30 agosto 2006
An extraordinary archive from the extended family of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the great English Romantic poets, has been bought by the British Library.
The vast treasury of papers revealing the family's bemused if affectionate view of the maverick talent in their midst had been kept in family ownership in Ottery St Mary, the Devon village where the poet was born, for two centuries.
But when the family reluctantly decided this year to sell The Chanter's House, the home acquired by Samuel's brother James in 1796, the volumes of papers and diaries had to go too.
The National Heritage Memorial Fund - the fund of last resort for saving important heritage for the nation - donated £250,000, which was boosted by grants from half a dozen other bodies to secure the family's archive for an unspecified sum.
Frances Harris, head of modern historical manuscripts, said its importance lay not only in the new material relating to Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself, but in the extensive social network of his relatives and heirs as the Coleridges went up in the world. Notably, the archive includes the journals and court-room notes of three successive generations of Coleridge judges who sat on famous cases, including that of the Tichborne claimant, an imposter who claimed to be a missing wealthy heir. (It was the subject of a 1998 film.)
And there are hundreds of letters to and from luminaries including Matthew Arnold, the poet, William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, Cardinal Newman, the Catholic convert, and the architect AW Pugin.
"A vast cast of eminent Victorians is in this wonderful archive," Ms Harris said. "They became a very prominent family and their correspondence reflects that."
The core of the papers relating to Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself is correspondence with his nephew, Sir John Taylor Coleridge, who was around 18 years his junior and the first of the family's judges.
One of the most important features of the collection for literary scholars is the young Sir John's schoolbook in which, following the practice of the time, he wrote poetry and copied poems he liked.
He included poems copied from his uncle's original papers, which scholars will compare with later published versions.
When Sir John was older, he recorded in a letter home how he had heard his uncle speak. "He did make this enormous impact. Even for people who knew him, he was a dazzling conversationalist and lecturer," Ms Harris said.
In other papers, Sir John described going to the Lake District and meeting William Wordsworth, who showed him the first lake vista that he had shown Samuel Taylor Coleridge and recalled how Coleridge's face had brightened at the sight. Another item sheds some light on the environment in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge was raised.
His father was the local clergyman and among the archive is a parish account book recording details of everything from the workhouse to misdeeds.
Long after Coleridge's death in 1834 at the age of 61, the papers record family reminiscences of the man Sir John knew as Uncle Sam.
The poet was acknowledged as an extraordinarily gifted man, but an erratic genius.
As his own son Hartley put it: "There's some screw loose in the whole marvellous machine."
Ms Harris said: "He was a puzzle at the heart of the family. He was the presiding genius, but he was, in some sense, outside the family, because he just didn't fit into the mould of this very solid professional group of people.
"On the other hand, he defined them."
But lawyers will be as fascinated by the archive as literary researchers including papers pertaining to Sir John Taylor's son, the first Baron Coleridge, who became Lord Chief Justice of England.
The archive, which includes 350 bound volumes, including diaries and the judges' notebooks, and 29 large archive boxes, will now be catalogued.
29 agosto 2006
28 agosto 2006
2 Throwing things in the air and catching them in their mouths. Sweets, nuts, cigarettes. Presumably it is supposed to demonstrate coordination. If it worked, women would regularly fall in love with seals.
3 Undoing bra straps with one hand. They think it shows confidence and experience. It's just sleazy.
4 Wearing massive boxer shorts. Why do men do this? Best guess is that they flatter themselves that their giant organs need the spare capacity.
5 Whistling. Presumably once a mating call, redundant since we evolved for speech. It is never musical, except at the end of '(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay' by Otis Redding.
6 Carrying a big bunch of keys. Suggests ownership of big cave.
7 Driving around in white vans with one wireless phone headset in each ear. Suggests potential to be rugged fighter pilot.
8 Making a fuss. 'Waiter, this wine is corked!' Dates back to Neolithic times when weak cavemen could achieve alpha status by annoying other males into submission.
9 Wearing hair gel. Robbie shouldn't, nor should you.
10 Goatee beards. Anthropologists say it indicates civilised manliness: 'I produce lots of hair, but I deftly sculpt it with my razor.'
27 agosto 2006
These highly polluting production systems are virtually obsolete in Europe and America, but that hardly matters now that the bulk of the world's $60bn leather industry has been transferred to developing countries, particularly Asia: more than 2bn people with leather in China alone. For many consumers, it's a case of out of sight, out of mind.
But not for vegans many of whom refuse to buy leather, which has traditionally left them with plastic, and more specifically polyurethane (PU). Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) insists that PU leaves less of an environmental burden than leather, but Greenpeace disagrees, pointing out its petrochemical origins and the fact that its creation results in dioxins.
At first this seems to leave you between a rock and a hard place, or barefoot. Fortunately, there are now a few newer brands trying to make shoes more sustainable. For someone like me, who still associates flat shoes with PE lessons, they are also mercifully glamorous.
Had Judy Garland embraced veganism instead of drink and drugs, she'd surely have patronised the Dorothy-inspired heels from www.beyondskin.co.uk. These are the work of a confirmed vegan, Natalie Dean, who mitigates the placcy-shoe problem by using a lot of fabric. Satins are polyester-based rather than viscose, avoiding extra use of acid chemicals, and there's a new line (handmade in the UK) using vintage fabrics. Similarly 'trans-seasonal' and therefore more sustainable is the vegan-friendly range from Bourgois Boheme (www.bboheme.com) who mix biodegradable elements with polyurethane.
For children's shoes, Galahad Clark, a scion of the Clark shoe family, is on a mission to create the 'most innovative and sustainable designer shoe brand in the world'. His Terra Plana (www.terraplana.com) range has made great inroads. Shoes are based on a stitched construction, which rules out polluting solvents, and while many designs are leather, it's chrome-free or vegetable-tanned. Soles are 90 per cent sustainable rubber and even heels are fashioned from sustainable wood. But Terra Plana is perhaps best known for the Worn Again trainer range, constructed from all manner of unlikely recycled fabrics, including hemp fused with prison blankets, all stitched into one distinctly contemporary construction (look out for a new style, The Bigger Shoe, designed in honour of the 15th birthday of The Big Issue magazine). One small step for recycling perhaps, but one giant leap for your wardrobe.
23 agosto 2006
Bet THAT got your attention:
Burger King has just announced their newest burger, the BK Quad Stacker. Four hamburgers, four slices of cheese, eight strips of bacon and almost a day’s worth of calories in just one sandwich. In a rare show of corporate honesty, Burger King announced the burger with the following statement:
“We’re satisfying the serious meat lovers by leaving off the produce and letting them decide exactly how much meat and cheese they can handle.”
Now, The Guardian:
You do not forget your first encounter with a Burger King Stacker Quad. Mine happened in a particularly dispiriting branch of the fast-food chain, on Eighth Avenue in New York - a windowless underground outlet, accessible via a flight of stairs, or alternatively by a stairlift capable of supporting someone weighing up to 450lb. The Stacker Quad, as you discover when you summon the nerve to order it, consists of four beef patties, four slices of cheese, and four strips of bacon in a bun, all glistening in far more grease than a regular Whopper or Big Mac. There is no trace of lettuce or tomato or onion, a fact specifically singled out for celebration in the TV ads that accompanied the launch of the Stacker product range in the United States a few weeks ago.
"We're satisfying the serious meat lovers by leaving off the produce and letting them decide exactly how much meat and cheese they can handle," said Denny Marie Post, Burger King's chief concept officer, and a figure of some notoriety on the frontiers of fast-food science. I certainly discovered my own limits. Eating a BK Stacker Quad is the gastronomic equivalent of being punched in the gut by a mugger, except that instead of having all my money stolen, I was relieved of only $6.99, medium fries and soda included.
The Stacker may be extraordinary, but it is far from unique. Recent times have seen the launch - mainly in America for now, but give it time - of a rash of products that the industry calls "indulgent offerings": foods marketed specifically on the basis of how much meat and cheese and how few annoying vegetables they contain. Earlier in the day at Burger King, it could have been the Meat'Normous Omelet Sandwich; over at Denny's, the Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast; at Hardee's, another US chain, the Monster Thickburger (two thirds-of-a-pound slices of Angus beef, eight bacon strips and three cheese slices in a buttered bun). Hardee's calls the Thickburger "a monument to decadence", although they might equally have pointed out that it is a handy way for the average adult male to consume 70% of his recommended daily calorific intake in a single meal.
It is worth recalling how strange these developments would have seemed just two years ago, when the fast-food backlash was at its height. Burger chains across the world, responding to alarming market research, began offering salads and fruit and fresh juices. McDonald's launched the GoActive meal, which consisted of a salad, bottled water and a pedometer; it also began phasing out its supersized meals, though it insisted the policy had nothing to do with the surprise success of Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me, the stomach-churning film that came to symbolise the uprising. The American burger restaurant Wendy's added a fresh-fruit bowl to its menu; at the end of last year, the company quietly killed it, blaming a lack of demand. "We listened to consumers who said they wanted to eat fresh fruit," a disarmingly honest spokesman told the New York Times, "but apparently they lied."
The industry's mistake, it seems, had been to listen to the market researchers instead of the food psychologists. People tell researchers what they think they want to hear, or what the respondents want to believe about themselves. But the little-trumpeted field of food psychology may be one of the closest things that the corporate world has to a window on its customers' souls. We know, thanks to recent findings, that people drink more than a third more fruit juice when they pour it into a short, wide glass instead of a narrow, tall one, and that people will eat more of a product if it comes in a bigger package. We know that people will report that a breakfast bar tastes worse if the packaging describes it as containing soy, even if it contains no soy, and that Black Forest Double-Chocolate Cake tastes better than Chocolate Cake, even when the cakes themselves are identical. Above all, we know that just because people say they want to eat more healthily, it doesn't mean they really do.
"Expectations exert a tremendous influence," says Brian Wansink, a food psychologist whose book, Mindless Eating, will be published in the US later this year. "If the expectation is that a product is some kind of sacrifice, that it's not an indulgence - if you go in thinking that, then, lo and behold, that's what it'll be like." Denny Marie Post, at Burger King, concedes that the fast-food industry vastly overestimated the appeal of healthier product lines. "Healthy eating is more a state of intention than it is of action," she says now. (I had left a message on her voicemail, which urges callers to go and eat at Burger King while they are waiting for her to call back.) "There is a very small percentage who line up their behaviour with their intentions. And then there's a large percentage, and I am one, who wake up every morning saying, 'I'm going to be better today,' and when it comes down to it and you're hungry and ready to eat ... then things are different."
It is at this point, if you're hungry enough, that you cave in and order a BK Stacker Quad, which contains as much saturated fat as three Big Macs or five portions of large fries. This is as much as you should consume in a day and a half, according to US government recommendations - although it would have been hard to calculate this in the Eighth Avenue restaurant, where the wallchart of nutritional information mysteriously omitted the Stacker range. (It remains unclear whether this product, or similar ones, will be launched in the UK any time soon, though in general terms, British medical researchers estimate, the country is only about seven years behind the US when it comes to the epidemic of obesity.)
The anti-fast-food backlash largely sparked its own backlash, Wansink believes. "The typical person going to a fast-food restaurant isn't driving in there with a BMW and an expense account," he says. "They've got a couple of bucks in their pocket, and their big objective is to get full. The critics of fast food don't fall into that market." During his research, fast-food customers told him they resented being told what to eat by self-righteous critics, and the chains pummel this message home in their advertising. The Monster Thickburger "isn't necessarily politically correct", Hardee's proudly boasts. Burger King advertises the Stacker with the manly slogan: "Stack it high, tough guy." Post says, "The whole concept is you size it your way," noting that BK Stacker Doubles sell better than Stacker Triples, which in turn sell more than Stacker Quads. "It's all about choice. You know, we have apple sauce as an option on our kids' meals. In fact, it's prominently featured. But I'd say less than one in 15 or 20 make that choice."
It is tempting, in light of these developments, to regard the salads-and-fruit product ranges launched a few years ago as an anomaly - a period of a few years that future social historians will come to see as a moment when we foolishly believed our strength of will might prevail over our animal attraction to meat and frying fat. Besides, as critics of the industry point out, many of the "healthy" products are not particularly good for you: with dressing, Wendy's chicken salad contains more calories than most of the burgers they sell. And in any case, if you're self-disciplined enough to eat well, why on earth would you try to do it at Burger King or McDonald's?
But that would be to ignore the phenomenon that haunts fast-food executives such as Post, whose job it is to know what you want before you know you want it: the so-called "veto vote". This is the point at which the psychology of restaurant-going begins to seem like decision-making at the UN security council: in any normal group of people trying to decide where to eat, any individual member holds the power to derail a plan to eat at any given restaurant if the menu doesn't meet their requirements. Burger King can't afford to ignore health-conscious vegetarians, for example, because it only takes one of them - in a family group that might also contain five hungry omnivores - to deprive the chain of six potential customers. "We call it the 'mother segment'," Wansink says. "The kids drive the initial desire to go to the restaurant, and then you have the apple and walnut salad, that mom can eat, so she doesn't have a good reason not to eat there." (It's significant that McDonald's, alone among the burger chains, seems to have opted out of the current trend for extravagantly unhealthy new product lines: increasingly, it presents itself as a family restaurant, and may have decided that too much association with "indulgent offerings" would damage its brand.)
If you feel complacently immune to all this -perhaps you never set foot in fast-food restaurants, or, if you do, you always buy the same modest hamburger - it might be worth taking a look at the work of Andrew Geier, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania whose academic activities recently included placing a large bowl of M&Ms in the lobby of an apartment building. "Eat your fill," read a sign he placed next to the bowl. "Please use the spoon to serve yourself." He left it there for 10 days in a row, alternating between using a teaspoon, and a spoon that held a quarter of a cup of sweets. When they were using the bigger spoon, people on average took two-thirds more M&Ms. This phenomenon is known as "unit bias" - the way we tend to think that whatever sized unit a product is provided in must be the appropriate amount to consume. Yoghurt pots in France are about half as big as yoghurt pots in the US, Geier and his colleagues found, but the French do not buy twice as many pots of yoghurt. "That's just the size they expect a yoghurt to be," Geier says. The creeping expansion of portion sizes influences us all, unknowingly, inside fast-food restaurants and outside.
Of course, you could argue that there is a refreshing honesty in products such as the BK Stacker Quad - it's a fatty pile of meat, and doesn't pretend otherwise - and there's some evidence that this approach is gaining a foothold elsewhere in the consumer economy. The best example is probably a US television ad for Hummer, the manufacturer of preposterous, lumbering, military-style SUVs, which non-owners like to explain as compensating for their owners' feelings of inferior manhood. (You can watch the ad online at tinyurl.com/mea23.) In the first scene, a man is at the supermarket checkout, buying tofu, carrots and soy. A second man arrives in the queue behind him, with a trolley full of meat and barbecue supplies.
The first man, looking queasy and insecure, completes his purchase, then immediately drives to a Hummer dealership, where he buys a massive new vehicle. "Restore the balance", the on-screen slogan reads. The man drives off, secure at last in his masculinity. Victoriously, he chomps on one of his carrots, but it seems hard to imagine that a carrot is going to be enough, now that he owns a Hummer. What he needs next, surely, is a BK Stacker Quad.
22 agosto 2006
21 agosto 2006
Though Saki claims to be the first commercial establishment in these islands to install the paperless toilets so beloved of the Japanese (70% of households in Tokyo have one), it is probably a while before they will take the whole nation by storm. But could the mere fact that such a whizzy loo has been pioneered anywhere public in the UK be indicative of a wider social change? While investment in public conveniences has generally plummeted over the past decade - there are an estimated 6,000 public toilets in Britain now, compared with double that 10 years ago, and some places, even big cities such as Birmingham, now have no free public loos - there are signs that a quiet revolution is under way among the nation's cisterns and urinals.
"It's just like when mobile phones came in," says Iyako Watanabe, the Japanese-born managing director of Saki, of her futuristic loos. "For a while there were lots of refuseniks, but once you get one, there's no going back." Colin Davies, MD of Ascot Hygiene Ltd, the only UK distributor of Saki's Dutch-manufactured £400 toilet seats, agrees. "Once you've tried them, you can't live without them," he says. "Whenever we visit friends who don't have one, I can't wait to get home. It's such a joy."
Read on, 'tis British, but very good :)
19 agosto 2006
Of the millions who shared the fates of Anne Frank and Nina Lugovskaya, only a tiny fraction left behind a record of what they went through. On the other hand, the differences between Anne Frank and Nina Lugovskaya are perhaps more important than the similarities. The most interesting feature of this diary is that it has been pre-digested for us: when Nina Lugovskaya was arrested and interrogated in January 1937, at the height of Stalin’s great terror, her NKVD interrogator went through the diary, marking up all the passages that made it so easy for him to indict an eighteen-year-old girl as a dangerous terrorist.
Andrew Bromfield has printed these marked passages in charcoal font and we can thus read two minds simultaneously, that of the victim and that of her persecutor. Nina writes at several points of her hatred for the Bolsheviks in general and Stalin in particular, who have made their lives and in particular the life of her idealistic socialist father such hell. She rejoices to hear of the assassination of Stalin’s closest associate, Sergei Kirov, in December 1934, and she calls for Stalin himself to be killed.
In some ways, Nina was a typical Soviet schoolgirl, living the double life that schoolgirls from educated and thoughtful Russian families had to live right until the late 1980s. School was a place where you feared revealing to your teachers and fellow pupils what you thought or what your parents talked about. Most Soviet parents brought up their children to be consummate hypocrites: it was the only tolerable way to find moral salvation for the family between the mid 1920s and mid 1980s. This brings us to the most unbelievable feature of the story: Nina’s mother discovered the diary, read passages of it, and even crossed out a few lines – but she did not destroy it, even though her husband was already classed as an ideological enemy and banned from living in Moscow. The diary was to save the NKVD from having to fabricate evidence and doomed the entire family to the Gulag. What was going through the mind of Nina’s mother, to leave this document virtually intact? Though Nina says far less about her mother than about her father, whom she loves and sometimes hates with passion, by inference the mother, of an educated bourgeois background, was the real rebel in the family. Her decision not to destroy the diary was an act far bolder than her daughter’s persistence in creating such compromising material.
Anne Frank’s diary, had the Gestapo read it when they took her away, would have made no difference to her fate. That is why it reads so movingly: we know the inevitable end. Nina’s diary-keeping, however grateful posterity is for a rare record of how people lived and felt when they were muted by terror, was a crazy, irresponsible act. Had it not been written, she and her sisters might have had rather different lives, even if their parents were doomed to go through the great mincing machine of the NKVD.
By some miracle, all the Lugovskoi family lived through their sentences in the worst part of the Gulag, the dreaded Kolyma with its nine-month winters, where nearly a third of the prisoners died each year, and the chances of surviving a ten-year sentence were a mere two in a hundred. The womenfolk were released after just five years, and Nina’s father lived for a decade or so after his release in 1947. Nina never became the writer that her diaries hint she should have become, but she married and became a very successful artist.
She lived long enough to see the Soviet Union collapse around her, her adolescent dreams fulfilled. One wants to know what enabled her and her remarkable family to come through the hell for which the contents of this diary were just an initiation; unfortunately, even when it became safe to do so, she no longer appears to have recorded a word of her feelings. The diary remains a monument to a girl’s reckless defiance of indoctrination and intimidation. Anne Frank’s diary leaves us not wanting or needing to know any more. I finished Nina Lugovskaya’s diary frustrated, despite the excellent background information Andrew Bromfield provides, as if I had left the theatre after just Act I of the tragedy.
[I Want to Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin's Russia
By Nina Lugovskaya (Doubleday 267pp £16.99)]
16 agosto 2006
Updated for our times.
And take the Chaucer quiz :)
How did the modern adaptation come about?
For two of the executive producers Laura Mackie and Franc Roddam, their Canterbury Tales journey began in spring 2001 in Phoenix, Arizona when they were looking for locations for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
"I had just taken over as Head of Drama Serials and I told Franc that we were looking for a piece that reflected life in the new century" says Mackie. "Franc is a brilliant ideas man and he mentioned The Canterbury Tales and what enduring stories they were. We discussed how it might be possible to update them to the present day and that sowed the seed of the idea.
Why these six Tales?
"We wanted to have a good mix of stories," says Mackie. "So we balanced some of the saucier more comedic tales with the more serious and darker stories." We also wanted to match those tales with the different writers' strengths. We got together a wish list of established writers and also some newer writers."
What makes the Tales relevant to today's audience?
For Producer Kate Bartlett remaining as faithful to the original spirit of the tales was crucial to the overall concept. "The tales are the most fantastic stories full of comedy and tragedy, with characters that are timeless," says Kate Bartlett. "The stories also embody the timeless themes of love, lust, greed, power, anger and bigotry - human emotions that are as relevant today as they were six hundred years ago."
How was the cast chosen?
After a year in development and armed with the scripts finally ready for shooting. "We always wanted to be ambitious with the casting," says Mackie. "Because each film involved a short commitment of two or three weeks, we were able to attract top class artists like Julie Walters, Jimmy Nesbitt, Om Puri and Jonny Lee Miller as well as some terrific new talent like Nikki Amuka Bird and Billie Piper".
The key to success?
"The challenge of making six films, each scripted by a distinctive and original writer, with a strong and individual directorial style for each film was incredibly exciting," says Kate Bartlett. "However, ultimately we have to thank Chaucer for writing such good stories six hundred years ago."
08 agosto 2006
We take the vow. Starting January 1 2004, my partner Paul and I will buy only necessities for sustenance, health and business - groceries, insulin for our diabetic cat, toilet paper, internet access. I am not primarily out to save money, though I'll be delighted if that happens. I have no illusion that forgoing this CD or that skirt is going to bring down consumer culture - I don't even know if I want to bring it down.
If anyone can make it through a non-buying year, I figure, Paul and I can. We're both self-employed and work at home, conducting most of our business by phone and email. We have no office rents; our work outfits - pyjamas and pyjama equivalents - require no dry cleaning. We make our own schedules.
Research shows that just about everyone thinks she needs the things she buys and considers almost everything she wants a necessity. We're not greedy, we say. It's everyone else who is acquiring useless stuff.
Not patronising cafes, bars or restaurants has made social life, and especially business life, awkward. In Vermont in winter, with two feet of snow on the ground, you can't exactly hold a meeting on a park bench. I realise I'm forfeiting more than convenience. I'm losing conviviality and communion, which is a lubricant for deal-making both professional and personal.
Not Buying is becoming a habit. When I'm picking up groceries at the co-op I don't even think about grabbing an egg roll from the cooler; when I'm driving, I have no impulse to stop for coffee. I don't read magazine ads, and I peruse the mail-order catalogues casually, like a woman declining the advances of a lover who no longer thrills her.
Our year is over. Are we excited, relieved? That's not how either of us feels. Today, I am calm. Paul is wistful. For him, it's been one of the best of our 13 years together. We have had a joint project. As Paul and I withdrew from private consumptions this year, we found ourselves more than ever out "in public". But we also became more intimate with the back roads of the places we live and with each other, doing what Paul calls "embracing the ordinary".
OF BEAUTY AND CONSOLATION
Henk Hogeboom van Buggenum
Programme on Dutch TV (VPRO), from 2nd January - 1st July 2000, Presented by Wim Kayzer. A series of 26 talks with 26 eminent people from various walks of life: artists, scientists, musicians, and philosophers.
Participants (in alphabetical order):
Karel Appel, painter; Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist and director; Catherine Bott, soprano;
John Coetzee, author; Richard Dufallo, director; Freeman Dyson, scientist;
Rudi Fuchs, museum manager; Jane Goodall, author and ethologist;
Stephen Jay Gould, zoologist and paleontologist; Germaine Greer, author;
György Konrád, author; Rutger Kopland, poet and psychiatrist;
Leon Lederman, experimental scientist; Elizabeth Loftus, psychologist;
Gary Lynch, neurophysiologist; Yehudi Menuhin, violinist and director;
Martha Nussbaum, philosopher; Richard Rorty, philosopher; Simon Schama, historian;
Roger Scruton, philosopher; Wole Soyinka, author; George Steiner, author and philosopher;
Tatjana Tolstaja, author; Dubravka Ugresi?, author; Steven Weinberg, scientist;Edward Witten, scientist and mathematician
On Sunday 9th July most of the above mentioned participants came together in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam for a final discussion. Teilhard de Chardin would have loved the event, which was broadcasted. He would have loved to be present in their company and look at the basic theme of the lectures: 'What is it that makes our lives worthwhile?' Indeed, a clash of opinions tends to illuminate consciousness. More and more new aspects of the qualities of 'beauty' and 'consolation' emerged, evoking all kinds of personal associations. It was here that the awareness of the relativity of the personal mind became clear.
Anyone who followed the talks on TV may have been irritated by atheist Wim Kayzer's suggestive remarks, as if religion and God were outdated facts. But on the 9th of July, without his presence, it was moving to hear how the participants, one after the other, confessed to believe in some higher Power as an evolutionary directive in the universe, even in God. In the meanwhile Karel Appel had been silently listening to the intellectual exploration that had been going on, when he suddenly announced "You know, I see myself as a 'painting servant', who 'has the planet in his body; like everybody else. I wait for the inner light to come through, the universal contact, the ineffable. I am there and not there at the same time. Nobody, I have listened to so far knows anything about true consolation. It has nothing to do with ordinary reality. The conclusion of my painting is a spiritual orgasm."
For me this turningpoint in the discussion was a moving moment. The tension in the company was tangible. Not only had somebody aired his deepest emotions, he had done it in English as well, not his native language, making him even more vulnerable. Cary Lynch resolved the situation by declaring that scientists like Edward Witten also proclaim to be waiting for the inner light. Leon Ledernan. who had previously described the course of our evolution as follows: "We arose from miracle after miracle - it is a sacrilege to ask the question 'Is life worthwhile?' He now went on to say: "Pure mathematics leads to an orgasm. But not only maths, I wouldn't be surprised if everybody here around the table has had a similar experience."
Catherine Bott nodded, "I sing religious music, the Messiah, and the musical instruments are not always authentic. I often feign sincerity. But the audience is inspired anyway. As an atheist I really believe that the music heals. The sceptic George Steiner immediately reacted: "There were maybe 11 people on Golgotha, and perhaps 1400 attended the Missa Solemnis, but the cupfinals make 2,5 billion hearts beat faster when the great Maradonna scores a goal. So what is it that makes life worthwhile? Football, of course, soccer!"
Germaine Greer supported him. Then Roger Scruton said, "The Golgotha feeling is permanent, but the 2,5 billion heartbeats have subsided. What needs reconciliation is the heartbreak of 'Paradise Lost'. And this is what happens daily, in religion, in the Eucharist in H. Mass."
Martha Nussbaum sees consolation and hope as coming from the fact that nowadays we can be angry together about the abominations and cruelty all over the wörld. What makes her life worthwhile is her dedication to contributing towards a better world. Literally she said, "Don't look at your own life only, but rather to life itself, and help life everywhere towards more fairness and justice." Though she didn't agree about 'depth in yourself being beyond words'. She found the idea romantic and it could apply to our behaviour too. Jane Goodall agreed: "We can change things, which is everybody's problem and task. Many poor children everywhere in the world have to live without hope. What I did in a school in Shanghay was to have them collect positive articles from newspapers and stick them on the blackboard. Now all schools have their walls plastered with positive messages and Shanghay became the 'City of Hope 2000'."
Wole Soyinka reflected how we go on speaking about terrible situations, whereas at the same time the opposite is true as well. "Is this the beauty of consolation?"
The Dutch philosopher Cornelis Verhoeven had some doubts regarding 'consolation not having been intellectually explored'. He remarks: "The only consolation for pain is when the element of resentment and its stubborn knowledge has been purified away, and harshness is confronted by its own weakness and consequently drowns helplessly. (... ) I sincerely believe that consolation happens at the moment of this turningpoint, the point where stagnation melts and weakens. It is something we cannot bring about by ourselves, but rather the feeling that we face something greater than what we can understand and explain with our rational mind. It could be connected to what has been called in the lectures 'transcendence', often in the context of beauty and aesthetics."
In Gerrit Teule's book 'Chaos en Liefde' (transl. 'Chaos & Love') we read the following about BEAUTY: "The structure and vibrations in our eon-memory resonate with the structures and vibrations we observe outside. This resonance of vibrational patterns and structures (morphic resonance) is what we experienee as 'beauty'. We admire what our own evolutionary spirit has created and constructed throughout eons of time"(p. 192). In a sense the book follows Teilhard's trend of thought where he says, "The human species has experienced all the stages of lower species in the course of evolution. species of a lower consciousness and complexity. During evolutionary process those items that were proven valuable for our advancement, were fixed in our memory." According to nuclear scientist Jean Ernst Charon (1920-...) this memory is stored in electrons. The vast range of our memory - according to his theory - can be explained as a result of the structure of the electron being similar to a black hole that absorbs and regulates all photons of change. Thus the electron is the interface with our spatial/temporal reality. Its counterpart, the black hole, does not recognise space & time in the same sense.
When we assume, together with Teilhard, that our evolution is directed towards 'Omega', the return of our Creator, we may experience our essential purpose in life as BEAUTY. It is the most high aim, wherein aesthetics and ethics converge, come together. Belief in God, the Ineffable, appears to be more alive than ever before.
07 agosto 2006
The two presiding justices have given both Coca Cola and Pepsi just four weeks to submit a reply, otherwise the court will suspend sales in India. However, Shreyas Patel, a lawyer at Fox Mandal Little realizes that "no one is going to give away a 120-year-old secret, especially in a country like India. Someone would go and make it themselves."
Obviously, he never met these ladies, who already have.
04 agosto 2006
So many stupid people, and so few asteroids.
Never believe generalizations.
Avoid alliterations always.
Dyslexics are teople poo.
I used to have a handle on life, but it broke.
The control key on the keyboard does not work.
Lawyers have feelings too (allegedly).
On your mark, get set, go away!
I didn't climb to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian!
What would Scooby do?
I am not infantile, you stinky poopyhead.
I have a degree in Liberal Arts - do you want fries with that?
Suburbia: Where they tear out the trees and name streets after them.
Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
My mother is a travel agent for guilt trips.
Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you weren't asleep.
Nice perfume. Must you marinate in it?
Cover Me! I'm Changing Lanes
How do I set a laser printer to stun?
The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on the list.
The trouble with the gene pool is that there's no lifeguard.
Old age comes at a bad time.
You're just jealous because the voices only talk to ME.
Without ME, it's just AWESO.
Honk if you want to see my finger.
As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.
Your kid may be an Honor Student, but YOU'RE still an idiot.
I took an IQ test and the results were negative.
Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.
To err is human, to blame it on somebody else shows management potential.
Driver carries no cash. He's married.
Watch out for the idiot behind me.
Don't believe everything you think.
All men are idiots ... I married their king.
Earth is full. Go home.
All I ask is the chance to prove that money can't make me happy.
My wife keeps complaining I never listen to her (or something like that).
Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
If it isn't broken, fix it until it is.
What if the hokey pokey is really what it's all about?
03 agosto 2006
02 agosto 2006
My phone rings: it is Old-School Boss. I am nervous, but no more than usual. His formal, headmasterly tone always manages to unnerve me, and when I replace the receiver after one of our exchanges I often feel I have slipped back into the skin of the painfully shy and inarticulate schoolgirl I thought I had left far behind.
“Can you come down to my office for five minutes please?”
Something in his voice, coupled with the way in which my boss averts his eyes when I mutter that I have been summoned, alerts me to the fact that something is very wrong.
Old School Boss motions for me to close the door behind me. He doesn’t wait until I am seated to deliver the first line of his speech.
“I’m afraid I have called you here to tell you that I am obliged to terminate your employment with the firm.”
My mouth forms a perfect “O” of astonishment.
“This is because of your internet site.”
Somehow he manages to make “internet” sound like an unspeakably filthy word.
He doesn’t care to disclose how it is that the existence of petite anglaise has suddenly come to light, but I suspect the high number of page views I happened to notice last weekend by someone living in my boss’s town were not coincidental. The statistic had made me mildly nervous, but when nothing was said on Monday morning, I dismissed my fears as nothing more than a nasty bout of sitemeter-induced paranoia; an occupational hazard.
With hindsight, I realise this would have been a good time to say “but how can the firm be identified?” However at that precise moment my synapses probably resemble a game of join the dots.
He adds, almost as an afterthought, that he also has reason to believe I had accessed my blog during working hours.
I am handed a letter to read and sign, which invites me to attend a dismissal interview the following week. There is a phrase I do not understand, “mise à pied conservatoire”, the horrible significance of which only becomes clear once I get hold of a dictionary, at home. I have been suspended without pay, pending my dismissal interview for gross misconduct*. The kind of grizzly fate usually reserved for people who endanger the lives of other employees, turn up to work under the influence or embezzle funds.
“I’m going to have to ask you to collect your belongings, and you will then leave immediately.”
I take a few moments to gather my wits. Cheeks flaming, I slowly make my way back upstairs.
Curiously, when I return to my desk to start gathering up my personal effects, my boss is nowhere to be seen.
*This was revised ten days later to “licenciement pour cause réelle et sérieuse - perte de confiance” - (dismissal for real and serious cause - breakdown of trust). Something of a relief as gross misconduct involves immediate dismissal, whereas “cause réelle” involved a paid notice period during which my presence in the office was not deemed necessary.
There were times during Tom Stoppard's epic and unruly play, Rock'n'Roll, when the words 'Alas, poor Syd' kept jumping into my head. What would the late Syd Barrett - who was still alive when this play premiered at the Royal Court last month - have made of this messy, sprawling political drama which uses him so freely as a symbol of loss - lost dreams, lost youth, lost idealism?
That Barrett, the Pink Floyd singer who became a rock's most famous recluse, should be resurrected in these unlikely circumstances seemed curious enough even before his death, but has an added poignancy and perhaps even deeper symbolism now. 'I wanted to write about somebody who simply got off the train,' Stoppard has said, but Syd didn't so much 'get off the train' as fall headlong on to the tracks. A Sixties acid casualty, he remained fragile and unbalanced for the remainder of his life, hiding from the world in his mother's house in Cambridge.
It is the myth of Syd Barrett, then, that stalks Rock'n'Roll, which transferred to the West End last week. He first appears as the curtain rises, a mysterious Pan-like figure perched on a garden wall playing a penny whistle to a flower child called Esme, and is alluded to throughout as a manifestation of something beautiful that has been irrevocably lost. What was more problematic for me was the moment when the damaged, reclusive Syd became a looming presence. While the ageing Esme (Sinead Cusack) still idealises the ideal of the young and beautiful Barrett, her teenage daughter, Alice, has actually befriended the real Syd, and shields him from persistent fans and tabloid hacks. Alice's post-dinner party assault on the tabloid columnist Candida makes for one of the play's more dramatic scenes, but this coralling of a segment of Syd's sad life seemed somehow intrusive, almost disrespectful.
The other much less spectral musical presence in Rock'n'Roll is the Plastic People of the Universe, the legendary Czechoslovakian art-rock group whose antics so infuriated the authorities that the band's members were arrested in the Seventies. Jan (Rufus Sewell), Stoppard's central character, and the closest to him in age and outlook, is a rock obsessive who recognises a rare kind of freedom in the Plastics' lack of political commitment. This disengagement becomes a threat to ideologues of whatever hue.
Personally, I would have liked to have heard a lot more of the Plastics' anarchic music, a kind of rough-hewn and ragged counterpoint to Barrett's dark whimsy. I was unsure quite what Stoppard was saying with his soundtrack. Loud snatches of music were used to no other end than to mark the passing of time, and to give the stage hands time to rearrange the set. The graphics projected on a black curtain were effective, but did we really need to know who the individual members of every group were? Oddly, too, the play, which is ambitious to the point of overloaded, seems to lose momentum as it moves closer to the present, and the soundtrack moves from the sublime - early Floyd, Velvet Underground - to the faintly ridiculous - late Floyd, Guns 'N' Roses. Perhaps this was deeply symbolic, too, though.
For me the best moments in Rock'n'Roll were the most heartbreaking. Jan returning home to find his beloved record collection in pieces on the floor, a vivid image of the petty vindictiveness that defines all repressive states. The line that stuck in my head was not from a Syd Barrett song, though it could well have been. It is voiced by Jan in one of his many explosive arguments with Professor Morrow (Brian Cox), a Cambridge intellectual and party member. 'Perhaps,' says Jan, referring to Marx's vision of communism, 'we aren't good enough for this beautiful idea.' All the play's themes of idealism, beauty, art, ideology and loss of self seemed somehow embedded in that line. Somewhere, too, for just an instant, you could almost hear the Madcap wryly laughing along.
01 agosto 2006
Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth, and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside -- from God, spirits or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be "born again," redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.
I was careful to point out that even Jesus might be called a Skeptic ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"), and scientists who are invincibly certain of the authority of their science can be counted as True Believers.
Although individual scientists might be True Believers, science can only thrive in an atmosphere of skepticism. Science is open-ended; every truth is held tentatively, subject to change. As Einstein once said, the most important tool of the scientist is the wastebasket.
So -- Skeptics and True Believers: A generalization, of course, but (I thought as I wrote the book) a useful one.
As long as we are generalizing, we might also divide ourselves into Occamists or Anti-Occamists.
Let me explain.
William of Occam (c. 1285-1347) was an English Franciscan friar and philosopher, from the village of Occam in Surrey, educated at London and Oxford, who preached and taught across Europe. He is best know to moderns as the author of Occam's razor, the principle of philosophical parsimony: Never suppose a complex explanation when a simpler explanation will suffice.
Occam was surely not the first to enunciate this principle, but he has been assigned the credit, and he certainly used the principle to great advantage, stripping away superfluous accretions from the philosophy and theology of his time -- an exercise that earned him excommunication from from the Church he served.
Occam's razor is a bedrock principle of modern science. Newton put it this way: "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearance." And Einstein said: "The grand aim of science...is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deductions from the smallest possible number of hypotheses of axioms." Simplicity. Parsimony.
Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The remark was meant as a put-down, a sort of "Yeah, what do you know?" To which Quine is said to have responded: "Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth." Quine was an Occamist.
On the other hand, I have heard that in an episode of The X-Files, Fox Mulder dismisses Occam's razor by renaming it Occam's Principle of Unimaginative Thinking. Let a thousand paranormal and pseudoscientific flowers bloom. Mulder is an Anti-Occamist.
The Occamist does not look for miracles or the paranormal when a natural explanation will suffice. And when no natural explanation presents itself (as, for example, "What is the source of the singularity that became the big bang?") the Occamist is prepared to say "I don't know." To admit our ignorance of the prodigality of creation is not the same thing as to fill our ignorance with a plethora of gods, spirits, extraterrestrials, auras, miracles, morphic resonances, astral influences, etc. of our own invention.
Or so we were taught by the poor, brown-robed, sandal-clad friar from Occam who was a champion of intellectual humility.
Occam's razor, wisely applied, has proved a royal road to practical, reliable knowledge of the world. Since the time of Galileo, and especially since the Enlightenment, it has been the basis for our health, wealth and general happiness. Occam's razor is our most powerful tool in the battle against the darker demons of sectarian strife, religious triumphalism and pseudoscientific superstition.
The plastic, known as Synthetic Gecko, has been developed by researchers at aerospace and defence firm BAE Systems.
Like the reptile's foot, the reusable polymer is covered in millions of tiny mushroom-like hairs that provide grip.
Future applications could include an adhesive to repair aircraft, skin grafts or even a Spiderman-style suit.
"It would mean that your local window cleaner could dispense with his ladders and climb up the side of your house," says Dr Sajad Haq, a principal research scientist at the company's Advanced Technology Centre in Filton, Bristol.
"There's a whole host of applications. It's just a question of your imagination."
Synthetic Gecko is not the first material to draw inspiration from the cold-blooded creatures.
In 2003, a team from the University of Manchester created a sticky tape based on a gecko's foot.
The invention followed the discovery by US scientists of how geckos perform their extraordinary climbing feats.
The University of California team showed that the adhesion was due to very weak intermolecular forces produced by the billions of hair-like structures, known as setae, on each gecko foot.
The so-called van der Waals forces arise when unbalanced electrical charges around molecules attract one another.
The cumulative attractive force of billions of setae allows geckos to scurry up walls and even hang upside down on polished glass.
The grip is only released when the animal peels its foot off the surface.
The BAE team have created a material that mimics the gecko's setae. The adhesive is made of a polyamide, like Nylon, and is covered with millions of mushroom-shaped stalks.
Stronger glues are available but unlike conventional adhesives Synthetic Gecko is reusable and does not leave any residues.
The material also does not feel sticky.
"It's only when you press the material to the substrate that it actually sticks," says Dr Haq. "It's the molecular interaction that causes it to stick."
It is manufactured by a modified version of a technique known as photo-lithography, commonly used to make silicon chips.
The technique uses light to etch three-dimensional patterns into a material.
"The processes we use are modifications of standard electronic fabrication processes," says Dr Haq. "They're cheap, well known, well understood and can be scaled up to very large areas cheaply."
Previous attempts at making "gecko materials" relied on more intricate techniques such as electron-beam lithography, which is expensive and difficult to scale-up to produce vast quantities of the material.
So far, the team have manufactured several different materials with different sized mushrooms to try to optimise its "stickiness".
They have produced several samples up to 100mm in diameter which stick to almost any surface, including those covered in dirt.
However the team cannot quite match the performance of the nimble footed reptile.
"The material we have made so far will hold a family car to a roof, or an elephant if you wish" says Dr Haq. "We're not quite at the level of mimicking the sticking power of the gecko."