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I’ve started following some people I disagree with on Twitter.

Listening to people you disagree with is really quite important. I mean, I talk to hypothetical people I disagree with on this blog all the time, and I act like I’m expecting them to listen. So it’s only polite.

And I do get probably an unhealthy amount of my reporting on what “the other side” think only when it’s been filtered through someone on “my side” reporting on it, with all the expected disdain and righteous indignation that I find it hard not to share.

So I’ve added a few contrarians to my feed. I’m planning to find more blogs to achieve the same thing, too. Feel free to make suggestions. (I’m a libertarian socialist atheist humanist, in case you need a recap on who I’m likely to find utterly antithetical to every value I hold dear.)

Anyway, there’s a particular thought process some of these oppositional commentators seem to spark in me. It goes something like this.

1. This opinion contradicts my understanding of the way things are!

2. I am more rational than to simply dismiss it out of hand, however. I shall follow the attached link and look a bit more closely into what the assertion actually is, and how well it stands up.

3. Well, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what’s wrong here.

4. But something must be, this person’s a tit and clearly on the wrong side of everything.

5. Okay, that’s definitely not a rational conclusion. Can I actually find any holes in this piece of analysis?

6. …No.

7. But it doesn’t mean this person’s right; really, I just don’t understand the subject well enough to have an opinion either way. It’s quite intricately political in an area I’m not well versed in.

8. Is that a cop-out to avoid admitting that I was wrong about something, because this person made a good point?

9. No, I think I really honestly don’t have a clue one way or the other. This seems like a good point, but so did the other stuff I’d already read from the other side. Apparently I can’t reliably tell which of these two opposing viewpoints is making the best points. I really should conclude that I just don’t know what’s going on.

10. Y’know, I probably should’ve started with that before even deciding I had an opinion worth defending.

I’ve also provided myself with a few examples of how a little intelligence and rationality can be a dangerous thing, if they’re deployed and placed strategically so as to continue reinforcing one’s own biases.

In particular, this comes up in my reactions when somebody not part of my “in-group” makes a claim about a contentious subject, as opposed to when somebody who is identified as being on “my side” makes a similar claim, when I don’t have time to fully examine either of them right now.

The contrast between “Hmm, I should study this more carefully later, and also find an informed rebuttal from someone who disagrees, to make sure I’ve got both sides of the story and can fully and rationally assess the truth of the situation” and “Yep, makes sense!” is quite stark.

So I’ve learned some things about my own rationality, and the way my brain works when confronted with ideas and individuals I tend to find unreasonable and infuriating.

On the other hand, I’ve also been reminded that, sometimes, people whose political opinions happen to differ significantly from mine are also horrible. Just unbearably, viciously, despicably horrible.

So there’s that.

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Today I bring you a different kind of grumpy intolerance, and also some poetry. I’ll probably be a prosaic hippy again later.

So Twitter is this place where people like being funny and making self-referential jokes about stuff. Other shit goes on too, but it’s the bit with all the parodies and creatively amusing pop culture references I’m interested in now.

In particular, there have been any number of accounts created in the name of fictional or historical characters, which emulate their style of speaking and writing. One of my favourite examples from days of English yore is Dr Samuel Johnson, and there are plenty more of that ilk.

And while much of this is great fun to follow and join in with, you can probably guess (even if you aren’t familiar with Sturgeon’s Law that predicts it) that a lot of these accounts are crap.

I don’t want to pick on Shakespeare Lyrics in particular – there are surely numerous worse offenders out there, and there’s nothing that offensive about some dismal “songs in archaic language” – but it’s had the ill fortune of irritating me with its unimaginativeness a couple of times now. Also, it has over 30,000 follows, and got over a thousand retweets for this:

We art never, ever, ever, becoming reunited

Seriously? That’s a sufficiently authentic Shakespearean adaptation of a Taylor Swift lyric to impress over a thousand of you?

I can’t find the tweet now that first bugged me a couple of months ago (I’m not entirely certain it was the same account), but it was a fairly similar cut-and-paste job of some olde worlde vocab into a couple of lines of Sir Mixalot. More or less off the top of my head, I tweeted an example of how it’s meant to be done:

“Rebecca, such a strumpet do I spy! / A hip-hop minstrel’s wench she doth resemble!”

“A curvèd rear’s most pleasing to mine eye / On this point, ’tis beyond me to dissemble.”

Now, I’m not going crazy, that’s pretty good, right? Assuming you know the song, that’s a recognisable paraphrasing of “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, and it’s in actual iambic pentameter, right? It’s not just me?

Anyway nobody noticed because I’m not a Twitter megastar and life moved on.

Today Kirsty goaded me by retweeting another effort from the same account:

Oh Mickey thou art indeterminately divine, thou art indeterminately divine thee explode my cerebellum, greetings Mickey, greetings Mickey.

Fucksakes.

Okay, first: scientists didn’t even begin to understand the cerebellum’s function until the 1800’s, so it’s unlikely Shakespeare would have mentioned it at all, let alone used it as a casual synonym for “mind”.

Secondly, there’s still nothing that scans. You’re just swapping in some high-falutin’ words with no context and expecting us to be impressed. And thousands of people are, depressingly. Currently 8,129 retweets on that one. Fucking hell. I should start myself one of these accounts.

But mostly, this kind of thing is exactly what would run through any mentally functional person’s mind within seconds of considering how to cross the memes of “contemporary songs people like quoting” and “Shakespeare talk”. “We art never, ever, ever becoming reunited” is what you do to make an anachronism of We Are Never Getting Back Together without even trying. Anyone could do it to that level.

So I had a proper go at turning some modern pop lyrics into very loosely Shakespearean-style poetry, in a way that not just anyone could do without applying some effort, not that they’d necessarily want to. If I truly cared about my art, I’d have stretched it out into a proper sonnet, but life is short.

Dear ladies unrestrained by marriage yet:
If romance be your driving aspiration,
And someday true love falls into your net
And makes you raise your arms in celebration,
Do not risk losing what you sought so long,
And ever tighter to it you must cling.
Draw inspiration from that old love song:
Thou shouldst ensnare their digit with a ring.

That’s how we play in MY house, bitches.

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As well as not doing much blogging or writing any new stories, my Twitter feed went a bit dead for the last couple of weeks, while I’ve been mopey about work prospects and whatnot. It perked up a bit today. Here’s what’s been inspiring me to brevity, mostly regarding the London mayoral election.

RT @sturdyAlex: Whether you decide to vote or not and, if you do, for whom you vote, make it a conscious decision.

Much better advice there than just “whoever you vote for, make sure you vote”.

Vote for Boris. Because how likely is Ken to toss on about wiff-waff at the Olympics? Come on, gay people, get on board.

NB “privilege”. RT @amolrajan: Hate all politicians? Can’t be arsed to vote? Shut up and grow up. People died to give you this privilege.

Just decide which power-hungry arsehole you hate least and tacitly accept their authority over you. That’s called being mature.

RT @41un: @writerJames @amolrajan No candidates here have policies. Isn’t it an abuse to increase the work of the counting officer with a random vote?

I drop half a carrot just by the bridge. After a flash of snuffly nose, it’s dragged out of sight underneath. Guinea pigs are adorable.

I may have got a bit bored with politics toward the end of the day.

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You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?

No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.

It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.

But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.

In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.

Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.

Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.

Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.

The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.

In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.

If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.

And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.

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Oh yeah, and I hope you all had a fun Christmasorwhatever over the last few days.

– “Let us allow ourselves to be made simple.” That’s a lot of what’s wrong with religion in one sentence, right there.

– A Christian pastor’s advice to a rape victim, based on the advice given in his holy book that billions of people take seriously: “It’s too bad that you didn’t force him to kill you instead. That way you could have at least died a virgin.

– Bruce Hood’s written a book I’m looking forward to reading, about how “there is no ‘you’ inside your head“. His Royal Society Christmas Lectures start tonight, too.

– Some corporate people still don’t really seem to understand how Twitter works.

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Crap! Judge Jacqueline Davies has made a preposterous legal ruling. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise…

Well, I suppose I’d better not finish that sentence. At least, not with anything more serious than “I’ll write an angry letter to a local newspaper and consider lodging some sort of official complaint”.

You may need some context if you don’t know what’s going on. In January, a guy called Paul Chambers vented some frustration on Twitter by posting the following, perhaps rather injudicious tweet:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

The message eventually found its way to the airport security staff, and from there to the Crown Prosecution Service. At no point, as far as I can tell, did anybody actually feel threatened by the message, or consider that it might constitute a forecast of genuine domestic terrorism.

Because honestly, who would do that? He responded to the irritating and inconvenient cancellation of a flight he was going to catch to meet a girl, by posting the above message to his followers on Twitter. Is anyone really interpreting this tweet as being Phase One of a sinister plot to actually plant explosives in an airport and set off a massive detonation, as retribution for this annoyance? How is it possible to see this as anything other than an expression of comically impotent exasperation?

Nobody was ever in any danger as a result of the message. Nobody was delayed or inconvenienced, since the airport just got on with things as normal and deemed it no credible threat when it was brought to their attention. At worst, the guy deserved a caution, and a suggestion that he be more careful about such flippant references to terrorism in future, in case another such joke be taken seriously someday.

He was arrested for a “bomb hoax” offence, then charged and convicted under a different law regarding public communications of an “indecent, obscene or menacing” character. He was fined £1000, faces larger legal costs, and has just had his appeal turned down.

This has made a lot of people very unhappy and been widely regarded as a bad move.

David Allen Green has been acting for Paul Chambers since shortly after he heard about the case, and describes the background here and here. He also published a guest post by Paul’s partner, who blogs as CrazyColours, and who he was planning to fly over to meet in the flight referred to.

Martin Robbins updates us on the ludicrous War on Irony.

Heresy Corner posted about this on Thursday, after the appeal was turned down. I was initially wary of his conclusion that it is now “illegal to talk in your native idiom”, but now I’m honestly not so sure. That the message is “an instantly recognisable joke” seems obvious. Some people, of course, will fail to get it. But those are not people we should feel obliged to pander to. We don’t need to arrest everybody who says something that those humourless people find threatening, just like we don’t need to censor every comedian who wants to use a rude word so as to placate the screeching “won’t somebody think of the children” crowd.

David Mitchell wrote for The Observer about this after the conviction.

Mark Phillips has explained the linguistic structure of the joke, and how it clearly casts Paul Chambers in the role of beleaguered underdog with humourous intent.

Matt Flaherty has written a wonderful open letter to Judge Jacqueline Davies, which is slightly scary in revealing just how flawed and dangerous the reasoning behind this decision really was.

A fund supporting Paul Chambers as he continues his legal battle and/or normal life has been set up.

And, of course, the Twitterverse has not been impressed by this week’s decision.

Over the course of yesterday, many thousands of people used the #IAmSpartacus hashtag to tweet an exact duplicate “threat” against Robin Hood airport, myself included. Nothing could more solidly make the point that such a thing can be publicly declared without being remotely menacing.

Nobody sane could possibly conclude, from reading these tweets, that thousands of conspirators are simultaneously announcing an evil terror plot. We’re clearly doing it for a joke, or to express our frustration, or to make some sort of point.

The content (apart from the hashtag) in Paul Chambers’s original tweet was exactly the same. I submit that the only reasonable interpretation of his tweet is also identical. It was a joke, or to express his frustration, or to make some sort of point.

After joining in with this, I then spent the next hour or so trying to think of Monty Python references to go with the obvious follow-on to the #IAmSpartacus hashtag, namely: #ImBrianAndSosMyWife. “What have the Crown Prosecution Service ever done for us?” and so forth. Nobody paid much attention.

And that’s more or less the current state of play. I’m actually on my way into London now to watch Brendon Burns tell jokes which will almost certainly be far more offensive, threatening, and scandalous than anything anyone’s got into trouble on Twitter for. Sleep tight.

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After the recent tabloid-driven kerfuffle of hysteria, Stephen Fry has written about the silliness of it all in his usual wonderful way, and reinforced my inclination not to trust any news I haven’t learned through Twitter these days.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Twitter is a wonderful venue for very quickly sharing ideas and spreading news, but it’s still liable to various traps of misinformation – the substantial unquestioning backlash against Stephen’s own entirely misconstrued comments are a prime example, in fact, of just how far out of hand things can get.

But it’s a vast improvement on the current state of British tabloids.

Anton Vowl and Minority Thought have both highlighted a not-remotely-isolated incident of the Daily Express yelling about MUSLIMS! MUSLIMS and the terrible things THEY have been doing to US good, decent BRITISH folks.

We’re all in this together, lads. Against all of them.

Roshonara Choudhry is a Muslim extremist who was sentenced to life imprisonment this week, for the attempted murder of a government minister who’d supported the Iraq war. At the sentencing, some people in the public gallery shouted their disapproval. Outside, three guys stood around with messages printed out on sheets of A4 paper looking like something out of Chris Morris’s Four Lions.

And what the Express take from these shouts of impotent fury and flimsy signs from extremist sympathisers of a would-be murderer is that THEY are all out to get US.

Where “they” means Muslims. All of them, the entire homogeneous mass. The ones who keep blowing themselves up out in those foreign places with lots of sand, the two million or so who live in the UK who all come from different denominations and practise with differing strictness of observation, all of ’em.

And “us” means a particular subset of British people. It’s not entirely clear who “we” are. We’re not Muslims, that’s for sure. We live in the UK, or spent a while doing so at least. We’re probably not all white. And I suppose some of us might not be Christian, so long as we don’t look too foreign. But we know who is and isn’t welcome in our country, that’s for sure.

They’re callously driving home of what they know is a winning narrative, and it’s thoroughly unkind.

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