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14 Sep

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The Dara Effect

18 Jun

dara brief history

This brief (electronic) brush with one of my heroes caused me to reflect last night on the subject of inspiration and of meeting your heroes.

It was a theme that ran through Dara Ó Briain Meets Stephen Hawking, which aired on BBC1 the other night. Dara was honest about his doubts about meeting his hero – could Stephen Hawking possibly live up the the legend? – and I almost didn’t watch the programme for the same reason. But I did, and I’m very glad I did.

It could so easily have fallen flat. Watch any of Dara Ó Briain’s work, and you’ll see that it hinges on interaction. His stage shows are rooted in a dialogue with his audience. Other comedians will interact, but often in a one-sided, confrontational way. Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr may be sharp and clever but their interaction stems from insults. What sets Dara Ó Briain apart is that his interaction with the audience is inclusive and supportive, and it becomes an integral part of the show, to the extent that – famously – no two nights are ever the same. Dara’s strength here is in being able to ride the crest of an unpredictable show, quickly find the threads of a discussion and weave humour through it. If you like, Dara is a diamond that magnifies and reflects the best facets of his audience back to them.

So he must have been terrified at meeting Stephen Hawking. Not just because of his professed fear of meeting an inspirational hero, but because the meeting would have put him entirely outside his comfort zone. How can you engage in a lively discussion when answers take minutes to arrive? How can you enjoy seeing the tangent the conversation flies off on, if your questions have to be scripted and submitted in advance? The problem was immediately apparent at their first meeting, when Dara’s bright and brittle greeting came to a clanging halt against Professor Hawking’s inability to frame an instantaneous reply, leaving the discussion figuratively and literally on its knees.

But Ó Briain persevered, and so did Hawking. That journey to finding a way to communicate became the heart of the programme, both for Ó Briain’s interview and as an illustration of Hawking’s wider ongoing challenges in maintaining a way to communicate his thoughts and his work.

Dara clearly succeeded in finding a rapport with Stephen Hawking. There’s a lovely moment where we see the two sitting companionably alongside each other like old friends. His journey to finding a way of understanding Professor Hawking then becomes in the programme a bridge by which the audience can also be brought along too.

What resulted was a spell-binding documentary. My only gripe is a suspicion that it perhaps took the release of the film The Theory of Everything to give the subject enough clout for a programme to be made about Stephen Hawking. Which would be a shame, as his story stands in its own right.

As for Dara Ó Briain, with this, with Dara and Ed’s Big Adventure, with Science Club and Stargazing Live, he is showing a real talent for showing us the universe around us, and it’s a universe that is fascinating seen through his eyes.

A diamond indeed.

It’s turned a little bit political in ‘ere

6 May

Recent articles:

Is there still a party out there that cares about people? If there were, here’s what they would do. (An article I wrote for Open Democracy (29th April 2015):

A ballot spoiled

A warning to the Lib Dems (6th May 2015):

No brain. No heart. No votes.

The Saatchi Bill

19 Nov

My posts on the Medical Innovation Bill – the “Saatchi Bill” – can be found here: The Saatchi Bill quackographic-sm

What Would Noah Do?

13 Apr
An alternative imagining of the conversation between God and Noah


God: Noah?

Noah: Yes, Lord?

God: Make me an ark, Noah.

Noah: An ark, Lord?

God: An ark. And into this ark I command you to place two of every animal. Two sheep, two cows, two rats, two antelo-

Noah: Hold on, let me find a pencil.

God: Ready? Okay, I’ll continue. Two giraffes, two elepha-

Noah: Tricky.

God: Two elephants, two lions, two tigers, two velociraptors, two-

Noah: Veloci-what-nows?

God: Ha, don’t worry about those for the moment. Where was I? Oh yes, two sand vipers, two tree vipers, two sedge vipers, two swa-

Noah: What shall we call this ark? Can we call it the Skylark?

God: No. Two swamp vipers, two rough-scaled bush vipers, two Wagner’s vi-

Noah: What’s all this for, Lord?

God: Eh? What’s it for?

Noah: Yes, what’s it for?

God: Oh, okay, I mean to send a flood to wipe clean the sins of this Earth, and you are to save all my creatures to repopulate after the floods have receded.

Noah: Oh, right. Carry o- wait, what?

God: I’m going to wipe clean the sins of the Earth, and you are to save the creatures I wish to be saved. Two Wagner’s vipers, two Gaboon vipers, two-

Noah: This is going to be a big ark, what with all the people on it.

God: Two Levant vipers, two Eyelash bush vipers, two Gasc-

Noah: Lord?

God: -ony vipers, two Leaf-nosed vipers, two Mali carpet vipe-

Noah: Lord!

God: What? What is it?

Noah: You haven’t mentioned all the people yet.

God: Ah, yes. About that. All the people are going to drown.

Noah: What?!

God: Yes, drown. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’ll save you and your family, that’s what the ark is for. See? My love and mercy are infinite.

Noah: But why, Lord? Why are all the people going to drown?

God: Because they are sinners, of course! Just look at what they get up to in Sodom! Depraved, the lot of them!

Noah: But you’re still letting the bonobos and the mallards on, right?

God: Yes, of course. Now, where was I..?

Noah: No.

God: Mali carpet vipers, two horned vipers, two- wait, what do you mean, no?

Noah: I mean no, I’m not going to do it. I mean you’re supposed to be the loving God of forgiveness, and now you’re going to wipe out millions just for being the creatures you made them to be. Seems to me that says more about your shortcomings than theirs. So no, I’m not going to be a part of your twisted plan. It’s evil. Evil.

God: Noah?

Noah:   –

God: Noah? My son?

Noah: What is it, Lord?

God: Just kidding.

Noah: What?

God: Just kidding. I don’t really want you to help me wipe out mankind. It was just a… a test. Yes, that’s it. A test. And you passed! Hooray!

Noah: Really?

God: Really.

Noah: Wow Lord. That’s a relief. I was sure you wouldn’t really want to kill all your children just for being a bit unruly, but then you looked so serious-

God: Ha, of course not. It was all just a joke, uh, test. But… Noah?

Noah: Yes, Lord?

God: Don’t tell anyone about our conversation, will you? I mean, if this got out, people would think I was mad



A Paean to Unrequited Homeoquack Admiration

23 Feb

[Sub Ed: make up some sort of pun on that film Cassandra Crossing. You know, Sandra’s Cross… ing. Or something. Look, I don’t know. Just think of something.]

23rd February 2014

What’s that saying about judging somebody by their enemies? That the better the class of enemies a person has, the better that person must be? Well, I had a bit of a wake-up call recently, because judging by the enemy I have made since last we spoke, I must be a bit rubbish. Because I have just made an enemy of Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist®.


For those of you who don’t know, Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist® is a Certified Medical Transcriptionist® who has apparently turned her back on the solemn creed of Medical Transcriptionism-ism® to champion the cause of homeopathy. This she does by comment spamming any discussion of homeopathy anywhere it may be found on the internet, and by attacking skeptics on social media such as Twitter (using the Twitter name @BrownBagPantry).

As an aside, I am not quite sure why Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist® feels the need always to point out that she is a Certified Medical Transcriptionist® wherever she goes, but point it out she does. I worked in a GP surgery for a couple of years, and during that time one of my tasks was to carry out medical transcription. This is, you might guess, to take dictated recordings and turn them into text. Simple as that. Though there are skills involved (typing, the ability to operate the little pedal on the transcription machine and so on) It requires  no medical knowledge or qualification at all, and there is no need for you to understand anything you’re typing. Which is probably why Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist® was so good at it that she got a certificate. I didn’t get a certificate (sniff).

So anyway, back to the story. Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist® has become so incensed by people asking awkward questions about homeopathy that she has posted on Twitter a List of Homeopathy Skeptics.


A list of her enemies, if you like, to warn all her fellow homeo-quacks and apologists about those pesky critters who keep asking for evidence that the magic water and sugar pills actually work. It must have taken her hours. I suspect she was surprised to find that, rather than being retweeted by her followers, it got widely retweeted by skeptics who were delighted to find themselves on her shit list. My own self included.

There they are, a list of the great and good (and Louise Mensch) of scepticism. I totally don’t deserve this recognition, to be listed alongside all these wonderful people (and Louise Mensch), and there have also been calls for Sandra A. Hermann-Courtney, Certified Medical Transcriptionist® to update the list to include some glaring omissions.

I was going to mention a few stand out names here. I keep starting to, but I quickly realise that I am going to have to list everybody, because I’d be proud to be mentioned in the same breath as any of these brilliant people (and Louise Mensch). (Sorry, I’m going to try to stop doing the “blah-de-blah fulsome praise (and Louise Mensch)” joke now.  I do have to applaud her recent stance on homeopathy, even if I dislike pretty much everything else she’s done.)

But beyond the humour, the appearance of this list, in this manner, raises some important questions which need answering.

  1.  Do we get a badge?
  2. Is there a secret signal or handshake?
  3. At reunions, will we meet decades-hence as the “Old Contemptibles”?
  4. Will our grandchildren ask
    “Were you one of the Old Contemptibles, grandad?”
    “No, child, but I knew some.”

Here’s what got me on that list, if you care.

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16 Feb
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