Wednesday, 28 October 2009

How I (accidentally) got the BNP to confess they are causing climate change

Recently, I accidentally strayed into the world of investigative journalist. This is an unusual thing to do, so let me preface it.

I am just coming to the end of my Neuroscience PhD, so have been busy over recent months. I also do stand-up comedy, whenever I can. I’ve been doing comedy for over 4 years now, and now that my time is freeing up, I decided I should make more of a go of it. And sometimes, the quickest way to the top is by catching a ride on the bandwagon.

The BNP have been in the news a lot recently, and as such have been subjected to much satirical and comedic analysis. Who am I to swim against the tide? That’s how you end up beached. I’m a fan of the beach, but let’s not confuse a metaphor. So I decided to write some BNP based jokes.

I’ve heard recently that the BNP sell party merchandise such as T-shirts via an online shop. This both amused and worried me. But then a thought occurs; Are the garments made in the UK, or abroad, like most garments these days? If it’s the latter, then the BNP is giving money to foreign countries, which seems counter to their policies. If it’s the former, judging by the reputation of the British textile industry, anyone who buys one will probably ‘send them back’.

However, my scientific side wouldn’t let me make any reference to this without doing the research. So I explored the online shop, which is a veritable treasure trove of twatness, complete with an entire ‘Gollies’ section. However, I found no sign of the information as to whether the merchandise was locally sourced or not.

I had to know. The fact that it wasn’t mentioned suggested that the merchandise was made abroad. They wouldn’t pass up the chance to add a ‘100% British’ logo would they? But I won’t make accusations without evidence. That’s their game, not mine. So, setting up a new email account (I don’t want to end up on any lists myself), I emailed the address provided. In order to avoid seeming like someone taking the piss, which what I planned to be, I decided to be well mannered but poorly educated. The ideal BNP target; polite, but thick. Here is the genuine email I sent. All spelling mistakes are deliberate.

ME: Hello
I was browzing your online shop. Tho I like all your merchandize, I was wondering, are your shits and others merchandize all made in
Britain? I want to check before making a purchaze

Less than five minutes later, I got this reply.

SHOP: We've been unable to change Britain's climate to grow cotton locally, hence the cotton for the shirts comes from overseas.

May I assume that your computer, car, and appliances are all made in Great Britain? I'd just like to check for consistency, and make sure you're not being hypocritical.

All the best

I guess this is why most customer service centres are based overseas, if the typical British response is to berate anyone who makes an enquiry. However, much to my surprise (and everyone else’s I’d imagine), it turns out that the BNP are deliberately causing climate change. That’s not a wise thing to tell a casual enquirer, I thought. More on that later.

The last point is fair, I would be hypocritical if I was making a genuine enquiry. Is it wrong to lie to strangers? I always thought it was, but then I remembered how the BNP recruit people, so I thought British Monkey see, British Monkey do.

ME: Hello again

Thanx for reply. I see your point. I try to buy British where I can. I bought this PC from my brother and hes from the same town as me.
I dont have a car, cant afford it, but will get a british one if I do.
Ill ask my mam where all our other stuff comes from when she gets home from work
Thanx again

Like I said, polite but thick is what I was going for. I threw in a few, by my standards, obvious jokes, so I didn’t expect a response. 5 mins later, my expectations were dashed.

SHOP: We do the best we can to source local merchandise that is affordable, but it's not always possible.

All the best,

I was getting the impression that this person was bored. It usually takes several days for a response from an online retailer, and I’ve had 2 within 10 minutes of my first message. I guess the silent ‘majority’ that the BNP claim to represent are happy to make their own shirts out of old Klan uniforms and immigrant blood. Or something. So, now that I’ve started…

ME: Thanx
Also, do you ave to pay by credit card? I dont ave one yet as im not 18 for 2 years and its my dads birthday present so want it to be a suprise

I wondered, are the BNP willing to take money from a naive, semi-illiterate teenager?

That was a pretty stupid question, as it turns out.

SHOP: You can pay by cheque or postal order made out to @!@! The address is Blah blah blah avoid getting sued etc. The only problem is that it will take longer and might not arrive in time. When is your dad's birthday?

They did give me the actual address of course, which seemed foolish. I don’t like leaving a question unanswered though, even if they are addressed to someone who doesn’t exist. So…

ME: Not for while yet, so thats ok, was just looking now because Im suspended from school.
He doesnt get out for another 3 weeks anyway, so its cool I think

So, I’m a misbehaving, poorly educated teenager with an incarcerated father. Or possibly he’s in hospital. What advice would they give a person like me? Surely they would advise against me spending money on their hatemongering merchandise?

SHOP: OK, that's no problem then. I'm sorry for the tone of my first email. I get tired of journalists causing trouble.

All the best to you, and keep out of trouble!

In my defence, I’m not a journalist. In their defence, I am a comic doing research that will be used to openly mock them and their ideals. Is that better or worse than a journalist? And the BNP told me to stay out of trouble. Anyone see any problem with that? What do the BNP define as trouble?

So, as a result of my self-inflicted obligation to back up my meagre jokes with facts, I now have written statements from the BNP that they are actively contributing to climate change and will continue to do so until Britain’s climate is altered (in order to support non-native organisms, ironically).

Supporters could argue they aren’t being serious. But why say it in the first place? It’s the sort of comment that would seriously get seized upon in the world of politics, which they vehemently claim to be part of. If I were a journalist, this would put food on my table for quite some time.

Supporters could also say that I’m interacting with someone who’s not responsible for speaking for the party. I would disagree, this person has to deal with enquiries from the general public, and if they’re more indicative of a typical party member then I’d say their statements are more valid, not less.

What if it’s true? The BNP are actively attempting to destabilize the climate? This could be corrected by my own system, where instead of fossil fuels, we burn the BNP to generate electricity, providing bountiful energy (if Nick Griffin is indicative, they’re all large individuals) while cutting down consumption, giving whole new meaning to the term ‘White Power’.

But more sinisterly, my hapless ‘probing’ reveals that the BNP are happy to take money from ignorant children, with incarcerated or ill parents.

If I wasn’t anti-BNP before, I am now. And I was before, so now I am more so. All I wanted to do was avoid making false claims like they do, and I ended up concocting a whole new identity and background in order to lie to a stranger. I’m not proud of myself, but then any blow against the BNP is worth it, I feel. They do far worse, I’m sure.

It seems the BNP are wary of journalists and politicians, but have no fear or concern for comedians. I like to think I’ve shown that, even if it was an accident, this is an oversight that they’ll end up seriously regretting.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Alternative Alternative medicine

I used to write in this a lot didn't I? Strange, I forgot I had it recently, hence the quiet spell.
Anyhoo, how are you? Fine? Good, I'm glad you're not dead or anything.
Recently (well, several months ago now) I read Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. In the world of rational, cynical, scientific individuals who are annoyed/enraged by the complete misunderstanding and unnecessary attacks on science by the media and others, Ben Goldacre is king, although he doesn't use as long-winded suppositions or descriptions as I do.
I won't go on about the book here, suffice to say it's brilliant, but there's nothing I can't say about it that isn't explained and described better in the book itself, so buy it, read it and cut out the middleman. But it did inspire this blog post.
One chapter deals with alternative medicine and homeopathy in particular. One of the main negative traits of those who promote, and more importantly sell, pseudoscientific treatments and 'cures' is the complete absence of adherence to the scientific process. Science genuinely needs criticism and analysis in order to advance, as Bad Science often points out. However, any attempt to criticise or even question the techniques of alternative scientists is met with outrage, attacks and, worryingly often, legal action in response to 'defamation'.
Bad Science describes several admittedly low-key ways to respond to this sort of quackery. However, I've thought of my own way. Alternative medicine basically relies on making up a non-truth but explaining it in a scientific way, and people believe it. Don't know why.
Here's my approach. I argue that we should make up as many alternative therapies as possible, write them down somewhere official, and then when someone else thinks of the same approach and attempts to use that method to heal people (meaning, exploit gullible people for financial gain), sue them to buggery and back for stealing your idea. Or at least ban them from using it.
So, purely as a preventative measure, here are my alternative alternative-therapies.
It's well established that the arrangement of your surroundings can make you feel good, and imbue a sense of wellness. Well, imagine how much better you would feel if your internal environment was correctly arranged? Modern life and the intrusions of modern medicine have enforced a disharmonious arrangement on our internal organs, but a brand new therapy now now allows you to place your vital organs into a healthy, harmonious configuration. It's no joke. Don't believe me? Well, how much better does it feel when you re-arrange your external organs manually?
Sadly, the genitals are the only external organs available for manipulation to the untrained, but a number of techniques are available, all administered by a certified BurnettSolutions (tm) organ manipulator for a variety of bargain prices, all guaranteed to make you feel at least 67% more well once the immediate pain and soreness that results from forced organ adjustment has worn off. These include
Kidney Synchronosis - £25
Liver Morphotosis - £45
Spinal Space contrarotation - £60
Brain-Skull repositioning - £100
Heart cavity Resetting - £150
Colonoscopic refinement - £3000
And many others. Book now to ensure you exist in a well balanced environment, inside and out.
It is well established that water retains a memory for all the active components that have been dissolved in it, and this is often used to treat illnesses. But the water on this planet has been around for millions of years, so who could possibly know what has been in it at any point? Homeopathy can only go so far, but our brand new techniques, pioneered by BurnettSolutions(tm), actually break down the structure of water itself through an advanced technique of 'electrolysis'. Water is reset to its original, primordial state.
All ill health in modern society can be traced to the consumption of contaminated water, so by purchasing your water from BurnettSoutions(tm) you can be among the healthiest people on Earth, providing you avoid all contact with non-reset water of course. Available from just £49.99 litre, re-set water prevents ill health, cures illness, and the special electrolysed reset water (£79.99 a litre) even contains residual electricity, giving you a spring in your step and more energised blood to aide respiration.
Everyone knows that food grown in volcanic soil is better than standard food. And people who live on or around volcanoes live longer lives (barring eruptions). Clearly, the energies of mother Earth itself are infused into their diet, and now they can be for yours too. At just £9.99 a sachet, you can now add the minerals and nutrients of materials that are 100% guaranteed to have been part of a high energy natural process to your very own soups, sauces and salads (but not in soft drinks, the poisonous caustic properties of these tend to denature the active elements).
Simply purchase your £9.99 sachets from BurnettSolutions (tm), or £18.99 for the extra dense materials which provide even more energy and goodness to your system, and add them to your meals. Obviously, the raw energies of the Earth are too much for some people, so you may not feel benefits straight away, but any ill effects are purely due to your body adapting to the new powers it is being exposed to. Embrace the Earth, it's the best idea you'll ever have!
Autoelevatory therapy
"On top of the World". "As high as a kite". "Up, up and away". All positive sayings. And have you ever noticed the top athletes train at high altitudes in order to achieve the best performance? What do all these things have in common? That's right, Height!
Humans evolved from tree dwelling creatures and mountain dwelling life forms. Since we crawled out of the primordial seas, we've always aspired to get higher and higher. Clearly, our bodies crave to be higher than all others. This is why tall people are so much happier than short ones and midgets.
Our social and physical ills can be traced to a lack of height in our daily lives, but help is now available. BurnettSolutions (tm) now offer specially designed autoelevator slip-ins for your shoes. These painstakingly designed elevators (£59.99 each) fit snugly into your everyday shoes and mould to the natural shape of your feet, but raise your average height by crucial inches in a manner utterly dissimilar to that of high-heels or platform shoes. Unless your ideal body height is greater than that provided by the autoelevators, you will feel a noticeable sense of well being and health that can only come from being 'high'.
Will add more when I think of them. Or please, add your own in the comment section. Join the cause!
(Also, for the cynics, here's what you get for the money.
Organ-Shui = A rather aggressive, inexpert massage.
Neo-Homeopathy = Distilled water, with a dash of lemon juice. 2 dashes for the electrolysed type.
Nutrivulcanism = Wood ash, with added grit for the denser sachets.
Autoelevatory therapy. = Two large lumps of wax, the kind they use for ear plugs).

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Phileas Fogg is a fat bastard

Not so much a Science Blog, mosre personal one, but it's interesting I think.

A number of people have been asking about some of my more surreal sounding comments regarding my experiences of late. Allow me to enlighten you as to the antics I got up to, the weekend before last.

I was at home. not home in Cardiff, home home, in the Garw valley, where I spent 18 years of my life, leaving occasionally only to buy things that, incredibly, weren't available in the 8 shops we had there. And once or twice to get drunk where nobody knew me, but seeing as everyone else I knew did the same thing at the same time, this never really worked out.

Basically, on the weekend of the 22nd of August was the legendary annual Garw Valley carnival (est. 2006). An event which, literally, draws the entire valley together in a fun celebration. This isn't me being cynical or sarcastic, that genuinely happens. Since it's establishment in 2006, the carnival has grown every year, to the point where I worry that if the trend continues it'll get to he point where all of the valley's limited population will be part of the procession and no-one will get to see the whole thing. Which begs the question, if a carnival takes place and nobody sees it, does it still happen? Yes, it does.

You'd probably thing that, as an almost doctor of Neuroscience and aspiring cynical stand-up comedian, I'm not the sort of person who'd take part in carnivals. And usually, you'd be right, but you're not aware of the complete facts.

The carnival was first established and has since been organised, promoted and effectively controlled by my own dear mother. She puts her all into it, she (voluntarily) spends at least 6 months of every year setting up the carnival. The other 6 months she spends complaining about having too much to do, while stopping my little brother from doing alarming things like joining the army, or hacking into NASA. Logically, she must sleep at some point, but I'll believe it when I see it.

So, my mother urns it, and as a dutiful son, I know how much it means to her and can't refuse when she asks me to be part of it. Again.

This years theme was The Victorian era. She explained it all to me one night on the phone, but did mention that they were having difficulty finding somewhere to store the dinosaurs. I did do a brief pause at this, before asking my mother exactly how long ago she thinks the Victorian era was. I was answered with a knowing smirk and the words "Ah, Jules Verne!". I still don't get it, but didn't pursue it further.

One of the carnival sections was 'Around the World in 80 days'. Fair enough. As part of this, there was going to be a few groups representing different countries and cultures. My mam asked if Vanita and I would represent India. This makes sense, Vanita is an actual Indian, and we have access to a fair amount of actual genuine Indian attire, I even have my own Kaftan-type top from India, courtesy of my mother-in-law. You could even argue, as mam did, that I'm Indian by marriage. You may be right. But I don't look it. So on the day of the carnival, the Indian procession was headed up by a lovely young glamorous Indian woman in traditional attire, and what appeared to be a fat pasty-white balding bloke in a stripy nightshirt.

We got ready in my mothers house, round the corner form where it was meant to start. As we were leaving, there were a bunch of children sat outside out neighbours house, also dressed up for the carnival's 'around the world' section. They represented the Wild West. They were native Americans. Or, as they are also known, 'Indians'. This led to the following exchange.

"Hi kids, what are you dressed as?"

"Duh, Indians!"

"No, we're Indians"

This was followed by an awkward pause, which I was convinced would end in a dance-off, Bhangra vs Tribal. Would have been awesome, but instead we just wandered down to meet everyone else.

I was assured the carnival would start at 12.30pm. We arrived at 12.05pm. We were late. It was at this point that I was informed that, apart from the pipe band, myself and the wife would actually be leading the carnival. I don't like that sort of attention, but I was willing to do it. I was also then informed we'd be leading the procession while pulling a life size replica of Phileas Fogg, in a giant basket with balloons, on a cart. This was less reassuring. It wouldn't have been so bad, but the cart they were using to put the basket on was on loan from the local factory, was designed for shifting about a dozen palettes of heavy plastics and actually weighed more than me by itself, let alone when weighed down with a giant basket containing a life-size replica of fictional gentleman explorers.

The carnival route took us to the top of the valley, then down to a communal field. Total journey time at a slow walking pace, about an hour. An hour of pulling this dead weight, with the pressure of about 200 gaily dressed carnival folk following me. Vinny did her best to help, but as someone twice her size I really felt I had to do the most work.

Interesting point, the biggest crowd gathers to watch on Blaengarw square, the main thoroughfare on the carnival route and the location which offers the most space and best views. It's also where the steepest hill is. So for nearly a thousand people all eagerly waiting to see the carnival, the first thing they saw of the procession was a fat, balding, pasty-white red-faced, profusely sweating balding bloke in a stripy nightshirt, pulling a gaily dressed scarecrow in a basket with balloons attached.

Getting up that hill was no fun. Then when we reached a certain point, we had to get it down again. I have a lot of sympathy for Sisyphus.

Getting down was borderline deadly, there being no breaks on this cart and a steep hill to contend with. People waiting at the bottom of the hill for the carnival were greeted to the sight of me, coming down hill backwards, trying like hell to stop Phileas Fogg from rolling out of control and killing me and the pipe band.

Eventually we got it down to the field where the all-day fete was taking place. The extremely muddy field. We were supposed to drag Phileas across the field to the end point, but it was so muddy we realised this would be a futile, insane thing to do, and abandoned him behind a bouncy castle.

The rest of the day was lovely, if very muddy. Here are some highlights.

- Having to wash my feet after walking on ankle deep mud in flip flops.

- Seeing my Nan and her best friend dancing to 'World in union', dressed as old time maids or something.

- Free Burgers.

- Annoying the self advertised psychic when she kept asking where certain people where, which resulted in me muttering the word 'fraud' to myself rather loudly.

- Seeing an old, pissed schoolmate with a Swiss flag painted on his face, which I'm not sure he was aware of.

- Surprisingly clean portaloos.

- Myself, in my smart jacket and shirt, and my wife, in nice Indian attire, being put in charge of the food stall, becoming officially the most unlikely hot-dog vendors in history and freaking out quite a few pot-heads.

So yeah, that's what happened.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Society, Socialising and Salamanders

Right, I've been asked why a lot of my posts recently have focussed specifically on Axolotls. This is a fair point, and as is my want, I will answer it in a long rambling fashion.

I've been to a lot of conferences recently, and throughout my adult life. I've also joined numerous societies and groups which, invariably at some point, involves being put in a room with a large number of strangers and instructed to 'meet people', or 'mingle'. Normally, if booze is available (particularly if it's free), this happens of it's own accord, as long as people are patient.

At first, groups of people who know each other stick together rigidly, usually in a circle so as to present no weak point to a potential interloper. Some of the looser knots are just people who met earlier that day, or on the way in to the room, or even if some brief eye contact has been made and now all parties feel obligated to mingle. But two or three drinks in, guards will drop, one group member will spot a friend in another group and a connection will be made, potentially causing both groups to merge. Someone will pick up someone else's drink and a laugh will be shared, and friendships will form. Two groups will meet randomly and realise that together they have a chance of taking and maintaining the best seats, or the table with the crisps, or just keeping even more interlopers from joining. But this keeps happening until the gathering is one seething, chaotic mass with no structure or leader.

It's basically the whole of human social development, occurring over a few hours, accelerated by alcohol. I believe this is why alcohol is often described as a 'social lubricant', although nobody yet seems to be picking up my habit of calling alcohol 'conversational KY jelly'. Give it time.

However, if the gathering is big enough, or the organisers want to speed up proceedings further than simply by supplying alcohol alone, there will be some sort of enforced-mingling game (EMG). Enforcing is actually never really used, but it feels forced, so...

A recent conference of Science Communicators included the EMG of swapping tables between courses, although this only works during a sit down meal. This was fun for all concerned, apart from the waiting staff, who got progressively more confused until one ran out screaming obscenities and trying to dispense plates of an admittedly standard chicken based dish to passers by in the street. Still, this provided more fodder for mingling conversation, and how we laughed as the police tackled him to the ground.

My most memorable EMG was several years ago, where I joined a University society doing student radio. I wasn't there long, never going back after this particular social. That's one drawback of these things, you end up talking to people you would never have talked to otherwise, and sometimes these things serve to show you exactly why that is. I would never normally choose to socialise with these ascending-autoposteriosphinctoral* media wannabes, why start now?
The EMG used in this instance was a more simple one; on arrival, each person was given a name badge with one half of a 'famous couple' (corresponding to the gender of the individual) on it. You were instructed to seek out the other half of this famous couple and when you did, you had to, quote, "do what that couple would do". Asking for clarification from the organisers, this (quite obviously, going by their patronising tones) meant 'talk to each other'.

I know many couples. I'm even in one. As far as I'm aware, 'talking to each other' is below the absolute minimum level of interaction required in order to be classified as 'a couple'. At this point, I was getting alarmed as to exactly what sort of 'social event' I'd attended.

I was assigned 'Kenickie' [sic?], which thanks to my younger sisters constant watching of the bastard film growing up, I knew to be the second lead male in 'Grease'. I guessed I had to find 'Rizzo'. The place was already pretty full, and quite dark, so this was hard. But I did notice a lot of other halves of famous couples.

I saw 'Fred Flintstone' talking on a mobile phone (to Barney I assume), 'Mr Darcy' on the dance floor looking like a gyrating tit, 'Cleopatra' (18 stone at least), 'Romeo' (squeezing the arse of a woman who definitely wasn't Juliet), 'Victoria Beckham' (blatant Pikey, so at least she was accurate, HA HA HAAAA). But you get the gist. These were the ones I recognised, most I didn't really get, so couldn't say if they were ironic opposites or not.
But after a while, I got the impression that whoever had organised this game hadn't really put much thought into it. I saw three girls representing the Corrs sisters. A 'coupling' I'd never thought about before apart from pretty much constantly during my teens and probably for the next few days now that I've brought it up again. I also saw a Linda McCartney and a Heather Mills, and even a Loretta Bobbtit.
Then I saw someone which made me realise that whoever had been given the task of making these badges had resented it greatly, that's the only explanation. On the way to the toilet, I passed a woman looking pretty pissed off. I couldn't blame her, on her badge was written 'Maxine Carr'.

Remember the instruction, 'Do what that couple would do'.

Poor girl, not only did she have to wear that badge, she was going to be alone all night. Seriously, any normal bloke arriving at a party and being told 'You've got to wear a badge saying that you're Ian Huntley', he would probably turn and go straight home. And if he doesn't that's worse, he'll be avoided by everyone there, especially by any young woman who'd been labelled Maxine Carr.
You can see why I didn't go back.

Anyway, Axolotls? I'm getting to that.
We had a psychology conference last week (PsyPAG 2009, for those interested, look it up). Good times. During the wine reception for 150 people, there was an EMG I'd not encountered before; People Bingo.
Good idea really, says the guy who is pretty sure the people who organised it will read this. You go round the assembled crowd and get people to sign boxes on a scorecard, in each box is a general description of a person. "Has an unusual Tattoo", "Enjoys Teaching", "Has a child", and so on. You find a person that fits a description, get them to sign it, fill your scorecard, get a prize. Fair enough.

At one point, some asked me if I’d ever broken a bone. There was a box that said ‘someone who has broken a bone’. I said I hadn’t.

She said ‘But it’s the only one I haven’t filled’. The implication being, I think, that if I was any sort of half-way decent human being, I would voluntarily and manually break one of my bones there and then, in order to provide a slight convenience for a total stranger. I thought about it, but still had to walk home, so chose not to. What a selfish prick I am!

Anyway, I kept getting asked to fill in the box “someone who had had an unusual pet”. I myself had an Axolotl for a brief period, which everyone agreed was quite unusual. Actually, that’s a lie. Pretty much everyone refused to believe they exist. They still had me sign their card, but assumed I’d made the whole thing up.

Here’s the thing. Axolotls are salamanders, originating in Mexico (hence the vaguely Aztec name). They are very fascinating creatures, being neonates they can spend their entire lives in a larval state, only maturing into land-based salamanders if exposed to sufficient iodine. They are also cool in appearance, and amusing to look at, and make good pets if you don’t mind feeding them strips of raw liver with a pair of tongs on account of them being meat-eaters with crap eyesight. They have many other cool properties.

The part that bugged me wasn’t that so many people, all future doctors if they weren’t already, genuinely didn’t know of the axolotl. No, the worst part is that so many people actually believed that I would invent an exotic salamander in order to get the attention of strangers. They genuinely laughed when I said I had one as a pet. (Where did I keep it? In a pond in my secret garden, next to the Unicorn Barn?). Admittedly, this is the sort of thing a 5 year old would say in order to give credibility to some bullshit story. Thing is, I’m not 5, I’m 27, and I thought I was more credible than that.

So, in order to rectify this gross injustice to both myself and Alan (my Axolotl, I didn't name him) and the Axolotl species in general, please join my facebook group and further the cause

And spread the word!

There you go, from social development of human culture to Axolotls in one seamless rant.

No I'm not bored.

* = The technical term I invented for someone who is 'up their own arse'. They never know what you're saying, so use it freely.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

First Offence.

This will probably be a long one. It will probably be one of many on the same subject recently, so feel free to ignore it if you’re a serial blog reader.

Have a read of this article, written by Brian Logan. It’s long, but stick with it, or this blog won’t make sense. Or just don’t read this blog, that’s probably easier actually. But if you want to read it, best read this article first.

It’s about how stand-up comedy is offensive once again, like in the olden days. This has caused a bit of a furore in the comedy world, as some of you will have probably heard about if you are involved in any way. But this article offends me (ironically), there are so many things wrong with it. And for once, both my comedic and scientific side are vying to get their say in first. There are plenty of other comics who have or will rebuke this article, much more eloquently than I could, like this one, this one and this one. However, this article uses the familiar trick of including research from a scientist, to give the argument much more weight. I’m not a social psychologist like Sue Becker, but as a Neuroscientist who actually does stand-up comedy, I feel I’m more than qualified to offer a rebuttal from a science perspective. Many would argue that, as a Neuroscientist, I could pull rank, but I would never say such a thing. So consider this a scientific counterargument if you will.

Firstly, this article does make a few good points. I’ve noticed from my own experiences that there is an alarming degree of comedy that is offensive for offences sake these days. I recently saw a young comedian stating that he likes to kick epileptics in the face, because the noise they make as they fit and choke to death is ‘really funny’. Nothing about that statement constitutes a joke, as far as I can make out. Please correct me if I’m wrong. It’s offensive for the sake of it. A lot of new comics seem to follow the formula; offensive = funny. This isn’t true. Offensive can be funny, if done correctly. The equation is probably more like α[offensive] = funny, where α is the variable that is the talent of the comedian; a low or zero α means the ‘joke’ isn’t funny. I was serious when I said I was a scienceist.

But in the spirit of the article, I’m going to ignore the points that disprove my argument and concentrate on what’s wrong with it. I’ll break it into sections for ease of reading.

IS comedy…, or comedy IS…?

Although seemingly well researched, the article does not ask the question is comedy offensive? It states in the opening paragraph;

“…Comedy, 2009-style. It's a world where all the bigotries and the misogyny you thought had been banished forever from mainstream entertainment have made a startling comeback”.

Not asking, telling. Science is guilty of this too, researchers start out to prove a theory, not just start poking something and watching what happens (with the very notable exception of the Large Hadron Collider, among others). But when you apply this approach to your information too, ignoring anything that doesn’t tie in with your argument, then you lose all credability. This article is not good scientifically. It spends a lot of time asking why comedy is supposedly offensive again, but does not consider for a second that this might not be the case.

I also take issue with the quote above for it’s implication that the prejudices of old days are back in force. This is a very, very dubious conclusion. Admittedly, a lot of comics use “bigotry under a veil of irony”, but I would argue that in itself is a good indicator of social change. The bigotries and misogyny of old days needed no veil; they were acceptable, nay accepted, at face value. The fact that a ‘veil of irony’ is required these days suggests that, even if an act does agree with offensive views, they know most people don’t. This is not the standard seen in the days of Bernard Manning, when jokes at the expense of black people, Irish people, women etc. were actually symptomatic of what the supposed majority believed. Offensive, prejudice comics are still out there no doubt, but they clearly don’t have the luxury of the support of the majority these days. The assertions that racism and sexism are ‘on the wane’ in today’s society are, as the article says, incorrect. But then the exact same can be said of the assertion that they are as bad as ever

The social-comedy sine-wave

An interesting aspect of the article is that it seems to support the following framework.

OLD COMEDY (pre-80’s) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

ALTERNATIVE COMEDY (80’s) = P.C., Correct, Good.

MODERN COMEDY (post-alternative – now) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

This is toss, clearly. Holding up the alternative comedy movement as the bastion of all that is good is a wild conclusion. It must be lauded for the way it wrestled comedy from the old-school prejudice sorts, but I’ve heard numerous references to how it also limited comedy exclusively to the Oxbridge brigade and the middle classes. That, to me, seems quite prejudiced. The article doesn’t mention it, so I don’t know if that’s true. Would it be unfair of me to say that Brian Logan, a Guardian Arts and Entertainment critic/journalist, might be loath to bring up the unfairness of class bias? I wouldn’t of course, can’t imagine how that could be the case. But this black and white view (hah!) is, and always will be, misleading.

It’s also ridiculous to assume that all old-school comics were racist and offensive. I have a DVD of North East comedians from the 1970s (a joke Christmas gift from my dad) and I’ve watched it a few times (in an 'ironic' manner). It’s agonizingly dated of course, but I’ll admit to not hearing a single racist statement, or anything that was more sexist than a few harmless mother-in-law jokes. Mostly, just very self-depreciating local references, nothing much more than that. We remember the racist ones, but they were by no means the only ones.

Maybe it was heavily edited, but it doesn't seem that way. Maybe working class club acts from Newcastle circa 1970-1973 provide an insufficient opportunity sample of the comedian population (some more science there for you) for an absolute conclusion, but in the time it would take to obtain enough data to provide a valid sample of the entire UK comedy scene, the data you collected would be too old to be of use. We have the biggest, most varied scene in the world, it’s impossible to sum it up in a single article. People shouldn’t try.

Weird Science?

Sue Becker describes the modern offensiveness as ‘aversive racism’, “the negative stereotypes that persist under a veneer of liberal values”. I am confused by this term. ‘Aversive’ literally means ‘causing the avoidance of a thing or situation'. Usually, it is where a stimulus or item is paired with something unpleasant. I guess she means ‘aversive racism’ is where the comedian avoids appearing to be racist using irony or something, but the term doesn’t really mean that. To me, it suggests that the racism is being discouraged by coupling it with something unpleasant, which assumes that the racism isn’t already unpleasant. ‘Aversive racism’ would put people off racism. ‘Racism revaluation’ would be a better term, or simple ‘hidden racism’.

It might seem churlish to bring this up, but you when you consider the use the term is being put to, I think it necessary to question it.

Active Comic, Passive Audience

The article makes out that these evil comics go out with the specific intention of being offensive, crude and abusive, and the poor audience has no choice but to endure it. As someone who is a comic (well, I try), I can resolutely say that the audience will have a big effect on what a comic says and does. What this and many articles forget is that being a comedian is a job, an occupation. This article subtly suggests that comics have the freedom to say what they like and therefore choose to pursue offensive or unpleasant agendas. In a static or even one-way system, where audiences are mere cattle who have no choice but to sit and watch, this may be the case.

But comedians need to get paid in order to survive. The better a comic is at comedy, the more gigs he/she gets, and the more he/she gets paid, simple feedback. An offended audience is not going to come back, and will not spread good reviews, damaging the chance of further work. An audience that is not enjoying a set will not keep laughing in the right places out of some misplaced sense of obligation. Comic and audience are somewhat symbiotic. If comedians are genuinely getting more racist and offensive, the audiences they get must shoulder some of the blame by supporting this behaviour.

A comedian cannot risk offending the majority unless there is a sizable enough minority to support them. Given the multitude of types of people in this country, that probably can happen to a degree. Personally, I can’t abide the offensive drivel of Manning, Davidson and Brown, but then they’re all more successful than I am or probably ever will be (apart from Manning, who’s dead, so technically I’ve got one up on him at present). There is, therefore, a sizable number of people who enjoy this racist, sexist comedy. But notice that the major proponents of this sort of humour (in this country) are getting on a bit. Doesn’t that suggest something about the changing attitudes of society? i.e. Modern comics aren't appealing to this fan base? Maybe the newer comics aren't as racist as the older ones, a possibility which completely contradicts the article in question. Then again, the old conservative types who like this comedy, by definition, don't like change.

Minority rules

One of the articles main points is that these offensive comics justify their actions by saying that societies are more intermingled these days, and no minorities ever tell them they’re upset. It then rebukes this, by describing how the Edinburgh festival has very few minorities, and in a staggering example of hypocrisy, smugly states that Brendon Burns' statement that an ethnic minority individual has never expressed offence at his shows is “overlooking the fact that non-white people make up a small minority of his audience”.

So overlooking important details is bad, is it? Where to start.

As someone who married into a large Indian family, I can offer some views as to why you don’t get many minorities in comedy gigs in the UK. Minority groups tend to stick together. You travel from your homeland to a strange new country, you will of course seek out people who share your language, culture and beliefs. This doesn’t really end at any point, which is why you get districts and towns with specific ethnic areas. Human social grouping, an instinct that has endured for millions of years.

(Although interestingly, several dozen of my in-laws have expressed interest in coming to a gig of mine if I ever do one in London. When I have time, I will arrange one and let them know. I just want to see what happens when I turn up at a small gig in a pub back room, and suddenly about 70 Indians turn up to see me, an unknown Welsh valley bloke. I think I’ll claim to be massive on the sub-continent, and am attempting to break the UK secretly, just to see what happens)

I genuinely don’t think it’s a question of being excluded, but more the fact that ethnic minorities choose not to go to comedy nights. Please, prove me wrong if this is not the case.

It’s also worth mentioning that British comedy does often require a threshold level of social and cultural understanding, and ethnic minorities don’t always have this. I once did a gig with some Rwandan refugees in the audience. They seemed to enjoy the night, but it was clear they didn’t really get most of it. Or maybe it was the accent (mine, not theirs).

Regarding the Edinburgh festival, I’ll admit I didn’t see many different ethnicities when I went. But maybe other factors are in play? Scottish weather tends to be off putting for people more suited to a hotter climate, and that includes people from Yorkshire (Scottish weather can be really bad). Also, the most noticeable venue there is the Udderbelly. This explains the absence of Hindu people at least; why would they attend a festival where the main venue is a giant, hollowed-out dead cow?

None of these really help the lack of ethnic minorities at comedy gigs. But I wouldn’t want any point to be ‘overlooked’ now, would I?

The accused

Cutting aside all the questionable logic and dubious sensationalist tripe from the article, the biggest sin is the horrific character assassination of modern comics who are attempting to prove the exact opposite of what they are accused of.

Jo Brand, I have worked with her. You couldn’t meet a lovelier woman, genuine, down to earth, friendly, she’s brilliant. And very good live. Her opinions are taken as gospel, even though a lot of people believe her to be something of an old school sexist. She does a lot of man-hating stuff. Would a man be right to express offence? If not, why not? But the more challenging, modern comics are basically character assassinated.

Brendon Burns. He rubs people up the wrong way quite often, granted. He is not racist. He did have that offensive poster a while ago, but didn’t the title of the show suggest he was trying to make a point about offensiveness? I saw it, he was. He was anti-racist. If Brian Logan has seen the show, he clearly missed the point by accusing Brendon of racism (not that he 'officially' did so, but let's not split hairs). If he hasn’t seen the show, then he has no right whatsoever to judge him. I’ve not read the latest Jodi Picoult book, but I’ve seen the cover. I don’t think that gives me ground to review it, or criticise it.

But worst of all is the treatment of Richard Herring. I’m a fan of Herring, of his Blog, his Stand-up, his DVDs, his podcast, I’m basically a fan of his existence., so maybe I'm biased. But he has been utterly character assassinated by this Brian Logan git, who has portrayed him as something whichis the polar opposite of his real self (unless I've been fooled by a stage persona, but a racist trying to stamp out racism is still doing good work, if for some potentially baffling reason). I’ve only ever heard him be serious once on the podcast, expressing his anger at people not voting and allowing the BNP to make gains at the recent election. To say he’s a racist, and the article does everything except out and out state that he is one by quoting him out of context with no explanation, is horrifically ludicrous and a just plain evil hing to do to a man who relies heavilyon goodwill and the support of his fans.

On his blog, Herring hopes the fact that so many of his statements are taken out of context is due to incompetence. Sorry, Richard, it clearly isn’t. It’s a long, ‘well researched’ article. This isn’t incompetence. This is malicious. Which brings me to the last section, which isn’t as analytical as these previous sections.

What a prick!

Look at Brian Logan! Look at his incredibly smug face! Read his hideously smug, patronising prose. Look at how he addresses these successful comics, people who have made their livings spending years doing this ‘comedy’ thing in a business that he clearly doesn’t get but has no problem with dissecting and discussing as if he is the last word in the craft. So often, he quotes a successful comic then follows it with smug point which undercuts their claims. of innocence. Why are people so able to supply cutting retorts in hindsight? But he carries on, safe and secure in the knowledge that his mind has been made up long ago.

And the ultimate irony, his shocking use of quotes out of context speaks volumes about his morals, after spending so much time criticising successful stand ups for a supposed lack in their own. This sort of behaviour caused the MMR-Autism debacle, which given the rise of measles has no doubt cost many children their health, probably their lives. This sort of behaviour, just picking facts you like, justified the recent wars, killing many thousands. Just picking the bits that support what you think has provided the excuse for religious wars and terrorism. Hitler just picking the bits of Nietzsche he liked caused the Holocaust. So logically, Brian Logan is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and is a war-mongering, civillian murdering nazi with a taste for attempted genocide.

Actually he isn’t, probably, but isn’t it terrible when someone takes something you said out of context and runs with it? Yeah, it’s awful all right, people could easily get the wrong impression.

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