A year… only partially digested

So Occam’s Typewriter is a year old. Where does the time go…?

(No answers involving quantum theory, please. Or homeopathy. And especially not invoking both).

When someone pointed out a week or two back that we were approaching our first anniversary as an independent blogging network, there was talk about whether we should all put up thematic posts celebrating the landmark. Various ideas of what thematic shape these might take were kicked around, including a “Digested Read’ pastiche after the fashion of a well-known column in the Guardian newspaper.

I suppose it probably reflects how busy we all are – I have the impression that pretty much all of the decreasing number of people who are actually still employed in anything to do with science are busier than ever this year – that this has not come to pass. And you will also note that I have nearly failed completely to post up anything anniversarial (until now).

Which makes me late (no change there).

And also having seemingly contrived to miss a critical piece of information (no change there either), since until yesterday evening I had still been under the mistaken impression we were going to do that “Digested Read’ thing.


Oh well. Perhaps it’s just me. Indeed, perhaps I may have a special taste, out of all the OT bloggers, for things digested/digestive. The fifteen kilos (fifteen on a good day) that I’ve ‘acquired’ since my days in graduate school a quarter of a century ago might bear that out. As also might the fact that I once published a paper in the evocatively named Gut, the only scientific journal I can ever recall starring in the ‘missing words’ feature on the TV Show Have I Got News For You.

And… I’ve certainly spent a fair bit of my scientific career working on cells derived from bits of the GI tract, including salivary glands (Yep, part of the GI tract. Who knew?), the exocrine and endocrine pancreas, and even the small intestine.

By the way, as a tribute to my OT colleague, the noted Celebrity Nutritionist Cromercrox, I should point out that many of these papers involve release of calcium from intracellular stores. No, really.

Anyway, Digested Read it is. For better or for worse. For richer, for poorer (And no prizes for guessing which, if you pick a scientific career).

So without more ado, I give you:



The digested read:

‘Not ranting – honestly’  by Austin Elliott

I feel old. And grumpy. And grumpily old. And I write about… this and that. Including being old and grumpy.

Though not really about science. That would be a busman’s holiday. I dislike travelling on buses. Too slow. And smelly. Even if they Go To The Station.

So I’ve blogged about… stuff. Blogs are a collection of one’s personal likes, dislikes, and ephemera, after all. Though I don’t write about anything all that often. And when I do it often gets left unfinished. There is a folder somewhere on the computer full of drafts that never made it into posts.

So you can think of this blog as a kind of online public-access attic.

Like all bloggers, I am an egotist in denial, and often end up writing about myself. I was born into a scientific family – at least, my father is a scientist – and I’ve sometimes wondered what I would be if science, and academia, hadn’t therefore been something I was aware existed as a career. Journalist? (Almost certainly too pressured) Author? (Probably not pressured enough, and requiring self-motivation). Professional chess player? Definitely wasn’t good enough. My mother thinks I should have been a lawyer. Though I’d probably be a science teacher in a school somewhere, and arguably even more mid-life-crisis-ridden than now.

Sometimes I write about scientific history, or about science policy. Science seems to have been rather less complicated a hundred years ago… or rather, the life of a scientist was rather less complicated, as there were a lot less scientists, and they didn’t have to spend all their time chasing money. Instead,  they probably spent the time doing actual science. With their own hands, yet. Even middle-aged full Professors. Not that I’ll ever be one of those.

If you go back a century ago, scientists also didn’t have the temptations of blogs, or Twitter, to help them procrastinate and avoid proper work. Or computers either, for that matter, though computers can be tools for progress, as well as (like in my hands) tools for procrastinating. One of the great AV Hill’s descendants told me that she suspected AV would have thought Twitter ‘rather trivial and time wasting’. But added ‘[AV] would have loved the internet and modern day computing.’

Also talking of AV, who is a proper hero to many physiologists, he was fond of the saying, requoted by Bernard Katz in Hill’s obituary and much-repeated by me, that:

‘Laughter is the best detergent of nonsense’

Now, just the other day on Twitter one of my blogging acquaintances posted something where a homeopath told us in complete seriousness that ‘sunlight destroys homeopathic remedies’. So sunlight appears to be a detergent of nonsense as well. Useful stuff, UV radiation. And it kills Vampires too. Though I haven’t heard if it works on biochemists… Or on people who invent idiotic abbreviations… or stupid words that end in -omics.

Where was I?

Oh yes. For some reason I get rather hot under the collar (though actually I don’t wear anything with a collar – no point in being an academic if you have to dress like a bank teller) about people like homeopaths, and chiropractors, and HIV-is-not-the-cause-of-AIDS obsessives, and anti-vaccine types, and all the other Unreality Enthusiasts.

Whether this recurring railing at Unreality is a consequence of being a middle-aged nerd of rather underwhelming success scientifically-speaking… well, perhaps. But on the subject, apart from quoting AV, I also tend to quote one of the best things Richard Dawkins ever said, which is:

“There is a real world, we live in it, true and false things can be said about it, science is how we find out about it, and it really matters.”

Which will do for me.

Finally – in order to reduce the borderline-high blood pressure that comes of a combination of getting annoyed, drinking beer, and sedentary middle age, I have taken up a new hobby in the year since OT launched. Or rather – I’ve taken up an old hobby again, since I have started playing chess again, some 30+ years after quitting.

So far I play about as well as I did when I was 15 years old. Which is a lesson of some kind.



The digested digested read:

Oh bugger – forgot to post anything. Again. Though it would only have been grumbling about nothing much, anyway.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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15 Responses to A year… only partially digested

  1. cromercrox says:

    How strange. I am now old, grumpy, grumpily old, middle-aged and overweight, but my blood pressure has actually gone down. I attribute this to living in Norfolk; taking a daily dose of antidepressants that would fell a charging rhino at fifty paces; not really giving a damn about much anymore; combinations of the above.

    • Austin says:

      I was going to attribute it to all of those healthy garden-grown vegetables you get through, Henry.

      I envy you the garden, BTW. We’re still collecting the occasional raspberry from our little patch, and the freezer is still chock-full of frozen plums (tree in garden) plus odds and ends of blackberries (hedgerows) and elderberries (ditto). But when I think what ‘Er Indoors could do with a decent-sized garden to grow stuff in… not to mention how useful it would be for draining some of the surplus energy out of Juniors #1 and #2.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great work Austin – very nicely done!

  3. Grant says:

    Nice wee ramble 🙂

    I probably shouldn’t say this in case I raise your blood pressure, but the editor/manager of our lot has put up in the guest blog a pro-chiropractic argument from an Australian lecturer. I understand the idea is to occasionally use the guest blog in this way to encourage lively discussion and boost visitors stats, etc. Personally I wish they’d then identify the guest blog as a ‘editorial/opinion page’ in the way that newspapers separate that from the reportage content of the paper.

    But never mind. The thing I was going to say was that chiropractics, etc., miff me a little too – you’re not alone with it!

    I don’t think I ever want to try take up chess again, never was any good and would be hopeless now 🙂

    It does bring back a memory—allow me to indulge—of taking a midday nap in a park in Kyrgyzstan to wake an hour or so later to find that the cluster of benches were the site of the local chess club meetings and I was occupying one of their competition benches. I found myself in the midst of a small crowd of locals who sat straddling their bench seat, with the chess boards between them. It was a very Central Asia affair, open-air chess in the park – bring your own boards and pieces.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Excellent example of the “I wasn’t going to write this, but…” genre, Austin. 😉

    I’ve published in Gastroenterology, but never in Gut. Part of a sub-genre of biomedical journals named after organs (Blood, Lung and Heart jump to mind as other examples).

    • Austin says:

      And Brain… and Pancreas, where oddly enough I haven’t published despite working on the organ in question for many years. And Muscle and Nerve, a kind of two-for-one offer. The kidney even went for a kind of organ-specific (!) Austin Powers vibe by having a journal called Kidney International.

      And there’s another whole genre named after specific cell types – Neuron, or course, and Glia (so they don’t feel left out, presumably).

      BTW, Gut is one of the places you might send your paper after Gastroenterology has rejected it..! Though there is also a kind of Gastroenterology = North America, Gut = Europe thing going on as well.

  5. Austin says:

    Thanks All for the kind remarks. Appreciated.

    @Grant: Cheers for the link about chiropractic. Also in the Antipodes, I’ve been following the recent discussion about chiropractic degrees in Australia mostly via this comments thread, where you can see various science types (including noted neuroscientist Marcello Costa, and my old friend David Colquhoun) taking issue with the claims of “Professor of Chiropractic” Phillip Ebrall, who is the head honcho at the new Chiro course at Central Queensland Univ.

    Central Queensland Univ is what in the UK parlance would be a ‘new’ University (ex-Poly), which is in line with the kind of places that were running, or validating, the chiropractic degree programmes in the UK. CQU have done the usual degree-in-pseudoscience thing by getting a senior chiropractor turned sort-of-academic (i.e. who has done a PhD) and badging them Professor. BTW, a search on Pubmed reveals the Prof has published ten papers in the last 20 years. I can’t think of many disciplines in science where ten papers or less would make you a full Professor, even in a “new’ University. Unless they were all in your favourite weekly science journal beginning with “N”.

    I’m actually more disturbed that RMIT and Macquarie (both long-established Aussie top ten Universities with serious science programmes, of course) now have Chiropractic degrees. In many ways it seems like Australia is about a decade behind the UK in the Unreality Cycle… or perhaps they have not had something like the Simon Singh libel case to galvanise things and highlight for the wider public (and the press) just what a bunch of evidence-free crap chiropractic (and most other alternative medicine) is. David Colquhoun often points out that University Vice Chancellors, who see AltMed degrees making money, are rarely moved by scientists pointing out that the degrees teach myths as facts, but are highly sensitive to being made a public laughing stock.

    On to chess – BTW, Kazakhstan is a pretty exotic spot. What took you there?

    Outdoor chess in parks is an interesting phenomenon; obviously widespread in the old Soviet republics (climate permitting) with players of all sorts of standards. I believe they used to hold the Moscow Blitz (5 min rapid chess) Championships in a Moscow park, and lots of the Grandmasters used to fly in especially to play.

    The other places I think of as having ‘park chess’ (though mostly for hustling beer money) are the parks in New York City… and I also remember seeing people playing in Harvard Yard. Never seen it in the UK, though – even in the Summer.

    My favourite book that goes into the park chess scenes of NYC and Moscow is Fred Waitzkin’s brilliant Searching for Bobby Fischer, about his chess prodigy son Josh, which was also made into a pretty good movie.

    • Grant says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on the chiropractic course. That comment thread is, I think, the original source of article that the sciblogs editor put up. I must put up a comment, but I have a suspicion that the author is not going to respond to anyone.

      Kazakhstan is a pretty exotic spot. What took you there?

      I went to Kyrgyzstan, actually, immediately south of Kazakhstan. It’s a long story… short version: I had wanted to visit Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for a a number of years, then spotted this bioinformatics conference in Novosibirsk and got partial support to go to it. I had wanted to travel through Kazakhstan to get to Kyrgyzstan, but would have had to do that on a transit visa, which wasn’t realistic given the size of Kazakhstan. Getting my Kyrgyz visa is an entire story in itself, a real mission and half, complete with cold-war era type spy in a trench coat leaning on a lamppost. (In London, that. Like I said, it’s a long story.)

    • Grant says:

      Further to my previous comment—and getting well off the topic of the first anniversary celebrations—the PR announcement writes “Professor Ebrall has published some 80 papers in the peer-reviewed, indexed literature”.

      see: http://uninews.cqu.edu.au/UniNews/viewRelease.do?story=8525

      • “Over 80′…?

        Goodness. Well, I found a whopping ten in PubMed. Wonder where the rest are?

        I can think of one or two possible ‘resolutions’.

        As an example, my own CV contains, at last count, 43 papers that you can find on PubMed. However, I’ve also authored about a half dozen book chapters that don’t show up on PubMed. So let’s say fifty full-length articles, stretching a point.

        But… if you search on some other citation databases, you can also get all (or a lot of) the conference abstracts I’ve ever produced that appeared in journal supplements, plus the odd book review I’ve done. If you counted all those too, you would get a number somewhere above100.

        Except… that those abstracts weren’t papers, even though they might be, quote,

        ‘indexed in the peer-review literature’

        – depending on how you interpret the phrase.

        In addition, suppose I were also to count all the various things I’ve written for Physiology News over the last fifteen years, including editorial opinion pieces, historical articles, conference reports, interviews, ad hoc pieces on who won the Nobel, yada yada. There must be well over 50 of those. So then I could say I had:

        “published more than a hundred and fifty articles in the scientific literature”.

        But of course, if you ask scientists which stuff counts, and what they should be judged on as a scientist, it would be peer-reviewed full papers, and perhaps substantive reviews in journals. All of which are listed on PubMed.

        In a way it just goes to show that you should never trust a PR man. But I think we knew that already.

  6. Dave Miller says:

    Nice rant, Austin. Only just discovered you at this site. Wonders of that clever Google thingy. Now that you’ve given up Physiology News (or vice versa), will you devote more time to this escapade? Or is it chess from now onwards? Some feeble remark about ‘beating bishops’ seem to be beckoning …

    Your invariably smart and stimulating pieces in PN will be missed by many of us avid readers. A compilation and retrospective would not be mere vanity publishing. If and when the revamped (?) PhysSoc website restores the PN archive, a thorough review would be possible. And that archive is also necessary to keep this key part of your impressive CV accessible online!

    But there’s a whole extra day to fill in 2012 – any special plans?



    • Hi Dave

      Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words. Actually just came across the J Phys perspective you and Godfrey did for Luttgau & Niedergerke’s famous Na-Ca exchange paper. (I was looking around for material on Rolf N).

      I’m not sure if more stuff will be appearing here now that I’m not doing Phys News any more, but I guess it’s possible. I think I’d almost run out of things to editorialise about at PN, actually, and was repeating myself, which is one reason I stopped. Another was that I’ve done eight full years as Editor (and several as Deputy / Co-Editor before that). The new Phys Soc Exec regime want to make it a term of three years plus a possible further two (I think), more like being Editor of J Phys or Exp Phys.

      The other main thing I’ve been doing for PN apart from the editorials was the historical ‘100 years ago’ pieces, which I sort of gather they won’t be wanting any more, so if I can muster the energy I might keep doing those here.

      As regards the back archive, don’t quite know what’s happened with the PN archive on the new website. I hope it re-appears, but I’m rather out of the loop. We didn’t know about it until it happened, BTW (!). If you want it back, email the Society direct and ask. Seriously, the more people that do that the likelier it is to happen.

      I guess I might consider collating my PN stuff and re-organising it somewhere, though it would be a bit of a job… unless I can make it a final year student project (he joked). Bits of the back-catalogue do ’emerge’ here from time to time, as you’ll see if you wander through a few of the posts.

      The April 1st ‘retiring to devote my time to chess’ post proved something of a cause celebre, having fooled (inter alia) our mutual friend Prof Smith and one of my Faculty bosses! But it’s just a hobby. I have been playing regularly one night a week through the Autumn, but I’m basically just a hack.

      BTW, you should get yourself a blog, if you haven’t got one.

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