Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming

The Rise of Meditation in the West

Meditation in the West has seen a burst of popularity since the 1960s. An Australian survey in 2002 found that 11% of people in Western Australia have practised meditation at least once in their lives. A 2007 government study in the United States found that 9.4% of people there had practised meditation at some time.

The positive medical benefits for meditation have also recently been documented. The BBC (all hail!) have reported that meditation can reduce blood pressure and ease heart disease as well as actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Cool.

So why is meditation not more a part of Western life? Why is it still seen as an Eastern technique, most often associated with India? Could it be something to do with our sleeping patterns?

What?

Yes, our sleeping patterns. Specifically, our sleeping patterns since the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Light Bulb

In Britain (in the south, so the best case scenario) we spend over half our time without the sun. Roughly 51% of our hours are night. 250 years ago that meant almost total darkness.

Of course there were candles and we could light fires, but open fires were dangerous in our expanding wood-built towns and candles were expensive for most people. Gas lighting was still to be developed.

In the summer, we have about 8 hours of darkness, if we put sunset at about 9.00pm and sunrise at about 5.00am. In the winter, however, we have about 16 hours of darkness, with sunset around 4.00pm and sunrise at 8.00am.

If you can imagine this time 250 years ago, you would be in darkness from the mid-afternoon to the morning. What could you do? You couldn’t read or write, you couldn’t watch television, you couldn’t go outside for a walk to the pub. You couldn’t really do much at all (unless you were a thief) except go to bed or sit around in the dark and chat. For 16 hours a day.

Industrial Sleep

Since the industrial revolution and the explosion in light bulb usage, sleeping patterns in Britain have changed. Sleeping seven or eight hours a night all year round is the norm now – but it never used to be.

When the sun went down, it used to get dark. Now we have lights in our houses, on our streets, we like to relax in the evening with a film. And all this light has done something a little funny: we think it’s summer all year round.

Remember the 8 hours of darkness we get in summer? Isn’t that suspiciously similar to the hours most people sleep? You could call it the minimum that humans have evolved to live with; and that’s what we regulate ourselves to have by using electric lighting in the evenings.

As the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler says:

“Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.”

Pre-Industrial Sleep

Without the miracles of electric lighting, our ancestors spent 51% of their lives in darkness. They couldn’t do much, but they could at least sleep properly.

In fact, there was so much time to kill, that people would have two sleeps: first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep might be from evening until after midnight and then second sleep from the early morning until sunrise – or when the farmer came a-knocking.

But what happened between first and second sleeps? Well, that’s where the meditation comes in. There wasn’t any reason to be fully awake (except to go to the toilet or have sex) so people drifted into this twilight zone of “meditation”. I put it in quotation marks because no one deliberately induced this state: it happened naturally.

First sleep was deep, restful sleep with a burst of dreaming before waking for the first time. Then it was followed by a period of quiet “meditation” before second sleep, which was characterised by more dreaming.

And that was natural.

Can We Still Do This?

Yes we can. Even today, if we are deprived of light for fourteen hours a day, we start to sleep in two shifts. Dr Thomas Wehr did an experiment to test this. After four weeks of acclimatisation to the regime, this is the sleep pattern his subjects showed:

  1. Lie awake in bed for two hours.
  2. Sleep for four.
  3. Awake again for two to three hours of quiet rest and reflection.
  4. Fall back asleep for four more hours.
  5. Wake for good.

The question now is: why would we want to do this? Who’s got fourteen hours to waste on sleep?

The Power of Dreams and Meditation

That middle segment of wakefulness is not just sitting around in bed. It is characterised by an altered state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep, where confused thoughts wander at will, like dreams, and people feel content. This brain-state is very similar to the state reported by people who meditate regularly.

That period of “meditation” allows the sleeper to examine their dreams without the pressures of the day to worry about. How many people these days lounge around in bed, pondering their dreams – if they can remember them at all? No, most people have to get up and go to work, which breaks the spell.

But dreams and quiet meditation are powerful tools. Half-controlled, half-random, dreams offer easy access to suppressed emotions and unexpected thoughts. We can visit old friends, talk to dead relatives, travel in foreign lands, have new experiences and remember old ones.

This period of quiet meditation allows new thoughts to come to the surface, it allows our minds to shuffle through the events of the previous day and to put everything into perspective. “I’ll sleep on it,” is a common saying that reflects this.

The night-time also has a reputation as the “mother of thoughts”. Many artists and creative thinkers report that dreams or sleep in general is the best time for generating new ideas. With a double shift sleep pattern, dreaming, waking and meditation is built in to the system. Twice over.

A Experiment in Double Shift Sleep Patterns

So I tried it (of course). I know that Dr Wehr’s subjects needed four weeks to get into this pattern, but that didn’t stop me trying. The idea that our sleep is supposed to be broken also takes the pressure off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s no bad thing. It’s natural.

So last night I tried it. I went to bed at about half eight in the evening and didn’t get out of bed until about nine in the morning. A good solid twelve hours of rest.

And I did sleep in two shifts. The first was until about three in the morning. Then I simply lay in bed (after checking the cricket score…) pondering the dreams I’d just had. Then I fell asleep again after a while and woke at about half past eight. I then stayed in bed just thinking about the night’s dreaming and got out of bed at nine.

I won’t bore you with my dreams, but suffice to say that I remember them still, twelve hours later. They were dramatic and exciting and perhaps even revealing. I’m going to try again tonight.

Conclusion

On average, we spend 10% of our lives dreaming between 100,000 and 200,000 dreams. That’s an awful lot. I can’t remember too many. One reason for that is that I sleep through too many of them. If I start sleeping in two shifts, like my ancestors used to, then I’ll remember way more. I really appreciate my dreams and the alternate reality that they allow me. Maybe I’ll understand them better, maybe I’ll understand myself better. Maybe I’ll just get a few more stories out of it.

“Let the Night teach us what we are, and the Day what we should be.”

Thomas Tryon, Wisdom’s Dictates (London, 1691)

References

Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles by A. Roger Ekirch:
http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.2/ah000343.html

Modern Life Suppresses An Ancient Body Rhythm By Natalie Angier, March 14, 1995:
http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/science/modern-life-suppresses-an-ancient-body-rhythm.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

Various BBC reports on meditation:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1847442.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/410003.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7319043.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8363302.stm

No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

The Lamp

It was my birthday today. My girlfriend – of six years, mind you – gave me a lamp. A lamp. I don’t like lamps. Why did she buy me a lamp? Does she know me so little? Six years! Has she not noticed my aversion to mood lighting?

It’s not even a lamp with a purpose, like a bedside lamp or a desk lamp – it’s one of those funny little ornamental lamps, shaped like a stone. And the light – such as it is – is a feeble puddle of sick yellow. Useless. It just sits in the corner, like a disease.

I haven’t the heart to tell her I hate it though. I wonder if it was meant as a message, that she wants to shed some light on our relationship or something. I’ve never been so disturbed by a gift in my whole life. I mean, I’ve received plenty of crappy presents before, but this is supposed to be from the love of my life. A sodding lamp.

I think I’m going to have to break up with her.

But what can I say? I can’t tell her the truth. I can’t say that we’re splitting up because she gave me a lamp for my birthday. That would look superficial – but it’s not superficial, is it? How can she have gone out to buy me a nice present and come back with a lamp? What does that say about us?

But still, I can’t blame the lamp. She’d tell all her friends that I broke up with her over a lamp and then I’d never get with Suze, would I?

Nah – there’s no option but to blame our break-up on something else. I guess I could use Jon. They’ve been shagging for months.

Then I can dump the lamp.

Technology in Sport: Justice vs Drama


Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:

  • Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
  • Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.

Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.

Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.

Is This A Good Thing?

Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?

Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.

But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?

These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:

1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport

During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).

  • Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
  • And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.

2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials

These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).

  • Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
  • Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.

3. There is often still an element of human judgement required

Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.

  • Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.

So Why Use Technology?

Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?

2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?

3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?

The Logical Conclusions

I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.

1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it

The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.

2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity

Football has the right balance at the moment. The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.

This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.

After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.

3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!

Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.

But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.

Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.

I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.

And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!

No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

This was what I bought:

  • £1.18 6 bananas
  • £1.00 2 cucumbers
  • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
  • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

Total cost: £4.40.

I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

No Supermarket January

New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

Why?

  1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
  2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
  3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
  4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
  5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
  6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
  7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
  8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
  9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
  10. It’s something to write about!

The Toothpaste Test

At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.

The Country Game: Official Rules

The Country Game is a highly contentious parlour game played by travellers all over the world. These are my rules, developed in association (and in great disagreement) with the Cholsey Country Club.

What is a “Country”?

NB: “Country” has no specific legal definition. Therefore we can call it what we want, to satisfy the needs of the game, which should reward travel, not politics. So:

A country is an entity which AT THE TIME OF VISITING satisfies any of these conditions:

  1. It is a member state of the UN.
  2. It is an observer member of the UN AND is EITHER a non-member state OR claims statehood.
  3. It is on the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.
  4. It is recognised as a state by at least 10% of the full membership of the UN.
  5. It is an overseas possession of a country satisfying 1, 2, 3 or 4 above AND is outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (which extends 230 miles overseas) of that country.

At the time of writing, this means that there are:

  1. 192 members of the UN.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_member_states
  2. 4 observer members of the UN: Palestine, The Holy See (Vatican City), The Cook Islands and Niue.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_General_Assembly_observers
  3. 16 Non-Self-Governing Territories.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_list_of_Non-Self-Governing_Territories
  4. 2 further states recognised by at least 10% of the UN membership: Kosovo (38%) and Taiwan (12%).
  5. Many other places, including Puerto Rico (US), The Canary Islands (Spain), Réunion Island (France) and Greenland (Denmark).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclusive_Economic_Zone

Notes:

  • This definition is deliberately broad because the world is a very big place. I want to break it up as small as possible. We’re all different, aren’t we?
  • For ease of implementation, I’m taking the EEZ of every country to be the maximum 230 miles, rather than going by the official extent, which is frequently less.
  • I’m also applying this 230 miles overland. Basically: if it’s within 230 miles of the possessing state, it doesn’t count as a separate country. I think that’s fair. If it’s that far away you must be travelling specifically to visit that place. You deserve a point.
  • It is important to note that the definition is made AT THE TIME OF VISITING. This means that if you visited Yugoslavia in 1972, you visited Yugoslavia. You did not visit Croatia.
  • That might seem silly, but it would be even sillier for your list to be changing every time there’s a war. It also means that you can have visited countries that no one else will ever be able to again – caché!

How to Score

Okay, so that’s just the definition of what counts as a country. Now we can start counting them.

A player scores one point (and one point only) for each country (according to the definitions above) they have visited in their lifetime IF:

  • They spent at least 24 hours in that country (see note below). 
  • They did something ‘of cultural interest’ during their stay.

And that’s it – simple!

Notes:

  • There is one exception to the 24-hour rule: The Holy See (Vatican City). This is the ONLY exception because it’s impossible to spend a night here. Score a point for any visit.
  • It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve visited a country, you will only EVER score one point for it.
  • ‘Cultural interest’ is defined with common sense. It is there to prevent sneaky travellers from counting a transit stay in an airport hotel. If you haven’t left the airport / train station / bus, it’s not interesting.
  • This is a stupid game. There are a lot of things wrong with it. I don’t care.

How to beat Hormonal Changes with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise is particularly important for women to tone down negative consequences of hormonal changes. Exercise balances the system. Boosted levels of serotonin in the body regulates mood and aggression, which can be affected by hormonal changes such as the pregnancy, PMS and the menopause.

Physical activity increases levels of tryptophan in the bloodstream and therefore the concentration of serotonin in the brain. It balances dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF. And keeps glutamate and GABA (too high in PMS sufferers) balanced as well.

The Workout

  • You can exercise while pregnant, but keep it fairly light. 30 minutes at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate per day.
  • For PMS, try 1 hour of aerobic exercise 4 times a week before your period.
  • In general, women benefit from moderate intensity workouts, but go with how you feel.
  • Remember that we evolved for long distance walking, not for sitting around in front of computers! Exercise is nature’s way of regulating chemicals in the body.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

200 Years of Conflict: A Very British Century 1910-2010

To celebrate the end of the year, I have been researching the history of the British at war in the last century, the living memory of my country.

  • According to my findings, in the last 100 years the British have been at war in every year bar 17. 
  • That’s 83 years of conflict
  • And in each of those 17 years of ‘peace’ we have been the occupying power in one or more countries. 
  • During those 100 years, we have been involved in at least 34 conflicts, lasting a total of around 200 years.

Here’s a list of those conflicts, divided by decade, with casualty estimates in brackets:

1910-1920

1914-1918 World War I (39 million dead)
1916-1916 Easter Rising (Ireland, 400 dead)
1918-1922 Russian Civil War
1919-1919 Third Anglo-Afghan War (3,000 dead)
1919-1921 Anglo-Irish War (2,000 dead)
1919-1923 Turkish War of Independence

1920-1930

1924-1935 Peace? Ongoing British occupation of Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and India, among others.

1930-1940

1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine (5,000 dead)
1937-1945 The Pacific War
1938-1948 British-Zionist Conflict (Palestine, at least 1,000 dead)
1939-1945 World War II (73 million dead)

1940-1950

1941-1941 Anglo-Iraqi War (600 dead)
1941-1949 Greek Civil War (16,000 dead)
1948-1960 Malayan Emergency (10,000 dead)

1950-1960

1950-1953 Korean War (2.3 million dead)
1952-1960 Mau Mau Uprising (Kenya, 14,000 dead)
1955-1959 Cyprus Emergency (400 dead)
1956-1957 Suez Crisis (3,000 dead)
1958-1958 First Cod War (Iceland)

1960-1970

1961-1961 Peace? Kuwait and Tanganyika win their independence from British rule.
1962-1962 Brunei Revolt
1962-1966 Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation (800 dead)
1962-1975 Dhofar Rebellion (Oman)
1963-1967 Aden Emergency (Yemen)
1968-1998 Northern Ireland Troubles (3,500 dead)

1970-1980

1972-1973 Second Cod War (Iceland)
1975-1976 Third Cod War (Iceland)

1980-1990

1982-1982 Falklands War (Argentina, 1,000 dead)

1990-2000

1990-1991 First Gulf War (Iraq, at least 25,000 dead)
1995-1996 Bosnian War (100,000 dead)
1998-1998 Operation Desert Fox (Iraq, at least 600 dead)
1998-1999 Kosovo War (Yugoslavia, 10,000 dead)

2000-2010

2000-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War
2001-???? Global War on Terror
2001-???? Afghanistan War (50,000 dead and counting)
2003-2009 Iraq War and Iraqi Insurgency (at least 60,000 dead)

I am certain that I have excluded many conflicts that you may consider suitable for this list. I have been unable to source a list of British combat casualties for the last 100 years myself, but John Pilger, a journalist and documentary film-maker, reports that 16,000 British service men and women have died in action since 1948.

That is quite remarkable for a country that has not been under any military threat in the sixty-five years since the end of World War II.

I hope that this information has the effect on others that it had on me: shock and awe. How dare I hope to live in a civilised society, when that society is so intimate with war and slaughter?

Touring with Dinosaurs

This is a list of the top grossing worldwide ‘tours’ of 2010, according to Pollstar.

1. Bon Jovi

  • Gross Takings: $201.1m (£130.7m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $105.35
  • Number of Shows: 80
  • Gross Takings per Show: $2.5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 48

2. AC/DC

  • Gross Takings: $177m (£115m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $97.21
  • Number of Shows: 40
  • Gross Takings per Show: $4.4m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 57

3. U2

  • Gross Takings: $160.9m (£104.6m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $100.17
  • Number of Shows: 32
  • Gross Takings per Show: $5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 50

4. Lady Gaga

  • Gross Takings: $133.6m (£86.8m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $88.22
  • Number of Shows: 138
  • Gross Takings per Show: 0.97m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 24

5. Metallica

  • Gross Takings: $110.1m (£71.5m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $98.72
  • Number of Shows: 60
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.8m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 47

6. Michael Buble

  • Gross Takings: $104.2m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $83.81
  • Number of Shows: 111
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.94m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 35

7. Walking with Dinosaurs

  • Gross Takings: $104.1m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $50.56
  • Number of Shows: 485
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.21m
  • Got Famous: Late Triassic Period
  • Age Now: 230m years

8. Paul McCartney

  • Gross Takings: $93m (£60m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $138.35
  • Number of Shows: 31
  • Gross Takings per Show: $3m
  • Got Famous: 1960s
  • Age Now: 68

9. Eagles

  • Gross Takings: $92.3m (£59.9m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $121.85
  • Number of Shows: 54
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.7m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 62

10. Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd)

  • Gross Takings: $89.5m (£58.1m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $126.14
  • Number of Shows: 56
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.6m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 67

Dinosaurs

With the exception of Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé, I would contend that none of the things touring actually exist any more. Or shouldn’t.

It is highly appropriate that the show ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ is at number 7. Arguably Dinosaurs fill most of the other spots as well.

Bands that were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s should not still be massive today. It goes against all the impulses of Rock – and against the very definition of Pop.

The old Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude of ‘live fast, die young’ has been forgotten (or at least part of it) – and from the looks of those box office takings it seems these guys (note: all men) prefer filling their pensionable pockets to dying.

Fair enough – I suppose it’s not their fault that healthcare has advanced to the point where even rockers living fast can still survive to a ripe old age.

And I suppose it’s not their fault that they are top of these charts: it’s just that their fans are the ones with the money, baby-boomers all grown up, cashing in their own pensions.

And why not?

Well you’ve got to ask why the money in music is still with acts that hit the big time thirty years ago? What does that mean for the industry? What does that mean for innovation and new music? Do we really have to wait until we’re retired before we can afford to go and see top-line shows? What price nostalgia?

I guess you can make a parallel with books. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is still wildly popular with young kids looking for their first taste of freedom, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s our job, writing today, to be better than that.

Otherwise, why bother at all?

Why Diets Don’t Work (or How to Stop Judging Obese People)

The Obesity Epidemic

Obesity has doubled since the seventies. The ruling hypothesis to explain this is that the rise is due to more calories consumed and less exercise performed.

But, according to food consumption statistics, our diet has ‘improved’. We eat less fat and saturated fat now than we did in the seventies. And we do more exercise now as well. Believe it or not, exercise was seen as potentially unhealthy in the 1960s. The only things that we are eating more of now compared to the seventies and earlier are carbohydrates.

Furthermore, obesity is linked to poverty, not to the excess food that comes from wealth. In very poor families, the men are very fat – and the women are even fatter, even though they do most of the work. Why would it be linked to poverty? The mass production and distribution of carbohydrates like rice, sugar and wheat means that these are cheap food products compared to the relatively expensive meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is no ‘thrifty gene’ that tells our bodies to store fat when times are good or when we know that food will be scarce.

The storage of fat is an evolutionary adaptation, not a response to environmental circumstances. For example, squirrels will put fat on in winter, whatever you do. You can keep them from hibernating, you can starve them, you can even perform surgery to remove their winter fat – but their bodies will still put the weight on, and lose it again in the spring. That’s just what happens: it’s nothing to do with their diet and nothing to do with the reduction in exercise during hibernation.

It’s Nothing To Do With Diet or Exercise

(Of course, diet and exercise are vitally important in many other aspects of health. I am talking here purely about obesity.)

Starvation diets don’t work. You lose a bit, then put it back on with interest when you go off the diet. (This has nothing to do with the health benefits of eating slightly less than you want, see my earlier post.) Often the obese eat less than the lean. Gluttony and sloth are not to blame, they are just ways of making fat people feel guilty and of making thin people feel good about their superior morals.

Positive and negative caloric balance, eating more or less than you need, does not affect weight. Our body finds balance no matter what we do. If we eat more than we need, our metabolism will speed up and burn the excess calories off. If we eat less than we need, our metabolism will slow down and conserve calories (and we might live longer…).

Forced over-eating

There was an experiment where volunteers were fed 4000 calories a day. The subjects gained a few pounds and then their weight stabilised, so the researchers decided to increase the calories:

  • First to 5000 calories a day.
  • Then to 7000 calories a day.
  • Then to 10000 calories a day – all while remaining sedentary!

The researchers noted that there were, ‘marked differences between individuals in ability to gain weight.’ One person gained just 9lbs after 30 weeks of this regimen. Afterwards, everyone lost weight with the speed that they had gained it.

Calorific balance tends to 0, whether you are on a 1000 calorie diet or a 10000 calorie diet.

Exercise

Nor does exercise affect weight. If we exercise more, we eat more. Hence the phrase, ‘work up an appetite’. Exercise only burns a fraction of the calories we consume. You would have to walk up 20 flights of stairs to burn off the caloric input of 4 pieces of bread.

Danish researchers trained previously sedentary people to run marathons. After 18 months of intensive training:

  • The 18 men lost an average of 5lbs (2.25kg) of fat.
  • The 9 females lost nothing at all.

There are even studies that show people getting fatter with exercise, just as dieting regimes can do.

Genetics

Weight gain varies ten-fold between different people, indicating that it is genetic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: we breed cattle for high fat yield using genetic principles. The difference in the size of cows is not put down to over-eating or sedentary behaviour, so why do we do that for fat humans?

We are born with a genetically influenced body shape. The proportion of fat on your body will not change even if you lose or gain weight. There are three basic types of body morphology:

  • Mesomorphs: wedge-shaped power houses.
  • Ectomorphs: thin as a rake.
  • Endomorphs: pear shaped.
Of course, most people have elements of one and aspects of another, but the general principle is clear: your shape is genetically influenced.

Size is a Class Issue

There is also a class issue here. McDonald’s is blamed, but Starbucks is not, even though a large frappacino with cream has just as many calories as a Big Mac. People who watch TV are called couch potatoes and lazy, but people who stay sitting at their desk reading books are not.

Finally: if our environment was toxic, then why aren’t we all fat? It is not down to will-power or moral rectitude, as some people would like.


This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p233 onwards)

Walking Home for Christmas: Maps & Pictures

In 2010, I walked home for Christmas: trudging every single one of the gloriously snowy 38 miles from London to Cholsey. You can read more on why I walked home for Christmas and also read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates I wrote about the journey. But here are the pictures and, due to my upsetting Google a few years ago, only the first map.

Heathrow Terminal 5 to White Waltham

15 miles on B roads (AKA ‘The Boring Bit’).

White Waltham to Henley-on-Thames

About 9 miles cross-country.

Henley-on-Thames to Cholsey

16 miles cross-country. In the dark.

Yep: the day after my walk, I drove back to London to pick up my sister… Same journey, in reverse, 2 hours. 😉

Walking Home for Christmas: The Updates

In 2010, I walked home for Christmas: trudging every single one of the gloriously snowy 38 miles from London to Cholsey. You can read more on why I walked home for Christmas and see some of the pictures I took of the journey. And for those of you who didn’t follow my progress on Twitter (shame on you!), here are all my updates, recorded for posterity. Yes that first one does say 5:39…

From New Cross to the M4

Here we go! Leaving New Cross- I’ll be taking spreadbets on how far I’ll get- 0-38 miles. Any takers?
5:39 Dec 23rd via txt

Phase 1 complete. At Heathrow terminal 5- the walking starts here. First task: get out of the terminal…
7:18 Dec 23rd via txt

First sighting of pseudo-countryside, two horses in a paddock and a few trees near Horton…
8:18 Dec 23rd via txt

Arrived in Datchet- and arrived onto my map! Cholsey only an arm-length away! Time for some pizza.
8:53 Dec 23rd via txt

Got my first walkers’ “Morning!” – London is definitely over.
9:07 Dec 23rd via txt

Crossing the Thames at Royal Windsor- good day ma’am!
9:36 Dec 23rd via txt

Oakley Green! That was a pretty boring walk through Windsor- but here come the footpaths- yeah!
10:37 Dec 23rd via txt

I’m on the M4! Well, I’m over the M4- nice spot for lunch…
12:08 Dec 23rd via txt

From the M4, through Henley-on-Thames and on into the Darkness

Walking down a snow-bound lane towards Knowle Hill, delivery vans out in force today-Christmas presents I guess…
12:52 Dec 23rd via txt

Crazies Hill! Named after me (probably) – on the descent now though, through a snow-capped wood with crows overhead…
14:02 Dec 23rd via txt

And halfway too- 19 miles to go!
14:11 Dec 23rd via txt

Nothing hurts more than back-tracking…lucky it was only a couple of hundred yards…but here’s Henley!
14:44 Dec 23rd via txt

Right- back on the path after a nice cup of tea and a cake in Henley. Note to forecasters: you have 30 minutes to provide the sunny interval you promised me …
15:33 Dec 23rd via txt

Got lost, got found. Just me and snow and wooded hillsides. And birds. I saw a fox earlier too- and got chased by a dog…
16:05 Dec 23rd via txt

Through the Darkness

No idea where I am, but Nettlebed 3 miles can’t be all wrong…
16:44 Dec 23rd via txt

Following the tracks of some kind of heffalump in a field in the middle of somewhere. Couldn’t be better.
17:03 Dec 23rd via txt

Witheridge Hill! Not withering yet – I almost know where I am…
17:34 Dec 23rd via txt

Having a bite to eat at the Maharajah’s Well. Pizza’s still delish, body’s still holding together…
17:57 Dec 23rd via txt

Couple of cars skidded off the road near Wellplace Zoo- drama! They’re fine. I’m fine- got snow chains for these shoes…
18:37 Dec 23rd via txt

Just nailed a totally pointless hill in ankle deep snow. Not easy after nearly 12 hours walking… Now walking down the hill…
19:03 Dec 23rd via txt

12 hours walking and I’m still not home. I only popped out for a pint of milk…
19:29 Dec 23rd via txt

The Thames Path to Cholsey

Calling Cholsey, calling Cholsey- prepare to recieve- ETA 1 hour, repeat 1 hour…
20:05 Dec 23rd via txt

I’m so close I can almost reach out and touch it- no, wait, I can touch it- I’M HOME! THE SEASONAL HAS LANDED!!
20:55 Dec 23rd via txt

How to beat Addiction and Quit Smoking with Exercise

The Theory

Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.

Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.

Exercise or Drugs?

There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.

Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.

The Workout

  • If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
  • Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
  • Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
  • As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
  • Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
  • Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
  • Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
  • Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

Walking Home for Christmas: Heathrow to Cholsey

Yesterday morning, at about half seven, I walked out of Heathrow Terminal 5 heading for Cholsey, a proud village in Oxfordshire and my ancestral home. It was rather snowy, as some of you may have noticed. The longest walk I’d ever done before yesterday was about 16 miles. Now I was going for 38 miles – and the mathematicians among you will realise: that’s more than double.

At 8:59 p.m. I arrived in Cholsey.

You can read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates during the journey and admire some pretty pictures of me eating pizza, but first I’d just like to tell you why I did it.

I’m interested in travel. I’ve done a lot of aeroplane travel in my life, quite a bit either into or out of Heathrow. I’ve travelled many times from Cholsey to Heathrow and back. I’ve travelled even more times from Cholsey to London and back. I’ve done the journey by car, by train and by bus. But never by foot.

Travel by car, by train or by bus is forgettable, almost unconscious. A train journey we pass by reading a book or by staring vacantly out of the window. I’ve been gripped by a need to understand what it means to travel. Now I understand what that journey, Heathrow to Cholsey, means.

It means 13.5 hours of walking, trudging, shuffling, limping, tramping, traipsing, marching. It means never stopping, it means not letting the mind break down when the body does. It means country lanes, paths, bridleways, A-roads and B-roads. It means left-turns, right-turns and wrong-turns. It means foxes, crows, rabbits and cranes. It means walking at dawn, at day, at dusk, at sunset and at night. It means hills, valleys, woods, fields, rivers, streams, towns, villages and hamlets. It means West.

This journey is about understanding. I hope that my journey will help other people make their own journey and find their own understanding, just as Alastair Humphreys’ journey last year inspired mine. Next year, why not walk home for Christmas?

Tetris Life

I once spent a whole summer playing Tetris. I’d get up late and play, like, seven hours straight. And then, at night, when I slept, I’d see the blue and yellow and red and green blocks falling like alien snow, soft and easy in my dreams, falling into place with a touch of my mind.

But the summer ended and it was time to go back to school. Obviously I couldn’t play so much and anyway I met Susie soon after that. But that summer of Tetris has always stayed with me, as a metaphor, and I still get those dreams sometimes.

I figured life is just a game of Tetris, isn’t it? You twist and turn to fit in around other people, sometimes you slot into space perfectly; other times it’s awkward, nothing seems to fit and there’s a bit of a panic as the mistakes pile up. Sometimes it gets so awful that you’ve got no choice but to fail and start all over, building up from the bottom again.

The most important thing in Tetris, like in life, is to have a good strong foundation. An early mistake is always lurking there to trip you up. You’ve got to dig down and sort it out sooner or later or you won’t get anywhere. Sorting yourself out can take a long time, but it’s always possible.

The art of Tetris is to stay focussed on the current block, while keeping one eye on what’s coming next. But you’ll never really know the future, nothing beyond the next block. You have to deal with the blocks that life throws at you.

Me and Susie lasted a couple of terms, but then she decided that Adam fitted her much better. That was fine by me. She helped me get through a couple of levels and then I was ready for more, with a clear screen ahead of me.

As I get older, though, I find the blocks are falling fasting. It’s that much more difficult to manipulate them and get them slotting in the right way. Sometimes you just have to make do, cram them in any old how. There’s no point waiting for the right block, I don’t have time. Once, around level four, I waited almost the whole game for one of those long straight blocks. I could afford to do that, the game was still pretty slow and, when it came – boom – five rows down in one.

I don’t have that luxury any more. I’ve got to make do with whatever comes my way. Just keep going, line after line, level after level, until one day it all just falls apart.

The Taps

The taps have stopped dripping. Ever since the day my dad died, all the taps in my parents’ house have been dripping, like they were in mourning or something, dripping tears onto the porcelain of the sinks. The taps have been dripping for so long that the water-drops have grooved brown stains where they fall.

It would make sense that the taps were in mourning. My dad was a plumber and lived pretty much his whole life in this old house, ever since he bought it in the sixties with mum. He fixed up the central heating back in the seventies and he was always tinkering around with the pipes and the boiler. They must have missed him badly when he died.

Soon after the taps started dripping, mum called dad’s old mates in to sort it out. They tightened all the nuts in the taps – for free, they said, out of respect for my dad – and the dripping stopped. But as soon as they left, the taps started up dripping again. Mum decided to get used to it, she said it made up for the silence of my dad’s absence.

But now they’ve stopped, a year to the day that my dad died.

I suppose when you live somewhere for a long time, you and the plumbing start working in rhythm. The boiler warmly awakens you in the morning and heats the house for you in the evening. The water pipes expand and contract in diurnal exercise. The radiators flex into life in the winter and hibernate in the summer. There’s hot water just when you need it, cold when you don’t. The plumber playing on his pipes in symphony. And then, suddenly, only the taps drip-dripping.

I don’t live in a house. Not many people do these days. I live in a studio flat in the city. I moved in six months ago and I imagine I’ll move on again in another six months. I don’t think my studio flat will cry for me like this old house has for my father. It’s not like that anymore.

She Was a Pianist

She was a pianist. That’s what she always said anyway. Not once in the whole time I knew her did I ever see her play the piano, but that didn’t stop her. She was a pianist, end of story.

We’d been dating for about two months before I questioned her pianist credentials, but she just changed the subject. I didn’t press her at the time because she was very pretty and it’s not often that I have the chance to date pretty girls, so I just let it slide. What did it matter to me anyway, if she did or did not play the piano?

So things progressed, as they do. I’d go to her place, she’d come to mine, we’d meet in the park, we’d go to the mall. Then pretty soon it was her birthday. I was excited about what I’d got her: two tickets to go and see a concert, Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades. I’d phoned my mum and asked her for some advice and that’s what she’d said. It was going to be a surprise so I didn’t tell my girlfriend until the day of the concert. I was excited, she was excited, we were both excited. Then I told her and everything changed. She went deathly silent and I got a bit upset.

‘Aren’t you pleased? I thought you liked piano music – you’re always saying you’re a pianist for Christ’s sake! Let’s just go to the damned concert.’
She shook her head.
‘Why the hell not?’
‘I can’t.’
‘Why not? What’s wrong? Tell me.’
She looked very sad, ‘my brother was killed by a piano.’
I was shocked, ‘how?’
‘It fell on him’
‘While he was playing?’
‘We used to live in a big house with a grand staircase. One day, the piano fell down the stairs and crushed him. He was only nine.’
‘Jesus, that’s awful!’
She nodded.
‘So why do you call yourself a pianist?’
She looked ill. ‘It was me who pushed the piano down the stairs.’
‘Why on earth did you do that?’
‘I wanted to see what it sounded like.’

I didn’t see too much of her after she told me that story. The Nocturnes were good though.

How to beat Depression with Exercise

The Theory

Exercise counters depression at almost every level. With regular exercise we become less anxious, less neurotic, less angry, less stressed, less cynical, less distrustful, more sociable, and more confident. How?

  • Exercise boosts norepinephrine, which boosts our feelings of self-esteem.
  • Exercise boosts dopamine, which boosts our motivation, attention, focus and satisfaction.
  • Exercise boosts serotonin, which enhances our mood and boosts our impulse control. It boosts our feelings of self-esteem and increases our capacity for learning.
  • Exercise boosts BDNF, which protects neurons against cortisol, the chemical released when we are under stress.

Exercise has been shown to work as well as the drug Zoloft against depression. The improvement isn’t as dramatic as the drug, but exercise performs better over the long-term, over about 6 months.

When we’re depressed, the brain stops adapting, it shuts down learning capacity at the cellular level. This means that we find it incredibly hard to work our way out of the hole. Depression is a form of hibernation. Instead of hibernating when food supplies are low, depression pushes us into hibernating when our emotions are low.

The Workout

  • Just 10 minutes exercise can lift your mood, but only briefly.
  • For best results, workout for 3-5 sessions per week.
  • Work at a high-intensity, 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • As a rough guide, try to burn at least your Body Weight in lbs x 8 Calories per week. You can test yourself on gym equipment to get an idea of the values or use the calculator on this website: http://www.prohealth.com/weightloss/tools/exercise/calculator1_2.cfm.
  • Try to exercise with others too, then you’ll get the benefits of socialising as well. It will also give you the motivation to keep working.
  • Stick at it. Remember that exercise works best in the long-term, at least six months.

Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

Bryanology: The Semantics of Seduction in the Lyrics of Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams, Canadian Poet Laureate, three-time Oscar nominee and true heir to the song-writing legacy of Bob Dylan, is also a prime proponent of cock rock.

In this article I examine some of his poetry for their florid description, astute observation and sound love-making advice.

Bryan Adams and the Physical Act

Bryan doesn’t like to leave much to the imagination. He wants to demonstrate to us, not just his lyrical virtuosity, but also his experience in the bedroom.

This, from Tonight We Have The Stars (2008), explains how we might progress from the dinner date to the bedroom, Adams-style:

We’ll save ourselves a bottle
Of California red
We’ll drink it on a Tuesday
Let it go straight to our heads

And we’ll eat from good china
And make love on linen sheets

Once in the bedroom, Adams is a master of seduction. His ability to describe the Act in words of rhyme is unparalleled, take these couplets from his 1996 smash hit (UK #9) Let’s Make It A Night To Remember:

I love the way you move tonight,
Beads of sweat drippin’ down your skin,
Me lying here ‘n’ you lyin’ there,
Our shadows on the wall and our hands everywhere.

Can’t you just picture it?

However, his experience can be intimidating to us mere mortals. In Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? (1995, UK #3) he mocks the listener’s sexual prowess. His sneering ‘really’ implying that, while we may believe that we have indeed performed the Act, the woman was not truly satisfied. Luckily, Adams gives us quite a detailed lyrical sex manual:

To really love a woman,
To understand her,
You gotta know her deep inside…

He follows this with an explanation of how the woman can teach the male to arouse the sexual organs:

To really love a woman,
Let her hold you,
Till you know how she needs to be touched.

Then Adams takes it to the next level with an exhortation to extreme oral sex:

You’ve gotta breathe her – really taste her,
Till you can feel her in your blood.

This may seem a little gruesome to the inexperienced, but it reveals Adams’ dedication to the pleasure of the opposite sex.

Bryan Adams and Invitations to Infidelity

In the 1980s, Adams wrote a string of material about sexual infidelity, starting in 1984 with Run To You (UK #11):

She says her love for me could never die,
But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I,
Oh – but her love is cold,
Would it hurt her if she didn’t know?

The question is rhetorical of course. It is unclear if the subject of Run To You was also the subject of his next song, Princess Diana, in Diana (1984):

Oh the first time I saw you was in a magazine,
The next time you was walking ‘cross my television screen,
I knew right then and there that I had to make you mine,
The day that he married you I nearly lost my mind.

Diana whatcha doin’ with a guy like him,
Diana I’d die for you, please let me in.

Just in case Adams’ intentions were even slightly opaque, like a real man, he makes them quite clear in a later stanza:

Since I saw that picture of you,
Nothing matters I just wanna lay ya.

But Adams was also realistic about his conquests. In One Night Love Affair (1985, Canada #19), Adams is clearly cognisant that love affairs are fleeting, transitory experiences:

The night was made for love, it ain’t for keeps.

Later in the same song, he gives one of the most heart-rendering accounts ever put into rhyme of the vacuous lust that is a one night love affair:

One night love affair,
Trying’ to make like we don’t care,
We were both reachin’ out for somethin’,
One night love affair,
Sometimes life ain’t fair,
Oh – and not we’re left with nothin’.

Please note: whether this poem describes an affair with Princess Diana (dearly departed) or not is never made clear in the poem.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Rejection

Bryan Adams is not always a stallion in the stable of love it would seem – unless, as appears likely, he writes the following verses not from experience, but out of pity for lesser men. This theory is given greater credence by the fact that they are all album tracks, rather than one of those selected for smash hit status.

This verse from If You Wanna Leave Me (1991) mocks the desperation of the dumped and Adams shows his sensitivity to the plight of others by capturing the anguish in words of tearful power:

If you wanna leave me, can I come too?
If you wanna leave me, gonna go with you.
If you say no – I’m still gonna go!
If you wanna leave me – can I come too?

(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear (1996) satirises the desperate lengths that some men will go to in order to become close to the object of their desire. Not a problem I imagine Bryan has:

I wanna be your t-shirt when it’s wet,
Wanna be the shower when you sweat …

Wanna be your sleepin’ bag, baby slip inside,
Let me be your motorcycle n’ take ya for a ride.

But even in the face of rejection, Adams will still insist I Ain’t Losing The Fight (2008):

Bring it on, bring it on I was born ready,
I’m a son of a strong man – I’m rock steady,
Everything you throw I can see it coming,
Ain’t gonna be no TKO just a lot of lovin’.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Malfunction

Fascinatingly, Adams also shows us how to deal with premature ejaculation, in this verse from Hearts On Fire (1987).

First he apologises, as a gentleman:

You know I can’t help,
the way I feel inside…

Then he takes control, as a man, requesting his lady-friend’s immediate presence, telling it straight:

So come on over,
I ain’t hard to please.
Oh baby – what you get ain’t,
always what you need.

No, indeed. Not always what you need; it’s all about what Adams needs. The description of the actual ejaculation is poetic as ever:

Risin’ to my feet I can feel the heat,
It’s tryin’ to pull me under,
Runnin’ through the night,
we can make it right,
It’s comin’ on like thunder.

So the next time you find yourself coming on like thunder, take a deep breath and think of Bryan.

UCL Friends of Palestine: Why Am I An Activist?

On the 16th of December 2010, about forty people crammed into a small lecture theatre on a snowy night in London. Just one week on from the tuition fees protest, the topic of this evening’s event could not have been more timely.

Why am I an activist? This is a very personal question – why should a non-Palestinian become a Palestinian activist? Is it our fight too? Or should we take the advice of Malcolm X and work among our own kind?

“Work in conjunction with us – each of us working among our own kind…Working separately, [we] actually will be working together.” 

I do not consider myself to be much of an ‘activist’, but I have certainly been involved in ‘actions’. I am probably the sort of person that the four speakers were trying to reach: the potential activists, those who have dabbled and who could become useful foot soldiers in whatever the fight may be.

The Speakers

There were four speakers at this event:

1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine.
A fellow and lecturer at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at Exeter University.
http://www.karmi.org/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghada_Karmi

2. Eyal Clyne, Israel.
Has worked with Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHR), the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Breaking the Silence, a series of testimonies given by Israeli soldiers against the actions of the Israeli army in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.
http://peace4israel.wordpress.com/

3. Frank Barat, France. 
The coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which seeks to reaffirm the primacy of international law as the basis for the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. http://www.russelltribunalonpalestine.com/en/

4. Jody McIntyre, UK. 
A blogger and champion of the Palestinian cause. Recently he became a potent symbol of the protest movement in Britain after he got thrown out of his wheelchair by policemen during the protests against the rise in tuition fees.
http://jodymcintyre.wordpress.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jody_mcintyre

1. Dr Ghada Karmi, Palestine

“Students have become a vanguard of mass protests that will get bigger and bigger.”

What makes an activist?

  1. There is a cause(s) that you feel strongly about.
  2. Reading about it is not enough. You believe that you have to do something.

It is this activism that changes history, not politicians or kings. The normal, natural course of history is that the powerful dominate and continue to dominate. It takes people to stand up and say ‘no’ for things to change.

The word activist has negative connotations in the popular use of the word, in newspapers and so forth. It implies that the person is someone a bit hysterical, not part of mainstream society. But in reality is means to put your money where your mouth is.

Ghada Karmi’s Cause

Ghada was born into her cause, she had no choice but to be an activist. How could she stay at home, watching television when her family lost their home, lost their land, lost everything in 1948? The state of Israel stole everything from her when it was created in 1948.

If there wasn’t an Israel, she said, she probably wouldn’t be an activist. She’d be in her own home, in her own land doing the things that we take for granted. We expect, for example, that our home will always be waiting for us when we go abroad, that our children will grow up in our land, that we will die and be buried in our own land. Ghada will never have that.

“It’s the sort of thing you only understand when you lose it.”

The point is that this theft of her home was an unjust act. She could have lost her home to an earthquake – it would have been sad, no doubt, but it would be a very different feeling to the one she has now. A colossal injustice has been perpetrated that has not been put right.

Ghada can think of no parallel to this injustice in history for two reasons:

  1. Other injustices have an end, they don’t drag on and on in the public eye for 62 years like the injustice perpetrated by Israel on the Palestinians has.
  2. The oppressor is not normally applauded for their unjust actions, in the way that Israel has been.

The Future of Palestinian Activism

Ghada Karmi finds it deeply impressive that there are non-Palestinian activists, that there are even Israeli pro-Palestinian activists. This gives her hope for the future, that injustice is injustice whatever your nationality.

Furthermore, she has seen the injustice of the Palestinian situation rise in the public perception over the years. When people used to ask her where she was from, she would answer “Palestine,” and they would say, “Pakistan?”

Ghada Karmi ended her speech with a call to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. She said this was the best way to hit Israel directly, the best way to help the pro-Palestinian cause in the UK. Israel must be isolated and shunned, like South Africa was under the Apartheid regime. Israel should not be welcome in the family of nations.

“Revolution until victory.”

2. Eyal Clyne, Israel

“Why should I care about Palestinians?”

It is the same, Eyal says, for why he should care about blacks or about women or about gays, being white, male and straight. Justice is universal. We all know the feeling of what it is like to be on the other side.

Life Under Occupation

  1. Two days ago the Israeli military demolished 11-13 fresh water wells in the Judea desert in the south of the West Bank. This was some Bedouin families’ only fresh water supply. The reason given by the Israelis was that they had no permit – but the wells existed from before the Israelis had control over the West Bank.
  2. A Palestinian who sold household goods in the market opposite Herod’s Gate recently was refused renewal of his trade permit and was told to find somewhere else to sell. He will probably be evicted next.

This is what it is like to be under occupation.

The Framework of Occupation

Eyal is a born Israeli, his parents are as well. We are into the third generation of born Israelis, born into the occupied situation. From a very young age, Israelis understand the assumptions behind the occupation:

  1. Eyal used to believe that the Israelis were really trying for peace, really trying to get along with the Palestinians, really trying to do the right thing.
  2. Eyal used to believe the security explanation, that Israel is in a dangerous and delicate situation. This is a key concept, not just for justifying oppression to the outside world, but also to Israelis themselves.

“I feel lied to.”

Cracks in the Story

There are problems with this framework, however; “cracks in the story.”

1. Housing demolitions. 
There have been 20,000 housing demolitions to date. But these demolitions, this wanton destruction of thousands of family homes, are not for security. The reason given for the overwhelmingly majority of demolitions is that the house lacks a building permit.

The excuse is legal, the true reason is political. The reason that these buildings do not have a permit is that the Israeli authorities do not give them out, they do not want Palestinians building permanent homes on their own land.

2. The ‘security’ fence.
The ‘security’ fence used to be known as the ‘separation’ fence. This was changed when the Israeli government realised that in Afrikaans ‘separation’ is ‘apartheid’. This fence has cost $2-3 billion in taxpayers’ money, yet it is three times as long as the Green Line, along which the Palestinian state is demarcated.

Why? Because 80% of the fence is built inside Palestinian-allocated territory, weaving in and out, cutting towns from their agricultural land, carving out prime cuts for Israel, dividing friends and families from each other.

The sad truth is that the wall was not built for security. If it was built for security:

  • Why not build it on the Green Line or even inside Israeli territory?
  • Why is it still only 55% complete, with much of it’s length open?
  • Why do so many of the checkpoints separate Palestinian towns, not from Israeli territory, but from other Palestinian towns?
  • Why are settlers still encouraged by the Israeli government – surely they are a security risk as well?
  • Why is so much agricultural land taken for security reasons?

And so it goes on, these cracks appearing in the framework of oppression.

It’s not just Israelis who are born into this situation, people in the UK are also being born into a situation where the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the norm. It is taken as a given that the Israelis are really trying and that they need to secure their lives against the terrorist threat. The Peace Process is another myth in this story.

Why am I an Activist?

  1. “I can’t trust these people. I have to do it myself.”
  2. Some things are beyond politics.

But why is he an activist for the Palestinians?

  1. Because it is good for him and his family. The security will improve with peace.
  2. Justice is beyond politics. Human rights must be universal.
  3. He doesn’t want people to get away with crimes, like the female settler he saw who crushed a four-year old boy’s teeth with stones.

Eyal’s Advice for Activists

The Palestine-Israel conflict is an incredibly emotive cause to get involved in. Eyal has some advice for activists so that their impact is positive, not negative.
  1. Always have room for listening. It’s complicated, there are not always good and bad guys.
  2. This situation is bad enough as it is. Don’t make it worse by demonising one side or the other. This situation could happen to anyone; look at what happened to the people of Germany under the Nazis, for example.
  3. Use details, use facts. Don’t just paint with slogans or labels, like apartheid and so forth. Stick to the facts.

3. Frank Barat, France

“To be an activist is to be alive.”

For Frank, why be an activist is a tough question – and why Palestine?

As a Frenchman born into a comfortable family, the only injustice he ever remembers suffering was when his dog died in mysterious circumstances when he was four.

In the absence of any personal injustice to right, his gut response to the question was simply: “to be an activist is to be alive.”

It follows, then, that the real question should be:

Why Aren’t There MORE Activists?

John Pilger recently uncovered US governmental documents that put activists and investigative journalists on a par with terrorists as a security threat the US government. That’s why there aren’t more activists: because activists are a threat to the powerful and so the powerful seek to prevent activists from developing. They do this by ‘manufacturing consent’, to use the words of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (via Walter Lippman).

This is achieved in three ways:

1. Education.
The education system teaches conformity. It teaches you that all is well in the world, or at least that all is well in your country compared to other less fortunate places. It does not teach scepticism; teaches don’t like it when you ask too many questions. School teaches you what life should be like: a nine to five job, one car, two cars, a house, a mortgage, X-Factor in the evening, football on the weekend.

2. Isolation. 
And if you don’t subscribe to this life, then the powerful try to make you feel like you are alone. That you are alone and you don’t have any money – why don’t you get a job and buy an iPhone? Unions are portrayed as evil or hooligans. Even your non-activist friends ‘don’t get it’, when you go and see them they only talk about their credit cards. All this isolates the budding activist, discouraging them or at least making their actions less powerful.

3. Repression. 
Police are turning into the armed wing of the government, when they should be civil servants. In this country you might get hit by a truncheon, arrested or kettled for twelve hours; in Palestine and Israel you might get shot. It’s all repression.

So why, despite all of this, are there still so many activists?

Activism is a way of life. It is very rewarding, very empowering. When was the last time you felt power? Was it when you bought that iPod or got drunk or played Tetris? Or was it when you were standing with 20,000 other protesters fighting for your rights outside Parliament?

Life should be about standing with the oppressed and never shutting up.

Frank ends with a quotation from Howard Zinn, the recently deceased American historian:

“The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is not the prospect of future victory. It is the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disheartening setbacks – together.”

3.5 The Organiser, Bangladesh

While we waiting for Jody McIntyre, the organiser of the meeting recounted a little tale about his experiences in the student tuition fees protests:

“We occupied a room at UCL. It was very successful. We left it recently because it’s Christmas break and we wanted to go home…”

He also talked about how he was kettled in Parliament Square for twelve hours by the police. They would not let him leave, despite the peaceful nature of their protests. They would not let women go to the toilet. They would not let his eleven year-old cousin leave.

He compared their kettling at the hands of the police to the ‘Protest Zones’ in Beijing during the Olympics in 2008, which received widespread condemnation at the time by the British press. And now it is happening in London.

4. Jody McIntyre, UK

“Challenge the system.”

Jody was greeted like a hero when he showed up. It’s been a busy few days for him, in the full glare of the media spotlight. We watched the footage of him being thrown from his wheelchair and dragged across the tarmac road by police during the recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees.

We also watched his subsequent interview with the BBC’s Ben Brown in which the interviewer seem more concerned by Jody’s threat to the police than the brutality of the policemen’s action – or even the whole reason why they were there in the first place: the rise in tuition fees.

You can see both videos here: http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2010/12/15/jody-mcintyre-who%E2%80%99s-apathetic-now/

A man with cerebral palsy would find it hard to present a threat to an army of policemen, but Ben Brown persisted with questions such as:

“There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair, is that true?”

and:

“Were you throwing anything at the police on that day?”

This line of questioning reportedly drew over 5,000 complaints to the BBC. Nevertheless, Jody was given the time and space by the BBC to make his points and he scored highly against this ludicrous line of questioning.

Education for the Oppressed

In his speech, Jody made the connection between the fight for free education in this country and the fight for free education for oppressed students all across the globe, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Pakistan to Palestine.

As UCL stops for the holidays, these countries suffer constant ‘holidays’ from education thanks to the actions of military oppression. Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008/9 was one long holiday for the students there. So too for students prevented from attending university in the West Bank because they find the checkpoints suddenly closed against them.

Jody talked about the example of the Hanoun family, who were evicted from their home in East Jerusalem just three days before the daughter was due to take her exams in Psychology. She did her revision in the street and passed with the highest mark in her year.

But Jody exhorts us not to only challenge individual cases, but to challenge the unfair system that allows them. Education is always attacked by the oppressor because education gives people the power to rise up. It is a fight for our minds.

And that fight starts with ourselves. Why is it that everyone in Palestine knows who Arthur Balfour is, but that no one in Britain does? Very few Britons know about our own former Foreign Minister, the man who set into motion the acts that led to the foundation of the Israeli state and the on-going oppression of the Palestinians.

Action

Jody tells us we should hit shops that support the occupation by importing Israeli goods ‘by any means necessary,’ to quote Malcolm X. Jody says that he doesn’t support individual acts of violence, but that, just as the Palestinians have a right to rise up against the oppressor, so do we against our government.

Why am I an activist?

“Because everyone of us has a moral duty to stand up and speak out for those who do not have a voice.”

So Why Am I an Activist?

This was a fascinating evening of speeches, each person bringing a different reason for activism to the party. Ghada Karmi’s activism of necessity, Eyal Clyne’s activism of universality, Frank Barat’s activism of exhilaration and Jody McIntyre’s activism of duty.

I know that I have certainly felt each of these when I have activated (is that a word?). I have fought to protect rights I enjoy that are under threat, I have fought for sympathy out of the rights of others and I have fought out of a sense of moral duty.

But the most interesting reason was that spoken about by Frank Barat: the exhilaration of activism. I was very happy that one of the speakers mentioned this, because there is no question that activism is exciting. It does make you feel powerful.

This is a good thing because it can drive us to greater achievement, greater victories; but it is also a great danger. It is important that we don’t lose ourself in our feelings and remember what we are fighting for.

Finally, I’d like to thank the organisers for putting on a great event.

Recycling

I always do my recycling. I always separate my papers from my plastics. I always wash out my yoghurt pots and flatten my pizza boxes. Always. Least I did until this morning. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. Anyhow – I’ll tell you what happened.

I’ve got this big green box that I was given by the council for all my recycling, right? I fill it up over the week, all conscientious like, and then on Wednesday nights I take it out for the Thursday morning collection. So last night, just like every Wednesday night, I took the box from under the sink in the kitchen and picked it up to take outside. Just as I got to the front door, though, a baby mouse jumped out. Near made me pop an aorta.

What was I meant to do? If there’s one baby mouse in the box, I thought to myself, there’s probably a whole nest of the poor blighters. Now I’m not superstitious or anything, but I am a believer in Buddhistry, least the bits pertaining to not killing no one. So, you see, I couldn’t just put the box by the side of the road and let them get mashed by the recycler, could I? At the same time, though, I’m proud of the fact that I’m a conscientious citizen: recycling is my civic duty. So what’s it to be, my duties or my moralities?

The only thing left was a compromise. There was two options for the compromise. One, I could take the recycling out of the box and disturb the nest, remove the mice and get the recycling done. Or, two, I could leave the mice to it and take the recycling out when they’ve left the nest. I thought hard about it, but it came down to a very simple question: which do I value more, my duties or my moralities? There’s only one answer to that, so I left the mice alone. I didn’t want them in the house, though, so I left the box by the front door.

I thought I’d made it clear to the bin men that they weren’t to take my recycling. The box was right on the step outside my front door and I’ve got quite a bit of a garden before the road, where I normally put my rubbish. But I guess we’ve got conscientious bin men, haven’t we? I saw them taking that big green box this morning, as I stood in the upstairs bathroom, just out the shower. I saw them as they threw everything into the compactor – papers, plastics, yoghurt pots, pizza boxes – and mice. My aortas froze and I felt my heart skip a somersault. I nearly ran outside, naked as a lark, but I stopped myself in time – what good would that have done?

I feel pretty bad about what happened. I keep thinking about the day when I open up a new pad of recycled paper and there, across the page, is the scarlet gash of mouse blood. I’ll deserve it.

The Light of My Life

My dad was famous. When he died, the newspapers were full of him and his life’s work. It’s not often someone can say that. Of course, I knew him long before his fame and he only became really popular at the end of his life, after I’d left home.

I’ll always remember he used to tell me that it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were persistent. As long as you keep doing it over and over again, he’d say, people will eventually take notice. And his life was the proof, I suppose. In repetition, he’d say, there’s pattern. It doesn’t matter if the original building block, the singular of the pattern, is something strange or mundane, ugly or beautiful. What matters is replication to make the pattern.

I never really listened much to that old guff. The last thing I wanted to be doing was the same thing over and over and over again. It seemed pretty stupid to me when I was a kid, but now? Now I don’t know.

My dad became famous for collecting light bulbs. Doesn’t sound too spectacular when I put it like that, does it? But when I say he collected light bulbs, I mean he collected light bulbs. He stockpiled them, he amassed them, he hoarded them every day of his life. Not to use, mind you, just for the sake of collecting them.

If I buy one light bulb, he used to say, people will think I need a light bulb; if I buy ten light bulbs, people will think I’m stocking up; if I buy a hundred light bulbs, people will think I’m crazy – but if I buy a thousand light bulbs, people will think I’m a genius. And that’s sort of the way it turned out, just he got the order of magnitude wrong by about a factor of about a hundred, I reckon.

I didn’t see too much of my dad after my mum left him. I mean, we weren’t enemies or anything, we just weren’t that close. I had my life and he had his – or rather the light bulbs had his. It got to the point, even while I was still living at home, where there was no room for anything but light bulbs. There were light bulbs in the house, in the garden and in the garage. There were light bulbs in the basement, in the kitchen and in the bedrooms. There were light bulbs in all the cupboards, in the fridge – I even found a secret stash in the toilet cistern. Anywhere you could put a light bulb, he put one.  All different kinds too: bayonet heads, screw heads and pin heads; halogen, LED and tungsten; pearls, globes and candles. You never saw such diversity. You can understand why my mum wanted to get away. I’ll never be the light of his life, she told me once, with a grim smile.

And then he got into the papers, when my mum left him. It was a freak show kind of famous, though: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs” – that sort of thing. A lot of the newspapermen asked my dad why he collected light bulbs. A lot of people assumed it was a metaphor, that the light bulb represented genius, you know, the light bulb moment, or some other symbolist rubbish. But no. My dad always said the reason for collecting light bulbs was simply that they were a widely available household product. That was the only criteria. His point was that anything done persistently enough will get it’s own reward.

It was a shame that he died when he did. He was really excited about all those new energy saving light bulbs and went on a madder-than-ever buying spree just before he died. Nothing me or mum could do to stop him. But then he snuffed it and he was in all the papers again: “The Man who Destroyed his Life for Light Bulbs Dies.” The papers got even more excited when I executed his will and found that there was nothing left. It had all been spent on light bulbs. The house had been re-mortgaged even. All that he left me was a key with a little tag tied to it: basement stairs.

I thought maybe he’d left me something after all, so I fought my way into the house, through all the junk of light bulbs and dug down the old basement stairs. And, sure enough, there was a little cabinet high up on the wall. Quite excited at what I might find, I reached up on tiptoes and unlocked the door with the key. But inside was nothing. Nothing at all, just a simple switch, like you might find on any wall in any room. I thought dad had finally gone potty: why lock up a stupid switch?

Disappointed that it wasn’t something a bit more significant, I flicked the switch. Suddenly the basement burst into light. The glare scorched my eyes and I flinched like I’d been hit and threw my arm over my face. I staggered back up the stairs, but the hall was also on fire, a blinding light, pulverising my eyeballs. It was like being a tiny tungsten electron in an enormous incandescent bulb. They flared from every wall, from the ceiling, from the floor, through the cracks of cupboard doors.

I stumbled out of the house and into the front garden. The whole house was ablaze with light, lit up like a lantern. It really was a sight, a million Christmases and a million Bonfire Nights all rolled into one. Slowly, steadily I heard voices gather about me. I looked around and saw that the whole street had come out of their houses to watch. Then some folks walked up from the village to see the spectacle. Through my wincing eyes, a little bit of me was proud. Soon people were pulling up in their cars to marvel at the walls, the windows, the roof, stacked with bulbs, all shapes and sizes, glowing in the night like a star.

Well, of course that got him into the papers again. No more the freak show, though. This was a wonder of the modern world, a work of art. You could see the house on satellite maps, apparently, so wherever he is, my dad can see it for sure. I like to think it gives him a little smile.

Hide Dad

So I open the door and this dead guy falls on me. Gross. So typical, though – it was my dad. What a moron. Why’d he have to die here? He’d only gone out for a fag. And now everyone’s gonna blame me. Typical. Whenever anything goes wrong in our house I’m always the one who gets the blame. Well I’m the youngest, ain’t I?

I’m lucky my mum and sister have gone out shopping so as no one sees me with a dead dad in my arms. I pull him inside so the neighbours don’t see neither and lay him in the hallway while I think about what to do. I check his pulse. Definitely dead.

This is so not my fault and I’m so gonna get the stick for it. I give him the once over, to see how he’d died and that, like a stabbing or something. But I can’t see nothing, no blood nor nothing. And you know what that means, don’t you? No alibi. Here he is now, dead as a doughnut, with my fingerprints all over him. Incriminating, or what?

There’s only one thing for it: hide the body before my mum and sister come home, and then deny everything. Without a body there’s no evidence, is there?

It’s like that vase I broke last year, that one of mum’s she loved so much, a present from my sister. Stupid glass thing, no idea why she liked it so much. If anything, I did her a favour. I’d have got well in trouble if I hadn’t hid the bits. Mum’s always having a go at me for playing football inside. But I’d swept it up real careful and then denied everything when she got back in from work. Nothing she could do was there? No evidence. Course she suspected something, she suspected I’d broke it, but she never knew, did she? I wrapped it up in newspaper and dumped it in a bin down by the caff on the high street. They never found it, course, that stupid vase.

So it’s the same story for dad, I guess. Wrap him up in newspaper and dump him somewhere out of the way. Then deny everything. They won’t be able to prove nothing.

How to Grow Your Brain with Exercise

The Theory

The brain is plastic; it isn’t fixed rigid from the day you were born to the day you will die. Brain cells can grow or die, they can strengthen or weaken throughout your life. You’ve probably heard the saying ‘when neurons fire together, they wire together.’ This is a fancy way of saying that, if you do something over and over again, you’ll get better and better at it and, eventually, you’ll be able to do that something without even thinking about it. Remember when you learnt to ride your bike? It was a nightmare at first, then you had stabilisers, then you were as free as a bird, flying down the road. That was the result of your brain’s neurons firing together over and over again and eventually wiring together so tightly that you didn’t have to think about pedalling or steering or braking any more.

Only mobile creatures need brains. Brains are very expensive things to run, they cost us a lot in terms of energy. If we didn’t really need a brain, we wouldn’t have one. There’s a particular mollusc that is born with a brain so that it can move across the rocks away from its birthplace. When it has found a new home, it doesn’t need the brain anymore so it eats it. Yum. You could say that thinking is the internalisation of movement, therefore it is only to be expected that exercise should have a profound effect on the brain.

And indeed it does. Exercise elevates the following chemicals in your brain:

  • Serotonin, which controls your mood.
  • Dopamine, which is your brain’s ‘reward centre’, linked with movement and learning.
  • Norepinephrine, which controls your attention and motivation.
  • BDNF, dubbed ‘MiracleGro for the brain’. This creates new branches of synapses. In other words: it grows brain cells.

And the more exercise you do, the more it spikes growth.

The Workout

The brain can’t learn while exercising, but blood goes to the prefrontal cortex immediately after exercise, making it ripe for learning something new.

  • Both aerobic (e.g. running, cycling) and complex activities (e.g. playing the piano, martial arts) are important.
  • Aerobic exercise elevates executive function neurotransmitters. This will create new blood vessels and new cells.
  • Complex activities increase BDNF, which strengthens and expands synapse networks. 
  • Tennis is a good example of an activity that combines both aerobic and complex activity. Other examples are yoga, pilates and dancing. Dancing to an irregular rhythm, like the tango, is particularly good for improving your brain’s plasticity.
  • Try to hit a least 35 minutes at 60-70% intensity (for women) or at your maximum heart rate (for men).


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Anxiety and Fear with Exercise

The Theory

If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.

The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.

Fear is the memory of anxiety

Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.

Drown out the fear

You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.

There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:

  1. It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
  2. It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
  3. It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
  4. It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
  5. It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
  6. It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.

The Workout

  • Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
  • Try 3 x 90 minute workouts per week.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

How to beat Stress with Exercise

The Theory

Stress is stress, the only difference is degree. There’s the extreme stress of losing your job, but even standing up from the computer is a stress on your body. The only difference is degree.

Exercise is controlled emotional and physical stress. Exercise breaks down neurons, just like any other stress, but in a controlled way. The repair mechanisms that kick in after the exercise leave you stronger for next time. A low level of stress is good for you, like a vaccine. Exercise raises your brain’s tolerance for stressful situations and you will be better able to deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life if you exercise regularly.

There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ stress

Your body makes no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Winning the lottery and being faced with a hungry lion both trigger a stress response in the brain. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are just our opinions and sometimes the same stress can be ‘good’ in one situation and ‘bad’ in another. For example, a soldier trained to suspect car bombs feels stress when he is faced with an unknown car: great in Afghanistan, not so useful in Amersham. Stress is what saves us when faced with the hungry lion by triggering the fight or flight response. When your brain is stressed it boosts levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, increasing your focus and attention, helping you get that essay done on deadline day!

But of course we all know that too much stress, or constant low-level stress is miserable. Stressed people become obsessed (not emotionally, chemically) with the object of the stress and ignore everything else. Stress inhibits learning as well, making the stress self-reinforcing, as your brain can’t learn from the past mistakes that have caused the stress. It becomes a negative feedback loop.

Loneliness can become a part of this negative feedback loop as well. Stress makes us less likely to seek out society and, with fewer friends, we have less support through the tough times and the stress persists.

As we all know, stress can have a serious negative impact on our health. One of the ways it does is poor diet. After stress the brain craves glucose to replenish its stocks. This is fine if we are only occasionally stressed, but if we’re constantly stressed out then this response becomes unhealthy.

How does exercise tackle stress?

  • Exercise builds more insulin receptors, for more efficient use of glucose.
  • Exercise strengthens the synaptic pathways in your brain by increasing production of BDNF. This makes your brain better able to deal with future stresses.
  • Exercise relaxes the resting tension in the muscles, so the brain can relax too.
  • Exercise lowers blood pressure.
  • Exercise can increase social activity through participation in team sports or social contact at the gym.
  • Exercise is something you can do, it gives you control over the stress. This will boost your self-confidence.

The Workout

Exercise has been shown to be more effective against stress than food, alcohol or medication so make exercise a part of your life. Consider the fact that palaeolithic man used to walk 5-10 miles a day. Today, however, a large proportion of the modern Western population (including myself) has a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. This is not the lifestyle that our brains have evolved for.

I keep exercise in my daily life by cycling around London instead of taking public transport. When I haven’t got any plans to cycle anywhere, I make sure that I take several walks during the day and try to go for a short run as well.

Team sports are particularly good ways of building exercise into your life because very often there is a constant stream of games and the obligation of not letting the team down compels you to exercise. It’s also good fun!


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I

Two popular poets and story-tellers. It would be incredible if Dylan hadn’t referenced Shakespeare. Here’s a selection (by no means exhaustive) of references, some obvious, some oblique, to Shakespeare in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Straight References

These are the ones that even I can catch. Blatant hello mum’s from Dylan to the great bard.

Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right

Twelfth Night (1601-2) is a play by Shakespeare, innit.

Desolation Row, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia is a tragic character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601).

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well

That’s my boy!

Time Out of Mind (1997)

The phrase ‘Time out of mind’ is from Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Bye and Bye, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Well, I’m scuffling, and I’m shuffling
And I’m walking on briars
I’m not even acquainted
with my own desires

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2 (found and submitted by Nick Dorman to Dylan Chords):

ROSALIND
O, how full of briers is this working-day world!
CELIA
They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in
holiday foolery: if we walk not in the trodden
paths our very petticoats will catch them.

And later in the same scene:

ROSALIND
I do beseech your grace,
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me:
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with mine own desires

Po’ boy, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket,
By the way, what happened to that poisoned wine?”
She said, “I gave it to you, you drank it.”
Po’ boy, layin’ him straight,
Pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.

Othello and Desdemona are characters in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603). Interestingly, it looks like Dylan has confused or (being generous) deliberately conflated the plot of Othello, in which Othello dies by stabbing himself, with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo dies after drinking a fatal poison.

That’s it for the obvious references (that I can find anyway) – now here’s some more obscure ones.

More Oblique References

You’d only spot these if you’d spent far too much time playing Shakespeare and reading Dylan. I didn’t find these.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

And in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 14:

ANTONY
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish

Thanks to Ellis Sharp for this stupidly obscure reference!

This reference is given greater credence by the later literary reference in the song to Verlaine and Rimbaud, two other poets.

Mississippi, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine

And in Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 (submitted by Mike Conley to Dylan Chords):

DUKE VINCENTIO
If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.

Other Parallels

Dylan doesn’t just quote Shakespeare, he also uses the same kind of scripting techniques and has even suffered some of the same traps of fame.

Measure for Measure (1604) and Seven Curses (1963)

The folk narrative of the lecherous and unjust judge in Dylan’s Seven Curses parallels the premise of Measure for Measure, when Isabella pleads for mercy to the nasty judge Angelo for her brother, Claudio, who is to be executed for fornication. Over the course of two scenes between Angelo and Isabella, it becomes clear that Angelo harbours lustful thoughts about the novice nun, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will yield him her virginity.

I could have saved myself the trouble of copying that from Wikipedia by just making a few edits to the Bob Dylan lyrics:

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang.
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head,
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father,
The price, my dear, is you instead.”

I got the inspiration for this parallel from Bardfilm.

Bootlegs

Apparently, Shakespeare didn’t want his sonnets published: they were circulated among fans as – what can only be described as – bootlegs.

The parallels with Dylan’s Basement Tapes, recorded in private in 1967 and never intended for release, but widely bought and sold among fans, are obvious. Like Shakespeare, Dylan has bowed to the inevitability of popularity and now regularly releases out-takes from his album recordings and live performances as his very own ‘Bootleg Sessions.’

I picked up this story from NPR.


This is Part I because there is no way that I’ve found all of them, just from searching the internet and my own brain-ears. Maybe one day I’ll throw a corpus-analysis at the entirety of Dylan’s lyrical output and the whole of the first folio of Shakespeare. Probably not though.

If you can spot any more references, please do add them in the comments below. Thanks!

Norman Finkelstein on Gaza and Israel’s Sinister Conspiracy

“I’m no prophet…” says Norman Finkelstein, slayer of myths and self-hating Jew, before proceeding to unveil a monumental international conspiracy: the impending Israeli invasion of Lebanon, due, according to Finkelstein’s crystal ball, in the next 12-18 months.

It was interesting hearing this Rottweiler of verifiable fact and reason succumb to the seductions of speculation. but Finkelstein said that this plot was sufficiently serious to risk his being wrong for the sake of doing something, rather than staying silent and watching it tragically unfold.

The aim of Israel’s plot, according to Finkelstein, is simple: the decapitation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, the real purpose of the conspiracy is slightly more involved (and sinister).

The following article is a review of a lecture Norman Finkelstein gave at Imperial College London on Friday 29 November. It presents the argument he gave there, rather than my personal views. 

I have supplemented the lecture, where necessary, with additional material and links to external sources. It’s pretty long, about 3000 words – but I promise it’s worth it!

Why does Israel need a Sinister Plot?

Okay, okay, not a plot, not a conspiracy – call it a ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ if you don’t like those words. But remember, international political conspiracies of this order do happen.

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel conspired in just such a manner against Nasserite Egypt in order to regain control of the Suez Canal. The plot was only uncovered because it was unsuccessful: US President Eisenhower gleefully catching the two old colonial powers with their pants down and administering a slap with his New World Order cane.

Israel needs this ‘behind-the-scenes coordination’ to restore her ‘deterrent capacity’. What does this mean? It is a fabulous military euphemism for ‘Arab fear of Israel’.

The last ten years have seen a succession of Israeli military defeats and humiliation: the Arabs are getting uppity; they must be slapped down.

A Brief History of Israeli Humiliations

May 2000: The Israeli funded South Lebanon Army is finally defeated by Hezbollah. Israel withdraw to their side of the UN designated border.

January 2006: Hamas win the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, much to the displeasure of Israel and the West. Incidentally, this is the first time ever that an Arab government has been democratically voted out of office and a new government democratically voted in.

July 2006: Israel invades Lebanon. This operation can only be classed as a military defeat for Israel – or at best a Pyrrhic victory. They invaded in order to disarm Hezbollah and they failed in this objective. Their only morsel of success was that the threat of another invasion was a sufficient deterrent to prevent Hezbollah from intervening in Gaza in 2008/2009.

The result of these reverses was that Israel still had not restored her ‘deterrent capacity’ within the Arab world. And so they turned their weapons on their favourite shooting gallery: Gaza. Surely here they would be able to score a resounding military victory?

The Myth of the “Gaza War”

Following the victory of Hamas in the PLC elections, the US, Israel and various dissident Palestinian factions attempted a coup, successful only in wresting control from Hamas in the West Bank. This coup failed in Gaza because elections do mean something: a mass of the populace supported Hamas.

In a fit of pique, Israel tightened the blockade, hoping to starve them out. This didn’t work either. Unfortunately, in June 2008, Israel and Hamas had agreed a ceasefire, so Israel needed a pretext to mete out the punishment these democrats so richly deserved.

On 4 November 2008, a quiet day in the news – oh, aside from it being the day of the most compelling US Presidential election since JFK-Nixon – the ceasefire was broken by Israel, trundling bulldozers 250 metres into Gaza and killing six Palestinians in a bizarre tunnel offensive.

This, of course, provoked a response from Hamas and, sure enough, the rockets were fired and Israel had their pretext to invade.

And so, on the 27 December, the 22-day ‘Gaza War’ was launched and Israel had their triumphant ‘victory’.

But what kind of a war was this?

  • What kind of a war is it where not a single battle is fought?
  • What kind of a war is it when the supposed enemy sit tight in their bunkers until it’s all over?
  • What kind of a war is it when you launch (over) 2300 air-strikes and return with no planes even slightly damaged?
  • What kind of a war is it when you attack at night, rendering yourself totally invisible to the enemy because they don’t have your fancy night-vision goggles?
  • What kind of a war is it when the casualties are 100:1 in your favour?

Luckily, this isn’t just here-say or Hamas propaganda. We have evidence given by Israeli soldiers as well, recorded in the ‘Breaking the Silence’ testimony. You can browse this testimony at your leisure and make your own mind up.

Insanity?

As a side-entertainment, Finkelstein urged us to search for the word ‘insane’ on the ‘Breaking the Silence’ website. Here’s that search.

And if you can’t be bothered looking for yourself, here are a selection of ‘insanities’:

“We are hitting innocents and our artillery fire there was insane.”

“Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad. The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places. You see a house, a window, shoot at the window. You don’t see a terrorist there? Fire at the window.”

“After the man-search they conducted a weapons search and suddenly saw a little 3-year old kid lying terrified under a bed and let her go. What insane luck he had, not getting killed.”

“This was the general attitude in the army: Go in with insane fire power because this is our only advantage over them.”

“There is a majority of voters who are so desperate or agitated because of the situation, that they are willing to elect him, and thus to grant legitimacy to his insane views.” [Talking about the election of Ariel Sharon.]

“He said we were going to exercise insane fire power with artillery and air force. We were given the feeling that we were not just being sent out there, but with enormous security and cover. He did restrain it and say, ‘It’s not that you’re out to carry out a massacre, but…’

“Sometimes the border-police battalion commander – who was a complete lunatic. He was insane. He would tell me: ‘shoot here, shoot here, shoot here.’ And I shoot in all directions, without regard to anything.”

These quotations have a somewhat similar scatter-gun effect, but they give you a broad idea of the disproportionate nature of the assault.

So was it a massacre?

There are no internationally agreed standards on the definition of war or otherwise, but Finkelstein’s conclusion is unequivocal:

“This wasn’t a war; it was a massacre.”

Furthermore, he adds that:

“Anyone who says it was a war in Gaza is – intentionally or not – an instrument of the Israeli government.”

The high number of civilian deaths (762-926 by NGO estimates, 55-65% of the total) are often explained by the ‘human shields’ excuse: the Israelis couldn’t avoid civilian casualties because of the unethical fighting techniques used by Hamas.

The truth about human shields in Gaza

Unfortunately for this convenient line of argument, Amnesty International, the world’s most respected human rights organisation (I think), found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, although, interestingly, they did find evidence that Israel did.

“[Amnesty International] found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks.

By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’.

This is from page 75 of the report.

Just to be clear, Amnesty International considers both sides of the conflict to be consistent violators of human rights.

An assault on civilians, not a military war

It is also interesting to note that, during this so-called ‘war’, Israel found the time to destroy the only flour mill in Gaza and twenty-two out of the twenty-nine cement factories in Gaza.

That was a real pity because the Israelis also left behind 650,000 tonnes of rubble. It’s almost as if they wanted, not to knock out the threat of mortar attacks on Israel from Gaza, but to raze the land to the ground and leave the people no chance to rebuild their homes.

Re-writing history

Far from being a heroic military victory to crow about, the history of this event is already being effaced. It was too one-sided, too easy a victory and the world noticed. Now the Israeli government would like us to remember that nothing at all happened in Gaza in 2008/2009.

Just recently, on the 20 November 2010, the New York Times had this to say: “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been largely drained of deadly violence in the past few years.”

The newspaper did later publish a correction and amended the original article, saying that they meant to refer only to violence in the West Bank, but they still insist that: “the dispute is calmer than it has been in years.”

The battle for ‘humanitarian crisis’ status in Gaza

As this newspaper article might suggest, the international response to Gaza was rather phlegmatic. The blockade, let us remember, was and still is illegal. It is a form of collective punishment, a war crime under article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention. This diagnosis was supported by the UN Human Rights Council, who called the blockade an illegal action.

Furthermore, it had precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as reported by Oxfam and other relief agencies in March 2008, before the Israeli invasion.

There followed, in 2010, a bizarre argument between Oxfam and the Israeli government about the level of ‘crisis’, with supporters of Israel triumphantly producing a restaurant menu from Gaza that boasts steak au poivre and chicken cordon bleu. As if this would somehow ameliorate the destruction of the year before.

The Mavi Marmara Incident

And so on to the Gaza flotilla raid of 31 May. According to the Israeli’s own admission, they were not expecting any resistance. And rightfully so, I would agree. This was a flotilla of peaceniks and humanitarian hippies, was it not?

  • But why then, Israel, did you board the ship in the dead of night, at 4:30a.m. if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
  • Why did you use tear-gas if you weren’t expecting resistance? 
  • And if you were expecting resistance, then why not simply disable the engine, or physically block the boat from reaching the port?

The only logical answer is that Israel wanted a bloody conflict, perhaps not of the order that saw seven Israeli commandos injured, but still. A bloody conflict would, perhaps, rally Israel’s allies to her side against these flotilla-terrorists.

Unfortunately, the Mavi Marmara incident became a national humiliation. The commandos botched the raid: they were supposed to look like the elite force that Israel considered them. Instead three commandos were captured by an enemy armed with iron bars and the raid turned into a bloodbath.

This failure, combined with the public exposure and diplomatic crisis of the Mossad assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in January 2010 in Dubai, embarrassed Israel in the full glare of the international media and stung their national pride.

Or as one Israeli general put it:

“It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

The Sinister Plot

And so, after all this, the Israelis still need to restore their ‘deterrence capacity’ – and these reverses mean that this time it must succeed and, furthermore, it’s got to be more spectacular than ever.

Thus the need for our grand international conspiracy:

Hezbollah must be decapitated and Lebanon shall be invaded in the next 12-18 months.

This isn’t just idle extrapolation by one half-cocked anti-Zionist. There is some recent concrete evidence to support the hypothesis.

On November 8, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the UN that Israel were going to withdraw from the Northern (Lebanese) half of Ghajar, a village on the border between Lebanon and the (Syrian) Golan Heights, which are currently occupied by Israel.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations got very excited and called this action an ‘important step towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 1701’.

Why does Finkelstein find this so ominous? It sounds positively docile, doesn’t it? Well, not quite.

This action concludes Israel’s obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The onus is now on the Lebanese government. But they have a slightly more arduous task: they must disarm Hezbollah.

This condition is going to be nigh-on impossible for the Lebanese government to fulfil and, when they fail, Israel will have the perfect pretext for invasion, blessed by the UN.

The Turning of the Screw

What follows, Finkelstein says, is speculation, but it is all too believable. Luckily for us it is easily monitored because it will all take place in the public eye.

First the UN Security Council will soften the target for Israel by creating disunity in Lebanon. They will start to put pressure on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah according to Resolution 1701. They’ll threaten sanctions and embargoes when Lebanon can’t and don’t comply, raising international ire against this ‘rogue state’.

Secondly the media will start to point the finger at Hezbollah. Ever heard of Rafic Hariri? No, nor had I. But soon, everyone will. The CBC TV channel in Canada are launching a three-part special on ‘Who Killed Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri?’ They conclude, naturally, that it was a Hezbollah political assassination, rather than an Israeli-inspired one.

There is a BBC special in the making as well, all leading up to the first UN International Independent Investigation Commission indictments for his murder in March 2011.

Oh – who was he? He was Lebanon’s Prime Minister until 2004. He was assassinated in 2005. These media stories, as well as pointing the finger at Hezbollah and fuelling international hysteria for an Israeli invasion, will also stoke Sunni-Shia tensions within Lebanon, further weakening the target.

Why Bother with the Conspiracy?

But why bother with this great international conspiracy? Why not just invade and be done with it?

The answer to this is simple: to keep Iran out of the conflict. Israel needs the support of the UN so that the only combatants are Hezbollah and themselves. The only reason that Iran did not intervene in 2006 was because they didn’t need to: Israel was defeated.

This time Israel refuses to be defeated; therefore Iran will be compelled to enter the conflict. Thus Israel needs the support of possible UN sanctions to keep Iran in line.

Unfortunately for Israel, after the Mavi Marmara incident, it is not entirely clear if Turkey will also play along with the sinister plot. It is essential that they do to keep the ‘integrity’ of the plan intact, and thus Israel will attempt to draw their sting. By paying them off probably.

Once the ground is prepared, once the target is softened up, once Iran and Turkey are neutralised by the UN, a pretext for invasion will be found. It is not hard to imagine possible scenarios.

Israeli newspapers are already suggesting that Hezbollah might launch a coup in Lebanon. The source of this idea? ‘Secret intelligence’ – just like the ‘secret intelligence’ that led to the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967.

The Invasion

When the invasion happens, Finkelstein even knows what it will look like. He knows because we’ve been told.

It’s something called the ‘Dahiya doctrine’.

This sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but in fact means the total pulverisation of civilian areas. In 2008, IDF Northern Command Chief Gadi Eisenkot elucidated:

“What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there.

From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. […] This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”

Unlike the war in 2006, this time Hezbollah missiles will be able to reach Tel Aviv. But Finkelstein argues that Israel is not too bothered about home casualties: they will only add to the perceived legitimacy of their case for war.

Is there a Way Out?

Finkelstein wasn’t just here to feed our love for sinister international conspiracies. He urged us to find a way out of the current impasse in the Middle East.

He sites the example of the Mavi Marmara again. While it didn’t succeed in breaking the blockade, it did at least sting the world into denouncing the blockade – after 3 years of almost total silence.

This shows the power of you and I to change world opinion. The Mavi Marmara was not a delegation from a government or an international human rights organisation or a bunch of lawyers from The Hague. It was a motley crew of human rights activists, like you and I.

Opinion, Finkelstein reckons, is changing. The mainstream is starting to take notice of the injustice of the Palestinian situation.

To conclude his lecture, Finkelstein offers us two platforms on which we can all stand to support the Palestinian case.

1. Stick to the Principles

The Palestinians, like everyone on the planet, have rights under international law. There is no need to forfeit any of them in the name of negotiation.

These rights are:

  1. For their own state in a united West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem.
  2. For the complete removal of the illegal Israeli settlements on this land.
  3. For refugees to be allowed their right of return and their due compensation.

2. But be Reasonable

It is paramount that we show Israel and the mainstream of public opinion that there is a way out, that we don’t have to be talking about this conflict for ever more.

At the moment, Israel is fighting like a dog with nowhere to run. We need to give her an option that allows her to withdraw with dignity and safety.

Norman Finkelstein ends his lecture with an optimistic quote, passed on to him by Edward Said, the sadly departed post-colonialist scholar and acute advocate for Palestinian rights. It was a quote from the poet Aimè Cèsaire:

“There’s room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.”

How to Live Longer

Eat less for a long life

It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:

  • Extends life.
  • Prevents rapid tumour growth.
  • Makes the mice more active as well.

Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.

How does that work?

It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.

If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.

Eating less is the thing, not leanness.

Why?

The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.

This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:

  • Low insulin resistance.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Low insulin levels.
  • Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).

Low-carb for a long life?

The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans?
By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:

  • Blood pressure.
  • Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
  • Blood sugar levels.
  • And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).

While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.


This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)

A Writer’s Manifesto

Every self-respecting writer has a manifesto these days, so here’s mine. Feel free to cover your mouth before laughing.

I. Beginning

  1. This manifesto is not a rule book and there is nothing wrong with hypocrisy.

II. Life

  1. I live. I experiment. I write.
  2. I don’t need any props for this life. I can even write without pen and paper.
  3. The world is big enough for us all.
  4. This isn’t a game and money isn’t the score.
  5. I’m not going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or an engineer. Survival isn’t enough.
  6. I will push my physical and mental capabilities. “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” Mandela.
  7. I am responsible for my own experience. Nobody else knows what is good, meaningful or worthwhile for me.

III. Writing

  1. A book is just a book. I’ll write hundreds of them.
  2. My creation is independent of me. I just show up and put in the hours.
  3. Success and popularity are independent of my creation. They are whims of fortune.
  4. I’m not dependent on suddenly being ‘discovered’.
  5. Publishers are only middlemen.
  6. Bob Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar.

IV. The Audience

  1. There is an audience. They might not be listening, but they are there.
  2. I will not be afraid to engage the audience.
  3. The audience will see themselves in what I write because I am human also.
  4. I will inspire the audience with new ideas, perspectives and sensations.”What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” Thoreau.
  5. I will entertain the audience.

V. End

  1. This too shall change.


What do you think? Big fat self-indulgent piece of tripe? A worthwhile exercise to keep me on the straight and narrow? You ever thought about writing your own manifesto?

How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

Bryanology: An Analysis of Bryan Adams’ There Will Never Be Another Tonight

Forget Dylanology, there’s a new pseudo-science on the block: Bryanology, the close literary analysis of the major lyrical works of Canada’s Poet Laureate, Bryan Adams.

Today’s study is of Adams’ 1991 hit There Will Never Be Another Tonight (UK #31). This is one of my favourite songs ever. I’m not joking. It’s virtuoso use of language is astonishing. Bryan Adams sets off one lyrical firework after another in frantic pursuit of an apt metaphor to describe his Catherine Wheel of a lover. So set this video (shot at Sheffield Arena, Rachel Weisz in the crowd) to run in the background and I’ll talk you through it.

From the very beginning, Adams struggles with the common notions of femininity:

Put on your best dress darling,
Can’t you see the time is right?
There will never be another tonight.

But he clearly feels constrained by these clichéd words; this woman defies the accepted rules of description. And so he launches a passionate quest for the words that can capture his lover’s beauty.

First the lady-love is some sort of vehicle:

If you got your motor runnin’,
Then I got my engines on,
Say the word and darlin’ we’ll be gone.

Then she’s a witch with diabolic tendencies:

You gotta ride your broom right into my room,
Kick off your shoes make yourself at home,
Wave your little wand – weave a little spell,
Make a little magic – raise some hell.

Then, is she a boat? –

Let the wind fill your sails…

No, Adams explains, she’s a wind-powered train:

A runaway train ridin’ on the rails.

She’s a wind-powered train, Adams elucidates, at a baseball match:

We got the bases loaded,
Home run – power play,
Tonight’s the night we’re goin’ all the way.

But just when we think that he’s beginning to pin this woman down, Adams changes tack yet again – she’s actually a jewellery-operated torch:

Flash your diamonds, shine your lights,
There’ll never be another tonight.

It’s all we can do to keep up with Adams’ lyrical dexterity and fecund imagination – sometimes I wonder if he is as confused as we are.

And so we come to the end of the song and it seems that only one thing is clear: Adams is totally in thrall to this woman he is unable to describe – or is he? Perhaps not:

Cause we got nothin’ to lose, just me and you,
In your wildest dreams…
There’ll never be another tonight.

Has this all been a dream? Does this explain the series of bizarre and contradictory images that run through Adams’ sleep-addled brain? Perhaps the woman of his dreams is exactly that – there will never be another tonight indeed.

How to Succeed in Business (Or How to Become a Writer)

I was at a business networking event this lunchtime (woah – I’ve just upped my street-cred), where I suffered a wonderful presentation given by a business-woman who supplies live-in carers to disabled, elderly or bored people.

Now, I usually spend the entire duration of these presentations wondering how the hell the panicking presenter has managed to start their business, let alone how they’ve come to be lecturing others about their wonderful success – but, right from the start, this presenter was different.

And when this truffle of wisdom fell from her lips, I knew I was in good hands:

“Don’t jump in,” she warned us, “with all feets a-blazing.”

So here it is, the wisdom of Lee-Ann from Choice Homecare on how to succeed in starting up your own business.

How to Succeed in Business

As you may have noticed from the sentence above, Lee-Ann loves figurative language. Well, who doesn’t?

Not one for hyperbole, she describes her battle for self-employed success as like the battle between David and Goliath.

She’s David, by the way, and Goliath is the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of running your own business.

Persisting with the metaphor, David slew Goliath with five stones in his sling and so, for Lee-Ann, there are five ‘stones’ in her ‘sling-shot’. So far, so metaphorical. Here are those stones:

Stone 1: Passion

Your business must be something you are passionate about because nothing else will keep you going through the tough times.

Success or failure will be down to you, you can’t rely on others and nor can others let you down.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

At this point Lee-Ann also trotted out a lovely little cliché: ‘Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

As an employee of a regular business, you never have to worry about what happens tomorrow.

As the owner of your own business, you will constantly be worrying about tomorrow. Equally, though, there is no cap to the possibilities of what you can achieve; it’s up to you what you plan for.

Stone 3: Priority

You’ve got to know what is worth doing and what isn’t. Don’t waste your time on trivialities.

Stone 4: Past success

Keep a record of your achievements, so that you can look back on them when you feel like you’re a failure.

The memory of winning her first client keeps her going when she is finding it tough to find new clients.

Winning that first client told her that all her hard work had been worthwhile.

Stone 5: Perseverance

Lee-Ann had many nos before she got just one yes.

It took her 15 months to get her first client and she only became profitable in her third year.

Ka-pow. Goliath is slain. But what do all those deadly stones mean for me (and you) as writers of serious intent?

How to Become a Writer

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again because a dead horse is there to be flogged: if you want to write seriously, then make it your business.

If you start taking it professionally, then the results will be professional. So let’s have another look at Lee-Ann’s five stones from the point of view of writing.

Stone 1: Passion

Because no one else is going to tie you to your desk and only you can make this a success.

Stone 2: Planning and preparation

I personally don’t plan novels when I start them, but boy is there a lot of planning after the first draft. There’s also a heck of a lot of preparation involved in creating the right conditions for writing, i.e. a huge block of alone time, a typing machine, copious pots of tea, etc..

I guess I did a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in writing with my 18-year academic career as well. And the possibilities are limitless with my writing.

Stone 3: Priority

Er, like not doing yet another blog post when I should be writing my novel.

Stone 4: Past success

I will always have written one novel. I know I can do it and there is no reason why I won’t be able to again. I know what it takes.

Stone 5: Perseverance

How many nos will I have to hear from agents, from publishers, from editors before I get that one yes?

Right now I have no idea, but I’m going to keep going until I find out.

Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia –  to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.

He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.

Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.

The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.

If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.

With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.

How to Induce a Hypnagogic State

You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.

Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.

Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.

I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.

Here are some more tips:

  • Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
  • Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
  • If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
  • Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
  • Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
  • You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
  • The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
  • The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
  • Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
  • Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
  • Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
  • For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
  • Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.

See Jennifer Dumpert’s Liminal Dreaming for more hypnagogic dreaming exercises.

Using Hypnagogia for Creativity

Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.

Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!

Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.

But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.

Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.

Control Your Experience

As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.

It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.

Record Your Experience

Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.

Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.

Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.

Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’

Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.

Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.

Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives

Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.

The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.

Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):

I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.

Hypnopompia

Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.

Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.

The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.

Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming

We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.

Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.

What is Wakefulness?

Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.

It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.

What is Sleep?

If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.

Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.

We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.

This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.

Creativity as Dreaming

This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.

Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.

Now: Experiment!

This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.


The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).

Further Reading:

How to Sleep

The Sleep Habit

Sleep is a habit. Get into a good habit and your sleep will be good.

This fact translates into just one hard and fast rule:

Get out of bed within 30 minutes of the same time everyday. Every day.

That includes the weekend. This will make your body rhythms consistent and you will get good at sleeping the whole time you are in bed because your body will know that that is the time allocated to it for sleeping.

Equally this will mean that you will begin to feel tired around 8 hours before your wake up time. So go to bed then. Don’t fight your body.

It is a scientific fact that most people get most benefit out of sleeping the hours between 11pm and 7am. Don’t blame me if you like staying up later, I’m just saying.

Sleep Hygeine

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. However, there are some things that contribute to sleep, some things you can do to facilitate it and some things that you should avoid. These tips are called Sleep Hygiene.

1. Don’t use your bed (or bedroom if possible) for anything other than sleep. Your body will then get used to the equation Bed = Sleep and respond accordingly.

2. Read fiction before sleeping. This activates the right side of the brain and helps you switch off the hyperactive, analytical left side. This will particularly help you if you spend hours lying in bed thinking over problems and worrying about things. Whatever you do, do not read non-fiction. This will have the reverse effect and you brain will churn over the ideas all night.

3. Don’t take caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant and takes around five hours to leave the body. Caffeine includes coffee, coke and chocolate.

4. Don’t drink alcohol either. It badly damages sleep quality. Have a drink at lunch time instead!

5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers get withdrawal symptoms during the night, disrupting sleep.

6. Get a bigger bed. Sleep is an activity. During the night we twist and turn – as shown by the state of the bedsheets in the morning! If you sleep with someone else then consider a king size. Seriously, people who sleep together, sleep worse.

7. Sleep in silence. If noise is a problem, then use earplugs or a white noise recording (you can find them on the internet or just detune a radio). A fan works as well, although you might dream that you’re flying through the wind.

8. Keep cool. Body temperature is crucial for sleep and therefore so is room temperature. Slightly cool works best. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation as well.

9. Don’t eat a meal in the three hours before your sleep time. But you could have a small snack high in tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate like a roast turkey sandwich with a small glass of warm milk. Tryptophan promotes sleepiness, calcium facilitates the absorption of tryptophan and carbohydrates slow and clear the mind. Avoid proteins at all costs.

10. Avoid bright lights in the run up to bed time. Your body clock is set by daylight, so you’re just confusing it with bright electric lights. Dim the lights, or read with just a soft table lamp. Equally, eliminate light in the room when you are actually trying to sleep. You might have to use blackout curtains or a eye mask.

11. Listen to an audio book to help soothe you to sleep. I know someone who listened to a recording of Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ for a whole week and never got past the first few pages. However, put the player on a timer so that it doesn’t wake you up a few hours later.

12. Take a warm bath before going to bed. Sleep onset is encouraged by a drop in temperature. A warm (but not hot) bath will simulate this drop as the water evaporates off your skin. However, this is artificial and not normally necessary. Bear in mind that this artificial drop is followed not long after by a gradual rise in body temperature as you warm up again. This is not conducive to sleep – so jump into bed within 20 minutes after taking the bath.

13. Slow down your heart rate. In other words, try meditation or focus on your breathing. Whatever you do, do not take exercise in the 3 hours before you intend to sleep. This could mean no after work gym sessions.

14. On the other hand, do exercise during the day. As little as 30 minutes exercise will help you sleep at night. Hit the gym in the morning.

15. Do not do any stimulating activities before sleeping. This means television, surfing the internet or card games.

16. Avoid sleeping medicines. There is no substitute for natural sleep. If you are still having problems then make doubly sure you are keeping good, regular sleeping habits and go and see your doctor. Be careful.

Now I shall dig a little deeper into what sleep is and what it does for us.

The Stages of Sleep

Sleep is made up of several different phases:

Stage 1
This lasts around 2-5 minutes. It is distinctive for its Quasi-REM (dreaming without the eye movements), which is not well understood. This is the condition that Thomas Edison induced to help him with breakthroughs in his inventions. He used to sit in an armchair with two steel balls in his hands, resting on the arm rests. When he moved from dozing into deeper sleep, the balls would fall onto the floor and he’d wake up from his dreaming, often with a new idea.

Stage 2
The first stage of ‘proper’ sleep is characterised by a slowing of your heart rate and a drop in body temperature. This explains why these two changes can be used to induce sleep. Stage 2 sleep is important for increasing alertness, promoting motor learning as well as reasoning, planning, language, reflexes and social interaction.

Stages 3 and 4 = Slow wave sleep (SWS)
This is the deepest sleep that we have. If we wake up during this phase (thanks to an alarm or an irate policeman) then we will feel groggy. This is known as sleep inertia and has three solutions: go back to sleep for 20 minutes or so, engage in a physical activity or splash water on your face. During slow wave sleep our bodies stop producing stress hormone and boost our levels of growth hormone. We also metabolise fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates during this phase and our mental neurons stop firing. This phase will clear your mind, repair your body and improve your declarative memory (e.g. “The Fire of London was in 1666”).

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM is the most glamorous phase of sleep, it is the time when we dream most deeply and memorably. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up and we pump 50% more blood to the brain which is firing neurons as if we were fully awake. REM sleep enhances our memories as our brains transfer information from short to long term memory. REM sleep also enhances creativity.

Sleep Cycles
It is not necessarily helpful to give approximate time lengths for the various stages of sleep because they vary a lot according to the human. For example, a male aged 20-29 years will spend about 21% of his sleep time in Slow Wave Sleep, a male aged 40-49 years about 8% and those aged 60-69 will spend just 2% in SWS. However, the average duration of a sleep cycle is about 90-100 minutes. This explains why humans average about 8 hours sleep a night, that is 5 full cycles.

So that’s it. Sleep isn’t a terrifically well-understood area of human activity, given that we spend about a third of our time engaged in the activity, but the tips above are a good start to sleeping well.


This article first appeared on the (now defunct) website, How to be Human. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here.

UK Jewish Film Festival Review

I am not Jewish. For me, it is hard work hacking through the thorny tangle of Jewishness. What am I to make of the Holocaust, murderous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism? What am I to make of the foundation of the state of Israel, Israel’s wars of independence and expansion and the on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? What am I to make of the failures of the peace process, the battle for Jewish demographic supremacy in Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA and the UK? The global Jewish population is tiny, only about the size of the London commuter belt, but there is no question that ‘Jewishness’ captures the world’s imagination in mysterious ways, polarised, quite often, between fear and hatred, and blind defence behind the shield of history.

Thankfully, the UKJFF tackled ‘The Jewish Question’ head on with a tongue-in-cheek short before each of the films. It was a telling of the famous ‘So, Mrs Cohen…’ joke (google it) by various comedians and celebrity Jews, including David Baddiel, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Vanessa Feltz and Rabbi Lionel Blue. We’re forced to examine the joke: is the humour inclusive or exclusive? Is the joke anti-Semitic? Funny? Just plain bad? Is it okay to laugh? The film ends with the Victor Borge quote, ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,’ and the ice is broken.

The feature films, particularly Diplomat and Protektor, tackle intensely Jewish narratives: modern social problems in Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the stories themselves are not necessarily Jewish, they are universal tales of love, loss and redemption.

Diplomat is a superbly-shot documentary film about immigrants to Israel from the USSR. Over one million Jews have immigrated into Israel since the breakup of the USSR, drawn by the promise of a better life among their own people. In a country with a total population of only 5 million in 1991, absorption of these immigrants represented a serious social difficulty, and it continues to this day. The film follows the lives, loves and losses of a few hundred Soviet immigrants who were temporarily housed in the five-star Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. Now, over fifteen years later, temporary has become permanent. There’s a war veteran with a hundred medals on his uniform, an elderly dancer with an obsession for hats and a man who roams the hallways with a cat draped over his shoulders. A former Soviet piano virtuoso is now reduced to playing for tiny audiences in the hotel. ‘Here my life ended,’ he says. ‘Israel is a prison sentence. I did feel good once in Israel – when I was under general anaesthetic.’ This bitter-sweet tone goes through the film. We spend time with a young violinist who lives in a room with his grand-mother and dreams of studying under an Italian master, but is ashamed of his old violin. The hotel fixer secures a grant of $10,000 for him, but shortly afterwards his grand-mother dies and the film ends with him packing her life into boxes.

Protektor is a film about the Holocaust, but it is much more than that: it is a story of trapped lives and forced decisions. A Czech radio announcer chooses to become the voice of the Nazi occupation to protect his Jewish wife, his wife chooses obliteration over the claustrophobia of mere survival, another employee of the radio station chooses to marry a Nazi official, but her former boyfriend chooses execution over collaboration. Deals are made and broken, relationships are forged and betrayed and lives are survived or destroyed as events spiral out of the characters’ control to the film’s inevitable tragic end. The scenario may be unique to Jewish history, but the moral ambiguity of the decisions forced on the characters and their blurred lines of loyalty are only too human.

Broken Lines, slated for a wider release in 2011, is lovingly filmed against the backdrop of our very own Finsbury Park. A young Jewish man, obsessed with the death of his father, the failure of his parents’ marriage and the trap of his own impending marriage, transfers his obsession to a young waitress, herself locked in a stunted relationship. The two lives are drawn together in a tight embrace as the characters struggle to break free of the past and to move forward into a brighter future.

This was an appropriate film to finish the series with because it was the least obviously ‘Jewish’ and the most obviously ‘human’ story. When I consider ‘Jewishness’ in the future, from crass Jewish jokes, to social upheaval in Israel and the Holocaust, I will remember that these are, above all, human lives.


The UK Jewish Film Festival is in London, 4-21 November 2010. On tour around UK January – March 2011. I saw Diplomat (Israel, 2009); Protektor (Czech Republic, 2009); and Broken Lines (UK/Canada/USA, 2008).