My question for David Cameron

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: ask your country’s leader a question about his or her government’s policy.

It’s something that just started this year with YouTube’s World View program, and, well, I just thought I’d give it a shot.

I’m getting the hang of focusing now: notice how the background is slightly blurred, while my face is in such pin-sharp focus, you can see the really ugly blister on my lip. It’s been hanging around for a week now, although I think it’s starting to go away. I’d have waited for it to clear up, but there’s a deadline for World View entries and I didn’t want to miss it.

On speaking gibberish

Below is a video about the unfortunate case of TV news journalist Serene Branson, who suffered what has since been identified as a migraine live on air. She is, you may be relieved to know, absolutely fine, and despite rumours that she had a stroke, she has suffered no lasting effects and has made a complete recovery. It turns out that some types of migraine can actually mimic the symptoms of a stroke.

As she went live, reporting from the Grammys, the migraine took hold and affected part of the brain that deals with language, giving her a type of condition known as aphasia. At first she simply appears to stumble over her words, but within seconds her speech has deteriorated into total nonsense.

Although ultimately harmless, this must have been distressing; but what fascinates me is the gobbledegook itself. Apart from the fact that she ends up not pronouncing any recognisable words, all the syllables she utters are recognisable as standard components of North American English. It’s not a series of unintelligble sounds; it’s a series of syllables and even complete words, but assembled in a manner that is completely meaningless.

The first serious blunder is “virtation”, which isn’t an English word but sounds as if it should be. Not only that, but her intonation is preserved to such an extent, that even while she’s spouting random syllables, you can clearly hear the grammatical structure of what she’s trying to say. Listen to her final sentence: the rhythm and intonation are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an American journalist hastily handing over to the studio or a pre-recorded insert. Imagine that what she’s trying to say is, “Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of tonight’s event.”

Human language is one of the most complex phenomena ever studied, and experts have only scratched the surface of understanding, mostly through observing cases like this. There is no one language centre in the brain, but many different things working together: areas dealing with nouns, others with grammar, still more with other aspects of language comprehension and production, and they’re scattered about the brain. This is only one type of aphasia: there are even more bizarre types of aphasia, including one where the sufferer can understand spoken language and can converse normally, and can even read aloud, but cannot understand written texts. Think about that for a minute: imagine you can’t understand anything written down, but you can read it out perfectly.

We tend to take language for granted, but it’s quite possibly one of our greatest achievements. This is basically what happens when a small part of it stops functioning.

No news is no news

It6rsquo;s distinctly odd seeing near-hysterical news reports about Stephen Hawking’s religious views, or, rather, lack thereof. It’s not exactly a reverse Road to Damascus experience; this is a physicist, not the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I sometimes wonder if journalists ever stop to think what they’re writing. To look at the headlines, and even to read the articles attached to them, you’d think this was a scandal on a par with the Queen saying she thought the monarchy should be abolished, or Osama bin Laden renouncing terrorism. Hawking hasn’t even changed his mind: he’s just stated it a bit more emphatically than he usually does (and not even for the first time).

The “scandal” rests on the fact that in A Brief History of Time he made an offhand comment about “knowing the mind of God”, but that’s a figure of speech. One commentator I read did concede that he was being metaphorical, but insisted nevertheless that it was “a bit rich” of him to subsequently rubbish the notion of God.

In point of fact, he hasn’t exactly rubbished God. He’s made two points, to wit:

  1. it is possible to explain the origins of the universe without supposing that it was created by an intelligent being; and
  2. Professor Hawking doesn’t believe in God.

The first of these is pretty much established scientific fact, and has been for decades. It’s not that science has decided to disprove the existence of God; rather, that science has (so far at least) not had to have an opinion on the matter of the existence of any deity. God is not part of the remit of science.

The second is Hawking’s personal belief. I would beg to differ (as I believe differently), but it should come as no surprise that Hawking is, essentially, an atheist. When did he ever suggest otherwise, aside from the odd meaningless turn of phrase? And why even make such a fuss about it? Why is this news?

No news is news somewhere

Sometimes, a single news article can speak volumes about the area it comes from. Not a million years ago, for example, I was tickled to see a report from the village we used to live at about the theft of a couple of violets. Crime was so rare in that village, that this actually accounted for about three column inches in the local paper.

The headline that caught my eye, when it popped up on the BBC News RSS feed, was “Two drivers die in two separate car crashes”. To which the obvious question, if you live in a part of the world that has been asphalted over (and I do), would be: What, only two?

Turns out, this happened in the Grampian region of Scotland, an area of about nine thousand square kilometres (give or take). This is a large chunk of western Scotland where fatal accidents are so rare, that if two happen on the same day, that fact alone is worth a headline.

How to go up in the world

There’s an online game I like to play so that my mind can freewheel. It’s not very challenging, and it really just amounts to matching up little coloured squares to collect stars and, therefore, points. Most of the time I play it pretty much on automatic, and still manage to whizz through twenty levels in the space of about fifteen minutes. If, by way of an analogy, we were to think of a game of chess to be the intellectual equivalent of Crime and Punishment, this game is Green Eggs and Ham. No disrespect to Dr Seuss, but there you are.

Like so many online games, it’s financed by advertising, and it’s sometimes rather entertaining — often more entertaining than the game itself — to see what’s being advertised just to the right of the board. And one advert that frequently pops up is for a very special kind of dating agency.

Unlike most dating agencies, which simply promise me the chance to meet sexually attractive people, this one promises me the chance to meet sexually attractive people from the upper middle classes — exactly the kind of people, in short, who would not be playing this game and probably wouldn’t want to meet people who do.

They are managers, doctors, architects and graphic designers. And surreally stereotypical. I can’t say that I am an expert on the upper middle classes, but I have met quite a few members of that particular group, and there are certain things I cannot imagine any of them doing or saying. Yet these really very attractive women and distinguished-looking men with hobbies like sailing smile at me from their little pictures accompanied by texts that say things like: “Good evening. I have two tickets for the theatre, and I was wondering if you would care to accompany me.” My favourite is the young lady offering me the chance to attend the opening of an art exhibition with her.

Each to his own, I suppose; but for my money, and as far as I know for everybody else’s money, anyone who thinks that standing around with glasses of cheap champagne looking at pictures and trying to chat with experts is the ideal way to a man’s heart is either a crashing bore, or mentally unstable. I can’t help but wonder what kind of people they really do have on their books. Probably not so much the kind of people they advertise, but the kind of people who would like to meet the kind of people they advertise but don’t move in the right circles. It’s a depressing thought.