Friday, March 30, 2007

Is Art more valuable than Science?

Hello all

Having given up trying to win the Love-to-Lead competition, I was emailed the above question. As a practitioner of both art and science, I felt compelled to attempt an answer - not least to spark a debate within myself as to where my loyalties lie.

Here we go....

There is no doubt that a piece of Art is generally worth more in the public's eye than a piece of Science. When, for example, was the last time you were tempted to shell out £50 quid or more on a public appearance, or a publication, by a scientist? I'm both an artist ( and scientist, and I can tell you that I've never made any money from the public for my innovations into the biology of parasites.

Come to think of it, I've never sold a piece of art, either.

No-one ever plays tribute concerts to scientists, nor will you find retrospectives of their work anywhere outside a science museum. The few genuine celebrity scientists around today (Stephen Hawking being the best example) garner respect, and are valued because of their intellect, but who would squawk in protest if Hawking decided to switch off his speech-synthesizer and become a wheelchair-bound recluse? If all the Scientists in the world went on strike, who would notice, who would care? A stark contrast, you must agree, to the impact of your average boy-band giving up the ballads and retiring to their mansions.

We value Art because it is collectable, because we need to be entertained, because we are living in the age of the cult of celebrity, because we are addicted to endorphins and adrenalin. Science offers some level of entertainment, but it's a niche market and aimed at people who are most likely to become scientists themselves (flash-bang test-tubes etc). Whereas Art is everywhere, ubiquitous and inescapable, most of Science lies buried deep in the background of mainstream life - further beyond the public's eye than the civil service (though Science is less villified, admittedly).

So is 'Art' more valuable than 'Science'?

No. Not even close. There's no real competition. And before you ask, it's got nothing to do with not selling any artwork. Leonardo failed in this respect, and look at him now...

You wouldn't be reading this article if it wasn't for Scientists. We would still be cramming into churches by the village load, looking skywards for answers and inspiration, scribbling our letters on slate with bits of natural chalk. There would be artists in abundance, and they'd maybe enrich our lives a little with their impressive rendition of real and imagined worlds (using basic pigments of course). But we'd have a life expectancy in our thirties, be unlikely to travel outside our village, drink unpastuerised milk, contaminated water and unrefined wine, itch and scratch on a daily basis, never see our grandchildren (not only would we not live long enough, we'd have no glasses to correct our myopia), and think that the cockerel's crowing makes the sun rise. Hurrah for the Enlightenment!

Yeah, yeah you might say. Valid points. But did Science ever make anyone happy or excited, eh? There's plenty of value in happiness. And we all crave at least a little excitement in our lives.

Sure. Art can deliver an adrenalin-induced, heart-pounding experience that makes tens of thousands of people smile in unison. Science can't produce an ecstatic response, and is really only responsible for moments of excitement amongst scientific practioners when they receive notice of acceptance for their latest paper (aah, the memories). So, OK, we can score Art higher in terms of excitement. But happiness? I don't think so. The excitement associated with Art is a transient experience, the length of which is defined by the talent of the artist in keeping you engaged (this includes time after the event spent sharing your experience). Science has no direct connection with happiness as it sits too far away from our day-to-day lives. So neither Art nor Science are valuable in that respect. What really does bring long-term feeling of contentment and happiness, and I know from personal experience, is a sense of belonging. Being part of something, having an identity that other people share and empathise with on a regular basis.

In my opinion, that is the most valuable thing on earth.

Dr Joseph McCrumble
Celebrity Parasitologist
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The statistics of mood change

Hello all

The clocks went forward on Sunday morning, and by the end of Monday I had noticed a lifting of mood amongst the Institute staff and visitors. I put it down to the increased light availability and higher doses of vitamin-D, but now I'm not so sure, as other explanations have come to, er, light. As a scientist, I am always interested in the effect of these other explanations (aka CONFOUNDING FACTORS). If they are not taken into account, we all run the risk of BIAS in our INFERENCES and CONCLUSIONS.

In the case of the mood-lightening, I think there are two confounders...
1) the Annual pay rise which came into effect on Monday at 2pm
2) the arrival of our new receptionist, Jemima, at 1pm on Monday.

Items 1 and 2 are confounders because they were both associated with the clocks going forward, and are likely candidates for increasing mood. The trick, and this is a general principle in these matters, is to adjust for the confounders in one's analysis. If the correct adjustment is made, the truth will emerge. In the present analysis, I wanted to ascertain whether it was the clocks going forward, the pay rise, or Jemima that was causing the mood change. At the same time, I was aware that a combination of any two factors could MODIFY the degree of mood change, and I was therefore keen to investigate evidence of INTERACTION between all three factors.

The table below corresponds to the response of everyone in the Insitute at 5pm on Monday when I asked them about each of the above changes

RavelR.A.I forgotIt is not so muchShe look good, eh boss?
JennyCleanerSo light!Was that a raise? I think her roots need attention
DoloresWife Don't careI'm surprised you still have staffWas she the only candidate?
DaveVisitorSorry I was late this morning!N/APhew!
AngelaVisitorIs it spring forward, fall back or the other way round?N/AWhat happened to Denise?

Upon visually inspecting the table, I was left wondering how to analyse the data. The SAMPLE SIZE was particularly small, and there was a wide variety of responses. Standard statistical analyses were not possible, so I relied on a little known technique of EYEBALLING the data.

My visual anlaysis revealed that there was no clear winner in terms of the main EXPLANATORY FACTOR. Most individuals to whom the pay rise was applicable seemed content, and there were mixed repsonses, though generally positive, towards Jemima. Dolores was the only respondent to have persistently negative responses, and I am therefore going to undertake a POST-HOC analysis of her in isolation.

The increase in mood throughout the Institute (excluding Dolores) was due to a combination of increased light levels, the arrival of new member of staff, and the annual pay rise. No one factor dominated.


Thursday, March 22, 2007


Hello all

If, like me, you are fed up of the whole phone-vote scandal affecting the national television media, you may like to know of a new way of competing/voting/donating that doesn't require texting or phoning, and won't lead to a hefty fraction of your donation going to a multi-national communications company.

What can it be? I hear you cry.

I call it Donatetion (TM).

Simply pop along to and make a small donation (don't forget to tick the 'claim gift aid' box if you are a UK taxpayer). Mention the word 'McCrumble' in your message and you will be automatically entered into a competition to win a copy of my book. Once I get to £50 worth of 'McCrumble' donations, I'll pick a name at random and contact you with details of how to claim your prize. You can limit the number of entries, and thus improve your chances of winning, by making a larger donation.

Good luck!


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Matangini Exhibition in Cambridge

The above photo is of an exhibition mounted in Hughes Hall, Cambridge, using photos taken by my marketing manager, Dr Mark Booth. He is an avid (amateur) photographer, and has spent many years working in Africa on parasitic infections (we sometimes collaborate, but he specialises in tropical diseases whereas I have much wider ranging interests). He insisted that I show the picture to my blog readers, so here it is...


Monday, March 19, 2007

McCrumble short-listed for blook award!

Hello all

Apparently, someone has coined the word 'blook' to mean a book that is derived from a blog. I don't care much for the word myself, but what influence do I have, eh? A short list was recently announced for some competition that I had never heard of, and was therefore unable to enter. After my initial disappointment, I decided that, in the free and entrepreneurial spirit of the blogosphere, I should mount an alternative competition for bloggers who had missed the previous call. I therefore inaugurated the Cumbernauld Institute of Art Blook Awards.

Resources were scarce, on account of having nothing in the budget to cover 'blook awards', so I was forced to limit my advertising to the local newspaper, for just one week, in the 'small ads classified' section. I know this part of the newspaper is well read by the local population, and was therefore somewhat disappointed to receive just one nomination, and no original entries. My disappointment was amplified when I discoverd, to my slight consternation, that the nomination had been made by Ravel (my trusty research assistant) and that it was for my own book!

Fearing the worst, I checked the competition rules. Fortunately, I found that I was eligble to enter, provding I did not nominate myself. The deadline for entries was this morning at 11am. No one else entered or nominated, which means my book is the only one on the short-list. A panel of independent judges from a representative cross-section of the village (a school teacher, the butcher and a local farmer) will read all the entries and make a collective decision based on quality of writing and entertainment value. Given that the short-list is quite, er, short this year, I suspect the winner will be announced before the end of the month. The first prize is a voucher for £250 to be spent in the Cumbernauld Institute of Art Shop.

The short list:

'The Wonderful World of Joseph McCrumble'
Dr Joseph McCrumble takes us on a highly entertaining adventure through the ups and downs of his life as a parasitologist forced to work anonymously on account of a cruel twist of fate involving the accidental genocide of a town's entire population of pet rabbits.

Wish me luck!


Friday, March 16, 2007

Cambridge Science Festival

Hello all

I have been asked by my marketing manager, Dr Mark Booth, to bring your attention to an important event in the scientific calendar. All next week, the University of Cambridge is running a Science Festival. It's an annual event that attracts about 45000 people each year. Many departments take part in engaging the public with their scientific research. Dr Booth will be on hand to engage with whoever shows up at the Dept of Pathology on Tennis Court Rd from about 10am to about 3pm tomorrow (Saturday 17th). He'll have a specimens of parasites (in jars, of course), some pictures and video footage showing what parasites do to people, and of course copies of my book to sell. He has promised me that 50% of the cover price of each book sold on the day will go to the Matangini Project.

More details on the Science Festival are available here:



P.S. I would love to be there, but unfortunately have to remain at the Institute to entertain some overseas visitors.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

When Moose met McCrumble

Hello all

I was in Cambridge for a few days last week to help my marketing manager in a scientific context. Whilst there, I suggested meeting up with Mr Moose (see sidebar for link) as he lives nearby. I went along with Dr Booth, but I was forced to remain sober as I was staying some distance from town due to an administrative mix-up (I'm still getting used to not having Denise around). We met with Moose at a pub called the Mitre - a well known drinking hole in a part of town densely populated with eateries and drinkeries (is that a word?). It was about 7pm when we all met up. The conversation was a bit polite and stilted to begin with - after all we were all essentially on a blind date - but not long after the third or fourth pint it became clear that Moose and Dr Booth were getting along just fine. I, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly sober. I'm not used to being the designated driver, and I must confess that I had a hard time joining in with their increasingly random and pseudo-philosophical conversation.

After about 5 pints of orange and lemonade I was feeling a bit peckish, and suggested we go for something to eat. Neither Moose nor his drinking buddy seemed bothered, so I wandered off on my own (unwilling to eat in the pub whilst they bantered away on the relative virtue of organic vs local beetroots). I wasn't sure what I wanted, but eventually stumbled across a kebab van calling itself the 'Van of Life'. I ordered a cheeseburger and ate it on my journey back to the pub, pausing en route to admire the facades of a number of Cambridge colleges.

When I reached the Mitre, shortly after 9:30pm, I was somewhat alarmed to see that the two drinkers had left, complete with their belongings. In their place were a couple of young ladies from Poland, who had no idea where Moose or Dr Booth had gone. I asked at the bar, to be told that the gentlemen had left instructions that I would find them at a pub called the St Radegund. I had no idea where the Radegund pub was, so the bar person (also from Poland) kindly drew me a map. I briefly debated whether to go back to the hotel, but there was little reason to sit in my room when I could at least walk around town, so I set off in hot pursuit.

They weren't in the Radegund, but had moved onto the King St Run (according to the Polish-sounding barman). Nope, not their either. At this point I decided to call it a day, and began walking back to the department where Dr Booth works. On the way I passed a pub called the Fountain. There, in seats by the window, were the two of them, engaging in what appeared to be an arm-wrestling competition.

Moose caught sight of me, and in doing so lost concentration for just long enough. Dr Booth slammed his opponent's hand onto the table and let out a high-pitched squeal of triumph. Moose barely noticed, and simply waved me in with his free hand.

They were both very, very drunk. I asked if they had any food, to which they both replied in the negative. There was a row of empty Tequila glasses between the two of them, one of which Dr Booth tried to drink from as I sat down. 'Hey Joe, lishen to diss', slurred my marketing manager. 'Moosey's gotta great idea. Tell him your great idea Moosey. No wait, I'll tell him...'

Moosey waived his hand to indicate compliance.

'Lishen Joe. Right. You wanna drink? Me and Moosey are on Tequila shlammers. You know, the ones with shalt. But we are doing Shlammers lite, as we have no shalt. So anyway. Moosey's big idea. Have you two met before?'

'No,' I said curtly, my arms and legs crossed to indicate my general dissatisfaction with the circumstances.

'Doesn't matter. He's a great chap. You know what his big idea is?'


'Moosey. Tell him your idea.'

Moose leaned forward so that I could hear his big idea. He was surprisingly articulate given the amount he must have consumed, and it crossed my mind that maybe Moose was more adept at holding his liquor than Dr Booth. He grinned and said 'Well basically, Joseph, I've come to a crossroads in my life and I'm looking for a new challenge. I've decided that I'm going to help Mark here with his...'

At this moment some young ladies passed by the pub and knocked on the window. I recognised them as from the Mitre. They mouthed something that looked like 'so you found them', to which I gave a feeble thumbs up. Moose and Dr Booth watched the ladies walk by, then turned to me saying 'Well done Joe! What you sitting there for? You're in mate'

'Yeah sure.' I responded, not without sarcasm. 'So, Moose. You were saying something about helping Mark. His charity I presume?'

'Huh?' said Moose. 'What charity? Nah. I'm going to help Mark with his work, Joseph. I'm going to be his...whaddaya call it - research assistant!.'

'Right. OK. Is that so?' I asked. Mark was nodding furiously, though I wasn't sure whether or not he understood the full implication of taking on Moose as his scientific accomplice. 'Have you, er, any experience?'

'Mark has promised complete on-the-job training. How hard can it be?'

I left shortly afterwards, leaving them staggering towards a night-club, arm in arm singing an old Osmonds song. Mark's last words to me were 'cheer up you sad old bashtard. Ish not the end of the wurld, ish it?'

Moose just winked and shook my hand. What that symbolised I have no idea. I wish them well in their endeavours.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

5 times less is more

Hello all

Quick rant. I've just endured yet another example of someone selling the benefits of something by saying it will cause "'5 times less breakage". Now, I'm no statistician, but even I know that you cannot, by the laws of mathematics, come away with anything lower than what you started with if you multiply by a number greater than 1.

Of course, what they should be saying is "less than a fifth of the breakages" . So why don't they do that? A simple error by a spotty marketing copywriter, or did their focus groups tell them that we are a nation of fractionophobics???

Or is it that the marketeers are tapping into the innate stupidity that they assume lurks in all our brains?

To test the hypothesis that they have got underestimated the intelligence of Joe Public, I asked each person in the Institute what they understood by the term '5 times less'. Here is a summary of their replies.

Ravel: Boss, it is easy, yes? 5 times less is more than 5 times more when 5 is more than 1, yes? So we break everything 5 times, wait...I lost it.

Jenny (the cleaner): It's an obvious and wholly transparent marketing ploy Dr McCrumble. Did you not see that yourself? The advertising executives think we respond to something expressed as a multiple of something better than we respond to something expressed as a division. I think it's totally immoral of them to insult people's intelligence like that, but what can we do, eh? Perhaps you could use your influence to change things?'

Dolores: What on earth are you on about?

OK, so the sample size is low, but at least 2 from 4 members of the public (I include myself in this experiment) see the flaw. It's about time advertisers stopped trying to pull the wool over our TV eyes, yes?


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hedgehog lovin'

Can money buy happiness? - this week's competition question.

An interesting question, which I think is best answered by recalling a recent incident. For those of you who don’t know, I have a companion hedgehog named Timothy, whom I rescued from being culled for his parasites when it emerged he was able to communicate effectively in English. Timothy has helped promote my recently published book, and is never far from my side. One day we were taking a stroll in the Institute garden. I thought the walk might cheer him up, as he had been exhibiting signs of sadness since the New Year. I broached the subject, as we passed some wild daffodils, with a simple question. ‘Timothy, my good friend. Are you a happy hedgehog these days?’, I asked, nonchalantly.

Timothy stopped snuffling in the soil, turned his head towards my feet and said, ‘Well, Dr McCrumble. I’ve been feeling a little maudlin, if truth be told.’

‘What’s wrong, exactly?’, I asked, acutely aware that hedgehogs are particularly susceptible to dysthymia – a mood disorder that lasts for up to 2 years in humans (equivalent to 30 hedgehog years!). Once instigated, hedgehogs can become terribly withdrawn and refuse to co-operate. If Timothy were suffering dysthymia, I’d probably have to, er, let him go…

‘Well, I suppose the problem is that I’ve become a bit lonely’, answered Timothy, his deep voice carrying tones of melancholy. ‘I’m very grateful for all you’ve done for me, but, well, hedgehogs don’t respond very well to isolation. We have needs Dr McCrumble.’

I saw the problem immediately. Spring was fast approaching, and with it, Timothy’s mind had turned to thoughts of hedgehog love. ‘Wait here my friend,’ I said boldly. ‘I have a plan that might just help.’ With that, I took off into one of the neighbouring fields in search of a mate for my lonely insectivore.

I had to turn a few grumpy hedgehogs over to find a female, but eventually I came across one that looked like she might enjoy Timothy’s company. I returned as a triumphant cupid, and carried them both towards a secluded part of the garden, overlooked only by a young silver birch tree. ‘Have fun!’ I said breezily as I left them, snout-to-snout, behind a clump of grass (even hedgehogs value their privacy during intimate moments).

Two hours later I returned to find Timothy alone. His greeting was loaded with despondency, and I figured all had not gone well. Upon enquiring what had happened, Timothy revealed to me that his companion had demanded payment for services rendered, by way of six earth worms and two slugs*. This, he explained, was because he was now an outcast from hedgehog society, and thus no longer eligible for free-love**. He’d paid up and enjoyed his brief dalliance, but was now struck with shame that he’d resorted to such tactics just to find relief. ‘But I was happy for a few minutes at least, Dr McCrumble’ said Timothy, as he snuffled back towards his cage at the Institute.

‘I learnt important lessons today, dear’, I said to Dolores that evening whilst we tucked into our dinner.

‘Well done darling’, said my wife through a mouthful of stew. ‘What nuggets of knowledge did you acquire?’

‘I learnt not only that hedgehogs practice the oldest profession in the world, but also that happiness is a state-change brought on by a transient elevation of mood irrespective of the source. It wasn’t the payment that made Timothy experience feelings of joy, but a consensual act involving the exchange of bodily fluids.’

‘Just like every other bloke then,’ said my wife dryly. ‘A quick sniff and a poke, and happiness is guaranteed. Maybe the payment actually dampened the effect.’

‘Good grief Dolores, I think you’ve just hit the spot!’ I exclaimed. ‘If paying for things makes us less happy, we should perhaps abolish money. I mean, let’s face it, money can’t be a source of happiness when it is, in reality, the root of all evil. QED, I think.’


*Standard Hedgehog Currency - equivalent to approx £15 (US$ 28) at 2007 prices.

**Behavioural studies of wild hedgehog communities suggest that rutting is preceded by a brief courtship without gifts or payment.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Denise's adventure

Hello all

The week has passed by in a whirl. Dolores is getting ever nearer to depositing No. 3 onto dry land (though she may choose a water birth, apparently). This means that we are now fully engaged in equipping the nursery. Moses basket, cot, pushchair etc either recycled or bought new. My wife can now hardly move, and it is largely up to myself to keep things going. Having succesfully evaded all threats to my liberty, I am taking the responsibility seriously. I'll draw upon my previous experiences of raising toddlers, but 11 years is rather a large gap, and from what I've been reading, much more is now known about how to ensure one's baby has the best early-life chances. So, for example, Dolores has been eating about 10 kgs of sardines each week in order to ensure the foetus's brain develops to its full potential.

You may be wondering what happened after we left the court and headed back up to Scotland. Denise, you will recall, told us that she had posted a note with a complete explanation of the circumstances under which my release from potential conviction had arisen. When we arrived back we did indeed find a rather lenghty note that did indeed explain everything. The journey upon which Denise embarked was indeed remarkable, and it certainly deserves telling, if only to highlight her remarkable loyalty and commitment. But it is rather a long tale, and would take many blog entries to do it justice.

I told Dr Mark Booth, my ever attentive and creative marketing manager, of my dilemma. He suggested that I might like to use the story to create some revenue for the Matangini Project, which he has now incorporated into an existing registered charity called Stand up for Africa ( 'It's really simple Joseph!', he exclaimed when I asked him ho w I could possibly use Denise's story to make money.

'How?' I asked

'All you have to do is promise to reveal the next installment when the fundraising total reaches... some threshold. Put the first installment up for free, then ask for donations to reveal the next episode.'

'What an excellent idea!', I said. 'How much do you reckon we should go for?'

'£200?' suggested Mark

I fell about laughing. Sometimes my marketing manager can be just a little too optimistic, even by my standards. 'Let's set our sights a bit lower. Much lower in fact. Have you seen the site-stats recently?'

'Not doing too well are you?'

'That about sums it up. Better than this time last year, but I haven't exactly hit the big time. It's my own fault. I haven't been participating enough.'

'Extenuating circumstances my friend!'

'True. Well, I'll see what I can do. But I like your idea. Let's set the first threshold at £50. I'll start a new blog just for the story, put the first episode up there for free and see how things go. It's all for a good cause, so you never know. Perhaps you could drum up a bit of publicity in Cambridge.'

'I'm already on to it..'

So there you have it. I will tell Denise's remarkable tale, and by doing so I'll help Dr Booth raise some money towards his charity. Suddenly I feel good about myself again.