Arguing with RJ Ellory

I don’t usually edit or remove posts, no matter how much of an arse they make me look, but I’m making an exception this time: I went off the deep end about a series of tweets by the novelist RJ Ellory, and in doing so I made an arse of myself.

The tweets were about aspartame, and I felt that Ellory was rehashing internet conspiracy theory nonsense and being dismissive of anyone who disagreed. I still think that, but my original post was over the top.

It’s turned into a fun discussion thread, though.

34 thoughts on “Arguing with RJ Ellory

  1. Gary says:

    Just after I posted this, he tweeted again:

    “One can of diet drink has about 400x more formaldehyde than the body can absorb in a day.”

    Oh FFS. Aspartame isn’t formaldehyde: it partly metabolises into methanol, which becomes formaldehyde, which becomes formic acid. The same thing happens with fruit.

    From the US National Cancer Institute:
    A 12 US fluid ounce (355 ml) can of diet soda contains 180 milligrams (0.0063 oz) of aspartame, and for a 75 kg (165 lb) adult, it takes approximately 21 cans of diet soda daily to consume the 3,750 milligrams (0.132 oz) of aspartame that would surpass the FDA’s 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight ADI of aspartame from diet soda alone.

  2. Roger Ellory says:

    Gary,
    I am sorry to have upset you so much! Evidently I have done too little research on aspartame. I am just aware of the fact that it has been banned in all kids’ foods and drinks in Europe, and I think – slowly but surely – the rest of the UK, US etc. will follow suit. However, I think the ‘A Quiet Belief in Bullshit’ pronouncement is a touch harsh! I am more than happy to stand corrected.
    Enjoying your comments and blogs, by the way.
    Roger.

  3. Stephen says:

    Rather than running witch-hunts against particular additives and calling for them to be banned, I think it would be more useful to promote the idea that food in its most natural state is the most healthy (not to mention cheapest, although admittedly more time consuming to prepare). The food industry relies on additives to create standard flavours that they can market, as well as long shelf life, so if you try to avoid overly manufactured foods you avoid additives in general.

  4. Stephen says:

    This thread brings to life a concern that I have about my own tweeting, as a would-be published author: do I tweet only about my work and writing in general, to avoid annoying those potential readers who don’t hold with my particular political and economic beliefs, or do I just treat the account as a normal Twitter account, with no censoring of any of my opinions?

    I know from my own experience of reading Daring Fireball that I’m prepared to put up with a bit of Gruber’s loony leftism and baseball obsession, as long as the signal to noise ratio remains high enough. Maybe the key is knowing what you primarily want to achieve, and ensuring that the main message is there even if there are the odd quirks of personality evident from time to time!

  5. Gary says:

    Hi Roger, thanks for coming along. I probably was a bit harsh, so sorry for that, but I felt that when people responded with “hang on..”-type tweets you were quite dismissive. The internet’s very good at perpetuating health scares, and this particular one’s very tenacious because it plays into every parent’s fear that they might be harming their children. It’s a close relation of the killer wi-fi stuff, I reckon.

    > Enjoying your comments and blogs, by the way.

    Thanks very much. I loved The Anniversary Man :)

  6. Gary says:

    I think part of the problem is that big firms – pharma, food, whatever – and industries do have a track record of putting profit before public health, and in some cases public safety. You don’t need too many Ford Pintos, thalidomides, polluted rivers and mad cow diseases to become distinctly suspicious of people telling you their products (or the products they’ve been lobbied about) are perfectly safe.

    It’s particularly difficult when you’re a parent. Is sodium laureth sulphate bad? If it isn’t, why do some kiddie shampoos boast that they don’t include it? And so, excruciatingly, on. I’ve googled specific chemicals in Tesco. Seriously.

  7. Roger Ellory says:

    Yes, agreed Gary. And Stephen too, regarding best form of nutrition is what nature provides! Anyway, the whole facebook and twitter thing is an interesting discussion in itself. I am approaching the age where I am – I understand – permitted to rant irrationally about this and that, a sort of ‘grumpy old man’ sydrome setting in, if you know what I mean. I am not a food faddist, nor a food fascist for that matter. I had a very good friend, ex-USAF technician, who spent many hours per day in a secure vault on a British airbase during the first Iraq war. He got through about ten or twelve cans of Diet Coke a day, and it really caused some long-term damage. He actually had to take early retirement on health grounds, and numerous specialists came back and indicated that the only identifiable cause for his condition was the vast quantity of aspartame he had absorbed. Anyway, my attack on Monsanto et al is founded in a little personal anger! Also, we have to appreciate that 140 characters is not the best format to express an opinion. I was aware of the natural cycle that brings aspartame to formaldehyde, but you can’t type all of that in one message! Lesson learned, Gary. And I appreciate the opportunity to converse on the subject. Perhaps I spend too long telling lies for a living!
    All best wishes,
    Roger.
    Oh, and Stephen…I don’t know if Gary would agree, but I wouldn’t reserve judgement on issues you feel strongly about just because you think some folks mght get offended. I think a great deal of fiction and non-fiction writing works because it is an opinion, stated with some intention, and thus can cause controversy and debate. Without controversy and debate, we would all be sheep.

  8. Roger Ellory says:

    SLS. Yes. What’s that all about? And is it true tha flouride was a by-product of industrial experimentation processes in the US in the 50s, and they had mountains of the stuff and wanted someone to sell it to? Oh Lord, this is a dark and rocky road we’re walking down…

  9. Gary says:

    That’s a really interesting question.

    I think we’d all agree that you can usually separate the art from the artist, but if you follow somebody on Twitter – assuming it’s not just a PR bot churning out release dates and sales messages – then of course you’re following the person. There’s a good example of that going on just now, actually: comic book writer Frank Miller has offended loads of people with his comments on occupy wall street etc.

    I think as a reader, with non-corporate Twitter accounts you have to treat them as you would a friend. I disagree with you and Jo on loads of things, for example, politically we’re on different planets, and we still get on. Mostly, heh. I think it becomes a question of how nosey you are: how much of the writer’s life, thought processes, funny internet bookmarks do you want?

    As a writer… depends on what you want your twitter feed to be, I guess. I’m conscious of censoring some stuff on my own feed, but that’s primarily because I don’t want to bore people: most of the people who follow me because I’m a tech writer are interested in my tech-writer status, not what I had for breakfast. Although since I’ve started to get followers from the novel, I worry that my tweets aren’t funny enough to sustain their interest.

    My gut feeling is that you should tweet or post whatever you want. If people don’t like it there are plenty of ways to mute or unfollow.

  10. Gary says:

    > I don’t know if Gary would agree, but I wouldn’t reserve judgement on issues you feel strongly about just because you think some folks mght get offended.

    I’d agree with that. It’s not as if the followers are being chased around by an angry writer with a bullhorn.

    That said, I think for public figures there can be a danger of becoming better known for an opinion or set of opinions than for a body of work. Especially now that the conversation is global and instant.

    A good example of that is Frank Miller, the comic book artist. He’s posted some inflammatory stuff, most recently about Occupy Wall Street:

    http://www.metafilter.com/109436/Something-Tells-Me-To-Stop-With-the-AlQaeda-I-Ignore-It

    As one commenter says:

    “This really made me sad – I felt like Dark Knight and some of his other work betrayed a subtle and insightful view of politics and history. Now I suspect the things I thought satire were praise”

    It upsets individual fans, certainly, but I don’t know whether it does any actual damage to the writer’s reputation.

  11. Gary says:

    > I had a very good friend, ex-USAF technician, who spent many hours per day in a secure vault on a British airbase during the first Iraq war.

    I’m not dismissing his experience, but aspartame’s one of the most studied additives in the world and there’s still no indication of any harm. Whereas there’s lots of horrible stuff in airbases – and putting my Muse T-shirt on, there’s lots of horrible stuff we’re not allowed to know about in airbases.

    > Also, we have to appreciate that 140 characters is not the best format to express an opinion.

    Very true.

  12. Gary says:

    It was, yeah. Gummer, wasn’t it?

    I can’t remember why they downplayed it for so long. Was it fear of the costs of acting, or fear of the effect culls and associated panic would have on the farming industry?

  13. Squander Two says:

    A dozen cans a day? I drink more Diet Coke than anyone you’re ever likely to meet, but even I don’t drink that much.

    Mind you, I’ve managed to cut down recently by switching to Ribena.

  14. Squander Two says:

    I tend to drink a lot of Diet Coke and people are always telling me it’s bad for me. My reply is always the same: I’m addicted to the stuff, and it’s a hell of a lot less bad for me than most of the things people get addicted to. Nutrasweet? Feh. It’s not nicotine and it’s not an opiate. Also, I can’t go to prison for drinking it. These things are relative.

  15. Squander Two says:

    Not sure. May have had something to do with it being squarely the government’s fault in the first place, as they’d absolutely assured farmers that it was OK to give feed made out of dead cattle to cattle. (And I should add that I have little sympathy with farmers over that one. They’re supposed to have generations of farming expertise, yet they did THAT because some politicians told them it was OK?)

    My mum stood against Gummer. And lost.

  16. Squander Two says:

    In the case of people like Frank Miller, it upsets individual fans but also pleases other individual fans. It annoys me that, because the media class tilts broadly left (especially in the US), any media figures who go all right-wing are portrayed as having pissed off all their fans and destroyed their careers while any who get outspokenly lefty are portrayed as brave heros speaking truth to power. In fact, from the fan-pissing-off perpective, it’s exactly the same either way.

    For example… in the case of OWS, well, there have been rapes and murders and deaths in their encampments, they’ve vandalised loads of property, caused millions in damage, demonstrated a pronounced inability to throw away rubbish, and left a huge stinking mess behind them. Calling them “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob” shouldn’t be all that controversial.

    Meanwhile, calling black members of the Tea Party “racist” is apparently OK. There have been zero deaths or rapes at Tea Party demonstrations, but apparently it’s OK to call them “violent” and “mysogynist” where it’s controversial to say the same thing about OWS, who have had a few. And so on. Seeing such debates through the biased media lens, it’s easy not to notice that people who slag off the Right lose their audiences too. It’s just that their audiences simply quietly stop watching, rather than going on about it endlessly and organising mass campaigns to stop everyone else watching too. Though that is changing.

  17. Stephen says:

    I suppose I would always voice an opinion on something I felt strongly about, but I think the danger in Twitter is in surrounding yourself with an echo chamber, so that your tweets start to sound like an endless rant; it’s easy to do that if you only follow people with a particular slant. I think I might tailor the people I follow so that my input is more balanced, this should help the output balance!

    Speaking of echo chambers, I’m not really sure why people are surprised by Frank Miller’s latest venting. The man wrote comic strips in which evil men perpetrated incredibly violent and depraved deeds, and where even the heroes behaved in a very violent, “with extreme prejudice” way. 300 is possibly the greatest glorification of military achievement ever created. You would only think that this man would be responsive to “progressive” thinking if you lived in a bubble where everyone you met thought the way you did. Frank Miller is incredibly popular with second amendment, military family types, but if you never mix with those sort of people, you wouldn’t know…

  18. Squander Two says:

    > Frank Miller is incredibly popular with second amendment, military family types, but if you never mix with those sort of people, you wouldn’t know

    Exactly. So a bunch of people on Metafilter talk to a bunch of people on Metafilter and convince themselves that no-one likes Frank Miller any more.

  19. Gary says:

    > It annoys me that, because the media class tilts broadly left (especially in the US), any media figures who go all right-wing are portrayed as having pissed off all their fans and destroyed their careers while any who get outspokenly lefty are portrayed as brave heros speaking truth to power.

    It’s not that the media class tilts broadly left; it’s that creative industries are largely portrayed as and marketed as anti-establishment, countercultural. It’s like when pop stars come out supporting the Tories and everybody mocks them: you’re supposed to be an artist, not a tool of The Man :)

    I think, too, there’s a phenomenon where artists who have a platform for one thing become hideous bell-ends who can’t resist preaching. Scott Adams springs to mind, but so does Bono. It’s not a political thing, but a bell-end thing.

    > Calling them “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob” shouldn’t be all that controversial.

    I think it is if you’re taking the side of The Man against The Kids, and if you’re describing them *entirely* as louts, thieves and rapists. Which Miller did. The man’s a twat, IMO.

    I think the Tea Party stuff is another conversation, not because I don’t think you’ve got a point, but because tea party politicians are politicians rather than artists. There’s a world of difference between an artist pissing off a few fans or getting slagged off by fans of rival artists and the emotions engendered by the tea party et al.

    > So a bunch of people on Metafilter talk to a bunch of people on Metafilter and convince themselves that no-one likes Frank Miller any more.

    I linked to Metafilter because it’s one of the less noisy places where this stuff is discussed, but MeFi isn’t where the bulk of the outrage was.

  20. Squander Two says:

    > It’s not that the media class tilts broadly left; it’s that creative industries are largely portrayed as and marketed as anti-establishment, countercultural.

    Yeah, and that annoys me too. On what planet is the Left still anti-establishment? The students of 1968 are all in power now. Oo, I’m so rebellious I support the party who had two landslide majorities in a row and whose worldview shapes the country we live in over the party who were only able to get partial power by forming a coalition! I’m so anti-establishment I want more state benfits! Fuckwits.

    > I linked to Metafilter because it’s one of the less noisy places where this stuff is discussed, but MeFi isn’t where the bulk of the outrage was.

    No, I get that. My point was just that Miller is still popular but his supposed unpopularity is discussed in an echo chamber so those in the echo chamber are unaware of that. As with Miller, so with many others.

  21. Heather says:

    When my mother was living with/dying from motor neurone disease, aspartame was strictly off the menu. Apparently there is evidence that for people with impaired neuron function, aspartame does not help things.

  22. Squander Two says:

    I like this:

    Miller may finally be entering a pantheon of artists who are so reviled by liberal hipster culture that they must be personally disavowed anytime their work is praised. Believe me, you can’t just josh around on a podcast with your D&D buddies and say that you like Ender’s Game unless you preface it by saying what a tool Orson Scott Card is. Ditto for Mad Max and Mel Gibson.

    Nota bene: It’s still totally cool to rhapsodize about Chinatown without having to disavow Roman Polanski. Funny how that works.

  23. Gary says:

    I wonder what the evidence was? The only stuff I can find reports that there’s no evidence to back up various hypotheses. The European Food Standards Agency’s carried out some detailed analysis of the various studies: http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/supporting/doc/1641.pdf

    Obviously this isn’t an area where I know what I’m talking about, but from where I’m sitting it does seem as if the anti-aspartame sites have taken some remote, so far unproven hypotheses as absolute fact. In the case of aspartame it doesn’t matter – nobody’s going to die because they’ve sworn off diet coke – but the language of the websites is eerily reminiscent of the killer wi-fi and anti-vaccination ones.

  24. Gary says:

    I don’t really get the disavowing thing. Fair enough if you’re posting something you personally disagree with on your blog and you want to make it clear you don’t share the sentiment, but you don’t need to shout “I DON’T FANCY KIDS” if you admit to liking Rock and Roll Part 2.

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