December 28, 2011

Second Christmas in Many Media

Second Christmas is the highlight of the festive season. I have been close friends with much the same people for over ten years and every year between Christmas Day and New Year's we get together for our own Second Christmas, cooking up a huge roast, playing games and swapping Secret Santa gifts. There are also a ridiculous amount of empty Port bottles by the end of the evening.

This year, I documented the occasion in six different media:

1) Photography

2) Drawing

This is about as accurate as it gets
3) Mime

4) Poetry

Twas two days after Christmas,
And all through the Castle,
There were nibbed for all,
And Joe ate them, the rascal.

Mulled wine on the hob,
And far more Port than sense,
We were pissed before turkey,
The sprouts were immense.

As we sat down to dinner,
And pulled all our crackers,
'Thank you, dear chefs!'
Came the cry from the slackers.

We all gathered round,
For presents from "Santa",
The secrets came out,
In the midst of the banter.

In the dark early morning,
We said our farewells,
But we'll be back next year,
To jingle those bells.

(S. Taylor, C. Jayasinghe, G. Robinson, B. Jones, et al)

5) Song
The Second Christmas Song - Luke Alexander, Stuart Taylor, Ben Jones

6) The Movie

(Make it HD and fullscreen that bad boy)

Second Christmas 2011 from Stuart Taylor on Vimeo.

December 25, 2011


I've recently just realised something about Christmas for me.

When I was younger, almost every year we used to go to my Nana's (Dad's mum) house for Christmas. Even though my Dad's side of the family is far more disparate, small and estranged than my Mum's, there was always enough of us to gather around her big table every year. The people might be different every year but there was always a big feast.

My Nana had a decent sized house in Beckenham - we even lived with her for a couple of years - so a whole mix of extended family folk could gather comfortably to eat, relax and watch christmas episodes of every single soap opera. The meals were always huge at Nana's. It was like suppertime at Hogwarts, with dishes stacked beyond their physical limits, more potatoes than Ireland could devour in a year and gravy to drown the Titanic. The only christmas photos I remember from my young childhood were in Nana's living room, with decorations across the walls and ceiling, fake snow on the windows and a great many faces I haven't seen in years.

Nana died when I was 16. We had one final Christmas in her house without her before moving on. And Christmas hasn't really been the same since. I'm not saying it's been bad - it's still a lovely day of being together, giving gifts, eating stupid amounts of food, playing games and snoozing on the sofa. But Nana defined Christmas. To me, that's what Christmas was, and since then it's always felt imitation of Christmas.

Maybe it's like when your dog dies and you get a new dog. You love the new dog just as much, but it's a different dog and whenever you picture the concept of dog ownership, that first dog will always stick in your mind, because he was your childhood dog. He gave you the very concept of "dog". I think because Nana died right at the point of me transition from child to adult, that cemented her Christmas as the canonical Christmas in my mind.

So here's to you, Nana. I'll always think of you at Christmas.

December 19, 2011

Eugene Delgaudio's Secrets

Someone stuck me on Eugene Delgaudio's mailing list, and he keeps me up to date with his terror about the radical homosexual lobby. His latest fear is that he won't raise as much as he budgeted for and the Homosexual Lobby will find out. So, go ahead, you radical homosexuals - look at this:

Dear Stuart,

Just weeks remain before Public Advocate reaches a critical deadline -- before every radical homosexual activist holds a copy of Public Advocate’s financial records in his conniving hands.

December 31st is the deadline for contributions to appear on the IRS 990, the public report that discloses exactly how much money Public Advocate raised and spent in 2011.

But right now, our figures are falling short of my 2011 objectives.

If I’m to meet budget expectations this year, I must raise $46,359.17 with all checks postmarked before December 31st.

If I fail to raise $46,359.17 by December 31st, I’ll be forced to broadcast our weakness and vulnerability to the Homosexual Lobby.

After the brutal fights this year on the Gay Bill of Special Rights, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the Homosexual Classrooms Act, the Homosexual Lobby must not find Public Advocate with little money left to fight next year.

Stuart, don’t worry, no one in the Homosexual Lobby will ever know how much you’ve contributed to Public Advocate.  I assure you your personal information is fully protected and kept confidential.

The radical Homosexual Lobby will be looking for ANY sign of weakness in the pro-family movement -- believe me, they haven’t given up -- if they see Public Advocate’s treasury depleted they will see an opening to ram through the Gay Bill of Special Rights, the Homosexual Classrooms Act and the repeal of DOMA.

Words cannot express how much I appreciate your noble sacrifice, Stuart.

Without your financial support and prayers, Public Advocate would be nothing -- totally helpless against the radical homosexuals’ assaults on our families.

Stuart, you have done so much for our cause.  I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Today, I’m asking you to dig even deeper.  I hope to count on you for at least $50 -- $100 or even $200 if you can afford it.

December 14, 2011

X Factor Final: A Content Analysis

So, on Sunday we had the final episode show of X Factor 2011. Lauren and I have taken to Sky+ing the show (this is like TiVO) and watching it an hour behind live so that we can fast forward through the gumpf. But how much gumpf can there really be in one episode of the X Factor? If you looked at Twitter between 19:30 and 21:30 on Sunday, you'd see a sea of people screaming, 'Oh god how long can this go on for?' and 'Just tell us who won! JESUS CHRIST!'

So I took the liberty of analysing the 2 hours and 3 seconds of SyCo ejaculate that might make you realise that Simon Cowell and ITV are taking us all for a ride.

The two hour show represented as a clock. Imagine the show starts at the 12 o' clock position and travels around the clock face until it ends.

So, the naive me might think that the whole point of watching the X Factor is to watch the contestants perform and to find out the winner, right? Some people enjoy watching the judges opine, but as this was the final, they all just spout hysterical love for everyone - the bitchy comments are long gone.

Well, if you wanted to see the contestants perform you got a total of 19m31s of singing in your two hours. And that includes the winner's song, which is just a repeat of what they sang earlier in the show. That's one sixth of the show. So what do they do with the other 5/6 (83%) of the show?

Well, you might have enjoyed the other performances from Westlife, Coldplay and the pre-recorded compilation for all the finalists that opened the show. I say, 'might', because I didn't enjoy it very much, but this does count as the programme attempting to put on a show for its audience, so I'm not going to snootily sniff at it. Anyway, that's another 16 minutes (13%) of entertainment so there was still a lot of show to fill. Can you guess what else took up our precious time?

Yes! Adverts! A whopping half an hour (or a quarter of the show time) was taken up by adverts. The biggest break we got from adverts was in the third quarter of the programme when both acts performed the winner's single and had to see their highlights and Olly and Caroline pissed about with their 'fans' in the audience. So basically, in the biggest amount of time free from adverts they treated us to the same song twice, a clip reel of stuff we'd already seen and two idiots trying to shout over a crowd of locals who'd baked Little Mix into a pizza. YES.

So, in total, the performances took up the most of the show - as it should be. But almost half the show was taken up by Dermot telling us what we'd just seen/what we were about to see, video clips of things we'd already seen, the judges (who I suspect were drunk) telling everyone how brilliant they are, and Caroline and Olly.

So let's break it down a different way:

If we separate out the contestants performances from the other performances, we'll obviously get 'adverts' as the biggest player of the night. So what I did was strip out all the necessary parts of the show that are required to keep the flow between the performances and the judges' comments. So, this includes Dermot's links between actual stuff happening, telling us the phone numbers, introing the acts by means of intense montage and announcing the results. Those are the required parts of the show (and I'm being generous. I don't think anyone benefited from the judges on Sunday).

This leaves the gumpf, or the 'padding'. The stuff they threw in to make up the time. There was twenty minutes of padding - more gumpf than singing. Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were padding; the VTs of the contestants family telling them they were awesome was padding - partly because they see their friends and family enough not to need a VT of them saying generic Canderel but also because Olly and Caroline are standing with the families constantly asking them how proud they are.

By the way, I included the live link to Philip Schofield talking about Text Santa. It was an advert. It was an advert masquerading as... god only know what.

So the lesson here is - always tape the X Factor and fast-forward through all the gumpf. Take that, Cowell. I've proven your show has too much rusk and not enough sausage.

December 09, 2011

The Way I'm Feeling

So I have depression. I was diagnosed with it back in the spring, but I think it was creeping up on me for at least a year before that. I often find talking about it (verbally) a frustratingly difficult thing to do, so I thought I'd knock out a few written words to help people understand a little bit about what goes on inside me. I guess this is mainly for people close to me than the wider world, though if you're reading this and find yourself comforted by empathy, that's good too.

To me, the main overriding 'feeling' isn't sadness particularly, but a kind of emotional exhaustion. Everything that requires me to care or that I'd need to classify as 'important' just batters me into submission almost immediately. Applying for jobs, talking to people on the phone, having a conversation about 'my plans for the future' (etc, etc) are all things that I struggle to do for any significant length of time without needing to give up and do something mindless or sleep.

I feel a lot like I'm at the bottom of a deep, steep-sided pit. At the opening of the pit is where I need to get to where I have a job, where I can socialise a bit more easily instead of staying in the comfort of my home, where I can talk about things I need to talk about, and so on. But the sides are so steep and so slippery that every effort I put in is so immediately exhausting and futile that actually it's more comfortable to stay at the bottom of the pit and not bother to do anything. The very thought of tackling the climb out of the pit fills me with dread. I just don't feel like I have the skills to get out.

So eventually, caring out getting out of the pit and developing the parts of my life you once enjoyed just kind of went away. I feel very little emotion at the moment about almost anything. When I care about things, it comes from a logical place; you'll see me posting stuff about gay rights, for example, because it makes sense to have equality not because I get emotionally angry or upset about it. Emotionally flatlining has its good and bad sides. Sometimes it's nice to know you're approaching situations without the often misleading emotional fire in your belly. But other times when I don't feel happy to see people, or sad when they get sick or empathise if they are upset, it makes me realises the massive disconnect between everyone else and me. A chasm has opened up where once I used to be able to feel another person's feelings, now I just observe them. This is a strange realisation to come to.

And so from the frustration of the "slippery-slope" to climb and the disconnection from the people around me comes the ease of suicidal thoughts. I'm going to try and be as honest about this as possible. Again, this isn't a sort of 'raging' suicidal thought - it's not something that happens in the heat of emotion or despair or anxiety. Instead, it seems to come from logical conclusion: I can't get out of this pit, I don't really feel much for what's going around me, so what's the point? That's the kind of thought process my head goes through. Unfortunately ("unfortunately"), just because I don't feel that connected with other people, I know this doesn't mean they aren't connected to me. If I went and offed myself, that has consequences. I understand this, and that's part of the reason I went to seek out help when such thoughts started to overwhelm me.

So I haven't really made huge amounts of progress since my diagnosis other than the fact that family and friends are now aware of my depression so I'm going through it alone. Nonetheless, because I hate talking about it, I tend to carry the load myself and worry other people because I won't really talk about how I'm feeling. So here it is, for those who care. I hope it's helped understanding if anyone wanted to know. I still feel pretty flat and rubbish most of the time. Sometimes I won't want to come out. Sometimes I won't have applied to jobs or done things I should have done because for some reason I found them extraordinarily difficult. But, I'm going to try and get better.

November 29, 2011

Why Do I Call Myself a Man?

I call myself a man - a male adult.

Most of you probably won't be surprised by this. The only reason I bring it up is that, in the last year or two, I've been able to give more thought to gender and sexuality and - through the wonder of the internet - have been able to connect with people across the personhood spectrum. The vast majority of people tent to cluster around certain 'types' of person and so we are able to form categories of people: man, woman, homosexual, heterosexual (or androsexual and gynosexual, if you prefer), etc. Categories are a very human way of looking at the world and this corresponds to the way our brain works to deal with sensory and stored information.

However, lots and lots (and lots) of people don't neatly fit into these categories and most of these people might identify as being trans or genderqueer (I'm going to try and use language carefully here, because I'm still something of an ignorant cis person), which is kind of a catch-all bracket for people who don't find they fit into the neat boxes we already have to label people with. Either that or they feel their bodies and their identity don't correlate in a way that I guess we might consider 'typical'.

Anyway, all this is just a prelude to a blogpost all about me. Sort of. See, after all of my explorations - surface scratches, really - I found myself asking why it is that I call myself a 'man'. The obvious answer is that I've already been pre-ordained with such a category and I just went along with it. Perhaps the slightly more obvious answer is that I have a penis and that I'm over 18, but considering many people with penises wouldn't consider themselves 'men', that reason half goes out the window.

There are people who are born into a particular gender (bodily) and ultimately find a disagreement between their own personal gender identity and the gender that biology would tend to classify their bodies. Some people might feel they are women, but happen to find themselves within a male body, others might feel they don't fit into the binary gender classification. Whatever the case, there is something these people feel within themselves that gives them an inherent sense of gender identity and I tried to consider my own gender identity as a person who's never actually consider themselves 'misplaced'.

And I couldn't really find one. I wasn't sure what it was about me that I considered male. I mean, it's useful to be able to refer to myself in ways that everyone can easily understand - that's a benefit of cisgender...ism, but in terms of actually finding a reason to think, 'yes, I am male', I couldn't think of one. I mean, I have my genitals, but really we can forget those. Spend five minutes engaged with the transgender community and you'll soon realise that genitals can be largely irrelevant. What else then? Well, I fancy ladies, but then so does Ellen DeGeneres and she doesn't consider herself a man. That's a ludicrous reason to determine your gender. Do I go with the traditional traits of masculinity? No - and for two reasons: firstly, I don't agree that strength, valour, chivalry, domination (or whatever) maketh a man and secondly, I don't actually possess most 'manly virtues'. I'm kind of a meek, gentle, ponderous type who muses about beauty and art and shit. I don't care much for sports or beer or wolf-whistling or bringing home the bacon (all of which are ridiculous things to associate with men, anyway, as women are just as likely to do any of these things).

I wouldn't even necessarily say that I "felt" like a man, either. Not in my bones or nuthin'. I find I get on a lot easier with women, for what ever reason. But then, I wouldn't say I felt like a woman either. Perhaps I feel gender-neutral? I don't feel particularly strongly about that, though.

I guess what I'm saying is that gender doesn't particularly have any affect on my identity. Or it could just be that being a cisgendered, white, male-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, well-educated western person has meant that I'm lucky enough not to be bothered by such things. All my cards came up trumps, so why would I care?

A corollary from this is the very question I'm kind of asking to the aether: if you are transgendered, what is it that makes you feel that way? How does gender enter into your identity, while simultaneously I would argue that very little separates men from women non-bodily (the whole essence of gender equality)?

I guess this is just a post from ignorance and naivety, but I'm a-ramblin'

October 06, 2011

Chocolate Makes You Thin

I picked up my local paper today to find this headline across the front page:
What's this, I thought, some kind of miracle that has bypassed the mainstream media, the science journals and even Femail to make it all the way to the Bromley News Shopper?


October 04, 2011

Amanda Knox: Supplementary Questions

So Amanda Knox had been found not-guilty of the murder of another woman. We know her nickname was Foxy Knoxy and that she enjoyed her sexual freedom. But, before you fancy yourself worthy to comment on any of this, see if you can answer these questions (without cheating):

1) What is the name of the murder victim?
2) Give me one more fact about the murder victim, not related to her appearance.
3) Who else was found guilty of a part in the murder?
4) What was the name of the other person found not guilty of the murder in the same hearing as Knox?
5) Where did the name "Foxy Knoxy" come from?
6) What are the details of the murder, other than "sex"?

And, if you feel happy you've passed that particular set of questions, try these:

1) If you were a murder suspect, how would you like to be treated by public commentary?
2) If a member of your family was a murder suspect, what would you consider to be an indecent and inappropriate manner for people who don't know them to talk about them?
3) If a member of your family was murdered, how would you like the case to be discussed in public?

Just have a little think about that.

September 15, 2011

A Matter of Importance

Whenever I get struck by something - dazzled, intrigued, memorised or entranced - I often find myself juxtaposing it against its utter universal insignificance .
I write this on a train, where a few minutes ago,a woman walked past. I thought she was awesome, because she has a shock of purple hair across her fringe, glowing from the black, like magic. I watched her from the side of my eye as she walked down the aisle past me. I felt compelled to watch, as if she'd disappear if I looked away.
But at the same, I get a floods of thoughts about the massiveness of the universe and the nothing of time that the girl with the purple shock of hair spent in my vision compared to the magnificent age of the universe, measured in the life and death of stars and galaxies. I think about how the woman is one of billions of life forms come and gone and the quintillion chance interactions that caused her and I to cross paths.
This woman with purple hair is a nothing, an insignificance. But I loved it. She had awesome hair.

September 08, 2011

A Real Life Maths Puzzle

Here's a challenge to any of you up to it. It's a Puzzle, but it's an actual real one, in my actual house.

My house is a townhouse, and it has three floors.
There is a hall on each floor with a light in it.
Each hall also has a three-switch array that controls all the hall lights: { BOTTOM, MIDDLE, TOP}
At the moment, all the lights are OFF.
The current position of the switches is this:

  • TOP FLOOR:  {  1 , 1 , 1  }
  • MID FLOOR:  {  1 , 0 , 0  }
  • BOT FLOOR:  {  0 , 1 , 1  }
Still with me?

OK, what I want is for all the switches to be set such that 0 = off and 1 = on.

Is this possible? How do you do it?

August 27, 2011

How to Write an X-Factor Script

X-Factor is into its 27th year, or something, and one thing remains the same: everything the stupid voiceover script that talks us through each episode. Be it Dermot Oh Lordy or Kate Blondegirl (or even that guy who does American Idol), they all recite the same, bland, fill-in-the-blanks dross.

It goes something like this:

  • This week the X Factor arrives in [CITY] where the public have been queuing for [TIME PERIOD], eagre to show the judges their [word meaning TALENT/SKILL] 
  •  This year the competition is [SUPERLATIVE] than ever  
  •  [AGE] year old [CONTESTANT] lives in [TOWN] with [HIS/HER] [SINGLE PARENT]. [HE/SHE] always dreamed of being a singer, but at the age of [AGE] tragedy struck. [DESCRIBE TRAGEDY]. Now, [HE/SHE] comes to the X Factor to get [HIS/HER] dream back on track.
  • After [x] hours of auditions, the [EMOTION] is starting to show with [JUDGE]. (Cue montage of [JUDGE] showing [EMOTION]) 
  • We're half way through our time in [CITY] and the judges are frustrated at the [BADJECTIVE] auditions so far. Will [NEXT CONTESTANT]finally prove that [CITY] has the X Factor 
  •  The sun sets on [CITY] and the judges reflect on the day's auditions (Cue montage of judge's talking about [ONE SPECIAL CONTESTANT] from the back seat of their limos) 
  • [CONTESTANT] has turned up at [VENUE] with one thing on his mind: impressing [JUDGE THAT HE/SHE IDOLISES] (Cue clip of [CONTESTANT] saying, 'I really want to impress [JUDGE]... [CREEPY SENTIMENT ABOUT JUDGE]. 
  • Among the auditionees, is [CONTESTANT]. But [CONTESTANT] has more on her mind than the judges. (Cue contestant talking about her [AILMENT] [FAMILY MEMBER])  
  •  The day is almost over in [CITY] and only one contestant remains. [AGE] year old, [CONTESTANT]. (Contestant is either amazing or on the verge of a mental breakdown)

August 13, 2011

The Courier: Newspaper for Ex-Pats

While Tabloid Watch and co (1, 2, 3, 4,etc) have done a sensational job of keeping their analytical eyes on the UK press, they haven't perhaps had the chance I have of visiting an English-run villa in Spain.

I've just come back from a holiday with friends in Alicante, and happened to find a newspaper in the magazine rack called The Courier. It was 4 months out of date, but I found it far to irresistible to ignore. It's a newspaper for English folk who have abandoned Blightly for the sunnier sands of Spain. An Ex-Pat newspaper, if you will. You know Ex-Pats? They are the ones who comment on Daily Mail articles to complain about how Britain has gone to shit because we have to separate our recycling and we can't belt our kids any more*.

The Courier is an interesting paper. It has the feel of a local paper, like the News Shopper but the flavour of the Mail or Express.

For example: The front page (above) has decided to focus on two 'outrage'/'blunder' stories. The main story - an "exculsive" (snort!) - tells the story of a English couple who were accidentally charged thousands of pounds to their water bill when an underground pipe burst. You'll notice the classic sad-people-holding-object-related-to-the-story which is a tabloid staple. 

Running down the left hand side, you'll notice a dig at UK parking prices and how things are so much better in Alicante. Until you get your water bill, of course.

The rest of the paper is a fairly light read, keeping you abreast with all the news that you'll want to bitch and gossip about to your neighbours over your sun-baked villa walls. It appears to have less sub-editors than the Daily Express, mind:

It does, however, have a couple of things you won't find in your standard Mail or Sun style UK rag. One of these things is media analysis:

You'll notice they've taken a slightly different approach to editorialising the UK papers than, say, The Guardian. They've employed Donna Gee, the 'Grumpy Old Gran' to give her take on the state of the media. Ms Gee hasn't just been pulled out of the old folks' home - she has experience in the Express, Mirror and Star. According to her byline, she 'now plans to solve all the world's problems via The Courier', which is nice.

I'm not entirely sure if the cascade of newspapers above her article are meant to be reflective of her career or if they represent the 'gutter press' she refers to in her article. If so, she appears to be turning on her own paper! 

The other item that might take a UK newspaper reader by surprise is a full-blown apology. A proper apology, not a clarification of a 'suggestion' or a 'misleading phrasing', a full out sorry. In big bold letters:

Not only that, but it's an absolutely hilarious apology (with some premature capitalisation for good measure):

"In an article in last week's issue we referrer to the image of Jesus Christ being discovered in a puddle of vomit in Benidorm UNDER THE HEADER, THE FATHER, THE SON & THE HOLY VOMIT. However, following several complaints we now realise that an error of judgement was made by our hopeless editor, Dave Bull, and the article should not have been printed. The Courier apologises to all those offended by the article which was meant to be funny as part of the April fool's Day fun but, unfortunately, it was one that went to far. We hope that readers will continue to enjoy The Courier's 'different' take on life and continue to keep an eye on us so that we can bring you the best newspaper in the region... most of the time.

An excellent apology, I think. Genuinely regretful and apologetic, names the responsible party, explains itself and uses a tone appropriate to the error. Fun.

So, what can I say about The Courier. In the single issue I saw I thought it was a better version of The Sun or The Mail. Ranty and moany, but sedated and self-aware. Also, it's in a different country, which helps.

*Yes, I know all ex-patriots aren't like that. I'm sorry, ex-patriots; I'm being facetious.

August 02, 2011

The Power of the Rant

I recently had to consider the nature of the rant. I'd linked to a particularly sharp-toothed attack on the  politically and socially ultra-conservative part of America, framed in a 'North vs South' rhetorical narrative. I was called out for promoting the type of language and rhetoric that leads to denigration of people from the southern states as a whole. While that is a good point, and one I hadn't considered at the time (and I definitely am against attacks on (e.g.)  all Muslims for the position of Muslim extremists), I actually want to focus on the idea of the 'rant' itself as a device.

I actually really like rants. Not to write, or speak - I certainly don't have the raw emotional potency for that - but I really enjoy reading or hearing a wonderfully worded rant. For me, part of it is therapeutic. I'm not one to vent my emotions much, so having someone do it for me really can work a treat.

For a rant to work, it has to be eloquent. A page and a half of "Fffffuuuucccck off and die" won't do it for me, though I know some people enjoy that raw bitterness. Not me: that's not a true rant; that's profanity (which can be fine). I need rants to have a structure, a purpose, a reason, some character and to be convincing. I want to know why you're so angry and I want to be convinced or I'll just call you a raving pisspot, or something. I'm not good with insults.

Goodness gracious, I haven't even defined a rant yet. I assumed you'd all know what I meant, but for the purposes of this blabber: a rant is an argumentative essay, using the rhetoric of anger and/or insult to characterise its prose and make its points. Its tone and hostility may vary, but the idea is the same. It's offensive, in the sense that it's an attacking piece of debate, as opposed to a calm and balanced analysis.

I tend to prefer writing in that balanced, analytical style. I normally have a point to make and a side to take, certainly, but I'm not one to go all out on the offensive. But a rant is a massively powerful tool. For one, they are more interesting to the observer. Someone completely losing their rag over something is very entertaining and often hilarious, even if the subject matter is very serious: and this is, of course, the point. You want to suck people in; you want to persuade people to see your way of thinking by demonstrating the sheer emotional impact this issue has had on you. If something has caused the author to blow their top, then surely it's an issue worthy of your investigation, right?

The Daily Mail knows the power of the rant all too well. Its entire arsenal of columnists are essentially all rant artists, to varying degrees. The Mail (and most other papers, to be fair) use this technique for three main reasons: 1) it makes for an entertaining reading, so people will keep buying the paper; 2) it bolsters the opinions of its audience so it can keep covering topics like, say, immigration, because it's already formed an army of anti-immigrationists; 3) flame-baiting. Flame-baiting is the art of ranting to such a degree that you start sucking in your opposition, who can't help but flock to rubber-neck at the utter car crash of bile and spittle that has ranted across their website. The anti-tabloid folk have cottoned on to this and invented - a proxy server one can use to avoid reading tabloid rants directly and contributing to their hits.

So aware are the Mail aware of the power of a rant, that they recently moved to bully Kevin Arscott into removing a post he made against its editor, Paul Dacre. Mr Ascott, of Angry Mob (which is a lot less angry than the name suggests) was so incensed by the paper's behaviour that he wrote a long (and fairly out of character) rant about how Paul Dacre must die and how we would queue for miles to use his grave as a loo, to put it lightly. The Mail threatened his web hosts and now the article doesn't exist (but you can probably find it. The internet doesn't forget).

With the power of the rant, of course, comes a great responsibility (has a comic book ever again said anything so profound?). The melody of an offensive argument carries like the tune of the pied piper, with followers dancing to the oomph of the emotion, too caught up to stop and ask questions or check for evidence. The wave of support for classic ranters like Melanie Phillips, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, - people who are clearly so far removed from reality that you wonder how they get dressed in the morning - shows how a rant just isn't enough. It's a weapon. Like a gun: when used correctly, anyone can make headway, cause damage and lead armies with it. In a sense, it is neither good not bad outside of any context. But it is dangerous.

That's why I'd say, for goodness sake, if you're going to have a bloody good rant as part of your argument you'd better make sure that you've backed up that rant with facts and evidence. You'd better be sure that you know what you're talking about because you are wielding a powerful and persuasive weapon. And on top of that: be aware of your audience. Websites like Annotated Rant, have excellent, well-cited arguments in a terrifically bitter and furious style. But, my god, they tend to cast their net wide. With Fuck the South, they make very good points about the political problems in the American south, but unless you're aware that they are using the term 'South' as a metaphor, it can cause a lot of problems. You probably wouldn't get rants titled "Fuck Muslims", for example, because you wouldn't want to accidentally incite hatred towards all Muslims from people who don't pick up on your subtlety.

In conclusion: I love to read rants, I think they are a valuable and powerful tool, but when used carelessly they can be dangerous, so take care if you fancy having a public rant.

The word rant has lost all meaning, by the way.

PS: If you want to watch some world-class ranting, search for Matt Dillahunty on youtube. He is monumental at off-the-cuff, brilliantly reasoned takedowns.

July 31, 2011

July Newspaper Front Pages - Complete Cloud

While we're here, I thought I'd add the word cloud for all front pages words for all newspapers covered*:
Murdoch and Hacking were the order of business, with the Norway killer and Amy Winehouse's last week domination showing some strength (click to enlarge)

So now we see that the UK papers found to be the most important topics of the month of July.

*words excluded: {"free", "inside"}

- don't forget, the raw data is available for free download by clicking here

UK Front Pages Analysis - July 2011

I'm going to try something new and "exciting" - this month. I've been gathering data from all the front pages of the UK papers. I type up all the words from the front pages that I can clearly read when the front page image is about 230 pixels wide. I also include any main image captions, as the picture is also a big part of the front page punch.

The idea is to get a feel for the character of each paper and how it focusses its coverage, based on how it shouts at its audience. I will try and do this at the end of every month and see what each paper focussed on and found most imperative to sell to its audience.

I will try and build on my analysis over the coming months, but to start with I decided to create some word clouds using the software at In case you are unaware, a word cloud builds an image from the most common words used in a store of text; the more common the word, the larger the word appears. I'm going to show these clouds below the fold, as they will take up some space:

July 28, 2011

Why I Can Stand Jeremy Clarkson

I like Jeremy Clarkson. Sort of.

It's a tricky thing to justify, as he's part of the right-wing hysterical journalists and media types that will bark up any tree that looks remotely like it might be pulped to produce the Guardian. Much like the likes of Littlejohn, Platell, Phillips, Fawkes et al, Clarkson enjoys smugly vomiting out whatever reactionary opinion his pancreas squeezes into his brain. Like the others, he has his pet peeves that he barks on about in an endless cycles (in particular, he hates traffic safety devices and climate change prevention) without ever reviewing evidence contrary to his own immalleable opinion.

But, gosh, I just can't despise him in the way I do the others. I think part of it is that I enjoy Top Gear and don't want to spend the entire time scowling and swearing at "Jezza" the whole hour long. Whenever Clarkson says something stupid or sexist, yes, my wife and I look at each other and shake our heads in disapproval. We're not ignorant of his dickheadedness, not by a long shot. The way he treated Olympic Champion, Amy Williams, was detestable (frankly, she should have slapped him).

But... when mouthing off, I really don't think he takes himself seriously. He operates under the character of 'Jeremy Clarkson, moron' in the same way that Warren Mitchell worked the avatar of 'Alf Garnett, furious bigot'. Whether he uses the character as a comforting shield from which to assert his own opinions, or whether the character's opinions are entirely artificial and used for flamebait - I don't know. Either way, his potency as a force for hypnotising his audience are greatly reduced, compared to someone who takes themselves very seriously, like Bill O'Reilly, who still has a massive following despite twice saying no one knows how the sun goes up and down every day. Clarkson is a clown. He knows he's a clown and he plays up to it. Hopefully the rest of his audience know he's a clown, too.

He delivers his hyperbole with a cheekiness and a swagger deliberately engineered to make his audience chuckle and facepalm and to manufacture a faux-argument between the co-hosts who often call him a 'completely idiot' and a mindless petrol-head. His co-hosts on Top Gear operate similarly, behind the character of grinning-hyperactive-teenager and comely-Warburton-eating-uncle, neither of which you'd trust to even recommend a car to you.

And Clarkson isn't always wrong: he's a big advocate of science and engineering, for example. He once punched Piers Morgan. He's not all bad. Yes, he suffers from the syndrome that a lot of columnist have which I have called I'm-not-an-expert-but-I've-been-spouting-my-opinion-for-so-long-I-must-be-right Syndrome. The name needs work, I'll admit.

A simple Google search for "Jeremy Clarkson column" leads you quickly to this column, which begins:

Call me a spoilsport but I’m glad my dad wasn’t a lesbian

When it comes to sweeping generalisations, I am the daddy. All Germans have no sense of humour, all instruction manuals are pointless, all cruise ships are ghastly, every single American is fat, all golfers are boring and all Peugeots are driven by people you wouldn’t have round for dinner

I really don't think he expects anyone to take him seriously. At least I hope he doesn't.

Oh god, what if he does?

July 27, 2011

Stephenie Meyer: Desperate Satirist?

*note: post contains spoilers for Twilight series

*note2: Twilight contains spoilers for your state of mind

The more time I spend thinking about Stephenie Meyer's unaccountably popular Twilight series, the more I start to wonder if the whole project was an exercise in satire gone horribly wrong.

It is a story of love-at-first-sight snowballing out of control into a train wreck of an abusive, chauvinist relationship while the friends and family of our heroine look on in horror, unable to step in and save her from herself. It is a tale of two desperately selfish people who force everything to go their way at the expense all all other, including the lives of hundreds of innocent people. It's about how people so easily self-rationalise the utterly evil and contemptible acts committed by their peers; acts of murder, paedophilia, deception, enforced vampirisation, kidnap and casual violence are all given barely the disdain they deserve. It's about a young woman who is so self-absorbed that she wraps her friends, family and infatuated hangers-on around her finger, leading them on and guilting them only so that she might kick them to the ground when they become expendable.

And that could be a terrific, terrific tale, right? A tale about the dark and horrible side of love, told through the eyes of detestable protagonists, in the same way that gangster stories work. Could Stephenie Meyer have been trying to tell this tale from the beginning?

Book 1

Bella establishes herself as a complete bitch right from the start. She's ungrateful for her dad's hospitality, his gift of a van and the roof over her head. Everyone at her new school likes her immediately, but she's irritated by their enthusiasm and attention from all the boys. Then she meets a dude called Edward who immediately appears to dislike her vehemently. She must have him.

Magically and inexplicably suddenly, they fall in love and Edward reveals he is a vampire. There is literally nothing interesting about either of them. They have nothing to say about anything except a) how they feel about one another, b) how humans and vampires are different and c) how dangerous Edward is. They can't even get their raunch on as Edward might accidentally kill her or something. Boring.

So Bella starts to ignore her friends and shun her crushes to hang out with boring old Edward. Fuck knows what they do if they can't kiss and they don't have anything to talk about. God, they're like heroine addicts, high on their own love and ignoring everything and everyone. Part of loving someone is sharing a part of you with them: your interests, your ideas. But they have nothing to share - they are a pair of blazé hipster noirs stuck in a perpetual loop of 'no, you hang up first.'

So nothing happens for 90% of the book until some nobody turns up and tries to kill Bella, but that's not really important.

Summary: Book 1 is a book about the dystopian nature of the concept of true love. It's about how love stories are stupid, true love is nothing without friendship and a social structure and how these two fucking idiots deserve each other. The end.

Book 2

So, slightly perturbed that people took the first book seriously and heralded it as OMG they are, like, the couple of the century, Meyer took the risks even further with Book 2, hoping to wake a few people up and make them realise that she was poking fun at stupid love and idiotic, narcissistic teenagers.

The first thing she does is takes the love interest out of the book. Bella and Edward are separated for 90% of this book as Edward leaves because he's afraid his family might accidentally eat her (an allegory for 'rapey Uncle Albert', if ever I heard one). This leaves mopey, miserable Bella and the reader alone. Stephenie Meyer even stopped writing what Bella does, instead she just labels single pages with the months going by. She's screaming: look at what I'm doing, you stupid fuckers - my character is so shit, I have literally nothing to write about her! Wake the fuck up!

So, after blank months of ignoring her friends so hard that they literally hate her and screaming so hard in the night that her dad things she's insane, Bella starts hanging out with the son of a family friend, Jacob. Now Jacob is everything that Edward is not. He's warm, charming, chatty, interesting. He has opinions about the world. He brings a little life out of Bella. He's totally infatuated with her, possibly because she's the only girl he knows, but we'll let that slide. Meyer is tricking us here - she's making up believe there's hope for the stuck-up bitch of a protagonist we've grown to hate. Is there hope for Bella after all? Can she find a real boyfriend and be a normal human being?

No. Meyer is fucking with you - c'mon, people! See, Jacob turns out to be a werewolf; not just a werewolf, but a werewolf with inbuilt anti-vampire bigotry. And Bella will never stop loving the cold, dull-as-dishwater, can't-sex-her Edward. Never. Meyer gives us an example of a potentially wonderful romantic partner and rips him away cruelly, because love is a terrible force, people. Meyer is trying to put yo' ass back in the real world, here.

Through a contrived set of circumstances, we learn Edward thinks Bella has killed herself, so he tries to kill himself too but Bella finds him and they fall in love again, the end.

But wait, did I mention the fact that, while they were holding hands and walking into the sunset they let an entire crowd of innocent tourists get eaten by vampires without giving a shit? Did I mention that? How big a fucking clue do you need - Meyer hates these characters. She wants you to hate them too!

Summary: Book 2 is about showing you what a real boyfriend/partner should be like before hitting you around the head with the reality brick that says 'some people just can't help falling for assholes'

Book 3

You still love them?? You still wish you had a love as pure as Bella and Edward's? So Meyer has to write another book to make you simpletons get it? Okay...

This book is mainly about Jacob and Edward fighting over Bella's affection. There's some side plot about an entire army of vampires munching their way through Seattle, but there's barely touched upon really. No, this story is about how Bella has firmly made her decision that Edward is the man she wants, but all the menfolk ignore her and fight amongst themselves. Because no one cares what women have to say.

See, of the two loverboys, Bella has picked the asshole. This is mostly because she's a massive asshole herself, but more importantly - it's her choice. Unfortunately, Jacob doesn't see it that way and Meyer chooses to crush our hopes and dreams by turning him from all-round nice guy into fierce kiss rapist. He forces himself on Bella, causing Edward to insist that Bella always return to him 'undamaged' next time. Yes, Bella is property now.

Meyer really ramps up Edwards misogynistic sexism in this book, desperately trying to make you realise how much of a dickhead he is. He doesn't let her do anything or go anywhere. When he has to go and hunt, he makes his family kidnap Bella and hold her against her will for two days so that she doesn't see Jacob. The family play along with this without a hint of giving a shit. These people are sick bastards. Meyer is putting the rat among the pigeons and her readers are seeing confetti and gumdrops.

The vampire family, Edward and Bella spend a great portion of the book aware that there is a massacre happening in Seattle due to crazy vampires on the loose. They really don't want to get involved though as they don't want to cause a fuss. The only time they start thinking about maybe putting a stop to their savagery is when they're worried that the Vatican vampires might turn up and get mad. Bella and the vampires don't give a shit about human lives. They don't. Stephenie Meyer isn't even doing this subtly - she's not good enough of a writer, for a start. She's saying, 'my characters stand by and watch innocent people get murdered over and over again; please stop rooting for them, they are clearly antiheroes.'

Anyway, blah-blah-blah, last minute action as always, Bella and Edward get engaged and Jacob is sad.

Also there's a bit about how Edward won't have sex with Bella. Partly because he'll kill her and partly because of something about having sex before marriage is immoral or something. The killing is fine, but sex is a big no no. Edward's just a nervous virgin is all. When I was a virgin and scared of getting naked with someone, I too was all, 'Oh, yeah, er... I would totally sex you, baby, but I'm so powerful I might kill you! So, you know. Better safe than sorry.' Then I got my pubes (at last!) and felt more confident.

What was I talking about, again? Oh yes:

Summary: Book 3 is about how men can objectify women, treat them as property they own and try and forcefully steal them away. It's also about how women can use the infatuations of men to get them to do what they want.

Book 4

Stephenie Meyer is clearly at her wit's end by this point. She's made Bella a miserable, self-abusive, selfish, heartbreaking, submissive, horny wretch of a woman. She's made Edward a controlling, boring, sexist, racist, violent, dispassionate, objectifying asshole of a man. She turned the lovely Jacob into an abusive, offensive, chauvanist, melodramatic drama queen. What more do I need to do, I can hear her sobbing to herself over the first blank page of her soon-to-be Breaking Dawn manuscript. All I wanted was to expose the darkness of obsessive, emotive behaviour and reflect the prevalence of sexism and societal antipathy for human death on a mass scale.

So now she pulls out the big guns.

1) Bella gets married against her will (sort of). She only gets married because Edward wants her to, and so she can have sex. Edward's family hijack the wedding and turn it from the small ceremony she desired into some Sweet-16 style wedsplosion.

2) Bella and Edward have unprotected sex that is so violent they destroy the bed and Bella gets cut and bruised to shit. If Bella turned up to work after her honeymoon looking like she does after sex, I'd be calling the police on Edward immediately.

3) Bella gets pregnant and Edward seriously considers forcing an abortion upon her. As Edward and his posse are vampires, they really could easily overpower her and rip that fucker out if they wanted to. Edward is a bastard, need I say this enough?

4) Bella gives birth and Jacob immediately falls in love with the baby. Like properly in love, in love. Apparently its part of being a werewolf, an attraction to soul mates that can't be helped so it's OK. Oh wait, it's not OK. He's in love with a baby. Why are all the characters fine with this? A paedophile may not be able to help his feelings towards kids, but it's still not OK. Take the baby away from him, you insane people!

5) Some other vampires come to help Edward and co., and these vampires still eat humans (unlike Edward, the one good thing going for him) so they let them hunt humans as long as they don't live nearby. This is the third straight case of turning a blind eye to the murder of innocent people. These people aren't the good guys!

6) Did I mention the vampire baby eats its way out of Bella's vagina? Meyer is just pissing about now - she's probably aware she can do almost anything and her readers are so hypnotised that they'll see it as the sweet beauty of love.

Ultimately, after the biggest anti-climax in the history of anti-climaxes (climices?), Bella and Edward and their baby and Jacob live happily ever after. Because they deserve each other. Because they are all horrible people, even the fucking baby.

Only an idiot would write this as a serious love story, believing her characters were virtuous and deserving of their wonderful fate? Only a moron would write this plot, with these characters as anything but an anti-heroic, satirical noir, right? You're not saying Stephenie Meyer is an idiot are you?

July 25, 2011

Harry Potter, Faith and Scepticism

I'd been thinking about writing a post about this for a while, and then Jen McCreight started beating me to it. Luckily she was suffering from sleep deprivation at the time and couldn't expand on her thoughts, so now is the time to leap in with the post I've been planning!

A Theme of Faith

Before the final book was released, JK Rowling had been questioned on her religious orientation. She declined to discuss it in any detail as she said it might give people ideas about where the series might turn. Looking back, this was a bizarre thing to say as I don't think anyone would have guessed that the seventh book would be based around the idea of faith, even after reading it.

After the publication of The Deathly Hallows, JKR revealed she was a quasi-churchgoing Christian and that the seventh book represented (to a degree) her struggle with faith. Harry, Ron and Hermione battle through a very challenging period in which unrelenting exposés on Dumbledore's past wear away at his infallible sheen. The trio start to question his judgement: can he be trusted; did he know what he was doing; why did he hide critical information? This leads Harry to start chasing the deathly hallows, instead of following Dumbledore's explicit (but frustrating) instructions. After much trauma, Harry has a change of heart and decides the only way they are going to succeed is to trust in Dumbledore and complete their mission.

You can probably see why I have a problem with this. Dumbledore has (deliberately, apparently) withheld masses of information, hoping their ignorance will keep them from straying from his plan. In the meantime, the trio are presented with mountain upon mountain of evidence that Dumbledore wasn't always such a nice guy. He colluded with dark wizards; he preached intolerance of muggles; his family died suddenly under curious circumstances; he knew of, but secreted, a trio of hugely powerful objects that could help them destroy Voldemort. Under those circumstances, those wishing to make decision based on evidence might seem foolish indeed to blindly follow his confusing instructions. But JKR's lesson, apparently, is to overcome your struggle with faith in contradictory information, contrary to established evidence, and everything will be alright.

This is a very religious, dogmatic style of thinking. I'm not trying to make this an anti-religious post, but let's just say that following the advice of old man with an ever-crumbling reputation over facts that exist in front of your face is both dangerous and foolish. Of course, it all works out in the end, but if JKR was a little darker and a little more dastardly, she could have so easily revealed than Dumbledore was batshit crazy and the real test for the trio was to break free of his insane plan and find their own way. The lesson: never blindly trust anyone by word alone, even those who seem extraordinarily wise.

The Afterlife

Despite her religious leanings and ultimate theme, Rowling never brings religion into the story. She also appears to write with a special care to never concrete heaven as truism. People might just die and be gone forever in Rowling's world. The living portraits are explicitly defined as an imprint of the living person, but not their continuing essence. Ghosts are most likely a similar 'imprint', doomed to exist forever as a shadow of the person departed. The reanimated spectres of the resurrection stone are described as yanking the resting soul back to the living world in the fairy tale that describes them, but in the 'real world' they say they are 'part of [the stone bearer]' suggesting they are a mere reflection of the person seeking to awaken the dead. It is left deliberately ambiguous whether Harry really travels to limbo after his 'death' or whether he has a few minutes of delusion: 'of course it's all in your head, Harry. But why should that mean it isn't real?'

If I really wanted to be a hard-nosed, sceptic, atheist fuddy-duddy (my speciality!), I could just read these ghostly scenes and assume there is no heaven and that people don't live on after death; Rowling provides exactly the narrative to think this way. Personally, I simply say that I don't know what happens in Harry's world. It's not clear enough for me to make a decision about the nature of the ghostly undead, so I'm happy being left undecided.

But it is interesting the Rowling chose not to make an explicit truth in heaven or an afterlife. Of course, creating an intraversable barrier between death and life was extremely necessary - the whole series depends on death being final, and lost friends gone forever. Therefore, like us, wizards and witches cannot see beyond the world of the living in any real sense and have to guess what awaits them, like the rest of us.

The Requirement for Evidence

Rowling's 'virtue of faith' turn in the series finale is actually out of character, looking back over the series. The entire horcrux hunt is instigated from the conclusions of a particularly scientific process carried out by Dumbledore himself.

Based on observation made in earlier books (a carelessly unguarded piece of Voldemort's soul and Voldemort waxing lyrical about having pursued immortality to its extremes), Dumbledore started researching Tom Riddle's history for clues and confirmation that he had created multiple horcruxes. So strongly did he value evidence that he insisted that they decipher a scrambled memory in which a young Tom Riddle mused over the strengths of a seven-part soul, before leaping to conclusions.

Hermione frequently resists jumping to conclusions based on Harry and Ron's wild speculation. Only in the final two books, when Harry has grown wiser and sharper, does her resistance to his theorising prove incorrect. In Chamber of Secrets, she makes them spy on Draco, when Harry speculates that he is attacking students. In The Order of the Phoenix, she forces Harry to make absolutely sure Sirius is missing when Harry has a vision of his torture at the Ministry. It is her constant requirement for evidence that stops the more impetuous boys from charging down dead ends and chasing ghosts.


It is interesting that a series build on chasing clues and evidence to solve mysteries and (attempt to) save the day should rely on faith as its ultimate guide to victory. I can understand it as a parallel with the overriding themes of love and trust and the power therein, but it does seem that Harry got lucky. By the time he chose to put his faith in Dumbledore and stop questioning the horrors he'd learned, it really did appear as if Dumbledore didn't love him very much at all. If it were me, I might well have found my own path to victory and really isn't that the biggest part of a coming-of-age epic?

July 22, 2011

A Response from the ASA

A while back I wrote a letter of complaint about an advert from the Tunisian tourist board that made light of the oppressive acts of the regime there to make a pun on their advertising campaign.

I basically argued that it was completely inappropriate to humorously joke about people who were beaten and imprisoned in an attempt to fight for more freedom weeks before this campaign was launched.

The ASA have written to me and decided that, after consideration, they will not intervene. Their letter is published below and I don't think it's unfair and they seem to have acted fairly consistently with their own rules. They say the advert is in 'bad taste' and not '[offensive] against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.' which I begrudgingly suppose is true.

Nonetheless, it's still a pretty shitty advert.

Their response:

(See also: this piece from the BBC)

Why It's Important to Focus on Hackgate

The 'revelation' of the hacking culture, endemic to the practices of the News of the World has had constant headline attention for a couple of weeks now. I say 'revelation', but in reality, the story has been out for half a decade and only when it was revealed that the NotW included a murdered school girl in their phone book of hackery did the world suddenly wake up and realise something was wrong. Executives across media, police and government are falling like shot pheasants and twitter folk have started betting on what ridiculous new development will be unveiled next.

The reaction of the tabloids has been very interesting to say the least. They gave the whole affair a couple of days standard coverage, in line with the 'ultra-left, agenda-driven' BBC and Guardian, reporting it as a shocking scandal. But then they back-pedalled furiously, realising that the conversation had turned to all media and reformation of press regulation. Suddenly, all newspapers were in the spotlight and their cosy club of self-regulation was under threat. So now we have 'hey - look over there!' headlines asking 'Why are we still talking about the News Int scandal when people are dying/the economy is terrible/bins collections only happen once a fortnight?'. I have heard similar arguments from friends and acquaintances who are more interested in other debates, like rescuing the economy or pulling out of conflict zones.

Firstly, it's important to cover a couple of simple problems with the 'why talk about x, when y is worse?' argument. This is the type of narrow-thinking that got Richard Dawkins in trouble after dismissing western feminine issues because Middle-Eastern women had it so much worse. You can't just ignore a problem, just because there are other, arguably bigger, problems. If there are issues to be faced, face them. Otherwise, we'd have to deal with the problems of the world one-by-one in descending order of seriousness and we'd never get a weekly bin collection!

Furthermore, the economic traumas and the problems in the Middle-East don't always have headline news. Certainly there are serious issues and problems to overcome, but 'We're still in debt, guys' and 'The war's not over yet' don't really make for good headlines and no one wants to watch a live, rolling-news conference of parliament discussing the lack of any further development. The News International scandal is fresh, it's unfolding every day and the key players are being interrogated, arrested and questions right now. It is headline news.

But more importantly, why should we care? If this scandal hadn't broken, the papers would have found something else to put on page 1, right? A quick glance through the archives show they are content to just stick a minor celebrity in the prime position if nothing else is happening.

We should care because the media is the portal between the public and the rest of the world. We, as individuals, cannot investigate every organisation and even we're interested in. We need the media to inform us about what is happening, who is involved and why things are turning the way they are. We rely on them to keep us informed.

And unfortunately, the looking glass of the printed press has for too long been coloured in the biases of the editors; the lens has been shaped to magnify nonsense celebrity news, distort difficult issues like immigration and refract our line of sight from the hard facts. Newspaper readers are not being shown the world as it really is - they are being shown a bloated version of their own biases, cycled through the propaganda wagon, editorialised beyond recognition until everyday, intelligent people see the world as a broken, uber-politically-correct, pedantically-governed teenage wasteland, drowning in immigrants, who steal all our jobs and then try and blow us up. It's not fair on the readers and it's not fair on the country whose government feels the need to pander to these readers.

At last, the media is in the spotlight. After years, decades, of refusing to take a good, hard look at itself for 'dog doesn't eat dog' (Nick Davies, Flat Earth News), finally we are beginning to see the dangers of the current state of our media. We are looking into proper regulation. We are holding them to account. We have a chance to build a new era of better news publication that serves the public as well as its bank balance. We deserve it. And to do it, we cannot take our eye off the ball in this 'hackgate' scandal - we have to keep hammering this point home until something is done.

It is important.

July 12, 2011

Ad Hominem

The recent bruhaha over Rebecca Watson's elevator encounter (the details are here, I won't be recapping or arguing it) has reminded me of one of the biggest problems within the skeptical community. And as I was mulling it over in my head, Ryawesome made this long, angry post which essentially got to the crux of what I was rolling around my brain.

A lot of skeptics treat skepticism as a fandom.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with fandoms; I was never part of one myself, I was always more of a lurker over the things I found myself super-interested in, like Harry Potter, but I completely understand the value of a community built around a common interest. And really, there is very little wrong with a fandomesque nature within skepticism: there are a lot of powerful, charming people at the forefront of the 'movement'. I believe that having a hero in science, philosophy or equality activism (etc) is much more valuable than idolising a movie or sports star (though, I stress, there is nothing wrong with having entertainment heroes!).

However (and this is the important however), by its very philosophy, a skeptic must always appraise an argument on its individual merit above the loyalty he/she holds to the proponent of the argument.

Over the last week, a difference of opinion arose over an incident recalled by Rebecca Watson. The most high-profile opponent to her position was Richard Dawkins, who was chose to dismiss her views with (in my opinion) an overly sardonic rhetoric. Watson and Dawkins are both prominent figures in the skeptical community and both have their masses of fans and ... anti-fans (what is the opposite of fan?) and this provided the ideal condition for an all out bitch-fight.

Dawkins fans were getting angry at Watson and her followers; Watson fans were getting angry at Dawkins and his followers. People were crying that skepticism was splitting down the middle and things would never be the same and most people seemed to stop listening to the actual arguments involved.

I'm a big admirer and supporter of Richard Dawkins. I think he has done wonderful things for science communication, pushing forward skepticism, secularism and awareness about religion. I love hearing him talk and I love reading his books and I almost always agree with him. But not this time. I think he was in the wrong; I think he had misjudged the situation and he argued in the wrong way. It was disappointing, but it should be a timely reminder that no one is right all of the time.

No one is right all of the time.

You should remember that. No matter how much you admire someone for their ideals, their arguments, their intelligence, their charm, their benevolence - they can still be wrong. As a skeptic, one should always be aware of this. PZ Myers has a legion of followers and admirers and I'm absolutely certain that he would much, much prefer that people considered his arguments - really, really considered them - than just mindlessly absorb them into their subconscious and rally around him like a bunch of pharyngulate zombies.

In the real world, people are not just homogenous lumps of rightness or wrongness. They are nuances and complex and can be absolutely bang-on right about one thing and completely wrong about another. Ally or enemy, friend and family, criminal or crusader: everyone's position must be appraised and criticised on its own merits, and not on the strength of their character.

June 25, 2011

Paul Dacre is a Cunt

Paul Dacre is a bullying little shit. He can stand atop his wads of cash, his celebrity "friends" and his millions of published newspapers and he'll still have to crane his neck to look up at Kevin Arscott, who can stand proudly knowing that any single blog post of his holds more truth, wit and quality than a year's worth of Daily Mails.

Suck it,Dacre.

The Sacrifices Toothpaste Companies Force On Us

If you pop down to shops to get yourself some toothpaste, you'll find yourself in one hell of a dilemma. You see, the toothpaste companies tell us that experts agree factors x, y and/or z are the leading cause of dental problems p, q and/or r and have designed their products accordingly.

For example, if you're worried about cavities, why not try some Cavity Protection toothpaste, 'designed to repair weak spots before cavities start' - brilliant! But wait, if you pick Cavity Protection, are you intentionally giving up the benefits of Enamel Protect? After all, I'm pretty sure I want my enamel protected, especially as the product page asks me in bold letters, 'Is your lifestyle putting your oral health at risk?' I don't want to put my oral health at risk! I mean, I only brush my teeth once a day, but still... that's even more reason to pick the right toothpaste!

And so it goes on... Deep Clean, Multi-Protection, Oxygen (promising a mouth as fresh as oxygen), Sensitive, Sensitive Pro-Relief (why would you buy the lesser-relief product?)... And then there are the Whitening products, which makes me wonder that if I don't go down a whitening route, will my healthy, strong teeth look like a row of corn kernels? I'd like my teeth to look vaguely white - is that so much to ask?

But then - a solution at hand? Colgate Total Advanced. 'Total' sounds like they've covered all the bases, right? Checking the product page tells me that it fights cavities, gum problems, plaque, tartar, staining, bad breath, sensitive teeth and enamel erosion. Brilliant, right? Makes you wonder why they don't just bin the other 16 products from their line up. Are there seriously people out there who think, 'I want healthy teeth... but not that healthy. Leave me exposed to tartar, but cover me for cavities.'? Who are these people?

And then, and then: just when I think the solution is at hand, I find that the Total Advanced contains four separate products: Clean, Whitening, Freshening. Now I have to sacrifice freshness for cleanliness?

I used to have these thoughts about condoms. If I want to get my end away, why can't I be extra-protected and feel pleasure and allow my ladyfriend to feel pleasure and have longer lasting sex and have tingling and be fruity flavoursome and be non-latex (if my allergies were so determined)? But I can accept this, because sex is for fun, so one night can be pleasure time for the lady and the next night can come up smelling of strawberries. No harm done. But with toothpaste, this is my oral health. If I alternate my toothpastes, will I have to be paranoid about my cavities on Wednesdays, while spending all Saturday covering my mouth because it'll be lacking in minty freshness? It's a disgrace! This is the 21st century. The toothpaste people need to get their shit together.

April 18, 2011

Things I Like / Things I Don't Like

Here is a swing away from the more serious blog posts that have started infecting this blog. Here is a list of things I like. It's nice to think about things I like.

In no particular order:

  • Diet Coke
  • Chocolate
  • Patterned tights
  • Jeans
  • Glasses that fit my wonky face
  • Alone time
  • Listening to new songs over and over again
  • Arguments that aren't fights
  • Feedback
  • Speaking French
  • Crazy lady-shoes
  • Boobs
  • People dressed flamboyantly
  • The snooze button
  • Hair dyed a completely unnatural colour
  • Go-karting
  • Drawing
  • Writing
  • Being tired and not having to do anything
  • Taking my shoes off at the end of the day
  • Being retweeted
  • Board games
  • Nudity
  • Interesting tattoos
  • Thongs
  • When you're able - just for a moment- to look up and realise how vast the universe is
  • Dead arms
  • Making other people laugh
  • Really sour sweets

And here are some things I don't like:

  • Pineapple
  • Meeting new people
  • Colouring
  • Engaging with celebrities in person
  • Explaining jokes
  • Small talk
  • Last minute invitations
  • Hardcore film violence
  • Feet
  • Having a body that seems to have no comfortable sitting position
  • G-strings
  • People who talk rubbish that you don't know well enough to challenge
  • Injustice beyond my influence
  • Perfume

April 15, 2011

The Road From Damascus

I am an atheist.

I used to be a Christian, in the sense that I believed in God and Jesus and the gospels and some of the other vagueries of the New Testament. My primary school told me New Testament literalism and that all the things that Jesus did were true and that God was love and all of the wibbly-wobbly stuff that the Bible teaches. We did not cover the Old Testament, but I knew the old stories like Noah's Ark and Adam and Eve. We were taught they were metaphors and symbols. And I believed everything I was taught, because when you're a kid, you do. That's how you learn and develop - you look to your elders to guide you and grant you knowledge. If they told me the sky was held up by magnets, I'd believe that and - like with all the religious doctrine - grout over all the logical cracks and holes because I just assumed I was too young or stupid to understand why some things didn't make sense.
The prodigal son. I never understood that. It made no sense to me at all. A loving God who sends people to hell? Didn't understand that. What age will people be in heaven and will we recognise each other, what is there to do in heaven and will we be allowed to do all the naughty, but fun, things we weren't allowed to do on Earth? These were all the kind of questions I thought about from about eight years old but I just thought I was too stupid to understand the solution. In fact, I was too modest to understand that these were probably pretty good questions and that I should have been demanding answers.
I remember I once asked my RE teacher why envy was a sin if God said that He Himself was 'a jealous God' (Deut.). The answer given was that it was 'a different kind of jealous that was subtle and beyond my understanding.'. I totally bought that. What was wrong with me?(1)

I continued to believe in God throughout right up until I was around 23. I stopped going to church in my early teens because I found it a bit boring and irrelevant (though the Vicar was very nice and always remembered my name). I never reall acted out my faith through practice; I had a sense of a God existing somehow in the aether and watching us and my belief was that to be a believer and good person was enough to be a good Christian and get to heaven.
I think the hook that kept me clinging to my faith so long was fear. Now, Britain is a mostly secular country where the vast, vast majority of its population really don't give a crap about religion. They'll have a vague kind of faith and belief but it doesn't dominate their lives or society. Religion wasn't rammed down my throat at all. And yet, the idea of God watching me was very scary. It crept into my mind when I did something wrong, when I questioned my believe, when I considered my own life and how it would look to Jesus when I died. I had these genuine thoughts in my head and believed it was definitely safer to hang on to my faith than to let it go - call it a crude Pascal's Wager.
I remember learning about quantum mechanics in University and the Copenhagen Interpretation of the entangled particle problem (2). I remember distinctly thinking that day, 'ah - there is wiggle room for God here. This is where God must act.'. It was a despereate attempt to god-of-the-gaps myself into maintaining (what I considered to be) a rational belief in God.

So what changed me? It's cliché time: Richard Dawkins. Now people give Richard Dawkins a lot of bad stick. Based on the criticism of him I've observed, the bile towards him seems to be based on a straw man charicature of him set up by hyperbolic religious defenders. He really isn't shrill or militant at all. He has a kind of Latin-teacher-esque, old school, hardened personality but he's not angrily shouting down religion, puffing his cheeks red and trying to destroy everyone's right to be religious. He's actually very calm and gentle. But, I digress.
I picked up The God Delusion not actually knowing what it was. I had just seen a poster for it saying it was a great read. I actually thought the title was a metaphor and didn't realise it was about religion at all until partway through the first chapter. I found it incredibly interesting. It delved into the parts of the Bible that church and school ignored; it addressed the very questions I had been asking myself and made me feel less of a fool for thinking that way; it laid out very clear, very calm arguments for it's position. It allowed me to let go, without fear or foolishnes, of theism.
And that's when I indulged in skepticism (3).

Skepticism suited me to a T. My mind approaches things pretty logically and I am very keen to understand why something is the way it is. Why have people come to this conclusion? Why do people do things this way and not that way? Why is the sky blue? Give me a good reason.
The interesting thing is, most people are swayed by a good narrative. This is how British Newspapers operate - they will sell you an emotional hook and pummel you with it to get you on their side. They won't give you a hook reason for their shouty headlines, they will panic the shit out of you or fill you with rage, or love, or empathy or xenophobia. Because that's how people operate - humans are 'designed' to respond to stories (4); we are social beings and it allows us to work together and fight together.
I like stories and I respond to an angry editorial like anyone else. But following my move into skepticism I now ask 'why'. What is the evidence to back up your opnion, Ms. Editorialist? Show me your working. If I'm going to stop giving my kids vaccines, you better give me a bloody compelling argument, I don't care how loud you yell at me.

And thus we return to religion. The ultimate emotional hook. God made the world - isn't it pretty and wondrous and magical? The whole concept of being alive among amazing flora and fauna - it's so divine and wonderful. The idea of a super-ultra-mega-Dad that loves you so hard he will always be with you is a tremendous comfort (even though you know you stil can't stand in front of a moving bus). Not only that, he's going to send to to an even more amazing place when you die with everything you ever wanted and you will live forever. But also, if you're not good and if you don't follow these complicated and vague rules you will burn and be tortured forever in Hell. So play by the rules.

1) This is horrible. This is what you do to children to keep them quiet: 'be good and you'll get a sweetie; be naughty and you'll get a smacked ankle. Except it's not just to keep kids quiet for half and hour, it's to keep entire societies quiet forever.
2) Why, why, why do you believe this? There isn't any reason to believe it. An old book is not good enough.
3) You can make truly horrendous decision based on bad reasoning. Look at the horrors the are following the vaccine scare. Children are dying of preventable diseases because a bad study scared the hell out of parents.

I am an atheist because these is no reason to believe in God or spirituality. I am an antitheist because religion can cause tremendous harm to both people and society, directly and indirectly. It's a bad, archaic foundation from which to make potentially life-changing decisions.
I don't want to restrict people's beliefs. I want people to have to freedom to worship and pray and take part in whatever beliefs and rituals they want. But while I respect their freedom to believe, I don't respect their beliefs. Their beliefs are nonsense, as magical and wonderful and imaginative as they may be. Keep it to fiction.

(1) - Answer: I was young and naive and accepting of adults' wisdom
(2) - tl;dr, but the idea behind CI is that properties of two 'twin' particles are not actually set until they are observed. At the point they are observed, both particles instantaneously gain their fundamental properties, not matter how far away from each other they are.
(3) I spell it with a "k" because skepticism as a movement and society seemed to have universally adopted to "k" spelling, though it means exactly the same thing as "scepticism" really.
(4) Hence why I am currently writing skeptical fairy tales.