doesn't look great, I'll admit, but if it won't fit I guess there is no alternative but to force it in and hope for the best (although I would suggest you avoid using this phrase as a defence in court, just so you know).

However, a closer inspection proved to be a very infuriating experience. Here is a clear view of the front of the envelope.

In case of any problems with the hosting or formatting of these images, I'll describe the envelope in detail so we both know what I'm referring to. The top left corner features a label with the return address, which is the registry office of Cardiff University. Under this, in slightly faint red letters, are stamped the words 'First class'. I'm not sure the expense of first class is meant to rule out the 'jam it in a too-small space and hope for the best' style of delivery, so I won't question that. Just above the centre is a smaller label with my name and home address on it. The most prominent feature of the envelope is to the bottom left, where the words 'Please do not bend' are stamped in large, clear red letters. This phrase is, in this context, quite ironic, being as it is quite visibly presented below a blatant large fold right across the centre of the envelope, which undeniably results from the envelope having been severely bent in order to get it into the mailbox, when it was delivered by someone whose job it is to deliver mail safely and correctly.

The photo also features my left hand, my mailbox and those of my neighbours, and part of the building car park. I believe these details are irrelevant.

This 'Do not bend' envelope that had been bent was alarming and frustrating. Despite the fact that a large and reputable institution like Cardiff University had gone to the effort of sending whatever this was in via first class in a hard-backed envelope (as is made clear by even the most cursory inspection of it), I could only hope that it was something unimportant.

Here is what was inside it.

In case it's not made clear by the picture, the envelope contained a certificate. Specifically, it contained my PhD certificate, the legal document which states that, after 5 years of research, study, writing and infuriating delays, I am now officially a doctor. I need this document to prove to the passport office, my bank, the DVLA and numerous other students that my title is has now, by law, changed from, or 'Mr.' to 'Dr.' (or 'Mister' to 'Doctor' if, as 'the Dude' said in 'The Big Lebowski', you're not into the whole brevity thing).

My PhD has been subjected to many delays, resulting from lab shutdowns, numerous re-writes, questionable decisions by external examiners, and other factors. As a result, I have effectively been waiting for this document for over 18 months. To finally receive it, but have it treated with such blatant disdain and lack of care by a member of the postal service was quite galling (although I had to admit it was rather ironically symbolic of the way my PhD efforts have been treated by external agencies, but that's another matter)

As said, this certificate is an important document legally. I've not heard back from my enquiries about how much it would cost to get a replacement, but it's not likely to be cheap. A replacement birth certificate costs to replace, and those are far more common, and my PhD certificate took a lot more work to obtain than my birth certificate (although my mother may dispute this conclusion).

I have struggled to come up with a logical explanation for why a postal employee would actively damage an extremely important piece of mail that did not belong to them in clear contradiction of the blatant instructions presented on the package itself, and have failed to do so. I have come up with and ruled out several options. These are listed here, as are my reasons for dismissing them. If you feel I have made a logical error then please feel free to correct me.

So, why would they do this?

1: The Postman felt the package was too urgent to take back to the depot? Although a potentially well-intended action, this doesn't really excuse the damage to my document. If the postman was forward thinking enough to predict I would require the document with some urgency, he would presumably have had the wherewithal to notice that there were several other pieces of mail already in the mailbox from previous deliveries (this delivery is postmarked 10-02-2011, the day before we returned home). I appreciate that he may have considered this delivery important enough to risk damaging in spite of the obvious instructions, and in spite of the fact that I clearly wasn't collecting my mail at present, but that's not his decision to make.

2: The Postman felt that taking the package back to the depot was a bit excessive and unnecessarily costly? Again, potentially well meant, but not really his decision to make, even if it was for my benefit. And in all honesty, this would run contrary to previous experiences I've had with packages from Royal Mail. Most recently I received a 'failed to deliver' card, and was made to drive to the main depot and pay the excess on what was declared 'a package'. What it was was a small envelope with a thank you card from a friend based in Oxford whom I had recently done a talk for. She sent me the card, but it was deemed too big to be considered a letter because it contained the cap from my USB stick which I had mistakenly left behind. The cap had the dimensions and weight of a slightly-thicker-than-average thumbnail, but this was still considered too big to be delivered. So you can hopefully understand my being sceptical of a postman willing to deliver something which is clearly much larger than the hole it has to go into.

3: The postman was angry with me for some reason: The damaged delivery may have been due to malicious intent. Admittedly, there have been several times before when a delivery has been too big for my letterbox and the postman has contacted me via the building intercom, and there is usually a delay between me answering and arriving at the letterbox, but this is because I live on the 3rd floor and we don't have a lift. If this relatively minor delay is deemed sufficient reason to damage my property, then I'm somewhat stuck as, aside from bodily hurling myself down the 3 flights of stairs, I can't see a way to get down there faster than I already do. Even if I did do that, I doubt I'd be in any fit state to sign for packages by the time I got to the bottom. I suppose it's possible that it's traditional to tip postmen at Christmas as is the norm with dustmen, but as I rarely ever encounter the postmen I have no idea how I would go about doing this, and it still isn't really an excuse to damage my documents.

4: The postman responsible can't actually read: It's feasible that the postman who delivered the document damaged it because he couldn't read the instructions telling him not to. However, if this is the case, then he would also have been unable to read the much smaller and less clear information regarding the address, so usually just guesses which items should be delivered where. In this situation, the fact that I actually received the document addressed to me at all should be considered an occurrence so unlikely that it actually constitutes a miracle. If you find the postman in question, can you ask him for a guess regarding this week's lottery numbers? At the very least, contact the Vatican so he can be canonised after he dies.

5: The postman is blind and could not see the letterbox: If this is the case, the argument from the previous possibility is just as valid, if not more so. But it begs the question of how he knew to fold it to fit into the smaller hole, if he is blind? I can only hope that he wasn't the one driving the van if this possibility turns out to be correct.

In summary, I received a highly important, legally essential and long overdue (but the latter was nothing to do with you) document that was specifically labelled with instructions to treat with care and specifically not to bend, which was treated with no apparent care, bent rather severely and inserted into an already rather full mailbox.

The certificate is, after all this, intact. I could feasibly leave it under some heavy books or iron it in some way and it would be usable, but I shouldn't have to do this and it is quite scuffed after the delivery. This certificate, which took me an incredible amount of time, effort and expense to obtain, would usually be displayed quite prominently in my home (or, as is more likely, my mother's home) for the for the rest of my life, but it was damaged before I even saw it thanks to the manner in which it was delivered.

I don't really anticipate much being done about this, but I felt it necessary to lodge a formal complaint in case it happens again. I have several friends who work in medicine, and if they were to be sent important but delicate patient scans which were damaged in this manner, it could cost some their life.

Actually, I can't think of any circumstance where crucial patient scans would be sent to a doctors home via Royal mail, so please ignore that previous attempt to introduce some gravitas to this complaint.

I sincerely doubt anything will actually come of this complaint beyond someone being told not to do it again. But I feel I should let you know that this has also been posted to my bizarrely popular blog so that people know it is something that can occur when they send potentially important packages. It's a final, bitter irony that, as a result, it's almost certain that more people will read this complaint than will ever read the thesis that got me the PhD (and subsequently the certificate) in the first place.

Yours sincerely

Dean Burnett"

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