On Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s Divorce, Clickbait And The Death Throes Of The Media

Integrity: 1) the quality of being honest and having moral principles. 2) the quality of being sound in construction.
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Sad news as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announce publicly via Gwyneth’s website Goop.com that they’re getting a divorce. A divorce is almost invariably sad news, even when one half of the erstwhile couple wrote I Was Born To Fix You. So it ought to go without saying that hopefully they can be left to it to get the split finalised with a minimum of pain and anguish and without the sort of journalistic pile-up these affairs usually invite.

Like I said, it ought to go without saying but, y’know, clickbait…

The Goop.com statement itself is entirely dignified and thoughtful. Ok there’s also an Instagrammy snap of them in presumably happier times, and of course she’s wearing something floaty like a latter day earth goddess (and why not) that makes her look both, like, totally effortlessly glamorous and completely approachable. Which is a bit ick, but all in all it could and possibly should have been worse.

Of course in the celebriverse nothing is so simple. And they didn’t quite help themselves, what with that pseudospiritual/scientific-sounding title ‘Conscious Uncoupling’ and the much longer –insert pejorative term here– diatribe explaining the concept, which is exactly what you’d expect from a cursory glance around the rest of the website.

That’s the nicest way I can think to put it – being a crusty old cynic I take issue with anything quasi-thought-based that uses Paleolithic man as a rhetorical parry in the intellectual skirmish.

See also: the paleo diet (Paleolithic man had a life expectancy of about five minutes and a diet that consisted of whatever happened to be lying around, up to and including the contents of dead animals’ stomachs – they definitely wouldn’t have been sniffy about cereals or monosodium glutamate).

Anyhoo, the end result of all this is that a divorcing couple made an entirely uncontroversial public statement which they framed in a typically anodyne and precious fashion. But what else would anyone expect: a selfie of Gwyneth with a pint and a double bacon cheeseburger accompanied by a missive along the lines of ‘dumped the drip. Mama’s found her fancy underwear and her inner goddess wants a spanking; who’s gonna’ oblige’?

Or a Chris Martin selfie accompanied by a missive along the same lines for that matter.

That really ought to be the end of it. But modern journalism increasingly resembles an echo chamber of bollocks.

The Daily Mail has been its usual sensitive self, posting pictures of the couple’s real estate portfolio and Gwyneth in short shorts and asking rhetorically how they’re going to split their $150m and sparkly friends. Further downmarket and there’s a shit ton of schadenfreude with Gwyneth’s name on it. So far, so typical.

But the more interesting development is that of proper journalists trying to put it into a wider context, which is like trying to find meaning in a Paulie Shore movie (thanks Clueless, you’ve always been there for me).

The Guardian’s Anne Perkins posted a toxic little piece (she reserved most of her ire for the ‘snake oil salesmen of the soul’ experts, but do check out that final paragraph) about how this conscious uncoupling had nothing to teach ordinary people. To be fair Goop.com is a little didactic, but it’s mainly mildly self-congratulatory navel gazing, like most blogs (especially this one).

The Washington Post crayoned a thinkpiece about how actually maybe the ‘female celebrity’ doesn’t have it all, after all. You see, theoretically they do because they have high-powered careers and the finances to raise kids simultaneously and have agency and look totally hot in skinny jeans. To be fair, a lifetime of pressure to diet surely contradicts the fundamental conceit of ‘having it all’.

But anyway, celebrity divorces enable us to assess our and our society’s attitudes to marriage and divorce with emotional distance. Predictably, the Post concludes that maybe none of us can have it all, after all.

Well stick a knife in me, I’m done.

I mean, wow. Here was me thinking that journalism was in crisis because of money rather than a race to the bottom of the integrity barrel.

In the midst of the tawdry gossip of Gwyneth’s alleged affair(s), published with cowardly qualifiers such as ‘might’ because libel, speculation over asset splits and custody battles, memes and clickbait and snicker-snack paddywhack snark; and crocodile tears cried by commentators for no one but themselves; there’s a faux-profound need to understand, to find any old pop psychology that hasn’t already been claimed by one of the other tabloids to recast a commonplace personal catastrophe as a study in the ways and follies of man. And that, my darlings, is probably the longest sentence I’ve ever written.

There’s only one actual lesson to learn from all this: there’s a yawning chasm between ‘public interest’ and ‘things the public might be interested in’.

Beyond that, if you don’t know either of them then you’re not affected by their separation (if you think you are then you might want to reconsider your priorities in life). Their divorce can teach you nothing about the problems you may have in your own relationships. And while we’re on the subject, whatever enjoyment you might get from it all do bear in mind that it comes at the expense of actual people with actual feelings.

So while ‘conscious uncoupling’ sounds like pretentious self-parody, whatever panacea they self-prescribe for their pain is a matter for them. And it probably beats spending the next year getting pissed in your kitchen Facebook stalking and glazing your friends’ eyes over with never-ending volcanic rumblings about the many failings of ‘ting.

Is Nice The Meanest Word In The English Language?

(Or: Captain Obvious Rang, He Wants His Insights Back)

Nice guys finish last, so they say (although who ‘they’ might be remains to be seen).

In Austen there are basically 3 types of male love interest: the PHWOAR-gasm – charming, sexy probably-a-soldier (bad guy); the guy she misjudged but she didn’t realise it at first cos’ he seemed like a total dick but actually on second glance is totally a good guy with a rockin’ bod; AND…

The obviously-a-good-guy, but he’s just too nice so that ain’t gonna’ happen but if he’s lucky he might get amongst a supporting character. Alan Rickman played him in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. See also: Mr Bingley – good enough for Jane maybe, but then again Jane’s equally insipid so doesn’t really count.

And before we start to sound like one of those vaguely misogynistic blogs by and for men who can’t get girls to fancy them and blame it on their inherent ‘niceness’ as opposed to their inherent personal failings, men are exactly the same, for exactly the same reason:

Here’s a list of things that are nice: BeeGees ballads, vanilla ice cream, pastels.

It’s not exhaustive, obviously, but to be fair it’s also not representative. Because we’re trying to demonstrate a point here. And that point is that ‘nice’ is the compliment people give when they can’t think of anything meaningful to say.

Nice is bland – it’s fine but nothing to get excited about or put any thought into, so far so, well, nice, right? But that’s not why it’s possibly the meanest word (alright, adjective) in the language.

This is: as it happens, nice hasn’t always meant, well… nice. Its archaic meaning around about the 13th century was ‘foolish, stupid or senseless’; your average Kate Hudson movie in other words.

Over time nice came to mean timid or uncertain, before developing to mean fussy or fastidious, then ‘dainty’ or ‘delicate’ (as in ‘of a fragile disposition’) and so on until the 16th century or so, when it primarily meant ‘scrupulously exact’. Which is a quality one expects in one’s accountant, prenuptial agreements and the taxman. Again, not exhaustive/representative, but you take my point.

The latter usage has been preserved in phrases such as ‘nice and early’ (ie punctual), incidentally.

So more or less until it achieved its current meaning of ‘pleasantly beige’, the word nice has signified a series of characteristics that most people would view as faintly insulting, like having your looks favourably compared to Predator.

And when you use the word to describe something, your implying of that narrative of meaning means that you’re being far meaner than you might have meant.

Meanie.

How To Be A Blogger of Repute

Bloggers of repute write knowledgeably and engagingly about topics people are interested in. Here’s a recommended example:

4th Street Review

I on the other hand write this sort of thing:

“Gather round folks. Women and chillun to the front. I see you guys at the back there; pretending like that’s you on the ID. What is that, your brother’s driving licence? It won’t work, not with that chubby little baby face. You’ll be happy enough with it when you’re 40.

Now, I didn’t get where I am today just by drinking more white wine than is good for me. I had to get here first because here’s where they serve the sauce. To clarify, I’m not a white wine drinker, can’t even call myself an equal opportunities drinker – it’s red all the way or else.

I don’t believe in compromise.

But I digress; you want to know my secret, the secret of my success? Hey that sounds like a Bob Dylan lyric if he ever wrote a blog about how damn good he is at stuff.

Firstarters I like to give advice. Like advice on how to be so successful that every now and then one person will read your blog or at least find it. Here’s how to give advice:

1) ‘Doing’ is for people of little or no education or imagination – if you want to give advice don’t ‘do’, ‘think’. Thinking is how clever people with higher levels of education differentiate themselves from non-thinking ‘doers’ who lack the requisite sophistication to use words such as ‘requisite’ and ‘sophistication’. And remember: experience is over-rated.

2) In order to demonstrate that you are thinking (they will assume about their problem), scrunch your face up really tight, like you’re trying to fit it into a really packed cupboard, or you’re remembering the bitter aftertaste of sucking on a lemon that’s been soaked in iodine and isn’t really a lemon at all but is in fact a weak black hole that’s winning the fight.

3) Laughter is the best medicine. However, it is considered impolite or even insensitive to begin a course of treatment while the advicee is explaining his or her problem.

4) Platitudes are your friend. If you can’t think of any, just say ‘oh no you deserve so much better’ putting the emphasis on so and much and pausing slightly as you say those words (that’s the secret). Then distract them with a magic trick.

Secondly, I like non-sequiturs. “Later traitor!” yelled the Queen as she had someone beheaded for high treason. Just like that.

Remember, having an actual point to make is bourgeois, demonstrating or imparting knowledge is a waste of time because lies are prettier than facts and we all love the pretty things.

Never give in, never compromise. Eventually the world will see that you were entirely correct to dedicate a blog to alternative uses for old, soiled doilies.

Best of all, write crap like: The world is flat – it’s your perspective that’s round. People love that shit cos it sounds deep but it means nothing.

Go you.”

New Year’s Revolutions

I found Cary Elwes down the back of a sofa. It all started in a lift, an…elevator. Apropos of nothing, some cat started complaining about an eyelash trapped in his eye like a simile of your choice. I suggested he try blinking, he said ‘Abe Lincoln?’ and from there it all got a bit Mel Brookes. Robin Hood: Men In Tights, easily my favourite 1990s Robin Hood spoof starring Cary Elwes.

Here at Frood we trust that you had an enjoyable end of December-type period and are slowly ramping up to the blank slate of an arbitrarily delineated new year. Two neutrons have been drinking in a bar for several hours. One turns to the other and asks ‘what state are you in?’

Last year I chose not to make any New Year’s resolutions: I wouldn’t decide to join a gym, give up drinking or change my opinion of musical theatre. It was a resolution I managed to keep for the entire year. So there’s that.

But it got me thinking that maybe the problem with these resolutions is that they’re symptomatic of a roundhead impulse in a cavalier mind. That is to say that it’s not that they’re ‘good’ that’s the issue, it’s that they’re so damn worthy. And being good-with-a-capital-sanctimonious takes far too much energy, so they’re doomed to fail. That’s before one factors in the general ghastliness of January/February.

I accept that it probably is good to try and be a little more open-minded about musical theatre even if it is a punishment for theft in some cultures. I’ll even continue to accept that as a proposition unless and until I have to watch 2 minutes of fucking Cats (very poor choice of words).

But all that being said, maybe the point of a resolution shouldn’t be to stick to it. To be trite, maybe the journey matters more than the destination. Maybe it’s not the finding, but the searching.

Some years back I decided to try something new every month that I would ordinarily avoid like a Michael Bay movie.

I signed up for ballroom dancing classes with my then girlfriend, the next month I decided to see if I could condition myself to like bananas by eating one every day (nope). And so on. I’m pretty sure I stole the concept from an episode of Friends but the idea was a minor revolution for me – instead of asking why, I’d ask why not. I wouldn’t let my natural wariness of looking genuinely like a pillock put me off and I wouldn’t dismiss something for being uncool or somehow beneath me.

I figured that some things wouldn’t stick, others might, but either way in trying new things, especially things that I definitely ‘knew’ I didn’t like, maybe I’d get a new hobby, or a new perspective.

Of course a revolution is defined as a turn through 360 degrees, the net result being that you end up back where you started. Which sort of explains the Russian revolution of 1917 if you’re in a callous or even glib frame of mind.

So obviously nothing I tried stuck with me for long except for tennis which lasted a whole 3-4 months. I really wasn’t good at painting and I loathe running. And I failed to change my personality wholesale – I’m still a cynical know it all in need of a sound thrashing.

But with hindsight I enjoyed the process. And I think I’ll try it again this year – not a resolution, but a revolution.

One thing I clearly won’t be giving up on though is silliness. Because everything in life feels far too serious and if I play along with that I’m worried I might get found out.

So I didn’t find Cary Elwes down the back of the sofa. That was a lie. I found him in a box in my attic. It was Kurosawa I found down the back of my sofa, with my self-esteem and some loose change.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Ducks Vs Rabbits

There was a time when the gods were animals or took their forms, and the gods were natural phenomena or took their forms. Anansi the spider, who played tricks for kicks and Thunder Thor, who didn’t.

Others took animal forms at will – Isis the bird, for example, or Zeus the chauvinist pig.

Through the march of time humanity replaced the old gods with new ones, and those with yet more new ones – gods of id and ego, of higgs-boson. People came to consider themselves to be ‘spiritual’ rather than religious and revelled in the freedom this gave them to pick and choose their own rituals, ignorant of the true price of belief.

In a universe as fiendishly complex as the one we call home, there is a place for everything that exists, even if you can’t see it (especially if you can’t see it). And if it can be imagined, well let’s just say that fantasy is a form of existence. Somewhere deep in one of these pockets, far from the warmth of human affection, dwell the dejected, rejected gods of old. Some are so long in the tooth we have no surviving names for them.

There are no second acts in deified lives as Father Fitzgerald puts it.

But amongst these ragged hordes there are some we know well – some by many names. There is that old pigeon fancier, one-eyed Odin, and also the sprightly form of the Amun Ra, god of all the gods of the upper and lower kingdoms.

And like an optical illusion that is both rabbit and duck, both co-exist in the same space.

There’s a facetious theory that I’ve just invented goes like this: if you go searching for something, and you know roughly the form it will take, you’re almost certain to find it. And if you don’t want to see something, odds are you’ll never let yourself.

So it is that man found the atom, then realised it could be subdivided, and those subdivisions in turn could be subdivided, and even those sub-subdivisions could be broken apart to find, inter alia, bits of string, the singularity-aping infinites of somethingness and nothingness, room for God. Or maybe just further magnitudes of subdivision, new particles and a whole new universe of ignorance for the scientists to get excited about.

Or it could just be a hammer and that’s fine too.

That’s why the dinosaurs were giant reptile-looking sumbitches that died out but also grew feathers and flew away (hence why those who’ve seen Jurassic Park are wary of angering chickens) but also were just a joke left in the ground by some mischievous deity to mess with palaeontologists.

That’s why the devout atheists are wrong about religion and why the sceptical religious are wrong about science: both can co-exist in the same space.

Rabbits and ducks again.

Just don’t try to see it all at once; you’ll go cross-eyed.

How To Win Or At Least End An Argument Part 2: The Filibuster

Part one of this lecture series can be found here.

A properly deployed filibuster has many advantages.  Mainly it infuriates your opponent, and once they lose the plot, they’ll start to lose the fight.  But that’s merely stage one.  At stage two they’ll start to lose the will to live and attempt to change the conversation.  This gives you two options:

  • you accept gracefully knowing that you’ve won a victory by default; or
  • you ramp things up and hammer your point home until they crumble like a poorly constructed Victoria sponge cake, at which point you’ve won by winning.  Congratulations.

But beware the filibuster, for it must be properly deployed to be effective.

First slam down your drink.  This alerts your opponent to the fact that you are about to make a big point with a capital BIG POINT.

Now, you might think it time to start the filibuster.  This is a rookie mistake. Under no circumstances should you jump straight in. Before that, you need to cow your opponent to avoid the possibility of interruptions, which can be irritating (because it’s YOUR limelight dammit and they should get their own).  You do this by taking a cue from the animal world.

Start with your most craziest of crazy eyes, invade their forcefield of personal space.  Bare your incisors and jump up and down on the spot shrieking.  If you’re up to it, try caterwauling.  Your opponent is now aware of the fact that you’re the dominant partner.  At this point you should consider flinging your faeces.

Finally, assert your alpha qualities with a prominent genital display.

Then begin your filibuster.  Now, despite the much-publicised contents of Ted Cruz’s recentish filibustering shenanigans, you should avoid talking about just any old crap to fill time.  There is never any excuse for Ashton Kutcher.  Instead, the skilful among you will attempt to keep your filibuster on point for at least the first 7 minutes.  This must take the form of a semi-coherent rant with many clauses and sub-clauses, a variety of submissions, all mixed up with some confused personal anecdotes that you pretend illustrate your point.

At no time should you introduce any semblance of logic or narrative flow to your filibuster.

You’re not a pro at this yet so around the 35 minute mark you will notice that your own interest is beginning to flag.  At this point, if you are a girl, you should weave in a detailed story about how you used to practice kissing with the other girls at the Catholic girls’ school you attended.  If you are a boy, you should weave in a detailed story about your many amorous adventures whilst attending a Catholic girls’ school as the son of the headmistress.  You will notice that your opponent immediately perks up – this is nothing to be concerned about because they will instinctively start to think about sex and begin to consider you as a viable sexual partner.  This has two knock-on effects.

  • they will forget whatever broadside they were about to make; and
  • you will be cast as passionate rather than merely cantankerous, which boosts your sexual capital.  Advanced students will be aiming for potential angry make up sex (not advisable if you’re fighting with your sister-in-law*).  Which is the best kind.

If you’re not inclined to have sex with your opponent for whatever reason, not to worry: all the x-rated chat has distracted him or her sufficiently that you are now in prime position for the win.

But the filibuster doesn’t end here, much as you may want it to.  You are now at stage two.

Return to your original point, or better yet introduce a long-winded ancillary point that tenuously supports your main premise.  The sexy stuff has woken your opponent up and given him or her hope that the conversation has changed.  The aim here is to undermine and eventually destroy that hope by filibustering for at least another 45 minutes, or until their eyes are more glazed than a glazed donut with extra glaze.

Then and only then will you start to wind down, eventually taking an ostentatious gulp of your beverage.  Here you should pause for as many beats as it takes for your opponent to start speaking again.  As soon as he or she does so, you must jump straight back into your filibuster.

Try introducing a new main premise and set of supporting propositions.  As always, make your sentences as long and convoluted as possible so that they’re harder to follow (did I not mention that earlier?)  For example:

‘And of course one must also consider the mating habits of the common or garden variety sparrow, which further serves to illustrate my earlier proposition that cheese is merely – at best – a kind of edible broadsheet journalist, and, again, this in turn leads into the second submission of my third ancillary premise that The Beatles were IN FACT survivors of the Chernobyl incident thrown back in time, a thought experiment which I’m sure you’ll agree was highly salient in the context of…’ 

At this point you are encouraged to use words like ‘premise’ and ‘proposition’ explicitly – the extra impact of technical language should push your opponent over the edge.

This is another, albeit limited, exception to the ‘no jargon’ rule discussed in the last lecture.  Words such as ‘aphorism’ still must be avoided, along with any debating jargon that doesn’t translate as ‘sentences’, because, as we established in the last lecture, you have some self-respect.

When last orders are called at the bar, the wedding ceremony is concluded or the meeting ends; or your opponent leaves, falls asleep or begs you to talk about something else, congratulations.  You have successfully deployed the filibuster.

Win.

*Unless one or both of you looks like Penelope Cruz, in which case: as you were.

How To Write A Formal Letter Of Complaint

I recently moved in to a new flat, which is lovely thank you for asking.  The people seem, well not friendly because this is the south of England, but pleasant enough.  Unfortunately, at the last residents meeting it turned out that a vanishingly small number of residents have taken issue with parking spaces not being properly used by residents, or being used by non-residents.  As a result the powers that be have introduced a permit and ticketing scheme.

Having some past experience with such schemes I know that they’re usually a terrible idea, and I felt the need to express my misgivings.  Accordingly, I wrote the following letter of complaint (my first) to the management company.

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24 October 2013

Dear Sir or Madam

Parking Permits 

Some time ago I was dismayed to receive the minutes of the last residents meeting.  I was unable to attend the meeting myself, being on a plane at the time and all, but as I read the minutes my heart sank.  Shirley you cannot be serious, I thought (and I apologise for calling you Shirley), someone honestly, actually, wants you to build a fucking great wall to prevent non-residents (the horror!) from sitting in the plaza enjoying a quiet can or 25 of Strongbow?  Doubtless that’ll help shift those empty shop units, not to mention the restaurant space that remains resolutely barren.

But if that was mildly concerning at least it was also laughable.  Yes it can be irritating to walk past a gaggle of boorish drunks failing to rap freestyle – it’s called ‘rhythm’ and it’s actually quite important, chaps – or some of those hormonal teenagers they have these days grinding and slobbering over one another.  But a wall seems…what’s the word? Not disproportionate.  Oh yes, bloody stupid.

More worrying was the proposal to introduce a parking company to patrol the underground car park and dole out tickets to the undeserving.  Because that’s the sort of thing that might be taken seriously even if complaining about it in the first place seems, frankly, childish.  But I thought to myself oh-ho, common sense and sound reason will prevail: a profit-seeking business that raises its profits by dishing out fines is what one might call incentivised to dish out as many fines as it can get away with.

And besides, said car park is currently never ever ever more than half full.

In fact, by the time all the flats have been sold in a year or two and there might be some actual, y’know, reason for residents to be concerned about finding somewhere to park, the bays will all have been properly allocated.

A solution in want of a problem in other words.  And the only people who genuinely complain about problems that quite clearly don’t exist are petty venal wankers, whereas my fellow residents all seem like genuine grown-ups with functioning reasoning skills.

So I duly filled out my objection on the slip provided, dropped it in a post box and thought nothing more of it (I hoped against hope that the whole thing was anyway a token gesture designed to placate the disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells types who’d complained to you in the first place).

But if the enduring popularity of climate change denial, certain tabloid newspapers and various political figures teaches us anything it’s that this country is full of wankers.  And the wankers usually win.

I have a parking bay, which is currently unoccupied.  Nevertheless, I have the right to use it more or less as I see fit.  It’s no business of any other occupier of this building whether I choose to let a visitor park in my space, park my own car in it or leave it empty.  It has no impact on them whatsoever.  Likewise, I’m not bothered by how others use their bays.  If a non-resident smuggles themselves in and parks somewhere I appreciate that that might piss someone off.  For maybe 30 seconds.  But again, if that someone can park their car in what remains a half empty car park, then it’s really not a big deal.

What is likely to be a problem, however, is someone employed specifically to patrol around doing his or her utmost to leverage as much money as possible.  And I’ve yet to come across a parking company that doesn’t in fact require its workforce to do that, despite whatever trite assurances they might have given you before you contracted with them.

I note that they’ll be charging £5 for the privilege of reprinting a paper permit.  Doesn’t exactly bode well.

The wankers usually win, because they complain louder and for longer than the normals.  But they’re usually wrong, because they’re self-entitled or short-sighted or something else involving a hyphen.  I urge you to reconsider this decision, it’s unnecessary, it’s disproportionate and it’ll probably end up costing individual residents a fair whack of money for no better reason than to try to dissuade outsiders with their peculiar ways from using otherwise empty spaces.

Don’t let the wankers win.

Yours faithfully

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I emailed it to a friend for feedback before posting:

(Him:) I’m bound to ask: is this a joke letter? I mean did you write it just to amuse yourself or are you actually hoping that it will be engaged with (in which case it is genuinely the most ill-conceived letter I have ever read)?

(Me:) Am sorely tempted to post it and be damned.

Please do tell me how it is genuinely the most ill-conceived letter you have ever read.

(Him:) Come on, you know what I’m going to say for God’s sake.

  • It’s a page too long
  • the fact that you’re making Shirley puns in the first paragraph implies that you don’t really care about the issue (this is how they’ll see it)
  • the fact that you’re insulting (implicitly or otherwise) the people you’re trying to persuade every five seconds means they’re probably going to stop reading after said first paragraph.
  • the people who sit on this committee are probably the sort of people who consider profanity synonymous with idiocy and who will seize your first use of the word “fuck” as an excuse to stop reading.
  • these people are not going to be bothered to wade through the insults and anecdotes about arrhythmic rappers and stuff to get to your actual point. So they’ll stop reading.
  • if, on the off chance they are intelligent enough to find the anecdotes amusing and the swearing appropriate, they’re also likely to be intelligent enough to realise that the letter is just you tossing off. And, yep, they’ll stop reading.

Just stage a protest or something. Get everyone to stage a carpark sit-in drinking endless cans of Strongbow.

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So I did.  Just me in the end, sitting in my underpants because it was unusually warm down there.  And I don’t like cider myself, so I drank a chocolate milkshake.  And then it got cold so I went back upstairs to finish my milkshake (it brings all the boys to the yard).  But I think they got the message.

How To Win Or At Least End An Argument Part 1: Some Simple Techniques

In honour of the conclusion to the latest twists and turns in the soap opera we used to call American politics, it’s worth brushing up on your own powers of argument and persuasion.  In the coming weeks, this lecture series will demonstrate the methods for winning or at least ending arguments using science.

In this series we will avoid jargon like ‘straw man’ or ‘ad hominem logical fallacy’ except where we don’t, because such language doesn’t get you laid.

We’ll start things off lightly with some simple techniques appropriate for any occasion, be it pub, children’s party or board meeting.

Understand Your Opponent’s Jargon

Debating jargon like ‘cognitive dissonance’ et al should be avoided at all costs because you have some self-respect.  Likewise anything that looks, smells or tastes like Latin, such as ‘et al’.  But you need to understand jargon so that you can properly call your opponent a pompous douchebag when they use it.

There are many formal and informal logical fallacies, but here are some of the more common ones:

Ad hominem: if he or she calls you a twat, that’s ad hominem – it’s not about the merits or otherwise of your argument(s), but all about you personally. Example: ‘Obama was born in Kenya.’

Straw man: an argument that is misrepresented by your opponent as superficially similar to the one you actually made, but which crucially is indefensible.  Example: “it’s necessary to balance civil rights and the state’s powers of intrusion.”  “So what you’re saying is that you want the terrorists to win.”

False dichotomy: an apparent choice between two options, that actually isn’t.  A common example would be freedom of the individual vs security of the people, but we’ve already used that one.  Example: you have a choice between a burger or a pie.  But the menu says that you can have a pie filled with burgers.  Or lasagne.

Confirmation bias: we actually all do this so it’s good to be aware of it.  Your brain retains things that reinforce your bias and edits out contradictory evidence.  Example: I think that people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ are wankers – every time I meet a wanker who calls him-or-herself spiritual, that impression is reinforced.  There are many otherwise lovely people who also describe themselves in such terms, but I can’t recall ever having met a single one, even if I have lived with one or two of them over the years.

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That’s enough of all that.  Let’s get on with winning.

Use Jargon To Your Advantage

At some point one of you will become even more pretentious than I am.  If your opponent reaches this point first, say something like ‘I’ll see your straw man and raise you an ad hominem: you’re a dickhead.’

This is an exception to the ‘no jargon’ rule because technically you’re being funny, which good-natured liars claim makes you attractive.

Use Your Words

At some point in the argument you will experience a sinking feeling, a gut realisation that your opponent is more clued-up on the subject at hand, be it who was a better space captain: Kirk or Picard, or why you should do the washing up more often.

You will find that the tide is turning against you.  But at this point it is important to keep your head and use your words.  It doesn’t matter that he or she can reel off statistics that prove that actually the Eurozone isn’t the UK’s biggest political and economic concern; or that he or she has taken the bins out every week for the past seven months and it’s your turn.

All you have to do is say the following:

“Ah, well now you’re talking semantics.”

Because no one actually quite knows what that word means or even if it’s a bad thing to do. Crucially, they won’t want you to know that they don’t know that a word you’re pretending to know is not in fact a word that either of you knows.  Win.

Use Your Words Part 2

But say that your opponent has deployed the ‘semantics’ argument.  You’re not sure how to react.  Here’s what you say:

“No I’m not.”

Ball. Back. In. Your. Face.  Loser.

Win.

Introduce A New Element

Men who’ve been married for a long time will know that this comes instinctively to wives.

You think you’re fighting about whose responsibility it was to buy more fabric softener, and out of nowhere she sucker-punches you with ‘well I still can’t believe that you said what you did to my aunt Sheila, you know how sensitive she is. And while we’re on the subject, would it kill you to put the toilet seat down once in a while?’  And boom, instant fluster.

Your opponent thinks you’re arguing about the merits of expanding the permanent security council of the UN, suddenly BAM! ‘Yeah, well camembert is just shit brie’.

Whoa, I just totally changed your perspective and stuff.

Use Your Fists

Pretty self-explanatory, and afterwards they’ll have quite forgotten whatever rapier-like point they were about to use to pierce through your entire argument and leave you looking like a small-minded bigot.  Win.

The caveat here is that if your opponent is bigger than you, or looks like a biter, you’ll probably get beaten to a pulp.  On the plus side, this will mean that your opponent has lost his or her temper and therefore you’ve won by default.  Win.

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The rest of this series will go into a lot more detail about a variety of options, including the invention of fictional experts and studies and the advantage of getting your opponent very, very drunk.

Next time: the proper use of the filibuster.

Michelangelo And The Statue Of Frood

So one day Michelangelo is walking along the streets of Florence thinking idly about how much he hates anchovies on pizza when he comes across a bloody great lump of marble.

‘Cowabunga,’ he thinks to himself, ‘who would have thought that one teenage mutant ninja turtle  could come across two free large blocks of marble in one lifetime?’  Well last time this happened he’d hewn it down to recreate the Biblical David, of David and Goliath fame.  David was an informal symbol of Florence, part of its self-image as the plucky underdog against the greater size and weight of Milan and Venice.

Such was politics; Michelangelo had been charged by his patrons to glorify the city and by extension themselves.  But art and commerce make for uneasy bedfellows (like me and a woman, he thought to himself ruefully) and they’d told him that next time he found a random block of marble that he could do whatever he wanted with it as long as he did it in his free time and it didn’t interfere with his work.

And now here it is.  ‘I should have plenty of free time,’ he thinks, thoughtfully. ‘All I’ve got planned at the moment is a quick job down Rome sort of way to repaint some chapel ceiling.’

And as history records, Michelangelo set out to fashion in marble an image of his favourite blogger of blogs about random shit that most people couldn’t care less about.  But then history shuts its trap – no one knows what became of perhaps Michelangelo’s greatest art work, what it looked like or even whether it was ever finished.

Today the statue of Frood is one of the Renaissance world’s great lost treasures, like Botticelli’s dogs playing poker mural, which once proudly adorned the Palazzo Vecchio (or Palazzo della Signoria as it was called then) overlooking the Piazza della Signoria.

Scholars have argued for centuries about how it might have looked as the cartoons and sketches tell very different tales.  In one Frood is wrestling a sea otter, in another he is seen reading bedtime stories to a yeti.  In yet another he is seen heroically n’ stoically leading a pack of wolves to the promised land (Denver, Colorado).

I can’t comment myself, being far too modest.  But what I can say is this: if there’s a lesson to be learned (and there is), it’s that the finished product is not the be all and end all.  The journey counts; and the dream.

Cowabunga.