Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

The pain of longing for home

Turning forty the other day, my only wish was to revisit the town in which I grew up, and left, and hadn’t been to except in passing for almost twenty years. I suppose that as you get older, you start to look backward with rose-coloured glasses, to a time when things were different, and fuller, and better than they are today. But is it ever true?

There’s a simple comfort from living in the past. Home as a concept, a symbol, is an anchor we carry with us all our lives, an idealised, imagined place where everything is safe, if only we could go back there. So ingrained into our psyche is this longing for home that the theme of homecoming is one of the oldest in literature – The Odyssey, the Godfather of the genre, was composed a whopping 2700 years ago. I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost something. The world sometimes feels like it’s all gone to hell.

But in the early-nineties, my hometown was heaven. It’s not just subjective: objectively, everything was great. The Cold War was over; the economy boomed; Levi 501s were finally affordable; grunge and Britpop ruled the airwaves; and moviemaking reached a pinnacle in Point Break, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Pulp Fiction. Gone were the luminous shellsuits and ubiquitous synthpop of the eighties, along with the perms and the mullets and the socks-with-sandals monstrosities. England reached the semi-finals in Italia 90, to the timeless strains of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. We had Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the best time to be alive.

Then what happened? The grunge heroes died; we saw the awful realities of Islamic terror; Keanu Reeves got old; Mel Gibson went crazy; we were embroiled in endless wars; and climate change became a watchword for everything that is wrong with the world. For the past twenty years, I haven’t just wanted to go home – I’ve been desperate to.

As I’ve bounced from place to place, never putting down roots, my life has felt temporary, transitory – because my real life, and my real home, lies far away, somewhere between memory and fantasy, in the hallowed halls of my youth. If only I could get back there.

So on my fortieth birthday last week, I did.

Why did it take me so long? Because I knew things would be different. I’ve been a fan of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley almost as long as I’ve been away from my home, and was always struck by his uncomfortable impressions of returning to Salinas after having moved away years before: ‘Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.’

I went to all my old haunts – my house, my school, the pond where I had my first kiss, the record store where I fell in love with music. Some of the places I recognised; some of them were smaller, and narrower, and uglier than I remembered; and many of them are gone, replaced by things that might be significant in other people’s lives, but with which I have no connection.

I saw faces, people, thronging the streets. I spoke to some, people who might not even have been born when I left. And one thing was inescapably clear with every word they spoke:

This was their hometown. This was their life. Not mine.

Because my hometown wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place in time, and that time was the 1990s. My hometown isn’t a place I can visit: it no longer exists.

I think that’s the experience of any person who leaves a place and comes back to it.

But more than the place being different, there’s a further dislocation because you’re different. When I was sixteen and broke up with my first girlfriend, I pined after her for months, and when I finally met up with her again, I discovered the horrible truth about life and relationships: that we are all in a perpetual state of change. If we’d changed together, we might have had a chance, but we changed apart, and no longer fit together. There was a time when my hometown fit me perfectly, but it’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we’re no longer right for one another. We had our time, but that time has gone.

An idea contained in another book – the fantasy novel Assassin’s Creed by Robin Hobb – helped me get over that girlfriend, and is illustrative of why we spend so much time clinging to the past – people and places and things that we think are so much better than today. The main character spends most of the book longing for his former lover, until someone gives him some hard reality, and it’s such a life-changing truth-bomb, it’s worth quoting in full:

‘You have been gone too long from her, and too much has befallen you both. And what you loved, what both of you truly loved, was not each other. It was the time of your life. It was the spring of your years, and life running strong in you, and war on your doorstep and your strong, perfect bodies. Look back, in truth. You will find you recall fully as many quarrels and tears as you do lovemaking and kisses. Fitz. Be wise. Let her go, and keep those memories intact. Save what you can of her, and let her keep what she can of the wild and daring boy she loved. Because both he and that merry little miss are no more than memories anymore.’

Yes. We don’t love the people and the places that we used to know – we love who we were when we were with those people and in those places. And if I think of my hometown, I did not spend all those years grieving for a place, but for the person I used to be, and that I lost. I mourn for the boy who was afraid of the dark, that innocent soul who thought the world would be kind, and that he would find in it somewhere to belong. I miss that sweet little fella who had to grow up and suffer all that I’ve suffered. For he is nothing more than a memory now.

There’s a danger in glamorising the past. You stop moving forward, stop engaging with the world, stop living. You become bitter and frustrated, because things are different from the ideal in your mind. Steinbeck again: ‘What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.’ We long for familiarity, for the immutable and the unchanging, but those things are an illusion. Life is change. Or as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago: ‘You cannot step twice into the same river.’ For the river is different, and so are you.

I’ve spent twenty years longing to return to a home that never really existed, and waiting to start a life that was nothing more than a dream. I’ve spent twenty years feeling like I don’t belong, that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, as someone else. No more. I’m closing the book on this chapter. It’s time to accept that this is my life. That this is where I live and this is who I am. And home, the concept of a place you can return to and feel safe, doesn’t exist. It never did. It was simply a time when I was younger, and happier, and more hopeful than I am today.

The theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature? It’s called ‘nostos’, from which we get the word nostalgia – sentimentality for a better, happier past. But that’s not entirely true, for the second part of the word stems from ‘algos’, meaning pain. Nostalgia is better translated as ‘the pain of homecoming’, or more pertinently, ‘the pain of longing for home’.

Don’t let that pain keep you from living.

Fake news: how much CAN you trust?

In my previous post, The media doomsday cult, I argued that the news media caters to our basest instincts and drives a wedge between people in order to generate more sales and clicks. In this post I’m going to demonstrate with a real life example how the media can drum up a controversy where none actually exists. Indeed, what actually happened in this case is less important than the political mileage to be made out of it.

Does that make the news ‘fake’? That’s a hard question to answer. Certainly, anyone who believes that ‘the facts don’t lie’, or that journalists are objective, impartial, unbiased recorders of the truth, is simply being naive. By selecting what they report, and what they leave out, their allegiance to ‘the truth’ can be complicated at best. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how unethical their reporting can be.

The case in question is the conviction and sentencing of Cheshire teenager Jamie Griffiths for sexual assault, which has been covered by the usual tabloids but also inspired an opinion piece in no less a newspaper than the Sunday Times. As a case that was heard in a single day in a local magistrates court, the ‘facts’ should be pretty simple, and indeed they are.

If you haven’t been following the story, this Daily Mail headline should bring you up to speed:

‘Shy and awkward’ student, 19, is convicted of sexual assault and told to pay £250 to a schoolgirl after he touched her arm and waist while ‘trying to talk to her’ in the street after googling ‘how to make friends’

The essence of the story, or rather how it has been presented, is this: a lonely, socially-awkward teenage boy twice encountered a fellow pupil on a quiet path in Knutsford. Trying to make contact with her, he reached out and touched her on the arm, but she dodged away and told him to stop. A second time, he bumped into her at the same place. He smiled at her, put his hand on her waist, but couldn’t get his words out, so turned and walked away. By the girl’s testimony, his hand was on her waist between three and five seconds.

As a result of the second encounter, the girl broke down in tears and called her mother, and the boy was reported to the police and arrested. The girl said that if she hadn’t moved she ‘thought he would have touched her breast’, and that the ‘unwanted touching’ had such a severe impact on her life that she was too distressed to revise or sit her mock exams and thus unable to apply to Oxford University. Despite his claims he was only trying to make a friend, the JPs said they could think of no motivation for him to touch her other than sexual, and sentenced him to a twelve-month community order, 200 hours of community service, £250 victim surcharge and £735 costs.

To the press this is a heinous miscarriage of justice. Here’s the headline from The Mirror:

Student who searched ‘how to make a friend’ then touched girl on arm faces jail.

And from the Daily Star:

‘Shy’ teenager convicted of sex assault for touching fellow pupil’s waist.

And from The Sun:

‘Shy’ student, 19, on sex offenders register after touching teen girl’s waist ‘in bid to chat’.

All of the articles and opinion pieces, such as Jan Moir’s in the Daily Mail, follow the same line: that it was ‘a rather harsh price to pay for a bumbling, adolescent attempt at friendship’. The boy was vulnerable; the crime trivial; the girl oversensitive; and the magistrates unfeeling.

But why has this relatively unimportant case been thrust into the national press? I mean, people are convicted of sexual assault every day in magistrates courts up and down the country – what makes this one particularly noteworthy?

Because of the currency to be gained from it. It speaks of a judiciary out of touch with the modern world, the loneliness and social isolation of children raised on the internet, and the unhealthy relationship between the sexes in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Here’s what else Jan Moir had to say:

Today, fear and mistrust flourish among the sexes like never before. What our grandparents innocently called courting is now a war zone, full of traps, pitfalls and suspicions…

This is a sorry tale of our times and another indication that it is time for a complete overhaul of sex offence prosecutions.

In real life, important nuances exist between flirtation and assault, between affection and attack. And that should be reflected in the courts, too.

The comments on these articles reflect this same narrative. They focus on the boy’s vulnerability; they minimise the crime; they mock the victim as a snowflake; they pour scorn on the judiciary; and they wonder how future generations will procreate in such a hostile environment. There are multiple debates about the complexities of law, about intent and the point at which common assault becomes sexual assault. There are numerous threads arguing the boy should have been dealt with informally, with a stern talking-to instead of recourse to law. They can’t understand why he has his face plastered over the papers but his so-called victim keeps anonymity. They blame young people, women, the police, the judiciary. The modern world is just wrong, they shout.

Rebutting these comments are those calling the boy’s supporters rape-apologists, claiming men no longer have the right to touch women’s bodies with impunity, and the boy should be sent to prison as an example. The world is wrong, they say, because people like you are allowed to have an opinion. This case is being used by both sides of the argument as proof that society is unfair to men and that it is unfair to women.

But if you choose not to be whipped up into a frenzy, and apply a modicum of rational thought, you start to realise that something is off about this story. Such an obvious miscarriage of justice cannot be true, or rather it makes no sense unless certain facts have been omitted. So I went searching to see what was not contained in the sensationalized national news reports. Since most nationals simply copy regionals, I checked if there was anything in the local news sources that was missing from the tabloids, and oh boy, there was. I came across two notable facts that cast this case in a whole different light.

  1. Several other women of various ages had been assaulted in the same area by someone jumping out of bushes, grabbing their bottoms and running away, a person whose description matched that of Jamie Griffiths. After discussing the first assault with these women on a local Facebook group, the girl responded to a police appeal for information and reported Griffiths to the police before the second incident.
  2. After house-to-house inquiries led the police to Griffiths’ door while searching for the bottom-grabber, he deleted some text messages to a relative confessing what he’d done and claiming he wasn’t going to do it anymore. This, from Cheshire Constabulary’s own press release:

He wrote: “It wasn’t just one incident but I’m done now. Please I have uni to think about. I was just so lonely.”

A message sent to Griffiths from the family member read: “So you grabbed her butt and then ran immediately?”

And with these facts in mind, let’s reflect on one of the things that people have taken issue with: that if she hadn’t moved, he would have touched her breast. How could she possibly know that? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that he was reaching for it and, as she said, if she hadn’t moved, he’d have grabbed her breast instead of her arm? Doesn’t sound so innocent now, does it?

And when, on a second occasion, he stepped out in front of her and grabbed her hip while smirking, in light of his confession about grabbing bottoms, the ‘I was lonely and just trying to make a friend’ argument sounds far less plausible.

And her subsequent bursting into tears when grabbed in an isolated place by somebody she suspected of assaulting women and had already reported to the police is no longer ‘oversensitive’ but a genuine reaction to a real sense of threat.

Regardless, as I said before, this particular case is not the issue. What matters is that between the story being reported in the local press and its arrival in the national press, two factors that led to Griffiths being convicted as a sex offender and that were addressed in the court, and thus are a matter of public record, disappeared.

Why? Why would you deliberately remove two key facts to make a sex offender look innocent? Why would you choose to make the victim of a sexual assault look hysterical and hypersensitive? Exactly which direction does your moral compass point, because it certainly isn’t north?

As I was not in that court, I don’t know what was said. But journalists do. And they have consciously decided, in a pretty unremarkable case of a man being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager, to twist it to fit an agenda: that #MeToo is bad, that women are snowflakes, and that innocent men are being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. It generates clicks and shares and likes. It’s used as ammunition to further polarise society: men vs women, young vs old, left vs right. So what if they cast a sexual offender as a hero and his victim as the villain? The public will lap it up.

And how. I’ve seen this case being discussed as far afield as the US, Australia and even Pakistan. The most popular comments on the Mail article are:

  1. ‘I am truly gutted for the boy being I was a shy teenager too.’
  2. ‘I hope this is appealed. It is totally disproportionate. Terrible sentence. The kid has done nothing wrong in my eyes.’
  3. ‘He has a life sentence of loneliness. He’s never going to start a conversation with a female again, is he? Absolutely ridiculous decision.’
  4. ‘The Police should be ashamed of themselves for even entertaining this as a serious complaint.’

Plus ‘world gone mad!’, ‘so the judicial system has gone mad along with our political system’, and ‘Draws to the males attention that there are lots of very dangerous females about, and very few worth the rubys or pearls!’ [sic]

Wow. Spare a thought for the poor girl who, after being sexually assaulted and having that assault verified and confirmed in a court of law, is thrown to the wolves by The Sun, the Mail, the Star, the Express, the Mirror and even The Times, who give her attacker the benefit of the doubt by quoting his defence in their headlines and portraying him as the innocent victim of her paranoia! It’s heartless, and immoral, and cruel, but then, I guess we should expect nothing less from an industry that hacked a dead girl’s phone.

So why am I making such a big deal of this really minor case? Two reasons. Firstly, because I was originally sucked in by the deception – as a socially-awkward autistic guy, I understand what it’s like to be lonely and depressed and struggle to understand boundaries and personal space, and I felt sorry for him. And secondly, because it shows how an incredibly simple story – guy sexually assaults girl – can so easily be twisted by the gutter press into something the opposite of ‘the truth’, with no regard for the actual people involved.

Which brings me back to my original question: is the news ‘fake’? The answer is rather troubling. If a simple case such as this one can be so badly manipulated, what about things that are far more complex, such as murder trials, international politics, terror attacks or wars? Far too many people blindly accept whatever the media tells them, whether it’s the latest insider scoop from the Palace, or a proven hoax. There’s nothing unhealthy in maintaining a certain scepticism towards what the media is telling you.

How, then, can we ever know what’s true and what isn’t? The only way is to consult multiple sources from both ends of the political spectrum, look at something from multiple angles, and see if we can’t separate the reality from the spin.

Of course, we can’t do what I’ve done here with every story, so a good place to start would be to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re told. Which facts are brought to the fore, and which ones are pushed into the background? Is this what really happened? How do we know? Could there be any information missing or perhaps another perspective? Is this simply a reprint of someone else’s story or is it being reported on directly? How neatly does it fit into a particular political ideology or agenda? And how does it make you feel?

If you read a story and find yourself becoming angry, or afraid, or bitter, or helpless, odds are it’s deliberately pushing your buttons. The casualty in this is the truth.

Now I’m going to contact Jan Moir to tell her that important nuances do exist between flirtation and assault, affection and attack, and that perhaps if her newspaper hadn’t edited out the most important details, we could make that distinction for ourselves.

The media doomsday cult

I never thought I’d reach the point where I want to look away from the world, but I’ll be honest: I’m the closest I’ve ever been to disconnecting the internet, avoiding the news, and switching channels away from anything other than the comforting banality of Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Sure, every generation thinks it’s the end of the world and humanity can’t survive, and they’ve always been wrong, but these days it’s like watching a slow-motion car crash – or a nuclear strike in treacle. An epidemic of stabbings and mass shootings; a British Parliament crippled by indecision and infighting; a narcissistic lunatic in the White House; innocents massacred in Syria; earthquakes and superstorms; protesters on every street corner; people at each other’s throats; families breaking apart; traditional morals disappearing; and to top it all, the planet is dying. False prophets, nation pitted against nation, wars and rumours of wars, moral decay, signs in the stars, and earthquakes: we’re practically living through the biblical End of Days.

Or are we? I’ve said before that the greatest threat to mankind’s future is the increasing polarisation of society – the division of people into mutually antagonistic groups. Man vs woman, black vs white, old vs young, rich vs poor, left vs right, us vs them, all couched in terms of good vs evil, and as soon as you call the other side evil, or less than human, it justifies whatever you do to them: lock them in cages, deny them their civil liberties, throw milkshakes over them, or acid, drive your car into them, or stab them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s divisive and it’s dangerous and it’s wrong.

We act as though, instead of working together and seeing what unites us, we should double down on the differences and shout at one another, everybody making noise but nobody listening. I’ve never seen a time where civilised debate has broken down into so much name-calling. People are traitors, fascists, Nazis, baby-killers; they’re bigots and racists and misogynists and xenophobes. The validity of their argument is not based on its internal logic, but on their skin colour, their sex, their gender, their sexuality. I refuse to listen to you because you’re a white, male, middle class, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied baby boomer; and I refuse to listen to you because you’re a black, working class, trans-female, lesbian, disabled millennial. And you’re evil, not me, it’s you, you, you.

And who has caused this? Everybody. It’s not Trump, not UKIP, though they’ve certainly exploited it as much as the progressives and the politically correct have. It’s all of us. We’ve allowed it to happen. Every time we pick up the Daily Mail or the Guardian; every time we share some random, unsourced, unverified claim on Facebook; every time we argue with somebody on Twitter; every time we demand someone loses their job and their livelihood for having a different opinion to us; every time we question the truth of a message based on the gender or age or colour of the messenger; every time we click on a political video on YouTube; every time we feel satisfaction when someone on the other ‘side’ is embarrassed or humiliated; every time we engage with a book or a TV show or a movie that supports our ideology; every time we buy into this ‘us and them’ rubbish; and yes, every time we vote for people who not only accept but exploit and heighten these divisions, we are part of the problem.

But being on the ‘right’ side feels so damned good, doesn’t it? Fighting the good fight against the evil enemy, we’re all heroes of our own black-and-white morality play. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for shades of grey, or for the people on the other side being simply that – people. People with thoughts and feelings. People who have beliefs formed by their experiences, by their frailties and their fears. People who are sometimes right, often wrong, but are no more evil than you and I. No. The people on the other side are evil monsters. That makes far more sense. And it means we don’t have to think, to consider whether there are other arguments more valid, or more convincing, or more just, than our own.

And while we’re all responsible for the anger resonating around our societies, I think the media plays a massive part in catering to these base instincts. As we all know, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Human nature being what is is, we love what stirs our passions, and those negative emotions – anger, fear, jealousy, hatred – feel much more potent, and long-lasting, and somehow more ‘real’ than joy, and hope, and comfort. We even try to justify it in intellectual terms, as though clever, educated, informed people are aware of the world as it really is, and only the dumb, the ignorant, and the ill-informed can be happy. That’s a load of bull.

The media is full of misery because misery sells, and despite claims to journalistic integrity and impartiality, the news is an industry that lives on sales and clicks. The world is incredibly complicated, far too complicated to provide an easily-digestible soundbite for the Six O’Clock news. You can’t provide balance, or nuance, or explain the limits of what we can and can’t predict, or the reliability or likelihood of economic, scientific, or geopolitical projections. It’s far easier to sell narratives that play into good/bad dichotomies of selfishness, greed, murder, exploitation, and the rape of the natural world, than admit that there are positives and negatives to everything, it’s all about balance and compromise, and the influence of this on that is not something we can accurately measure.

The bottom line is that optimism – feeling safe – does not sell papers. But what can kill you, what can scar you, what can make you fear for your future and your family’s future, and what erodes your faith in humanity, is what feeds the media industry. Be afraid: Britain is trapped in Brexit deadlock; there’s a madman in the White House; we’re in the middle of a crime epidemic; and the planet is dying! Be afraid. Don’t miss the next news report! You need to know what’s going on!

Little by little, you disappear down the rabbit hole, and you lose your way back to the light.

So instead of turning away from the news, I think we should seek out the good, the positive, the hopeful and the optimistic – those things that tell us we’re not dying, it’s not as bad as all that. Let’s all stop hating each other and see what unites us.

Here are some news stories you might have missed, because they couldn’t feed into the doomsday cult we all seem to follow:

1. Warfare is at historically low levels. The number of people killed in international wars dropped from 65,000 a year in the 1950s to 2,000 a year in the 2000s despite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, from 1989 to 2005, campaigns of mass killing of civilians dropped 90%. There aren’t more wars these days; it just feels like there are because during Vietnam, Cambodia and the Iran-Iraq war, we didn’t have 24-hour news channels and social media showing us every atrocity in real time and sensationalising it for clicks and likes.

2. Global poverty levels were cut in half between 1990 and 2012, a phenomenal improvement to people’s lives in terms of both income and standard of living. And this isn’t just in some countries or continents, but across the entire globe. It turns out that globalisation, the process by which the West exploits the labour and resources of the developing world, actually provides benefits for everyone, but that doesn’t fit into the us/them, rich vs poor paradigm.

3. Every objective, academic, statistical source you consult will tell you the same thing: the crime rate is falling. It rose during the 1980s, peaked in the early 90s, and then dropped off rapidly and has continued to fall year on year. In the US, using FBI statistics, violent crime fell 51% between 1993 and 2018, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics records a 71% drop for the same period. In the UK, according to the Office For National Statistics, violent crime peaked in 1995 and then fell two-thirds by 2017. While it is true that the drop-off appears to have stopped in the last couple of years, and certain types of crime (such as knife crime in the UK) have increased, crime levels are still substantially below the levels of the 1980s and early 90s. Anybody claiming we are living through a violent crime epidemic is doing so for sensationalism or political gain.

4. Despite all the dire predictions and catastrophising, there are more polar bears today than there were 40 years ago, and far from dying out, they’re actually increasing in number. Indeed, they seem remarkably adaptive to changing conditions. Why? It would appear that thinner ice gives them easier access to seals. The effects of climate change are incredibly difficult to predict, and talking about it in terms of good and bad denies the reality that some will benefit and some won’t.

5. According to NASA, the world is literally greener today than it was 20 years ago. Thanks to tree-planting programmes in China and agricultural programmes in China and India, there are an extra 2 million square miles of green leaf area, an equivalent size to the entire Amazon rainforest. As Rama Nemani is quoted as saying, ‘Once people realise there’s a problem, they tend to fix it.’ Since it is also the biggest manufacturer and installer of solar panels, China is not simply the mass-polluting monster it’s made out to be in the press, but that wouldn’t keep us all living in fear.

6. The ozone layer is repairing itself. It’s got a long way to go, but thanks to the global community’s efforts to remove CFCs, last year it was 16% smaller than in 2006.

7. By 2018, 101 cities drew more than 70% of their energy from renewable sources, up from 42 in 2015, with 43 powered entirely by ‘clean’ energy. The idea that we’re doing nothing about the environment is at best ill-informed and at worst a deliberate lie to stir up the rage of the young against the old, and the have-nots against the haves.

8. Chinese scientists have developed a new strain of rice that grows in the desert with diluted seawater, meaning global food supplies will be far more stable.

9. The Belize Barrier Reef is no longer endangered. This was thanks to the government of Belize imposing a moratorium on oil prospecting around the reef and implementing protections on coastal mangrove swamps.

And I could go on and on. But you get the picture: there are plenty of reasons for optimism, but only if you go out and look for it.

You know what is getting worse? The suicide rate. And that is the very definition of the victory of pessimism over hope.

There’s a reason for the rise of populism. There’s a reason Trump was elected, Brexit happened (or didn’t). The proliferation of social media, the echo chambers of increasingly divisive left/right media, and our own morbid relationship with seeing the negative in everything has crippled us into cowering intransigence. We’d rather find safety among our own tribe, where everyone thinks just the same as us, and score points against the evil, bigoted, Hitlers on the other side, than reach across the divide and find a solution.

And who benefits?

When people are lost, they’ll follow anybody who claims to know the way.

Even if it’s over a cliff.

The flu jab: and people get stupider…

I took my two-year-old to the doctor today for a persistent cough, and while in the waiting room I overheard this nugget from an old woman to her friend:

‘They want me to have the flu jab but I said no. They’re very bad for you. Last time I had it, it gave me the flu. And they’ve got mercury in them. No thank you very much!’

The irony is strong with this one…

I’ve already discussed the belief that MMR causes autism (it doesn’t), the health benefits of amber necklaces (none), and the efficacy of homeopathy (zero), so I might as well bust some myths about the flu jab while I’m at it.

1. They give you flu

No, they don’t. While some ‘live’ vaccines give you a small dose of a virus in order to build your immunity as your body fights it, the flu jab isn’t one of those. Instead, it gives you inert, inactive parts of the virus – enough for your body to recognise it and start producing antibodies against it without risking being infected by it.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t still catch the flu from another source, because there are hundreds of different strains of the virus and it’d be prohibitively expensive to vaccinate against all of them. Instead, the way the vaccination program works is that the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies how many people are infected by each strain around the world and therefore the most likely strains to infect people in the coming season. For the autumn jabs, the strains are identified in February, and then national bodies decide which of them to vaccinate against and spend six months making it. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best system we’ve got.

2. They’re bad for you

No, they’re not. You know what’s bad for you? Flu. True, the flu jab can give you ‘flu-like symptoms’ for a couple of days – muscle aches and a mild temperature – but influenza is a far more serious illness. It’s much worse than a ‘heavy cold’. The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic after the First World War infected 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million. Even today, in the UK it’s estimated that more than 600 people die of flu each year, rising to more than 10,000 in some years, mostly from vulnerable groups like young children and the elderly.

Furthermore, there are three main types of flu: A, B and C. Type C is the mild form that many people might catch and think, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad.’ If they catch either of the other two, they wouldn’t be so dismissive.

3. They contain mercury

No, they don’t. Oh, you’re talking about thiomersal? Still no. Thiomersal (or thimerosal) is a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, but only in multi-dose vials. Other than some very rare cases, the flu jab is provided in single-dose vials or pre-filled syringes. Since these are sealed units, they aren’t vulnerable to contamination and therefore don’t need thiomersal. So, no mercury.

And even if they did contain thiomersal, you’re getting worried about the wrong kind of mercury. Thiomersal contains ethylmercury, an organic compound that has never been shown to cause any harmful effects to humans and remains in the blood only a few days before the body excretes it. The type to worry about is methylmercury. That’s the kind that’s toxic to humans, builds up in our bodies over time and is contained in certain fish.

‘But how can mercury be safe? It’s a metal,’ I hear you cry. So is sodium, and chlorine is poisonous, but put them together and you get sodium-chloride, aka salt, which we need to survive. This is chemistry. Substances in compound change the properties of the individual elements.

4. Doctors are evil

Underlying this entire hysteria about MMR causing autism and flu jabs containing mercury and causing flu is the idea that doctors are evil. The drug companies know it’s bad for you, but they do it anyway because they’re chasing the Almighty Dollar, and your doctor is complicit in hiding this awful truth because they’re getting kickbacks from Big Pharma. It’s all a global conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theories are full of holes so big you can drive a truck through them, like that 9/11 was an inside job or that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, but this one is particularly stupid. While it’s true that ‘Big Pharma’ have some pretty questionable ethical standards, and certain doctors are less than trustworthy, is it really likely that every doctor, biologist, biochemist and pharmacist on the planet is carrying out a vast evil upon the whole of mankind? Does every child who grows up with the philanthropic idea of helping people turn into a Machiavellian monster as soon as they set foot in a medical school?

For crying out loud. I watched an episode of Rawhide called ‘The Incident at Red River Station’ which was about exactly this soft of thing. A doctor was trying to vaccinate a small town against smallpox. The townsfolk, a crazed mob with burning torches, called him a witch doctor who was trying to infect them. They instead wanted to rely on their traditional cures of leeches and herbal tea. The result? A whole bunch of them caught smallpox, and it was too late to do anything about it.

This episode was set in the 1860s. It was broadcast in 1960. Are we still going to face this crap in 2060?

40 before 40

At New Year, in preparation for my fortieth birthday this month, my wife gave me a list of forty challenges I need to complete before I turn forty. Some of them were easy (eat a food you hate, give blood, go to a zoo); some were harder (learn a new language, learn a new instrument, give up technology for a week); and some were impossible and therefore remain incomplete (lose 40lbs, do a 40-hour sponsored silence, learn to ballroom dance).

One of them is to make a list of forty things I’ve achieved in my life. I thought it’d be pretty simple because in my mind I’m someone who’s achieved a lot, but I actually really struggled with it, not least because of how to define what counts as an achievement. Is it a one-off event, like winning an award, or is it something ongoing, like a lifestyle? Is meeting somebody famous an achievement, or is making a connection with a stranger more noteworthy?

It really makes you think about yourself, and what you value, and what is important to you. As someone with depression and autism and social phobia, people tell me just getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement, but it’s hardly notable to do something that virtually every single person on the planet does on a daily basis. You can’t exactly brag about not lounging around in bed all day.

And that is how I’ve defined an achievement: something you can brag about. Or, rather, something you’re proud of that you’d want people to know about if you’re forced to do one of those ‘tell the group something interesting about you’ kind of things.

So here it goes. Forty things I’ve achieved in my forty years:

  1. I managed to convince someone to marry me.
  2. I had a non-fiction book published.
  3. I have the courage to wear my cowboy hat in public, even if I get funny looks.
  4. I sailed across the Atlantic as a crewmember on a tall ship.
  5. I was interviewed on a BBC TV documentary about rescuing two Trans-Atlantic rowers while on the tall ship.
  6. I taught myself to play the guitar.
  7. I recorded three EPs and performed multiple gigs as lead guitarist and vocalist in various rock and metal bands.
  8. I spent six months as a care assistant in an old people’s home and four weeks as a student nurse on an infection control ward.
  9. I have given numerous speeches to educate people about autism.
  10. I got a Diploma of Higher Education, two Bachelor Degrees and a Master’s Degree, and achieved distinctions for all of them.
  11. I have two children, and in four years I haven’t killed them!
  12. I have written eight novels and am still plugging away despite more than 300 rejections.
  13. I travelled alone across the USA from the Atlantic to the Pacific through 23 States on 32 Greyhound buses.
  14. I have been to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, St Peter’s Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Space Needle, the Sky Tower and the Shard.
  15. I worked for Prince Edward at his production company.
  16. I qualified as a PADI Advanced Open Water scuba diver, making dives to 100ft and at night.
  17. I dived with sea lions.
  18. I have tried waterskiing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, bodyboarding, canoeing, kayaking and canyoneering.
  19. I’ve made two static-line parachute jumps.
  20. I made an iron bottle opener and a candlestick in a blacksmith’s forge.
  21. I spoke to James Cameron about the movie Aliens.
  22. I’ve done two bungee jumps.
  23. I sold a painting to the mayor of Christchurch.
  24. I caught a 50lb conger eel.
  25. I made a 4,200 piece model of the German battleship Bismarck.
  26. I was interviewed live on BBC radio about said model.
  27. I created and maintained a blog for four years.
  28. I’ve tended to injured pigeons, owls, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs and a deer.
  29. I did a 140-ft abseil.
  30. I’ve made 47 blood donations.
  31. I spent three months travelling alone around New Zealand.
  32. I walked eighteen miles around Auckland without stopping.
  33. I spent three days trekking alone around the wilderness of Stewart Island.
  34. I’ve tried archery, pistol-shooting, rifle-shooting, clay pigeon-shooting, fencing and karate.
  35. I’ve climbed Mt. Snowdon in Wales, and Mt. Roy (Roy’s Peak), Ben Lomond and Avalanche Peak in New Zealand.
  36. I worked as a 999 call-taker and radio operator for Thames Valley Police.
  37. I did a falconry day flying owls, hawks and a bald eagle.
  38. I won four consecutive short story competitions in a writing magazine.
  39. I’ve read more than 1000 books, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings and It, and seen more than 1000 movies, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, and It.
  40. I made it to forty when I didn’t think I’d make it out of my teens.

It’s actually quite beneficial to do a list like this, if only to take stock of your life. It’s a sobering realisation that the majority of my ‘achievements’, on closer inspection, seem rather insular and self-indulgent. The one of which I’m most proud is that I’ve made 47 blood donations, sacrificing my time and comfort to help others. And look at what’s missing from my list – being a good husband; being a good father; being a good friend. Why aren’t they there? Because I’m none of those things.

Maybe I should make a new list: things I want to achieve.

  1. Being there for a friend in need.
  2. Apologising to my wife and taking the blame even when it’s not my fault
  3. Letting the kids be kids without getting annoyed with them.
  4. Accepting that this is my life.
  5. Learning to enjoy living in the moment.

That seems far more positive. If I manage to achieve these by the time I’m 41, we’ll all be in a better place.

How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.