Monday, 30 March 2009

No Sex Please, We're British - Part 2

Remember the London Review of Books Personal Ads?

The best thing about them is that there are more new ones every week. These are the ones that got me laughing::

Rather beautiful 34-year old hysteric
seeks man who has written more books than her analyst. Her own attempts have stalled at page 96.

Celebrate National Nurses Week with me! Man, 82.
box no.

I subvert all the expectations built up in this column like a goat in space subverts gravy. Space-goat-esque gravy-subverting pervert (M, 51).
box no.

For all you ladies keeping a vigil for my return to this column after an absence of 2 years, God has answered your prayers by forcing the LRB, after much petitioning, to lift almost all of their unreasonable restrictions on the content of my adverts. I am a man. I am 46.
box no.

Bathsheba of Brighton (49) divorced Gabriel Oak (and his boring flute). Now seeks urban pleasures with entertaining man, 40-60.
box no.

Yes, my advert is poorly constructed, but it’s a miracle I can do anything at all with my crippling addictions to chine sandwiches, supermarket own-brand cider and internet pornography. F, 94, Market Rasen.
box no.

And my personal favourite this week:

By applying Baer and Rinzel's Continuum Model to our love-making I will show you how the pedicles and laminae forming the vertebral arch of the spine is the only true erogenous zone. I will require travel expenses (I live within Zone 4 of the London Underground network – further details will follow), a beverage allowance, and a willingness on your part to undergo just 45 minutes of drug-free anaesthesia.
box no.

song of the day

If my life (at the moment) was a song, it would be this one:

Ray Lamontagne is one of those artists who sounds great live and a bit meh on his inevitably overproduced albums. He has this amazing voice: half mountain man, half Tom Waits, with a little bit of an old school blues man thrown in for good measure. I guess I'm just a sucker for the whole tortured artist thing.

So song of the day/week/moment is Ray Lamontagne's cover of Garls Barkley's 'Crazy'. I love it.

In other randomness, my flatmate sent me this picture this morning. It took a second for me to figure out what the hell I was looking at - Eve and Wall-E. Hilarious! I seriously loved that film. I saw it on the plane coming back from America and thought it was absolutely sublime. I think kids have it so much better. We have to watch serious, depressing, grown-up art-house cinema and the kids get to watch
Wall-E and Ratatouille. I'm being semi facetious, of course, for I do love my melancholic foreign films and other intellectual indy gems, but sometimes you just want to have a laugh. And I love how, especially Disney (Cf. Fantasia, i.e. one of the best films ever!), much as they went slightly off the deep end with Disney Stores and HSM 1, 2, and 3, can make films that work on an adult and child level. If you haven't seen Wall-E yet, you absolutely should. It's a gem.

Friday, 27 March 2009

how to cover up a stain

Or how not to.

Why would you want to with these interesting teacups designed to improve through use. The product blurb talks about how the teacups challenge the assumption that use is damaging to a product, which is an interesting idea: the supposed devaluation of a product which begins immediately post purchase. But in actuality these cups become more beautiful the more they are used: the interior surface of the cup is treated so that it stains more in those treated areas. I like it.

I also liked the idea of these secretive teacups because this week has been quite strange indeed. There have been too many secrets floating around my office lately, many of which are only now being revealed. We all keep secrets from one another, and this is perhaps nowhere more true than at work, but when those around you begin acting secretively and strangely, you start feeling as if people can see straight through you. Even if you have nothing (or at least little) to hide, why is it that other people's suspicious behaviour makes you feel so uneasy? I've just found out that one of my colleagues is pregnant, one is applying for a new job, and yet another has just lost his job. Everyone has their secrets I suppose.

Don't ask me what mine is.

I'm not telling.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

don't throw boris out with the bathwater

I know this post is going to earn me a hard slap on the wrist from most of my friends, but I'll take a red hand if it means I can come clean.

I love Boris. Or at least I like him an awful lot.

The complaints against him are seemingly never ending, but surely the man can't be so horrid.

So he's racist. Or at least he's perceived to be by pretty much everyone in liberal politics and in minority communities around the country. I remember the hysteria of the opposition during the Mayoral election, when they claimed that Boris would destroy London's unity - I'm pretty sure that hasn't happened yet. Or if it has, it's largely the fault of the financial sector, not the Mayor.

And anyway, we laugh at ethnic racism when it's on Fawlty Towers or when our friends do it in the pub, but somehow politicians must be judged on an entirely differnt moral level than the rest of us, even when making quips in private (I'm thinking of the Carol Thatcher off-camera quip which saw her reprimanded far more severely than the Ross/Brand act of moral depravity).

It's ridiculous and simple minded to claim that it's only members of the Tory party who are riddled with racial prejudice. Even free-loving, free travelling backpackers will exclaim in disgust of the living conditions they had to 'put up with' in the backwards third world nations they profess to adore travelling through so vehemently. And I'm sorry, but claiming that only public figures must maintain moral accountability is ridiculous and hypocritical. The bitching public cannot claim one moral standard for themselves and another for the government officials. This is the sort of behaviour that led to the Terror of the French Revolution. Supposedly, we're all much more civilised than this.

For the liberals in the house who absolutely can't stand the man, you at least have to respect the fact that in August 2008, he did what few other international politicians did when he openly endorsed Barack Obama for the US presidency.

Since I grew up in a political environment where 100 senators, regardless of party affiliation, are encouraged, even duty bound to question the traditional constraints of two party thinking in policy debates, this country has much more of a problem with politicians towing the party line.

Sure, I don't agree with everything Boris has to say, but I seriously respect the fact that he's an independently minded and very intelligent maverick who can make up his own mind, for which he often gets into trouble with his own party, about policy. Take his call for an amnesty for "illegal" immigrants in London - even if the policy is primarily motivated by the tax revenues the state is losing out on by undocumented workers and the silly small print which means that the amnesty is a sort of 'earned' one, it's still a far more liberal and forward thinking policy than the ridiculously draconian immigration laws put in place by the current Labour government. Funnily enough, the same Guardian reading liberals who bashed Boris' campaign for mayor of this 'great multi-cultural city' are ripping this amnesty to shreds. Here are two comments, largely representative of the rest, taken from the comments section in a Guardian article about the Mayor's call for an immigration amnesty:

"So we now have an 'International Migrants Day' do we?

How about a 'British People First Day' or a 'Sick of Looney Ideas Day' instead."

or this one:

"The last thing this already over-crowded island needs is more illegal mass immigration. 40 years of mass immigration, political correctness and multiculturalism have already brought this once great nation to its knees thanks to the traitorous complicity of the liberal political elite."

And while Boris hasn't actually done that much in London, he hasn't made anything drastically worse either. All the talk of scrapping the congestion charge has come to nought. And yes he has opted to scrap the western extension covering Kensington and Chelsea, but since when was Kensington and Chelsea part of Central London, but not, say Camden, where the CC does not apply? The fury of TfL at the loss of £70 million per year in income from the CC fees in the western extension is almost laughable. All of us who have attempted to get home after 1am or try to get anywhere in the Capital on the weekends wonder why, with an £8.2 billion budget, the entire Victoria line must be closed every other weekend for time immemorial. Yes, regulation of the traffic in central London is perhaps needed, but none of us want to live in a draconian city where we become taxed every time we step out of our doors. And with tube and bus fares rising all the time and nary a sign of improvement to services seen, you have to wonder where the money is going. So no, I don't mind that he's scrapped the rather arbitrary CC for Kensington and Chelsea - even if naysayers scream that it's a favour to the rich. Well, it was an unfair tax on those who lived in the Royal Borough in the first place, a nice chunk of change to throw in the TfL purse. The Mayor is looking into an 'intelligent' congestion charge system as modelled in Stockholm, where motorists pay more to enter the central zone during peak times and less during other time. Again, Green and Labour assembly members balk at this suggestion for an 'intelligent' fee paying system, claiming that we need to improve London's urban environment and that central London is congested all of the time. Yes, central London is congested all of the time, but I put it to you that this is not purely down to car congestion. How many streets in London have you walked down recently with major road works? Road works congest the traffic which then means the streets become more congested. Sometimes I wish people could just focus on the issues instead of getting tied down by petty party-led finger pointing, which becomes increasingly tedious for the public. No wonder so many people in this country are either apathetic or snidely, yet passively, bitter on news websites.

And finally, as an old school new guard classicist I love that Boris is clever and has a passion for classics. So much so that he's a patron of the Iris project, which promotes the teaching of ancient languages and literatures in inner city schools. If I didn't like him for anything else, I'd at least respect him for this.

But I do like him. I like him because he's not afraid to think and then to publicly express these thoughts, party policy lines be damned. If we weren't all so bloody obsessed with political correctness, maybe we wouldn't be so quick to take everything the man says out of context and judge him as a racist heretic to be burned at the stake. I know this won't convert anyone to the man's cause and that isn't the point. In a world where celebrity stylists and PR minders have become massively powerful as guardians of celebrity images (yes, politicians get lumped in with celebrities in the post-modern age of Barack Obama and Tony Blair), it's damned refreshing to have a politician speak his mind. Even if that mind is a little bit strange.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Abercrombie & Fitch on both sides of the Atlantic

American companies kick the crap out of their British counterparts when it comes to brand marketing and management - especially in the transference of these brands out of the domestic market and into foreign waters.

I remember when Krispy Kreme first branched out into the UK and you could only buy them in Harrods or Selfridges. Talk about manipulating the image. In the States, Krispy Kreme is ubiquitous - you can buy your original glazed boxes of sickly sweet sticky doom in MacDonald's style drive-through. But when glamorous women in Louboutin heels come strutting out of Harrod's with their doughnuts in a frosted plastic bag, it sends out a whole different message. The aura conferred by these women and the expensive bazaars which stocked KK meant that eventually the brand could branch out into high street: they are now sold in some high street Tesco's or stand alone shops.

But the best example of a brand purchasing a much bigger status over the pond is Abercrombie and Fitch. Walking down Burlington Gardens last Friday afternoon, on my way to get some Laduree macarons, I walked past Abercrombie and Fitch. The location of the shop in between Saville Row and Old Bond Street on Burlington Gardens tells you pretty much everything you need to know about A&F's aspirations in the UK.

This is what most of the Abercrombie stores look like in America:

This is what the Abercrombie store looks like in London:

This is a brand better known for its 'sexy' soft-porn ads that wind up the parents of the kids who buy the clothes. The style is a sort of over-priced Gap: boring, yet still managing to encourage a slightly slutty jeans and t-shirt look. They aren't prep enough to be J. Crew or J.Press but they're expensive enough to be cool in that just out of reach way for most American teenagers.

Funny then that Jack Wills wearing Sloaneys are totally buying into the A&F look. Actually, a lot of people I know got (and still are) really excited when the A&F shop opened in London. A girl I used to work with received an A&F hoody for her birthday and she was jumping up and down clutching the thing like a winning lottery ticket. It was a plain, pink hoody, with A&F plastered across it in big letters, which cost around £70. I just don't get it.

The funniest thing though was when I finally got to Lauduree, three kids (two guys and a girl) came into the shop behind me who had just been to Abercrombie. The were talking about all the different outfits they had purchased and what they would wear on their impending trip to San Francisco. They bought a wardrobe full of chavvy American clothes to wear on their holiday to America! It's absolutely brilliant - the triumph of pretending to be an exclusive brand when you export it around the world. I was so tempted to turn around and shatter the illusion these poor kids had created of Abercrombie and Fitch - I think they actually thought it was the US equivalent of a 5th Avenue brand. Or maybe they were more clever than I gave them credit for and they actually wanted to look like young, sheep-herded American teenagers. And anyway, even if I did explain to them what A&F or KK meant in America, it would still be like telling a chav that Burberry plaid isn't cool anymore.

Friday, 20 March 2009


Today am I tired. Very tired. I don't think I slept poorly last night and can think of no rational explanation for said tiredness.

Half brain dead at work, I went to google and typed in 'tired'.

Did you know there was a site called tired? Neither did I.

Frankly, I think it's creepy...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Bon Vivant, Raconteur, and All Around Good Fellow

Went to a Lenten themed choral performance this evening with The Philosopher. Listened to Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvorak's original version of Stabat Mater. The Dvorak and one of the Bruckner motets were lovely, but the other two were only so-so: choral music in German is a bit hard to swallow.

Sitting in that church listening to the singers I started thinking, perhaps strangely, about the men in my life. If you must know, I was thinking about relationships and marriage - the closeness that develops between friends compared to that which develops in relationships - but I kept coming back to this phrase: 'the finest man I know.' It sounds like the sort of drivel one finds scripted in romantic comedies, but it still set me thinking - surely this is not an epithet to be taken lightly.

After spending at least the better part of the fourth and fifth movements of Stabat Mater thinking about the matter, it struck me that the finest man I know is now the finest man I knew - my grandfather on my mother's side who died a little over three years ago. I couldn't possibly go into all the details of why this is so - it would take too long and be far too revealing - the best I can do is repeat one of his business cards for your reading pleasure. This will give you an idea of what kind of man my grandpapa was.

Used Land - Good Scotch - Horse Pucky - Racing Forms
Flyswatters - Old Cars - Fast Women

Dr. Willard P. Riddles
Bon Vivant, Raconteur, and All Around Good Fellow

Wars Fought - Virgins Chastised - Bars Emptied
Bridges Burned
- Feet Massaged - Salesman Slain
Munitions Supplied - Ballads Sung
- Skulduggery Illuminated
Grandkids Sillified - Turkeys Carved
- Dogs Fed
Hearts Mended - Uprisings Quelled - Stories Embellished

Politicians Bamboozled - Anarchists Organized
Birds Cursed
- Pots Stirred - Heads Knocked
Revolutions Cheered - Fences Mended

Assassinations Plotted - Books Cooked
Ignoramuses Enlightened
- Lawyers Humiliated
Light Bulbs Changed - Cats Herded

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

the brain that changes itself

I got into an argument with The Boy a few days ago about 'super-stringy' calf fibres (his terminology, not mine - I think they're actually called fast or slow twitch fibre compositions). While I'm all for interdisciplinarity, my entire academic career testifies to this claim, attempting to overlay anthropological theories onto neuroscience just doesn't work for me. Basically he was trying to argue that nature presided regally over nurture.

Being, as I am, mildly obsessed with neuroscience (I'm already planning a career change at 37) I know that most neuroscientists, but especially those with a particular interest in neuroplasticity would say that the nature/nurture debate is largely irrelevant as the two are completely inter-related.

Not only with sports, but with your ability to play a musical instrument, or to paint or compute complex mathematical equations - natural talent or genetics can only take a person so far. So yes, perhaps Michael Phelps is 'built' with the 'perfect' frame for swimming (whatever that means), but if he was more motivated to study theoretical physics and became one of our greatest physicists, no one would say 'he was built' for theoretical physics. Likewise, while proponents of the nature theory might argue that Lance Armstrong is a great cyclist because he has one of the greatest V02 max readings ever seen (an individual's maximal rate of oxygen consumption), the same genes that are so often attributed for his success also contributed to the development of his nonseminomatous testicular cancer.

I'm coming at the elite athletics side of this from a strictly laymen position, but after a little bit of reading, I found something interesting about the natural gap between V02 max readings between men and women. Sports physiologists supposedly claim that genetics play a major role in a person's VO2 max and that heredity can account for up to 25-50% of the variance seen between individuals, thus leading us to believe that nature triumphs over nurture and that plastic change is impossible. Where this becomes interesting is in a comparison between untrained girls and women, who typically have a maximal oxygen uptake 20-25% lower than untrained men. However, when comparing elite athletes, the gap tends to close to about 10% and if V02 max is adjusted to account for fat free mass in elite male and female athletes, in some studies the differences disappear.
So something else is going on here besides just genetics. Training, nutrition, psychology, etc., must account for the ability for our bodies (and brains) to major changes.

It's always in running - especially sprinting - where people tend to say that speed is without doubt the result of genetically determined factors meeting training effects. Common belief is that if you took a random sample of children from West Africa and another from a western European country, on average, the West Africans will be faster in a sprint race. Explanations for this can not be precise, but tend to centre around natural ability and physiological determination.

Now to get to the whole point of this post. I recently purchased a very interesting book by psychoanalyst Norman Doidge called
The Brain That Changes Itself. By some brilliant coincidence The Philosopher discovered that Dr. Doidge was giving a talk at LSE last night. We went, we listened, we were entertained. It was interesting - he wasn't as lucid in person as in his book (which I thoroughly recommend if you have any interest how your brain is profoundly affected by your everyday environment - you'll never look at porn websites again!), but still it was good fun.

The point about running and the difference between Africans and Europeans reminds me of a great anecdote in Doidge's book. In 2003, researchers from Sweden's Lund University did some research with the Moken sea gypsies who live in the archipelago of Burma and along the West Cost of Thailand. When you dive underwater and open your eyes, everything appears slightly blurry. Focusing depends on the curvature of the lens and the difference between the index of refection of the eye and the surrounding medium. Air has an index of refraction of 1, the cornea 1.376 and the aqueous humor 1.336. The index of refraction of water is about 1.33. Because of the small difference in the index of refraction of water and the eye, the lens must become very curved to focus light on the retina. Living on land, there was no evolutionary need for the lens to become this curved, so objects are out of focus when we open our eyes under water.

Unlike most of the rest of us, t
he sea gypsies maximally constrict the pupil to see accurately underwater - this is not a genetic attribute - rather it has developed over time through repeated exercise and use. Moreover, there are studies which have demonstrated that European children can learn to demonstrate this same pupil constriction with practice. This is a great and easy to understand example of plasticity and the 'use it or lose it' theory of the brain: we're talking about use-dependent cortical reorganisation here. This isn't saying that if you believe in something enough you can do it or master it, but that if you create an environment where you are constantly having to exercise a particular function in order to improve, then surprising things are achievable.

If I can be asked, I'll write up a part two sometime soonish. There are some very interesting connections between behaviour and environment (remember the porn?) that will seriously get you thinking about the habits which form your day to day existence. We may not have the inclination to be world-class athletes, but surely we'd all like to be a little bit better at something.

Like Doidge says, use your brain or lose it. And with new(ish and admittedly slightly hysterical) studies showing that age-related cognitive decline beings as early as 27, I'm pretty sure that means all of us could stand to do a bit of brain spring cleaning...

PS If you are really a glutton for punishment and want to know more - V.S. Ramachandran, a brilliant neuroscientist, gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 2003 which are very stimulating yet quite approachable.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

I love Paris

This is a lazy photo post of this weekend's Paris and Versailles trip. Will write something altogether more thoughtful tomorrow after tonight's Norman Doidge (he's a psychiatrist who writes on neuroplasticity and I'm a big fan) lecture at LSE.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

how long must i wait?

Three hours, thirty seven minutes, twenty one seconds.

With this lovely, yet completely ridiculous, device you can now find out exactly how long it took your missive d'amour to get from London to Paris and your lover's waiting arms.

Cute, but creepy.

Wonder if HM Postal Officers might deliver things more quickly if they knew we knew exactly how long it was taking.

the man without a head

I bought the European Short 16 DVD about a month ago. I still haven't watched all the films. For some reason the first film I watched was by Juan Solanas called l'homme sans tĂȘte. It's an animated short and I didn't think I'd like it, so I don't know why I watched it first, but I'm immensely glad I did.

This is one of the most brilliant films I've seen in a long time. It's so beautifully put together and it's one of the most original and intriguing worlds I've ever seen on screen. I also loved that I thought I knew exactly where it was going and then constantly had my expectations flipped upside down - that's such a rarity. And I also love how this film manages to make a statement about allowing yourself to be who you truly are without resorting to gratuitous emotional manipulation.

I found this video of it but it doesn't have subtitles (I'm not even sure if it has sound at all as I'm at work and can't hear anything on my computer), but you don't really even need to understand what's being said to get the jist of what's going on. It's a bit long (about 15 minutes in all), but seriously well worth it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

hard times ahead?

This article is depressing, given that I'm a year away from completing my PhD.

I suppose I'm luckier than a lot of other doctoral students in that I have my fingers in a few other pies outside of academia. I also figured out rather quickly that getting bogged down in teaching undergrad classes (i.e. serving as cheap departmental labour) and organising seminars doesn't get you hired and competes with your primary goal: research and publication.

Getting something published during your doctoral years (at least in the Humanities) is what will set you apart from other applicants - not how many teaching hours you did or conferences you organised. Getting out there, meeting other academics, and making good connections is a good idea as well. For if you know other academics and they know you, they might be better placed to help you out when it comes time to job hunt.

Maybe it's because I'm optimistic by nature, but I refuse to believe that there won't be any jobs out there when I finish or that I'll have a problem finding one, if academia is indeed where I decide to stay. Why on Earth would anyone put themselves through a PhD otherwise?

Monday, 9 March 2009

a day in pictures

Out the door in mis-matched prints

Porridge (at work) for breakfast

At work

Writing in a cafe

Lucan in French, Latin, and English (plus the Spectator for fun)

Say hello to the sheep on my way home

Making fancy coffee

Making potato salad for lunch and happy to see evidence that the EU deregulation of veggie perfectness is working

Potato salad

More working (can you tell how much I like orange?)

Still working + dinner (a celeriac, beetroot, and horseradish remoulade - delicious!)