Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Forwarding address

I don't know why all the images on this blog have suddenly gone all blank, is anyone else seeing that? The timing is weird anyway. For the 3 people and seven spiders who may still frequent this blog, you've probably noticed it's not been updated in quite some time. Rest assured, I've not quit. Although my son was born in March, so I've been a bit distracted since then, so that did prove to be quite a barrier to regular waffling for the disinterested. No, the real reason I don't blog here any more is that I've essentially sold out.

The big media people came a knocking, and I jumped ship like the soulless attention seeker that I am. I blog for the Guardian now, is what I'm saying. My new blog is called Brain Flapping (long story), and it can be found here.

They pay me for that one, so it's updated far more often. I may still use this one for random non-publishable things, but that's not guaranteed as the standard they require is worryingly low.

So, if you do miss my ramblings, don't worry, there are now more than ever, except that now I have a banner that blends in with a corporate logo.

Remember when Iggy Pop did that advert for car insurance and everyone was disgusted? This is exactly like that. Exactly.


Monday, 14 May 2012

On Man flu

Last week I was ill. Not incapacitated, just a bit under the weather in an annoying way, rather than debilitated.

It was my son's fault. Millen (which is his name) caught a cold of some sort. Not sure how, he's not really been near anyone with a cold that we've noticed, but that's apparently just one of the things kids do, find and incubate illnesses without any seeming cause.

And, inevitably, I caught the cold too. It seems that if you have someone with a cold and spend as much time as possible in close contact with them and handle all (ALL!) their bodily emissions, you risk picking up any bugs they have. Who knew?

I admit I wasn't expecting to catch a cold from an 8 week old, but more fool me I suppose. It wasn't even a proper cold, it went from having an overweight but irritated bumblebee lodged in my sinus cavities, to my nose running like a satirical commentary on the British drought announcements, to sneezing more regularly than an apprentice pepper tester. Never all at once though, more like some symptomatic triple tag-team.

None of these were, as I say, incapacitating. My wife is on maternity looking after our first child, who is 8 weeks old. Even if I was the sort of person to complain about inconvenient personal ailments, I certainly wouldn't do that to a new mother, especially not one I live with.

But I did mention my cold to a few people. To those in work when I opted to work from home to contain the infection (I have that option), to people on Facebook and twitter, because I like social networking but with a new baby in the house your range of conversational subjects suddenly gets a lot more limited. My having a cold was something a bit different to talk about. It was either that or discuss the contents of Millen's latest nappy, and that seems like it would have 'niche' appeal at best.

So, I mentioned my cold once or twice, just as a passing comment. And, it turns out, I have man flu. This surprised me, if I'm honest.

As far as I was aware, man flu is a joke used by women to describe the phenomenon of men over-dramatising their symptoms and suffering if they happen to come down with a cold, often to a theatrical extent. I'm not denying that this happens. When it comes to physical weakness or failings, most men are seemingly programmed (by society, evolution, hormones, Hollywood, I don't know) to exaggerate whatever it was that caused them to demonstrate weakness. If asked after the event, a guy is unlikely to have been beaten up by one guy, more like four. It wasn't a child's scooter they tripped over, it was a motorbike accident, The fish that got away was always the bigger one.

That previous paragraph was, you may say, nothing but some unfair generalisations and stereotypes. Good point, and it brings me neatly back to man flu.

I thought that man flu was reserved for the over-dramatic emphasis of standard cold symptoms, but lately, as I've found, it's become more of an automatic classification. It could just be my experience, but it seems Man + Unwell = Man flu. If a man mentions being under the weather for non-alcohol related causes, it's man flu. I wouldn't mind so much, but I hadn't complained, just observed that I had a cold. I was still working, I didn't want special treatment or sympathy, I just felt like it was something to say. That's man flu now, apparently.

I'm very much a feminist supporter, as I hope my article about Unilad demonstrated, but I've seen/heard many women who, rightly, criticise this male tendency to be macho about everything, to posture, to reduce everything to a pissing contest, to refuse to show vulnerability or emotion. These women say this, and they have a point. But I've seen these same women who, as soon as a male mentions being ill in some way, immediately start mocking them for having man flu. 

If you're going to insist that men stop posturing and acting so tough, but immediately start mocking them the instant they confess a weakness, this will probably end up being somewhat counter-productive. I've known guys who turn up for work hacking their guts up and infecting everyone around them like a 14th century rat, rather than be accused of being a wimp.

All things being equal, the man flu thing is still mocking someone for being unwell, and that's not very nice. It's completely unacceptable in almost all other contexts. And I've no doubt there are women reading this, perhaps as many as two, who will say I'm being ridiculously over-sensitive, that this is just a front for wounded male pride, that I should grow up and learn to take a joke. All fair points, and to those women I might say this;

I had a stomach cramp once, I didn't even mention it, let alone whinge about it for a full week.

The previous statement would be seen, rightly, as extremely offensive by many. How could I mock someone for suffering in a way that I don't have any appreciation of? Yes, how indeed.

Obviously the man-flu thing is different. Women can experience a cold, and just carry on, whereas it seems to incapacitate supposedly big burly men. That logic cannot be denied.

Except for the fact that it's wrong. It's assuming that a woman's cold and man's cold are the same. But that isn't true. Because man flu actually is a real disease.

It's an evolved mechanism. The human male, evolved for hunting and fighting, has developed a more robust immune system and physiology that can endure more damage. Any virus that infects the human male can be certain of a rugged, durable host for as long as it can withstand the formidable immune system. So a virus would evolve that was strong enough to get through the immune defences and convert this mighty organism to its infectious ways. However, such a virus would be very powerful, too powerful for a lesser system to withstand.

Long story short, man flu is a real illness, and if a woman caught it she'd be killed. Instantly. She'd liquefy on the spot, like ebola on fast forward. And a pathogen which kills it's host in seconds wouldn't have any chance to spread, so would be an evolutionary dead end, so man flu has evolved to avoid women.

But, you say, you've known a woman to catch a 'cold' from a man? Of course, that's because the mighty male immune system eventually beats back this virus, to the point where one or two molecules will 'jump ship', onto a less demanding host, which may be a woman at times.

But what about when a man catches a 'cold' (Man flu) from a woman? It's the same thing, the weakened virus builds up it's strength until it is powerful enough to infect a man again. It takes all of it's strength to do this though, to so the female host is left with only a pale imitation of the true disease.

So think about that, next time you mock a man for being ill.

Although, of course, a lot of what I've just said is absolute nonsense. I'm certain viruses don't work that way. I'm just bored and stuck at home babysitting. And babies don't say much, so my social skills are seriously rusty. 


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Life under the glittery Jackboot

I've not blogged in quite some time. Nothing personal, it's just that as of March 7th I've been a dad. Babies in the house tend to take up a lot of your time. Who knew? 

So that's why I've not said much here. I've got an actual full-time job to keep up with, which, coupled with my myriad new responsibilities, means I've got much less time to play with, and priorities have to be made. Long-winded blogposts which will only be read by a few people with nothing better to do? They're not very high up on the list, I'm afraid.

But, sometimes you just have to speak out. Someone says something that strikes a chord, and you can't just remain silent while a great injustice continues. 

Today, in the Telegraph, Lord Carey, former Archbishop, stated that Christians and those who wish to express themselves are suppressed, forced underground, vilified by the homosexuals who have essentially taken over society.

He has been widely mocked for this, via that there Twitter, the Guardian, and elsewhere. But the people mocking his stance clearly don't understand. They must live abroad or in elitist enclaves in the more modern 'hip' cities. They clearly don't know how it is for normal people and wealthy peers who have lived in palaces. I am neither homosexual nor Christian, but ever since the tyrannical homosexuals started running society, life is a constant struggle for anyone who deviates from their tyrannical views on what is 'normal'. So, to enlighten you and show to truth of Carey's words, I've decided to describe a typical day in my life, as a suppressed heterosexual living in homosexual Britain. Or 'The U-Gay' (as in UK, yeah? Geddit?), as it should be called these days. Just so you know Carey is speaking the truth, not living in some deranged fantasy world.

The day starts with me waking up before the wife. She has to feed the baby during the night, so needs to sleep in. I notice in the fridge that we've no milk yet. It's getting harder for me to get milk now, the homosexuals who control society don't approve of milk. It's a symbol of heterosexual reproduction so is considered offensive, especially if a male drinks it as this constitutes transfer of organic material across the genders, which is 'clearly immoral' I'm told. Milk isn't banned yet, but it's surely only a matter of time.

I get dressed for work. I usually wear a combination of tight trousers and/or vests, sometimes with studs or rainbow accessories. I don't suit this stuff at all, and don't like it in the slightest. I'd much rather wear something more sober and plain, but it's really not worth the risk of offending the sensibilities of some of the more flamboyant people I work with, they're likely to lodge a complaint against me if I do. I'd like to just be myself, but that's not a good idea at present.

I head towards the train station. On the way, I pass many gay bars, they're so commonplace these days. One that I pass was recently in the news after throwing out two Christians for public praying. Some of the more tolerant media highlighted their harsh treatment, but most papers and news services just flamed them for threatening to destroy the fabric of society. Seemed like quite an unfair accusation for what was just a bit of public faith between consenting adults, but most media is on the side of the silent majority of gays these days, although whether these people exist is debatable

On the train, there is a group of flamboyant homosexuals loudly singing show tunes and Lady Gaga numbers. They're annoying everyone and making people quite uncomfortable, but you can't stifle people from expressing their views, so everyone just lets them carry on. A conductor does ask them to possibly keep it down, but they are outraged by his attempts to curb their freedoms. They tell him to 'talk to the hand'. I've never been able to work out if/why this is offensive.

I distract myself by reading the free newspaper. The main story is about a community of Bears being bombed by a hard-liner Twink group. It's down to some fundamental difference in views regarding which Madonna album is better. It seems utterly ridiculous and superficial to me, but then I'm not part of that community so am told I'm not able to understand the importance of the dispute. Fair enough, I suppose.

Spend the next few hours in work. Am occasionally pestered by my annoying co-worker who keeps telling everyone they should attend her LGBT pottery class. She keeps telling me I should go and how much good it would do me. I keep declining, she wants to know why. I eventually tell her that I'm not a part of the LGBT community and I just find pottery immensely dull. She's polite about it, but is clearly very angry. That's probably going to get me ostracised for the next few weeks. 

(This happened in my last job. I said I wasn't going to Mardi Gras as it didn't really apply to me, and then I stupidly asked why an event with the name 'Fat Tuesday' always occurred on the weekend? This resulted in a massive backlash, and accusations of me aggressively undermining the true meaning of the occasion by trying to change the name. Madness! I had to leave that job, it was too much. My boss made a decent effort to be supportive, but what with his office filled with Mardi Gras merchandise I don't think he really saw my side of things)

I nip out for lunch in town. I'm waylaid by and incredibly camp man with giving out flyers about how essential it is to become homosexual. He tries to give me one, but I decline, saying I need to be back in work. He gets very angry and remonstrates me, telling me that unless I embrace homosexuality I'll never get into heaven. He means it as a threat, but I don't really have much of a concern. I've never cared for night clubs anyway.

Back in work, a meeting with HR. I've got to sort out paternity leave and the like. It's quite complicated. My wife and I are, logically, married, but society doesn't recognise it as 'true' marriage, what with it being mixed-sex. After all, they argue, men and women are so different, they're practically different species. We're mixed-race as well, which just makes it worse. It's no better than bestiality, they say. I try not to let it get to me, but it's hard going some times. We don't have the same protections that 'normal' gay couples have under the law. 

Could be worse I suppose, at least we're not religious. The treatment they get is worse again. It's not natural, they say. Some of the arguments seem to make sense, sadly. Homosexuality is natural, you can't help that, but being religious is a choice. A wrong one, clearly, judging by this society. But still, the vendetta against religious people seems a bit much, given that they're not hurting anyone with their beliefs. You'd think the gay organisations running society would have bigger things to worry about what with the economy and so forth, but apparently not.

I eventually head home. On the way, I pass a hotel I stayed in once. Fairly low budget, but even then they had the obligatory copy of Alan Carr's autobiography in the bedside drawers. Never read it myself, but apparently it's become the homosexual text which they tend live their life by. From what I know of Alan Carr, he is a very amiable friendly bloke, but in the book there is apparently a miss-print. One sentence should read 'I said "God, no!"', the typical exclamation meaning immediate denial. But instead it reads 'I said "God? No!"', and this is what all the religious persecution is based on. Seems flimsy justification, but like I say, I've never read it. There's also apparently a part that uses the phrase 'straight to hell', which is interpreted as a condemnation of heterosexuals. you could argue that these are very much open to interpretation, but it's never any use.

So I get home. Wife, son, all one happy family. We can't go out much, but we probably wouldn't anyway. Modern society means our lifestyle and relationship isn't really approved of by many, even if those who disprove don't really know why. I'm fairly sure that most homosexuals have no problem with what other people do, but that's not really helpful to us. It's the aggressive, shouty ones who get to dictate what happens. Nobody ever pays attention to the people who aren't saying anything, for obvious reasons.

So there you have it, an account of life in a society run by dominant homosexuals (pardon the double meaning of that). At least Carey has had to guts to speak out, hopefully many more will follow and bring about real change, ending this injustice once and for all.

DISCLAIMER: Sadly, odds are I'll need to state this for clarity's sake; The above anecdote is entirely fictional. It never happened. It is a (probably weak) attempt at satire, intended to portray what life would be like in a society under the control of what are clearly ridiculously exaggerated homosexual clichés, which a worrying number of people seem to be convinced is the case, despite the substantial evidence to the contrary. Any analogues between this blog piece and the real world are obviously intentional, but the society portrayed only exists in some possible parallel universe, and the heads of myself and Lord Carey. I write this disclaimer to show that I, at least, am aware that it's not real.

Twitter: @garwboy


Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hot War-on-War action

There's a lot of war about these days. I know that's sadly usually the case globally, but I meant in daily life here in cushy western society. And I don't mean this in the most literal sense. I'm not regularly experiencing mortar fire every time I go to Morrison's to buy some bin bags. I meant the word 'War' is, as far as I can see, popping up seemingly everywhere. And words are funny things, aren't they?

Actually, forget that, most of the time they're not. Words can be quite bland. Slate, Grey, tepid, felt, step, moored, these are just some words which provoke little or no reaction in your average person, they just exist to fulfil a function. Like windowsills. They're useful and we'd miss them if they were gone, but I doubt anybody has ever said 'I do love those windowsills'. If I'm wrong about this and you know someone who does say that, then fair enough. But I'd give that person a wide berth if I were you.

But undeniably, some words can trigger intrinsic emotional responses. This is actually used in clinical assessment in a few ways, one of which is a version of the stroop test. To briefly describe it, subjects/patients are asked to say the colour of each word in a list of words, not to read it. Of course, people tend to be unable to stop themselves reading words, even if it's made more difficult, it's an automatic process much of the time. The emotional stroop test, as it's known, gets participants to give the colour of a list of words, some of which have strong emotional connotations. For example, if the test is intended to assess whether someone is depressed or not, a lot of the words will have strong, 'bleak' connotations (murder, suicide, cancer etc.). In theory, a depressed person will divert more attention to these loaded words than they will to more neutral, generic ones (leaf, wheelbarrow, melon etc.). Depression tends to be a self-perpetuating condition due to the psychological preoccupation and emphasis on the negatives, and this test arguably reveals indications of this.

So words can and do have intrinsically powerful meanings, is what the overall point is.

This has been brought up a lot recently, with the controversy over Workfare in the UK, the government scheme to get the unemployed back in work but without all that pesky payment to sort out. Whatever you think of it as a concept, it's definitely caused a lot of controversy, and there are plenty of other, better informed blogs/articles out there if you want to delve into that.
What struck me was the fact that many people are comparing it to slavery. Some were doing it for satire, which is fine. But many people objected to those objecting to workfare by comparing it to slavery. No doubt a fair bit of the latter is intellectual posturing, people wanting to show that they're even more 'right on' than the 'right on' bandwagon, but there's obviously some relevance to the complaints. I don't think that being compelled to work for several hours a day in order to justify benefits, however unpleasant and unfair it may be, can be seen as directly analogous to being kidnapped, beaten, sold as property and forcibly made to toil all day every day for the rest of your (undoubtedly short) life. Obviously, a lot of people feel strongly about the casual use of such a loaded word as slavery, one with such terrible historic implications.

Some words are too loaded, apparently, unless used with 100% contextual accuracy. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is largely subjective and depends on your views on free speech, censorship etc. I've mentioned before how the previously used term 'depression' may be too generic, meaning sufferers might get short shrift as a result. And the casual use of the term 'rape' is not something that usually ends well, as I may have discussed.
What confuses me, though, is why the same consideration and gravitas isn't applied to the term 'War'. I don't think there are many rational people who actually think war is a good thing. Those who are 'pro war' are almost exclusively people who are very unlikely to actually experience it directly. I may be wrong about this, but I'll go out on a limb and say that people who genuinely think war is a good thing are unlikely to be the sort of people who would object to using a specific term in an incorrect context. They're clearly an 'ends justify the means' type.

But of those who do object to the casual use of meaningful, loaded terms, I've not yet seen anyone object to the causal use of the word war. I'm just wondering why this is?

War is, at best, viewed as a necessary evil. And when the most positive spin you can give to something includes the word 'evil', that's not a good sign. The very existence of war has often been used as a shortcut in sci-fi to show that humans = evil (check out The Fifth Element, or any series of Star Trek). War is bloody. War is destructive. War involves armed conflict and invariably a high death toll. War kills people, usually in their thousands, often indiscriminately. Cultures, societies, populations, environments, there are many examples of each that have been utterly devastated by war. Historically, that's what war does.

In a historical context, War has killed countless millions over thousands of years, and with the invention of nuclear weapons it has become something that could wipe out the human race altogether, and relatively easily. We still have remembrance day and many other occasions across the world to honour those who went to war (and never came back) so we don't have to now. So, historically, war clearly has the same resonance and connotations of words such as slavery, or genocide, or holocaust.

Now, imagine if there was a TV advert for a bleach or toilet cleaner with the slogan 'It's like a bacteria holocaust!' It would be pulled from the air in seconds and those who made it would be pilloried mercilessly (and rightly so, I hasten to add). However, if the slogan was 'go to war on bacteria', that would be fine, people probably wouldn't even register it as anything unusual. Because it wouldn't be.

Just through the use of google autocomplete, here are some wars that are apparently going on at the moment.

War on Women

War on Waste

War on Want

Welfare state

War on Free Speech

War on Christmas

War on Drugs

War on Terror

War on Binge Drinking

War on Teenagers

War on Poverty

War on the working classes

War on Piracy

War on Censorship

War on Islam

War on Christianity

War on Religion

War on atheism

War on science

War on Democracy

War on Unions

Price War

Bidding War

That's a lot of war to be getting on with, and I've not even mentioned the actual armed conflicts (which are these days, contrastingly, being described as 'police actions', 'insurrections' and so on, not 'wars').

The term war is clearly thrown around so casually that I worry it's become largely devalued. Vince Cable declared that he'd 'declared war on [Rupert] Murdoch'. As much as I like the idea of Vince Cable recruiting an army and forcibly storming the offices of the Sun at Wapping, I don't think that's what he meant. I'm pretty sure for something to actually be a war, both sides involved have to actually be aware that it's happening.

War on women, war on waste, war on want, war on working classes, war of words, I now move we declare 'War on words that begin with W purely to take advantage of the phonetic similarity'.

The war on Christmas has been going on for many years now. I guess that's inevitable, as it's one of the only wars where you can't say 'it'll all be over by Christmas'. It's the opposite, if anything.

The War on Poverty was declared in the 60's, apparently. I'm going to assume it didn't involve carpet-bombing impoverished areas with shell casings filled with banknotes and jewels. If anything, the war has stepped up in recent years, with the 'Make Poverty History' campaign calling for all-out eradication of poverty. A poverty-genocide, if you will.

If you believe what you read these days, most of the major religions (and also atheists) are having war waged against them, although none claim to have initiated hostilities nor to be actively taking part in said war. Indeed many are engaging in some bizarre form of pre-emptive retaliation, which doesn't seem logical when you think about it

A lot of these 'wars' are shorthand ways of describing a seemingly orchestrated campaign by a particular organisation or powerful body to limit the powers/rights of another group, or to undermine a process or principle which they see as a threat. I'm not saying these are good things or that they aren't happening, but I just question the appropriateness of describing them as 'wars'. And I'm aware of the irony of me questioning whether or not 'War on Freedom of Speech' is an acceptable term.

It would be easy to blame George W. Bush and co for starting all this, with their 'War on Terror', an official armed conflict against an abstract concept. But there's plenty of examples before this. The Cold war, which had the threat of war but no actual conflict. The Cod war, which was purely about fishing territories, but at least was an official disagreement between 2 countries, which is one of the aspects that normally defines a war. But these days it seems that someone can declare a war against something/someone at the drop of a hat, and nobody even registers it. People even use the phrase 'been in the wars' to describe someone who's had a run of bad luck. Not even one war, several!  

You could argue that the term is being used correctly, as war can be described as 'active hostility, contention, conflict'. Indeed, not arguing that; hostility and conflict can easily occur without actual violence or weaponry or death. But then a slave can be defined as 'a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person'. People on workfare could be said to meet this description, as they are under the domination of the government/social services who will remove their life sustaining benefits if they don't work for free, but this is argued to be an inappropriate term because of the historical context around slavery. Fair enough. This is the case for slavery. Not for war, though. Granted there are still people experiencing slavery today, the fallout from it is still very real and it's undeniably a very real problem that ruins lives. But this is also very much the case for war.

I just can't help but wonder why this casual use of the term war has come about unremarked upon. I can't imagine someone who has written a successful book talking about it being subject to a studio 'bidding war', to a WWII veteran with one leg. Odds are it could happen and neither party would think anything of it. It just strikes me as odd.

Maybe people are more comfortable with using the term war as it is taken to mean 'conflict', and it's very hard to avoid conflict in normal everyday life, whereas most people can easily go their whole lives without enslaving anyone or committing genocide.

I don't have an answer or any real alternative for this situation, other than to highlight a supposed double standard that nobody else seems to have picked up on. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could suggest that this was an orchestrated attempt by those in power to rob the term War of its gravitas, so that when the next full-on military war is declared (let's say against, oh, I don't know, Iran, to pick a country entirely at random), people are more likely to just tut and sigh, rather than stage massive protests. Another war? Just add it to the pile.

I guess we need a new word to describe initiating a conflict without a violent military component. I propose 'Bilgefest' or 'Lubeathon'. It would be hard for politicians or powerful individuals to declare a 'Bilgefest' and retain any credibility, so they might not bother?

Twitter: @garwboy


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentine's Massacre

Today is Valentine's Day. SAINT Valentine's day if you want to give it it's full official title. I was told in school that St Valentine was a Roman soldier who was imprisoned for many years and wrote a love letter to his girlfriend/wife/horse every day (it was the olden days, details are sketchy), and that's why we give romantic messages or gifts on the day named in his honour.

This raised several questions, like; since when did they have a functional postal service in ancient Rome? Was it customary practice for the less-enlightened enemies of the empire to provide their prisoners with writing materials and generously deliver their letters for them? What was someone with the ability to read and write doing in a combat situation where they could get captured anyway? This suggests more of a noble background, they didn't do grunt work like that, surely? Maybe all of my arguments are valid, but it happened anyway? This would most likely count as the miracle required to achieve sainthood, so at least it's consistent in a way.

This is all academic anyway, seeing as my attempts to find this account of the origins of St Valentine's day drew precisely nothing. I can't find any mention of this bizarre origin story online. I suspect my rambling old headmaster accidentally picked up a Mills and Boon book instead of his prepared notes for the assembly where he told us about where Valentine's day originates, and as such I have this implausible anecdote lodged in my memory.

But any attempt to find out exactly where Valentine's day comes from is tricky. Just try it. St Valentine was a composite of 14 different people. Or 7. Or just the one. And he was a Roman nobleman. Or not. There are very little (if any) reliable records about who he was and what he did. He's essentially the 'Where's Wally' of saints. The festival in his name appears to have just come from nowhere.

That's often the way with well accepted themes and symbols though, their origins are either arbitrary, unknown or quite surreal, e.g. Father Christmas's red outfit being due to a Coca Cola advert. Some things are even more sinister though, like the supposed origin of the phrase 'Rule of Thumb'. Again, that's not so certain. It's believed to derive from a law that states men could beat their wife with a stick 'no thicker than their thumb'. However, this law never existed. 'Never base a cliché on domestic violence' would, ironically, be a good rule of thumb.

So where do all these Valentines symbols and themes come from? What does chocolate, love notes (later cards), flowers, cherubs, hearts, arrows, all that, where does all that come from? Again, the origins are nowhere near as twee and gushy as that.

The heart seems to take precedence as the organ that most represents Valentine's day. This is most likely due to the fact that the heart perceptibly changes it's activity in response to stimuli like arousal or anything involving hormone release. Arguably, there are certain other organs which noticeably respond to hormone release, and probably have a more direct link to romance, but society has deemed that these are not suitable for children to see, not even in cartoon form.

So where does all this symbolism come from? Well Valentine's day as a festival was, supposedly, introduced and emphasised to supplant pagan festivals with similar themes. A lot of pagan rituals have a fertility emphasis and so on, convert-hungry Christianity at the time would have noticed that offering chastity and discipline wouldn't have been much of a marketing strategy in getting people to sign up.

So you have this Christian ceremony of romance and passion, but presented within the paradoxically rigid framework of the religion which teaches self-discipline and that pre-marital anything is a sin. Religion in general has never had much of a problem with illogical teachings though, so this problem wasn't really of any concern.

Life when Valentine's day was introduced would have been largely based in rural communities, and this would have been the case for some time. The melting pots of cities are harder places to enforce strict religious dogma, but the traditional, rigid, land-based regions are much more amenable to discipline and hard work. Farming, woodland areas, that sort of thing, small communities ruled over by an fearsome preacher or pastor who whips them into a frenzy when it's time to go burn/drown a witch (depending on which country we're talking about).

Such places would take a very intolerant approach to youthful high jinks and deviance from the strict rules the Bible (or any religious text) demands. Fundamentalist areas are the same today, they just now usually have inconvenient 'laws' to stick to before dishing out the brutal punishments.

But if history has taught us anything, it's that horny teenagers can't be stopped by strict rules. If anything, that makes them worse. So in these strict religious communities, on St Valentine's day, when romance and passion were [technically] encouraged, teenagers who have been developing a mutual attraction to each other would arrange an illicit meet up in a secluded area, knowing there'd be dreadful punishment if they were caught. As being seen talking together would automatically arouse suspicion in communities where everyone knew everyone, they communicated via letters and notes, if they could write (hence the Valentine letter, later cards, tradition, and of course they had to be anonymous in case somebody else found them and they got into trouble).

If they couldn't read and write (which was more common) they had to leave a symbol, something romantic but easy to get hold of in rural communities, like flowers. The recipient would then look for the person carrying around the same type of flower, so they knew who had asked them for a 'hook up'.

Of course, fundamental religious communities don't look kindly on this sort of thing. Those teenagers that were caught mid-dalliance in the woods or other secluded areas, committing the cardinal sin of lust, were punished brutally. As the heart was believed to be the seat of emotions and behaviour, and these teenagers were guilt of a deadly sin, they were typically shot by crossbow through the heart, in front of everyone, in order to set an example, or to 'release the demons in them', or something like that. And so we get the image of an arrow through the heart.

Some wilier or well-off culprits were able to negotiate being spared their lives, if they made a substantial donation to the church and agreed to marry their partner immediately, hence the tradition of expensive gifts and proposals.

Of course, small communities with limited law enforcement authorities can't police the wide rural areas in an attempt to catch unruly teen lovers, so it was traditional to co-opt the local children who would go out exploring or playing. If they saw a couple up to 'no good', they could run back and tell the local magistrate or whoever, and they'd be caught and executed in the 'traditional' way. The child informants would be rewarded with sweetmeats and stuff, and so we have the tradition of giving chocolate on valentine's day, and also the image of the cherub, an innocent child shooting young lovers through the heart, seeing as many young kids actively went searching for courting couples to rat out, and essentially get them shot.

So there you have it, a rather grim and brutal story of intolerance, betrayal and death underpins all of our Valentine's traditions. It's essentially based on ritual massacre of young lovers. The 1929 Valentine's massacre was just keeping up the tradition.

You may be wondering why you've never heard any of this before. Is it some corporate or church cover up, to preserve the pleasant image of the annual event and keep people participating?

Or is it because I've just made the whole thing up? Because I have. Valentine's day symbolism is just a mish-mash of Greco-Roman mythology, symbols of fertility and a big helping of commercially manufactured elements. But my version sounds quite believable, doesn't it? So feel free to tell any sappy gits who keep banging on about the gushy, twee aspects of the holiday, perhaps making them think the whole thing is based on child informants and ritual execution might put them off finally?

The origins of Valentine's day are largely artificial constructs anyway, so there's no reason why we can't introduce some darker elements to the story, to try and offset the overly-saccharine elements of the holiday as it currently stands. Consider that my gift to you.

Happy Valentine's!


Friday, 3 February 2012

UniLad to the bone

[This piece was originally written as a more concise audio rant for The Pod Delusion]

[Also, this is quite a long one. I've tried to keep it amusing or interesting, but if you want to give up by paragraph 5 then please feel free]

Before I start with the main point of this piece, here are some facts about me that are worth bearing in mind for what I’m about to discuss.

Firstly, as you can probably tell from my name and picture, I am male. I have XY sex chromosomes. Counter-intuitively, the Y chromosome is quite a weak and feeble chromosome compared to the mighty X. Perhaps this is why us males tend to be so big and aggressive, we’re all compensating for small-chromosome syndrome. It’s like small-man syndrome, but it goes right down to the bimolecular level.

My being male means I’m probably not a feminist. I support gender equality in all its forms, but feminism is such a broad and diverse ideology these days I’d hesitate to label myself as one due to ignorance alone. I feel similarly about Jedis; I agree with what they say, I think it would be cool if I was one, but I just have no idea how to go about achieving this. I did wonder what the term was for a militant feminist who was male. I suggested an effeminate militarist, but apparently this isn’t right.

Also, being male, I think this makes me immune to any accusations of being a lesbian. Although I do share their appreciation for the female form, that’s where the similarities end. You could say there are some lesbians that have hair as short of mine, or wear the same size boots, but those are just superficial choices that happen to overlap. There are some very pronounced reasons (well, averagely pronounced if I’m being honest) why I can’t be a lesbian. Also some very obvious logical ones.

I am also a married man whose wife is currently pregnant with our first child, so I can claim to be sexually experienced to a certain degree. I’m no Casanova or renowned ladies man, but I know how it all works in that department, and obviously I’m proficient enough with women to have convinced one to live with me forever. That may just be pity on her part, admittedly, but you work with what you can.

I have also been doing stand up comedy for about 7 years now, and have been writing and creating comedy in other formats for almost as long, with a surprising degree of success. I'm not a household name as a comedian or anything, I've just done a lot more high profile gigs than I'd expect to as someone who's not actually pursued comedy as a career. This is probably due to some niche appeal via my science career no doubt, but still.

I say this not to brag, but to demonstrate that I clearly have A sense of humour. It's an odd one, and many would argue that it's a crap one, but I unarguably do have one, that much is obvious. If you're reading this now, the evidence is on this site. It might make you chuckle or shake your head in despair, but that's the beauty of a subjective medium.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it's in relation to Unilad, a website that became notorious this week and has now been taken down. I don't know who spotted it first, but it quickly entered the social network sphere via women who were outraged by it. I didn't get to see a great deal of it before it was taken down after a deluge of complaints, but what I did see warranted a few raised eyebrows, to say the least. Advertising itself as a guide to being a successful 'lad' in university, it seemed mainly dedicated to the degradation of women, disabled people and pretty much anyone who doesn't conform to their masculine ideal. One of the passages I read was a bizarrely detailed mathematical analysis of how many women are sluts and how to have sex with one, and ended with the observation that 85% of rapes go unreported, so you're likely to get away with it if you force yourself on a slut if she ends up rejecting you.

Or something like that. I may be mistaken, it's hard to read clearly when you're brain is trying escape through your eye sockets.

Obviously, once it became known about, a lot of people had some serious complaints about the Unilad website, and complain they did. From what I saw, the Unilad team, demonstrating reasoning skills in-keeping with their writing skills, seemingly resorted to one of 3 responses to these complaints.

1. Accuse the complainer of being a lesbian.

2. Accuse the complainer of being a feminist

3. Accuse the complainer of having no sense of humour.

Undeniably, a lot of those complaining were women. This is understandable, seeing as it was largely women who were being denigrated and degraded by Unilad. If you break into someone's home, it's usually the home owners who end up calling the police. Cause and effect, that is.

So, as a heterosexual white male non-feminist, non-lesbian, working class background comedian who's been a member of a university for over 10 years, I'm clearly part of Unilad's target demographic. And they claimed it was all for comedy, all a collection of jokes and 'banter'. If we accept this claim at face value, then those who object to it are 'wrong' to do so as it's not serious. Any criticism for it should be delivered in the context of comedy and humour, not political ideology and serious stuff like that.

So, taking this into account, as a comedian with a sense of humour, what reason do I have for not liking the Unilad website?

In a nutshell, it's crap. From a purely comedic perspective, viewing the whole thing as one big collection of jokes as they assured us it is/was, all the jokes are very poorly thought out and lacking in any element of subtlety or nuance that elevates crude jackass level physicality to genuinely good comedy.

The argument Unilad use that those who don't like their site lack a sense of humour seems very counter-intuitive to me. Only someone with only the most basic sense of what humour actually is could find their work genuinely funny. Anyone who has a working sense of humour and appreciation of good comedy would find the Unilad website as painful as Unilad's theoretical targets would find the consequences of their advice.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, perhaps there are many men who found Unilad funny, but I'd imagine they're not the sort of people I'd want to share a night out with. I'd probably prefer not to share a country with them, if that was possible, but that's just me. 'It's funny because it's a good joke' is a very different thing to 'it's funny because it agrees with my prejudices', and I distrust anyone who champions something based on the latter.

I should clarify that I'm not reflexively offended by the subject matter in principle. I've heard many feminist friends say that rape jokes are never acceptable, and I respectfully disagree. I see the arguments for this, but I don't believe there is such a thing as a subject unsuitable for comedy, as long as it's done right. Undeniably, it's never pleasant to hear someone make crass jokes about a subject that's emotive and painful for you, believe me I've experienced it myself, but a blanket ban is a level of censorship usually employed by totalitarian regimes, and it only ever gives power to those willing to make the jokes anyway. But that's a discussion for another time.

                My point was, making jokes about any controversial subject can be funny if it's done well. Unilad, for all their bluster at being humorous and just 'banter', do not do it well. It's seen as fashionable in comedy these days to be deliberately dark and bad taste, but this isn't that. This is just bad.

I've lost count of the number of aspiring young male (they're always men) stand ups who are relatively new to performing, who will go out in front of an audience of people and casually discuss graphic stories about rape, paedophilia, murder, racism and lord knows what else.

Bad taste comedy has been around for a long time now, from the shock comics like Frankie Boyle, and the stalwarts of bad taste comedy like Jerry Sadowitz, or the Americans like Doug Stanhope. Comics who use bad taste and push boundaries, like Boyle, Carr and many others, have become more successful in recent years, and this has had a questionable affect on the comedy scene. It means you can get away with more now, as people are more familiar with controversial statements or material intended to shock, thus widening the areas of what is acceptable to talk about. But on the down side, you get this slew of imitators, who see these comics becoming famous for saying these horrible things and decide that they can do that too. But they usually miss the point entirely.

Whatever you think about Boyle and Carr and all those guys, it's hard to deny that they are good at what they do. They make people laugh at things they know they shouldn't laugh at. And there's the key. You can usually say shocking things, controversial things, anything you like, as long as it's funny and obviously a joke. I know funny is a subjective measure, but it's often obvious to see where an attempt to introduce humour has been made, even if you think it's an unsuccessful one. If a comedian says something shocking/offensive and it looks like they actually mean it, then they've screwed up.

The funnier the joke, the more offensive it can get away with being. That's not an established fact, but it's a good rule of thumb to go by. But where many younger/newer comics, and Unilad in particular, seem to go wrong is assuming that, in comedy, offending people is an end in and of itself, when it really isn't. I've seen so many just come out with obviously horrific statements (that they clearly don't mean) as a short cut to getting a reaction. Rather than putting some effort into constructing some well thought out jokes, they just say some offensive statements and count the audiences shocked reaction as a successful response. But it isn't a success, any more than getting booed and having bottles of urine thrown at you is a success if you're a stand up. It's just lazy and short sighted.

 Pretty much every comic who goes down this offense-for-offense-sake route has some excuse or rationalisation for it.

Some claim they're being ironic. This may be the case, as irony is such a slippery concept for many. But irony which isn't funny or has any obvious purpose is pointless, and if the irony in a statement is very hard to detect then it should, and will, be evaluated on its own merits. Ergo, it's often not really an excuse.

Many others use an excuse that particularly gets on my nerves; they say that what they're doing is 'challenging people's politically correct preconceptions'.

Why? Why is that a thing that needs doing? I don't deny that political correctness can be ham fisted and over the top quite regularly, but I'd say that's by far the lesser of two evils. To me, the phrase 'political correctness has gone mad' is often an alternative way of saying 'I resent being made to feel guilty about my bigotry'. That doesn't apply to everyone who uses that phrase, of course, but it's repeated use suits the needs of those who do mean that. The phrase itself has such negative connotations, suggesting that if it wasn't for self-serving busybodies we'd all be regularly using racial slurs and oppressing people, and everyone would be happier for it.

So why do politically correct preconceptions need challenging? This has never been fully explained by anyone. You going to come to my house uninvited next and knock out some load bearing walls? Under the premise of 'challenging my architectural preconceptions'? How about you try saying something genuinely funny before attempting to undermine the accepted norms of society for questionable reasons? Run before you can walk, and all that.

(I'd wager there are many people who will object to my previous statements as they are deeply offended by it. Now, THAT'S irony)

But however much I might criticise these comics, I can't fault them for having the courage of their convictions and getting up on stage and saying these things. As far as I'm aware, that's not something Unilad have ever done. They're not exactly anonymous, but they prefer to convey their horrible attempts at humour via the safety of the internet, where anyone offended is likely to be many miles away.

One of the rules of the world of comedy is that it's a bad comic who automatically blames their audience. It's a wonderful example of cognitive dissonance. A comic who has had a bad gig must consider the possibilities that a) they're not, or weren't, funny and must work on their act for next time, or b) every single person in a room full of people (who have usually laughed at every other comic) are all deliberately not laughing at them for some reason. A bad comic will go for the latter very quickly. It's worrying that they do so so often. Unilad's first line of defence was to blame the audience, always a bad sign.

You could argue that the people complaining about Unilad weren't its target audience. Well that's tough. You write deliberately offensive comedy and put it out in the public domain, you have to be prepared for people who don't like it. I won't be surprised if I get a few 'you're an unfunny pompous prick' comments under this article (albeit probably not spelled as accurately), but that's an eventuality I'm aware of when I write this guff. You don't get to cherry pick your audience in advance, that's not how it works. If you promote yourselves as a deliberately offensive comedy website and include warnings beforehand of what people are likely to expect, then that argument may have some weight. But if you don't, you deal with the flack you create. Unilad apparently promote themselves as providing everything you need if you're a lad to succeed at university. As someone who approves University applications, let me say that the advice they give you will let you succeed at getting arrested, but not much else.

Robin Ince once said that, if challenged about something said for comedic effect, you should have a stronger defence than 'it's just a joke'. If you don't, then that's not a justification, unless you're Bernard Manning, apparently. If you truly believe that what you say is harmless fun, then you should have the guts to defend it. Unilad just took down the whole website when challenged. If they thought what they were saying was harmless banter, wouldn't they be willing to stand by that?

It didn't come across as harmless banter, it came across as the classic behaviour of bullies, victimising someone for their own amusement and to make themselves feel big, and when the victim finally turns, accuse them of being unable to take a joke. Having your testosterone cake and eating it isn't an option, 'lads'. As someone who grew up in a pub in an impoverished working class community, I've known many 'lads', and here's a hint; although having 'balls' is often referred to as a sign of manliness, a real man usually has a backbone as well

So, in summary, Unilad claimed that all their material was just harmless fun and jokes. If this is the case, the problem still stands that their attempts at comedy were dreadful, nowhere near amusing enough to make up for the horrific bile and misogyny they contained. So even if it was all a big joke, that's not really an excuse.

You are of course free to look up my comedy output online, and odds are you'll find it terrible, all nerdy and weird and incredibly laboured. That's fine, but my comedy victimises no-one but myself and individuals who usually don't exist.

And if anyone has been upset or offended by anything I've said so far, then don't worry, I'm just joking.

That's how this works, right?


Saturday, 31 December 2011

Ambiguous new year!

Today, I shall be hearing the phrase 'Happy new year' a lot. I don't like it. 

I appreciate the sentiment behind it, when it is said to mean 'I hope you have a happy new year', often shortened to just 'happy new year', which is less specific but you can usually tell what is meant by it. 

Ironically, saying 'happy new year' before the new year has actually started is one way of telling that it's intended to mean 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you'. Obviously as the old year is still currently happening, by default it requires a forward-looking, predictive element to the statement. Ergo, it obviously means the person saying it wants you to experience happiness in the new year. A cynic might suggest that this will inevitably happen at some point, as given the length of a year it's highly likely that some parts of it will be happy ones. It's possible to have an entirely miserable year, but in Western society by and large this is statistically unlikely.

So, when someone says 'happy new year' to me before midnight on new year's eve, I interpret that as them saying 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you to an extent that is beyond that anticipated by normal statistical likelihood'. Hypocritically of me though, if someone did actually say that in full, I'd be quite alarmed.

However, I do take issue with the phrase 'Happy new year' when used on Midnight on new years eve, and on most of new year's day. Because it's not a prediction then, it's a statement. And it's an inaccurate one, to say the least. As soon as the clock hits 12 on NYE, everyone starts saying happy new year as if it's an established fact. It isn't.

If you say 'happy new year' as the clock hits 12, what you are saying is 'the new year is here, and it's a happy one'. This, based on about 11 seconds of the year having actually passed. Undoubtedly, as you're probably at a party with friends and in a cheerful, inebriated state, they probably have been 11 happy seconds. But that's nowhere near a big enough sample to base such a firm conclusion on. A year is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, based on the initial 11 seconds, you've decided that the remaining 31,557,589 seconds will are definitely going to be happy ones? More fool you, that's not how things work at all. That's like declaring the winner of a marathon before most of the runners have even crossed the starting line, or crowning the winner of Masterchef before they've even got to the kitchen, based on the fact that you've spotted that one of the contestants is using an ingredient that you like. Such blasé attitudes annoy me, they aren't helpful. 

Officially, if you're going to be declaring whether a year is happy or not, you should at least base your decision on the data provided by how half of the year has been. So the phrase 'Happy new year', in order to be a valid one, should be used around mid-June at the earliest, because then you have a decent body of data to go on, but you may also have noticed trends in the years progress and have an awareness of upcoming events.

However, stating it in mid-June means that the 'new' element of 'Happy new year' is now redundant and completely inaccurate. So, overall, there is now point where 'Happy new year' used as a statement rather than a prediction can be accurate. And as a scientist, I try to discourage inaccuracy wherever I can.

"Ah, but Dean", you may say, "you say you don't like inaccuracy, but earlier you said a year is 31,557,600 seconds long, when 60 secs x 60 (mins) x 24 (hours) x 365 (days) is actually 31,536,000 seconds, so surely your own accuracy needs more work?"

And I'd say yes, surprisingly observant and pedantic commenter, your maths is impeccable, but you have also overlooked the fact that, in astrological terms, the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days, this is why we have leap years. And even if you ignore the astronomical element, you have to take into account that every 4th year is 366 days long, so overall the average year is 365.25 days long, which is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, my accuracy is even more extreme than you realised, not less. But thanks for your concern.

So bear all this in mind, and when you're at a party and midnight rolls around, and someone says 'Happy new year' to you, you can tell them in detail why their statement is flawed, and I'm sure they'll thank you for it. 

That's what I would do. But I don't get invited to new year's eve parties any more, for some reason.

Twitter: @garwboy


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