The Drone and the Wail

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am a pianist. Not a fantastic one it’s true, but enough to be able to read, appreciate and talk with a degree of authority about music, and I’m certainly able to appreciate (and to an extent exploit) the instrument’s unparalleled versatility and the simple beauty of its sound. However, the piano is a lonely, solitary instrument and I, like many other pianists before me, have often longed to dabble in another instruments. Most would lean towards the guitar or somesuch, in order to further expand the horizons of the music they are able to contribute to. However, the instrument that I have always wanted to learn might be considered slightly unconventional by many standards; the bagpipes.

This is in part a reflection of a slightly plaintive desire to reconnect with my somewhat loose Scottish roots, and indeed a country I have always liked (although in actuality the bagpipes originate from the middle east), but also for the simple reason that the pipes are inherently bizarre instruments. Here is the only instrument I know of played with the elbow, the only one where the majority of the instrument is made from thick cloth rather than something rigid and the only wind instrument where the bit with which the pitch is controlled is completely separate from where the sound itself is produced. Part of my reason for writing this post was purely to find out how the hell the thing worked.

That much my research has alluded to. To go back a step, in most woodwind instruments such as the oboe or clarinet, sound is produced by moving air over a stiff reed made of cane, which then vibrates and produces a clear note. The air within the tube attached to said tube then resonates, amplifying the sound. The holes in the tube control this resonance; the vibrating air will only form a standing wave and resonate up to the point at which the air escapes, so up to the furthest uncovered hole (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I lack the ability to explain this properly). Thus, which holes are covered and uncovered determines which standing waves are formed in the tube, and thus which frequencies are amplified by the tube and what note is played.

A bagpipe consists of four different parts; the blowpipe (the tube into which air is blown), the bag, the chanter (the bit at the bottom that the hands play in order to produce a note) and the drones (those three whacking great tubes that are to be found slung over a piper’s shoulder). Unlike most woodwind instruments, which locate the reed at the same place the air is blown in (the mouthpiece), the multiple reeds of a bagpipe are built into the base of the drones and the chanter; one reed in each. Air is blown from the mouthpiece into the airtight bag, and from there steady pressure is applied to the bag by the elbow in order to force air through the drones and chanter, creating the sound.

The bagpipe’s distinctive sound comes from the way these various components are set up and used; the drones are used to create the constant note running in the background of all bagpipe music, and it is their great length that causes long-wavelength, low-frequency, low-pitched notes to be produced. Most highland bagpipes have three drones; one long bass drone and two shorter tenor drones, producing a nice harmony. However, because most drone designs are just a single straight tube without the ability to adjust their pitch beforehand, this necessarily means that most bagpipes are effectively tuned to one key for their entire lives. This, combined with the fact that bagpipes are usually played in bands with multiple instruments all set to the same pitch in order to produce a coherent sound, presumably leading to the mass-production of only a few pitches, might account for why quite a lot of bagpipe music sounds somewhat samey. A partial solution to this may be the electric bagpipes, which presumably can be tuned to an infinitely more varied degree if you know how.

The shorter chanter underneath the bag, complete with finger-holes to allow its note to be controlled by the piper, is what produces the distinctive, high-pitched, almost nasal melodic sound of the bagpipes. Unfortunately, getting a note out of the instrument is significantly more than just blowing, squeezing and messing around with the notes; once you have experimented with a practice chanter (in essence a high-pitched recorder) to learn your notes, you then have to get an inordinate amount of practice in just to get the thing to produce any noise. Filling a set of pipes’ bag with air from empty can take several minutes just to start with, by which time you’re surely puffing and blowing having not managed to produce any sound other than a barely audible wheeze. After a while, the bag will reach capacity and the drones will start to sound out of sheer air pressure, but even then getting them to sound off properly takes an adroit little manoeuvre; the bag must be struck sharply at a specific point whilst blowing hard in order to get the drones to ‘tap in’ (or ‘strike in’). Striking in cleanly is apparently the single biggest challenge for the inexperienced piper. Once the drones are playing smoothly, engaging the chanter is apparently a relatively simple affair of going at the bag with a bit more vigour (which of course requires even more aggressive blowing into the thing), but even once you’ve started correctly, a careful cycle of squeeze-blow-take a desperate breath-squeeze again must be so well-practiced as to be automatic in order to keep the bag inflated and the sound flowing. In some ways, playing the bagpipes is like flying an aircraft; the middle section is a relatively simple job of just keeping on going and ensuring you don’t screw up or try anything dumb, whilst the beginning and end (which requires very careful timing in order to ensure the end of the song is crisp) are both rather technical procedures that have to be performed to perfection to prevent you making an unwanted, messy whining sound/crashing and killing hundreds of people. The comparison breaks down a little at that point, I’ll grant you.

For a final word on the subject of bagpipes, I turn to the words of some Englishman from days gone by who I now misquote: “If a neighbour has annoyed you, buy all his children a set of bagpipes”.

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Quality vs. Quantity

It’s an old saying, usually coming straight from the lips of the slightly insecure or self confident: ‘I do quality, not quantity!’. It’s a very appealing idea, the concept that skill and ability can mark one out from pure brawn and throwing vast amounts of resources at a problem. But sometimes quality is not the answer. Sometimes quantity is the way forward: and to illustrate this, I’m going to tell a story.

The Industrial Revolution was the biggest, most tumultuous and most difficult period of transition that the western world has ever been put through, and design was no exception. Objects once made individually and by hand, the work of skilled craftsmen, were now produced using vast steam-powered machinery owned and directed by rich businessmen. And being businessmen is the key here; they wanted their products to sell to the general public, and the only real way they knew how to do that back then was to make the things cheap. This generally manifested itself in making products as simple to produce as possible using the machinery of the day, and the idea of ingratiating design elements into these processes didn’t register on their conciousness; perhaps rightly, since the majority of the populace being sold to were rather poor and may not have been able to afford the prettier, more expensive item. What this did mean was that the products ordinary people filled their homes with were usually large, since Victorian machinery couldn’t handle high tolerances too well, decorated in a rather gaudy, ‘tacked on’ fashion rather than having beauty as part of the design, and were often of a very poor quality as manufacturers skimped on materials and good processing. We must remember that this was the golden age of deregulated industry, companies having no responsibility to either adhere to standards or treat their low-paid, overworked and awfully treated workers with any degree of respect.

This state of affairs was deplored by John Ruskin, an art critic and thinker of the time. He argued for a return to the old ways of doing things, with small-scale industry taking the place of big business and simple, good-quality, hand-crafted products replacing the mass-produced goods of the Victorian age. Since he actually had other things to do with his time, he didn’t expand on this plan to any great degree; but a man named William Morris did. Morris was a designer whose textiles designs would make him rich and whose poetry would make him famous, but he latched on to Ruskin’s ideas whilst at university, and they turned him into an early socialist. Indeed, he spent a decent chunk of time in later life standing on street corners distributing socialist pamphlets, but that’s another story. Morris took Ruskin’s ideas and, with a group of like-minded friends, founded a new design movement based on Ruskin’s philosophy. They wanted a return to craftsmanship, to put skill back into design and for workers to ’empower’ themselves through the making of good-quality, appropriately sized, simply designed products, putting them in charge of their own lives rather than acting as slaves to the corporation. More than that, they wanted to reinstate the role of design as a fine art, putting beauty into everyday products for everyday people, and to advance the art of design in general. This movement would later become known as the Arts and Crafts movement.

This movement was around between around 1860 and 1900, and enjoyed some success in revitalising design as an art form. Various universities and other intellectual establishments began founding schools of design, and as the Industrial Revolution wore on even the capitalists began to take notice of these new ideas, realising that the common people could be persuaded to buy their products because they were designed well rather than just because they were cheap. And what about the Arts & Crafts philosophy? Well, a few organisations were set up promoting just that idea, trying to bring together skilled craftspeople into a setup styled as a medieval guild. And they totally bombed; the production of individual, hand crafted items took so many more man-hours than the industrial mass-production process that simple economics (then a rather under-developed field) dictated its price was far beyond the price point of the ordinary people Morris’ philosophy aimed to serve. Whilst the products they produced were undoubtedly beautiful, and advanced the art of design considerably through their use of unusual materials and craft techniques, producing such quality products was simply not a viable solution to providing for the common man.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1920s that a design movement finally managed to make itself felt among the common people. In Germany, the Bauhaus school was set up in Weimar (home of the titular new republic that would be replaced by the Nazis in 1933) and began educating designers in all aspects of craftsmanship and fine arts, something that William Morris would doubtless have agreed with. However, the reason that the Bauhaus style proved so internationally successful, and continues to be relevant today, is for its acceptance of the machine age, and for experimenting with techniques from an industrial, rather than crafts, background. A good example is tubular steel; in the 1920s, extruded tubular steel (without joints in it) was a new innovation that was much stronger than previous efforts. Bauhaus designers immediately began experimenting with it, and when Marcel Breuer designed his Model B3 chair (later known as the Wassily chair) based around a tubular steel frame it put the material, and the chair, on the map. Here was a style whose products could be produced on a large scale, making them globally famous, and the style flourished because of it. Even today, products can be bought based on Bauhaus designs or in the Bauhaus style, and whilst many of William Morris’ wallpaper prints are still available, they are all now mass-printed in factories. He must be turning in his grave.

This is just an example, but it successfully illustrates a point; that, on a large scale, going too far into the quality side of things simply isn’t sustainable if it comes at the expense of quantity. It just comes down to the economics of the problem; the consumer culture gets blamed for a lot of things, but the extent to which mass-production has made ‘luxury’ goods affordable to the common people and made all our lives more comfortable is frequently neglected. Quality at the expense of quantity is rarely the answer; best, of course, is trying to find a way to do both.

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France

3500 calories per pound

This looks set to be the concluding post in this particular little series on the subject of obesity and overweightness. So, to summarise where we’ve been so far- post 1: that there are a lot of slightly chubby people present in the western world leading to statistics supporting a massive obesity problem, and that even this mediocre degree of fatness can be seriously damaging to your health. Post 2: why we have spent recent history getting slightly chubby. And for today, post 3: how one can try to do your bit, especially following the Christmas excesses and the soon-broken promises of New Year, to lose some of that excess poundage.

It was Albert Einstein who first demonstrated that mass was nothing more than stored energy, and although the theory behind that precise idea doesn’t really correlate with biology the principle still stands; fat is your body’s way of storing energy. It’s also a vital body tissue, and is not a 100% bad and evil thing to ingest, but if you want to lose it then the aim should simply be one of ensuring that one’s energy output, in the form of exercise  exceeds one’s energy input, in the form of food. The body’s response to this is to use up some of its fat stores to replace this lost energy (although this process can take up to a week to run its full course; the body is a complicated thing), meaning that the amount of fat in/on your body will gradually decrease over time. Therefore, slimming down is a process that is best approached from two directions; restricting what’s going in, and increasing what’s going out (both at the same time is infinitely more effective than an either/or process). I’ll deal with what’s going in first.

The most important point to make about improving one’s diet, and when considering weight loss generally, is that there are no cheats. There are no wonder pills that will shed 20lb of body fat in a week, and no super-foods or nutritional supplements that will slim you down in a matter of months. Losing weight is always going to be a messy business that will take several months at a minimum (the title of this post refers to the calorie content of body fat, meaning that to lose one pound you must expend 3500 more calories than you ingest over a given period of time), and unfortunately prevention is better than cure; but moping won’t help anyone, so let’s just gather our resolve and move on.

There is currently a huge debate going on concerning the nation’s diet problems of amount versus content; whether people are eating too much, or just the wrong stuff. In most cases it’s probably going to be a mixture of the two, but I tend to favour the latter answer; and in any case, there’s not much I can say about the former beyond ‘eat less stuff’. I am not a good enough cook to offer any great advice on what foods you should or shouldn’t be avoiding, particularly since the consensus appears to change every fortnight, so instead I will concentrate on the one solid piece of advice that I can champion; cook your own stuff.

This is a piece of advice that many people find hard to cope with- as I said in my last post, our body doesn’t want to waste time cooking when it could be eating. When faced with the unknown product of one’s efforts in an hours time, and the surety of a ready meal or fast food within five minutes, the latter option and all the crap that goes in it starts to seem a lot more attractive. The trick is, therefore, to learn how to cook quickly- the best meals should either take less than 10-15 minutes of actual effort to prepare and make, or be able to be made in large amounts and last for a week or more. Or, even better, both. Skilled chefs achieve this by having their skills honed to a fine art and working at a furious rate, but then again they’re getting paid for it; for the layman, a better solution is to know the right dishes. I’m not going to include a full recipe list, but there are thousands online, and there is a skill to reading recipes; it can get easy to get lost between a long list of numbers and a complicated ordering system, but reading between the lines one can often identify which recipes mean ‘chop it all up and chuck in some water for half an hour’.

That’s a very brief touch on the issue, but now I want to move on and look at energy going out; exercise. I personally would recommend sport, particularly team sport, as the most reliably fun way to get fit and enjoy oneself on a weekend- rugby has always done me right. If you’re looking in the right place, age shouldn’t be an issue (I’ve seen a 50 year old play alongside a 19 year old student at a club rugby match near me), and neither should skill so long as you are willing to give it a decent go; but, sport’s not for everyone and can present injury issues so I’ll also look elsewhere.

The traditional form of fat-burning exercise is jogging, but that’s an idea to be taken with a large pinch of salt and caution. Regular joggers will lose weight it’s true, but jogging places an awful lot of stress on one’s joints (swimming, cycling and rowing are all good forms of ‘low-impact exercise’ that avoid this issue), and suffers the crowning flaw of being boring as hell. To me, anyway- it takes up a good chunk of time, during which one’s mind is so filled with the thump of footfalls and aching limbs that one is forced to endure the experience rather than enjoy it. I’ll put up with that for strength exercises, but not for weight loss when two far better techniques present themselves; intensity sessions and walking.

Intensity sessions is just a posh name for doing very, very tiring exercise for a short period of time; they’re great for burning fat & building fitness, but I’ll warn you now that they are not pleasant. As the name suggest, these involve very high-intensity exercise (as a general rule, you not be able to talk throughout high-intensity work) performed either continuously or next to continuously for relatively short periods of time- an 8 minute session a few times a week should be plenty. This exercise can take many forms; shuttle runs (sprinting back and forth as fast as possible between two marked points or lines), suicides (doing shuttle runs between one ‘base’ line and a number of different lines at different distances from the base, such that one’s runs change in length after each set) and tabata sets (picking an easily repeatable exercise, such as squats, performing them as fast as possible for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, then another 20 seconds of exercise, and so on for 4-8 minute) are just three examples. Effective though these are, it’s difficult to find an area of empty space to perform them without getting awkward looks and the odd spot of abuse from passers-by or neighbours, so they may not be ideal for many people (tabata sets or other exercises such as press ups are an exception, and can generally be done in a bedroom; Mark Lauren’s excellent ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ is a great place to start for anyone interested in pursuing this route to lose weight & build muscle). This leaves us with one more option; walking.

To my mind, if everyone ate properly and walked 10,000 steps per day, the scare stats behind the media’s obesity fix would disappear within a matter of months. 10,000 steps may seem a lot, and for many holding office jobs it may seem impossible, but walking is a wonderful form of exercise since it allows you to lose oneself in thought or music, whichever takes your fancy. Even if you don’t have time for a separate walk, with a pedometer in hand (they are built into many modern iPods, and free pedometer apps are available for both iPhone and Android) and a target in mind (10k is the standard) then after a couple of weeks it’s not unusual to find yourself subtly changing the tiny aspects of your day (stairs instead of lift, that sort of thing) to try and hit your target; and the results will follow. As car ownership, an office economy and lack of free time have all grown in the last few decades, we as a nation do not walk as much as we used to. It’s high time that changed.

Why the chubs?

My last post dealt with the thorny issue of obesity, both it’s increasing presence in our everyday lives, and what for me is the underlying reason behind the stats that back up media scare stories concerning ‘the obesity epidemic’- the rise in size of the ‘average’ person over the last few decades. The precise causes of this trend can be put down to a whole host of societal factors within our modern age, but that story is boring as hell and has been repeated countless times by commenters far more adept in this field than me. Instead, today I wish present the case for modern-day obesity as a problem concerning the fundamental biology of a human being.

We, and our dim and distant ancestors of the scaly/furry variety, have spent the last few million years living wild; hunting, fighting and generally acting much like any other evolutionary pathway. Thus, we can learn a lot about our own inbuilt biology and instincts by studying the behaviour of animals currently alive today, and when we do so, several interesting animal eating habits become apparent. As anyone who has tried it as a child can attest (and I speak from personal experience), grass is not good stuff to eat. It’s tough, it takes a lot of chewing and processing (many herbivores have multiple stomachs to make sure they squeeze the maximum nutritional value out of their food), and there really isn’t much of it to power a fully-functional being. As such, grazers on grass and other such tough plant matter (such as leaves) will spend most of their lives doing nothing but guzzle the stuff, trying to get as much as possible through their system. Other animals will favour food with a higher nutritional content, such as fruits, tubers or, in many cases, meat, but these frequently present issues. Fruits are highly seasonal and rarely available in a large enough volume to support a large population, as well as being quite hard to get a lot of down; plants try to ‘design’ fruits so that each visitor takes only a few at a time, so as best to spread their seeds far and wide, and as such there are few animals that can sustain themselves on such a diet.  Other food such as tubers or nuts are hard to get at, needing to be dug up or broken in highly energy-consuming activities, whilst meat has the annoying habit of running away or fighting back whenever you try to get at it. As anyone who watches nature documentaries will attest, most large predators will only eat once every few days (admittedly rather heavily).

The unifying factor of all of this is that food is, in the wild, highly energy- and time-consuming to get hold of and consume, since every source of it guards its prize jealously. Therefore, any animal that wants to survive in this tough world must be near-constantly in pursuit of food simply to fulfil all of its life functions, and this is characterised by being perpetually hungry. Hunger is a body’s way of telling us that we should get more food, and in the wild this constant desire for more is kept in check by the difficulty that getting hold of it entails. Similarly, animal bodies try to assuage this desire by being lazy; if something isn’t necessary, then there’s no point wasting valuable energy going after it (since this will mean spending more time going after food to replace lost energy.)

However, in recent history (and a spectacularly short period of time from evolution’s point of view), one particular species called homo sapiens came up with this great idea called civilisation, which basically entailed the pooling and sharing of skill and resources in order to best benefit everyone as a whole. As an evolutionary success story, this is right up there with developing multicellular body structures in terms of being awesome, and it has enabled us humans to live far more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, with correspondingly far greater access to food. This has proved particularly true over the last two centuries, as technological advances in a more democratic society have improved the everyman’s access to food and comfortable living to a truly astounding degree. Unfortunately (from the point of view of our waistline) the instincts of our bodies haven’t quite caught up to the idea that when we want/need food, we can just get food, without all that inconvenient running around after it to get in the way. Not only that, but a lack of pack hierarchy combined with this increased availability means that we can stock up on food until we have eaten our absolute fill if so we wish; the difference between ‘satiated’ and ‘stuffed’ can work out as well over 1000 calories per meal, and over a long period of time it only takes a little more than we should be having every day to start packing on the pounds. Combine that with our natural predilection to laziness meaning that we don’t naturally think of going out for some exercise as fun purely for its own sake, and the fact that we no longer burn calories chasing our food, or in the muscles we build up from said chasing, and we find ourselves consuming a lot more calories than we really should be.

Not only that, but during this time we have also got into the habit of spending a lot of time worrying over the taste and texture of our food. This means that, unlike our ancestors who were just fine with simply jumping on a squirrel and devouring the thing, we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting stuff out of the fridge, spending two hours slaving away in a kitchen and attempting to cook something vaguely resembling tasty. This wait is not something out bodies enjoy very much, meaning we often turn to ‘quick fixes’ when in need of food; stuff like bread, pasta or ready meals. Whilst we all know how much crap goes into ready meals (which should, as a rule, never be bought by anyone who cares even in the slightest about their health; salt content of those things is insane) and other such ‘quick fixes’, fewer people are aware of the impact a high intake of whole grains can have on our bodies. Stuff like bread and rice only started being eaten by humans a few thousand years ago, as we discovered the benefits of farming and cooking, and whilst they are undoubtedly a good food source (and are very, very difficult to cut from one’s diet whilst still remaining healthy) our bodies have simply not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to get used to them. This means they have a tendency to not make us feel as full as their calorie content should suggest, thus meaning that we eat more than our body in fact needs (if you want to feel full whilst not taking in so many calories, protein is the way to go; meat, fish and dairy are great for this).

This is all rather academic, but what does it mean for you if you want to lose a bit of weight? I am no expert on this, but then again neither are most of the people acting as self-proclaimed nutritionists in the general media, and anyway, I don’t have any better ideas for posts. So, look at my next post for my, admittedly basic, advice for anyone trying to make themselves that little bit healthier, especially if you’re trying to work of a few of the pounds built up over this festive season.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

The Price of Sex

This is (probably, I might come back to it if I have trouble thinking of material) the last post I will be doing in this mini-series on the subject of sex.  Today’s title is probably the bluntest of the series as a whole, and yet is probably most descriptive of its post’s content, as today I am going to be dealing with the rather edgy subject of prostitution.

Prostitution is famously quoted as being the world’s oldest profession, and it’s not hard to see why. Since men tend to have physical superiority over women they have tended to adopt overlord roles since the ‘hitting other people with clubs and shouting “Ug”‘ stage, women have, as previously stated, tended to be relatively undervalued and underskilled (in regards to stuff other than, oh I don’t know, raising kids and foraging for food with a degree of success often exceeding that of hunting parties, although that is partly to do with methodology and I could spend all day arguing this point). In fact it can be argued that the only reason that some (presumably rather arrogant) male-dominated tribes didn’t just have done with women as a gender is purely down to sex- partly because it allowed them to father children but mostly, obviously, because they really enjoyed it. Thus the availability of sex was historically not a woman’s most valuable asset to her male peers, but since it was something that men couldn’t/would rather not sort out between themselves it took on a great degree of value. It could even be argued that women have been ‘selling’ sex in exchange for being allowed to exist since the earliest origins of a male-dominated tribe structure, although you’d have to check with an actual anthropologist to clarify that point.

Since those early days of human history, prostitution has always remained one of those things that was always there, sort of tucked into the background and that never made most history books. However, that’s  not to say it has not affected history- the availability of pleasures of the flesh has kept more than one king away from his duties and sent his country into some degree of turmoil, and even Pope Alexander VI (a la, among other things, Assassin’s Creed II) once famously hired 50 prostitutes for a party known as the Ballet of the Chestnuts, where their clothes were auctioned off before both courtesans and guests (including several clergymen) crawled naked over the floor to first pick up chestnuts, and later compete to see who could have the most sex. In fact, for large swathes of history, prostitution was considered a relatively popular profession among lowborn women, whose only other choices were generally the church (if you could afford to get in), agriculture (which involved backbreaking toil, malnourishment and a generally poor quality of life), or serving work if you were lucky. It was relatively well-paid, required no real skill, was more exciting than most other walks of life and far less risky than a life of crime. Even nowadays sex workers are held with a degree of respect in many countries (such as The Netherlands and New Zealand) as being people stuck in a difficult situation who really don’t need the law trying to screw over (if you’ll pardon the pun) what little they have.

However, that doesn’t mean, and never has done, that prostitution is just some harmless little sideshow that we should simply ignore. The annual death rate among female prostitutes in the USA is around 200 per 100,000, meaning that over a (say) 10 year career one in fifty are likely to be killed. Compare that to a rate of 118 per 100,000 for America’s supposedly most dangerous profession, being a lumberjack. Added to this is the fact that prostitutes, many of whom are illegal immigrants, runaways or imported slaves, are rarely missed or even noticed by society, so make easy victims for predators and serial killers. Prostitution is often seen as a major contributory factor in the continued spread of STD’s such as HIV/AIDS, and is often targeted by women’s rights groups as being both degrading to women both directly involved and indirectly associated as well as slowing the decline of chauvinist attitudes. Then there is sex tourism (aka travelling to somewhere like Thailand to hire prostitutes because at home people might see you coming out), which is rapidly becoming one of the most distasteful, as well as dangerous & counter-productive, aspects of 21st century tourism. And then, of course, there is sex trafficking, perhaps the lowest of the low as far as all human activities go. Sex trafficking is the practice of abducting young women to sell into slavery as prostitutes, both within a country and across international borders, which would be morally repugnant enough if it wasn’t for the fact that a significant proportion of those trafficked are children, sometimes sold even by their own families. Around three-quarters of human trafficking today, the largest slavery operation in the history of the world, is concerned with the global sex trade, and is the fastest growing criminal activity on the planet. Much of it is connected to other aspects of organised crime, such as the drugs wars in Mexico, and can therefore be directly linked to large-scale theft, murder and smuggling, amongst other crimes. In India & Bangaladesh, some 40% of prostitutes are thought to be children, many of whom use a highly addictive drug linked to diabetes and high blood pressure to make them seem older & fatter (research suggests that men find fuller physiques more attractive when under stress or hardship). Looking through some of these figures & reading some of the stories surrounding them, it’s hard not to be struck by how low humanity has the potential to stoop when it ceases to think or care.

Over the last 100 or so years, as life has got less hard for the average woman and job opportunities have expanded, prevailing attitudes towards, and the prevalence & amount of, prostitution have declined heavily, and it is now frequently seen more as a rather distasteful sideshow to modern living that most would rather avoid. But to contrast against this we have the fact that the industry is both very much alive across the world, but could even be said to be thriving- the ‘labour’ of slave prostitutes is worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. The trouble is, because it is an inherently seedy sideshow, it is impossible to get rid of, with legislation usually causing it to merely go underground and leading to further degradation in living conditions and welfare of sex workers, and regulating it is similarly tricky. Thus, it’s very hard for governments to know what to do about an industry that they recognise will always be there but is immensely prone to crime, human rights abuse and health issues. Unless the world, in a rather unlikely twist learns to live largely without prostitutes, a black stain is unfortunately likely to remain on our pride and dignity as a race. Exactly how this should be dealt with is still a little unclear.