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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I SO wish that I could hibernate......

Tesco 'gifts for boys' sign removed after girl's complaint

From BBC News

25 November 2014

Tesco has removed a sign which referred to a superhero alarm clock as a "gift for a boy" from its stores after a complaint from a seven-year-old girl. Karen Cole posted a photo of her "superhero-loving" daughter Maggie on Twitter next to the sign at the Tower Park branch in Poole, Dorset. It has since been retweeted more than 10,000 times. Tesco apologised and said the sign had been removed, adding it would "make a great gift for both girls and boys".

Mrs Cole, from Shaftesbury, tweeted: "My superhero loving 7yo daughter not impressed when she spotted this sign in @Tesco today @LetToysBeToys" The mother of three said Maggie had always been interested in superheroes, dragons and knights. Last year, she said she explained to her "all toys were for all people" after she had concerns that some were only for boys, and others only for girls. "When she saw the sign I think she was cross because it was saying the opposite of what I had told her," Mrs Cole said. She said she had been "amazed" by the response on social media and was "very pleased" the signs had been taken down. A Tesco spokesman said: "The sign has been removed and we're sorry if it caused any confusion."

Campaign group Let Toys Be Toys is asking toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children's interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys. A spokeswoman said the group was pleased the photo of Maggie had resulted in the removal of the sign. "Signs like these do influence people in their choice of what toys to buy children," she said. She added they "make children feel 'wrong' for liking certain things".

[This did make me laugh out loud – especially the look on the girls face. Brilliant! I wonder if we are seeing the beginning of the end of gender-based toys. Maybe it will eventually lead to the end of gender-based anything….]

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Running with the Pack – Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality by Mark Rowlands (FP: 2013)

There are philosophy books that make you feel you are sitting in a lecture theatre being lectured at and that you are expected to keep quiet and take notes. Other books seem like a chat in a beer garden with an old friend you haven’t seen for a while who you know did Philosophy back when you casually knew him at University but had no idea what he’s been doing in the intervening years. This is one of those books.

Part autobiography, part rambling conversation on the meaning of life and part explanation, to himself as much as to anyone else, of why he runs and part realisation, as his body can no longer shrug off the inevitable damage long distance running inflicts, of his human fallibility this is definitely a great way to spend a lazy weekend catching up with the author since his last book ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’. Although largely focused on running, something I hardly ever do unless I really need to, you can still gain a great deal of insight into life and ideas on the best way to live in, without feeling any pressure at all to run your first marathon. Oddly, despite the fact that I do not own a single pair of running shoes I did feel a slight compunction to at the very least think about going for a long walk (maybe when it stops raining). If a book on philosophy can get me thinking about getting physically active (at least in a minimal sense) there has to be something to this author’s writings! Any philosophical heaviness, rather inevitably around Nietzsche and my favourite depressive Arthur Schopenhauer, was quickly grounded in the mud and the endless tarmac of road running. In fact grounded is a word I’d happily use to describe the author’s approach to the whole philosophical endeavour. He’s not interested in scoring points or showing you the view from his ivory tower. He’s down here, in the mud and the blood and the pain with the rest of us, endeavouring to give us some insight into the human condition drawing on his own experience as much as the thoughts of the great European philosophers of the last few centuries.

If you’ve ever thought about reading a philosophical text but had been put off by the more academic ‘proper’ books on the subject I can recommend this, and his previous book, as a breath of fresh air in that department. The author has the great skill of teaching without appearing to do so, to get you to think about things and in ways you hadn’t really considered before, to start thinking philosophically as you run one foot in front of the other with your own breath keeping rhythm with the sound of rubber hitting pavement and the blood pumping in your ears. Recommended.  

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thinking About: Lurching to the Right

I’ve had the feeling for some time now – that the whole world seems to be inexorably and deliberately lurching to the Right. Of course here in the UK it’s exemplified by the rise of UKIP who won their second seat in Parliament on Thursday with a massive swing in their direction. It’s looking like the prediction of 5-6 seats made during the last local elections have been set far too low. The party leader himself is talking about holding the balance of power in the next, generally expected to be, coalition government. The very thought makes me shudder.

Being the contrary bastard that I am, and that people who know me have come to expect, as others move to the Right I myself am increasingly moving to the Left which, as you can imagine, produces some fiery exchanges at work. Rather surprisingly some of my colleagues (who I expected better of) seem to side with UKIP and their objectionable policies. But hey, it’s not like I’ve never been in a minority (of one) before so that aspect hardly bothers me.

Knowing a little history I suppose I should have expected the present political movements. It times of economic uncertainty and austerity the political scene tends to polarise. Unfortunately it seems that the Left have, to coin a phrase, left the building. Indeed the so-called Left AKA New Labour seem to be intent on playing catch-up with the Right and positioning themselves as Tory-Lite or the acceptable face of capitalism. Of course what they should be doing, if they had either a backbone between them or even an ideology worthy of its name, is moving to the Left to present the people with an actual choice rather than the illusion of one. Unfortunately such an eventuality is never going to happen in the Labour Party without a particularly bloody ‘Night of the Long Knives’ scenario they are singularly incapable of orchestrating.

It does actually amuse me, in a gallows humour sort of way, that the finger of blame is pointed repeatedly at immigrants when the real villains of the piece, you know, those who actually caused the collapse of the world’s financial system – remember that? – AKA the fucking bankers and stock market speculators seem to have got away with the biggest fraud in history scot free. As the number of people holding down multiple part-time jobs, on minimum wage or so-called zero hours contracts (and there I was thinking that slavery and indentured servitude had been made illegal) increases by the week we see bankers bonuses back in fashion and the champagne lifestyle acceptable again – after all they are, we are regularly told, the wealth generators who will get us out of the recession people seem to have forgotten they got us into in the first place.

Of course on the horizon, post the next general election in May 2015, in the prospect of the Conservative-UKIP coalition government pulling out of the European Union. The word stupid (even prefixed with the word fucking for added emphasis) doesn’t do justice to this aspiration. No doubt, with the terrible political education in this country, the people will speak (oddly sounding like millions of frightened sheep), and we will withdraw thereby damaging the EU in the process and setting ourselves on the long slow path to political and economic irrelevance. Living, or at least surviving, in a western version of the 3rd world country isn’t exactly how I had hoped to spend my declining years but I guess that’s how it’s going to be. I wonder if this is how it felt in Germany in the 1920’s. Hopefully I’ll never find out. Then again, if Scotland breaks away I can always emigrate there or even take up my dual nationality and move to Eire. Maybe I should really investigate getting myself that Irish passport……  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

One kiss 'shares 80 million bugs'

By Smitha Mundasad

For BBC News

17 November 2014

A single 10-second kiss can transfer as many as 80 million bacteria, according to Dutch scientists. They monitored the kissing behaviour of 21 couples and found those who kissed nine times a day were most likely to share salivary bugs. Studies suggest the mouth is home to more than 700 different types of bacteria - but the report reveals some are exchanged more easily than others. The research is published in the journal Microbiome.

A team from the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) asked 21 couples a series of questions to assess their kissing habits, including how frequently they had kissed in the last year and when they last locked lips. Scientists took bacterial samples from the volunteers' tongues and saliva before and after a strictly timed 10-second kiss. One member of the couple then drank a probiotic drink, containing an easily identifiable mixture of bugs. On the couple's second kiss, scientists were able to detect the volume of bacteria transferred to the other partner - on average 80 million bacteria in a single 10-second kiss. But while bacteria in the saliva seemed to change quickly in response to a kiss, bug populations on the tongue remained more stable.

Prof Remco Kort, who led the research, said: "French kissing is a great example of exposure to a gigantic number of bacteria in a short time. But only some bacteria transferred from a kiss seemed to take hold on the tongue. Further research should look at the properties of the bacteria and the tongue that contribute to this sticking power. These types of investigations may help us design future bacterial therapies and help people with troublesome bacterial problems."

The Dutch scientists worked in collaboration with the museum Micropia, the world's first museum of microbes, based in Amsterdam. In a newly opened exhibition, couples are invited to share a kiss and are provided with an instant analysis of the bugs they have exchanged. A growing number of researchers are looking at the microbiome - an ecosystem of some 100 trillion micro-organisms that live in and on our bodies. Scientists say these populations may be essential for health and the prevention of disease.

[Sounds like my idea of a research project and no doubt explains why I had a sore throat for the first few months of my last relationship….]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Very cool..........

Just Finished Reading: 1848 – Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (FP: 2008)

Until I embarked on my recent foray into European history I had heard about much of it, at least in passing, but knew little of the detail. Until very recently this was the state of things regarding the continent wide series of revolts that shock Europe in the year 1848. I knew they had happened but I had no idea what caused them, what actually happened or what the consequences where. Well, I am most definitely no longer ignorant on these counts. My only regret in reading this substantial looking (at just over 400 pages) volume is that I took so long to read it. I have to say that it left me stunned with its breadth, detail, explanatory power and majestic quality. More than once I almost read this open mouthed with amazement, both at the events described and the brilliance of those descriptions. It is not often that you can call a book of European political history gripping but this is certainly one example.

Anyway, as to the story itself. Ever since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the continent had only seemed to be at peace. From time to time revolts and insurrections broke out and where, on the whole, brutally repressed. But something, it seemed was building in the background. 30 years later the powder keg, so carefully constructed by political and economic forces by and large ignored by the powerful and wealthy ignited first in Paris (where else!) and then, as news arrived in other parts, across the Habsburg Empire. At first the response was typical of all authoritarian regimes – send in the army. But cut-backs and lack of political will failed to quell things as quickly as expected and, as to surprise to the revolutionaries themselves, the great and the good paused and began to worry. For a moment the Empire itself stumbled and looked, at least for a while, as if it would fall into chaos. The revolutionaries took heart and the revolt spread, from country to country, province to province. Political careers and political parties emerged from nowhere and became movements and ideologies – Socialism and Communism amongst them.

Two countries, or actually aspiring countries, saw their chance and to a greater or lesser degree pushed for unification. Both Italy and Germany began their long and rocky journey towards the states they are today. Both journeys where incredibly complex and I thought where defining moments in the book as I grappled with the forces that gave birth to both countries decades later. Fortunately the author really knew his stuff and guiding my sometimes aching brain through the labyrinthine pathways and innumerable names (a few of which I recognised from somewhere) of those involved in revolution, counter revolution and oppression. I fully intend to follow up these individual stories in even more detail later.

After the initial shock of the continental revolt wore off and the inevitable infighting between the revolutionary and reforming parties started (which I read with great sadness and much shaking of head) the forces of reaction fought back. When initial victories went their way they redoubled their efforts and managed to splinter many of the forces ranged against them – being made up, as they were, of both military and political novices. Within the year the inevitable sad reality hit home. The revolutions, started with such verve and such hope, had failed. Not completely and not to the same extent everywhere but the highest hopes and the strongest demands had not been met. After the great initial earthquake the aftershocks hardly disturbed the ruling elite’s sleep – until 1914 that is when the chickens released in 1848 came very much back to roost.

If things had gone differently in 1848 and Serbia in particular had managed to gain independence, or even some sort of acceptable autonomy, would have a revolutionary band have planned the assassination of the Arch duke? If 1848 had been a success in revolutionary terms would the world have collapsed into conflict in 1914 finally destroying the Habsburg Empire that still stood, weakened but functioning, after the revolts had been so brutally supressed? Did the events of 1848 define the world in the 20th century? These are indeed interesting questions and if you want to move towards answering them then I heartily recommend you read this fascinating, gripping and superbly constructed work of political history.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Favourite Movies: A Very Long Engagement

When we saw the trailer for this I think I probably decided to see it on the basis that it starred Audrey Tautou. That seemed a fair reason I’d have to say as she’s, well, pretty amazing.

The story is suitably French – in other words complex and quirky. It revolved around orphan and polio sufferer Mathilde (Tautou) whose childhood friend, and now lover Manech (played by Gaspard Ulliel) is drafted into the French army in the closing years of WW1. Traumatised by the conflict he decides the easiest way out is to be injured in combat and contrives being shot by a sniper. Accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy he, along with four other soldiers, are forced to spend the night in No-Man’s Land in the expectation that the Germans will do the executions for them. This is exactly what Mathilde is told but refuses to accept that her lover is dead.

With the war now over, no further news of Manech and with life returning to normal her adopted parents (played marvellously by Dominique Pinon and Chantal Neuwirth) expect Mathilde to move on with her life. However, she is determined to find out exactly what happened on that fateful day and begins tracking down other soldiers who shared her lover’s trench. Their individual stories and viewpoints begin to weave together the pattern that first gives Mathilde hope that her fiancĂ© survived only to have others relate how he died either from a German aircraft machine gunning his location or during the subsequent artillery bombardment. If that wasn’t complicated enough the private detective she hires (again played superbly by Ticky Holgado) discovers that a number of potential witnesses have been murdered by an unknown woman. Digging deeper into the mystery Mathilde realises that a parallel investigation is taking place, not to discover the truth but to exact revenge for one of the soldiers casually killed by his own side in No Man’s Land. His lover, Tina Lombardi (played brilliantly by Marion Cotillard in, I think, the first movie I saw her in) is determined to follow the chain of command of all those involved up to the President himself in the cause of Sicilian retribution.

Of course this brief synopsis doesn’t do this movie justice or anywhere close. The acting throughout is brilliant, the plot is complex but reasonably easy to follow if you keep your eye on the ball. The cinematography is breath-taking and evocative of the era with an almost sepia feel to it. The combat scenes are brutal and uncompromising though probably nowhere near as brutal as the real thing. Of course Tautou stands head and shoulders above everyone else, at least for me, but the ensemble cast are most definitely not there to make up the numbers. Even actors who might only get a few moments screen time and say very little (if anything) seemed to be full of life and have histories stretching back in time and off screen if only the camera had turned towards them earlier. More than once it felt that we, the audience, where intruding on small private scenes from real life.

I think I’ve seen this four or maybe five times since it came out in 2004. I’m actually torn between wanting to watch it again and again because it’s just so bloody good and the fear that repeat watching will take away some of its brilliance. Then there’s the emotional load. Every time I’ve seen this film I have cried at the end. Just writing this review, right now, I can feel me welling up. Yes, it’s really that emotional. After two hours of searching and hoping you really want Mathilde to find Manech and put an end to their very, very long engagement. But you’ll have to watch the movie to find out how that happens – just have some tissues ready.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cartoon Time.

'Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.The more experiments we make the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.'

Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

If only..................
Low oxygen 'delayed animal life on Earth'

By Melissa Hogenboom for BBC News

30 October 2014

There's been much debate about why animals took so long to evolve and thrive on Earth. Now scientists say it was due to incredibly low levels of oxygen on Earth more than a billion years ago. A team determined the chemical composition of ancient rocks to find there was about 0.1% of the oxygen levels present compared with today. The researchers present their work in Science journal.

Why complex life took so long to appear on the scene has puzzled scientists for many years. It was only over 500 million years ago that life on Earth began to flourish in a period known as the Cambrian explosion. For the one billion years before that, in an era called the mid-Proterozoic, though life was present it consisted of very simple organisms. These creatures were able to survive on very low levels of oxygen, but more complex life could not.

The idea that oxygen was far too low for animals to evolve before this period had been around for a long time, explained one of the lead authors of the study, Noah Planavsky of Yale University's Department of Geology and Geophysics. "Our research now shows empirical evidence for a surface oxygen level that would have inhibited animal evolution. I had a hunch, which is why I went looking for this and I was surprised that my hunch was actually right, it doesn't usually pan out that well," he told BBC News. Scientists know that genetic innovations combined with the right environmental conditions were key to the evolution of all animals, from early marine arthropods to dinosaurs and eventually humans. But the role that oxygenation played in controlling the timing of the evolutionary biological events is heavily debated. "The question is not which one of those happened, they both had to have happened. What we showed is that soon after environments in which oxygen levels were high enough for animals to thrive, the genetic innovation that allowed them to emerge happened," Dr Planavsky said. The team analysed the chromium levels - a geochemical signature - of rock sediments from Australia, Canada, China, and the United States. This allowed them to understand how much oxygen would have been present.

They found a change in the chemical components of the rocks occurred about 800 million years ago, a period when oxygen levels began to rise rapidly, already documented by previous research. Simon Poulton, a geochemist at the University of Leeds, commented that the authors of the research had used a powerful approach that built upon previous ideas about how atmospheric oxygenation could be tracked. "Rather than taking a sledgehammer approach, the authors have been very careful about which samples they have chosen to analyse - focusing on the same type of samples from similar settings across Earth history. If correct, the very low levels of oxygen found in this study would have provided a major restriction on early animal evolution, thus suggesting that it was indeed a rise in oxygen that ultimately stimulated the evolution of our earliest animal ancestors," he added. But he cautioned that it was difficult to put a precise value on oxygen levels from rocks deposited more than a billion years ago. "So the problem is far from solved, but this is a major step forward and I am sure that this will spark many further studies as the record is still far from complete - this study incorporates just a few analyses across a huge period of Earth history," Prof Poulton told the BBC.

Another researcher was more critical of the study and said the role of oxygen was overstated. Nicholas Butterfield of Cambridge University's department of Earth Sciences said: "All geochemistry is drawn from marine rocks, it's not directly measuring the atmosphere. The reason it took so long for animals to appear on the scene is it took an extraordinary long time to assemble the extraordinarily complex developmental machinery that builds even a simple animal. It's the most complex recipe that evolution has ever derived."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Well, I do have a long Christmas break coming up....!

Just Finished Reading: Coming Home by Roy E Stolworthy (FP: 2012)

Yorkshire, 1916. On the eve of his induction into the British army Archie Elkin is accidentally killed by his younger brother Thomas in a pointless argument. In a panic, with images of the hangman dogging his every move and every thought Thomas conceals the body and stages his own disappeared in a nearby quarry swimming hole. Taking his brothers place and vowing to die a hero to atone for his crime Thomas joins the hundreds of troops bound for France and the Western Front lines. Hoping and planning to die within days of his arrival he is continually denied a heroes death only seemingly deflecting bullets to those around him instead. As his frustration builds Thomas puts himself in increasingly dangerous situations hoping for a bullet to end his torment. Fate it seems has other ideas. Promoted for his seeming heroism in No-Man’s Land, Thomas is put in charge of a group of men given almost impossible tasks and expected to carry them out no matter the cost. Torn between the responsibility to his men and his deep desire for a meaningful death in his brother’s name Thomas must decide exactly what he wants to do with his young life before he becomes accountable for even more of the deaths he witnesses every day in the Hell that is the French killing fields.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for ages – since I bought it many months ago. It certainly seemed just the thing – the character of Thomas (only 15 years old at the start of the story) seemed interesting complex and the plot seemed to be a solid one. But I started having misgivings early on. For one thing I couldn’t quite get into the novel. There was something, although I wasn’t sure what, that kept me from becoming engrossed in the story or the main character. Something seemed….. off. Part of it was Thomas’s anger and other emotional outbursts. OK, he was 15 in 1916 from a poor farming background but his immaturity really, really grated on me. As did his apparent sexual innocence. He’s a FARM boy, so I’d expect him to know more about sex than most city boys of that age. I found the descriptions of the Western Front to be less than convincing. We had the trenches, the wire, the mud – all of the expected elements but I really don’t think it rained that much, for that long. The soldiers themselves – even the new recruits I found to be far too cynical and felt more like Vietnam vets rather than British Tommies. I don’t think that ‘fragging’ or equivalent actually happened all that often if at all. The folks back home – in London in particular – seemed to be far too modern (rather than effectively Victorian/Edwardian) especially in their attitudes towards sex. Basically I just didn’t believe in the characters, the places or the action – at all really. Everything seemed, in an almost indefinable way, wrong. It was as if someone had tried to construct a story based on a cursory examination of the real events of WW1 whilst subconsciously mixing in scenes from 80’s war movies and anachronistic uses of phrases that the author may have heard in the context of the war (like the phrase lions led by donkeys which, I think, only became currency afterwards). I certainly don’t hold myself up as an expert on the conflict – far from it – so I could be completely wrong here but I just found too much of the book to be completely unbelievable. Which is a shame really as I was actually looking forward to reading this a great deal. Reluctantly not recommended.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Travels with Epicurus – Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age by Daniel Klein (FP: 2012)

As I’m slowly approaching 60 – one day at a time – I’m inevitably thinking about old age, so the idea of the ‘pleasures’ of old age certainly intrigued me in the title. Pleasure? Really? I thought that all I had to ‘look forward to’ was increasing decrepitude followed by slow death….. OK, only partially kidding!

Anyway, I do feel that I have a vested interest in knowing, or at least appreciating, what’s coming, hence books like this (no doubt this sort of thing will be increasing in the, hopefully many, years ahead). The author, I quickly discovered, is not afraid to go against the flow – that prevailing belief that 60 is the new 40, that with the appropriate surgery, drugs, diet and exercise regime, we can run marathons into our 90’s and die whilst having sex with a beautiful 50 year old who looks like they’re 35. It’s the culture of bucket lists – the more adventurous and extreme the better – and grey power. In other words a culture in deep, very deep, denial about its fear of death – AKA our culture. Rather refreshingly the author will have none of it. Old age, maturity, is something to be savoured rather than avoided. It is something to achieve rather than put off for ever (if such a thing were possible!)

The vantage point of Old Age gives perspective on the folly of youth – and even more so on the folly of eternal youth. It allows you to slow down, not least because you have too, and savour the moment, to watch the sunset just because you can, the enjoy your meal rather than bolting it down because there’s three more things to tick off your bucket list before bedtime. Old age allows you time to sit and think, to ponder, to remember and reminisce, to converse with friends old and new to, rather paradoxically, take time to do things at their own pace without the crack of the metaphorical whip pushing you onto the next task and the one after that. Old age, the author contends, allows for companionship without the requirement of wanting or needing anything from the other people, but their time and their words or even just their presence and their companionable silence.

Approaching the end of life, like hanging in the morning, tends to concentrate the mind on the important things – not your position in the company hierarchy or how much money you have in the bank or what passes for achievement in this day and age. You focus, the author contends, less on what you are (or where) and more on who you are. You also let go of things too – and not just ambition. Surprisingly, at least to me, the author celebrated the decline of lust as a positive thing – basically no longer being at the whim of chemicals swimming about in your bloodstream. I suppose he was saying that, at long last, you are in place where it’s peaceful rather than subject to whatever your glands have in mind for you (just to mix up my metaphors and bodily parts a bit there). Oh, you can still appreciate beauty, it’s just that you don’t feel the need to do anything about it! Honestly, I did fall about laughing at this point though I did find myself almost, almost mind, nodding sagely…

As seems to be the way of things these days talk about death inevitably leads to God who is rejected for a more Secular (in some senses at least) Buddhist-lite approach to things – mindfulness and such like. This it seems to me is the modern western acceptable face of spirituality without all that messy religion stuff. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t really feel the need to fill the ‘gap’ left by a belief in God with some cobbled together ‘spirituality’ to ease the pain and the fear that creeps up on you in old age. But, as they say, whatever gets you through the night etc… Apart from a few wobbles like this I did find the book interesting, refreshing in many ways, and it did honestly give me a lot to think about. As I get older I might even read it again to see if my views change as I approach that dark night… Recommended.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

'He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.'

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe