If God exists, then why are there Daily Mail commenters?

If there’s one thing bound to draw the pious and righteous away from their Bible study groups and into the mainstream, it’s a cosmology article in the Daily Mail. True to form, today’s article detailing Stephen Hawking’s new book, and more specifically his belief that postulating a Creator to explain the Universe’s beginnings is unnecessary, has attracted the usual mob of delusional, bible-thumping eccentrics.

Now don’t get me wrong, I support freedom of religion even though I don’t accept the idea of a personal God myself. And I don’t claim with 100% certainty that there is no God; although I think it’s highly improbable, to say ‘there is no God’ is to make fundamentalist claims. But why do certain religious sections of society have to persist in this relentless war against science? It’s a losing battle, science and religion are talking two different languages and as such there can be no argument between them. Smart religious people learnt long ago that the way forward is to incorporate the latest scientific findings into their belief systems. It’s hopeless to continue plugging your ears and denying what emerges from the scientific world, and it’s churlish to just dismiss the brightest, most eminent physicists as quacks.

But that’s exactly what happens time again when the finest inquiring minds advance their latest theories, and Hawking has not been spared the same treatment. Once again, down in the dank depths of the comments box, they’re queueing up around the block to criticise his genius, all insisting that they know better than the multiple award-winning physicist.

For example, Dave cares not for scientific accolades, and is keen to make it clear that the arrogant Mr Hawking and his followers need bringing down a peg or two:

Note the brazen disregard for the traditional ‘rules’ of spelling. Clearly, here is a man who makes his own path in life, and who won’t bow down to the accepted conventions of science or literacy.

Meanwhile, Jeff Morton has figured out where scientists have been going wrong all these years: they keep thinking clever thoughts with them brain thingamajiggies!:

Yeah, right on Jeff! Way to tell that fusty old Professor of Foolishness and his silly old ‘brain’, whatever that is.

Across the pond, Art is feeling in a sympathetic mood:

Poor, poor chap indeed. “What’s that you say Mr Hawking? M-theory? Oh, you and your wonderful imagination! Now come on Mr Hawking, have a sit down and a nice cup of tea, Countdown will be on in a mo.”

Unfortunately for Mr Hawking, Sandra isn’t feeling quite so sympathetic:

Yea… let’s leave it there shall we?

Hearteningly, each of the above comments, which range from the deranged to the downright disgusting (not mentioning any names Sandra), have been plonked firmly in the ‘red’ by fellow commenters. Not that that will deter them. Their delusions have placed them far beyond the reach of reason. All we can hope is that as brilliant minds like Stephen Hawking lead us ever closer towards the exciting frontier of knowledge, his detractors, like the antiquated ideas which underpin their criticism of him, will gradually fall away and leave us in peace.

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Daily Mail can’t count or see

We’re back over at the Daily Mail today, just in time to catch this juicy bit of celebrity news:

6 + 6 = 6

Wow, 6 toes! And, judging by that picture, all on the same foot! What are the odds? How does she balance? Oh, wait, not quite:

Even beautiful Hollywood actresses have their imperfections.

Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo was out and about in Los Feliz, California yesterday and her open toe sandals showed off her rather unique feet.

The 40-year-old actress appears to have a little extra than the regular person when it comes to the toe department – with six toes on either foot.

So she has twelve toes, six on each foot. That makes more sense I guess. But still, bit creepy isn’t it? Can’t wait to see the gruesome pictures!

Oh, is that it? Yea, I guess it kinda looks like she’s got extra toes if I squint a bit, especially in the second photo. Looks like it may just be the lining of her sandal though. Can’t be sure. Are there not any other photos of her feet anywhere for us to compare?

Ah, only five toes on that foot. But maybe the other one still has…

…oh, I see. So definitely only ten toes in total. Thank goodness this non-story was properly checked out before some irresponsible oaf embarrassed the poor girl by running it in a national newspaper or something! Oh, hang on a minute….

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Beware the Book Snob!

I love books. They’re often overlooked when the ‘Greatest Inventions in History’ lists are compiled, and have to sit there quietly at the back clapping as the likes of The Wheel and The Internet and even (in one list at least) Mascara win all the plaudits. But I can’t think of many more revolutionary, important and enduringly useful inventions in the history of mankind. Sure, there’s nothing particularly intricate or ingenious about the book’s basic design; it’s essentially just several sheets of paper fastened together and stuck between two protective covers. But when ideas and opinions are transcribed onto the humble sheets, the book’s glorious potential is unleashed. And it’s nothing short of breathtaking.

The book is a window to our world, effortlessly transporting us across continents and cultures and acquainting us with people we would otherwise never have come across. It’s also a window to an Other world, with novelists and science-fiction writers conjuring up whole civilisations and universes which had previously only been glimpsed upon by the farthest corners of our imagination. And the book is a time machine too, preserving the thoughts and moods of some of history’s most eminent figures that we all may be privy to them whenever and wherever we choose. The book does all this and more, and so it’s no surprise that to me and many others, it’s viewed as something close to sacrosanct. But in affording the book such a high degree of reverence, have I inadvertently sought to limit it’s remarkable universal appeal? Have I become a frightful Book Snob? And should I care?

The trouble is, I have a very clear idea of what a book looks like, and it’s something like this:

And I have a very clear idea of what a book should not look like, and it’s something like this*:

It works with people too. Book people:

Not book people:

Looking at the three images above, part of me actually wants to cry and bemoan the tragic and needless sacrifice of all those beautiful trees. Part of me wants to take a lit match to every single ‘book’ before they can pollute the literary waters any further. Part of me wants to round up all of the desperate and destitute genuine authors, march round to Katie Price’s Fairyland Castle and bludgeon her round the head with her own ghost-written wad of post-crap toilet paper.

Why should the likes of Jordan’s written-by-proxy throwaway ‘novels’ consistently trample their way to the top of the charts? Why should the literary greats be relegated to some dark corner of a Waterstones store at Christmas to make way for the usual shower of autobiographies from daytime TV and soft pornography’s finest? Why should serious readers have their bookstores periodically invaded by screaming hordes falling over each other for the chance to have Kerry Katona sneeze on them at the dreaded celebrity book signing?

But hold up there. ‘Why should serious readers have their bookstores invaded’? ‘Their bookstores‘?! The unadulterated snobbery of such arguments is inexcusable. Books aren’t for one type of people anymore than clothes are, that’s part of their enduring appeal. If I was actually being forced to read every word of Paul O’Grady’s At My Mother’s Knee that would be one thing but, aside from the minor inconveniences outlined above, little Shanessa Pollard’s desire to follow Sapphire Jones’ latest salacious escapades has no real impact on my desire to tackle Aristotle’s inquiry into the political systems.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s better than that. This ‘chav-literature’ may not win many Man Booker Prizes, but it sure does sell, and in doing so generates a whole stack of cash for the publishers and booksellers. This can then be used to subsidise less overtly commercial endeavours like helping up-and-coming literary talent and keeping great works of literature available and affordable to those who require them. On the face of it, Jordan may not have a lot in common with a highly regarded young novelist, but the future commercial success of the latter’s work is undeniably linked to the present success of the former’s. The Book Snob sees the waves of ‘non-book people’ flooding the literary pool as a threat. It isn’t; it’s merely expanding the pool to reach a whole new set of readers. And as more money and support flows into the ever-larger literary pool, all kinds of books and literature reap the benefits.

So I’m not going to be a Book Snob. I’m going to say ‘Cheers!’ to Jordan and ‘Salut!’ to Kerry. They can keep doing their thing so I can keep doing mine.

* incidentally, for a rather hilarious critique of Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’ click here.

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To be Blunt, it’s just not relevant

An earth-shattering Top Story on Mail Online today:

News about the economy? You can scroll down a bit for that. Latest on the ordeal of the trapped Chilean miners? All the way down for that one too (no pun intended). Only the biggest stories of the day may occupy that coveted spot in the top left-hand corner – and over at Daily Mail Towers it doesn’t get much bigger than a man being GAY! “What’s that you say? Who is he? Isn’t he the one who sung that ‘You’re Beautiful’ song a few years back? Or maybe that was the other one? Anyway who cares if none of us are quite sure who on earth he is, the point is he’s one of them homosexies that are taking over the whole bloody country if we’re not careful says Littlejohn and guess who’s paying!

The likes of Angry Mob have done a nice job of documenting the tabloid approach to homosexuals and homosexuality: they’re both a fascination and a threat, with Wise Owl Littlejohn sagely warning his readership of the dangers of allowing their children to be exposed to sinister ‘homosexual propaganda’. A story about a non-heterosexual will always cite the perpetrator’s sexuality, as if this somehow has any relevance to stories about, for example, a person spying on their neighbours.

Due to the increasingly ad hominem nature of politics, it’s to be expected that MPs’ personal scandals and transgressions will be picked up on by the press. But time and again, where homosexuality is involved we see the attention from the likes of the Mail jump tenfold. We saw the treatment Chris Huhne received earlier this year when he left his wife for a bisexual woman that no-oil-painting-himslef-Littlejohn (again) nastily described as a ‘comedy lesbian’, ‘Millie Tant’ figure. In the Mail’s defence, at least the Huhne saga featured the added element of adultery (you can make a case for the public having the right to be wary of a politician who can betray his wife and family in this way). But the breakdown of Mr Blunt’s marriage features no such ‘scandal’. According to his statement ‘there is no third-party involvement’ and so this is a sensitive private matter to be dealt with by those whom it concerns. Why should the press be making such a fuss of it, and why should the Mail be considering it to be of such earth-shattering importance that it makes it its ‘Top Story’?

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where a person’s sexuality doesn’t determine the amount of scrutiny his personal life receives? Where people can just be people and not have to worry about being ‘outed’ by the gutter press just to satisfy the warped curiosity of a prying public? Progress is of course being made, and we should be proud of how far we have come as a society towards understanding and acceptance. But there are those who would oppose that progress and who seek to drag us back to the dark days of confusion and ignorance. Whenever we see a newspaper article mentioning anyone’s sexuality we should immediately question what relevance this has to the story. If there is none, then we should let the writer know in no uncertain terms that we will not accept such extraneous branding of people as a cynical means of adding a ‘juicy edge’ to a story.

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What’s love got to do, got to do with it?

I had the honour of attending a family member’s wedding at the weekend. The couple, both in their fifties, had been together for over a decade and so proceedings had a mature, practical feel to them. The ceremony itself was a secular one, and as such the vows were stripped of much of the traditional religious symbolism and poetic imagery. With the vows shorn of their aesthetic foliage, I was struck by the coldly administrative nature of what lay beneath. I began to question how something as elusive and ethereal as love came to get mixed up with the dry procedural constitution of the marriage contract. In short: just what does marriage have to do with love?

I suppose it’s only recently that we’ve had the luxury of being able to think about marrying for love. In the past, when gender roles were more fixed and women had lower social status, marriage was clearly a business-like contract ensuring financial security for the wife and domestic security and the promise of an heir for the husband. Indeed, marriage vows in Ancient Greece involved the father declaring something along the lines of “I give you this girl, that she may bring children into the world within the bond of wedlock.” For the woman, marriage merely signified ownership of her being transferred from one man (her father) to another (her husband). In many ancient civilisations marriage gave women a pretty raw deal; men weren’t too keen on the idea of monogamy and were even less keen on their new bride if she proved to be an ineffective baby factory.

So not much love going on there, at least not above the carnal level. But what about when religion got involved? After all, the Bible taught husbands to ‘love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25), so surely this helped move things along a bit? Well, yes. Religion did get more people thinking about marriage as a sacred union rather than just a contract to ensure full production rights in Heirs Inc. And the fact that adultery was frowned upon afforded women a bit more security in the arrangement. But the underlying concept of marriage as a business contract to ensure the man’s continued lineage never went away, with Roman Catholicism still insisting that ‘entering marriage with the intention of never having children is a grave wrong and more than likely grounds for an annulment’. So the involvement of religion encouraged a kind of love in marriage, a holy love even, but the original contractual requirements of the arrangement still needed to be met. Wives were technically still property of their husbands and a proper marriage was still required to produce offspring.

So just where did this idea of marriage being about love come from? I’m sure that the husbands and wives of olden times (like those involved in arranged or pragmatic marriages today), who married for practical and economic reasons, often developed a love for each other. But these days we see love as the main reason for marriage. Love has gone from playing the occasional supporting role to being the Star of the show.

Love as a precursor to marriage is said to date back only as far as the Middle Ages, and even then it was more of an airy romantic concept than a reality which was within the grasp of ordinary people. Until very recently, women continued to be considered their husband’s property and people continued to marry for social and financial reasons. When marrying for love became mainstream is unclear, although the gradual erosion of conventional gender roles and the increasing potential for social mobility undoubtedly played a part. Whatever the reason, we are now in the privileged position of being able to choose to enter into a long-term relationship with somebody with mutual love as the main consideration. Women also get a more favourable deal, as they are no longer required (at least not legally) to bow to their husband’s demands. But although we now form relationships based on love, the idea of marriage as a business contract remains basically unchanged.

So why does love still take centre stage on the ‘Big Day’? People don’t use their wedding day to declare their love for each other, one would assume that they’ve done that already. And there’s no reason why a couple can’t love and remain committed to each other for the course of their lives whilst ‘living in sin’. All marriage does is produce a legally enforceable set of documents which makes provisions for the termination of the relationship. It’s a business agreement, plain and simple. So why the heavy romantic overtones? Why the grossly inflated sense of importance attached to the wedding day itself? Why the insistence that you and your spouse sign your stuffy old financial contract in the presence of all your family and friends? When I sign a professional business contract I don’t invite my nearest and dearest up to watch before getting my brother to make a speech about what a cracking guy my new business partner is.

Ok, ok, I’m going a bit far now. Obviously the nature of a romantic partnership is quite different to that of a business partnership. Love is a beautiful thing and it’s natural to want to share that feeling with those you hold dear. But you don’t have to do that on the wedding day. In fact, the wedding day is probably the least appropriate time to celebrate that love, as you’re basically there to consolidate your financial interests and facilitate the equitable apportionment of your shared estate in the event of your divorce. Very romantic. Love has no place in the marriage contract, and it’s ridiculous to even suggest that love for another is something that can be enforced by law. Take a look at these excerpts from some different marriage vows:

I pledge before this assembled company to be your husband from this day forward. Let us make of our two lives one life. I want you for today, tomorrow, and forever.

And:

I promise here to treasure for all of my days the love we celebrate today.

And:

I promise never to never to wake up in thirty years time when you’ve lost all your hair and drank all our savings, look contemptuously upon your withered, bloated, unshaven figure as you drink milk straight from the carton and scratch your arse and question (even for a second) my decision to marry you today.

Ok so I made the last one up, but it’s no more ludicrous than the other two really. This stuff has no place in a legal contract. I can promise to share my money equally with someone and provide for any children we may have, and the law can ensure that I do. But I can’t promise to love someone forever anymore than I can promise that I’ll always like the fourth series of Blackadder more than the other three, and no judiciary can force me to either. I’m sure I sound like a miserable cynic but I’ve got nothing against love itself; it’s one of the most beautiful things a person can experience. And just as you wouldn’t plant a rose in your cabbage patch, would it really be so bad to keep beautiful love away from dreary old legal proceedings?

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Step right up to the Daily Mail’s Incredible Chinese Circus!

As someone with a particular interest in Chinese language and culture, I always keep an eye out for stories about China in the British press for two reasons. Firstly, I simply like to keep up with what’s going on over there. Secondly, as someone who’s lived in China and who has several native Chinese friends, I’m always interested in finding out Britons’ perceptions of the country and the people and contrasting them with my own experiences. China is a hot topic for obvious reasons, and so it’s no surprise that it’s been getting more and more attention from the British press lately. But the Daily Mail’s reporting on China and the Chinese has caught my attention recently and I believe it’s worth commenting on as it represents what I believe is an increasing tendency amongst some people to erroneously view the Chinese as a kind of wacky bunch of eccentrics whose behaviour and values are incomprehensible to us in the West.

Today’s ‘Meet the Michelin Baby‘ story is a continuation of the Daily Mail’s misguided ‘Incredible Chinese Circus’ narrative which has become quite prevalent of late. The article introduces 10-month old baby Lei Lei from Hunan Province who, despite being ‘normal weight’ at birth, now weighs in at a whopping 20kg (3.1 stones). Despite this remarkable weight gain pointing to some kind of medical condition, no attempt is made to explore this further except to mention that Lei Lei is currently undergoing some tests at a local hospital. Instead, we’re just treated to a series of photographs showing the super-sized tot looking, well, super-sized. It’s just another quirky story about those quirky Chinese people!

The article is  sourced from the appropriately named ‘Quirky China News‘, a site which provides journalists with ‘quirky news’ on China, helping them zero in on that next titillating scoop with helpful links entitled ‘eccentrics’, ‘LOL’ and ‘stupidity’. They were behind the story in the Mail a while back about an impoverished Rickshaw driver in Beijing who had taken to chaining his 2-year old to a lamppost during working hours for fear of him being abducted, a tragic situation which the Mail insensitively referred to as ‘Childcare: Chinese style’.

And the circus acts just keep on coming. The Mail have shared with us the ‘bizarre’ ‘new craze’ amongst the Chinese for dying their pets to look like other animals (they were being dyed for a competition – I’ve travelled all over China and have never once seen this ‘craze’), reported on how Chinese tots are being ‘contorted into the most uncomfortable positions’ in the name of gymnastics training (I suppose Beth Tweddle was just a natural-born Olympian?), and have even amused us with the tale of the Chinese farmer who ‘had his huge male breasts removed‘. Scroll down to the comments on any of these articles to find a bagful of tittering, disbelieving commenters all stupefied by the zaniness of this foreign culture and all scratching their heads in disbelief wondering what those crazy Chinese will do next.

China is a huge place, home to some 20% of the world’s population, with an extremely complex culture and set of customs which vary widely between cities and provinces. As such, you’re always going to find cultural and biological extremes there. What bothers me is that they seem to be reported with a disproportionately high frequency, which gives a false impression of the Chinese as a nation of nutters living in a culture so incomprehensible to us in the UK that they may as well be on another planet. Add to that the fact that for most Brits their only direct experience of Chinese culture is the occasional takeaway on a Saturday night, and you have a potent formula for cultivating confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance.

The comments left on articles like those mentioned above can range from the bewildered (‘I guess you’d have to be Chinese to understand it!’) to the downright nasty (‘cruel, abhorrent people’) and it annoys me that people are being led to feel this way about such a wonderful, dynamic culture and group of people. Sure, there are real cultural differences between the Chinese and the British – the Chinese like to save money, the British like to spend it; the Chinese are more likely to give cash, the British are more likely to give presents – but at the fundamental level of the individual, British and Chinese values are far from irreconcilable and in many ways very similar. I feel closer to many of my Chinese friends than I do to my British friends, a fact that would be inconceivable were you to accept the Daily Mail’s version of China and the Chinese.

If a journalist wants to write an article that illuminates life in 21st Century China there is no shortage of material. There’s the burgeoning art scene in Shanghai, the exciting fresh crop of Chinese thinkers who are helping to shape the country’s future, as well as massive international events like the Shanghai World Expo and the hugely influential Canton Fair in Guangzhou. There are numerous topics which journalists could delve into to help readers get acquainted with modern China, something that should be a priority for all of us over the coming years. These silly ‘weird and wacky China’ articles will inspire nothing but cultural misunderstanding and stupidity, which is the last thing we need at a time when we should be grabbing every opportunity to engage with what is in my opinion one of the most fantastic and important cultures on Earth.

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Living with an abusive football club

Imagine you have a partner who causes you nothing but drama. They take, take take – your money, your time and your energy. They build your hopes up only to knock them down again, and then invite you back for more punishment. They organise their entire schedule around the TV listings and expect you to just go along with it, even if it means sitting in the pouring rain on a Monday night in December just to spend some time with them. And to top it all off they have no interest whatsoever in you, but demand constant attention and liberal access to the contents of your wallet. Who in their right mind would find that kind of relationship remotely appealing? Well, as it turns out, millions of otherwise sane and rational men and women (mainly men) have decided this is just how they want to be treated. Football is the gold-digging charlatan of whom I speak, and our masochistic love for it against all of our better judgement shows no sign of abating.

My abusive partner is called Aston Villa. We’ve been together since we met around 15 years ago, when we were introduced one Saturday afternoon by my father. Ours is an open relationship in the sense that Aston takes as many partners as she wants, and indeed I feel a weird sense of pride as I watch her crowd of suitors grow ever larger. I’ve never been unfaithful to her, although in the folly of my youth I did flirt briefly with a doe-eyed young hussy named Liverpool, a fact that still shames me to this day. Aston was fun at first. We would meet up at the weekends and on the occasional weeknight, and she would generally make me feel pretty good. But over the years things began to slowly change. I came to realise that all of the flighty things that I had envisaged at the start of our relationship were never going to come to pass, and as she wasn’t prepared to compromise we started to drift apart.

This is how it was for a while. I’d keep up with how she was doing and we’d meet from time to time, but it seemed that this was one relationship which had run its course. Then something happened. What it was exactly is unclear. Maybe it was the pressure from my friends, who all had relationships of their own which they were apt to extol the virtues of at every opportunity. Or maybe I just missed the extraordinary highs that Aston would offer me a glimpse of from time to time, and I wanted to indulge in sweet hope all over again. Whatever it was, I went running back to her with a bouquet of banknotes begging for forgiveness. She hadn’t realised I’d even been away, which was somewhat disheartening, but nevertheless we picked up where we’d left off and have been madly in love ever since.

Except I’m kidding myself really. There’s no love in our relationship, just maniacal obsession on one side and detached indifference on the other. While she frolics around oblivious to my existence all season before ending up the meat in a Man City/Everton sandwich, I invite ghastly Sky Sports News presenters into my home on the off-chance of hearing a trivial update on her life and spend all weekend wearing her favourite colours even though they get me disapproving looks in restaurants. So why is it so hard to kick her into touch? Why is it that no matter how badly our football clubs treat us we just suck it up and ask for more? Why after all these years of abuse – the sky-high ticket prices, the freezing cold 0-0 draws with Racing Pigeons FC of Bezerkistan, the whorish excuses for players who won’t roll out of bed for less that 50 grand and a wheelbarrow-full of strippers, the twenty minutes of queueing for a lukewarm ‘meat’ pie, the hideous official merchandise with Poundland designs and Harrods prices – why, after all that do we not just tell football to bugger off and not come back?

I guess the reason is that our attachment to football has almost nothing to do with any of that bollocks. I’ll blog some more on this later, but football is essentially a powerful social phenomenon which taps into our deep-rooted and universal need to belong to some kind of tribe-like social group, and to contrast ourselves with an Other. The perceived glamour and beauty of the game draws you in, and once you’re established in your tribe with your comrades you’ll do surprisingly irrational things – like paying £90 to sit outside for two hours or walking around town dressed as a humbug – in order to preserve and enhance your sense of belonging. This is why it’s so hard to wean yourself off of football. You’re not just sticking the boot in to a gaggle of perma-tanned millionaire sex-addicts, you’re casting aside your fellow tribesmen, your home away from home and, in all seriousness, a part of yourself. My direct relationship with Aston Villa may be nought but a shallow husk, but the sense of belonging I get when I walk into the local Adventurer pub or the inexplicable pride I feel when the flag of my tribe is flown into battle across the continent are very real, and until I learn to live without them my precious logic is likely to be left spending Saturdays in exile for the foreseeable future.

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