Friday, 23 January 2015

How to Increase your IQ Without Really Trying

I'm about halfway through Donna Tartt's 864-page novel The Goldfinch and I'm completely hooked, so much so that I've flouted one of the fundamental rules of my inherited work ethic - the one which forbids reading for pleasure during the hours of daylight (Sundays excepted). I've even been tempted to treat myself to reading the book in the way I imagine it was created - continuously, concentrating solely on the task, taking breaks only for nature's necessities. But there are so many other things distracting my attention - and all of them with claims to priority - that I can't see it happening.
Of course I've only got myself to blame: having fallen for the lure of technology, the internet in particular and email especially, I'm now busier than I've ever been in my life. Gone are the days when the volume and quality of one's correspondence was limited by the time and expense it took to produce it. Email put paid to that: it may be a free service but there's a hidden cost in the effort of sorting through and responding to the masses of messages that come in daily. And I have three accounts.
Nor does it help that I've inadvertently taken on other people's jobs - travel agents' for example. At first it's fun to trawl through the offers and deals for flights, hotels and RV hire in the Rocky Mountains, but there comes a point when information-overload causes indecision, frustration, and grumpiness. People get paid for doing this stuff, so maybe it's time to heed the old adage "jack-of-all-trades, master of none" and engage the services of professionals. Still, with all this powerful technology at our fingertips, the temptation to DIY is hard to resist.
And for those who may view my complaint as a symptom of wimpish inability to do more than one thing at a time, let me bring to your attention the results of neuro-scientific research which challenge not only the definition of multi-tasking but also the supposed benefits. The results show that we don’t actually do several things at once: in fact we switch from one task to another - albeit very quickly. Not so clever after all, especially as there are consequences in the form of poor decision-making and "cognitive losses" greater than those consequent on pot-smoking. Which means that multi-tasking after smoking marijuana is not the paradox it might appear: it’s simply slower than the high-speed version – and causes less brain damage.
The implication of the research is that it's better to concentrate our minds on one thing at a time, to dig deeper rather than wider, so as to reap more reward and satisfaction from our activities. Since it's impracticable to return to the simpler, pre-computer existence some of us knew, we must somehow wean ourselves off multi-tasking and temper our addictions to social media and constant connectivity. Some travel agents now sell holidays in remote places deliberately chosen for their lack of phone signal and internet connection - a sort of re-hab for tech-junkies - although having to come back to the real world means it can only be a temporary cure. A cheaper, everyday respite - sometimes overlooked - is to be found by turning off the connections and diving into a book. I can recommend The Goldfinch.
And, if you don't fancy reading, another inexpensive way to turn off is to take a nap which, according to the same neuroscientists, is more than just refreshing: they've demonstrated that a 15-minute nap can produce the equivalent of a 10-point boost in IQ. I think I'll go and lie down for half an hour before I check on my email.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Slippery Superfluity

At the start of each year a Chinese acquaintance presents me with something I really don't want: a calendar. Of course I need a calendar but, for that very same reason, I already have one (on my phone and computer and synced with my partner's). The gift is therefore surplus to requirements (as so many are) and, even if it were not, it would still be an unwelcome addition our household stuff: a showy object, lavishly produced, garishly coloured and big; designed not so much to display the date as to show off the ancient Chinese craft of decorative paper-cutting. A very tiny proportion of its surface area is devoted to actual dates, which means that reading glasses must be located before consulting it. I know it's ungracious but I don't want to give up precious wall-space to a big red doily which has an illegible, bi-lingual calendar appended to it. I usually stow it at the back of a wardrobe for a couple of months before my conscience dulls enough to allow me to chuck it out.

This year, however, my conscience is clear for, having moved to a less open-plan apartment, I've found a spot where the gift may hang fairly unobtrusively, without causing constant offence to the eye or upsetting the carefully considered feng shui of the place: a small landing half way up the staircase. It's a compromise, but it doesn't diminish my conviction that the design of objects works best when driven by the 'fit-for-purpose' principle. In this I'm not alone and, by coincidence, I found support in a short film made in 1962 by Ken Russell. Titled The Lonely Shore it imagines a time when archaeologists are trying to make sense of household objects from Britain long after it has been obliterated. Their puzzlement is greatest when examining superfluously decorated objects such as a fire-dog stand masquerading as an armoured knight - and they certainly don't get the irony of the imitation log fire it is paired with. On the other hand they are full of admiration for sleek, functional pieces such as Eero Saarinen's Tulip chair, concluding that an alien species must have been responsible for them.

And if practical evidence of the importance of fit-for-purpose design were needed,  my recent accident involving cups, a teapot, stairs and a shiny plastic tray should serve to reinforce the point. Mankind must do better than continue to prioritise decoration over functionality - especially when it comes to everyday household equipment. I've been looking ever since for a non-slip tray - like they have in Café Nero - but the shops are awash only with dangerously slippery ones.
Imagine my joy, then, when a serious, proper caterers' supplies outlet opened up in the next block, significantly improving the odds of finding my dream tray. Browsing the store I relished the sight of all that stock, universally utilitarian - in the best sense - having been designed simply to do the job professionally and, furthermore, manufactured robustly, so as to stand the daily rigours of the trade. There, sure enough, were the sought-after black, rubbery trays, in a variety of shapes and sizes - and all very reasonably priced.

When I got back home I binned the treacherous old tray without a second thought and, impatient to put the new one through its paces, shouted upstairs to my partner "Shall I bring you some tea?"
"No thanks", she said. Disappointed, but not daunted, I made tea anyway and, grasping the loaded tray with just one hand, strode confidently up to the landing. Chuffed as I was, however, there was still one thing that marred my delight: the big, red, resentful-looking doily glaring down at me.

Year of the Sheep. Bah!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Declarative Garments

"Well, it's all over" I said to myself, as I glanced down at a Christmas jumper lying sodden in the gutter, the brown dye of the leaping reindeer bleeding into the snowy background. Compared with many others I'd seen, the design was restrained - tasteful even - reminding me of the heavy-knit woollies fashionable years ago which originated in Norway, or Canada, or some other Arctic country: garments for life, not just for Christmas.

But why had it been abandoned in the street? Should it not have been put away for use next year, like baubles and tinsel stashed in a box? I imagined a trauma: the wearer, out for a night of partying with friends, had misjudged the dress code and, embarrassed, had discreetly discarded it in the alley. "What a shame", I thought. "He only wanted to declare that he was up for light-hearted fun but, feeling under pressure from others, felt obliged to tone down his message."

Those who are not familiar with Christmas jumpers (e.g. Australians) may be interested to learn how this recent phenomenon came about. Men and boys in the UK will recall that they commonly found presents of gloves, socks, scarves and jumpers under the tree. The most potentially embarrassing of these was the jumper which, when worn in public for the first time, would be inevitably identified as a Christmas present. Subsequently, and with a playful sense of irony (not to mention a shrewd understanding of the market), jumper manufacturers evolved unambiguous seasonal designs and, in doing so, rendered decision-making much easier for buyers of gifts. No more fretting over colours and patterns: just choose the most ridiculous design at the best price. (One chap I met at a party was wearing one with 'Merry Xmas' woven into it. By way of a conversation opener, I admired it. "Ah", he said "watch this". He fumbled in his pocket for the switch and turned on the 50 miniature LEDs sewn into the front which were programmed to flash in several coloured patterns. "Only nine quid!" he claimed. His wife, adding insult to injury, had left the price ticket on it).

All but one of the designs I've spotted were dedicated to the pagan aspects of Christmas, featuring Santa, reindeer, elves, holly, mistletoe, plum puddings and snowmen. The one exception showed a scene of the three wise men approaching the stables. It was languishing on a shop rail, un-bought, perhaps because the image of camels, palm trees and desert seemed inappropriately unseasonal: or perhaps because the message it relayed was too serious or controversial. Not all designs are commercially successful. But jumper manufacturers should take heart: there is the return-to-work-after-the-festive-holiday jumper market yet to be exploited: the potential there for sad emoticons and anti-boss slogans is enormous. And then there's the Easter jumper market, with all those cute bunnies and bright daffodils. 

Of course you don't have to have images or words emblazoned on your clothes to get a message across: society is supremely capable of reading what's behind your mode of dress. And the more consciously you choose your style the clearer is the message of who you are, where you come from and what you aspire to. It's been a long time since I gave up wearing of T shirts with slogans in favour of less declarative (and more flattering), tailored garments which, I have no doubt, speak just as plainly. Today, however, I am ready to revert. In case there should be any ambiguity, the message I would like to convey is Je suis Charlie - in big, bold letters across my chest.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Pre-Historic Modern Art

While in Athens we made an effort to imbibe the antiquity of the culture but, with only a few days in hand, the task was overwhelming. The guide-book, therefore, was an essential tool and, following its advice, we took a picnic with us to the Agora - the rambling, grassy site which from 600 BC until 600 AD was the bustling centre of Athens. There, apart from the remarkably intact Temple of Hephaestus, most of what remains looks like random stones and depressions in the ground, indecipherable to all but archaeologists.

While I sat in the shade of an olive tree with my sandwich I contemplated how so little comes to be left of all those elaborate, monumental buildings erected by the ancients at such cost. Did successive generations have so little respect for the achievements of their predecessors that they swept them away without a thought of posterity? The answer must be yes. The phenomenon is common elsewhere. In Britain the routine destruction of historical sites in the name of progress has spawned rearguard actions by preservation societies such as the Victorian Society (although the Victorians themselves ploughed their way through antiquity with railways, swept away mediaeval towns and polluted rural landscapes in the pursuit of profit) and the Modernist Society in its attempts to hang on to the best architecture of the first half of the 20th Century. I suppose we will soon need a Post-Modernist Society as well.

Historic as they are, the remains in the Agora are relatively recent: they represent the apogee of a civilisation that began to flower around 3000 years BC on the Aegean islands known as the Cyclades (around the same time as British tribes began the 1000 year-long process of building Stonehenge). Among the surviving Cycladic artefacts the carved female figures are the most distinctive. Unlike the later, classical Greek statues they are semi-abstract and the beauty of their graceful simplicity echoes through the millennia, having inspired the likes of Moore, Picasso and Modigliani and continuing to intrigue contemporary artists.

At first I was puzzled by how a group of small, thinly populated islands came to beget such a sophisticated culture but it might be explained as a case of 'necessity is the mother of invention'. In order to catch fish the islanders became expert sailors; later, when they began to extract valuable mineral resources from the land, their maritime skills came in handy for trading them; an economy of surplus was born and arts and science flourished in its wake. With the inevitable decline of their civilisation the buildings were destroyed or fell into ruin and artefacts were plundered and carried off as booty. Nowadays their economy is driven by beach-side holidays but we are fortunate that diligent archaeologists have been able to extrapolate the history from the ruins and that some of the artefacts are in museums where we can all admire them.

Back in Manchester, waiting to cross a road, I was approached by a scruffy-looking young man whose tentative "Excuse me" had the familiar tone of a beggar about to plead for cash. But for his foreign accent, I might have ignored him. As it turned out he was a German tourist on his first visit here and all he wanted was advice on where to eat cheaply. As I walked with him to the eat-all-you-can-for-£6.50 Chinese buffet I asked him what he was here to see.
"Old Trafford football ground," he said.

I wanted to introduce him to the city's outstanding legacy of scientific, technical and political achievements- all of which are celebrated in its museums and buildings - or urge him to visit the world's oldest passenger railway building while it still stands: but our time together was brief and he was going home in two days.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

From a Tourist's Point of View

Experts tell us the Greek economy has collapsed by 30% but signs of hardship and distress have not been obvious to me as a tourist in central Athens. The place is awash with busy bars, cafes and restaurants; the pavements are crowded with shoppers; and the roads are full of traffic nose-to-tail. There are beggars, of course, but no more than I would encounter in central Manchester. Mind you I’ve only been here a week, during which time I have been seriously distracted by long, leisurely lunches, early evening ouzo and – oh, a lot of other cultural attractions.

A week is a long time in politics, however, and this particular week is crucial to the Greek parliament: it must agree on its choice of president or face the possibility of a snap election which may return a majority for the Syriza party which, with its determined anti-austerity agenda, would seriously screw up the European Union’s plans. (This could explain why I have begun to notice buses full of riot police on so many of the streets).

Despite my initial observations, Greece is undeniably bust. We tourists are doing our bit towards replenishing the country’s empty coffers, contributing 13.6 million Euros in the past ten months alone - a 10% year-on-year rise - but, despite our efforts, this is not enough to repay Greek debt to the EU and other lenders. And, as a means of direct aid, tipping restaurant staff generously goes only so far. More must be done and Syriza has a plan: write off the debts. Lenders are not too keen on this idea but, weighing the woes of lenders against the pauperisation of a society, it is hard to sympathise with them. To put it another way, if you owe the bank 10k and can’t pay, you have a problem: if you owe the bank 17 billion and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.

And all this goes on against the backdrop of Ancient Greece which is impossible to ignore. The remains of classical buildings are visible everywhere, historic artefacts fill a dozen museums and the myths and legends of the gods suffuse the language. Understandably, the troubles of modern Greece are not usually the main point of interest for tourists. Even when taking a break from formal sightseeing, lingering at pavement cafes, it is the Greeks themselves who are the object of our fascination. With their loose interpretation of indoor-smoking bans, lax approach to wearing seat belts and helmets and their disregard for tidy parking you have to admire their minor rebellions against the EU.

I’ve tried to make the most of my visit. I suppose I could have spent more time on the history but it’s surprising how quickly museum fatigue sets in and, with five millennia to go at, the best I can aim for is an overview. In this context, a week is not a long time.