About negative criticism…

No, no… this post isn’t because I’ve been heavily criticised recently and am about to have a cry. No, not that. The majority of “critique” I attract publicly is beyond inane and isn’t worth bothering with, anyway. This is about reviews and criticism of the subjectivity of art, movies, music, the theatre, painting, and so on. It’s a passionate subject — because for better or worse people’s very identities can be wrapped up in what they do – and don’t – enjoy. And those opinions are useful as they can tell us whether to it’s a worthwhile use of our time experiencing it first hand and coming to our own conclusions and opinions.

In that respect, reviews and critique are more than academic. They’re vital to ensuring we don’t spend 200 hours a day keeping up with the immense pace of art production from around the world for fear of missing out.

But is all that criticism equal?

Almost certainly not. There are bad reasons, or at least excuses and justifications, for reviewing something positively or negatively. Here, though, I want to focus on just negative criticism and opinion. Specifically, why I lend less weight to it when deciding whether to let it influence me.

This is not to say it’s invalid, just that it has to be a good reason before I let a negative review affect me. Besides, I can still be swayed against spending time on something even by a relatively positive review providing it’s an honest one that I can relate to.

Anyway, here are the reasons I don’t lend too much thought to negativity.

1. Expectation

Probably around 8 times out of 10, a negative review is an expectation issue. These are complaints along the lines of going into a production of Romeo and Juliet and complaining that it isn’t an action-comedy buddy cop movie. That’s an extreme example, sure, but how many times have you seen a negative review effectively amount to that? Reboots that change too much, or look too different. Comedies that weren’t to someone’s taste in humour – not everything needs to be dry, subtle wit and wordplay, and not everything needs to be Freddy Got Fingered. And sometimes mindless action films do set out to be all about the mindless action. It’s all about target audience, and if you’re intentionally outside that, then is your opinion really worth that much? In no possible universe could you actually feel salience toward art that literally isn’t for you and to your expectations by design.

The reason I admire Roger Ebert’s movie reviews is that this was his approach — he held a movie up to its own purported standard. Did the movie do what it set out to accomplish? If so, then I suppose it’s good by its own standard. If it didn’t accomplish specifically what someone else wanted, it doesn’t automatically mean the opposite.

See, when I watch, listen to or read something I want to see something someone else has made, I want to see their ideas. If I don’t happen to like it and it’s not for me, then meh. It wasn’t for me. I won’t hate something just because it refused to kneel down and cater to my every whim. I do feel the need to be surprised every now and then, and often that means consuming something that may healthily go against my expectations, and challenge me a little.

2. Actual Opinions

In my experience, I rarely see negative views really phrased as opinions. I have a fairly simple view of what counts as an opinion: can you disprove it? If not, it’s an opinion. You can’t disprove “I like mint-chocolate ice cream”, you can’t disprove “I didn’t like The Book of Henry“. You can disprove “I think the world is flat” — even appending “I think that…” doesn’t automatically mean it’s opinion, it just means you might well think something that’s wrong.

If someone likes something, they’ll usually say “I liked it”. If they loved it they’ll preach that out loud with a giddy joyfulness that I feel bad for not holding too. “I love it!”, “I enjoyed it so much!”, “I had so much fun!”, “it made me think a lot!”. People can just just be allowed to like things, you know, right?

But… if someone hates something, they say tend to “it is shit” and “that is bad”. It’s a phrasing that implies strongly that good/bad are properties of the object itself — they’re not, it is what it is, regardless — and not properties of the beholder. To me, that feels as if the opinion is so insecure they have no choice but to recast it as an apparently-objective fact about world instead. That way they can’t be wrong, at all. They’re right, and right objectively. Even though a true opinion is always right practically by definition, that doesn’t matter — it needs to be an objective truth otherwise they might just have a wrong opinion.

I don’t particularly care for that attitude, it implies (and often people will make this insultingly explicit) that people who like something are objectively wrong.

…And coupled with the point below, inherently inferior for it.

3. It’s “smart”

People treat negative opinions as “more intellectual”. I’m pretty sure that’s an established fact in psychology, but I can’t (currently, I might be back later to edit) track the down the source of that.

If you negatively criticise something, you have to do far less work to be seen as intelligent for it. Do you think Harry S. Plinkett would be as popular, and as praised for insightfulness, if he made a 90 minute YouTube show on why Star Wars is great as opposed to why Phantom Menace isn’t? I don’t think so.

You can see it in review videos — “why it fails” videos outnumber the “why it wins” ones by some margin. It’s especially true if it’s something that has been shown to be successful and popular. Any conversation with a metal or alternative music fan about Justin Swift and Taylor Bieber will prove this pretty quick; successful, popular artists are liked by the majority, but the minority are Just Too Smart for that. This is perceived as inherently better, but I think it’s an illusion caused by rebelling against the mainstream. Knowledge and views that a minority possess is rare, and rarity means value. It’s valued more highly, it’s perceived as more intelligent. These people aren’t haters, they’re the enlightened! See that time Corey Taylor said Bieber was actually a decent songwriter, see that time Tool fans did anything, you know.

It’s easier to hate, and people will more-readily bow down to your superior mind for hating something rather than liking it — even though you might not really have the nuanced, thoughtful view that you think you have.

So it takes a lot more work for someone to produce negative criticism that I feel I want to pay attention to and let influence me. I’ll respect Dan Olson shredding Suicide Squad’s editing for 30 minutes because he knows editing and backs it up with examples. But I don’t really care for a 30 second screaming whine about how Star Trek Discovery “isn’t really Star Trek because it just panders to SJWs”.

As I said, I don’t think all negativity is invalid if it’s a true, unfalsifiable opinion, just that I, personally, don’t put as much stock in it unless it’s a damn good rationale where I can see the workings and reasons.

It’s taken a while for me to purge myself of that kind of asinine elitism, thinking that I was better than others for disliking something. But I feel better for it. Understanding a diversity of actual opinion, and appreciating people for it, goes a long way toward spotting when people try to hide foul assertions and nasty, harmful bullshit behind cries of “it’s just an opinion”.

Except for La La Land, because Jesus Fucking Christ how the hell was that the greatest thing ever? I mean, it’s awful. Just the worst. All those people who loved it and rave about it are idi-

Oh… crap…


Floating Belief Networks

Some people literally believe that Barack Obama was responsible for the disaster relief for Hurricane Katrina. And the poll data looks mostly reasonable for this claim – albeit with a fairly dodgy question that didn’t have a “neither” option.

Image result for where was obama during hurricane katrina

We’re also seeing the same trope crop up again amongst Donald Trump supporters (though, at this point they’re better described as “apologists”) who want to imply that the then-Senator held some responsibility for the disaster. Even if you think the above poll is dodgy, these seem to be very honest expressions of sentiment.

At this stage, you might well think the obvious: these people are stupid, they think Barack Obama was president in 2005, they’re stupid because they don’t know he wasn’t president at the time!

But I don’t think this is the case. And I certainly don’t think “stupid” merely means “not knowing something”.

The ideas “[Barack Obama was President in 2005]” or “[Katrina happened during the Obama Administration]” probably aren’t literal beliefs that these people hold in their heads. If you were to ask them the years Obama was President, they’d probably get it right: 2008-2017. If you asked them for the year of Hurricane Katrina, they’d also get it right – maybe a small slither would land somewhere in 2007-2009 or so because things get hazy after a while, but not a significant amount.

I think the problem is that they haven’t connected these two facts together.

So, what do I mean by connecting ideas? Let’s beat this point to death with an example:

  • I believe that my office has a door with a lock on it.

It’s a simple, trivial belief,  but it connects to a lot of other further beliefs. It connects to the idea that I can’t get into my office without unlocking and opening the door. It connects to the expectation that if I don’t unlock and open it, I’ll smack my face right into the wood if I try to walk in. This is something I expect to see and feel. It connects to the idea that I need to bring keys with me. It connects to the broader idea and beliefs about how doors and locks work.

It can even be drawn out in a diagram.


It’s still somewhat simplified, but hopefully you get the idea. The point isn’t so much the nodes, but the fact that they’re connected together. In a way, the words in blue are the actual important bits that make it function.

The other important part is that the connections attach to the outside world in a few places – what I expect to experience if something does or doesn’t happen. If I have keys, I will feel them in my pocket. If I haven’t opened the door, I expect not to be able to enter and for it to block my path and hit me in the face.

Mapping out ideas like this is hardly novel, but it is powerful. Here’s an example (usually known as a concept map in these cases) for chemical kinetics I ran through with some undergraduates a while back.


The reason that they’re useful in pedagogy is because it tests how well someone could expand upon an idea, how well they actually have a fully coherent model of the world in their head.

When it comes to learning theory to build mastery and expertise, the aim isn’t to just populate someone’s head with more and more nodes (pop culture and fiction do this when they imply that intelligence = “knowing a lot”) but to connect them together. Someone without these connections would be unable to complete a task if it’s presented in an unorthodox manner – even if they certainly can do it. Whereas someone with these connections has enough of a coherent model to apply their knowledge and analyse and evaluate new ideas.

So, what do I think is actually happening when people say Obama was responsible for the response to Hurricane Katrina?

I’ll just stick it in a similar diagram first:


The ideas just float around. There’s a core belief – and it’s locally consistent. In fact, if we were to expand this it might even be very consistent in attaching an “Obama is bad” sticker to almost everything – though whether that “Obama is bad” node forms a connection to other locations is an open question. But there’s no global coherence, and no interconnectivity. It can lead to contradictions very readily.

This is what I think is going on in the heads of people who you might call “stupid”. It’s not that they don’t know something – it’s that they haven’t joined the ideas together. It may also go some way to explaining why responding “but Obama wasn’t president in 2005” doesn’t make the Obama-Katrina problem go away. That knowledge/node is already there, and adding it doesn’t actually change anything.

We talk about the “post-truth” world as if it’s all about replacing facts with falsehoods. I think it’s more about destroying the connections between facts so that they can be substituted with the falsehoods more readily.

Currently in vogue is the relationship between the Democratic Party and the KKK – a point that falls to pieces once you consider the political shift between the two main US parties over the course of the 20th century, and a fact that is effectively page 1, chapter 1 of “American Politics for Dummies”. But that’s not the point, the people saying this are simply connecting “Democrats are bad” to another node marked “KKK is bad”. So no amount of contextualisation actually affects that belief – the context was never connected to it in the first place and so this fact can’t break the local consistency of the belief network.

So many beliefs stay firm in the face of being corrected: we’ve known for well over a year that the £350 million figure used to draw the United Kingdom out of the European Union was utter bullshit, and that there was never any indication that it would be saved and given to the health service. But the more that becomes clear to those who voted leave, the less it impacts on their beliefs – “Any amount is too much!” or “but we didn’t really think it would be given to the NHS… honest” they say. Is this cognitive dissonance resolving, or was there never any dissonance to resolve because it was never tethered to their beliefs in the first place?

And, yes, I do think the liberal-left do this, too. The rise of bullshit (aka “fake news”) from the liberal-left side of the spectrum is also a by-product of floating beliefs, no different to that “Obama is bad” loop above – because if you have a floating belief network, one that isn’t attached to any observation or expectation, you’re more likely to uncritically bolt the falsehoods to it.

But… if you do connect your beliefs strongly to reality, and use them to produce a coherent model of the world, you’re less likely to fall for bullshit. Or, at the very least, it will take a more in-depth, more-powerful, more-coherent hoax to fool you, and far less effort to purge it from your belief network when corrected.

You know, if you expect to bit hit in the face by a locked door, you’ll remember to take your keys with you.

Diana, (nearly) twenty years on… grief tourism and emotional performativity

Diana, Princess of Wales (née Spencer) has been in the news this week… well, she’s in most of the time for various reasons, but this time the 20th anniversary of her fatal car crash in Paris is fast approaching. It caused me to, if you excuse the pretentious term for a moment, reflect on what that even meant for me at the time, and since… no, no, please, stay with me, please. This isn’t going to be one of those posts.

See, I remember the day fairly well. And I also very clearly remember exactly how I felt…

…I felt nothing.

I didn’t care. And I still don’t, really.

No, no, please, against, stay with me… I’m not saying this because I’m one of those people, either. You know the kind, the one who so does not care about [insert today’s top story] that they have to tell you about it three times a day how much they totally don’t care about it. I’m simply saying that the event had very little salience to me. I had no basis on which to build the required level of “care”.

I was young in 1997, but I wasn’t even born in 1981 when Diana rose to fame and married Prince Charles. I was barely sentient for most of her good works afterwards (and, yes, I objectively admire her work and charitable contributions) but it has absolutely no effect on me on an emotional level. Her charitable efforts were only something that, literally, happened to other people. Her name was something that appeared on the news, like “Bosnia” or “Nelson Mandela”; something that got in the way of me watching Power Rangers. She was a thing, certainly, but I had no deep connection to her as a person or as a concept.

Her death elicited nothing but a shrug from me at the time. And it still does, to be honest. Yes, I do, objectively speaking, understand and hold a positive impression of her today, but that’s come to me in the context of her being an historical figure – in the same broad category as Henry VIII, Winston Churchill, or Emmeline Pankhurst. There was no true and current emotive connection to me, there still definitely isn’t. I have had, and continue to have, no salient value attached to Diana as a person or in the abstract.

Then we come to what happened that week at school.

Or, more specifically, what happened with one RE teacher who thought it would be a fabulous idea to make a lovely, colourful tribute board, made with the traditional materials of young schoolchildren. We were asked to write tributes and cards to Diana, expressing our sad feelings about the tragedy, and place them on a display in the school corridor. Looking back, it seems quite strange that a run-down school in a working-class mining town would celebrate a central figure of the Royal Family and the upper-class of the South, who rose to prominence in the decade when the Establishment was busy systematically destroying and disenfranchising the area, but hey, they must have thought it was a good distraction and good for us. Or something like that.

But I literally didn’t care. I couldn’t care, perhaps. I had the same feeling (or lack thereof) I just described, at length, above. I might not have known those words, I might not have had the confidence to express it out loud, but I definitely felt it – and even at that age I had the meta-cognitive presence of mind to know it.

I was asked to express my feelings, and I genuinely didn’t have any.

This wasn’t good enough for that particular teacher, though. I had to have feels, or I had to try to have them. Because I must have felt them, they were sure of that – so it would have been good for me to express it! I said I didn’t actually care (or words to that effect) and I was told I did, and had to express it.

So I did it…

Well… I faked it.

And, at the end of the day, it wasn’t that hard. I faked a few feelings. I wrote something that was, apparently, quite poignant for a pre-teen. I was complimented for it being so true and expressive. And that was it. It was so easy to fake emotional engagement.

I think that experience has shaped my life far more than Diana’s death itself ever could. I now had direct experience of faking feelings, expressing grief where there was none, and ever since I have been utterly distrusting of grief. To this day I’m uncomfortable with seeing other people do it publicly over people they don’t know or had no connection to. I remember watching the funeral and not quite understanding why people were throwing flowers and crying. They didn’t know her, they had no good reason to feel like that. At least, that many people couldn’t possibly have a good reason to. If I could fake it, so my reasoning went, surely they were faking it, too.

That’s been my default assumption ever since. I’ve distrusted public displays of grief. It’s even spilled out into distrusting my own feelings. How can I tell that it’s genuine? How do I know they’re not just performing because they think they ought to? How can I tell that they really feel sad, and don’t just think they’re sad because they have a much deeper, and much more demanding, believe that they should feel sad?

I can’t. I could just trust them… but if can fake it, then…

It’s left me cold and cynical. This idea of taking a tourist-like break into the grief of others only got worse after 1997. People flocked to places where children had been murdered, cried for the news cameras and left flowers and cuddly toys…

Okay, rapid aside. It bugs me that those cuddly toys would almost certainly have just been binned and sent to landfill after being left out in the elements for a week. It bugs me that these inanimate objects never got to fulfil their purpose of comforting or entertaining a living child. It bugs me that I have a greater emotional attachment to inanimate objects with cute faces than I do to actual humans. There, I’ve finally admitted that in writing. Moving on…

…and as the internet grew into a thing, these displays could be made even more easily. Now you just have to comment “Hastag-RIP!” or “you’re in our thoughts”.

Sorry, another one. Okay, I get that, should you feel pushed for what to say, as I was in 1997, then a ready-made, widely acknowledged phrase is a good thing to have, it’s a nice default for when you don’t know what to say… but I do think that silence is a more honest response if silence is all you can come up with when pressed for something original, anyway, moving on again…

To me, it comes across as a performance. You’re there, making sure you say the right things from a select set of pre-approved terms and phrases, and commenting on the death of someone you never met, someone who you probably didn’t care about before, and someone you almost certainly would never have heard of if they died in some other way. And… with it all being online these days, how can anyone know that this sentiment is anything other than a performance? How do we know they’re really “keeping you in our thoughts” and not just fucking off to play another round of Candy Crush and thinking about dinner, and anything but what they said they were thinking of?

I could trust them, but then again it’s so easy to fake, I know that too well.

So, a few years ago, someone was murdered (I won’t say who, and I apologise if this comes across as horribly blasé). The usual messages cropped up… “RIP”, “This is so sad”, and other delightfully original pithy phrases… but… this was different for me – because one of the victims friends cried in my arms for the best part of an evening. I’m not sure we got that much sleep that night. I was only two degrees of separation from the victim. Only some prior commitment and a long distance stopped me from being literally at their funeral. After that, the “supportive” messages felt so hollow to me.

I have to emphasise the “to me” part of that, though. I am emphatically not saying that the family and friends shouldn’t feel comfort from those messages if that’s how it makes them feel… but it’s not for me. I felt that grief a mere second hand – and it still wasn’t enough for me to truly comprehend the loss. I was in that category of someone who didn’t even know they existed, I didn’t feel I had the right to feel grief-stricken or out-pour it publicly in a great competition of who can feel saddest and buy the most flowers and write the most pre-approved buzzwords in a Facebook comment.

So what about people only read about it via BBC News, and probably couldn’t remember the victim’s name if asked today? Did they really feel something? Or did they feel the need to perform as if they did? Are these comments now only Pavlovian responses to the news?

Maybe not… maybe they’re real connections. But if I can fake it so trivially and so easily…

I felt first-hand, back in 1997, how easy it was to perform grief. I felt first-hand the pressures people are put under to show it. I’ve seen and felt the pressures we’re under to feel something, and the stigma of how cold it seems not to – and how afraid we all seem to be of just throwing our hands in the air and saying “look, it’s a bad thing, yes, but I have no emotional connection to this, I can’t feel anything about it and I respect the truly grief-stricken too much to lie about that”. I actively lied to the world about feeling something I didn’t because of those pressures. There was no benefit for it – no-one gave a shit what I wrote, even I can’t properly remember the words I wrote down. If I didn’t do it, the world would be no worse off. If I did a better job of it, the world wouldn’t be any better. I only did it in response to social pressure and social pressure only… and I don’t think I’m special in doing that.

Do I have an actual point to this? No, I suppose I don’t. I don’t want a massive call to arms that says “NO MORE PUBLIC GRIEF!” – I’m not writing for the Guardian, here. If you want to, go on, do it. If you take comfort from the support of thousands of people you don’t know, take it – if you’re in that position you need all the support you can muster. If you take comfort from expressing it, go ahead.

Just that, if I die, and all you can come up with is “#RIP”, know this; I’ll be back to get you.

The UK Election – John Oliver Style…

Welcome, welcome, welcome… I’m absolutely not John Oliver, but this will be the best impression I can muster via text alone. We start with the United Kingdom…


…a country you think about so little you didn’t realise that wasn’t the United Kingdom, that was Westeros from Game of Thrones crudely photoshopped into western Europe. This is the United Kingdom.


The UK has recently finished the count in a snap general election to decide on a new Prime Minister and new ruling government. There were some ups and downs in typically British laugh-first-ask-questions-later fashion. At one point we were treated to, and yes this is genuine, a man known only as Lord Buckethead standing against the Prime Minister in her own constituency as a “strong, but not entirely stable” protest vote.

I look at that photo and can hear the dum-dum-dum of the Imperial March from Star Wars, but I don’t know who it’s playing for.

Unfortunately for incumbent PM Theresa May, while she did manage to defeat Lord Buckethead, the rest of the evening had not gone well. This has not gone well at all, and the vote has returned a hung parliament. This means that no one party controls an outright majority and can’t form a government on its own. This means that after seven weeks of scaring the public that her opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn would form a “coalition of chaos”, May has had to reach across the Irish Sea to the Democratic Union Party, the DUP, to form a coalition of her own.

Now, at this point most people in England, Scotland and Wales simply went… “who?” and were forced to learn as much about the DUP in the space of three hours that they possibly could.

Holy shit!

The DUP are, amongst other things, associated with young earth creationists, climate change denialists, and are both anti-LGBT and strictly anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest. So reaching out to the few elected DUP members of parliament clearly an act of some desperation for Theresa May, whose Party under David Cameron tried to bill itself as a somewhat pro-environment, pro-LGBT and progressive affair.

To understand how the UK got to this point, and to play a bit of catch up, we need to go back about ten years to the resignation of Tony Blair. You may remember him from such things as super-awkward attempts to make politics cool…

Image result for tony blair guitar

…his newborn son’s role in the MMR-vaccine controversy of the early 2000s, and, of course, sexing up a dossier on Iraq’s ability to launch weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to taking the United Kingdom and the United States into a war because, in terms best described with Pulp Fiction metaphors, Tony Blair was the Gimp to George W. Bush’s Zed.

After Blair’s resignation under a wave of controversy, the position was inherited by his long-term friend and political ally Gordon Brown, a man for whom the words ‘dour’ and ‘lacklustre’ were specifically invented for, and whose attempts at smiling still haunts the dreams of those who were children in the 00s and are now permanently traumatised adults:

Image result for gordon brown smiling


Now, there is nothing wrong with UK leaders simply inheriting this position. Constitutionally the Prime Minister of the UK is whoever leads the party with the largest majority in Parliament. But it does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth when one hasn’t actually stood for an election. So when 2010 rolled around and Gordon Brown stood for election, it was a big deal. A lot rested on the ability for Brown to win that election… which he utterly failed to do.

There was a disastrous combination of Tony Blair’s poisoned legacy, a perceived mishandling of the credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008, and Brown himself being recorded calling Gillian Duffy, a Scottish woman he spoke with about immigration while on the campaign trail, a “bigoted woman” on a hot microphone. All this left him pretty much unelectable. It was as if, after years of training a dog to do basic math by tapping out the numbers, when it finally came to the talent show final he just sat there, defecated on the stage and barked “bigot!” at the audience.

Image result for dog doing maths


Now, to be fair to Brown, the defeat here wasn’t a complete humiliation. 2010 saw the UK enter a hung parliament situation, the kind it’s in today, and the Labour Party’s main rivals, the Conservatives, still couldn’t form a majority on its own. So, the Conservatives reached out to the UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, and this man Nick Clegg:

Image result for nick clegg

Clegg is a man who is perfectly acceptably normal on the face of it but, while you can’t put your finger on why, probably has something wrong with him. He’s like that cousin that occasionally comes to dinner that you get on with, you like, and you agree with, and is wholly charming, and erudite and intelligent, but almost certainly masturbates with both hands and can only climax while looking at cleaning products. Or a work colleague you respect enormously, would do anything for and would even be happy for if they got a promotion instead of you, because “Go you, Nick, you deserve it!”… but then goes to a bar and orders a Bud Lite Lime.

Now, the words here should be self explanatory, a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appears to be the weirdest flavour combination since Ben and Jerry’s introduced Peanut Butter and Sweetcorn, with a core of cheap hotdog. Sure, you could technically eat it and survive, but… reallyjust really? You want to eat that?

And that continued into 2015 as an uneasy peace between the two ideologically mis-matched parties. The UK then held another scheduled election. This time, the Conservatives reached the threshold for a majority, and reigned as a full government. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were destroyed completely, losing most of their seats to a combination of Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party as revenge for leaping into bed with the devil amongst other things. So the Conservatives were expected to have plain sailing from then on… and then this happened.

In fairness, it’s easy to see in hindsight that this was the equivalent of David Cameron cycling along merrily and then jabbing a metal rod into the spokes of the front wheel, before toppling into a ditch full of horse manure. But at the time it was a shrewd strategy to try and silence anti-EU members of his party, and prevent his voters entirely defecting to UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a party whose name will remain forever a huge slap in the face for people actually fighting for real independence.

Obviously, the EU Referendum went badly for Cameron and he resigned in a shock announcement, declaring that whoever lead the country out of the EU it wouldn’t be him. This then opened up a leadership contest to become the Prime Minister. This would be something of a repeat of Tony Blair stepping down to leave Gordon Brown in charge – whoever replaced Cameron would have to do a very convincing job of it to keep that sour taste of “unelected Prime Minister” out of the mouths of the electorate.

So, who did the Conservatives have to choose from?

Image result for conservative leadership election 2016

Well, first, there was Michael Gove, a man who was such an incompetent education secretary that teachers now literally use his name as a verb to mean ‘blustering into a situation you have no experience in and fucking everything up’. Boris Johnson, one of those inflatable flailing tube-men you see outside used car dealerships who gained sentience during a Weird Science ritual. And there was also Adrea Leadsom, a woman so unknown that even her supporters had to repeatedly check Wikipedia every day to see who she was.

But it turned out there wouldn’t even be a leadership election anyway as those other three candidates eventually dropped out. Johnson and Gove stabbed each other in the back pretty much at the first hurdle, while that… Other One dropped out after saying May was unqualified to lead the country because she didn’t have children. Theresa May won by default – hashtag-itsokaytonothavechilden, hashtag-feminism. Yes, she won the same way that a half-blind, half-deaf octagenarian with no thumbs would win at Mario Kart: The other three players acted like stoned toddlers who took one look at the Rainbow Road and just fell over giggling.

But… meanwhile, behind all of that craziness, there was this man, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected as leader of the official opposition, the Labour Party, in the aftermath of the 2015 election.

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Imagine Corbyn as something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi like figure. If Obi-Wan explicitly said he would refuse to push the button on his lightsaber, and instead sat down to discuss a peace deal with Darth Vader over tea, only for the photos to emerge years later to deride him as a Sith Sympathiser. Or, perhaps more close to home, he’s like a less-angry Bernie Sanders whose stunningly sober vices include gardening in his allotment and studying manhole covers, no really.

Corbyn was somewhat of a disaster for Labour initially. Despite having strong popular support from the Party’s membership, he faced almost constant criticism from Labour MPs, who, only a year into his time as leader even launched a coup against him, starting a vote of no confidence that Corbyn lost, forcing him to stand for election again, which he won again by a similar margin. Labour were in disarray for nearly two years following the 2015 election. It was as if the stoned toddlers from before had simply given up playing Mario Kart at all, and just started hitting each other with the controllers because, well, why not, we don’t need to play Mario Kart for another five years anyway, let’s have some fun hitting each other instead. For some time, it seemed like Labour’s prospects of political success were in the sewers, which ironically might be fine with Corbyn because he likes staring at manhole covers.

Further Labour in-fighting seemed like a dead cert for the next few years. And that’s where we find yet another bit of complexity in the story in the form of the ‘Fixed Term Parliament Act’ – a title of a law so boring that not even Tony Blair could sex it up. But in short, the act limits UK Parliamentary terms to five years, calling for an election on a fixed 5-year cycle, as opposed the previous system which was near enough officially “I dunno, whenevs, bruh?” There was, however, an out from this – if two thirds of Parliament voted to repeal it, an election could be called at any time.

No one, quite literally no-one, thought it would happen, though. Theresa May said there wouldn’t be one – the first of many, many U-turns in 2017 – and most people thought Labour would be clinically insane to go along with it since, in their drunken state of perpetual in-fighting, the only end result would be complete decimation of their party at the polls. But, somehow, it happened anyway and the election was called.

Why it was called is possibly even more complicated. On the one hand,  Theresa May was insistent it was to give her the mandate to tackle the Brexit negotiations exactly as she wanted. On the other hand, many of her MPs were facing police investigations into electoral expenses fraud. Now, to be fair, those investigations mostly ended without any charges being levelled against the MPs in question, and the police said their mis-spent expenses were mistakes, not intentional fraud, but the timing of the election has been considered suspect in the light of the scandal.

And this is where it gets difficult to really appreciate and follow exactly what has happened since the General Election was called and the result came in. British politics has almost, but not quite fully, inverted. Now, to be fair, Labour still haven’t won. They won’t be in government. There’s no indication that Jeremy Corbyn will ever be Prime Minister as it stands. He can attempt to form a minority government if Theresa May’s negotiations with the DUP fall through, but most likely that would take another election, and probably one pretty soon – and there seems to be very little appetite going around the UK to go through this shitfest yet again. But let’s look at a quick run-down of the things that have happened in only the last few weeks.

Firstly, Theresa May and the Conservatives basically shot themselves in the foot by targeting their own base – that is, wealthy, white old people – and threatening to force pensioners to sell their houses to cover the costs of dementia care, as well as taking away benefits including a winter fuel allowance. Both pledges became so toxic they became the first flagship manifesto promises to be broken before an election had even taken place. Then Theresa May refused to take part in any debates, televised or otherwise, and mostly hunkered down to take part in planned and controlled photoshoots with selected party faithful, rather than the general public. Then, during one televised debate, Home Secretary Amber Rudd – standing in for Theresa May – asked the audience to judge the Conservatives on their record to get the biggest outright laugh of the evening. The second biggest laugh possibly went to this man, Tim Farron, a man who is a pea-on-a-cocktail-stick crossed with the children’s TV presenter, when he used his final debate speech to compel the audience to go make a cup of tea and change the channel to watch the Bake-Off instead of listening to Amber Rudd’s closing remarks:

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And then there was the entire Conservative policy and manifesto, which was widely mocked for being very light on detail, or substance of any kind, but very firm on the words “Brexit” and “strong and stable” as if those were the only three words they had available at the time, because their austerity measures stopped them from buying new ones.

At the other end of the political spectrum, a minor miracle occurred in that the stoned toddlers in Labour stopped hitting each other with video game controllers long enough to snap to attention and get their act together, resulting in a huge surge in the opinion polls that put them neck-and-neck with the Conservatives by election day on June 8th. Then when the votes were counted, Labour had won big, the Conservatives had lost a little, but the Scottish National Party lost big with their votes splitting apparently at random between the Conservatives and Labour. And that’s without getting into UKIP, which may no longer exist by the next election, even if it is really soon, as it managed to win zero seats for the 3rd election in a row. And it’s also without mentioning the small gains by the Liberal Democrats, who recovered slightly from the beating they got in 2015. And that’s also without getting into how Labour managed their turnaround in the face of a very hostile media that has been widely criticised for not giving Corbyn a fair hearing.

And while all this was going on, Britain faced two major terrorist attacks that left dozens dead in two major cities.

The whole thing has left Britain a confuddled, weary mess, much like it was in 2010. And there is now a lot of uncertainty going around, perhaps even more so this time around. The deal between the Conservatives and the DUP seems to be strained, yet very casual, so no-one can say how strong and stable it will be in the end. Theresa May was looking to shore up her majority and run the country for five years, but has instead been humbled, and there are already calls for her to resign, opening up the Party leadership to many of those who fell flat on their faces the last time. Meanwhile, the fallout this will have for the Brexit negotiations is completely unknown, and the UK’s departure from the European Union will be even more up in the air than before.

So, the question is; how much more of this can Britain take?

And now, this…

Thanks, but I’d rather not have the cash…

Warning, British politics ahead…

Today, another fearmongering piece of toilet paper came through the letterbox, proudly proclaiming that I need to be shit-scared of the following…


My income tax cut is under threat should I vote Labour in the coming weeks!

Factual dubiousness aside – the Labour tax plan doesn’t suggest massive income tax rises for that many people – lets assume it was literally true. Let’s assume that the last tax cut (the raise in the tax-free allowance this year) will actually be reversed. Let’s look at the tax cut I’ve been granted this year under the Conservatives.

My pay slip shows this as about £11.60 – you can now use a tax calculator and the nationally-agreed pay scale for academic-related activities to deduce how much I earn if you like.

Now, the question I would like to pose to Conservatives – either official representatives or their voters – seriously, what the fuck am I meant to do with this?


It’s not enough to buy private health insurance. That’s £93 per month on average.

It won’t pay off my student loan much faster. £10 a month would clear it in about 83 years from a rough estimate.

It won’t pay for private school for any potential kids I have. That’s a grand a month on average.

It won’t get me a car or fuel it, and it won’t exactly grow into a massive retirement fund.

I doubt I could employ someone and start a business. I might be able to pay someone to mow the lawn for me with it, which I’m sure will fix the economy pronto.

Hell, at best I figure it’ll buy me two pints of Brew Dog’s fizzy-piss-flavoured craft beers per month!

Maybe I’ll just up my charitable contributions by £10, that’s probably the best use I can think for it.

“Ah, but be grateful!” you might say “it’ll mean a lot to people on minimum wage!”. Maybe, sure. Maybe it’s a lot when you’re super poor – sure, I’ve been there. But even when I was, that was a fraction of rent, a fraction of commuting costs, and would only be a week’s worth of ramen. But I should still be grateful, because it’s rewarding me as a member of a Hard Working Family™.

But, more pressingly, what has this wonderful sum of money cost me? Let’s rattle a few things off that have been going on under neoliberal rule in the UK…

The wages in my sector have stagnated or even reversed in real terms in the last few years. The students I teach are now paying more (about 10x even my early-millennial ass did) for less return as graduate wages collapse. Education is being undermined. Children in school are having their meals threatened. The disabled are being forced into tests to see if they’re fit to work – and then die afterwards as if it was designed for it. We’re going to ruin the economy through giving the middle-finger to our nearest neighbours because Strong and Stable. Rents are going up uncontrolled. Funding for local services are going down, meaning rises in council tax rates alone will eat up anything income tax cuts will grant me. They’re punishing children who dared to be born third and poor. They’re dismantling the NHS, replacing it with a health pseudo-service whose principle aim is to turn government subsidy into private profit – as the rail privatisation has done repeatedly, having increased their fares above inflation for over a decade now. And I’m sure the list continues and people with more knowledge than me can be more precise about it.

All of this is going to, and has, cost me the equivalent of hundreds a month. If you want to put a figure on it a back-of-an-envelope calculation for my loss in real-terms earnings since Conservatives started is around £200 a month at least. The crash in the pound after that referendum cluster-fuck wiped even more off my earnings by contrast  to my overseas colleagues. Cheers guys, the extra tenner almost makes up for it! The price of living is going up and up – and they want me to get down on my knees and worship them for the extra tenner they granted me? That cut, which sounds like it could go somewhere useful, has been eaten up ten times over just by the shit they’ve caused granting even bigger cuts to the far more exceedingly wealthy.


Can they just fuck off with their shit, already?

The Chemistry of ‘Yes Minister’

I’m writing a book. Well, it’s more like 20+ blog posts strung together, all on the theme of how science is depicted in the media. More than just factual errors, I’m interested in how science and scientists are depicted and how it influences peoples’ opinions of science as a process. This includes looking at fictional depictions. Here’s one sub-essay from it – looking at a particular episode of the comedy series Yes Minister.

That has science in it? Yes, it does. Let’s have a look…

Yes Minister is one of the most seminal British political satires, remaining profoundly relevant even decades after it first aired. The series centres on the ineffective and self-aggrandising Minister for Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker, the somewhat-Machiavellian civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and their fight over who truly runs their department. Given the biting political satire on the nature of the British government, its traditions and sprawling bureaucracy, it’s possibly the last place you’d expect to see some serious depictions of science in fiction. Yet, nestled amongst the normal political spoofs of self-preserving civil servants fighting against self-serving politicians, is one of the most striking bits of satire on science with respect to political policy.

The second series episode The Greasy Pole, named after a Benjamin Disraeli quote on the nature of climbing the “greasy pole” of political promotion, focuses on the minister trying to give the go-ahead to the British Chemical Corporation’s (BCC) manufacture of propanol in Merseyside. It opens with Sir Humphrey talking with the chairman of the BCC, and offering assurances that his minister will find no objection to their new chemical plant – after all, it’s Sir Humphrey who truly runs the department whenever he can befuddle the minister into agreeing with everything he proposes.

Any standard essay delving into science on television would stop here to examine some chemical facts and inaccuracies brought up in the opening exchange. Yes Minister gets some of this almost hilariously wrong. In the real world, propanol is a short-chain alcohol, only a single carbon unit longer than ethanol, the compound that gets you drunk and gives you a hangover afterwards. The TV show, in addition to pronouncing it with shortened vowels not common to modern chemistry, seems to imply that it’s some mysterious chemical or medical drug, and a complex concoction that requires dioxin to produce. Similarly, “dioxin” isn’t an individual chemical, per se, but a conventional name for wider class of compounds known as “dioxin-like compounds” (DLCs). DLCs are known to be very persistent pollutants, amongst the most toxic and dangerous chemicals commonly used. The most basic DLC is known as 1,4-dioxin but there are a few hundred derivatives with this structure at their centre. We’ll talk about the most likely candidate the fictional characters are referring to in a moment.

The mild factual errors continue. In Yes Minister, the British Chemical Company have shown that they can produce propanol not with dioxin, but meta-dioxin, which they claim is inert and safe compared to the deadly dioxin. Trouble is, there is no such thing as meta-dioxin – the closest real DLC that would match that name is known as 1,3-dioxin. There is also metadoxine, which, despite its incredibly similar name, is something else entirely.


Meta in chemistry refers to a position around a hexagonal ring of six atoms. The closest position (to a particular reference position) is known as the “ortho” position; the site opposite the reference position is the “para” position; and the one in between is the “meta” position. Ortho-, meta– and para– compounds, therefore, are similar chemicals where a particular group of atoms has been moved around the ring to different positions. “Metadioxin” makes a small amount of sense as a name, but can’t tell us what group of atoms is “meta” to what other group of atoms – unless we reasonably assume it means the two oxygen atoms, in which case we arrive at either 1,3-dioxin or an isomer of 1,4-dioxin that hasn’t been made before.

The confusion around the identity of “metadioxin”, however, is mostly a side effect of using “trivial” or “non-formal” names for chemicals. When you see long, convoluted names that sometimes span more than one line of text, complete with brackets and numbers (and we’ll come across one shortly), this is a sign that the name is systematic – it follows rules that allow you to construct the exact structure of the compound from knowing only the name. Without this (and the knowledge to unpack the name into the structure) a trivial name can be very misleading, verging on complete meaninglessness, and leave us at a complete loss as to the identity of the compound.

This brings us nicely to where Yes Minister gets its depiction of science absolutely correct: no-one in the TV show knows anything about the chemistry at hand and, as they say, hilarity ensues. The characters lack the ability to evaluate the safety of metadioxin and propanol themselves, and can barely even identify the compounds in the first place. At one point in the episode, the minister, a local MP and two civil servants try to make their way around the decision while attempting to not betray their utter ignorance of the subject at hand. When asked what “meta” means, Sir Humphrey uses his education in classics to describe it as “after” dioxin, or “beyond” dioxin, from the literal Latin translation of “meta” – as opposed to the positional nomenclature described above. Even the definition of “inert” evades the small group – they conclude that it must mean that the compound isn’t “ert”, whatever “ert” means. “Inert”, of course, means unreactive, or harmless – nitrogen gas, or argon, are considered “inert” gases, for example, and the term is perhaps one of the more common chemical definitions. But the fictional scene is a good example of how apparently common jargon for a specialist might elude a non-specialist audience. The show depicts people making an important political decision about chemistry, while blindly knowing nothing of the science.

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This isn’t too far removed from events that have happened in reality – the 2016 “psychoactive drugs” act in the UK was widely criticised for not having a rigorous definition of “psychoactive”. Drug enforcement legislation up until this act was based around banning specific chemicals, which can be codified into law fairly easily. That posed a clear problem; what about new drugs that weren’t legislated against? So-called “legal highs” were major news stories throughout the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, often with dubious factual accuracy. So the government aimed to ban them in advance by banning substances that ‘affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state’. But such a broad, and medically meaningless, pre-emptive strike by legislation caused a lot of confusion – it would ban countless substances from alcohol and caffeine, and even incense as used by churches across the country. The government would struggle to implement the legislation.

What do the fictional characters have to go on when talking about chemistry, if not an education in the subject? The politicians and civil servants only have two things they’re sure of:

  • The US Food and Drug Administration have given the fictional metadioxin a clean bill of health. There’s enough precedent for them to go ahead without worry.
  • Protests are erupting in Merseyside about the process – protesters don’t want the “dangerous” metadioxin in their backyard.

This is where the show seems to have done its homework in depicting representations of science in the public eye, and the name “metadioxin” becomes more consequential than you might expect. Just as with the “nuclear” in “nuclear magnetic resonance imaging”, the name alone has struck a chord with public perception. Chemical names can sway people because of their familiarity and unfamiliarity work in tandem. Vani Hari, aka “the food babe”, uses the mantra that you shouldn’t eat a chemical if you can’t pronounce it. This makes absolutely no scientific nor chemical sense but the mantra is simple enough that people do genuinely follow it assuming it must be a good idea – it seems fine as a heuristic. Names and guilt by association, therefore, do affect peoples’ judgement of chemicals in the real world – Yes Minister is a little heavy-handed about it, but that’s expected in satire. It’s certainly not wrong.

The episode makes it clear that the protesters’ have a rationale for being sceptical of the British Chemical Company, and have an origin for their fears over the mere name “dioxin”. A key plot point of the episode is the Seveso disaster, where their knowledge of “dioxin”, apparently exclusively, comes from. Unlike the apparent nature of the “propanol” and “metadioxin” mentioned in the episode, this event is very, very real. The disaster occurred on July 10, 1976 (only five years before the episode aired, so still in recent memory at the time) about 20 km north of Milan, Italy. The disaster exposed thousands of people to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) – this is one of those long systematic names that lets us identify it more specifically. Although the much simpler 1,4-dioxin is the basis for the word, TCDD is possibly the dioxin as far as public perception and environmental harm is concerned.

TCDD gets its infamy from both the Seveso disaster and as a contaminant in “Agent Orange”, the military herbicide used in Vietnam to destroy crops and foliage. TCDD in Agent Orange has affected the health of around a million Vietnamese, causing birth defects, cancers and skin reactions. About five years after the end of the war, the accident near Seveso released around six tonnes of TCDD into the atmosphere, which settled into the surrounding area, affecting a population of over 100,000 people. The exposure immediately killed around 3,000 animals, and over the next two years 80,000 were slaughtered to keep TCDD out of the food chain. About a quarter of 1,600 people examined in the zone closest to the chemical release suffered extreme skin lesions and inflammation, and 15 children were hospitalised. The political aftermath was significant, and Seveso gives its name to the European Union directives governing safety for chemical sites.

Seveso, however, is small fry compared to one chemical disaster that would yet come. Three years after this episode of Yes Minister aired, a leak of 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal, India, would kill around 4,000 people – just over 2,000 of them in the immediate aftermath – and harm around half a million. Other estimates put the direct death toll at around 8,000 for the weeks following the Bhopal disaster.

Despite the immediate reaction of the pro-science crowd to say that chemophobe protesters have nothing to worry about, their fears are based in very real, and very deadly, precedents, and need to be understood and accepted before we can begin reassuring them about the stuff that definitely is safe. Or, at least, safer.

So politicians, just as depicted in this episode of Yes Minister have a very fine line to tread. On the one hand, they have evidence that they may not fully appreciate or understand, and on the other they have public opinion that they very much do understand. The Rt. Hon. Jim Hacker, therefore, has a tough decision to make. Bring jobs and industry to a constituency by opening the chemical plant, and trust the evidence of scientists and chemists, or kowtow to the public fears and make a popular decision to shut it down – to ensure both the local MP is re-elected and preserve his own position in government. Even Sir Humphrey, who throughout the episode sings the praises of the chemical industry and is keen for the Minister to give the go-ahead for the plant, lacks the chemical know-how to make a convincing case.

The mostly-accurate, albeit cynical, depictions of science and policy continue. Faced with an FDA report that they can’t quite trust, the British government commission their own report by Cambridge academic Professor Henderson. The fictional “Henderson Report” is expected to follow the FDA’s conclusion and clear metadioxin for use – as a result, the Minister has no reasonable grounds to make the politically expedient decision to block the chemical company. He could, however, attempt to circumvent the report. They could fail to publish the report (which Sir Humphrey emphatically denies is equivalent to “suppression”) or they could discredit it – which they can do without even reading it by issuing blanket statements such as “it leaves questions unanswered” or “the conclusions have been questioned”. The suggestions to personally discredit Professor Henderson himself will also seem familiar – they echo tactics used against Dr David Kelly, a biological weapons expert who (conspiracies about assassination aside) was pressured by the government over his involvement with the media and driven to suicide, and Professor David Nutt, who was forced out of his position as a government adviser because of his evidence in the relative harms of different drugs went against government policy.

In the end, Hacker takes the politically self-serving decision and blocks the chemical plant, after putting pressure on Professor Henderson to add a note of caution to the report’s conclusion, even if the evidence in the body of the report couldn’t back it up. He’s hailed as a hero by the protestors, and might have secured re-election for his party’s MPs in the area – all at the expense of any scientific evidence. We can’t take self-confessed satire as a literal depiction, but we can see it reflect accurate attitudes of science, politics and protest. Twenty years after The Greasy Pole first aired, we can see how it reflected things such as the MMR/autism hoax or climate change denial in politics. The scientists work in the realm of fact, the people work in the realm of heuristics and emotion – relying on the familiarity of names and words to inform them – and politicians can find themselves torn between the two with only have their own interests and experiences to guide them.

This shows that some depictions of science in fiction need to be looked at a little deeper. Their factual errors may amuse science enthusiasts, who can claim a brief moment of superiority over the ignorance of the writers, but these are merely superficial. Below the simple assertions of scientific fact lie depictions of how science works as a process and how it interacts and influences people. Some can be accurate or satirical exaggerations. Indeed, the deeper meaning and satire might not be so profound if the superficial facts were entirely correct.

Everything is a Terrorist’s Friend…

Today’s Daily Mail front page… Jesus fucking wept… Anyway, here’a a link to some snark from New Statesman on the subject. I want to offer my own below.

Here’s a list of all the things that are friends of terrorists…

It took me two minutes to find a car that could be used to mow people down in an intentional attack


I notice that the suspect also breathed a considerable amount of oxygen in the run up to the attack


It takes approximately two minutes to conceive a child, a child that could grow up to read a terror manual


Look at all the terror attacks that rely on substances reacting to form other substances, from fuel burning in engines to bullets firing to bombs exploding


We found a terrorist manual printed in PDF format online


We found a map of parliament that showed exactly where it was in London, enabling us to go bomb it if we wanted


We noted that the attack had not yet been killed by a tumour, we have to wonder why were they spared this disease


Yesterday, it took the Mail two minutes on web to find a terrorist manual


It takes seconds to punch someone in the face, potentially killing them immediately.


If I had the time, I’m sure it’d be worth photoshopping these onto a front cover, but it’s the fucking Mail, I’m not sure they’re worth the damn effort.