A popularity contest

This was to be my next column for the dearly departed Word magazine. I’d pitched it, and it was in a holding pattern, awaiting clearance – in other words, for a bit of space at the front of the mag. It was half-written, so I’ll finish it here. (Hey! Self-publishing! For no money! It’s the future!)

Today’s hot topic is … well, a seemingly obscure anecdote from my days as a music journalist, but bear with me. I remember being on Pop Will Eat Itself’s tour bus circa 1991 and discovering, amid the usual collection of VHS tapes and CDs, the inevitable copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, very much the accessory du jour at the time (the Fifty Shades Of Grey of the early 90s, except not much favoured by women.). The NME photographer Tim was keen to show me the “bit with the rat”, already notorious as the most disgusting chapter in the book. This proved simple, as the band’s paperback fell automatically open at that very page, where its spine was now permanently bent. This was the blunt, physical way of discerning a novel’s most popular passage in the 20th century: you used your detective skills.

In the same prehistorical era, the NME, in common with other quaintly paper-based publications, would run an annual reader survey. No clicking here. It involved finding a Biro, filling in a form, cutting along the dotted line, sticking it in an envelope, licking a stamp and sending it off via the postal service. (As a reader, I used to fill these in with glee, but never once got round to sending the form in.) The results of the survey were eagerly disseminated by the suits and presented back to those of us who toiled in the editorial department and we’d learn, without exception, every year, that the readers bought the paper primarily for the Gig Guide. Not for the reams of purple prose we sweated over every week, but the Gig Guide – unavailable elsewhere in that pre-electronic age, lest we forget. It was the newspaper’s “bit with the rat.”

How Amish the methodology seems now. We also used to have what were known as “chart return shops”, which were outlets selected to propel A Flock Of Seagulls or Sailor to the toppermost of the poppermost – and where, we were told, shady record company sharks would bulk-buy said items to help them on their way. It wasn’t exactly a level playing field. But then, nor is the click-based electronic age we now live in. What might appear to be a more democratic popularity contest is just as open to corruption.

Consider the list of “favourites” that appears on every self-respecting website – some of which can be seen above, but you know what I’m talking about: the most popular entries on a blog, most read stories on a news site, the “trending” topics on Twitter. If ever there was a self-fulfilling algorithmic prophecy, it’s here. Because once a “popular” story appears in the “most popular” panel, it’s far more likely to be clicked on, and to remain popular. This is how a search engine like Google works, isn’t it? And how something like Charlie Bit My Finger can remain one of the most watched clips on YouTube even though it’s barely worth a look.

Hey, we all need our hand holding. It’s a jungle out there. It’s certainly a jumble out there. Information is now no longer fired at us from billboard and TV screen; it oozes out of every electronic pore. Sports players are covered from head to toe in brands and logos, and that’s before they stand in front of the backdrop created out of more brands and logos; no news programme is complete without a ticker running along the bottom of the screen – that’s now standard-issue – but at every juncture on TV now we are entreatied to email, text, Tweet and add our voice to what is already a cacophony of voices. Those electronic black-and-white pixillated squares that look like interference are now stamped on every other ad, waiting to be unlocked by the app on our mobile phones (if we have such things), in order to supply us with more information. I won’t moan about the amount of supplements in our swollen Saturday and Sunday newspapers, for fear of jinxing them out of existence, but there again is an information overload, bagged up.

Perhaps it’s a benign public service to constantly shuffle things to the top of charts, so that we only need trouble ourselves with what’s already popular. But I worry – and I know I shouldn’t – that perhaps this accepted algorithm is killing our freedom of choice. There are a lotta books on Amazon. There is no meaningful way you can “browse” the site, despite the use of that word; in reality, you’re at the mercy of having books suggested to you based on … books you’ve previously looked at. Never mind books you’ve previously bought. I must admit I sometimes use Amazon as a journalistic resource. It’s free! But if you look a book or DVD up, for research, it will affect what other books and DVDs Amazon hawks at you. “Like this? You’ll love this!” Not necessarily. Amazon currently thinks I want to buy Coriolanus on DVD, because I recently looked up the BBC Television Shakespeares box set simply to see how many discs were in it for a link in my Telly Addict column. Fail!

Talking of books. My first memoir, Where Did It All Go Right?, defied low expectation and crept up into the Top 10 non-fiction paperback bestsellers back in 2003. I discovered at that time that WHSmith runs its outlets at stations and airports as a satellite to its high street stores; I also discovered that this is precisely where you want your paperback displayed. The thing is, once it’s in the Top 20, say, at those vital station and airport shops, it’s more likely to be picked up by a browser waiting for the call to go to their gate. The popularity of that book is thus almost guaranteed: it’s displayed at head height in the chart section, ergo it gets bought and stays in the chart section. Honestly, WDIAGR? lingered at head height for months. It wasn’t because it was one of the best books on sale, merely one of the most visible.

So, the seeding of that which is already popular is not new. In the old days, when the pop charts were based on people going out and buying round black discs at the weekend – as opposed to being based on people clicking a mouse or trackpad at literally any time of the day or night – it really mattered what was on Top Of The Pops, or conveniently displayed in Woolworths. These days, the equivalent is whatever’s in the revolving banner ad on the iTunes store homepage, or any of its generic tributaries. (When the Collings & Herrin Podcast found favour with a comedy nerd who worked on the iTunes Store webpage and then started to chart highly, as long as we kept producing one a week, our prominence was ensured.)

The Long Tail is an attractive concept: that with electronic shopping, an outlet without floor space to contend with can almost literally offer anything and everything, and the most obscure item in the shop will drive turnover as readily as your bestselling loss-leaders. But as the online stores have got deeper and deeper – and the tail longer – I wonder if customers aren’t more likely to be just adding to the pre-packed myth of “popularity”, and picking up that which is already trending? (Something trends; people chase it; it trends some more.)

Me? I’m old fashioned or moribund enough to still prefer books that fall open at well-thumbed pages, and shops you can poke around in with racks that can be thumbed. That said, you will find this widget on this blog, which makes me a massive hypocrite. I’m quite looking forward to a blog entry called “You must read this blog entry” going to the top of the charts, where it will stay FOREVER.

PS: Now that my situationist prank has succeeded (see: below), I’ll change the title of the post back to its original.


No she hasn’t

Well, Angelina Jolie is very keen to have me as a friend on Facebook. It’s a pity I am not on Facebook, as she has invited me to be her friend nine times in two days. It’s almost as if she wants it too much. If she keeps this up, sending me constant invites, I might start wondering if she’s maybe a bit needy. I mean, it’s definitely her – look at the picture! Unless … I don’t know … it’s some kind of unsolicited email sent randomly and en masse with various clickable links that might be used to confirm a recipient’s email address should they guilelessly click on them.

I am, as you know, fascinated by spam. I have written about it before. I plough through my spam filter every day, in order to rescue genuine emails that might have slipped through and been caught there in the gauze, and as I merrily delete it, I can’t help but enjoy identifying the trends in subject headings. Some of them are evergreens: the ones that just come right out with it and mention Viagra and Rolex and penis enlargement pills – and of course the Canadian pharmacy never goes away. But I like the ones that suddenly start to crop up in spurts, like, currently, the one that purports to be from Twitter and urges you to click on a link to either rescue your password or read some unread messages, or the Outlook Setup Notification, or the Angelina Jolie invitation.

I love the made-up names that appear to try and hoodwink you into thinking the email is from a long-lost friend – recent examples: Jesus Chastity, Sandy Sandoval, Leslie Gala, Kyle Yadira – and the matey subject lines like, “Hello” and “Usual thing” and “Hi!” and “Hello from Russia!”

I truly wonder who would fall for these obviously unscrupulous ruses, but then again, I understand the maths, and it only takes one hapless fool to respond or click and the relatively low-cost operation can be deemed a success. I have clicked on the Angelina Jolie one and await her reply.

Men’s needs


I know it’s the last refuge of the scoundrel, but may I say a few words about spam? I read an excellent article on the subject of junk email in the New Yorker in August, and it put the whole subject into neat perspective. (It’s available to read here.) I learned that nearly two million emails are dispatched every second, 171 billion messages a day. As Michael Specter wrote, “Most of those messages have something to sell. Even the most foolish and unsavory advertisements can earn money – in part because the economic bar for success is so low. If somebody wants to send you junk mail the old-fashioned way, through the Postal Service, he has to pay for it; the more he sends, the greater the expense. With electronic junk mail, the opposite is true: it costs a pittance to send a million messages – or even a billion – and recipients almost always spend more than the sender.” Some good facts: In 2001, spam accounted for about 5% of traffic on the Internet; by 2004, it was over 70%. In some places, it’s now up to 90%.

I usually get around 100 in my junk inbox between when I leave my office at 6pm and log on again the next morning at around 9am (that’s when the bulk of it comes, obviously, as it’s not coming from the UK, is it?) – I only go through it because certain emails I actually want slip through the net, and I have to check. You get used to deleting spam – don’t recognise the name of the sender, it’s in Chinese, it’s an image of a woman with no top on, the subject line includes the words “penis” or “dick” subtly disguised to sidestep filters (“d!ck” or “dik” or “pen/is”). In among the endless ads for replica watches and stock options, I find the ads for penis enlargement devices/potions insultingly crude on the whole, as I whizz past them at record speed, and it does offend the prude in me that topless women can appear in my inbox uninvited. You probably get exactly the same spam as I do. It’s like a plague. That said, beyond transient offence, they do no actual harm, and should I ever actually want some herbal Viagra, I know where to get it.

Of late though, I’ve been collecting some of the charming subject lines for penile dysfunction aids, which, one must assume, are designed to attract potential customers. I think they tell us something worrying about male sexuality in the 21st century. Here are some that recur currently:

[Warning! Some of the following are quite explicity rude]

Enter the New Year with a bigger pen!s!
Make your willy bigger and harder in just a few weeks!
Kindle a passion in her heart with your magic stick
Re:You wondered how to obtain true masculinity. Here is the answer:
The volume of your male meat is absolutely essential!
Beat her womb with your new big rod, so that she knew who wears the pants!
does she like cum in her face? bust out massive amounts of semen so she can slurp it up
Re:Make your tiny lace a true symbol of your power
Please your wife with a big hard shaft!
If you treat your filly as a goddess, why not become a God in her bedroom?
Have a great night with your girlfriend!
Create a furore in her bedroom on New Year!

In some ways, they’re quite sweet, going on about the New Year and kindling passion and pleasing your wife or filly or girlfriend. I’m taken by the idea of someone wishing to “create a furore in her bedroom”. That’s just so vague isn’t it? You could do that by letting a moth in. But the euphemisms for the male member do tend towards the aggressively macho – big hard shaft and male meat and new big rod and symbol of power (the one mentioning a “willy” seems a bit comical in the company of these pounding metaphors). Is it any wonder masculinity is in crisis? Pharmaceutical companies needs us to be ill, and if we’re not ill, we’re no good to them, and if their last lot of pills cured us of something, they need to invent something else, and quick! I’m not suggesting sexual dysfunction isn’t a real problem – clearly, it can be, and with unhappy knock-on effects – but surely it’s not as rife as this daily avalanche of ads subtly suggests? Why must men aspire to having a “magic stick”? Since when did we have to do conjuring tricks with it, too? And can one not “become a God” without a tape measure? By all means, “have a great night with your girlfriend” – it’s a lovely idea. But might that great night not also include a nice meal, or a film? Must it hinge on the girth and consitency of a part of the body? Since 99% of these ads are aimed explicitly at heterosexual men, does this mean that homosexual men have no problems in this area? Does my Mac filter out gay spam? Or is it that gay people don’t respond well to this kind of sell and there isn’t much call for it? And if you were the kind of man who felt that “beating her womb” to prove your masculinity was a good idea and was prepared to click on a dodgy link and part with money to assist in that mission, wouldn’t you also be exactly the kind of man who probably doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend? (I often get an email advertising a realistic rubber lady’s vagina, too. Now that seems well-marketed.)

All potent questions, I think. Keep your comments clean.

A statement

Sorry, I’ve been offline for most of the weekend, and I’ve missed a lot of the fun. I’m glad I had comment moderation on, as the holding pen is now full of anti-homeopathy enthusiasts trying to bring me down, and agreeing with the notion that a man who gave his daughter homeopathic treatment which did not save her life a “cunt”, which is a new low for this lobby. I should have known I’d been targeted again, as anyone who strays from the Bad Science status quo must be. What a lot of energy they spend on attacking. I mean, really, what’s the point of attacking me? I’d said my heart sank when I read the latest Goldacre piece, which it did, but I was careful not to get into an argument with him/them again, as I remember only too well how it played out last time. Stalemate is a nice way of putting it. I only wrote the pied wagtail entry to express the way the sight of a bird lifted my spirits during a bit of seasonal affective disorder, and how even the idea of another anti-homeopathy piece in a national newspaper sank it again. I choose birds.

Unfortunately, I’ve now read the lengthy thread about me on the Bad Science web forum (started by someone who actually posts sensibly on here about other subjects, with a handy link to come and get me – talk about backstabbing). It’s so full of bile and sarcasm (one person calls me a cunt, and says I only have my writing career through good fortune and not talent, which is pretty much what I say in my book), I’m quite exhausted by it all. If these people are so sure they are right, what threat am I?

Anyway, I’ve had to take the previous thread down and re-post it without the dialogue, as it had descended into name-calling and scoundrels misleadingly posting under other people’s names to stir things up, and in a moment of late-night madness I even decided to ban one person after his comments on the parent mentioned above (whatever you think of an issue, calling a man whose daughter had died a “cunt” smacks, if nothing else, of a complete lack of compassion – a quality I believe lies at the heart of all the political ideas I hold dear – also, and I know I’ve used it in the past, but the word does still offend some people). The act of removing the comments from the thread, which meant well, but led down a dark path, will look to the Bad Science regulars as if I have “taken my ball home” or something, or as if they have won. Well, in a very tiny way, they have won, yet again. They are tenacious. They take no prisoners. But I have won too, because by writing about anything but the h-word in the future, hopefully they will find someone else to belittle and patronise and attack. I hereby remove myself from the public debate on this matter.

I had one comment over the weekend from “bengoldacre” but I don’t believe it is from him. As ever, my personal email address appears for all to see on this website, and always has done, so even if I never blogged again, it would remain open to anyone who wished to challenge me or, frankly, call me a cunt, if that gives them a thrill. That’s the nature of these things. Oddly, it seems that the game is calling me a cunt in public, not in private, and no fun otherwise. I don’t mind being a cunt if a cunt is someone who enjoys the natural world and sometimes writes about it, and exhibits inconsistencies and changes his mind, and wonders aloud. I don’t even mind being one if a cunt is someone whose heartfelt views don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. The message coming through from Bad Science is that if I dare to even allude to my views on homeopathy, they will be forced to shut me down. Such a sense of righteous purpose! One person on the BS forum was crowing about “marking” my previous God Delusion review a “D-minus” – what a glorious victory for science that was. If I am to write anything, I have to provide evidence and citations, as if writing in the Lancet, and yet, it was just on a blog. As I’ve said on many occasions, as a writer, I enjoy writing on here because it’s not for publication and doesn’t go through the usual filter of editors and sub-editors and fact-checkers, or, in TV, script editors and producers. That’s the fun of doing it. To write what I think, at any length, whenever I fancy it. Nobody is going to commission me to write about a science book or a religion book, so this is my only outlet to stray and experiment and go out of my depth.

Anyway I’m bored with the whole thing, and don’t have the strength for a fight. I wish I’d never mentioned the h-word (I think the BS believers call it “woo”, which I guess is a reference to it being “magic”), even in passing, on here. Please don’t bother visiting the Bad Science forum to counter house policy. It’s really not worth posting unless you’re one of the gang. Maybe there’s a gang here, too. A much nicer one.

Here’s a revolutionary idea: I have actually fixed it so that you can’t leave comments after this particular entry, which I’ll leave with you for a while. It is, as stated, a statement.

So sue me


This is a picture of Prince. Apparently, I am breaking the law by putting it on my website. Now, I don’t even like Prince. Outside of perhaps Sign O’The Times and 1999 I think he’s shit. Creepy and deluded and self-important and totally lacking in a quality filter. This is not a Prince fansite. I’m just printing his picture to draw attention to his lastest act of idiocy, which is to have his lawyers send cease and desist orders to three of his most loyal fansites, telling them they risk being taken to court if the don’t take down all images of Prince, including his album sleeves and lyrics and anything linked to his freakish face, from their sites. The legal letter asked the fansites to provide “substantive details of the means by which you propose to compensate our clients [Paisley Park Entertainment Group, NPG Records and AEG] for damages.” That’s damages. We are talking about precisely the sort of website that helps perpetuate Prince’s stock, encouraging interest in him and his records. We are also talking about an artist whose latest album was given away for free with the Mail On Sunday. If I was a fan of Prince, I’d be tearing up my membership card, wouldn’t you?

A coalition of fans, Prince Fans United, representing housequake.com, princefans.com and prince.org, has been formed by the website organisers to fight back. (Apparenlty the legal ruling went as far as calling for the removal of pictures taken by fans of their Prince tattoos. We must assume he’ll be going after these people personally next, and asking them to remove their skin, or propose to compensate Paisley Park Entertainment Group.)

Of course, it’s possible that Prince has nothing to do with all this, but he must have the power to stop it. It’s also possible that he’s gone a bit mental in the nut, in which case we should be sympathetic. I stole the above picture from his official website, which, unless I’m very much mistaken, has been rebranded to help sell Prince perfume, called 3121. It smells of money, with a hint of self-delusion and moustache.

Come on then, Prince’s lawyers. I’m ready for you.*

*In that, if they tell me to, I’ll take down the whole blog entry, including the link to his stinking perfume advert.


I’m getting a bit tired of the little spurts of abuse I’m currently attracting, so I’m giving myself a few days off the blog. I’m on the radio all week anyway (10pm-1am, 6 Music, Mon-Fri; Rockumentary Rollercoaster one-off documentary, Radio 4, Tuesday Nov 13, 11.30am and on Listen Again thereafter for seven days), so feel free to get in touch. It’s amazing how quickly the fun goes out of all this when you are constantly niggled. When I’m feeling a bit less fragile, I’ll be back with more drivel. Your patience is appreciated.