31 dezembro 2007

10 Habits of Highly Effective Brains

If you are reading this, the good news is that you have a brain inside your head. And you have probably read about the emerging brain fitness movement: frequent articles in the media, an ongoing PBS special, more and more products and games.

Now, before you embark on buying any of those programs, you should know that there is a lot we can do without spending a dime. Based on dozens of interviews with scientists and recent research findings, let's take a look at some of the habits of Highly Effective Brains:

1. Learn what is the "It" in "Use It or Lose It". A basic understanding will serve you well to appreciate your brain's beauty as a living and constantly-developing dense forest with billions of neurons and synapses.

2. Take care of your nutrition. Did you know that the brain only weighs 2% of body mass but consumes over 20% of the oxygen and nutrients we intake? As a general rule, you don't need expensive ultra-sophisticated nutritional supplements, just make sure you don't stuff yourself with the "bad stuff".

3. Remember that the brain is part of the body. Things that exercise your body can also help sharpen your brain: physical exercise enhances neurogenesis.

4. Practice positive, future-oriented thoughts until they become your default mindset and you look forward to every new day in a constructive way. Stress and anxiety, no matter whether induced by external events or by your own thoughts, actually kills neurons and prevents the creation of new ones. You can think of chronic stress as the opposite of exercise: it prevents the creation of new neurons.

5. Thrive on Learning and Mental Challenges. The point of having a brain is precisely to learn and to adapt to challenging new environments. Once new neurons appear in your brain, where they stay in your brain and how long they survive depends on how you use them. "Use It or Lose It" does not mean "do crossword puzzle number 1,234,567". It means, "challenge your brain often with fundamentally new activities."

6. We are (as far as we know) the only self-directed organisms in this planet. Aim high. Once you graduate from college, keep learning. The brain keeps developing, no matter your age, and it reflects what you do with it.

7. Explore, travel. Adapting to new locations forces you to pay more attention to your environment. Make new decisions, use your brain.

8. Don't Outsource Your Brain. Not to media personalities, not to politicians, not to your smart neighbor, not to this blogger... Make your own decisions, and mistakes. And learn from them. That way, you are training your brain, not your neighbor's.

9. Develop and maintain stimulating friendships. We are "social animals", and need social interaction. Which, by the way, is why the Baby Einstein series has been shown not to be the panacea for children development.

10. Laugh. Often. Especially to cognitively complex humor, full of twists and surprises. Better, try to become the next Jon Stewart, and create your own unique humor.

Keep in mind that what counts is not reading this article-or any other one-, but practicing a bit every day until small steps snowball into unstoppable, internalized habits...so, pick your next battle and try to start improving at least one of these 10 habits during the holidays!

For more in-depth information on these topics, spiced by brain teasers, check our SharpBrains website.
And make sure to visit my Huffington Post blog every Monday to read new content

30 dezembro 2007

Ohhhhhhh... the Sachertorte

Sachertorte is the world's most famous grown-up chocolate cake, and as such it tends to disappoint more than it charms. Many people find its elegant simplicity something of an anti-climax. They come in a 'show me' state of mind and expect it to be twice the size and three times the richness. Perhaps they confuse it with the Black Forest gateau - such a vulgar treat when properly made - or one of those slabs of truffle-style restaurant cake that is really a pudding in denial.

I love this Viennese confection for its understatement - no cream, no cherries, no booze, no swirls or curlicues. I love its shiny icing; the faint tang of fruit from the wafer-thin layer of apricot jam, and the single badge of dark chocolate that is its only adornment. But what I like most is the fact that it is cake. Most chocolate cakes nowadays seem to think they are a souffle, a giant truffle or a slice of wet mousse. Others, further down the social scale, seem to think they are a hat, but we are not concerned with those. The Sachertorte carries a certain unfussy dignity. It is a cake that doesn't have to shout.

The original recipe and its ownership was the subject of the 'sweet seven years war', a court case involving the Sacher Hotel and Demel over the rights to use the word 'original' when selling the cake. Whatever, there is something perfect about the sight of a small slice on a tiny marble table, a cup of dark coffee and a cake fork by its side.

There is much debate, too, over the addition of the apricot jam. A slither of preserve - and it really must be so thin as to be almost invisible - must be present otherwise it simply isn't Sachertorte. The debate is about where it goes. Demel puts theirs directly under the icing, the Sacher Hotel puts it in a line in the middle of the cake. As I see it, if the recipe is to retain some sort of classical status then the apricot layer should surely be under the icing. Sticking it in the middle is in danger of making it look just a little too much like a sponge at a fete.

But right now, squidged between the customers from hell, with a little of the dense crumb, the tart jam and darkly sensual chocolate icing on my fork is the best way I can think of to say Happy Birthday, Sachertorte. And Happy New Year to you all.


There are many versions of the chocolate icing used to cover a Sachertorte. I find most of them too sweet and prefer to go for a covering of crisp melted chocolate instead. Pure heresy, I might add.

175g dark chocolate, at least 70 per cent cocoa solids (I use Lindt Extreme)

150g butter

150g caster sugar

6 large eggs

140g plain flour

for the glaze:

150g apricot jam - sieved

for the chocolate icing:

250g dark chocolate

60g butter

Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Line the base of a 22cm round cake tin with lightly buttered greaseproof or baking paper. Break the chocolate into a heat-proof bowl and melt it over a pan of boiling water.

Cream the butter and two-thirds of the sugar together till very light and fluffy - something like 8-10 minutes in the food mixer at a moderate speed.

Separate the eggs, then, when (and only when) the sugar and butter are white and fluffy, beat the egg yolks one at a time. Gently stir in the melted chocolate. Add the flour, through a sieve if you wish, stirring carefully but firmly until it is all combined.

Whisk the egg whites till firm, then stir in the remaining 50g of sugar a spoonful at a time. I usually take the whites till they will just about keep their shape, but stop before they are capable of sitting in stiff peaks. Fold them carefully, lightly, into the chocolate mixture. The easiest way to do this is to add a little of the chocolate mixture to the eggs first, then slowly incorporate the rest. It is a job for a gentle hand, and you need to take your time and do it thoroughly.

Scrape the cake mixture into the lined cake tin and bake for about 50 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a metal skewer into the centre: it should come out moist but without any uncooked cake mixture on it. Run a palette knife around the edge of the cake and turn it upside down on to a cooling rack. Leave to cool.

Melt the apricot jam in a small saucepan. If it has large lumps of fruit then it is traditional to sieve it, so that you can get a thin enough layer on top. Pour over the cake, smoothing over the top and sides.

To make the chocolate frosting, break the chocolate into squares in a heat-proof glass bowl and let it warm over a small saucepan containing simmering water. Don't stir the chocolate, but turn off the heat after a couple of minutes. Stir in the butter in small pieces. Pour the chocolate frosting over the apricot glaze and leave to set.

Whipped cream

No self-respecting Sachertorte would be seen without its accompaniment of perfectly whipped cream.

300ml whipping or double cream

1 tbsp icing sugar

a tiny drop of vanilla extract

Put a metal or glass mixing bowl in the fridge to chill. When it is cool, pour the cream into the bowl and whisk till it starts to thicken. Now work slowly, and stop whisking when the cream starts to feel heavy on the whisk. Stir in the icing sugar and the dash of vanilla extract. Keep thoroughly chilled till needed.


Health food fads spark huge rise in animal testing

THE trend for healthier eating has led to an increase of more than 300% in the number of laboratory experiments conducted on animals for food additives, sweeteners and health supplements over the past year.

Home Office figures showed an increase from 862 to 4,038 experiments from 2005 to 2006.

The disclosure will ignite an ethical debate about the way animals have become victims of the fad for health foods. Animal welfare groups said many of the tests are unnecessary or could be performed on humans.

The experiments often involve using painful procedures and artificially induced injuries to research the effects of food.

In a test at Glasgow University, rodents were fed raspberry juice and then killed to see where the juice had gone in their kidneys, liver and brains. At Hammersmith hospital, west London, rats were force-fed fish supplements, while at Glasgow Caledonian University they had the food supplement ginkgo biloba injected into their paws.

At Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, rats were fed a diet containing 20% raw, lightly cooked or fully cooked cabbage for two weeks. The animals were killed to examine the effects of the diet on their liver and colon. The researchers had already carried out a human study on the effects on the gut of eating cooked cabbage.

Other experiments included feeding a health drink to rats to see whether they ate more chocolate, vanilla or asparagus flavour.

Although most food tests are performed on rodents, rabbits, guinea pigs and dogs are also used.

In experiments in the United States, Teavigo, a purified green tea extract, available by mail order in Britain, was rubbed onto the shaved backs of guinea pigs and rabbits and put in the eyes of live rabbits.

Dogs force-fed huge doses of Teavigo - which is marketed as “green tea in its purest form” and a choice for “health-conscious consumers” - died or had to be put down.

Gerhard Gans, director of regulatory affairs at DSM Nutritional Products, which produces Teavigo, said: “In some cases it is necessary to use dogs, they are in some aspects more similar to humans than rats . . . where it is possible to use alternative methods validated by the authorities we will use [them].”

Home Office statistics show that in addition to the experiments for additives there was a 30% increase to 7,477 tests on animals for other foods from 2005-6.

A spokesman said the tests on food are needed to meet regulatory requirements.

Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: “The rise in testing of food on animals in the race to find the next lucrative ‘super-food’ is a hidden scandal. People are unaware of the animal suffering behind the headlines.”

Where to find hard facts online

We all know the pitfalls of Wikipedia, so where can you find some real facts online?

It has become a reflex reaction in the digital age. If you have a question that needs an answer or a fact to check, simply head online and tap it into Google. More often than not you will be directed to Wikipedia, where the answer is laid out for you.

The only problem is, it may not be the right answer.

Though many of us have come to rely on the online encyclopedia, every entry in it is available for anyone to edit, so you can’t always trust what you find there.

Fortunately, there are numerous more accurate resources on the web.

The trick is knowing where to look for them.


Loathe it or love it, there’s no escaping Wikipedia. However, the weaknesses of the site are frequently exposed (see, for example, the Times Online article about the senior Wikipedia editor who claimed to be a university professor but was actually a student at www.tinyurl.com/2ebqx3). That’s not to say much information on the site is factually inaccurate – you just need to be careful. It’s best to view the site as a starting point: allow it to point you in the right direction (say, a website cited as a source on the Wikipedia page), but always be wary.

When reading an article, check the references at the bottom - are they books or websites? If websites, are they reliable? You can also keep track of how often a page is updated, and by whom, by clicking on the “edit this page” tab at the top. This can show if details have been vandalised.

A newer, more reliable alternative is Citizendium (en.citizendium.org). It was started by a Wikipedia founder and employs the same idea that anyone can write for the site, but it claims to use a team of vetted experts to make sure articles are accurate, and contributors are all required to use their own names rather than hiding behind aliases. It cannot compete in size: in its first year, only about 4,500 articles have been submitted, compared with 2.1m (in English alone) held by its big sister.


As an alternative to Wikipedia, try www.refdesk.com. This portal offers links to all manner of free dictionaries and encyclopedias, such as Microsoft’s Encarta, which has 42,000 articles. Conscientious researchers also have the option to head to sites with a better academic pedigree. Drawing together a range of global public-domain academic resources (of varying quality), www.ibiblio.org is worth dredging if you have a wide field of inquiry – cultural development in China, say.

For definitive statistics on any country in the world, the CIA World Factbook (www.tinyurl.com/2b2kg9) takes some beating. It contains up-to-date figures on everything from population to climate, life expectancy to natural resources and territorial disputes.

The vast caverns of music, film and video-game criticism at www.allmusic.com will sate the hungriest appetite for trivia, and those searching for obscure pop chart statistics should pay a visit to www.everyhit.com, one man’s Herculean effort to catalogue every British chart hit since 1952.

Courtesy of the Wisden Almanack, www.cricinfo.com is the definitive reference source for cricket trivia. For linguistic matters, try www.wordreference.com, which gives comprehensive definitions of words in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English.

When you are researching specific topics, www.ask.com is a better search engine than Google, as it gives subcategories to narrow your search. Entering “Benjamin Disraeli”, for example, turned up material on his quotes, his political career and his novels, as well as on his great rival William Gladstone. Scholar.google.co.uk is a good starting point for scientific and scholarly research, as it allows you to search for papers and articles in the public domain.


While generous and welcome efforts have made much knowledge available free, sometimes it’s worth paying. That is the rationale at www.britannica.co.uk, to which an annual subscription costs £40. Its pushy sign-up pages hardly set the right tone, but it is an excellent source of factual information.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (www.oxforddnb.com) is another good example, with in-depth biographies of 56,000 individuals, all meticulously sourced and verified, and accessible for £229 a year.

Scientific publishers run increasingly slick online databases that draw on their arsenal of academic journals. A search on www.blackwell-synergy.com turned up 489 articles on “plant mitochondria”, for example. Older ones are available for free, but expect to pay £15-£20 for up-to-date papers. The big US publishers have similar indexes of all their content: Elsevier at www.sciencedirect.com and Wiley at www.interscience.wiley.com


Ever since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, mankind has been able to mass produce learning, and the web plays its part with the publication of important works that have passed out of copyright. For example, the entire 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (with contributions from Algernon Swinburne and Bertrand Russell) is now online in various forms and costs nothing. The easiest to explore is www.1911encyclopedia.org, if you can stomach the constant adverts. It’s a fascinating snapshot of its time and, as the faintly repugnant entry on slavery illustrates, a telling reminder that knowledge is always subject to the values of its times.

A fascinating wealth of official information can be found at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. In addition to every census between 1841 and 1901, it contains government and military papers and key texts such as the Magna Carta and Shakespeare’s will.

The handsome collection of classic works at www.bartleby.com would grace any college library. Read the King James Bible, the 1907-21 edition of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, poetry by Keats and Eliot and novels such as Crime and Punishment in their entirety.


If you’re in a hurry, or simply can’t find what you are looking for, you can always ask an expert. Texperts (www.texperts.com, or 66000 from your mobile phone) is a service that delivers answers to mobile phone; a response to the old chestnut “Why is the sky blue?” was concise, prompt (given within three minutes) and, most important, correct. Answers cost £1, but if you are unhappy with them you can follow up free of charge, and if the Texperts can’t answer your question you don’t have to pay the next time.

In comparison, typing such queries into answers.yahoo.com (where web surfers answer one another’s questions) can provide confused or incorrect responses. However, it can be a good place to go because often you will be pointed towards a website that does give the right answer.

The boffins at www.askoxford.com run their own “Ask the experts” service, but, disappointingly, instead of cyber-time with some of the preeminent brains of our time, the reader is faced with a thin selection of Frequently Asked Questions.

29 dezembro 2007


From Disney's official 2008 preview comes the first image from the animated film Bolt, which you can view below. Bolt stars the voice of John Travolta as a dog who is the star of a hit TV show. However, when Bolt accidentally gets shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City, he sets out on a cross-country trip through the real world. Here's more from the synopsis: "Armed only with the delusions that all his amazing feats and powers are real, and with the help of two unlikely traveling companions: a jaded, abandoned housecat named Mittens (voice of Susie Essman) and a TV-obsessed hamster in a plastic ball named Rhino, Bolt discovers he doesn't need superpowers to be a hero."


No, But We Saw the Movie

by Nora Ephron

When they got home that night, she went to get the book. She’d ordered it earlier in the week and meant to read it before they went to the movie, but it was a hard week and things got away from her. This was happening more and more.

Maybe if we look in the book we’ll be able to figure it out, she said.

Maybe we’ll find out what happened at the motel, he said. Why did it skip forward like that?

He said it’s the same in the book.

Who said?

I told you who. The guy I was standing with while I was waiting for you to come out of the men’s room. He read the book and he said it’s the same deal exactly. The sheriff pulls up and everybody’s dead. You never see the scene where they all get shot. Maybe it’s because Javier didnt kill them.

Who’s Javier?

Javier Bardem. The serial killer.

I thought it was Benicio Del Toro.

Well it wasnt. The guy outside the men’s room said there’s a scene in the book that’s not in the movie. He said Javier goes to see a total stranger in some office, who’s never been mentioned earlier. He gives him the satchel of money and he says, Here’s your money back, now maybe you’ll hire me to do things like this in the future.

Why did they leave that out?

How do I know? Write a letter to the Coen brothers.

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.


Cormac McCarthy.

How am I supposed to know what you’re talking about with all these pronouns? he said.

He went to get ready for bed.

I cant believe you didnt know Josh Brolin died, she said.

Well I didnt.

He was lying there in the parking lot.

I didnt see him lying in the parking lot.

Well I didnt see him either, but then his wife turned up and Tommy Lee Jones looked sad, so you knew he was dead.

I thought he looked sad because the mother was dead.

The mother? The mother doesnt die till later.

I thought it was the mother in the swimming pool.

How could you think it was the mother? It was the girl with the beer in the swimming pool. She was wearing a bikini. The mother was about a hundred years old. What would the mother be doing wearing a bikini? The mother dies of cancer. Jesus.

What happened to the satchel of money?

He gives it to a total stranger. I told you.

But in the movie what happens to the money?

She wondered if they’d ever know. Maybe the answers were buried in the caliche, along with some character who had figured in a story toward the end of the movie. She hadnt been able to follow the story about the character who was buried in the caliche because she was busy trying to puzzle out what happened to the satchel of money, but the word caliche stuck in her head. It was pronounced ka-lee-chee. Since they lived in New York City and were not about to go dig a hole in Central Park, it didnt seem like a particularly useful word, but you never know.

He got into bed.

I cant believe you didnt know Josh Brolin died, she said. Who did you think was lying on that slab in the morgue?

The mother, he said.

The mother? she said. The mother?

He was asleep.

Alice Braga

(from I Am Legend) will be in Blindness

Google Trends

Analysing what we look for on the web can offer a remarkable insight into our anxieties and enthusiasms.

Four years ago, the writer and internet entrepreneur John Battelle had a sudden epiphany - the kind of moment that leaves you giddy, teetering on a conceptual cliff, as you contemplate its full ramifications. Battelle had already been preaching the transformative power of the internet for some time. But now his thinking turned to the millions of web searches that people were conducting around the world each day, using Google and a handful of other sites.

As people searched, he realised, they were inadvertently leaving a trail - a gargantuan historical archive of whatever was on the world's mind at a particular time, which remained stored on the central computers of firms such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Battelle called it "the database of intentions". "This information represents, in aggregate form, a placeholder for the intentions of humankind," he wrote breathlessly on his blog. What had been created was "a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can [be] archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture ... this artefact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion."

Since then, the database of intentions has grown dizzyingly: in one month alone during 2007, the number of searches conducted using the five leading sites reached 9.4bn. But until recently we could only glimpse at the secrets it contained - for example, when the internet company AOL mistakenly released information on what 658,000 of its members had been searching for. (No names were released, but individual users' search histories included eyebrow-raising anomalies: "replica louis vuitton bag ... how to secretly poison your ex ... how to colour hair with clairol professional ...") And in 2005 an obscure internet forum about video technology became deluged with messages after it became the top result for Google searches on the phrase "I am lonely", which thousands of people, it turned out, were typing every day.

In contrast to those brief glimpses, the graphs on these pages provide a radically broader and deeper view of what people are searching for online, and what that might mean. They were generated using Google Trends, an experimental service that uses aggregated data from Google search results to compare the numbers of people searching for different words and phrases over time, from 2004 to the present. This enables you to track, for example, how interest in Tony Blair was gradually superseded by interest in Gordon Brown over the course of 2007, or how Amy Winehouse overtook Lily Allen in the notoriety stakes, or how the awareness of the term global warming has grown down the years.

Searches are also broken down geographically. So you can discover, for example, that of all British towns and cities Luton has the highest proportion of searches for "sex", followed by Milton Keynes - although whether this means their inhabitants are unusually liberated, or desperate, or just bored, is a matter for speculation. (The phrase "I am bored", by the way, forms a larger proportion of Google searches in Sheffield than anywhere else.) Google Trends is free to use, at google.com/trends, and it is easy to waste far too much time playing with it.

Indications of scale

This form of measurement is far from perfect. The results are only approximate, and Google will not reveal the actual numbers of searches - presumably because that information is gold-dust for internet advertisers, and it intends to make them pay for it.

As a result, the graphs come with no indication of scale. They merely show the volume of searches for a particular term as a proportion of all searches on Google, which makes it impossible to tell whether a sudden surge in searches for, say, Paris Hilton represents a leap of several thousand or several million. So the graphs here are only impressionistic.

Even with those limitations, though, they point to the extraordinary amount of information that is waiting to be mined from internet search data: as Battelle rightly suspected, these charts help show the shifting concerns of an entire culture.

Sometimes, people's interests are driven fairly obviously by the news agenda: when the Spice Girls announce a reunion, there's an immediate rush to find out more about them. Other results are strikingly seasonal: not too surprisingly, people seem to go shopping online for coats in winter, and for sandals in summer.

But the most fascinating possibility is that search data might help to predict behaviour. After all, when we search online for a certain brand of stereo system rather than another, we are surely indicating that it's more likely we will buy that brand.

Perhaps we search for a political candidate's name when we are thinking about voting for him or her, and maybe we even search for "stock market crash" or "recession" just before we start pulling out of our investments. This information could clearly be useful to a savvy marketer - it's already how Google decides which ads to show on its search results pages - or to a political campaign manager.

Marissa Mayer, a Google vice-president, argues that Google Trends correctly "predicted" George Bush's victory over John Kerry in the 2004 election: our graph shows that Bush maintained his lead over his rival, in terms of search volumes, even when polls suggested the race was on a razor's edge.

The same approach leads to the prediction that Hillary Clinton will beat Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008; before too long, we'll be able to verify that. But then again, as the graph here shows, the conservative Republican Ron Paul ranks above them both. This is the result of an internet cult around Paul that has not been reflected in regular opinion polls, which may demonstrate the limits of treating web searches as if they were representative of an entire population's opinions - unless, of course, he ends up winning.


There is something very unsettling about all this. We do not like to think that other people can see inside our brains, even on a collective level, and many of us will have conducted hundreds of thousands of web searches in recent years without ever giving a thought to where all that data was going. But though so much seems ephemeral in the age of the web, nothing really is. It is all stored somewhere. The internet never forgets.

I Am Legend

[The words I wanted to use and couldn't]

By Stephanie Zacharek

Those of us who live in big cities, who never see bears rummaging through our garbage or find wildcat prints in the snow, often think we're protected from nature. But even when we think we've built the most sophisticated fortresses against it -- office buildings that require three forms of ID for entry; apartment complexes with astute doormen who will let no raccoon pass unannounced -- nature always finds a way to come charging back. In her 2001 book "Wild Nights," a study of the way the creatures of the natural world find ways to assert themselves into the urban landscape, Anne Matthews writes, "More and more scholars now suggest that even a megacity is part of a larger land-use story, in which cities are as vulnerable to nature and fortune as any other life-form; some endure, some thrive, some shrink." And sure enough, coyotes now trek from God knows where to take up residence in Central Park; battle-scarred pigeons, missing eyes, toes and even parts of wings, roam the streets with a survivor's cockiness; certain weeds and even trees can, and will, grow anywhere; and we all know what they say about cockroaches and nuclear war.

In the opening sequence of "I Am Legend," Will Smith, as the last person alive in 2012 New York, navigates the deserted streets in a chick-magnet sports car. But in this solemn landscape, three years after a virus has wiped out most of the global population and turned others into bloodthirsty vampire zombies, there are no chicks to magnetize -- nature has taken its course, but that course is out of the question. There are cars in the streets, but they're not moving: Long abandoned, they snooze at intersections, while odd little plants push up through the pavement around them. There are no traffic sounds, only the singing of birds. And as Smith's character -- his name is Robert Neville -- trolls around in that sports car (he's looking for something, but we don't know what it is yet), his dog, a German shepherd named Sam, pricks up her ears. Before long, we know what she's on to. We hear a dull, clattering tattoo, a sound that seems to be traveling beneath the pavement, and then we see its source: a herd of deer running through the streets of Manhattan, past once tony, now useless Madison Avenue stores, past a Staples filled with office supplies that no one needs, past any number of empty, permanently decaffeinated Starbucks. The sound of their hooves is a drumbeat of fear and freedom. In a world turned upside down, they've gone wild in the streets.

"I Am Legend" is supposedly an adaptation of Richard Matheson's much loved 1954 science fiction novella about the last man alive in a world populated by vampires. Fans of Matheson's stark, unsettling and eerily beautiful book may be outraged by this version, which was directed by Francis Lawrence (who made the 2005 comic adaptation "Constantine"). The details of Matheson's story -- which has been adapted for the screen twice before, most recently as "The Omega Man," with Charlton Heston, in 1971 -- have been either submerged, changed beyond recognition or deleted entirely. The setting has been switched from California to New York. Here, the virus-infected mutant creatures that surround Neville aren't really vampires, but skinless, seemingly mindless zombies motivated only by their own bloodthirst.

"I Am Legend" is really two movies seamed together, à la Frankenstein: The last half-hour seems to have been grabbed from some other, very different movie. It's as if, two-thirds of the way through, Lawrence realized that after spending this kind of money (reportedly, the movie cost some $200 million to make), he'd better deliver the zombie-filled special-effects dazzler the audience -- or, perhaps more significantly, the studio holding the wallet, Warner Bros. -- would be expecting.

But in the first hour of "I Am Legend," Lawrence captures the essence of Matheson's story, its mood of creeping despair, its vision of a man trying not to fall apart within a world that's already broken into pieces. And he adds something else: a sense of wonder mingled with dread, suggesting that even this nightmare-future world can hold its own kind of rough, wily beauty. Lawrence shot the picture on location in New York, and even though it's heavily enhanced with CGI, to anyone who knows the city even from casual visits, the settings are unnervingly recognizable. (His production designer is Naomi Shohan, and the cinematographer is Andrew Lesnie, who previously made plenty of people believe that Middle-earth was an actual shooting location.)

The industrial-chic trendiness of Tribeca becomes a foreboding canyon of damp, deteriorating squats, hiding places for any number of unseen, inhuman creatures waiting to strike. Most remarkable of all is Times Square, here seen only in daylight: Neville and Sam hit the streets by day, looking for food, supplies and possible survivors, and wiping out as many zombie vampires as they can find, but they must be back to their Washington Square home before nightfall, when the creatures -- who can't tolerate sunlight -- are free to roam and maraud. So in the daytime, they're tourists in a city that used to belong to them: The Times Square in which they find themselves has already forgotten its many recent pasts (from lively hub to tawdry playground to family-friendly entertainment mecca) and is slowly transforming itself into a primeval forest, stretching back toward a past no human can remember. Small trees have popped up wherever they can find a place to do so -- mostly between those endless rows of stalled cars -- and lowlier types of vegetation thrive too, as if they've won a battle against humankind that they didn't even know they were fighting. In the movie's opening sequence, Neville and Sam corner one of those deer in the middle of Times Square, only to lose their prey to a lioness who, they quickly realize, is trying to feed her cub. The image is one of life trying to rejuvenate itself in the face of despair.

I'm wondering whether, for that first hour at least, "I Am Legend" isn't the most meditative blockbuster ever made. Although there's some action in that first hour -- Neville and Sam hunt vampire zombies by day, tracking them, setting traps for them and, when necessary, outrunning them within the large, empty buildings they've requisitioned for themselves -- the picture is disquietingly quiet. (The movie's sound design is marvelous, especially for the way it makes the singing of urban birds seem both ominous and hopeful.) There's no heavy metal on the soundtrack, no fast cutting. The goal isn't to pump up the audience but to get it to lean in close enough to be drawn into the story.

In short, until the movie's false and flashy faux-religious climax, "I Am Legend" barely seems like an action movie at all. And though it has its flaws, including numerous cracks in its logic, I've never seen a blockbuster quite like it. Lawrence has pulled off what Steven Spielberg failed to do in "War of the Worlds": He gives us an apocalyptic vision in which enforced loneliness and isolation almost become a state of grace. This is big-budget filmmaking that shows a human touch, and for that reason alone, I fear for its box-office potential. Even though Lawrence pulls off some grand spectacles -- including one involving the Brooklyn Bridge -- I wonder if his picture isn't too intimate, and too upsetting, to work as a crowd pleaser.

Possibly, though, it will please many crowds of just one, finding its audience inch by inch instead of all at once. The zombies are supposedly the biggest special effect here, and they're reasonably creepy, with their moist-looking, hairless bodies. But "I Am Legend" -- its script is by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman -- is only ostensibly about monsters; it's really about loneliness. Neville, a scientist who for some inexplicable reason is immune to the virus, has spent his three years of near-isolation trying to reverse its effects on others -- he hopes to be able to cure them. He and Sam spend part of each day at South Street Seaport: Hoping to find other survivors, Neville has announced, via radio, that he'll be waiting there, when the sun is highest, each day. In the remaining daylight hours he and Sam explore the city. The virus hit the city right around Christmastime, so when Neville breaks into one building, he finds a forlorn decorated tree standing in the living room -- and a tented bed behind a bedroom door with a biohazard sign plastered on it. (The door next to that one opens into a child's room, which is also, of course, empty -- as if Neville needed to be reminded that he's lost family of his own.)

Neville has tried to populate his corner of the city to the best of his ability, even dressing up dummies and posing them around his local DVD-rental store. He talks to these mannequins as if they were alive, but what's even more touching is the way he preserves the routine of returning the DVDs he's already watched before choosing new ones.

Although several other, non-mannequin actors appear in "I Am Legend" (among them Alice Braga and young Willow Smith, Will's real-life daughter), Smith carries the picture -- but he doesn't do so alone. Most of his lines are delivered to his only companion, a dog: Sam is played, mostly, by a 3-year-old German shepherd named Abbey, whose responsiveness and expressiveness account for much of the movie's humanity. Sam's not human, but if her job is to please her master, she's going to do her damnedest to understand every word he says to her.

[SPOILER removed]

I've heard some critics sniping about how silly it is that Smith spends most of the movie talking to a dog. But to me, this performance shows perfectly how Smith has built something out of his extreme likability instead of merely coasting on it. I've always liked Smith, and after his remarkable performance in last year's "The Pursuit of Happyness," I gave up apologizing for it: He's still a sunny, cheerful presence, but as he's gotten older, he's also become adept at suggesting the flip side of sunlight -- that there's always the possibility that something, or someone, who matters to us can be lost.

If there were only one man left in New York, you'd want it to be Smith: His Neville is affable, a people person, the sort of guy who'd surely look out for his neighbors, if only he had any. And here, Smith extends his generosity as an actor to a scene-stealing dog. In an early sequence, he bathes Sam in a big bathtub as late-afternoon sunlight streams into the once luxurious West Village apartment, now a cozy, cluttered bunker, they call home. He massages her soapy ears as he sings to her -- the tune is Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," with its chorus of "Every little thing's gonna be alright." In this world gone wild, he's reclaiming one of the more soothing rituals of civilization.

Neville speaks, and sings, to Sam, never doubting that she understands every word. He can't afford that doubt, nor can he afford to let go of two of the most marvelous creations of man, language and music. And so by allowing Neville to preserve those two small things, Sam has become the keeper of his humanity. That's a lot of weight for a dog to carry, and a lot of power for an actor to cede to his costar. But then, "I Am Legend" is a blockbuster like no other, one that finds its grandness in modesty. It's a star vehicle with a star who knows his place in the universe.

O Papel e o Japão

Papel. Inúmeras aplicações. A propósito dos Japoneses, diz-nos o capitão Osborne:

«Era maravilhoso ver com que mil e um fins, tão úteis quanto ornamentais, o papel era usado pelas mãos daquele povo industrioso e com tão bom gosto. Os nossos fabricantes de pasta de papel, tal como os do continente, deveriam ir a Yeddo para aprender o que se pode fazer com papel. Com vernizes lacados, pinturas hábeis, podem confeccionar-se caixas, bolsas de tabaco, cigarreiras, estojos para telescópios, etc. O papel entra em grande parte no fabrico de praticamente tudo o que se encontra numa casa japonesa; em suma, sem papel, todo o Japão estaria num impasse».
Sir Francis Galton

From my translation :)

28 dezembro 2007

And not a minute too soon:

English doesn't borrow from other languages.
It follows them down dark allies,
knocks them over,
and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.

27 dezembro 2007

Wine for Life, in Malawi too

The Wines

Reportage dal Malawi, dicembre 2007
Il mese di dicembre è stato un mese intenso in Malawi. Siamo a poco più di due anni dall’apertura del primo centro per il trattamento dei malati di AIDS e le attività di DREAM continuano a crescere a ritmi veloci.

I laboratori di biologia molecolare presenti nel paese sono attualmente due, uno a Blantyre che serve la regione sud del paese, ed uno nei pressi di Lilongwe per la regione centrale.
Il 14 dicembre una delegazione del governo guidata dal vicedirettore del ministero della salute e responsabile per la diagnostica ha visitato il laboratorio di Blantyre complimentandosi per la qualità dei servizi diagnostici offerti.
Il 18 dicembre è stata effettuata una missione insieme allo stesso vicedirettore per la diagnostica e ad altri rappresentanti istituzionali all’ospedale di Mzimba, nel nord del paese, luogo individuato per la collocazione del terzo laboratorio di biologia molecolare previsto dal programma DREAM.
Nel corso della visita sono stati esaminati alcuni aspetti pratici per poter avviare al più presto i lavori di costruzione e l’allestimento del laboratorio, che permetterà di analizzare i CD4 e la carica virale nel sangue dei pazienti della regione.

Anche i centri di cura DREAM crescono a ritmo vertiginoso. Oltre ai tre principali, ormai in piena attività (Blantyre, Balaka e Mthengo wa Ntenga a Lilongwe), stanno aprendo numerosi centri in zone rurali, che sono la risposta alle esigenze di una popolazione che per l’80% vive in campagna e non ha possibilità di accesso alle cure.
A Kapeni, nel distretto di Blantyre, nei prossimi mesi si attiverà un VCT (voluntary counselling e testing) per permettere a tutti coloro che lo desiderano di fare il test. E sono ormai realtà stabili per la cura dell’AIDS i centri DREAM di Kapire e Namandanje, che si trovano nel sud del Malawi.
Dall’ospedale Muli Bwanji di Masuku, che si trova a pochi chilometri dal confine con il Mozambico, è stato inviato uno staff composto da quattro operatori per le diverse figure professionali per un mese di tirocinio al centro DREAM di Blantyre. A gennaio anche a Masuku inizierà l’attività di cura.
Pure a Dzoole, nel distretto di Dowa, l’attività è ormai ampiamente avviata. Sorprendente la crescita di questo centro DREAM rurale: inaugurato a luglio 2007 oggi accoglie 180 pazienti e una settimana fa è stato fatto il primo test ad un bambino nato nel programma di prevenzione verticale.

The rest of DREAM news about Malawi, and some other in English too


Translating Tolstoi

When the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were first translated into English, beginning with Ivan Turgenev's in the 1870s, they were patted into a Victorian mold of "good writing." That the first to be translated was Turgenev, the most Europeanized of all the Russian writers, was to have a lasting influence on the reception of Russian literature in the English-reading world: Turgenev's elegant simplicity of style and gentle social realism fixed the acceptable boundaries of "Russianness," influencing later translations of the rougher and more Russian novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which really only began to be widely read in English from the 1890s on.

No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862– 1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, six of Herzen, seventeen of Chekhov, and books by Goncharov and Ostrovsky.

(...) her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it. As Joseph Conrad wrote in 1917, "Turgeniev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgeniev."

The Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure." Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers' styles so that "Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev" (...).

Joseph Brodsky sniped that the "reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

In the English-speaking world there is a common perception, largely due to Garnett's translations, that Tolstoy's style is classically simple and elegant. This is only partly true. Tolstoy writes with extraordinary clarity. No other writer can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy. His moral lexicon is penetrating and direct, without the nuances and ambiguities that make Pushkin so complex, and in this respect Tolstoy's writing is relatively easy to translate ("goes straight into English, without any trouble," Garnett said). But there are other elements of Tolstoy's literary style, in War and Peace in particular, awkward bumps and angularities that have been ironed out, not just in Garnett's translation, but in most of the subsequent translations of this masterpiece.

Tolstoy's syntax is unconventional. In War and Peace he frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order to strengthen an effect or to recreate the looseness of the spoken word—a practice that can make his Russian read quite clumsily at times. He employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries (put into the mouths of statesmen such as Arakcheev) and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth-century literary Russian (spoken by the old Prince Bolkonsky) to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth-century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen.

Above all, Tolstoy is deliberately repetitive. Repetition is perhaps the most distinctive single feature of his style.

All from The NY Review of Books

26 dezembro 2007

Nick Mason entrevistado no Sound + Vision

Christmas around the world

Paris, France

Venice, Italy

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

Moscow, Russia

Rothera Research Station, Antarctica

Beijing, China

Delhi, India

Sydney, Australia

Mexico City, Mexico

Feliz Natal ;)

Visit the Literacy help site

20 dezembro 2007

Wise saints and drifting continents

A round gray stone sits on my desk. The stone is cracked across the middle. It opens like a jewel box to reveal -- an ammonite, a fossilized sea creature shaped like the tightly coiled horn of a miniature ram.

The ammonite lived in the sea tens of millions of years ago. It died and fell into the muck on the sea floor. As time passed, its shell was replaced by stone.

I'll tell you in a moment where the fossil came from, but for now imagine picking up the stone that contains the fossil. Feel the heft in your hand, the river-worn convexity, the polish. The stone with its fossil treasure is a thing of visual beauty and tactile pleasure.

Fossil ammonites are not uncommon. Ammonites once inhabited Earth's seas in teeming numbers, some as small as dimes, others as big as automobile tires. One place where they occur in abundance is in the Jurassic sandstones and mudstones near Whitby on the North Sea coast of England.

The curious curled creatures in the rock could not help but evoke stories about their origin. In England during the Middle Ages the story often involved Saint Hilda.

Hilda was the 7th-century foundress and abbess of the convent at Whitby. She was a niece of King Edwin, and with him was baptized into the Christian faith by the first Christian missionaries to England. Her uncle died in battle in defense of the new faith, and Hilda was instrumental in consolidating English Christianity. She was a scholar, a patron of poets, a teacher and a wise counselor. Her spirit was in the background of the Synod of Whitby, at which leaders of the English Church adopted Roman liturgical practice and the monastic Rule of Benedict.

According to legend, Hilda turned snakes to stone -- a miracle that one-upped Saint Patrick who merely drove them out of Ireland. The creatures in the rock were serpents, the biblical manifestations of Satan, petrified by Hilda's saintly powers.

Today we have a rather different story to account for the "petrified snakes." It is a story that ranges over hundreds of millions of years and all of the oceans of the Earth. It is an evolutionary story that places ammonites squarely within the burgeoning tree of life, of which we ourselves are but a twig on a single branch.

My fossil ammonite was given to me by my geologist daughter. She brought it back from the high Himalayas -- far, far from Whitby and the presumed influence of Hilda. It is manifestly a sea creature, closely related to the chambered nautilus that swims in the oceans today.

One-hundred-and-forty million years ago a great supercontinent that comprised the present lands of Africa, Antarctica and India broke apart. India drifted northward, riding on moving slabs of the Earth's crust, from deep southern latitudes, across the equator, toward Asia. My ammonite swam in the ocean that separated India from Asia -- lived, died, and was buried in limey sediments on the floor of the sea.

As India approached Asia, the floor of the intervening sea was pushed down into the hot interior of the Earth under Asia. The seafloor sediments containing my ammonite were scraped off the oceanic crust and plastered onto Asia.

Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and raised a cloud of dust into the atmosphere that cast the Earth's surface into cold and darkness. Photosynthesis ceased, food chains collapsed, and dinosaurs and ammonites became extinct, along with many other plants and animals.

Then, about 40 million years ago, India and Asia collided. The continental rocks were too thick and too buoyant to follow the diving seafloor back into the Earth's interior. They were heaved up into a towering mountain range, the Himalayas. The limestone containing the fossilized ammonite was caught in the wreckage of continents and thrust skyward.

The mountains began to erode, and eventually a chunk of limestone fell into a river. It was tumbled, rounded and polished. Someone found it, and split it open along a seam revealing the fossil. Eventually, it made its way to me.

The fossil tells a marvelous story of drifting continents, asteroid collisions, mountains thrust upwards, and wasting erosion -- a story of a planet that is constantly remaking itself, an epic drama of life evolving on a dynamic stage.

Does the new story of fossil ammonites detract from Hilda's legacy? I think not. She was an extraordinary woman, a shaper of her times, sometimes called the Mother of English Literature. To deny her the ability to turn snakes to stone does not diminish her significance by a whit. Rather, we see her exceptional talents for what they were: human, brave and creative. She stands even taller without her miracles.

A species of fossil ammonite, Hildoceras, has been named for the holy scholar -- abbess of Whitby -- an honor that in the long history of human learning will stand her in better stead than a whole seacoast full of "petrified snakes."

Science Musings

16 dezembro 2007

Nigel Slater's vegetarian feast

We shouldn't forget that a perfectly roasted piece of protein-on-the-bone served with its myriad accompaniments is not everyone's idea of heaven on earth.

Some want a Christmas meal that is lighter, brighter and, crucially, totally meatless.

The Christmas feast should be for everyone who gathers round our table.

Here are some of the meat-free recipes I will be passing round over the next few weeks.


The 53 places to go in 2008

Michael Barrientos for The New York Times
Overlooking the Belém Tower on the Tagus River.

Bargain-seeking tourists have long flocked to Lisbon, typically among the most affordable of European cities. But now the Portuguese capital is also emerging as a cultural force. The new Berardo Collection Museum, in the historic Belem district, boasts a major trove of modern and contemporary art. Designer hotels like Fontana Park and Jerónimos 8 are attracting style-savvy travelers. And the Design and Fashion Museum, scheduled to open in late 2008, will go a long way toward cementing the city’s avant-garde status.

Best Reuter Photos of the Year

Despite this one, some of the others are not for the faint-hearted.

Coppola films Mircea Eliade

After enjoying one of the most celebrated careers in Hollywood, you’ve decided to go the art-house route and make “Youth Without Youth,” a Romanian fable about an age-defying linguist and his lover who is reincarnated as a seventh-century Indian.

Is the film intended for a mass audience? No, not at all.

How much did it cost to make? Under $15 million.

Do you care if you earn the money back? No. When I finished “The Rainmaker,” I thought, This is the last movie I am going to do basically as a job for money.

That was your last film, and it was made 10 years ago. You’re right. The clock is ticking.

Your new film is based on a philosophical novella of the same name by Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian scholar who believed archaic religions created a kind of time-outside-of-time. That’s his big book, “The Myth of the Eternal Return.” What I understand of it is that all things come back in some sort of cycle that is regenerative. Or, in the words of the Lion King, it’s the circle of life.

How are you going to be an indie director if you compare your work with “The Lion King”? God, I think you’re right. I am sure the Eliade notion was more subtle. They said about Eliade that he never had a thought he didn’t publish, so there are about 400 books he wrote.

His reputation has been tainted by his politics. He was one of several well-known Romanian intellectuals who reportedly had fascist leanings and supported the Iron Guard in the ’30s. Does that make you uncomfortable? It’s sort of like saying my grandfather was an Italian fascist. In those days, in 1937, or even earlier, all the Italians were fascists. It might have been like the Communist thing in this country. If you were young in the ’30s, and very humanistic, you might have flirted with Communism, and then it came to haunt you.

No, Communism was rooted in a utopian vision, the Iron Guard was rooted in hatred. Well, there were people who felt that the Communist effort in the ’20s and ’30s among our writers was orchestrated by Stalin, but the people who got into it I’m sure got into it for idealistic reasons.

It’s hard for me to talk about this with you, because my father was born in Romania and fled as a child in 1938. That’s like going to Miami and talking about Cuba. Oh, boy, is that tricky.

Yes. Are you religious? I think I am very religious.

You’re an observant Catholic? Oh, no, no, no. I was raised as a Catholic, but I didn’t like the Catholic Church at all. I thought the nuns were mean.

Do you believe in the afterlife? I sort of think that the people I have loved and lost are somehow still there. I can’t believe that something so specific is gone.

If you were given the chance to relive your life, like the hero of your latest film, would you do it? It would be the same life. When I die, I am not going to be there saying, Oh, I wish I had done this, and I wish I had done that. Because I did it.

You must regret some things. Are there any movies you regret making, like “Jack”? “Jack” is sort of fun. I would do “Jack” again. Movie-wise, there is nothing I wouldn’t do again. It’s not possible to make one perfect movie every time. I don’t know of anyone who has done it. I guess Kurosawa has come the closest.

You sound very analyzed. I never went to a psychologist or psychiatrist in my life. Never. You know Italians are a little prejudiced against that kind of thing.

We haven’t mentioned “The Godfather.” Is there anything left to be said about it? I am very proud of “The Godfather,” and it is obviously what I will be remembered for. I don’t care.

Is there something you would prefer to be remembered for? If I have to be remembered for something, I want it remembered that I really liked children and was a good camp counselor.

Scroogled translated ;)

or The Day Google Became Evil.

from the author, BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow:

It's great to see such an emergent community of translators who are using their linguistic skills to make English-only works available in other parts of the world. I've done some amateur translation from Spanish, but it's hard to keep the motivation up when you're only working for yourself (as is necessarily the case when you're working with traditional copyright). The "derivatives-friendly" Creative Commons licenses allow amateur translators to share the fruits of their work, get friendly feedback, collaborate and gain reputation, encouraging them to do more and more work.

Now, if only more non-English works would be translated for us Anglos! Everywhere I go, I meet non-English-speakers who've read English writers in translation, as well as French, German, Russian, Japanese, etc -- lots of stuff gets translated out of English, but precious little comes to us, leaving us monolinguals with no choice but to live the provincial life of someone who can't compare their native literature to those of other lands.

Now for the translation, by Carlos Martins:

E se um dia, a companhia que todos nós gostamos e usamos diariamente, deixasse de ser "boazinha"? Como seria a vida num mundo em que o Google fosse usado da pior forma?
É esta a premissa desta curta estória de ficção, escrita por Cory Doctorow que tive o prazer de traduzir e adaptar para a nossa língua.

Aqui ;)

A peek at the diary of ... Kiefer Sutherland

The following takes place between 12pm and 1pm on the eighth day of my 48-day jail sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Still assigned to laundry detail, I'm building up a clearer intelligence picture. Something about this washroom isn't right. Maybe it's the large quantity of white powder that's delivered each day and used in a process I don't understand. Maybe it's the two men of Central Casting Middle Eastern appearance who whisper urgently by the mangle. Maybe I'm going to have to waterboard them to find out.

Walking towards the canteen at lunch, though, I got the hardware breakthrough I'd been waiting for. A phone. I grabbed the receiver. "Chloe, I need you to reconfigure the spy satellite on to Glendale city jail laundry," I panted. "Then I want you to download the surveillance data on to my... wait, I don't have my PDA. Bake it all into a big cake and send it over. Chloe? Dammit, answer me! We're running out of time."

I became aware of being watched by person unknown. Male, caucasian, 300 pounds. About six inches away.

"You need this, idiot," he said, brandishing a small flat item.

"Is that the terrorist disk?" I demanded.

"It's a phonecard, honey," he spat. "Who's Chloe? Your boyfriend?"

So, the Chinese are on to us. The following took place between his face and my fist. Crunch.

How to ... buy lingerie

The rule with lingerie is that the less there is of it, the more expensive it will be. It's the only thing you don't get what you pay for. Lingerie starts simple and then gets very complicated, with multi-layers and flaps and straps and fluffy pompoms. Men can find this quite confusing, and mentally it gives the impression of going to bed with an advent calendar.

Women buy lingerie to make themselves feel good. Men buy it for the same reason. As part of a couple, a man is free to suggest various outfits, but then these need to be translated by the women into something in a non-industrial material that allows breathing and movement.

Lingerie now comes in many colours and patterns. Never buy a pattern that would also look good as a wallpaper: it may make finding you in the bedroom difficult. Red is the equivalent of painting a go-faster stripe on your sports car. It's either for people who want to say loud and clear, "I'm hot", or for partners who are extremely slow on the uptake.

Only three women in Britain currently wear a bra that fits properly. Bras are an incredibly complex design and work on the same principles as the cantilevered bridge. It would be better for women if each fitting room had an engineer on standby, rather than a fashion consultant. Underwiring is generally not a good idea in bras. If it was a good idea, men would have under-wired pants. Men's pants used to come in two varieties: clean and not clean. Now men have a bewildering choice of underwear, generally divisible into three categories - warmth, support and display. Warmth and display rarely coincide, unless you wear two pairs at once.

Men normally avoid lingerie departments like they avoid ice on the road. Occasionally, they venture in to make a purchase either for a woman they don't know very well but want to know a lot better, or for a woman they already know too well. In either case, the likelihood of a man coming out with a garment in the right size, colour and decency is vanishingly remote. For a man buying lingerie to be completely safe, his best bet is to buy a high-value gift token. Especially if this token can then be spent on shoes.