Thursday, 6 October 2011

On not throwing poo in the Twitter zoo

Fully aware of how oversensitive I was being, I've spent much of this afternoon frustrated, in tears, and on the phone*, because two people I'm friends with in real life, and whose general well-being I care about very strongly, were having the mother of all punch ups right there on my Twitter feed. It doesn't matter who started it; they're both in the wrong for having an argument on Twitter in the first place. Here's why:
  • Twitter is still a very small world. That person you just called a cunt, and invited to commit suicide? There's a good chance that someone following you knows them and will be more than a little upset at what you've said.
  • Twitter is public in the worst possible way. It's true that most people won't pay any attention to what you've said and it's almost possible to assume that you'll only piss off followers you were best off without anyway. However, the only people who will see the whole argument are those who follow you both, and they might not want a screen full of their friends hurling abuse at each other.
  • Twitter is not the context. Everyone sees their own stream and their statements are not taking place in the same environment as your statements. Twitter's weird in that the pool of people whose comments we read and respond to, particularly indirectly, is not the same as the pool of people who read our commentary. Brevity means that we can't introduce our remarks by explaining what prompted them. Anything anyone says is likely influenced by a lot of other stuff you've not seen, and it's not for you to judge whether their irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, self-deprecation, or outright venting was appropriate or not.
  • A lot of that anger you're feeling is because someone who doesn't know you has had the barefaced cheek to misjudge and insult you. Their anger is most likely rooted in the same feeling. The mere fact that you're in vague communication with them means you have a lot in common with them compared to the majority of the population, so refrain from projecting too much hatred onto them.
If you're reading this, you're probably a friend of mine. I only tend to befriend, follow and interact with people I think are good, sensible people: left-leaning, human-rights supporting, critical-thinking, humourous, self-aware people who'd go miles out of their way to help a stranger. They're also mainly a bit messed up, selectively thin-skinned, provocative and prone to very dark days. You know, humans. So be nice to each other or I'll bang your bloody heads together.

If, like me, you struggle to keep you cool and maintain a sense of perspective during online disagreements, stick a bit of Bill Hicks on the wall by your screen:

"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There's no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we're the imagination of ourselves. Here's Tom with the weather."
*Essentially trying to do this, but without the superpowers:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Suggested supplementary training for ticket-inspection staff

To whom it may concern,

I wish to bring to your attention a recent encounter with Virgin-affiliated ticket-checking staff working at Preston Station, following my journey on a Northern Rail service. In doing so, I hope to make staff at both Northern Rail and Virgin aware of the levels of rage they are conspiring to evoke in customers unlucky enough to have to negotiate between them.

At 8.55am on Wednesday 24th August, myself and around 40 other passengers boarded Northern Rail's Colne service at Ansdell and Fairhaven. Railcard in hand, I was ready and waiting to pay for an open return to Manchester. Anyone familiar with this service will know that there is no means of buying or collecting tickets at the station (or at the next two stops) and that during the summer in particular, this hourly service can reach sardine-tin levels of overcrowding. Unsurprisingly and despite his best efforts, the conductor on this train was unable to sell every passenger a ticket by the time the train reached Preston, where most of us disembarked.

It transpired that the unsmiling, bouncer-like ticket inspection staff at Preston were not at all familiar with the hourly train from Ansdell and Fairhaven, as first evidenced by their inability to find "Ansdell" on their machines. Never having found myself mid-journey without a ticket before, I assumed that the staff were stationed between platforms partly as an auxiliary means of selling honest passengers coming from unstaffed platforms on overcrowded trains the correct tickets. Apparently not. Apparently the job of these enforcement personnel is first and foremost to make people without tickets - whatever the reason - feel as though they were about to be hauled into custody at any moment.

I was told, sniffily, that railcard discounts could not be applied to tickets bought "after you've set off", by which I assume was meant "after one leg of the journey has been completed". Unwilling to add another 50% to my travel costs due to my own honesty in the light of circumstances beyond my control, I explained the situation again, emphasising that this really was the earliest time I could have bought a ticket. Taking on the tones of the strictest of Victorian schoolmistresses , the woman in question told me that it was my responsibility to find the conductor, wherever he may be on the train. She repeated this statement at least four more times, despite my increasingly vivid accounts of the conductor's valiant passage down the train, pausing in his epic task of supplying tickets only when called upon to open the train doors. No, it was still my responsibility to procure from him a ticket, presumably via some kind of death-match competition against other passengers. Regarding her manner, I cannot remember having been subjected to such tones of belittlement and assumed guilt since I was last falsely accused of eating in class at primary school.

A further suggestion from the front-line, friendly face of Virgin customer service: "You should have found the conductor on the platform when you got off here". If this is standard practice, and I have to say that I've never seen it attempted, I think we may have identified a major cause of those delays you're all so keen to cut down on.

I had tried my best to remain calm and polite throughout this exchange, but I fear I was only saved from paying the penalty (for that is what the extra 50% most certainly is) by the fact that a far more openly enraged (and smartly-dressed) ex-banker next to me was having the same argument regarding her daughter's fare. Maybe if my t-shirt had featured "Mature Student and Ex-Teacher" in an imposing font, rather than a cartoon picture of an owl, I'd have been treated with less obvious contempt. On the other hand, maybe the supposed social standing and lung capacity of the passenger should have no bearing on how they are treated.

I am long beyond hoping that the overcrowding on my local branch-line will one day cease to be a problem. If, however, you are to continue with the system of having staff from one company check that passengers travelling with another company have bought a ticket when they should have done, then those staff should be familiar with the conditions on that route. I therefore recommend a "gauntlet day" to be added to whatever training ticket inspection staff currently receive. This will consist of the following:
  • Trainees should be deposited at one of the unstaffed stations on the Blackpool South line, preferably coinciding with the Pleasure Beach's opening weekend, the Illuminations switch-on ceremony, or a local derby at Bloomfield Road, and instructed to purchase a ticket from the conductor before the train reaches Preston. In the interests of health and safety, helmets and knuckle-dusters should be supplied.
  • If unsuccessful, they will be required to accost the conductor on the platform and purchase the required number of tickets from him or her, in the face of those passengers still on the train, whose journey they are now delaying.
  • To ensure that this training exercise conforms as closely as possible to the real-life user experience, trainees will be expected to figure out this final step on their own, as there are no signs in either train or station - or, I suspect, anywhere outside of certain ticket-inspectors' imaginations - indicating that this is an acceptable course of action.
Of course I do not expect my suggested remedy to be adopted immediately. In the meantime, I would like to have official confirmation that I should have either jumped in ahead of other customers on the train, or held up the conductor on the platform, in order to avoid paying a much higher fare a few metres further into the station.

Yours faithfully,


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Stefan Collini on University Funding Reforms

The full article is well worth a read as it goes into some detail about how the government will attempt to control student numbers while maintaining the façade of university autonomy and student choice. This passage is from the final paragraph, and states something which should be right at the core of education policy:

The expansion of the proportion of the age-cohort entering higher education from 6 per cent to 44 per cent is a great democratic gain that this society should not wish to retreat from. To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Thanks, homeopaths!

..for providing me with the easiest blog-post ever. Here are my answers to this survey on the regulation of homeopathy (which contains not one molecule of balance, within bucket-loads of both leading and misleading questions).

Preamble: "Homeopathy as a profession is under attack from groups such as Sense about Science and groups such as the Nightingale Collaboration. This Research will gauge public opinion as to the amount of information that the public and prospective patients wish to be able to access from professionally Qualified Practitioners only."

(I would like to point out that I am not a member of either group, but of a group which would no doubt be considered similar. I still count my answers as part of 'public opinion'.)

1. "Do you know what Homeopathy is?" - Yes

2. "If you had a health concern, would you consider supplementing conventional medicine with alternative medicine such as Homeopathy?" - No

3. "Have you ever taken a Homeopathic Remedy?" - No
(I've drunk a lot of bottles of water, many of which were whacked about quite a bit beforehand, but none of them have the kind of price-tag which would indicate that they were intended as remedies for anything other than thirst.)

4. "Qualified Homeopaths are no longer permitted to explain how Homeopathy works or offer any evidence on their websites because of a ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency. Do you think Homeopaths should be allowed to explain how Homeopathy works?" - No. Homeopathy does not "work" (i.e. perform better than placebo). Any explanation of how "qualified homeopaths" may believe it works is therefore misleading.

5. "Qualified Homeopaths are no longer allowed to state which medical conditions they treat. If you visited a Homeopaths website, would you find it useful or not useful to know which conditions they can treat?" - Not useful. The number of conditions which can be treated by homeopathy is zero. Attempting to list them is a waste of time.

6. "Qualified Homeopaths are no longer allowed to give testimonials from genuine patients if those patients want to state that their health has improved as a result of homeopathy. (Testimonials means comments only from verifiable, genuine patients). Do you think testimonials giving details of improvement from genuine patients should be not allowed or allowed?" - Not allowed. There is no way of knowing from individual cases whether the improvement was due to the treatment given or any number of other factors. Personal anecdotes are not evidence that a treatment has worked.

7. "Why do you think Homeopaths are being treated in this way?" - Because they have so far failed to check properly whether their treatments actually work, relying instead on the good-will and hopes of their patients. If homeopathic remedies did indeed have provable physical effects, this lack of testing and accountability would be reckless. Luckily for their patients, there is no trace of active ingredients.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Nothing's that amazing so no, we're not ecstatic.

Charlie Brooker's right; it is incredibly petulant of us all to complain about something excellent and free suddenly becoming a little less excellent. Louis C.K. is also right; we do have a tendency to complain about tiny insignificant aspects of a process which is, by the standards of previous generations, mind-blowingly awesome. Like air travel, for example:

Flying is the worst one because people come back from flights and they tell you their story. And it's like a horror story. [...] First of all we didn't board for twenty minutes. And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there. On the runway. For forty minutes. We had to sit there.
Oh really, what happened next, did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle that is human flight, you non-contributing zero?

Valid point. But we didn't get this spoiled all by ourselves. We don't expect stuff to be perfect just because it's for us, we also have its providers constantly screeching at us about how life-changing an experience we're going to have just taking it out of the packaging.

Brooker's Guardian piece centred around complaints that Spotify, as a free service, now limits you to a maximum of ten hours' listening a month. The next level up is £5 for unlimited, advert-free listening. Both of these options are much better than any way of getting hold of music that existed before it all became noise anyway*. But I can still understand why people are annoyed with Spotify, because I am too. Around 50% of the adverts - unmutable and significantly louder than the music - are for their own services. Don't have a smart phone? No matter, you'll still be told every ten minutes how much better the Spotify experience would be if you did. Synced the playlists on your computer already? That hip, young, friendly voice will still keep telling you what a swell idea it'd be to do so, right in the middle of you listening to one of them. Because nobody's allowed to be happy with a basic free thing any more, we have to be constantly told how much better it can get.

Yoghurts. I'm struggling to find a variety of yoghurt that claims to only feed me, without reconfiguring my digestive or immune systems too. I don't want a fabric softener that makes strangers want to smell me or causes giant flowers to follow me to the shops. If I drove, I think I'd want something mostly like a car, not like a panther or a grand piano.

We've developed this slow-burning, unfocused feeling of dissatisfaction and annoyance because we know that we're constantly being lied to by companies pushing their largely unremarkable tat. Yes, it's pretty damn fantastic that little old me can fly through the air and be in another country in less than an hour. I will never lose my sense of wonder at looking down on a cloud from above. But I will still be annoyed if you claim that making me print my own boarding card somehow benefits me, and if the plane's filthy but you still keep badgering me to make sure I've not left any rubbish behind. And incidentally, where's the smiling, flirting cabin crew your advert featured so prominently?

Advertisers have trained us to be both spoiled and cynical. We may often choose the wrong targets for our complaints, but there's only so many sky-high expectations we can suppress at once. I've just about got the toiletries side of things under control. I can accept that foundation does not need to be breathable, that there is no DNA in skin cream but nor would it be better if there was, and that no camomile-scented, precision-engineered plastic backed wad of tissue will make me "have a happy period". But something's always going to give, so I'll be disappointed when a posh chocolate fails to make the room go all swirly, no matter how thankful I am that chocolate was invented at all.

*Roughly around the time Beethoven started to lose his hearing.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A long-overdue follow-up my post back in April about David Cameron's utterly infuriating immigration speech. This one's over on my history blog because it includes a quote from the olden days and a picture of Frederick the Great.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Regardless of whether I baked them as a headache cure or a feminist statement on the worthiness of women's work (both quite dubious claims), they taste pretty damn good.

Chocolate butterfly cakes with whisky butter cream.

Anecdotal lack of evidence

About two hours ago I got a really bad headache - one of those that makes your eye sockets burn and makes you want to run and throw up as soon as the room stops spinning. Even half an hour after taking painkillers it hadn't let up. Now, thankfully, it's gone. I'd love to know what stopped it so I can try the same thing again next time but I don't know whether it was:
  • Having a glass of water
  • Lying down for 15 mins
  • My flatmate coming home and distracting me for a while
  • Having my tea cooked for me
  • Drinking a glass of fizzy sugary stuff
  • My flatmate leaving again and no longer distracting me
  • Looking at cake porn for a bit, deciding what to bake for a picnic tomorrow
  • Baking the usual basic chocolate fairy cakes
  • Listening to the White Album*
  • The painkillers finally kicking in
  • The temperature dropping slightly
  • Someone in the vicinity doing a bit of yogic flying
  • None, all, or several of the above
There's absolutely no way to say for sure, and no way to even come close to an educated guess. That's why next time any of my friends has a headache I won't be advising them to drink water lying down in a cool room for fifteen minutes, as someone bakes cakes for them while singing along to Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey... not even if I thought telling them that would distract them enough to make them forget they ever had a headache. I'll fetch the water and painkillers, because at least that's worked on more than just me.

*Actually, I'm pretty sure this didn't help. The White Album is one of the worst possible things to listen to with a headache, second only to Einstürzende Neubauten.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Stop blowing holes in your plots

I'm looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean team. On Stranger Tides was a great film, and worked well even without reference to the previous three. The silliness works well, to a point, but there's only so much my disbelief can be suspended before at least part of it has to drop. Here are the top five groan-worthy moments:

  1. Does coal really catch fire that quickly?
  2. I'm not convinced by that combination of king, palace, interior and location relative to the rest of London.
  3. We have other prisons, you know, not just the Tower of London. If you're going to always go for the most popular local references, why not go the whole hog and drive them there in an anachronistic red bus?
  4. Why would a pirate ship be so badly looked after? And holes in the sails? Your main character is pretty much entirely motivated by his love for a ship, and the freedom it represents to a pirate. Are we really supposed to believe that Blackbeard, with all the resources at his command, would put up with his ship having sails like fishnet stockings?
  5. If you stand on a small tree, loop a rope around a thicker tree, and pull on the rope, the first thing that moves will not be the big tree.
There was so much else that was done well in this film, it seems a shame to not put just that little more thought into it, and not set good actors out in very leaky vessels.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Letting everyone eat cake

I watched this video on the Private Eye website, and nearly screamed. Going into a sweet shop is as far removed from the democratic system as you can get, because voting is not about you, as an individual, getting a favourite chocolate bar to eat all by yourself. The only system which allows that is a dictatorship, if you're lucky enough to be the dictator.

Democracy is more like trying to settle on a set menu for a large group, to make sure that most people get a lot of what they like or what is good for them, and nobody has to go hungry. I tried to think through if AV is a better way of doing this, and realised that it's not really the system of voting that's the problem:

Thursday, 14 April 2011

What I would like to hear in a speech on (im)migration

No-one can compare Britain's communities today with the communities of the past and not see a decline in cohesion. Time was when people had roots in the place where they lived, and a useful role to play in society. People understood each other, took an interest in each others' business, took care of their common areas, and respected one another. Individuals sacrificed their time and resources for the good of the group, and outsiders had to work hard to prove their worth and justify their presence.

Then a great plague came to Europe from the East, ripping the heart out of this age-old system. It was called the Black Death. As the death-toll grew and the feudal lords' workforce was decimated, those peasants who survived suddenly increased in value. They no longer needed to be as grateful for the mere fact that they were allowed to exist and to scrape out a living on the planet they had been born onto. They got it into their heads that maybe it wasn't just the very rich who could move to a different area, try new ventures, and improve their lot, but maybe everyone had the right to take some control over their lives. Quite often the question was not one of advancement, but of continuing survival.

By the seventeenth century, however, most people were still staying where they had been put by Almighty God. Whether urban or rural, communities were stable, self-regulating entities, largely free from disruptive influxes of outsiders (who mostly just died by the roadside). But once again a change came to turn this peaceful, ordered world upside-down. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their homes, and whole communities wiped off the map, as land was enclosed by those who were presumed to own it. Suddenly survival depended on the value an employer would place on your labour, and being valuable meant being in a city.

The developments of the following four centuries; the growth of industries, better travel and communication, global imperialism, lower mortality rates; have meant that those same migration patterns, and the disruption they cause, are now happening on a massive scale. The same problems with integration which were once caused and faced by, say, families from rural Cheshire moving to slums in Stockport, is now caused and faced by groups of ex-pats working in Irish pubs for English tourists in Prague.

Communities can be destroyed, conflict caused, people displaced and isolated for all kinds of reasons. Every time a residential area is bulldozed to make way for new business development, every time a large employer ups sticks to somewhere cheaper, every time a housing estate is built with no public buildings where people can congregate, every time a library or a community centre closes due to lack of funding, every time a village becomes the latest trendy target for holiday-home buyers or part of a city is owned almost entirely by student letting agents; each of these things prevents integration and stunts the growth of healthy, supportive communities.

The only way to counteract the negative effects of migration both within and between national borders - apart from the reestablishment of the feudal system - is through government spending. It is local councils, charities and organisations which provide spaces where people can interact, and interaction is the only path to integration. If there's no museum or library to learn about local history, no town club day to bring people together, no drop-in centres for people to come to for help, then of course society will fragment as people have only their own families and friends to turn to.

It would be wrong for a member of this government to blame immigrants from abroad for the damage done by market forces and crippling cuts to local services. It would be utterly perverse for them to demand integration while denying people the means to do so. It should be acknowledged that every individual has the right to earn a living, and that no-one should be punished for seeking work elsewhere, when the place of their birth cannot adequately support them due to forces beyond their control.

This fact should certainly be acknowledged by those in power, who benefit from the very mechanisms which make migration from one's home and community a necessity for so many people.

Monday, 28 March 2011

One of the benefits of disorganisation... that sometimes it saves you from having to retract a hasty post.

I was going to blog about this Observer article earlier today, under a title along the lines of "Government significantly improves the relevance of my research into the pressures placed on Third Reich academics". The gist of the article is that the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) had been coerced into making research on the "Big Society" a priority, in order to secure funding. If true this would be utterly reprehensible, starting universities down a path to becoming little more than Conservative Party think tanks (as if that wasn't enough of a problem already).

As it happens, the AHRC has issued a statement rebutting the claims. Their position is that there was a pre-existing programme of research into a related area, and that although any conclusions from this now have increased relevance to current government policy, funding for individual research will continue to be decided by peer review based on its quality:

The AHRC has been working for over two years, since 2008, with four other research councils, on the Connected Communities Research Programme which has been developed through extensive – and continuing – consultation with researchers. At the core of this Programme is research to understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts, and the value of communities in sustaining and enhancing our quality of life. These issues are serious and of major concern. They also happen to be relevant to debates about the ‘Big Society’ which came two years later. To imply that these important areas for investigation constitute a government-directed research programme is false.

I'm not prepared to breathe too huge a sigh of relief. As Iain Pears explained in an excellent piece earlier this month, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about the preservation of independence in academic research. Even if this particular claim turns out to be unfounded, there still remain other hoops that applicants for funding need to jump through, including proving the 'impact' of the work (particularly difficult to prove when the research hasn't been done yet and won't be read by anyone for another four years). With so little funding now available, there is an enormous amount of pressure to make proposed research sound as relevant and economically beneficial as possible.*

What I have been seeing in my own research (funded by the AHRC) into historians and non-fiction publishing in the Third Reich, is that censorship and suppression were by no means the only ways by which Nazi ideology gained respectability as areas of academic consensus. Funding was made available for researchers to find evidence for and 'prove' the regime's foregone conclusions. By shifting the focus of research in a few small ways, academics in all manner of fields - from anthropology to Ancient Greek archaeology - could retain their status and funding, meaning that even the most seemingly apolitical papers would lend their support to the regime, and to its main goal of creating a "people's" or "racial" community (Volksgemeinschaft) in which all Germans would work together to reverse Germany's social degeneration.

Godwin's Law makes it tricky to invoke a comparison with the Nazis and still be taken seriously, and I'm wary of sounding more than a little hysterical in my concluding sentence. The fact is that every time I hear "Broken Britain" and "Big Society", I'm reminded of the ongoing debate about the role of the Volksgemeinschaft ideal in securing support for the Nazi regime, and this latest suggestion of academic meddling rang all too true as a result.

*It's difficult to say that in a way that makes it clear why this is not a good thing. Basically, if the benefits of the research are that obvious from the outset, there are chances of funding from private sources. AHRC funding should be for projects which fill a gap in current research, the impact of which we won't necessarily know until it's been completed (and will be tricky to quantify even then).

EDIT: Iain Pears has posted more on this topic today:

Monday, 21 February 2011

Daft as a brush, but just as useful

David Allen Green, lawyer and libel reform campaigner, on "The daftness of UKUncut" (New Statesman):

However, this campaign is misconceived to the very point of daftness. Companies have to comply with the relevant tax regime: they really have no choice. Companies have to pay all tax which is lawfully due. Lawfully due tax cannot be avoided, regardless of ingenuity or greed. Accordingly, if certain companies are not paying enough tax, then the only solution is to improve tax legislation and properly resource its implementation by HMRC.

I can see the logic here but that doesn't mean there's no logic to the UKUncut campaign. This illustrates a typical catch 22 for protesters: any campaign which captures the public imagination enough to be successful will have simplistic aims and will be directed at an easy target several rhetorical meters away from the real cause of the problem. Campaigns which perfectly identify the best solution to a problem, taking into account complex legal or tax issues, as well as a change in regime, will be accurate but largely unnoticed.

This doesn't mean that no protests can be effective, however. The point is to draw attention to a wider, ongoing problem and create enough pressure that something has to give. Any legal changes which result from this will be more subtle and better targeted than the protests themselves. It may be a little unfair on shareholders and customers of a few high street chains in the meantime, but the government set the standard for unfairness in this battle when it started cutting budgets like an axe-wielding maniac.

Look at any revolution in history and you'll find that the most symbolically effective elements were also the least logical. When the creators of the problem are no longer in power, when the ruling party clearly doesn't give a crap about the consequences of its cuts, when those who could make the changes are shrugging their bespoke-suited shoulders or condescendingly explaining the realities of high finance to a population facing job loss, pension losses, pay freezes, benefit cuts, inflation, increased VAT, repossession of their homes...

In the face of all that illogical, "daft" unfairness, you might as well storm the bloody Bastille, if only to get some exercise.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Taking the peace (just a little)

The other day, this note went up in one of the bathrooms of my friend's house. They have two bathrooms, for males and females, and he routinely uses the male one. I sometimes use the female one, which is quite often swimming in water. They have a pretty powerful shower which is very close to the toilet. I feel that may be relevant.

I really can't stress enough how much I hate notes and signs as a form of communication. They are used almost exclusively by people who know they'd never be able to say everything they want to in person without having to, you know, have a conversation and maybe listen to the other person's point of view. This kind of rant has no function beyond pure, one-sided, vindictive catharsis. They are no better than shouting at someone and running away. In fact it's worse than that because you have to walk past them over and over again.
So, out of all the possible ways in which someone could react to such a pollution of their home environment by a self-appointed head matron, my friend and I settled on a brief post-it note. With an arrow pointing somewhere between the words "made my peace" and "you do fuck all" (it could apply to either of those claims) it read:

[citation needed] -->
The next sweeping accusation will be
submitted to

Turns out matron doesn't have much of a sense of humour. To protect the anonymity she seems so keen on (enough to want to keep it all to herself), the following text exchange refers to her as 'Glenda'.

Glenda: I presume u 2 wrote that note? [9.43am]

Glenda: If uve got enough guts 2 write it at least be able to admit it [9.47am]

(If you squint and wait for the words to overlap a bit, you can sort of see what she was trying to say here.)

Friend: Hey Glenda. Sorry, I've had no signal this morning. What note are you talking about? :-) [10.54am]

Glenda: Ok so you or vicki dont know anything about the reply in the bathroom?x [4.54pm]

(This woman is doing a business management degree. One day she could be neglecting to capitalise the names of the employees under her and using kisses to sweeten redundancy-related emails.)

Friend: No, I've been spending the day installing cat litter under my mattress on the off-chance... :-) [6.13pm]

Glenda: Well to be honest every1 else denies it so that only leaves u and vicki. Did vicki write it? I just want to know because its quite cowardly for whoever to not admit to writing it [6.20pm]


Friend: Does that mean that the original anonymous rant was yours then? Either way, I'll ask her about it next time I see her then :-) [6.36pm]

Glenda: Yes it was because im fed up of cleaning the bathroom after boys peeing on the seat.x [6.38pm]

(If she's going to overreact this much to an anonymous reply to an anonymous note, best give her something she can properly get her teeth into.)

Me: Hello, this is [Friend]'s Vicky. I did stick a post-it to the anonymous note in the bathroom. This would be the cowardly unsigned note which made sweeping, unfounded accusations against all males in the flat, swore, threatened to urinate in their people's beds... I felt a little piss-taking was entirely justified. [1.18am]

Glenda: Thanks I really appreciate being text at early hours when I have work at 8am [7.57am]

(She's got a point there. I also wouldn't appreciate "being text" when I have to work early. Hell, her bathroom's probably full of ink now too.)

Glenda: Actually my note wasn't anonymous because any1 who LIVES in our house who DOES socialise knows I spokt to them about it. I think its disgustin boys pee over the seat and floor and leave it 2 b wiped up so if I wana have a rant in my own house I will. And its not a sweeping a statement because every 1 of them knows they have never hoovered, cleaned or done anything. Cleaning bathroom the odd time in 6 months doesnt really count. I think its damn rude of u who doesnt live in our house or when u r there all u do is keep other people awake that u would undermine me or get involved in something which is clearly an issue. [8.53am]

(Considering she thinks this is none of my business, it's nice of her to keep me so thoroughly informed. Especially 53 minutes into her shift.)

Me: Really can't stress this enough: you threatened to PISS on the BED of the most obsessively clean and tidy man I know. I tried to point out in a very gentle way that the note was unfair. By all means have a rant in your "own house" but don't go off the deep end if someone mildly objects to your tone. [11.06am]

Glenda: And what u dont seem 2 understand is that I dont know who pissed on the seat and why should I have 2 wipe the bathroom down every morning! I will threaten that because I cant use the bathroom! I was aiming at everyone 2 think about their hygiene! And hes clearly not obsessed with being clean or hed clean up after himself! If [friend] has an issue it has nothing 2 do with u! [11.15am]

Me: I am 100% behind your desire for better bathroom hygiene, but if someone really is missing the bowl that often they need a carer, not a page of abuse. However, as I've clearly upset you far more than intended, I hereby promise to keep my concerns to myself in future. And sorry for waking you last night. [11.26am]

(Either she thinks she's won, or all that irrelevant venting has used up her credit. So far, that's been it.)

Friday, 4 February 2011

We Were Promised Nanobots

One claim often made about complimentary or alternative medicine is that it treats the 'whole person' rather than just symptoms. Leaving aside the fact that conventional medicine (you know, actual real medicine) is about interpreting symptoms in order to find and treat the underlying causes, there is a very good reason why this claim is bunk: none of the non-sentient entities within the process, whether they are acting for better or worse, is aware that there is a 'whole person' to treat.

Neither the active ingredients, the passive ingredients people like to believe are active, or the complete lack of ingredients in homoeopathic remedies know a damn thing about human beings. All they can do is react as they always do when in contact with other substances, whether inside or outside a patient. They do not magically transform into those whizzing brightly-coloured, perfectly targeted balls of healing you see on adverts merely by having a label stuck on them. Medicines, conventional or otherwise, are just stuff.

For the same reason, the division between effects and side-effects depends entirely on what it is you're hoping to achieve by using a particular substance. It is highly unlikely that anything you put in your system - even something as pure, natural, organic and additive-free as water - will have only one effect. Oh, and 'good' and 'bad' bacteria are not classifications known to natural history, and no kitchen cleaner will be able to distinguish between them.

Fortunately for the sellers of alternative medicines, people don't like to be reminded that they're essentially a bunch of cells and chemical reactions which by chance have got themselves into jeans and t-shirt. We can feel that we're a whole person, when we're ill then our whole person feels ill, and we naturally want something which will make the whole of us healthy. We want to feel that we're balanced, detoxed, vitamin-rich and with our glowing natural-immunity shield at full power. We especially don't want someone to tell us the inconvenient truth that bits of us are going to deteriorate, no matter what we do, and that we just have to make the best of what's left.

Alternative medicine can sell its customers a more pleasant image of themselves, but nothing can make that a reality.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Feed the troll (to the goats)

In case you've been away from the internet for a while, this happened:
  • Melanie Phillips (never a good name to have in the first twenty words of a post) wrote an article claiming that children were to be "bombarded with homosexual references" in lessons on all kinds of subjects. Tabloid Watch has a good run-down on how the story evolved to that hysterical point.
  • Partly due to her use of the term "normal sexual behaviour", partly because of her clear disregard for the very serious and widespread issue of homophobic bullying in schools, and - I guess - largely because she so frequently writes 'kick me' on her own back, lots of people got very angry about what she wrote.
  • Johann Hari wrote a very good, detailed explanation of how the 'gay agenda' extends no further than trying to reduce discrimination and bullying, and how no amount of references (or avoidance of references) to the existence of homosexuality will change the sexuality of children.
  • Melanie Phillips wrote a follow-up article about how the reaction to her piece proves her point - gays and their liberal supporters want to smother free speech, Johann Hari has missed the point of her article (he really, really hadn't) and, hold the front page, threats against her person had been transmitted via email and Twitter.
What reassures me about this whole kerfuffle is that even though such an outdated, divisive and inaccurate piece was printed in a national newspaper, so many people had a problem with it. This is very definitely progress from a few decades ago. What is less reassuring is the form that this outrage has apparently taken. Even discounting the alleged death threats, most of it wasn't at all productive. On the day the article was printed, my Twitter feed was full of people informing the world, with differing levels of eloquence, wit and strong language, that Melanie Phillips is homophobic, and a bad person. This I knew.

What I didn't learn until I read her article and went looking for the Schools Out website, was what exactly it was that she had portrayed as an "abuse of childhood". It looks like an excellent project. It also looks like it would benefit from some positive public attention, and the cooperation of more teachers and politicians. It would have been nice if, instead of stringing swear-words together and venting against one person's homophobia (which is unlikely to change, no matter how many people offer to beat it out of her) more people had publicised what it is that Schools Out is doing, and why Phillips' representation of this was false.

So here's the project. They have a donate button. If we use it as a Mad Mel-Induced Swear Box, it might bring something positive out of a needlessly negative couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

First-hand account of the Femail sausage-factory

Yo reader(s).

I'm going to try to update this blog every day this month. There'll be a lot of waffle, and a bit of recycling from my Twitter feed, but it's about time I put myself under some deadline pressure and see what I can squeeze out.

Day 1

This is a very good guest post by Juliet Shaw, at No Sleep 'Til Brooklands. It explains, in an admirably calm way, what happened when she - to all intents and purposes an ordinary member of the public - took part in a feature for the Daily Mail, and was well and truly misused. After an interview represented as being on a far less intrusive topic, the tiniest scraps of information about her private life, grudgingly given, were inflated into an almost entirely misleading account, allegedly in her own words, which morphed her into some kind of man-hungry, delusional Liz Jones figure. Relations with the rural community she had recently moved to were understandably damaged, a simple apology was sought and denied... court battle... costs... bullying... and a settlement born of pure exhaustion was reached after two years (reimbursement of costs OR apology, but not both).
What baffles me in all of these cases is why the journalists bother to grow these hideously mutated articles from a tiny seed of truth, when making something up from scratch would be less hassle. They've clearly decided before finding interviewees what the angle will be: rather than use a real person and include just enough truth for them to be identified and have to face the consequences, why not just invent a name, hire a model for the photoshoot, not bother with the expense of bringing someone to be interviewed... and suffer absolutely no risk of a lawsuit because there's no-one to sue you?

Or are they still clinging to the idea that what they're doing is 'reporting', rather than writing fiction?

Monday, 3 January 2011

For your interest and entertainment... are a few things I've been happily distracting myself with over the holidays:
  • Right at this very moment, Amanda Vickery ('er that looks at Georgian 'ouses on the telly) is hosting a very absorbing discussion on her Twitter page about what may attract different kinds of viewers to history documentaries.
  • Yesterday Heresy Corner posted an excellent Cluedo-based parody of the media's sneering, marginalising (yes, to the point of demonising) coverage of a murder suspect.
  • There's also a very useful post on Banksy's Blog explaining how the current Contempt of Court legislation came about, and what it means for newspapers covering cases such as the murder of Joanna Yeates. It's worth reading through some older posts there too, as quite complex matters (for example libel reform) are clearly and engagingly explained.
  • I've also been reading through the archives of Primly Stable and The Web of Evil, to make up for only having come across both blogs so late in the year.
Meanwhile, I'm working on a rather large skeptics-related post designed to rock your world. So find a good cup-holder (but don't hold your breath).