The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.

The Consolidation of a World Power

I left my last post on the history of music at around 1969, which for many independent commentators marks the end of the era of the birth of rock music. The 60s had been a decade of a hundred stories running alongside one another in the music world, each with their own part to play in the vast tapestry of innovation. Jimi Hendrix had risen from an obscure career playing the blues circuit in New York to being an international star, and one moreover who revolutionised what the music world thought about what a guitar could and should do- even before he became an icon of the psychedelic hippie music world, his hard & heavy guitar leads, in stark contrast to the tones of early Beatles’ and 60s pop music had founded rock music’s harder edge. He in turn had borrowed from earlier pioneers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Who (perhaps the first true rock band, given their wild onstage antics and heavy guitar & drumkit-based sound) and Bob Dylan (the godfather of folk rock and the blues-style guitar playing that rock turned into its harder sound), each of whom had their own special stories. However, there was a reason I focused on the story of the hippie movement in my last post- the story of a counter-culture precipitating a musical revolution was only in its first revolution, and would be repeated several times by the end of the century.

To some music nerds however, Henrix’s death aged just 27 (and after just four years of fame) in 1970 thanks to an accidental drug overdose marked the beginning of the end. The god of the guitar was dead, the beautiful voice of Janis Joplin was dead, Syd Barrett had broken up from Pink Floyd, another founding band of the psychedelic rock movement, and was being driven utterly insane by LSD (although he thankfully later managed to pull himself out of the self-destructive cycle and lived until 2006), and Floyd’s American counterparts The Velvet Underground broke up just four years later. Hell, even The Beatles went in 1970.

But that didn’t mean it was the end- far from it. Rock music might have lost some of its guiding lights, but it still carried on regardless- Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the four biggest British bands of the time, continued to play an active role in the worldwide music scene, Zeppelin and The Who creating a huge fan rivalry. David Bowie was also continuing to show the world the mental ideas hiding beneath his endlessly crisp accent, and the rock world continued to swing along.

However, it was also during this time that a key division began to make itself firmly felt. As rock developed its harder sound during the 1960s, other bands and artists had followed The Beatles’ early direction by playing softer, more lyrical and acoustic sounds, music that was designed to be easy on the ear and played to and for mass appeal. This quickly got itself labelled ‘pop music’ (short for popular), and just as quickly this became something of a term of abuse from serious rock aficionados. Since its conception, pop has always been more the commercial enterprise, motivated less by a sense of artistic expression and experimentation and more by the promise of fame and fortune, which many consider a rather shallow ambition. But, no matter what the age, pop music has always been there, and more often than not has been topping the charts- people often talk about some age in the long distant past as being the ‘best time for music’ before returning to lambast the kind of generic, commercial consumer-generated pop that no self-respecting musician could bring himself to genuinely enjoy and claiming that ‘most music today is rubbish’. They fail to remember, of course, just how much of the same kind of stuff was around in their chosen ‘golden age’, that the world in general has chosen to forget.

Nonetheless, this frustration with generic pop has frequently been a driving force for the generation of new forms of rock, in an attempt to ‘break the mould’. In the early seventies, for example, the rock world was described as tame or sterile, relatively acoustic acts beginning to claim rock status. The Rolling Stones and company weren’t new any more, there was a sense of lacking in innovation, and a sense of musical frustration began to build. This frustration was further fuelled by the ending of the 25-year old post war economic boom, and the result, musically speaking, was punk rock. In the UK, it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in the USA The Ramones and similar, most of whom were ‘garage bands’ with little skill (Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, has frequently admitted that he couldn’t sing in the slightest, and there was a running joke at the time on the theme of ‘Here’s three chords. Now go start a band’) but the requisite emotion, aggression and fresh thinking to make them a musical revolution. Also developed a few years earlier was heavy metal, perhaps the only rock genre to have never had a clearly defined ‘era’ despite having been there, hiding around the back and on the sidelines somewhere, for the past 40 or so years. Its development was partly fuelled by the same kind of musical frustration that sparked punk, but was also the result of a bizarre industrial accident. Working at a Birmingham metal factory in 1965 when aged 17, Black Sabbath guitarist (although they were then known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band) Tony Iommi lost the the ends of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This was a devastating blow for a young guitarist, but Iommi compensated by easing the tension on his strings and developing two thimbles to cover his finger ends. By 1969, his string slackening had lead him to detune his guitar down a minor third from E to C#, and to include slapping the strings with his fingers as part of his performance. This detuning, matched by the band’s bassist Geezer Butler, was combined with the idea formulated whilst watching the queues for horror movie Black Sabbath that ‘if people are prepared to make money to be scared, then why don’t we write scary music?’, to create the incredibly heavy, aggressive, driving and slightly ‘out of tune’ (to conventional ears) sound of heavy metal, which was further popularised by the likes of Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Motley Crue (sorry, I can’t do the umlauts here).

Over the next few years, punk would slowly fall out of fashion, evolving into harder variations such as hardcore (which never penetrated the public consciousness but would make itself felt some years later- read on to find out how) and leaving other bands to develop it into post-punk; a pattern repeated with other genres down the decades. The 1980s was the first decade to see hip hop come to the fore,  partly in response to the newly-arrived MTV signalling the onward march of electronic, manufactured pop. Hip hop was specifically targeted at a more underground, urban circuit to these clean, commercial sounds, music based almost entirely around a beat rather than melody and allowing the songs to be messed around with, looped, scratched and repeated all for the sake of effect and atmosphere building. From hip hop was spawned rap, party, funk, disco, a new definition of the word DJ and, eventually, even dubstep. The decade also saw rock music really start to ‘get large’ with bands such as Queen and U2 filling football stadiums, paving the way for the sheer scale of modern rock acts and music festivals, and culminating, in 1985, with the huge global event that was Live Aid- not only was this a huge musical landmark, but it fundamentally changed what it meant to be a musical celebrity, and greatly influenced western attitudes to the third world.

By the late 80s and early 90s the business of counter-culture was at it again, this time with anger directed at a range of subjects from MTV tones, the boring, amelodic repetition of rap and the controversial policies of the Reagan administration that created a vast American ‘disaffected youth’ culture. This music partly formulated itself into the thoughtful lyrics and iconic sounds of bands such as REM, but in other areas found its expression and anger in the remnants of punk. Kurt Cobain in particular drew heavy inspiration from ‘hardcore’ bands (see, I said they’d show up again) such as Black Cloud, and the huge popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ thrust grunge, along with many of the other genres blanketed under the title ‘alternative rock’ into the public consciousness (one of my earlier posts dealt with this, in some ways tragic, rise and fall in more detail). Once the grunge craze died down, it was once again left for other bands to formulate a new sound and scene out of the remnants of the genre, Foo Fighters being the most prominent post-grunge band around today. In the UK things went in a little different direction- this time resentment was more reserved to the staged nature of Top of the Pops and the like, The Smiths leading the way into what would soon become indie rock or Britpop. This wave of British bands, such as Oasis, Blur and Suede, pushed back the influx of grunge and developed a prominence for the genre that made the term ‘indie’ seem a bit ironic.

Nowadays, there are so many different great bands, genres and styles pushing at the forefront of the musical world that it is difficult to describe what is the defining genre of our current era. Music is a bigger business than it has ever been before, both in terms of commercial pop sound and the hard rock acts that dominate festivals such as Download and Reading, with every band there is and has ever been forming a part, be it a thread or a whole figure, of the vast musical tapestry that the last century has birthed. It is almost amusing to think that, whilst there is so much that people could and do complain about in our modern world, it’s very hard to take it out on a music world that is so vast and able to cater for every taste. It’s almost hard to see where the next counter-culture will come from, or how their musical preferences will drive the world forward once again. Ah well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

The Hairy Ones

My last post on the subject of music history covered the relatively short timespan between around 1950 and 1965, leaving off at about the time The Beatles began leading the ‘British Invasion’ of American music culture. This invasion was a confluence of a whole host of factors; a fresh generation of youths wishing to identify with something new as ‘theirs’ and different to their parents, a British music scene that had been influenced by the American one without being so ingratiated into it as to snub their ability to innovate and make a good sound, and the fact that said generation of youngsters were the first to grow up around guitar music and thus the first to learn to play them and other genre-defining instruments en masse. Plus, some seriously good musicians in there. However, the British invasion was only the first of a multi-part wave of insane musical experimentation and innovation, flooding the market with new ideas and spawning, in the space of less than a decade, almost every genre to exist today. And for the cause of much of part two, we must backtrack a little to 1955.

Y’see, after the Second World War Japan, the dominant East Asian power, had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies and there was no dominant force in the region. This created something of a power vacuum in the area, with a host of new governments trying to rise from the post-war chaos and establish themselves as such a power. Many of these new nations, including those of China, Cambodia, North Korea and North Vietnam, were Communist states, and therefore were a serious concern to the western world. The US in particular, as a fiercely capitalist power, were deeply worried by the prospect of the whole of South East Asia, according to communist theory, just amalgamating into another great communist superpower and landing them with next to zero chance of triumphing in their ‘battle against communism’ against the already hugely powerful Soviet Union. As such, they were hell-bent on preserving every ounce of capitalist democracy they could in the area, and were prepared to defend such governments with as much force as necessary. In 1950 they had already started a war in Korea to prevent the communist north’s invasion of the democratic south, with the practical upshot (after China joined in) of re establishing the border pretty much exactly where it had been to start with and creating a state of war that, officially, has yet to end. In 1955, a similar situation was developing in Vietnam, and President Dwight D Eisenhower once again sent in the army.

Cut to ten years later, and the war was still going on. Once a crusade against the onward-marching forces of communism, the war had just dragged on and on with its only tangible result being a steady stream of dead and injured servicemen fighting a war many, especially the young who had not grown up with the degree of Commie-hating their parents had, now considered futile and stupid. Also related to ‘the Red Scare’ was the government’s allowing of capitalist corporations to run haywire, vamping up their marketing and the consumer-saturation of America. This might have lead to a 15 year long economic boom, but again many of the younger generation were getting sick of it all. All of this, combined with a natural teenage predisposition to do exactly what their parents don’t want them to, lead to a new, reactionary counter-culture that provided an impetus for a whole wave of musical experimentation; hippies.

The hippie movement (the word is, strangely, derived from ‘hipster’) was centred around pacifism, freedom of love and sex (hence ‘make love not war’), an appreciation of the home made and the natural rather than the plastic and capitalist, and drug use. The movement exists to this day, but it was most prevalent in the late 60s when a craze took the American youth by storm. They protested on a huge variety of issues, ranging from booing returning soldiers and more general anti-war stuff (hippies were also dubbed ‘flower children’ for their practice of giving flowers to police officers at such demonstrations) to demonstrations on the banning of LSD or ‘acid’, one of their more commonly used drugs. This movement of wired, eco-centric vegetarians didn’t connect well with the relatively fresh, clean tones of rock & roll and The Beatles, and inspired new music based around their psychedelic and their ‘appreciation’ of drug use. It was in this vein that The Beatles recorded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and why Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rose to fame in a new genre known as ‘acid rock’ (named after the drug from which most of the lyrics were ‘inspired’). Characterised by long, confusing and hideously difficult solos (I’m looking at you Hendrix), this was the prominent genre on show at the infamous Woodstock festival of 1969, featuring Hendrix, Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead & Carlos Santana among other things. Woodstock was the high point of the hippie movement, with over half a million fans attending to smoke, listen to the music, skinny dip and make love in and around the lake and generally by as hippie as possible.

Hippie culture went downhill post-Woodstock; public outcry following the Altamont Free Concert close to San Francisco (where Hell’s Angels provided security and shot a concert-goer during The Rolling Stones’ set for brandishing a gun) coincided with ‘the hippie generation’ mostly growing up. The movement still exists today, and it legacy in terms of public attitudes to sexual freedom, pacifism and general tolerance (hippies were big on civil rights and respect for the LGBT community) is certainly considerable. But their contribution to the musical world is almost as massive; acid rock was a key driving force behind the development of the genres of folk rock (think Noah and the Whale) and heavy metal (who borrowed from Hendrix’s style of heavy guitar playing). Most importantly, music being as big a part as it was of hippie culture definitively established that the practice of everyone, even the lowliest, ‘commonest’ people, buying, listening to, sharing and most importantly making music themselves was here to stay.

The story of hippies covers just one of the music families spawned out of the late 60s. The wave of kids growing up with guitars and the idea that they can make their own music, can be the next big thing, with no preconceived ideas, resulted in a myriad of different styles and genres that form the roots of every style of modern rock music. This period was known as ‘the golden age of rock’ for a reason; before pop was big, before hip-hop, before rap, decades before dubstep, before even punk rock (born in the early seventies and disliked by many serious music nerds for being unimaginative and stupid), rock music ruled and rock music blossomed.

You could argue that this, then, marks the story of rock, and that the rest of the tale is just one long spiral downwards- that once the golden age ended, everything is just a nice depressing story. Well, I certainly don’t like to think of that as true (if only because I would rather not have a mindset to make me stop listening to music),  but even if it was, there is a hell of a lot of stuff left in this story. Over? Not for another post or two…

Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…

NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.

We Will Remember Them

Four days ago (this post was intended for Monday, when it would have been yesterday, but I was out then- sorry) was Remembrance Sunday; I’m sure you were all aware of that. Yesterday we acknowledged the dead, recognised the sacrifice they made in service of their country, and reflected upon the tragic horrors that war inflicted upon them and our nations. We gave our thanks that “for your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

However, as the greatest wars ever to rack our planet have disappeared towards the realm of being outside living memory, a few dissenting voices have risen about the place of the 11th of November as a day of national mourning and remembrance. They are not loud complaints, as anything that may be seen as an attempt to sully the memories of those who ‘laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom’ (to quote Saving Private Ryan) is unsurprisingly lambasted and vilified by the majority, but it would be wrong not to recognise that there are some who question the very idea of Remembrance Sunday in its modern incarnation.

‘Remembrance Sunday,’ so goes the argument, ‘is very much centred around the memories of those who died: recognising their act of sacrifice and championing the idea that ‘they died for us’.” This may partly explain why the Church has such strong links with the ceremony; quite apart from religion being approximately 68% about death, the whole concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of others is a direct parallel to the story of Jesus Christ. ‘However,’ continues the argument, ‘the wars that we of the old Allied Powers chiefly celebrate and remember are ones in which we won, and if we had lost them then to argue that they had given their lives in defence of their realm would make it seem like their sacrifice was wasted- thus, this style of remembrance is not exactly fair. Furthermore, by putting the date of our symbolic day of remembrance on the anniversary of the end of the First World War, we invariably make that conflict (and WWII) our main focus of interest. But, it is widely acknowledged that WWI was a horrific, stupid war, in which millions died for next to no material gain and which is generally regarded as a terrible waste of life. We weren’t fighting for freedom against some oppressive power, but because all the European top brass were squaring up to one another in a giant political pissing contest, making the death of 20 million people the result of little more than a game of satisfying egos. This was not a war in which ‘they died for us’ is exactly an appropriate sentiment’.

Such an argument is a remarkably good one, and does call into question the very act of remembrance itself.  It’s perhaps more appropriate to make such an argument with more recent wars- the Second World War was a necessary conflict if ever there was one, and it cannot be said that those soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are not trying to make a deeply unstable and rather undemocratic part of the world a better place to live in (I said trying). However, this doesn’t change the plain and simple truth that war is a horrible, unpleasant activity that we ought to be trying to get rid of wherever humanly possible, and remembering soldiers from years gone by as if their going to die in a muddy trench was absolutely the most good and right thing to do does not seem like the best way of going about this- it reminds me of, in the words of Wilfred Owen: “that old lie:/Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori”.

However, that is not to say that we should not remember the deaths and sacrifices of those dead soldiers, far from it. Not only would it be hideously insensitive to both their memories and families (my family was fortunate enough to not experience any war casualties in the 20th century), but it would also suggest to soldiers currently fighting that their fight is meaningless- something they are definitely not going to take well, which would be rather inadvisable since they have all the guns and explosives. War might be a terrible thing, but that is not to say that it doesn’t take guts and bravery to face the guns and fight for what you believe in (or, alternatively, what your country makes you believe in). As deaths go, it is at least honourable, if not exactly Dulce Et Decorum.

And then, of course, there is the whole point of remembrance, and indeed history itself, to remember. The old adage about ‘study history or else find yourself repeating it’ still holds true, and by learning lessons from the past we stand very little chance of improving on our previous mistakes. Without the great social levelling and anti-imperialist effects of the First World War, then women may never have got the vote, jingoistic ideas about empires,  and the glory of dying in battle may still abound, America may (for good or ill) have not made enough money out of the war to become the economic superpower it is today and wars may, for many years more, have continued to waste lives through persistent use of outdated tactics on a modern battlefield with modern weaponry, to name but the first examples to come into my head- so to ignore the act of remembrance is not just disrespectful, but downright rude.

Perhaps then, the message to learn is not to ignore the sacrifice that those soldiers have made over the years, but rather to remember what they died to teach us. We can argue for all of eternity as to whether the wars that lead to their deaths were ever justified, but we can all agree that the concept of war itself is a wrong one, and that the death and pain it causes are the best reasons to pursue peace wherever we can. This then, should perhaps be the true message of Remembrance Sunday; that over the years, millions upon millions of soldiers have dyed the earth red with their blood, so that we might one day learn the lessons that enable us to enjoy a world in which they no longer have to.

Drunken Science

In my last post, I talked about the societal impact of alcohol and its place in our everyday culture; today, however, my inner nerd has taken it upon himself to get stuck into the real meat of the question of alcohol, the chemistry and biology of it all, and how all the science fits together.

To a scientist, the word ‘alcohol’ does not refer to a specific substance at all, but rather to a family of chemical compounds containing an oxygen and hydrogen atom bonded to one another (known as an OH group) on the end of a chain of carbon atoms. Different members of the family (or ‘homologous series’, to give it its proper name) have different numbers of carbon atoms and have slightly different physical properties (such as melting point), and they also react chemically to form slightly different compounds. The stuff we drink is that with two carbon atoms in its chain, and is technically known as ethanol.

There are a few things about ethanol that make it special stuff to us humans, and all of them refer to chemical reactions and biological interactions. The first is the formation of it; there are many different types of sugar found in nature (fructose & sucrose are two common examples; the ‘-ose’ ending is what denotes them as sugars), but one of the most common is glucose, with six carbon atoms. This is the substance our body converts starch and other sugars into in order to use for energy or store as glycogen. As such, many biological systems are so primed to convert other sugars into glucose, and it just so happens that when glucose breaks down in the presence of the right enzymes, it forms carbon dioxide and an alcohol; ethanol, to be precise, in a process known as either glycolosis (to a scientist) or fermentation (to everyone else).

Yeast performs this process in order to respire (ie produce energy) anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), so leading to the two most common cases where this reaction occurs. The first we know as brewing, in which an anaerobic atmosphere is deliberately produced to make alcohol; the other occurs when baking bread. The yeast we put in the bread causes the sugar (ie glucose) in it to produce carbon dioxide, which is what causes the bread to rise since it has been filled with gas, whilst the ethanol tends to boil off in the heat of the baking process. For industrial purposes, ethanol is made by hydrating (reacting with water) an oil by-product called ethene, but the product isn’t generally something you’d want to drink.

But anyway, back to the booze itself, and this time what happens upon its entry into the body. Exactly why alcohol acts as a depressant and intoxicant (if that’s a proper word) is down to a very complex interaction with various parts and receptors of the brain that I am not nearly intelligent enough to understand, let alone explain. However, what I can explain is what happens when the body gets round to breaking the alcohol down and getting rid of the stuff. This takes place in the liver, an amazing organ that performs hundreds of jobs within the body and contains a vast repetoir of enzymes. One of these is known as alcohol dehydrogenase, which has the task of oxidising the alcohol (not a simple task, and one impossible without enzymes) into something the body can get rid of. However, most ethanol we drink is what is known as a primary alcohol (meaning the OH group is on the end of the carbon chain), and this causes it to oxidise in two stages, only the first of which can be done using alcohol dehydrogenase. This process converts the alcohol into an aldehyde (with an oxygen chemically double-bonded to the carbon where the OH group was), which in the case of ethanol is called acetaldehyde (or ethanal). This molecule cannot be broken down straight away, and instead gets itself lodged in the body’s tissues in such a way (thanks to its shape) to produce mild toxins, activate our immune system and make us feel generally lousy. This is also known as having a hangover, and only ends when the body is able to complete the second stage of the oxidation process and convert the acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which the body can get rid of relatively easily. Acetic acid is commonly known as the active ingredient in vinegar, which is why alcoholics smell so bad and are often said to be ‘pickled’.

This process occurs in the same way when other alcohols enter the body, but ethanol is unique in how harmless (relatively speaking) its aldehyde is. Methanol, for example, can also be oxidised by alcohol dehydrogenase, but the aldehyde it produces (officially called methanal) is commonly known as formaldehyde; a highly toxic substance used in preservation work and as a disinfectant that will quickly poison the body. It is for this reason that methanol is present in the fuel commonly known as ‘meths’- ethanol actually produces more energy per gram and makes up 90% of the fuel by volume, but since it is cheaper than most alcoholic drinks the toxic methanol is put in to prevent it being drunk by severely desperate alcoholics. Not that it stops many of them; methanol poisoning is a leading cause of death among many homeless people.

Homeless people were also responsible for a major discovery in the field of alcohol research, concerning the causes of alcoholism. For many years it was thought that alcoholics were purely addicts mentally rather than biologically, and had just ‘let it get to them’, but some years ago a young student (I believe she was Canadian, but certainty of that fact and her name both escape me) was looking for some fresh cadavers for her PhD research. She went to the police and asked if she could use the bodies of the various dead homeless people who they found on their morning beats, and when she started dissecting them she noticed signs of a compound in them that was known to be linked to heroin addiction. She mentioned to a friend that all these people appeared to be on heroin, but her friend said that these people barely had enough to buy drink, let alone something as expensive as heroin. This young doctor-to-be realised she might be onto something here, and changed the focus of her research onto studying how alcohol was broken down by different bodies, and discovered something quite astonishing. Inside serious alcoholics, ethanol was being broken down into this substance previously only linked to heroin addiction, leading her to believe that for some unlucky people, the behaviour of their bodies made alcohol as addictive to them as heroin was to others. Whilst this research has by no means settled the issue, it did demonstrate two important facts; firstly, that whilst alcoholism certainly has some links to mental issues, it is also fundamentally biological and genetic by nature and cannot be solely put down as the fault of the victim’s brain. Secondly, it ‘sciencified’ (my apologies to grammar nazis everywhere for making that word up) a fact already known by many reformed drinkers; that when a former alcoholic stops drinking, they can never go back. Not even one drink. There can be no ‘just having one’, or drinking socially with friends, because if one more drink hits their body, deprived for so long, there’s a very good chance it could kill them.

Still, that’s not a reason to get totally down about alcohol, for two very good reasons. The first of these comes from some (admittely rather spurious) research suggesting that ‘addictive personalities’, including alcoholics, are far more likely to do well in life, have good jobs and overall succeed; alcoholics are, by nature, present at the top as well as the bottom of our society. The other concerns the one bit of science I haven’t tried to explain here- your body is remarkably good at dealing with alcohol, and we all know it can make us feel better, so if only for your mental health a little drink now and then isn’t an all bad thing after all. And anyway, it makes for some killer YouTube videos…

Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.

Aging

OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.