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Field Notes

The politics of meals

Lately I’ve been noticing the simultaneous acceptance and backlash around dietary preferences in the marketplace and in homes. A decade ago, Denise Copelton wrote about families with one member who suffered from coeliac or gluten intolerance and the complexities of navigating such issues at home, with friends, and in public. She concluded that such work constituted “stigma management.” 

While talking to people with coeliac today suggests that this has not entirely disappeared, the landscape has changed dramatically around negotiating preferences. The plethora of products, the entire supermarket aisle dedicated to gluten free is, unfortunately, not a sudden realisation of the health needs of a small group but rather a market niche connected to a larger diet trend and vilification of processed wheat products.  What's interesting for us as a society is how these reflect and reinforce other kinds of negotiations about eating together, feeding families, and constructing identities. To me, this signals a particular form of politicisation of intimacy and relationships.

We are what we eat
As any woman of a certain generation can tell you, family meals were not as ubiquitous or as easy as one might think from reading today’s advocates of home cooking in households. Aside from the prodigious work of cooking for others, meals included provisioning, the invisible labour of keeping track and planning, making sure people got along, and most significantly maintaining an awareness of individual needs and preferences (whether or not one accounted for them).

However, with the increasing politicisation of food and its relationship to health, wellbeing, and identity, food choices have become the centrepiece of asserting one’s autonomy, needs, and experiences. Not only is it harder for people to cook at home because of time demands (and a culture obsessed with convenience), but the ante has been upped, so to speak, so that a good provider must account

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The elusive art of decision making

It was only recently that we stopped basing entire economic models on rational decision making, even though experience tells us people don’t behave that way. In the 1960s psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky looked at how real people made decisions. They showed that even extremely clever people, like economists, were bad at working out the maths behind decision making and tended to guess incorrectly. When I guessed at maths problems in school, I didn't try to solve the problem using my slow, logical brain, which takes focus, effort and concentration. I used my fast, intuitive, ‘best guess’ brain, which was quite happy with an answer that was vaguely right. Of course, I knew I hadn’t got the right answer. But as Kahneman points out beautifully in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, the fast, intuitive brain often gives us answers that are wrong, but because they feel right we're convinced they are right. In practice we should be using both our logical slow brain and our fast, best-guess brain all the time. Being aware of some of the biases in decision making can help us refine our decision making process.

1. Look out for fast brain biases
One well known bias is the halo effect. If you know a person is competent in one area, you think they're competent in another area, even when you have no evidence of their expertise. Think of a celebrity endorsement of a slimming product. Because you regard the celebrity as an expert in one area, say light entertainment, you also think they know about slimming products. You may scoff and feel that only others would be taken in by this, but celebrity endorsements work. Another bias is endowment, which means you value something more because you have it. It's why it’s so difficult to sell your goods and feel you get a good ... More

The rise of historical faction

Most of us remember the writers from our youth who transported us to some thrilling place in the distant past. Mine included Mary Renault and Georgette Heyer, those spinners of exotic, romantic tales. Few traces of their stories remain in memory, alas. But I still recall vividly the excitement of discovering the life of Michaelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.

Stone was in the vanguard with his many imaginative recreations of the lives of real historical figures. But he somehow tapped into a Zeitgeist that was ready to emerge.  Some critics and serious readers still find historical fiction a sub-par genre, but in recent years the historical novel has grown up: it's "finally respectable," in the words of Paul Lay, editor of Britain's History Today. The best are increasingly concerned with faithfully reproducing an historical period—and in growing numbers, even the actual people who populated that past.

As Stone, and Robert Graves's I, Claudius remind us, there have always been novels about famous dead people. By and large, however, historical fiction was about fictional characters whose stories were set in days of yore, with the backdrop more or less cunningly arranged. Marguerite Yourcenar, author of Memoirs of Hadrian, sniffily disparaged the whole genre as "a bad costume ball."

Today it remains the rule that "the hallmarks of good historical fiction are romance and intrigue," according to the blog of the American bookseller Barnes & Noble. A large chunk are spirited entertainments on accurately detailed stage sets, like C.J. Sansom's Shardlake books or Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist. But something else has been happening for a good long while—and not just thanks to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall series dramatizing the life of Thomas Cromwell.

Towards historical faction More and more authors are turning to imaginatively recreating important historical figures and

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When social responsibility is part of your personal brand, everyone wins

Charity work is a win-win. The cause benefits and, on a personal level, this type of work brings great personal satisfaction. Beyond short term emotional perks, social responsibility has long term benefits for your personal brand. As seen elsewhere on Libertine, consumers now expect more from brands in terms of giving back, with 87% of people globally believing that companies should place at least equal weight on business and society. So if you're looking to get behind a cause, here are some steps to getting started.

1. Think about your time and resources
What do you realistically have to give? Don’t commit to running a marathon if you haven’t got the time to train for it. If you're going to do it, do it well. There are different ways to work with charities other than running 5k or holding a tea party, such as taking on the responsibility of becoming a trustee.
2. Look inwards
With so many worthy options out there, it can be difficult to decide which cause to support. Start by selecting one that aligns with your brand's values and vision. What problems or areas you want to see transformed or improved? Which issues hit home the most?
3. Consider your strengths
Ask yourself or, if you're brave, some people around you, what traits make you a valuable member of your team, community or family. Consider whether you want to offer your help and professional skills as an extension of what you do at work - for example, by offering to help with marketing if you already work in this area - or whether you want to do something different.
4. Get your foot in the door
Once you’ve identified a cause that’s a good fit for you and your skills, start to research charitable organisations behind that cause. Does the organisation have someone ... More

Empathy and self-reference

In The Empathy Era, Belinda Parmar argues in favour of a shift in business, suggesting that empathy increases recruitment and retention of talented women, improves relationships with customers and shareholders, and contributes to higher profits.

This importance is underscored by an ever-increasing emphasis on social media. As Parmar writes, “We have become enabled as consumers, as followers, as voters and as fans, to talk directly to those at the top of the food chain." This transparency is eliminating the distance between businesses and their customers; fostering those relationships demands “a much more empathetic approach.”

Empathy or projection?

Parmar’s conclusion was the starting point for a recent study conducted at Imperial College London. The results demonstrated that managers who had higher levels of empathy also exhibited more egocentric behaviour. In other words, putting themselves in their customers’ shoes actually led the individuals to project their own preferences onto the customer.

Dr. Johannes Hattula, the study’s lead, summarised the findings in the March 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review: “It’s assumed that when you’re empathetic, that’s good. You know your customer. We questioned this entire idea, and the results suggest that we have to think more carefully about this empathy approach, because it can backfire.”

The study required nearly 500 marketing managers to take on the consumer point of view in decisions regarding product development, communication management, pricing, and celebrity endorsement.

“We consistently found that managers’ predictions about customers’ needs matched the personal preferences of the managers themselves. Second, and even more surprising, we found that predictions of empathic managers were much more self-referential than those of non-empathic managers,” explains Dr. Hattula.

“Even when managers were given objective market research data on customer preferences to support their prediction process, the self-referential effect

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Seven reasons why empathy makes you better in business

The 2003 documentary The Corporation infamously compared the profile of the contemporary profitable business corporation to that of a clinically diagnosed psychopath. Twenty years on, the kind of ruthless, un-empathic approach with which we tend to associate corporate culture seems to be shifting. "Empathy is the key to profit," Belinda Parmar writes in The Empathy Era. "Not trendier or more hippy-chic cool. But actually more profitable." Parmar argues that despite the misconception of empathy as a "soft" skill, it is, in fact a hard commercial tool. Here's why.

1. Empathy pays
An empathic approach generates an emotional relationship with customers based on reassurance, which leads to trust, Parmar writes. Studies show that high-trust companies outperform low-trust companies, in both shareholder value – in a Watson Wyatt 2002 study, high-trust organisations outperformed low-trust organisations in total return to shareholders by 286 percent - as well as in sales and profits. Note that Ryanair has had to change its notoriously un-empathic ways, and has been rewarded for doing so: profits soared by 66% after a series of more consumer-friendly policies were put in place.
2. Consumers expect better
With more competition than ever, consumers are spoilt for choice - which means higher expectations. "Businesses that don’t change their culture will soon see themselves being passed over as more innovative and likeable competitors take their place," Parmar writes. Embedding empathic, authentic values into your brand's image means future-proofing your company.
2. Company culture helps retain talent...
An empathic business culture makes for a better work environment - which increases levels of employee retention, Parmar notes.
3. ...and foster innovation
Not only does company culture help attract and retain employees: it maximises their potential. Think Google's (now terminated) 'Twenty-Percent Time' initiative, which let engineers devote twenty percent of their time to developing their own personal projects to minimise burn-out and keep them excited about coming to work. As Parmar points out, it led to ... More

Designing for women’s pleasure

What makes a good sex toy?
It's such a subjective question. I'm a visual person, so for me a good sex toy is something that I have an emotional response to and a mental connection with. Too much focus is placed on the physical sensations of buzzing, spinning, flashing sexy toys, which means subtle aspects of intimacy and pleasure are overlooked. We prioritise the orgasm rather than the pleasurable experience.
How has designing for women's pleasure changed over the years?
We've got more women designing and creating products, so instead of having a masculine interpretation of what a woman wants, we've got experts designing for themselves. Consumers also expect more from their pleasure products in terms of aesthetics, design, functionality, performance, accessibility and desirability.
What is your favourite and least favourite trend in sex toy design at the moment?
I don't really follow trends - my design process and pieces are more visceral. I think we're starting to focus more on intimacy and personal experience. I've been working with TSM Meridian on the development of their Luv-Sense brand and product, which is launching at Sexhibition in August. The product is categorised as a sex aid, but it's not a sex aid in the conventional sense: it's designed to encourage intimacy and stimulate our voyeuristic tendencies. It's a new and creative approach to sex aids.
When did you start designing sex toys and why?
I was brought up in a Catholic family where sex and intimacy were something you didn't experience before marriage and self pleasure was something you were supposed to feel guilty about. But I've always felt that it's the most natural instinct to love, want to be loved and to feel love. I took a BA Hons in Ceramic Design at Central St Martin's. For my final project I created these ornate, ceramic perfume bottles that played with our traditional sense of ... More

Do you see what I’m saying? The link between visual culture and empathy

Last month, it was revealed that emoji (picture messaging) is the fastest growing language in the UK, fuelled by the global adoption of smartphones and instant messaging services like What’s App. While it can sometimes feel hard to keep up - or perhaps precisely because of this - it’s clear that pictures > words on the internet. At a broader level, a tacit understanding of ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ has led to frantic biographical documentation - with visual social networks like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr gladly springing up to accommodate. There have been no fewer than three emoji-only social networks - emojicate, emoj.li and Steven, which is no longer available. This is a shame as it sounds the most interesting, creating an ‘ambient awareness’ of what you’re doing by tracking your activity or location and logging it in picture format (a cup of coffee if it knows you’re in a coffee shop, or a briefcase if you’re in the office). In theory, this allows your connections to have a more realistic sense of your life activities without you having to tell them, or them having to ask. According to Swyft Media, around 6 billion smileys are sent around the world every day. There are 300 million emojis shared daily on Facebook. Businesses are taking notice: Mentos and Coca Cola have released their own branded sets - in the case of Mentos, accompanied by an expensive campaign that sets out the different personality of each ‘ementicon’ (*shudder*) in an attempt to spark some affinity with their target audience. This is a way of infiltrating natural, everyday communication on the brand’s part, but it also demonstrates just how much the use of visual messaging has skyrocketed. Tiffany Watt-Smith, who researches and has written a ... More

Stripping down self-help

I have a theory that personal development and the English psyche are not the most natural of bedfellows. That’s not to say we don’t want to live fully, investigate our motivations and seek clarity in life; it’s just that we want to do it discreetly, in our own sweet time. It's a stark contrast to the ravenous US appetite for personal development, a market whose tone is traditionally upbeat, solution-based and affirmative. In business terms, at least, it works: celebrity gurus and international bestsellers have propelled the US market to a worth of billions of dollars. The UK’s appetite for self-knowledge and growth is certainly there, but Anglo-Saxon habits die hard. We're not about stadium-sized conventions, affirmations and the devouring of books with titles like Soul Shifts: Transformative Wisdom For Creating A Life Of Authentic Awakening, Emotional Freedom & Practical Spirituality (I’m exhausted already). Instead, quieter forms of self development seem to chime with us. And some technologies are fostering this personal experience.

One-to-one
Take Headspace, the app store hit from UK-based Andy Puddicombe. It's introduced over 2 million people to meditation, making the concept of mindfulness applicable to everyday life and delivering it straight to our ears. Chances are many of the people plugged into their earphones on your commute to work are listening to Headspace. It ranked as fourth-highest rated meditation app last year and has climbed to popularity by offering a straightforward, no-nonsense approach. No whooping affirmations or high fives here. Just a chance to look inward quietly and privately, when we want. While there’s a clear sign that the appetite for personal development is growing in this country, subtlety is the name of the game. Yes, we want to find meaning in life, but it’s nobody’s business but our own. This is perhaps what has helped the life coaching industry flourish: ... More

Plotting CityMapper’s global routes

I've long been an admirer of Citymapper's easy-to-use, stylish public transportation app for getting around London. Recently, the app seamlessly transitioned me from London to San Francisco and then to New York. No other gizmo in my life, not even my Google calendar, could so easily smooth the edges of transatlantic, transcontinental, trans-time-zone travel. Granted, Citymapper only works in a limited number of cities around the globe (currently 22, as stated on their website.) Not everywhere has the right confluence of well-defined infrastructure with easily available data, a sufficiently wealthy population with smartphones, and public interest to power Citymapper. The anthropologist in me is curious about how an app like this highlights the growing urban-rural divide and the emergent technical skills gap that currently separates the global elite from everyone else. The proportion of the global population which actually needs an app to transition them (effortlessly!) to three different cities in the space of two weeks is vanishingly small; who's serving the transportation needs of everyone else? The data wizard in me is curious about how all the different bits come together to make the app go, and how they're thinking about the complexities of plotting routes in different kinds of cities: I'd love to see what Citymapper - Cairo would look like. The challenges presented by a place where the cityscape is still being defined as it pushes further and further out into the desert would be interesting. And how about all the non-standard 'public' transportation routes people use in cities where public transportation is not so well defined? Ad-hoc ride-sharing in taxis? Minibuses that define routes and times based on the population that presents themselves at the time that the bus wants to go, rather than by a predetermined schedule? How do you map that? I've written before ... More

Artifacts of pleasure

Two days after we'd set up Artifacts of Pleasure, a project exploring what erotic pleasure means to women, my collaborators and I were in a dilemma. We'd uploaded some of our own artifacts which, to our surprise, included everything from the beauty of other women to the scene from Star Wars when Vader lops off Luke's hand and declares, "I am your father" (our reasoning: "Luke is devastated, BROKEN. Beneath all that invincibility, he’s vulnerable. And that’s tantalising.") We then started receiving entries that expanded the conceptual boundaries of what 'erotic' can be even further, and we wondered if we should be more specific about what we were looking for. Thankfully, however, we came to our senses. Because for pretty much the entirety of history, women’s sexuality and bodies have been defined and confined to sex, pornography, commercial imagery. We’ve been objectified to the extent that the complexity of our inner lives, of what we find erotic, has been overlooked. We’ve been having a fabulous time exploring this incredibly diverse inner space. Here are some of the entries we've received.

1. "Mini mozzarella balls at a dinner buffet"
mballds Freud and Lacan would have a field day with this. I find it reassuring that I’m not the only one who gets a frisson from touching certain inanimate objects.
 "There is nothing like perforating the ball on the platter, raising it to your lips and keeping it there for a while before slipping the mozzarella off of its toothpick and secretly playing wild fantasies with it."
2. "Being a warrior woman"
tumblr_nmg0mk4BzT1uqp3cso1_500 Maybe it’s narcissism, maybe it’s solidarity. Either way, there are few things sexier than being in the presence of other awesome women.
 “While women in precolonial Philippines were often designated to the venerable position of the babaylan,
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Designing the ultimate onesie

Finnish designer Nina Ignatius didn't know what to say when the nurses at the neonatal intensive care unit asked her what clothing she'd like to dress her premature newborn in. “She was full of wires, her skin was paper thin and she was inside an incubator. I thought, how can you dress her?"

Clothing, the nurses explained, is good for the baby’s development. “Every feeling they feel is developing neurons in the brain," Nina says. "Without experiences you don’t have any memory - you don’t have any understanding."

The babywear revolution
Dressing a prematurely born baby often involves removing and reattaching wires, a process that can cause infection. Labels on the neck of the clothing and hard, chafing seams also seemed impractical to Nina. All of which led the designer to start up Beibamboo, a community design patented collection of label-free, size-adjustable clothing that's 50% bamboo, 50% organic cotton. The company features a regular and a hospital-wear collection: the onesies in the latter range have a fully open design so parents can dress their child in an incubator without interfering with important tubes. They also come with folding mitts, which stop the baby tampering with wires and scratching themselves. All items are washable in warm degrees because cold washes don't kill off germs, Nina explains.
Smarter care
The hospital clothing is designed to help children get better faster. Leaving everything up to the nurses can make parents feel helpless, while giving parents charge of their child's care can have positive results. A mount sinai study tasked parents with responsibilities otherwise left up to nurses, such as bathing and changing diapers, monitoring the infant's vital signs, and recording feedings and weight gain on their medical chart. There was a 25% improvement in weight gain of the babies who were looked after by the parents. Infection rates fell from 11% in the nurse group to zero in the parent

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Our pick of How The Light Gets In 2015: Fantasy and reality

We love big ideas at Libertine - and How The Light Gets In, the world's largest philosophy festival (also deemed "Europe's answer to TED") is filled with them. Since 2009, the music and philosophy festival has been offering up an alternative means of intellectual stimulation to the annual literature and arts festival at Hay-on-Wye. Scientists, cosmologists and politicians gather to give talks as well as host something called "philosophy breakfasts" - for those who like a bit of complex thought with their coffee and croissants. This year the festival takes 'Fantasy and Reality' as its theme. Hundreds of talks in dozens of tents will explore the magical, inexplicable elements of science as well as the possibility of bringing futuristic fantasies to life. Here are some of our favourite talks from the line-up: - Mary Midgley on the instability of knowledge; the controversial, 95-year old philosopher has attacked what she refers to as the "scientism" of Richard Dawkins - and found more than a little sympathy. (May 23) - British biologist Aubrey de Grey who thinks he can cure ageing. (May 22) - Activist Peter Tatchell will consider the consolations of pornography, asking whether it can ever be a force for good in the world (we're not convinced, but let's see). (May 26) - Oxford scientist Chiara Marletto is working on a new theory which formulates science in terms of possible and impossible tasks. We came across her interview on Edge.org last year and have been intrigued (if slightly confused) ever since. (various dates) - A panel exploring whether imagination has any impact on reality, and if so, should we be conjuring up visions of better worlds? (May 27) - 21st century paganism. It's said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the UK. (May 29) Hilary Lawson, the festival's founder, says there's a need "to get philosophy out of the academy ... More

Where to unplug

1. Notes Music & Coffee
31 St Martin’s Lane; 36 Wellington Street, London. notes-uk.co.uk For coffee and tea served in handmade pots in a haven free from technological disruption. Take a book or strike up a conversation with a stranger.
2. La Petite Syrah
13 Rue Cassini, Nice. lapetitesyrah.fr. Closed Sun - Mon. An oasis of impeccable manners. Ask for ‘un café s'il vous plaît’ and you’ll pay €4.25; rude customers omitting the 'please' are penalised with a surcharge of €2.75.
3. Four Barrel
375 Valencia. fourbarrelcoffee.com, San Francisco ‘Laptop hobos’, as they’ve come to be known, are discouraged from this cafe via a lack of WiFi and plug outlets. A sign on the wall also warns against 'annoying hipster talk'.
4. Bedivere Eatery & Tavern
Jeanne d’Arc Street, Beirut. bedivere-lb.com As their ‘socially forward’ policy dictates, surrender your phone and socialise with your fellow diners and you’ll be given a 10% discount.
5. Barn Roastery
Schönhauser Allee 8, 10119 Berlin The owner of this Berlin coffeehouse is notorious for banning phone calls, ringtones and all ‘media’ (apart from newspapers). Also forbidden are prams and asking for extra milk.

Tearjerkers and altruism

Certain films are guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye. Beaches. Steel Magnolias. The Jealous Guy scene in Look Who’s Talking Too (you may laugh, but I defy you to watch it without welling up). No doubt you have your own favourite tearjerkers, even if you're reluctant to own up to them. It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of films as silly or shallow. But to those that scoff, I have the perfect retort. Crying at the movies makes me a better person - and it can do the same for you.

How? Well, a film is a means to tell a story. And we love to tell, and be told, stories. Whatever the format – cinema, television programmes, plays, poems, songs or even gossip - our appetite for stories is insatiable. But it’s not just a distraction, an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. Telling stories helps us survive and thrive.

In Story Theory, David Baboulene writes that stories are a vital evolutionary tool, and so our brains have evolved to love them. Baboulene explains the concept of “knowledge gaps”: gaps in a story that cause speculation. If I tell you I saw a dead body, you immediately start speculating about the gaps in your knowledge: who is dead, why, how. We’re hooked on knowledge gaps because more knowledge = better chance of survival and speculating is great exercise for our problem-solving brains. What's more, as Baboulene writes, our brains don’t distinguish between an actual experience and the representation of that experience. For our ancestors, this meant that when they shared stories of sabre-tooth tiger attacks, their tribesmen gained the same knowledge as if they’d been attacked themselves, and were more likely to survive if facing the same situation. For us, it means that when we watch a movie we're able to “understand and share the feelings of another”. The brilliance

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Empathy tech: solving problems through perspective

Lurking behind every technical product is a problem; a problem designers are attempting to solve through engineering. This fundamental principle has brought us everything from plastic cups that fit snugly in the water cooler dispenser to the lines of code that automatically sync your flight confirmation email with your Google calendar. But there's a meta-problem behind all the challenges which give rise to the objects and widgets adorning our lives: how do designers and engineers know which problems are worth solving? One strategy is to take a self-reflexive approach: solve an issue that's meaningful to you. Software developer Paul Ford designed Anxiety Box to periodically email himself sentence fragments relating to his personal anxieties. As he describes in episode 8 of Reply All, trying to repress his internal monologue of anxious thoughts only made it more powerful, so he hoped that externalising it would help him view them objectively. The spam-like formatting of the Anxiety Box's messages made it easier not to take his negative thoughts so seriously; it helped him reframe his negative self-beliefs into much more manageable (and "ridiculous") chunks.

App therapy
Though related to the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, in which people try to recognise and reframe their negative thought patterns, Anxiety Box was never intended to be a clinical therapeutic treatment for large populations. But some designers are teaming up with scientists to do just that. Creative director of Playlab London Simon Fox drew on his experiences with panic attacks to design the game Flowy, which helps players control their breathing. In a talk at London’s Think Drink Do meetup series last year, Simon spoke about the app's use of gamification to create behavioural change. Playlab’s goal is to get Flowy adopted as a clinically recognised therapy by pairing up with researchers at King’s College London and the NHS to conduct controlled trials that ... More

Intimacy and empathy

We’re lonely, tired and stressed out. In 2013, only 36% could pick their neighbours out of a line-up, yet we spend more time connected to others than ever. And an impending explosion of internet-connected devices, with all their niggling demands for attention, only add to the mounting sense of cultural anxiety. Timely, then, that a new posse of products and tools is urging us all to chill out, and offering a glimpse of the world outside of our own narrow selfie-filled spheres of reference. Mindfulness apps like Headspace - which has over 2 million users - alongside personal data trackers and wearables promise us a greater understanding of ourselves. Now we’re being offered tech which promotes a greater understanding of others. At its best, the experience is seamless and immediate. The Oculus Rift gaming headset has been used to swap two people’s perspectives of gender. The Meerkat and Periscope apps (“see the world through someone else’s eyes”, says the latter) broadcast a personal, live video feed to someone on the other side of the world. Tworlds matches you with a complete stranger who’s (allegedly) thinking or feeling what you are at that very same moment. Or Somebody, Miranda July’s tech-fuelled experiment in serendipity, which was updated in April 2015. Have a message for someone? Send it through the Somebody app and it will be delivered - not to your friend, but to the Somebody user nearest to your friend, who will then deliver the message in person. Best not to sext, then. As far-fetched as these new apps may seem, they all share a recognition that we need to spend more quality time by ourselves and with each other. Amber Case argues how technology should allow us to be more, not less, ... More

The economics of #GE2015

It started, really, with a pink bus. Or, rather, a tour of the UK Labour revealed it was embarking on back in February that was meant to help them gauge women's voting preferences in a very tight election, or win votes in key marginal seats, but descended, for obvious reasons, into a debate about colour. The Guardian asked: is pink patronising? 83% of its readers said yes. As discussed on Libertine, separating "pink" topics from the larger spectrum of political issues can end up ghettoising women rather than including them in the discussion. In the 2010 general election only 51% of young people aged 18 to 25 voted and less than half of those were women. This stat prompted the Youth Media Agency to crowdfund for a campaign, the XXVote, which has been encouraging young women to use their vote in #GE2015. Overall, turnout among women has been in steady decline, from 78% in 1992, just slightly more than men, to 64% in 2010, where there were fewer female voters than male. But is it really those ill-judged, out-of-touch efforts like the striking pink voting wagon that mean UK women aren't skipping straight down to exercise this hard-won freedom?

Austerity heavy or austerity light
Among the two main parties, this election has been fought on the assumption that money is the only question, and that austerity, or cuts, are the only answer. That’s despite the fact that economist after economist has said that cuts have slowed down our economic recovery, an economic recovery that was needed thanks to an under-regulated and frankly irresponsible financial services sector. It’s perhaps old news that cuts to public services hit women hardest and that they are felt most harshly by those in receipt of benefits to top-up their pay packet, or by those who can’t ... More

The dos and donts of mixing film with politics

Sean Penn’s latest film, The Gunman, released this March, is currently rated at an embarrassing 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics accused the film of being gruesomely violent, confused, predictable, and – perhaps worst of all – boring. Penn has a co-write credit on the film, and the plot (the past catches up with a retired hitman doing humanitarian work in Africa) is likely influenced by his own humanitarian experiences in Haiti. But in attempting to make a movie that is both issue-driven polemic and shoot-‘em-up action, Penn has learned the hard way that politics and movies shouldn’t mix. I’m not suggesting politics and movie stars shouldn’t mix; the list of celebrity donors to Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign reads like a who’s who of Hollywood cool kids. And occasional movie stars have made the transition to politics: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, our own Glenda Jackson. George Clooney and Ben Affleck have long been rumoured to have political aspirations. No, I’m suggesting that problems arise when Hollywood tries to shoehorn political messages into what should be entertainment. Playwright (and author, screenwriter and director) David Mamet writes in Three Uses of the Knife that “…the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us…I don’t think it’s to teach us.” This seems to hold true at the box office, with moviegoers preferring feelgood and fun over serious and (sometimes) sanctimonious.

Political flops
The first film on 2014’s Box Office chart that could be categorised as 'political' is 12 Years A Slave, at number fourteen (and a gross of over thirty-three million dollars) – undoubtedly boosted by awards success and big-name stars, it still couldn’t come close to The Lego Movie or even The Inbetweeners 2 (both grossing around fifty-five million dollars). Another issue-driven movie doesn’t appear until ... More

Fairytale theatre warns against the perils of tech

L: Where did the idea for Golem come from? S: We read the book by Gustav Meyrink first. I started researching the original myth of the golem, which is a Jewish myth. I was in the British library for a few weeks getting everything out that was Golem related. It's inspired so many stories - Frankenstein, for example. I kept coming back to the idea of artificial intelligence and cloning. At the same time I was seeing friends and their technology - iPhones, Facebook, Twitter - taking over more of their lives. This is a real shift in how we interact with each other. That started to seep into the show. We've made it rather dystopian - but that's not to say we think the world is going to go that way. How do you want people to react to the play? Is it a call to action or do you just want people to think about the ideas a bit more deeply? Yes, we'd like people to think about it more, but is the way to make people think really by making a theatre show that's quite funny? It's something I think about all the time: how to make work that's politically engaging, that's entertaining and funny and that makes people think. That was one of the reasons we've focussed on the negative aspects. We thought it might make people think about what can be an uncritical embrace of technology. It's our politics edition on the site this month, so we've been thinking a lot about how to get people engaged at Libertine. In some ways, humour is so effective because it makes you open up to the ideas rather than feel you're being shouted at. Yes, I think it does. The interesting thing is how you make people take action. It's tricky. I went to see Juliet Stevenson host a conversation about women and children in  Yarl' s ... More

Monumental misconceptions

On a November afternoon in 2012, Dan Motrescu climbed up onto a statue of Prince George, 2nd

Duke of Cambridge, in Whitehall and took off all his clothes. For close to three hours, the surrounding area was cordoned off by police, who alongside hordes of onlookers waited for the 29 year old man to eventually descend from a perch on the top of the duke’s head.

Motrescu succeeded in snapping off the Field Marshall’s baton, and caused an alleged £10,000 of damage to the statue. But beyond material violation, the most notable outcome was publicity. Not for the perpetrator (he was left unnamed in much of the press), but for the monument itself.

Longer living symbols

The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association has over 9,300 entries for public sculptures across the UK. There are more than 400 public artworks in the City of Westminster alone. Some are world-famous, but most are better known by the ‘press-worthy’ events surrounding them. A naked man always helps.

London-based mixed media artist Liane Lang has spent many years preoccupied by monuments. Her ongoing project Monumental Misconceptions blends photography and sculpture, and spans subjects across the UK and Europe. Central to the series is the notion of iconoclasm (destroying culturally important beliefs or religious images): "here, the statue becomes the object of bodily punishment, being treated as a symbolic site for physical humiliation, injury and execution in lieu of the real body."

Monuments tend to portray the subject as heroic, all-powerful and permanent. Lang plays with scale in her works to highlight the absurdity of this effect. In her interpretation of the Prince George monument (pictured below), for example, she reduces the duke to a sculptural miniature, casting a naked figure on the top of his head. Thanks to Don Motrescu's antics, Prince George is no longer the protagonist of his own tribute. ... More

Six ways to embrace difference in the workplace

Quantum physicist and feminist philosopher Karen Barad asks “What if we were to recognise that differentiating is  not about radical separation, but on the contrary, about making connections and commitments?”

I like to apply the idea that difference has the potential to connect us in ways that we're not currently benefitting from to everyday relationships. Part of this means moving away from an understanding of diversity as box-ticking and quota counting that’s prevalent in today’s discussion of gender, race, and equality. Take Sheryl Sandberg, for example: a prominent female corporate voice who consistently engages in conversations around diversity statistics - yet doesn’t offer any way for change. Instead, she touts self-sufficiency for women, and finds mentorship a buzz kill.

Creating quotas or openly publishing diversity numbers creates an awareness of representational issues. But while statistics might show us that change needs to happen - that things are quantitatively unfair - they don't build a true understanding of the individual production and experience of discrimination. It should be about real, material, ethical engagement with other people. It's about connecting and using difference to become better, more creative and more resilient.  

Beyond quotas
The existence of diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination practices suggest we're making progress in society, but I think we can do better. In the contemporary West, we still live in a systemically racist society where the fundamental frameworks of sameness derive from the straight white male ideal. What if we didn't just try to manage or empower diversity against these dominant norms, but embraced other perspectives for ourselves? I’m attempting to answer this through Generative Differencea practice derived from my recent academic work which seeks out a diversity of outlooks and life experiences that positively shape our ways of working, thinking, and interacting.

One way of doing this is learning how to listen and be receptive to stories that don’t match

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Highly communicative objects

Milton Glaser, designer of the iconic ‘I heart NY’ logo, once said: “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master”. Donald Norman’s 1988 The Design of Everyday Things - the design industry's bible - extends the sentiment, asserting that design serves as the communication between object and user.

Since then, user-centred has design emerged as the language of creating, as epitomised by the iPhone revolution with its smooth user interfaces. But as Libertine’s Kate Mew observed in 'The Used Future Manifesto', in attempting to become seamless, design became closed and secretive. This probably wasn’t what Glaser and Norman had in mind. The fact is, user-centred design isn’t seamless by default. A new swathe of designers argue that it's the seamful-ness of their work - applying traditional, familiar skills in new fields to create highly communicative objects whose crafting tells a story - that makes their products authentically user-centred. It's an approach that doesn't just foster communication between user, designer and object, but dialogue, they argue.

New traditions
Caren Hartley trained at the Royal College of Arts as a jewellery designer and later worked as a sculptor on large public art projects. A dedicated commuter-cyclist, she decided to have a crack at building her own bike frame to her own specification. She liked it so much, she founded Hartley Cycles, creating bespoke, handmade frames. The shift from jewellery to bicycles seemed like a natural progression. “I love working with metal. I understand it.” While Hartley acknowledges she has plenty to learn, her background in the aesthetic and the intricate brings something new to the workbench. “I approach it differently because I have a different skillset. I’m coming at it from a maker’s point of view rather than an engineer…there’s more beauty, little flourishes, more things by hand.” More

Pink vacuum politics

I am not a mother. I do not care for an elderly relative. Fortunately, I do not suffer from domestic violence. These topics still interest me in a general way, and I recognise that women are disproportionately affected by many related issues. I am also, whilst happening to be a woman, interested in the economy, the environment, welfare, foreign policy… the list goes on. I am not alone. When Harriet Harman listed the former as among the topics the now infamous Pink Bus would include in its attempts to engage women, it was the exclusion of the latter from the list that really alienated me. Perhaps some of the 9 million women who didn't vote in the last election, the women who are now being targeted by such schemes, feel the same way. Perhaps, just perhaps, some of the 9 million women who didn't vote last time around have the same motivations and concerns as some of the 8 million men who didn't vote.

The kitchen vs the boardroom table
The most damning moment for the Pink Bus was the description from Lucy Powell, general election co-ordinator, claiming Labour wanted to “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” not an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table”. This polarisation is toxic. It’s retro sexism of the highest degree, but it's also a first rate example of the problems which can arise when women’s participation and what are described as "women’s topics" are boxed separately from the larger spectrum of political issues. Household economy and the boardroom are not mutually exclusive interests, nor are they unrelated. Fortunately, as I spend exactly zero time at school gates and more time at work than loitering in shopping centres (although when I do, please don’t zone in to talk childcare at me whilst I’m ... More

Showing off your company culture

For growing small and medium sized companies, attracting, hiring and retaining talent is one the biggest challenges faced by the management team. Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet and recruiting is becoming tougher with a shortage of talented people, particularly in the tech and digital sectors. Companies are often too reactive in their hiring; they just want to fill a seat. Recruitment agencies, job boards or any of the myriad options available are all suboptimal compared to having a talent pipeline, built over time, through the attraction of a great employer brand.

Authenticity and awareness
Building a great employer brand requires a level of transparency that gives outsiders a look inside your company. It should invite people to imagine, "what would life be like for me working here?" Two elements are essential to this. The first is reach to appropriate candidates: you need to raise awareness amongst people who could become future employees. The second is authenticity. Your employer brand should give an accurate insight into the company culture, which often proves polarising: it helps attract people who are a good fit and repel those that aren't. But for most SMEs, the former remains the biggest challenge: prospective applicants just don't know they exist. While at university, my now business partner and I started to think about this. We became aware of a range of exciting SMEs that were hiring - but these companies were previously unknown to us, and it felt like they were completely unknown to everyone else too. They weren't getting the exposure to talent they deserved. There had to be a better way.
Winning brand advocates
We started up Zealify to solve this problem. A career discovery platform, Zealify showcases the culture, environment and career opportunities in high-growth companies. Prospective applicants get to see photos of the office, videos of the employees as well as information about the company's values: important ... More

Turbo-charged and transparent

I love elections. They're moments when voters get to be in charge, weigh in on issues of the day, and utilize the most fundamental notion of democratic fairness: assigning one vote to one voice. Plus - in the US, at least - there are those lovely “I voted!” stickers. On May 7th, voters across the United Kingdom will go to their local polling stations to determine the 56th Parliament. For voters, it should be as easy as signing up with the UK online voter registration system and finding a time to vote (ed note: at VoteHack in London recently, one of the teams built a simple calendar reminder to get people to commit to a specific time). But the reality is rarely that simple. The internet has brought more goods and services to our fingertips than ever before, but government is often a late adopter. Finding information about how, when, and where to vote remains a scavenger hunt, instead of a simple push notification. US voters can be limited by the morass of 50 different sets of state laws governing elections and registration.

Simplifying voting
That’s why my friend Seth Flaxman and I set out to simplify voting. In 2010, we created TurboVote, a simple application that lets anyone sign up, answer a few simple questions, and then receive all the materials and information they need to get registered, stay registered, and vote in all their elections. More recently, we partnered with the municipal officials who run American elections to design and build a tool - Ballot Scout - to trace ballots through the postal system. 36 US states currently allow voters to cast their ballots by mail before Election Day, giving voters the ability to research and complete their ballots in the comfort of their own homes. But ballots ... More

Startup insight: Olivia Knight

Which emerging businesses have you got your eye on? It’s not exactly an emerging business but in the last year I’ve had my eye on Moo. They started out as a really nice business card company – and they still are – but they’ve quickly evolved into a one-stop print shop for an entire generation of creatives. Richard Moross launched the business in a digital age with print media generally in decline and at a time when people make business contacts on Twitter instead of swapping little bits of cardboard. And yet Moo have made having a business card not only relevant again but have turned them into a crucial piece of creative communication. And then there’s the postcards, flyers, stickers etc. What I love is that Moo has managed to grow into a hugely successful business and at the same time has retained its creative credentials, founding principles about personal expression and its loyal fans  - of which I am one.

What's your biggest challenge or unsolved question? Our biggest question as a company is “what about the stuff money can’t buy?” In the 18 months since we launched Patchwork Present we’ve seen friends and families collectively fund all sorts of much-wanted gifts from handbags to honeymoons, playhouses to piano lessons, washing machines to vegetable gardens. Our principle till now has been, if it exists and it’s legal then you can fund it. And we’ve been amazed at the things money can buy. Maybe not love. But one new mum said her friends used Patchwork to “save her sanity” by chipping in to pay for a sleep specialist who came to support her in the weeks after her second baby was born. The idea behind Patchwork is that people can contribute whatever they can afford from £1 to £500 towards a

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Data insights from the bottom of the pyramid

Three years ago, I was sitting jet lagged in a conference room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. Around the table were 30 people like me, mostly wearing suits, all well-off, and all talking about poverty.

The topic of the meeting was what priorities the world, in the form of the United Nations, should set itself to end global poverty. And no one in the room had the first idea how poor people themselves would actually answer that question.

So after the meeting was over, eating noodles in downtown Tokyo, a friend and I sketched out the idea for a global survey that would ask people a very simple question: ‘what is most important for you and your family’, and allow poor people’s priorities to be brought directly into rooms like that one, where decisions are made.

MY World

Seven million people – that’s one in every thousand people on Earth – have now answered that question. MY World’, as we called it, has caught the imagination of hundreds of organisations which have taken the survey out to farmers in Nigeria, to refugee camps in Rwanda, to university students in Mexico, to Dalit villages in India, to primary schools in China and asked people to say what is most important to them. Their answers have been brought into negotiating rooms in New York, in Liberia, in Indonesia and in London – wherever people have been meeting to discuss global priorities for ending poverty. 

Together, the team behind the MY World survey has given people whose views were invisible a presence in global negotiations. This is an amazing achievement by many, many people, and my role in it is probably the thing I'm proudest of in my career so far. But MY World is one small drop in the ocean of

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Libertine Live: Kirsty McNeill

Barack Obama's 2012 win is mostly attributed to a demographic of voters known as the Rising American Electorate: unmarried women, people of colour, and young voters aged 18-29. While Obama inspired this demographic to turn out in huge numbers - collectively, these voters made up nearly half of the 2012 electorate according to national exit poll estimates - the exact opposite seems to have happened over here in the UK. "I call it the shrinking British electorate", Kirsty said last night, a phenomenon which ties into three big politics trends: dislocation, or the widespread feeling of having no solid ground to stand on (think young people and the housing crisis), distrust of authority figures and institutions, and disruption, one indicator of which is shorter leadership cycles. "People get pushed out of positions of power much quicker." What's more, there are glaring disparities in the kinds of people who are registered to vote. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to be registered to vote than white Britons. A 2015 study commissioned by Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman revealed that 9.1 million women didn’t turn out in the last election. Only 63% of people who live in rented accommodation are registered. Universities no longer automatically register students; parents can't register on behalf of their children, which some analysts believe resulted in one million people dropping off the register. It makes sense that people who don't see themselves reflected in parliament might be discouraged from politics altogether. We might be looking at the most diverse parliament ever in terms of gender, age and race regardless of who comes to power, Kirsty said, but it will be the least diverse in terms of ideas - which means the spectrum of opinion is less likely to be represented. So how do you transform this frustration into action and unprecedented voter turnout, as in the Obama 2012 election, instead of passive apathy? Aside ... More

Open democracy

Voter apathy was a buzzword circulating around last year's European elections. At the time, only 41% of young people said they were definitely going to cast their ballot in this year's elections. But analysis of non-voters aged 18-34 in the last general election revealed they have more or less the same level of optimism about the future as voters in the same age bracket. Perhaps the apathy isn't quite as all-encompassing as we're led to believe. So what would make an otherwise energetic and committed group equally lively about who's in power? It might help to strip out the jargon, and ask more questions - we certainly will be at tonight's theme launch event. In addition to event speaker Kirsty McNeill, who wants to make policy accessible with ShouldWe (the Wikipedia of public policy, if you will), there are initiatives like Turbovote in the US, which Kathryn Peters co-founded to bring the immediacy and convenience of the internet to voting. Outside of the Libertine100, there are dozens of hackers and campaigners working with open government data to make the facts more accessible - see Democracy Club, They Work For You and Democratic Dashboard. Aren't sure who to vote for? Take a Buzzfeed-style quiz with Votematch. Election aside, we've seen lots of other creative and tech-savvy ways of empowering people to tackle difficult or complex subjects. Filmmaker and campaigner Leila Sansour is using Bethlehem as a less controversial anchor city to get people talking about Israel and Palestine. Moushira Elamwary has developed Risha, an open source laser cutter whose main goal is to get non-traditional users involved in making. Similarly, Catarina Mota has taught numerous workshops to get people ... More

A fragrant zodiac

Imagine a clock with no batteries and no mechanical parts. Instead, picture a mini Mexican wave of flowers opening sequentially around a circular bed to map the time - as if the invisible hand of nature was brushing through a cavalcade of unfolding blooms. 

Certain plants open and close at a regular time of day, and the idea of arranging them in an order is what gardeners call a flower clock. It was picked up by the New York Times earlier this year; as the article notes, it’s a tricky thing to pull off - perhaps even impossible.

But it’s an irresistible idea, one that’s captivated writers and poets since the days of Andrew Marvell. “How could such sweet and wholesome hours / Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs”, Marvell writes in ‘The Garden’. So I set about ordering the seeds and potting up those species available as plugs to make my own “fragrant zodiac”. 1

Celandines, pictured, open with the sun. Wordsworth writes in ‘The Lesser Celandine’: “...the first moment that the sun may shine / Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!”

Time-keeping weeds

18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus called these time-keeping flowers the aequinoctales. They rarely show up in carpet bedding schemes, because most of them aren’t ‘cultivated’ plants. They’re wildflowers. It’s possible that time-keeping characteristics have been selected out of garden plants in the never-ending search for longer-flowering cultivars and more bankable blooms. The daisy, which takes its name from the Old English word daegeseage, meaning ‘day’s eye’, opens in the morning (if it’s raining, it’ll stay shut to keep its pollen dry). Dandelions open at approximately 7am, evening primroses at 6pm. European bindweed opens at 5am; with its far-reaching roots, it isn’t exactly a popular choice.

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Rescuing Panama’s sunken rainforests

“I call it dragon wood,' says Alana Husby, founder of Coast Eco Timber, offering up a photograph of stripy, golden brown timber.

The wood in question comes from the bottom of a flooded forest in Panama - and anything could have happened to it to give it its distinct texture. It might have been struck by lightning, succumbed to insects or 'spalting', a type of colouration formed by fungi much sought after by woodworkers. Alana calls it “fancy rot.”

“But we kept finding these logs. It turns out it’s a species,' she says, citing its technical name Amarillo Guayaquil. “I had no idea it was there. I couldn’t believe it because it’s gorgeous.”

Built in 1976 to supply water power to a hydroelectric plant, Panama’s Bayano Lake contains a submerged hardwood forest in its watery depths. Coast Eco Timber send divers down with chainsaws to free the trees and provide high quality, ethically sourced wood, rescuing a host of fascinating species - such as Alana’s beloved dragon wood.

Family tree

A fifth generation logger, Alana was brought up in an indigenous community on British Columbia's Haida Gwaii archipelago and went on to study forestry at the school of technology. Classes were held in the field from 8am to 6pm, often in the pouring rain - yet in spite of the conditions and Alana’s poor navigation skills, she gained an in-depth, technical knowledge of the industry. “I learnt everything from road building, harvesting methods, tree planting - every single facet of the business.”

She went on to work for her father’s company, rescuing wood from Canada’s river debris and old buildings. On hearing about the dense, untouched forest at the bottom of the Panama reservoir, she decided she had to see it. She ended up buying out the existing logging company and setting up her own

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Digging into the global history of cancer

On February 8th, 2010 I hobbled across the Pacific Lutheran University campus, bald and using a cane. It was my first day back to college after vigorous chemotherapy and a couple surgeries. I was 22 years old, diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer and, not surprisingly, hyper-conscious about the second glances I received from other students and staff. Their masked reactions showed confusion, fear, sympathy and pity.

From personal life to human history In my life, I've had the privilege of following my wildest dreams. I've studied Egyptology in Cairo and excavated in the Nile Delta. Thanks to my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Donald Ryan, I've examined skeletons while ten metres deep in the limestone tombs of the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. I've helped to uncover an Early Bronze Age city in Israel and have taught students to properly excavate an ancient necropolis in Transylvania. Many cancer survivors can attest to the fact that the disease changes your perspective on life. But cancer didn't just transform how I viewed mortality, empathy, and humanity - it also drew me into exploring health in human history through an archeological lens. So what happened next as I hobbled across campus is a reflection of the antisocial academic I'd become. Instead of feeling sensitive or embarrassed, I wondered: “How did ancient Egyptians react to cancer?” And then: “Why haven't I heard anything about cancer in ancient times?” I've spent a lot of time since then searching for answers to the first question and working on long-term solutions to fix the second.

Cancer in antiquity The impressive advancement of modern cancer research has been based on limited knowledge of cancer, formed over the last 100 years or so. Our understanding of how cancer functions, reacts and evolves is full of gaps, perhaps because we've been restricting clinical studies to the lab rather

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How to have an eco-friendly adventure

Elvira Museri is a revolutionary, of sorts. Since 2008, she has coordinated a steady coup d'état of the tourism industry in Argentina, overthrowing the idea of travel as complacent observation and rejecting the paradigm of enterprise over environment. When Elvira founded Anda Travel in 2008, it was with a single mission: to become the pre-eminent company for responsible travel in Latin America. “We haven’t achieved that yet,” the social entrepreneur said, before diving into her strategy for 2015. It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Elvira’s voice radiates over the muffled thrum of a shared office in Buenos Aires. Her humility might be misplaced. Now in its seventh year, Anda has grown tremendously, quadrupling its staff and preparing to formally expand tour offerings beyond Argentina. “I didn’t study tourism, so I had no clue how a travel agency should be managed,” Elvira admits. “It gave me the opportunity to develop a different model.”

Going off-piste
The idea for Anda arose during a trip to Southeast Asia, when Elvira was struck by the pervasiveness of western influence in the typical tourist experience - even during a homestay in Vietnam. “I began to think that travellers probably feel the same way when they're in Argentina, so I started to create alternative tours of Buenos Aires.” The first tour took place at one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks, El Caminito. Unlike the hordes of visitors who come to photograph the 100-foot stretch of primary-hued houses, Elvira’s interest lay in the deeper historical and cultural significance of the neighbourhood and in the social projects that serve this vibrant community. “We visit three organisations in La Boca, getting our visitors in direct contact with the social entrepreneurs there,” Elvira says. “When we include a visit to a social or cultural organisation, we always give a donation to that project. So from the first ... More

Sailing the seas for a greener world

Aah, a life on the open seas. Adventures of discovery to far-flung destinations; watching the sun scatter its rays over a powerful ocean.

Sounds like the stuff of dreams, of pirate movies and buccaneers - but environmental scientist Lucy Gilliam has made sailing the ocean waves her reality. I chat to Lucy on Skype and even through the screen, her passion for the sea, science and creating a greener world comes through. Lucy is helping drive a new movement, New Dawn Traders, which is championing sail as an alternative to engine power for global trading and addressing the thorny issue of environmental damage due to food miles. She’s also researching the extent of plastics and toxics in our seas, as well as working to promote women in science.

From the city to the ocean
With a BSc in Biological sciences and a PhD in Microbial Ecology and Soil Science, Lucy had a high-flying career at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) undertaking policy-forming research on endocrine disruptors (chemicals which can affect the hormone system) and advising farmers on how to achieve sustainable crops and prevent losses. But her love of sailing and passion for environmental activism meant that when, three years ago, she was offered the opportunity to sail on the two-mast Irene of Bridgewater’s maiden voyage, she swapped her desk at Milbank for scrubbing the decks. "I had the chance to fulfil my childhood dreams," she says.

I wonder, has the reality lived up to the expectation? “It can be hard work, but that’s outweighed by the experience," she says. "On the ship we’re a small community living in a small area. But that first voyage gave me the chance to get away from the modern world, and I had the space to reflect on what I really cared about." "Before, I was driven to go full steam in my

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Perfect everyday objects

The idea for Brain Manufacturing was conceived, like many other ideas, in a bar. It was my graduation year, and I was anxious about my future as a designer - but at the same time I was feeling optimistic, like I could conquer the world. So after a few beers and plenty of discussion around the table, I decided I wanted to experiment with the rather meaty and complex idea of perfection.

Mind over mouth
The term perfect implies some kind of universal, absolute goal - but our visual preferences are deeply subjective; we all have different tastes and varying personal biases. Be that as it may, I wondered if it might be possible to go beyond what we say we like, to what our brains find visually appealing on an unconscious level. Could there be a level of aesthetic preference hidden beneath our conscious tastes? The next morning, unlike so many other drunken ideas, this one felt like it could actually go somewhere. I decided to explore the tastes of a group of non-designers. I didn't want to ask them what they liked - I wanted to look into their brains.
Products of perfection
I collaborated with The Spinoza Centre for NeuroImaging in Amsterdam, a neuroscientific research centre, and Dr Steven Scholte, neuroscientist and visual preference expert. I wanted to know how the group responded on a neurological level when it came to three important design choices: shape, colour and material. We placed 20 individuals in fMRI scanners and measured their brain activity. The results were interesting: we found that their brains reacted positively to qualities which the participants themselves did not report. The group consciously told us that they preferred the colour blue, the material wood, and open, round shapes, but the fMRI scanners showed that red, plastic, and closed, organic shapes provoked positive responses in their brains. I used these three ingredients to develop a series of red, ... More

Saving lives with tiny diamonds

When I was a kid, I loved watching the Magic School Bus. One of my favourite episodes was the one where the bus full of kids shrank down and travelled into the body of a sick pupil. Perhaps it was the excitement I felt at the idea of becoming so small you could enter someone's body and find the cause of their disease that planted the seeds for my mission and career.

Finding the source
If only it was as easy as shrinking ourselves down into microscopic travellers to root out the problem. Unfortunately, in 3% of the 13 million cancers diagnosed every year, the origin site of the tumour remains undetected. The inadequacy to detect diseases such as this at the molecular level, as well as the need to better study fundamental biological pathways, were both issues that caught my attention when I was an undergrad student. The demand for methods of finding disease at the source has led to a $3.5 billion market for OIP, or optical imaging probes. But there are limitations with current technologies such as signal loss, toxicity and high background interference. This is where Bikanta comes in. We've developed a new medical imaging technique that’s pioneering earlier detection of cancerous cells using tiny diamonds.
Diamonds are forever
Nanodiamonds are microscopic diamond dust, or diamond particles that have been crushed to a thousandth the size of a cell. Imagine if you were to divide a strand of hair by 100,000: that's how small they are. Fluorescent nanodiamonds give a strong, efficient signal - literally forever. You can think of them as miniature flashlights with infinite battery life. They can be used for background-free optical imaging, which means they allow deeper visualisation into tissue. These particles can be designed to light up a targeted disease, such as a tumour. Early results are positive: the signal has improved by ... More

Bringing back Britain’s rainforests

If nature is allowed to really flourish in the UK, what will that look like? The 2010 Making Space for Nature report states that ‘England now has very few habitats that have not been modified or even created by human actions….most are best described as "semi-natural" rather than "natural" habitats’. What a bombshell: we are living on a dewilded island.

It's in our nature
The answer to what a wild Britain might look like appeared in Feral by George Monbiot, in which he describes the natural state of the Western coast of the UK as temperate rainforest. Left to their own devices, unmanaged and ancient, our woodlands would evolve into rainforests; deep, rich places that support innumerable species and behave as lungs for the planet. Yet in the UK we routinely slash and burn to maintain sparser habitats whilst condemning this behaviour elsewhere. We are actively preventing the potential of our woods and forests. When you do walk into older woodlands and see the lichens, ivy, fungi and ferns growing on trees, you start to feel what is here – latent and waiting to live. These plants-on-trees (known as 'epiphytes') combined with high rainfall, cooler summers and infrequent fires are key features of a temperate rainforest. Temperate rainforests are a global habitat, but their current scarcity makes their return to our western shores even more tantalising. There are remnants of temperate rainforest on the West coast of Scotland. Scotland's rainforests used to be extensive, but have been replaced by heaths and conifer plantations that harbour only a fraction of the fauna and flora. Temperate rainforests also accumulate uniquely high amounts of fertile organic matter: dead wood, leaf litter, moss, ground plants and soil. When the UK only has 100 years of harvests left in farmland soil because of erosion and loss of nutrients, perhaps we ... More

Finding your new favourite film

One of my favourite movies is a French film with a rambling plot involving a graffiti artist, a rapper and a homeless man on a road trip. IP5 is memorable for a scene where Olivier Martinez finally kisses the woman he’s been chasing throughout the film. It’s still the best movie kiss I’ve ever seen. I first saw it during the school summer holidays in 1995, having exhausted the options of four terrestrial television channels. Driven desperate by boredom, I took a chance on a French film I’d never heard of. It’s hard to imagine such a scenario today. There’s no need to flick channels, hoping for something decent to watch, when we can stream whatever we want.

Personalised, but the same
Netflix estimates that 75% of viewer activity is driven by recommendation. According to The Atlantic’s 'How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood', the American company, fast becoming a staple in the UK (approximately 10% of UK households subscribe), has more than 75,000 unique ways to categorise content. This allows them to provide extremely specific recommendations to their customers – Critically Acclaimed Romantic Dance Movies, anyone? – which, while they may make choosing your Friday night’s viewing quicker, could create a filter bubble which ultimately limits your choices. Even if a streaming service like Netflix hosted such an obscure film as IP5, and categorised it accurately – French Coming of Age Road Trip Buddy Comedy, perhaps – I can’t imagine their algorithm would predict that I would enjoy it. Something about the idea that an algorithm can know a person is distasteful – as if the person is an algorithm too, easily understood and predictable. So, no, I don’t want to watch Face/Off because I watched Adaptation – but it’s the potential impact on the film industry which is a bigger concern.
Safe bet cinema
The ... More

Insect bites

One of the worst things you could probably do to a person is make them eat bugs. And yet, that’s part of my job. I’m an edible insect advocate, and I’m here to try and open your mind, and your mouth, to eating bugs. Despite common public opinion, most insects are neither dirty, diseased, or dangerous. On the contrary, most edible species are cleaner than other livestock, highly nutritious, and even tasty. They are also ecologically sustainable to raise, requiring far less food, water, and land space than other animals.

Mini livestock
A cow, for instance, fares best in a wide open field, with plenty of grass to eat and room to roam. Even if not raised in these idyllic conditions, the food the cow eats requires basically the same thing - plenty of wide open space. The problem, of course, is that as a planet, we are running out of this essential resource. In order to feed the growing global demand for meat, we are cutting down rainforests to make room both for cows to graze, and to grow soy and grain to feed the cows. This has a double-whammy effect on the environment: the cows produce methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more impactful than CO2; and deforestation diminishes the Earth’s bronchioles, the trees that breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. We are burning the candle at both ends, turning up the heat on global warming. Insects, on the other hand, don’t need these wide open spaces. In fact, they tend to fare quite well in enclosed spaces, and don’t mind teeming with their brethren. Because of this, they can be raised indoors, in urban environments, and even take up space vertically - where we’ve got room to expand. They're also more efficient at turning energy from food directly into body ... More

Social justice on a comet

In these tough economic times, would money spent on blue-skies research - like the recent comet landing - be better spent on urgent humanitarian and societal problems? In 1970, just after the moon landing, the great Gil Scott Heron released a song called "Whitey on the Moon" which lamented: "I can't pay no doctor bills But Whitey's on the moon." The song contrasted the reality of African-Americans' everyday life with the scientific and technological advances of the cold war space race. The question was laid out: can one think about the cosmos - and spend precious money trying to understand it - when so many inequalities still need to be addressed? I strongly believe that we need not choose between fundamental research on one side and social justice on the other. In fact we cannot choose. Throughout history, fundamental research, technological and societal advances have continuously advanced side by side. Scientific research in quantum mechanics in the early 20th century brought us the information age, which has revolutionised so many aspects of the world we live in today. Today's technology and economy are inherently linked to those early scientific advances. Society and the way people interact, communicate and inform themselves have all been profoundly transformed too. Historically, there are many more examples of these inherent links between science, technology and society. The study of genetics contributed to understanding race as a social construct. Studies in neurobiology showed that differences between female and male brains were due to environmental effects (link in French). Even simple technological advances had a major societal impact, for example with the popularity of the bicycle contributing to the women's rights movement. Can we therefore choose between fundamental research and social justice? No. The two go hand in hand and should be pursued in parallel.

Social justice in the
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What makes a classic?

Last year, I ate dinner with a famous food critic at the best seafood restaurant in the world. The tasting menu at New York’s Le Bernardin dishes several small, perfect plates of the old world (sautéed langoustine with truffle and chanterelles) and the new (charred octopus with black garlic). But the one dish that made GQ critic Alan Richman swoon was already venerable when it was written down in 1903. In The Escoffier Cookbook, sole meunière, recipe number 842, is fish dredged in flour, fried in butter, seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper, and served with foamed browned butter and parsley. Fish in butter is “my seafood madeleine,” says Richman, whose most beloved variation is served with almonds (called sole amandine; garnished with cucumber, it’s called Dover sole, says Escoffier, referring to the dish, not the fish). He cites meals across continents, decades and Michelin-starred menus, this classic dish his common touchstone. So what makes one dish an enduring classic, another a forgotten fork mark on the tablecloth of epicurean history? Flipping through Auguste Escoffier’s recipe tome – he was the first French chef to codify restaurant cuisine for cooks, and the inventor, with hotelier César Ritz, of much of the French-inflected hospitality that ruled the 20th century – dishes such as Brains à la Robert, Potatoes Duchesse and pages of complex blancmanges look like culinary relics. They were all 'classics' of the French canon circa 1903.

Crumbs of menu memory
Simplicity, surely, is part of it. Who has the time or patience to transform dozens of ingredients over many hours into a complex dish? Not today, when we crave foods that are lighter and more global in their inspirations than European-derived ‘Continental’ cuisine. We want ceviche, not truite au bleu. The molecular gastronomists would tell us that modern classics flip the powerful switch of ... More

Is home still a haven?

Homes are almost universally recognised as spaces of immense importance. ‘Home’ is a place to belong; a ‘household’ denotes a sense of unity. Building a home makes a family out of a mere group of people and is an inscrutable embodiment of their relationships. There have been some quite dramatic shifts in the way people’s homes are designed, organised and lived in; namely, that architects, designers and homeowners are increasingly exploring the idea of flexible domestic spaces. Because people now live longer than ever, we should all be preparing for the reality of bigger households. Trends consultancy LSN Global has identified a group of what it terms ‘Boomerang Boomers’: parents returning to live under the same roof as their children and grandchildren, creating 1950s-style multi-generational families. These are referred to as ‘Beanpole’ families, with smaller numbers per generation but a broader span of ages being accommodated in one space. The lifestyle implications are interesting – on the one hand, free and accessible childcare enables parents to work longer hours, but it also means they have the pressure of caring for both children and their own parents under one roof. These new living spaces must therefore meet the needs of all family members, not only practically – such as wider hallways for wheelchairs – but psychologically, too, with enough spaces for privacy, quiet and relaxing on one’s own. We’re also witnessing a massive growth in urbanisation, particularly in the BRIC economies. According to the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO), in 1950, 70% of the world’s population lived rurally; by 2050 this ratio will have flipped, with 70% of us living in cities. This means that living in smaller spaces is becoming a reality for families rather than singletons, and the demand for flexible spaces and design solutions that can perform many tasks ... More

The new sobriety

Silly season is over, and in comes the annual stream of efforts to start afresh with decidedly non-silly behaviour. “Dry January” became an official event in 2013 - and according to Alcohol Concern, the charity which promotes the campaign, over 17,000 people took part last year. Some are critical of the health benefits of sobriety binges - but a lot of us seem to be taking teetotalism further than January 31st. A 2014 survey of 900 participants found that in the six months following their booze-free Jan, 72% had "kept harmful drinking down." Four per cent were "still not drinking." So while society is in the throes of a heated debate around drug decriminalisation - Vice predicts a vibrant future of psychoactive highs sustained by online trade, because as it points out, "until the planet explodes, melts or drowns, humans will want to get intoxicated" - the other side of the coin is that some of us are choosing to give sobriety a go in spaces where getting pissed up remains an implicit social norm. Enter the dry bar, a phenomenon that's been spreading throughout the UK. Nottingham has Sobar, a booze-free restaurant and venue developed by drug and alcohol recovery charity Double Impact. Liverpool has The Brink, which opened in 2011 - the same year that the city was found to have the highest number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the country. Both venues provide a more mainstream space for recovering alcoholics, many of whom reportedly find social isolation a major barrier to recovery. But sober hangouts aren't just for the recovery community. When campaigner Laura Willoughby gave up drinking three years ago, she was surprised by the lack of online support that didn’t specifically target alcoholism - so ... More

Specs appeal

Image 1 Black and gold frames, £560, Thom Browne at The Eye Company Image 2 Pearlescent frames by Theo, £315 Lafont ‘orsay’ in black, £195 and ‘Odorono’ in brown by Michael Henau, £265, both from The Eye Company Image 3 Lafont ‘Ingrid’ in black and leopard, £290 at the Eye Company Half tortoiseshell, £275, Claire Goldsmith at Oliver Goldsmith Pink and tortoiseshell frames by Theo, £315

March: Discovery

Between them, the Libertine100 - our community of thinkers, makers and mavericks - have made some impressive discoveries in fields as wide-ranging as astrophysics, medicine, agriculture, design and architecture. Take Ambika Bumb, the biomedical engineer who’s using tiny diamonds for a new medical imaging technique that's pioneering earlier detection of cancerous cells. Or Anais Rassat, the cosmologist who’s attempting to map the dark universe, which makes up 95% of the cosmos - and is invisible to the naked eye. But in turning the lens on emerging wonders and marvels, we've spent time thinking about the discovery process itself, and are reminded that innovation is impossible without building on what's come before. If the Long Now foundation has taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of instant gratification and the distraction of novelty in and of itself. As a means to discovery it often falls flat, teaching us to consume and expend rather than burrow beneath the surface where all the gold lies. The paradox of digital culture is that while the internet provides a plethora of unhealthy distractions which work against thoughtful reflection, it has also made the past (and the future) more accessible than ever. For those willing to take the time to step back and look, it's easier to make conceptual links between ideas and events separated by decades if not centuries. These are prey to the same cognitive biases, of course, but they provide an interesting framework for radical progress. Among Libertine100 members looking to the past, Lisa Ma is exploring whether the luddite movement - a term that’s often used pejoratively - can teach us anything new. Kathryn Hunt is looking into cancer’s ancient past to see whether the history of a supposedly ‘modern’ disease can help to unlock a cure. And Lucy Gilliam is retracing ... More

Libertine Fiction: Driver

‘How ya doing? My name’s Gerry and I’ll be your driver tonight.’

‘Hi Gerry.’ I smile thinly. Just a few hours away from home, where people aren’t friendly, where talking to strangers is downright odd. I can’t wait; a week here’s been too much. I’m looking forward to an empty flat, solitude.

‘What time’s your flight?’

‘Eight forty five.’

‘International flight, huh. Where’ya from?’

‘Scotland.’ Oh God, I’m so tired. Let him not want to talk. Please.

‘Scotland huh? I’ve got Scotch blood and Irish and Greek too. Look, here’s my name.’

He points to a sign which reads, ‘Your driver is Gerry McManious. Optional gratuities are not included in your fare and are very appreciated.’

‘Where d’ya think that name’s from then?’

‘Maybe it’s Irish,’ I venture.

‘Ya think?’ He sounds disappointed. ‘But I’ve got Scotch and Greek blood too. I think it’s Scotch and Irish and Greek.’

‘Maybe.’ I’m sounding polite yet uninterested.

I’m sitting directly behind him. I look out of the window. I’m his only fare this trip. The other passenger hasn’t turned up. We’re waiting for him and I’m beginning to wonder why I booked such an early pick up if I’m going to end up late at the airport anyhow. ‘We’ll just wait another ten minutes,’ says Gerry. ‘So. Left the husband and fourteen children at home then?’

‘That’s right.’ I fiddle with the ring I always wear on business trips, pick at my nailpolish.

He adjusts the rear view mirror so he can use it to look directly into my eyes. I continue to stare out of the window.

‘Here on business are ya?’

‘Yes. For a convention.’ Damn. Just volunteered too much information. 

He picks up on it and he’s away. ‘A convention huh?’ 

‘Yes.’ Like I’d be staying in this ghastly part of town for any other reason. I close my eyes, aware he’s still watching me.

‘Whaddya do

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Standing up for crowdfunding

I get pretty annoyed when I see people criticising technological advances without any foundation. For the most part it's born out of fear of the unknown, or an unwillingness to welcome change and progress into their comfortable lives. But when a newspaper trash-talks innovation and ingenuity, like this Metro article slamming a science undergraduate for having the audacity to crowdfund her education, it can have a negative impact on the world.

The journalist’s objection was that Emily-Rose Eastop was getting ‘something almost totally free’ instead of having to work a part-time job or tap into the ‘bank of mum and dad’ like everyone else. For starters, as someone who is still fulfilling the campaign promises for my own successful Kickstarter 18 months ago (to write a sci-fi novel, Elite: Mostly Harmless, which is out now on Amazon, thanks for asking!), I can tell you it is a long way from getting something for nothing.

Use it or lose it

On reward-based platforms, backers are essentially paying in advance for whatever you’re selling. This helps many truly innovative products and services come to market when traditional finance avenues - like banks and investors - might not be open to them because the market is yet to be proved.

There are equity based-platforms too, where backers are rewarded with shares like any normal investor, and for charity work platforms like Just Giving are available. But in Emily-Rose’s campaign on Hubbub, she is actually committing to writing and publishing regular content based on her degree course, and her backers, familiar with her dedication and writing abilities because of her existing (unpaid!) work running a Facebook page that debunks science myths, are happy to pay for it. 

So where exactly is the sin in this? Emily-Rose could play by the

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23 words you never knew you needed

Humour abounds in all the languages of the world. I dedicated five years of my life to discovering the variety and wackiness of global culture by rifling through the respective dictionaries of the world’s languages in order to unearth a wonderful treasure trove of oddities peculiar to individual cultures. I started to collect favourites, including nakhur, a Persian word which translates as ‘a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled’ and hanyauka, from the Rukwangali, spoken in Namibia, which means ‘to walk or tiptoe on warm sand’. Many described strange or unbelievable things. How, when and where, for example, would a man be described as a marilopotes, the Ancient Greek for ‘a gulper of coal dust’? And what exactly does ampo (the Malay for edible earth) comprise? Could the Japanese Samurai really have used the verb tsuji-giri, meaning ‘to try out a new sword on a passer-by’? And where would you expect to find a cigerci, the Turkish for ‘a seller of liver and lungs’? Others express concepts that seemed all too familiar. We have all met a Zechpreller, ‘someone who leaves without paying the bill’; worked with a neko-neko, the Indonesian for ‘one who has a creative idea which only makes things worse’; or spent too much time with either an ataoso, the Central American Spanish for ‘one who sees problems with everything’ or anedovtipa (Czech): one who finds it difficult to take a hint. The gender dynamics of Japan are richly expressed with two extremes of women’s intense relationship with clothes. At one end there is nitto-onna, a woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops; and at the other there are ippaiyoku, women whose every garment and accessory are made by the same ... More

You’ve been maimed

Yes, after being forced by my six-year-old son to watch approximately eight billion episodes of the ITV video clip show, I can tell you that schadenfreude is about as amusing and sophisticated as Jim Davidson’s memoirs. HA HA! A pram has gone over a cliff! HAHAHA! An old lady has been swept into the sea! Not even Harry Hill, sitting there sweating into his big collar in the voiceover booth, can make something funny out of yet another fuckwit falling off a rope ladder into a small stream in the Lake District. I mean, actual slapstick is fine. Fall off that metal skyscraper girder, hang off a clock face, thwack a car with a tree branch. But when you laugh at someone falling over in the street and hurting themselves – I would argue that makes you a bit of an idiot. Psychology professor Dr Richard H Smith says in his recent book The Joy of Pain that schadenfreude stems from a need to compare ourselves with others and work out our position in the social order. For example, some dude falls down a flight of stairs, and by the simple virtue of not being him, you become automatically superior to him. Similarly, when people who were once superior to us fail, we can rub our hands together and rejoice, even though we can barely put our pants on the right way round in the morning.

Taking the high road
Smith opens his book with the description of a brilliant scene from The Simpsons, when Ned Flanders quits his job to start a shop for left-handed people called the Leftorium. When Flanders announces this at a BBQ, Homer breaks a wishbone with him and prays for Flanders’ failure. When the shop does then fail, Homer is delighted. It’s up to Lisa to explain ... More

The seven steps of being in beta

My friend Angela’s restaurant was one of the first Detroit-style pizzerias in the south. The deep-dish, sauce-on-top pie garnered stellar reviews, and spawned a loyal fan base. But there was a problem: people kept trying to order thin crust. This was around the time low-carb diets were all the rage, and not everyone was thrilled by the inch-thick layer of dough beneath their toppings. After the buzz of opening night died down, customers dwindled, and Angela began to worry. She weighed her options. She could stay the course, serving the best Detroit-style pizza in Austin, and hoping the rest of the city would catch up to the trend. Or she could rethink her concept and expand the menu. She went with the second option. The next night for dinner, she placed three paper-thin pizzas on the dinner. “Boys,” she said. “Eat up. You’re gonna help me develop the best thin-crust in the city.” Fifteen years later, Angela has three pizzerias, proudly serving Detroit-style, thin-crust, and a handful of heavenly baked pasta dishes. Reviewers often refer to Angela as a “triple threat” of casual Italian cuisine.

Beta is better
I asked my friend how she felt during that first, dicey year in business. “It was scary. Most of our life savings were in that restaurant. But I never let myself feel defeated. I stayed in Beta.” Being in Beta was a phrase she had picked up from her husband, the computer geek. In programming speak, Beta refers to the first phase of testing open to a public audience. Beta versions are usually crude and unattractive, but they get the job done. Many times, the Beta version will reveal design flaws and quirks. That’s the whole point—to try something, to see if it fails, and if it does, to try again. I asked Angela to expand, and she outlined the ... More

Vodka: a ‘little water’ 101

Ask most discerning drinkers and they’ll tell you they never touch vodka. It’s bland, they say sniffily as they reach for their botanically-enhanced gin. But vodka has the last laugh. Check the trend reports for the best-selling spirits in the world and there it is sitting proudly at the top of the list. (That’s for consumption in bars as well as our tipple of choice for drinking at home, just in case you’re wondering…). Boutique gins are sexy and bang-on-trend, cognacs and whiskies possess a certain sophistication and depth - but the fact is, vodka sells. In very impressive quantities. In many ways the cool, clear liquid is the kind of guest you’d want to have at your party. Thanks to its chameleon-like characteristics, it mixes and plays nicely with anything you throw at it. Vegetable and fruit juices, tonic and soda water, pretty much every other spirit category – heck, you can even use it as a base for infusing herbs and spices. Which is vodka’s greatest strength and also its biggest weakness. It’s why people claim the spirit doesn’t have any real character or personality of its own. They do have a point. Vodka is a clean spirit, multi-distilled at very high temperatures to strip out any impurities - so by its very nature it’s pretty much devoid of any distinct aroma, colour or palate. That’s great news for bartenders who need a neutral, high-strength, alcohol-based canvas on which to build their inventive cocktails. Not so much for drinkers who are looking for something more interesting and complex to sip.

Fighting spirits
Or so you might think. Russian and Polish drinkers wouldn’t dream of anything coming between them and their ‘voda’ - or ‘little water’, to give it its original name. Not even ice. Mind you, they drink theirs in a hardcore ... More

All the (Scottish) women, who independent, throw your hands up at me

Women are still a minority in formal political representation, making up 22% of MPs and 35% of MSPs. But outside of parliament, Scottish campaigning and discussion brought forth a cheering number of new female voices. The Better Together campaign that targeted undecided female voters was widely criticised for its portrayal of a housewife surrounded by the paraphernalia of toys and crayon drawings, who referred constantly to what her husband had to say and described the First Minister as ‘that man off the telly’. Undecided women from all quarters pointed out that they were capable of asking detailed and well informed questions to enable them to make their own decisions. “As the backlash to the cereal-pushing, cuppa-sipping worried mum advert proved, women are capable of not just caring about politics, but also campaigning, flyering, posting, writing, sharing, lobbying, critiquing, representing and changing politics,” commented campaigner Serena Richardson. Writer Sara Sheridan was equally frustrated by the catch-all stereotype. Speaking at a time when she was undecided, she said, “can I speak for all artists or all women or all Scots? I can’t. That would be a crazy thing to try to do.” It was a mistake to assume that the female undecided voter was apathetic. “I’m sure that like many other women who are undecided, we’re just careful. It’s a big decision. We should be,” she said.

Informal politics
Kathleen Caskie, national coordinator of campaigning group Women For Independence, said women carved out their own space in the discussion. "Women for Independence arose out of discussions between pro-independence women online about the lack of women's voices in the political process, including the media. The idea took off like wildfire. There is always resistance to women organising themselves, from all parts of the political spectrum, but generally we have been welcomed. We have women working on stalls, fundraising, ... More

Cutting films for social change

A director and film producer with a passion for women’s issues and social change, Claire Eades is one of life’s energy givers. When we meet, Eades has just returned from two weeks in India, where she’s been shooting a film about rural female entrepreneurs, but shows no hint of weariness. Claire founded creative production agency Marmalade Film & Media four years ago and has come back to the launch of Plan UK’s ‘Because I’m a Girl’ campaign, which aims to raise awareness of, and ultimately end, female genital mutilation (FGM). Eades produced the campaign video (above), featuring a single red rose being slashed by a pair of scissors. It makes for uncomfortable viewing - which is, of course, precisely the point.

How did you come up with such simple yet effective creative?

I knew that FGM was referred to as ‘cutting season’ and as part of my research I started thinking

about types of positive ‘seasons’ girls experience, such as a ski season or a prom season. I picked out some images of girls going to their prom, and found a picture of three girls with delicate rose corsages on their wrists. I was drawn to the flowers and just knew cutting one would be the perfect analogy. It is culturally sensitive but metaphorically graphic.

Was it difficult to film?

It was complex in terms of timing. Ironically, it was such a beautiful set. We had 100 roses in the studio - our art director winced every time we cut one. 

How do you feel about David Cameron putting the issue on the political aid agenda?

The government is holding an event next month, where Cameron will spotlight FGM and early forced marriage in the UK and internationally. It’s important because it puts a framework in place, and legalities around which people can underpin their

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Adventures for busy people

There’s an old-fashioned element to the word adventure. It seems to belong to a bygone era of heroic and death-defying exploration, and a kind of stoical, self-sacrificing attitude that made Captain Oates’ early-1900s equivalent of ‘TTYL’ sufficient in the event of walking out of his tent into certain death. Now we seem more concerned with protecting ourselves against adventure than actively seeking it out. Over 50% of the world’s population live in cities. Holidays are packaged. Global internet penetration is at 40% and growing, spurring on a generation of internet explorers. But apparently we’ve become a bit too comfortable. Our sedentary lifestyle means that sitting is the ‘new smoking’. Authenticity is the buzzword of the Millennial generation: as The Atlantic reports, 16-34 year olds are committed to traveling abroad as much as possible ‘despite economic uncertainty.’

Intense leisure
So while the young are off in search of ‘extended, meaningful experiences’, those bound by work and family commitments are finding adventure in more structured and intensive methods. There’s Toughmudder, the obstacle course that might leave you burnt or even in a seizure. There’s also Secret Me, which is James Bond training for the uber-rich: you’re taught surveillance, poker playing and the art of seduction. For those of us who don’t have time for soul-searching expeditions abroad – or the spare cash to spend on spy school - there’s the ‘microadventure’, a term coined by adventurer Alastair Humphreys. It’s similar to the staycation (domestic holidaying) or bleisure travel (an irritating neologism which combines business and leisure): make the most out of what you’ve got. If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, Mohammed can have a nice time hiking up a local hill instead.
Get out and do it
"I wanted to make adventures that didn’t take time or money", ... More

Eight leaders for a better world

Searingly silly and satirical, this is what happens when a former Brass Eye sketch writer lets rip about politics and power.

Unicef vs Sunny Delite
When you buy your child £3.99-worth of Sunny Delite, you get only 2% juice, artificial sweeteners, corn syrup and advertised benefits including “chuggability”. But at least it all goes to the kid. Sunny Delite doesn’t use semi-pornographic images of children to bully us into putting money in Change for Good envelopes when its own employees are in business class sucking warm macadamias. The UN even flew children of its staff business class on the money we sent to help kids. These are the children your money helped. The UN is routinely implicated in grand-scale theft, incompetence and failure to protect the children it’s mandated and paid to. If your Sunny Delite doesn’t smell right, there’s a freephone number to call. Fuck there is with Unicef: the UN has probably already promoted the person responsible for the smell to an advisory post in Geneva in return for burying an internal report about the smell. When a Welsh four-year-old girl was turned orange by the un-fruit beverage, Sunny Delite may have blamed the child, but at least it didn’t claim it was empowering her.
The International Criminal Court vs A penny glued to the pavement
You’re a world leader. Your day’s going great. You’ve paid yourselves some of the highest wages in the world and have strangely mislaid one third of the annual public budget intended for hospitals and schools and stuff. It’s all dandy, apart from some pesky court wanging on about you turning up to face charges over some little matter of men with machetes getting paid to mess up an election and lock 200 women and children in a church and set fire to it. Or any ... More

Scandi fever

The Scandis have long enjoyed superb living standards, unrivalled benefits and breathtaking scenery, so why has their terribly civilised way of life only recently started to broaden its appeal? Britain loves the Scandis and their autistic spectrum detectives. More than one million viewers tuned in to each episode of the final series of The Killing, desperate for further adventures from Sarah Lund and her woolly jumpers. And then, like the hussies we are, we fell just as easily for Saga Norén and the most Viking-like character on BBC4, Martin Rohde, in The Bridge. We appear to love murders, strong female leads and perpetual darkness.

Our Scandi soft spot
Our political image of the Nordics has subtly changed. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are now held up as egalitarian idylls. The left-leaning in Britain are no longer just salivating over Birgitte Nyborg’s decor, but increasingly, her Borgen-style policies. The Nordics are interesting role models, and they have ridden the latest global economic crisis far better than most of Europe, without resorting to swinging budget cuts. They have high rates of taxation, great living standards, efficient production, low unemployment, and some of the highest levels of equality in the world.

But many have had similar policies for years, so why does Britain seem to care so much about them now? It’s BBC4. It’s all the books we read, the films and television we watch. When it comes to global cultural influence, it feels as though the Nordics are winning. In FutureBrand’s 2012 Cultural Brand Index, Sweden was voted number four.

Such is the power of culture. The concept of ‘soft power’, coined by Professor Joseph Nye in 1990 and defined as “the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce”, is gaining more and more column inches and government energy, as the West continues to worry about

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The science of laughter

Laughter is a funny sort of noise. The repetitive contractions give it its unmistakable rhythm, and the pressure generated by this movement leads to high-pitched squeaks and whistles. When James Naughtie mispronounced Jeremy Hunt’s name on live radio a few years ago, he managed to keep speaking ‒ he sounded as if he was in a fight with a deadly but silent assassin. For reasons we still do not understand, in a battle between breathing, speaking and laughing, laughter always wins. One study found that laughs occur around six times per ten minutes of conversation, which may not sound like a lot, but greatly outstrips other emotional vocalisations such as screams or growls. Not only do we typically underestimate how often we laugh, but we also misunderstand the situations in which we laugh.

The closest distance between two people
Robert Provine has shown that if you ask adults what makes them laugh, they’ll talk about comedy, yet most laughter actually occurs in interactions with other people. We are 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with someone else and, when we do laugh with other people, it is hardly ever because someone has told a joke. Most conversational laughter is produced by the person who is talking. This suggests that we use laughter to express ourselves. And it’s modified by whom we’re talking to: we laugh more with people we know, or with people we’d like to like us. I used to think of laughter as a signal that we were amused, but now I see it as an emotional expression of affiliation, affection and agreement. Victor Borge called it the closest distance between two people.
Laughing lessons
This starts to make a lot of sense when we consider laughter in development. Babies first laugh in interactions ‒ frequently tickling ‒ with their parents and caregivers at ... More

The future of food: function or fine dining?

We are a culture obsessed with food. As The Bookish Banquet has taught us, we crave the real-life experience of breaking bread with our fellow humans. And those experiences are getting increasingly multi-sensory, what with the rise of sonically-enhanced snacks and scented dining

So what, exactly, are we to make of Soylent, the powdered food substitute developed by tech entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart?  The idea of downing a liquidised lunch while bashing out emails doesn’t really inspire feelings of warmth and homeliness. The name doesn't help either: a reference to cannibalistic sci-fi novel Soylent Green.

But someone out there is keen. Soylent’s crowd-funding campaign was remarkably successful; they began with a fundraising goal of $100,000, which they achieved in just two hours. The press is hailing it as ‘The End Of Food.’ It probably isn't. But it is interesting.

Fuel for the machine

A meal in a glass is a nice lifehack: a shortcut from hungry to full which gets rid of all the time-consuming practicalities like chopping up veg and washing up cutlery. 

But we’re also extremely wary of the synthetic, regardless of how much time it saves. Test-tube meat is on its way, but according to a recent Pew survey, 80% of Americans say they wouldn’t eat it. In fact, there’s a perceptible desire to seek out non-altered, ‘Caveman Diet’-style-food instead. So how can we reconcile these seemingly opposing shifts?

‘The opposite trend always exists’, food futurologist Morgaine Gaye told us. Soylent is a response to technological advancement: ‘what we’re looking at here is the big rise of science, and how we can make almost anything from chemical compositions – which is possibly true."

While Rhinehart claims that his mixture has ‘all the nutrients required to fuel the body’, many are skeptical. Walter Willett, the chair of

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A cheat sheet for the big issues

The nation’s collective relationship with politics has been fairly strained of late. 59% of young people don’t intend to vote at the 2015 election: that works out to more than 2 million people. This interactive graph charts election turnout from 1964-2010. Note the steep decline from 1992. Our apathy toward politics is reflected in our digital habits. The internet provides us with non-stop political coverage, but this recent American study found that out of a sample of 1.2 million web users, just over fifty thousand (that’s 4%) were ‘active news customers’ of ‘front section’ news. 
According to Go-Gulf, social networking is the most popular online activity, with users spending more than 22% of their time on social media channels. Some are now trying to change all this. Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley launched Upworthy in March 2012 to "give people the information and tools that help make them better, more aware citizens", as Pariser told the New York Times. Upworthy packages stories ‘that matter’ as entertaining and ‘clickable’. In their first 29 months online, the site grew from 0 to 88 million visitors a month, making it faster-growing than Huffington Post, Business Insider or even Buzzfeed.

A Wikipedia for public policy
Also making important issues accessible is ShouldWe, a site summarising arguments for and against public policy in a clear, concise format. Issue detail and context appear at the top; pros and cons underneath. Hover your cursor over an argument and the supporting evidence pops up. Kirsty McNeill came up with the idea for ShouldWe when a friend suggested making a policy version of Wikipedia. "We think evidence empowers people, that people don't just deserve to know what is happening, but why", she told us. Headlines after-the-fact can seem cold and impenetrable; breaking down the reasoning behind ... More

IP 101: a beautiful mine

Meet Jo. She’s done the whole ‘city’ thing and has decided to launch her own business. Besides staying on the right side of laws and regulations, we’ll see how certain corporate structures can protect Jo and help her business grow. She plans to start an online personal fitness hub called Fitness Match pairing up personal trainers and clients. Jo’s aim is to start small then expand into retail. Her vision is to sell fashionable yet high-performance trainers and accessories on the site and, ultimately, to promote her own fitness invention, a contraption that makes doing full press-ups easy. Jo is still in the planning and ideas phase but there are still a few things to bear in mind. The most important is to protect her ideas, and there are some steps she can take to safeguard her plans and help prevent others from copying her business model.

Confidentiality
If no one else in the market is currently doing what Jo plans to do, there’s real value in keeping her idea under wraps for as long as possible. There’s no automatic protection for an idea or business model. One way to safeguard her ideas is to ask everyone she shares them with to sign a confidentiality agreement. It sounds formal, but it can be very short and written in a friendly way. It also gives Jo the opportunity to add any other legal terms to the document that will help protect her, such as claiming compensation if the confidentiality agreement is breached. There are also certain IP rights (see below) that can only be obtained if the item protected has remained secret up until the point of registration. This is the case for designs and patents, so will be relevant for Jo’s invention. She shouldn’t, under any circumstances, show the invention to anyone unless they’ve signed ... More

Shaping experiences with scent

Despite the warnings of conventional wisdom, appearances count for a lot in the decision making progress. Up to 90% of snap judgments made about a product can be based on colour alone. But we're inundated with visual media. As anthropologist Dave Howes told Slate, ‘with so much competition for consumers’ attention, no sense should be left unturned’. We’re paying more attention to the sounds around us. And in the last few years we've seen the emergence of increasingly innovative scent marketing ploys. The global scent marketing industry grossed an estimated $200 million in revenue in 2013. Getting a scent developed for your brand can cost up to $25,000 (plus a monthly maintenance fee). And it's not just artificial baking smells; retailers want their scents to stimulate, whereas banks might use scents to shorten the time we feel we’ve been standing in a queue. Tapping into primal urges Scent plays an important role in definining certain cultures; the Ongee of the Andaman Islands base their calendar on the odours of seasonal flowers and academic Asifa Majid has done research into scent-specific languages. But, by and large, Westerners appear to have neglected it in their cultural vocabulary. One hypothesis for this blames philosophers Plato and Kant for dividing the senses into intellectual and physical categories. Sight was deemed noble, smell primitive. But it’s this primal aspect of scent that makes it so potent. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is associated with memory and feeling. A recent study suggests that odour is a stronger trigger of vivid memories than music. It's believed that we can smell 1 trillion scents - compare that with the eye’s ability to distinguish 2 to 7 million different colours. The newly invented oPhone lets you send aromas to your friends: "we might be able to say things we couldn’t before", the phone's ... More

The lure of the trickster figure

If, like me, you’ve ever read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox to your child a couple of days after speaking to them about the importance of not stealing, then you’ve experienced the delicious dilemmas that the notion of tricksters can throw up. Mr Fox is a thief, but there is an unspoken endorsement of his actions because the farmers that he steals from ‒ Messrs Bunce, Boggis and Bean ‒ are not very nice. It's essentially the same defence that the modern-day internet or Ponzi con artist will try to use if caught; they couldn’t have succeeded if their marks were not greedy. As our inboxes fill with get-rich-quick messages, the contemporary context within which tricksters sit appears more negative than positive. Even our political leaders like to trick us regularly.

Catalysts and storytellers
These new age avatars are just one class in a whole school of tricksters ‒ they are con artists. Focussing on them means that we miss many nuanced forms of what Jung labelled the trickster archetype. A trickster is ultimately an unconventional member of society. Wherever we find tricksters, the unexpected happens; they are catalysts, they foment revolutions. In my part of the world, the go-to trickster is Kwaku Ananse, a shapeshifter who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but who, by outfoxing the Sky God, is responsible for us all having stories to tell ‒ so, as a storyteller, I love him. But what about straightforwardly fun tricksters, like Bart Simpson, who makes epic events of simple phone calls; Pippi Longstocking, who befuddles unpleasant adults; vengeful tricksters like Jessica Rabbit, or snide ones like Slim Shady (otherwise known as rapper Eminem)? Even language can play the role of trickster; one only has to look at the role and enduring relevance of slang, coded language in both espionage and ... More

Drinks with Dorothy Parker

Back in the day, pilgrimages weren’t always about having a good time. Sometimes they were about making you feel better about yourself, or finding a new husband (yes, we’re looking at you, Wife of Bath). But we live in a looser, more open-minded age, so now you can take a pilgrimage to celebrate almost anything, which is why, every year, 600,000 Elvis fans flock to Graceland, and more than a million descend on Monet’s waterlily garden in the Paris suburb of Giverny. But where do you go if you’re a comedy fan? There are the official places: the Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Jamestown, New York or the Katharine Hepburn Garden on Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in Manhattan. And surely everyone who’s ever set foot in Paris has done the obligatory shuffle past Oscar Wilde’s crypt in Père Lachaise ‒ a pilgrimage so ardently embraced by fans that the Parisian authorities had to put up a glass barrier to restrain them. But public parks and lipstick-smeared gravestones don’t really seem the point. This is a subversive art. It can be cruel, but it’s very much alive. Comedy, after all, only survives as long as people are still laughing. Sure, you can visit a comedy club, but performances come and go. To give our heroes the proper level of respect, we need to revisit their sources of inspiration. We want to see what they saw, walk where they walked, drink in the ambience and just maybe what they were drinking.

Gone but not forgotten
Because, let’s face it, drinking as a comedic pastime comes up a lot. Sadly, many of the great haunts are now lost: from the Hollywood speakeasies of the prohibition era frequented by legendary wit Mae West to Peter Cook’s Soho comedy club The Establishment, formerly one of the most famous in ... More

Gags to glitches: when robots tell jokes

There was a time when calling an act robotic might have been an insult, but these days it’s little more than a descriptive fact. The robot comedy scene is on the rise: there’s Marilyn Monrobot, who was created by Heather Knight at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University and dubbed ‘the world’s first stand-up comedy bot’; RoboThespian, created by the Cognitive Science Research Group at Queen Mary University of London, which performed at the Edinburgh festival, and Glee Club star RoboJase, an android which is modelled ‒ slightly spookily ‒ on The Gadget Show presenter Jason Bradbury. Naturally, robot comedy is big in Japan, with comedian Zenjiro taking a modified PaPeRo (Partner-Type Personal Robot) on tour with him, and roboticists at Konan University developing Gonta and Aichan, who riff to each other about the news. In terms of robotics these are exciting times, but in terms of comedy, the obvious question is… why? There is serious science behind all the fun: the origin of robot comics lies in research aimed at exploring what types of interactions and characteristics robots should have to allow people to create a mental model of what the machine is or does. This can be done with standalone signifiers ‒ the humanoid machine slumped in a corner with hunched shoulders is more likely to elicit pitying responses, for example – but more intriguingly, advances in sensor technology and pattern-recognition algorithms for big data now allow robots to perform ‘non-routine’ tasks, including visual and language recognition. What this ultimately means is that robots can modify their behaviour in response to external cues. The potential that these tools offer for ‘embodied’ (rather than calculating) intelligence is a source of ongoing discovery ‒ leading to creations as varied as roboticist Guy Hoffman’s adorable machines that can ... More

The science of character

"Most people do not realize that they can strengthen their brains’, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks wrote in The New York Times four years ago. Since then, neuroplasticity, what Sacks describes as "the brain’s capacity to create new pathways", has become an increasingly popular - and lucrative - topic. We're obsessed with being smarter and more efficient. And we are, of course, enlisting the help of technology to upgrade our brains. Spritz makes you read faster; UltimEyes make you see farther. Various wearable trackers help you understand how you sleep, move and eat so you can make better choices. But while researchers and businesses work out how to make us smarter, happier, and healthier, a smaller percentage are challenging ideas that we traditionally think of as being a bit more innate. Things like personality.

Personality upgrade
The Science of Character premiered online on March 20, 2014 (#CharacterDay). The film suggests that by focusing on character strengths like courage and creativity, you can actively shape your personality. "Positive psychology is such a beautiful shift in thinking about character", says Tiffany Shlain, the film’s director. Founded by Dr Martin Seligman, the positive psychology movement is dedicated to studying people’s strengths rather than their pathological behaviour. "We wanted people to feel empowered to know that they can shape ,' Tiffany says. The self-improvement trend often elicits a collective groan from the more skeptical British readership; a lot of us are prone to dismissing ‘self-help’ culture as indicative of Western navel-gazing. But Seligman believes that character development techniques are key to overcoming what he calls society’s ‘extreme individualism’. "We would like everyone, both kids and adults, to look at the list of character strengths and identify their five greatest strengths, and then to pick five they want to work on." Go on, have a look - the ... More

What China’s leftover women can teach us

Chinese people like titles. If you're a male only child, you’re a “little emperor”. If you're gay, you’re a “comrade”. And if you’re single, female and over the age of 27, you’re “leftover”. This is the focus of Leta Hong Fincher’s hotly anticipated book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. The term first emerged around 2007. Since then, it has spread throughout Chinese society. State media newspapers, cartoons and TV shows all contain references to leftover women. China has traditionally placed a huge emphasis on women getting married, but there’s more to it than that.

Manipulated down the aisle
As a result of the One Child Policy the country now has 118 men to every 100 women. This means there’s a surplus of men of marital age who will struggle to find a bride. The government is concerned about how this will impact social stability and wants to limit their numbers. Another government objective - a desire to upgrade the ‘quality’ of the populace - also dovetails nicely with the campaign. China’s ‘high quality’ women, who are starting to enjoy their newfound freedoms and delay marriage, are therefore being manipulated back down the aisle. The ramifications are far-reaching, starting with property. Most men (and their families) want their sole name on the property deed. Even when women contribute to the purchase, they face hostility if they ask for their name to be added. Hong Fincher cites a 2012 survey of thousands of home buyers in four major Chinese cities which found that women’s names were included on only 30% of marital home deeds. Fincher quotes a 25-year-old woman who has just put her life savings into a home that doesn't have her name on it: “If all of this goes to him only, it’s OK.” This places women in a very vulnerable position. In the ... More

The power of parody

You might not recognise Bassem Youssef if he sat beside you on a train, but last year Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people on earth, alongside Pope Francis, Sheryl Sanderg and Barack Obama. Bassem Youssef, however, does not come equipped with moral authority, money or mandate: he’s powerful simply because he makes people laugh. Often called the Egyptian version of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Youssef was a heart surgeon spurred in to amateur satire by the Egyptian revolution of 2011. He’d gained five million views on YouTube within months, soon followed by a television show. After three busy years of lampooning the old government and its two replacement regimes, the comedian has been repeatedly targeted for arrest, legal action and harassment, culminating in his show being pulled in November last year. And yet the bidding war from other networks for his new show this year is testament to his popularity – and his power. The Burmese junta likewise took a dim view of being mocked by satirist Zarganar, a case championed by Amnesty International. In 2008 he was sentenced to 35 years in prison for criticising the government’s response to a devastating cyclone. He had previously been jailed following his insertion of a running kidnapping gag into his films, ensuring heroes always shouted “We must free that lady!”, in a coded reference to Aung San Suu Kyi. He and The Lady are now both free, but Burma Campaign UK reports that hundreds of political prisoners have been left behind.

From ridicule to revolution
Rachael Jolley, of international organisation Index on Censorship, says that suppression of comedians is often a sign an elite is worried it’s losing control. Conversely, a comedy scene that takes on controversial topics shows a “strong society that is not afraid of discussion ... More

Food for book lovers

You’re in a café in Amsterdam, waiting for your second course. Suddenly, the lights are dimmed. Tiny wooden boats filled with tea lights are brought out by waiters. Someone announces that what you’re about to eat is a commemorative course, in honour of a tiger, zebra, and a hyena. Your meal has been transformed into what is, essentially, a funeral for animals. And not even real animals at that – fictional ones, from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. This is just one of the evocative scenes put together by chef and writer Chantal Hintze, founder of The Bookish Banquet. Every couple of months, Chantal hosts a pop-up dinner at Paviljoen van Beuningnen, inspired by a book of her choice. Guests turn up in costume to eat five mystery courses based on the novel. Themes have included Sherlock Holmes (dishes included ‘A journey through London’: pigeon pie, and ‘Sherlock’s Vice’: a line of popping candy) and Momo by German author Michael Ende. At the latter, one couple begged for their two year old daughter Momo to be allowed in. Chantal made her Guest of Honour; she promptly fell asleep. Recently, they hosted a private birthday party based on Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus: Chantal served a choux pastry swan and colourful faux-Fabergé eggs as an ode to its part-swan protagonist.

Breaking bread
So who goes along? It’s “not just bookworms,” Chantal says. The Bookish Banquet follows the trend of what’s come to be known as the ‘food experience.’ Supper clubs have been cropping up all over, and their popularity might have something to do with the fact that so many of our entertainment media engender virtual experiences. We can live Frank Underwood’s quest for political domination via Netflix from the comfort of our beds. Sony have unveiled their future super toy: a PS4 ... More

Office banter

There’s an oddly endearing scene in the second season of the superbly dark Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge, when the emotionally disconnected detective Saga Norén has an unusual outburst of laughter. She tilts her head and out comes a barking, mechanical chuckle ‒ breaking her characteristically intense expression as she reacts to a shared moment of workplace lightness. But Saga is busted immediately; her colleague Martin ‒ who knows her as well as she allows anyone to ‒ points out that it’s obvious when she laughs at something she doesn’t find funny. A curiously frank and flawed heroine for curiously cynical times, Saga (played by Swedish actress Sofia Helin) was just trying to connect, to fit in with her colleagues and mimic the easy banter of a high-pressure environment. This is not because she felt uncomfortable ‒ her Asperger’s prevents that kind of self-awareness ‒ but because her detective’s senses told her that, for other people, the same behaviour would be perceived as polite.

Insincere but well-intentioned
We’ve all behaved similarly in different scenarios. Insincere, if well-intentioned, expressions of politesse come quite naturally in the business world in particular. The small-talk email greetings: “Dear X, I do hope this email finds you well. Kindly find attached…” (which for me stirs a whole world of semantic and grammatical gripes, but that’s another column). The automatic toothy smiles and enthusiastic handshakes. The ‘How was your holiday?’ chit chat (it’s a boardroom, not a hair salon. And one of us isn’t really listening to the answer). When it comes to humour especially, the minefield of business etiquette becomes infinitely more tricky to navigate. That funny-slash-ironic presentation slide of Lady Gaga demonstrating Q2 satisfaction ratings, which got so many laughs from your own team, might not go down so well with your client’s dour and deeply conservative ... More

Seconds of pleasure

Over the centuries we have played hide-and-seek with happiness. It has mastered both seduction and camouflage: the feeling speeds and slips, changes colours at the drop of a hat. Like good detectives, we have shaped the hunt into a science. Never before has so much technology been marshalled towards hauling happiness out of its refuge and scrutinising it for signs of life. Economists count tweets to measure it. Neuroscientists shuffle Tibetan monks into MRI machines to watch it flicker yellow, like the monks' saffron robes, on a screen. We can pinpoint happiness to specific valleys in the deep grey folds of the brain. We know of a happiest country (Costa Rica) and a happiest day of the week (Saturday). But in our own lives it's often out of reach, and we feel grateful for the briefest of encounters. Perhaps we should call off the search. An emerging body of research suggests that it's not happiness we should be looking for, but joy. Simple and small, joy lives in moments: a dog's exuberant greeting, a surprise from a friend, or a bike ride in the country. These moments may feel insignificant, but studies show that when they're added up, they can be far more impactful than a big life event. That's because joy has ripple effects. Moments of joy disrupt the flow of our attention, breaking up our mood and inducing a temporary state of positivity. In isolation, each moment is just a blip. But the effects of a positive mindset can be far-reaching, making us more creative, inspiring us to be kind to strangers, and possibly even extending our lives.

Instant gratification
Joy's power comes from its immediacy. While happiness is intangible and distant, joy is visceral. It's inextricable from physical pleasure and sensation. This makes sense, because the emotion evolved to guide early ... More

Sound and the city

Consider what you can see right now. The letters on this page. A cup of tea, coffee or water. A room framed by the limits of your peripheral vision. The detail is rich, vibrant and immediate. Now close your eyes and simply listen. What do you hear? In a city like London it might be a plane’s laconic drone overhead. The beat of your neighbour’s music, half-conversations spoken into mobile phones. Lift your lids and the cacophony of the city subsides.

Stop, look and listen
“We have a primate brain that devotes a lot of resource to vision,” explains Ian Rawes, who has built up an archive of city sounds for the London Sound Survey. “We love the informational sugar-rush. The brain throws a lot of computing power into building a simulation from a 2D monochrome image. Sound isn’t reconstructed in quite that way; it demands patience." Our sense of sound not only perceives the same objects in a different way; it extends perception beyond our field of vision. “Sound is all around you; images only point in one direction,” explains Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision at the British Library. “We can hear in the dark and around corners, but our hearing tends to be overwhelmed by visual information.” Sounds can become closely intertwined with strong emotions, so that hearing similar noises can evoke the same feelings even if they are completely out of context. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, where harrowing memories are triggered by a piece of music, a helicopter or thunder. “Sound comes to us and hits our emotional brain, causing immediate nostalgia. It’s a more subtle and infinite presence that we take for granted,” says Stephan Crasneanscki, founder of New York collective Soundwalk, which curates unusual audio tours.
 Ear pollution
Despite the ... More

Gifts and their meaning

In his book, Debt: the first 5,000 years, LSE professor of anthropology David Graeber draws a parallel between the emergence of almsgiving in religious teachings and the invention of coinage, arguing for the former as a deliberate attempt to retain a human-centric system of exchange displaced by market systems. Of course, gift giving and charity are often motivated by self interest, especially when there’s a place in heaven up for grabs – but Graeber’s argument serves to illustrate the fundamental role of gifts in human society. “There’s a strong argument that the original form of economic life for people was based on gifts’, says Chris Knight, retired anthropologist and Olivia’s dad, who provided some of the inspiration for Patchwork Present in the first place. “In many societies, the whole point of having something is to make a gift of it - the point is to make a relationship. We have the opposite logic now, which is that the whole point of owning something is to make a profit.” He cites the seminal work in economic anthropology, 1925’s The Gift by Marcel Mauss. “Christmas cards are evidence that you remember others – you don’t buy Christmas cards and put them on your own mantelpiece. Or buy a box, wrap it up beautifully and give it to yourself. But in some ways the whole point of capitalism is precisely those things, rather than gaining from the relationship of giving to others.”

I spent it on myself
Cue the 2013 Harvey Nichols Christmas ad, a tongue-in-cheek reflection of contemporary consumerism if ever there was one. It’s either incredibly funny, or downright tragic; it reminds us that this fixation on monetary value – on stuff – eclipses the true meaning of the gift, which is thoughtfulness and time. Research from August 2013 found evidence ... More

Jingle hell

For many women, Christmas is a bit like a cross between a brick wall and Robin Thicke. You can rage and hammer your fists against it, but it just stands there, wearing festive aviator shades and smirking ‘You know you want it’. It’s not too bad at first. There’s the delicious preparation, and who doesn’t like choosing crackers – what, do you have a heart of STONE? Then there’s the delightful question of what to put on the tree. Everyone gets a bit apprehensive in the run-up to Christmas, when we’re blinded by tinsel and cinnamon Glade Plug-ins. Even a crap pair of hair straighteners from Argos seems like a twinkling, magical gift from the heavens when it’s sitting beneath 50 LED lights and baubles in the shape of the Baby Jesus. Then the siege mentality strikes and you fall down a wormhole into the bad old days. The worst thing is that nobody even knows you’re there. At the exact moment you’re in the kitchen losing your mind, everyone else is sitting in front of the TV, selecting exactly the right variety of Quality Street to suit their mood and saying “This is the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER.” It’s such a tedious cliché, isn’t it? Does it have to be this way? Well, no, obviously, you can do what you like with your Christmas. You can go to a hotel. You can have Christmas dinner while paragliding off Machu Picchu or go and eat hallucinogenic tree bark in Paraguay. Christmas isn’t the boss of us, right? Well, it kind of is, if you have a family. Christmas is, after all, based on doing the same things every year. In my experience, the only man who does any real work at Christmas is Santa. (Sorry men – cutting little crosses in the bottoms of the ... More

Eight major mayors

The Moderniser: Fatima Zahra Mansouri, Marrakech, Morocco
In 2009 Fatima Zahra Mansouri became the first female mayor of the city of Marrakech, and the second woman elected to the office in Moroccan history. “People were surprised to see someone like me elected,” Mansouri said in an interview with Time. “I realised they were hungry for change.” Her Western-style political campaign was unprecedented in a conservative country where even questioning the King’s rule can result in arrest, and her election punctured a revolutionary bubble swollen by boys’ club corruption and uncontrolled development. Her challenge has been to rein in building projects, while simultaneously modernising an archaic civic system. Peace is returning to society, golf courses no longer seem to be multiplying and, working from a deficit that stood at $90 million in 2009, last year the city’s budget was in surplus to the tune of $130 million. It is no surprise, therefore, that Ms Mansouri is tipped for even greater things.
The Martyr: Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta, Tiquicheo, Mexico
“I have a responsibility towards… the children, women, elderly and men who each day rip apart their souls just to bring home a loaf of bread,” said Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta, defending her refusal to resign despite losing her husband during an attack that left her so badly injured she needed a colostomy bag. In fact, she survived a total of three attacks before her gruesome murder by a drug cartel. Michoacàn state grows marijuana and poppies, but it’s also an important staging post for cocaine in transit from the south, and methamphetamine materials from Asia. At least 50,000 lives have been claimed in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006, and on 15 November 2012, Dr Gorrostieta was another victim. On the school run, she was dragged from her car, beaten up and abducted. Her body was later ... More

More bite than Twilight

I don't quite know how it happened, but we've become a nation of vampire lovers. Why restrict the bloodlust to this merry isle: the whole world has gone vampire mad. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga is just the bloodied cherry on the cake. Back in the 1990s, Anne Rice was hailed the queen of 'supernatural romance' with the Vampire Chronicles, immortalised in true Hollywood style through Interview with the Vampire. Fast-forward three years and the vampire comes to high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A slew of vampire babies followed: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the recent - albeit short-lived - Dracula TV series featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the toothy lead. So why this mania for vampires? Let's go back to the granddaddy of the genre: Bram Stoker's Dracula. Before this much ink had been spilt on gothic fancies: The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Giaour, The Vampyre and Carmilla are some key precursors. But Stoker's work became the definitive vampire bible. The novel is laden with issues of the time. The degeneration of society, the breaking down of sexual and gender relations, and developments in science and technology. Even a cursory reading of the novel, with its several voices, time schemes and locations - let alone the plot itself - reveals it to be what literary biographer Geoffrey Wall calls "persistently, an anxious text".

It's in our blood Anthropology, evolutionary theory, social behaviour - these were hot topics. Darwin's On the Origin of Species had all but eroded the link between man and beast; surely if we had evolved from animals, there was a chance we could devolve, too? Degenerates were defined by their appearance: the aquiline nose, massive eyebrows and pointed ears of Count Dracula match contemporary criminologist Cesare Lombroso's description of the born criminal (Uomo Delinquente). Running alongside this was the additional threat of changing gender roles. Women's efforts in pushing for social

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Power dressing with Caryn Franklin

When Michel Foucault described the body as a site of power, he gave voice to an idea that’s been around since a suddenly flustered Eve first grabbed a fig leaf. Because the body, marvellous as it is, only really achieves its full potential as a symbolic entity. That it is easily subjected to the agendas of others goes without saying. There is no more effective site for the inscription of power – whether sexualisation, suppression or a Virgin Atlantic shirt. And there is no more potent piece of propaganda than a living, loving, laughing human being - raising their children, walking their dog and occasionally regretting things. Recognition of this – and an understanding of its potential for abuse – has driven dress reform since the suffragettes first burnt their corsets and a brave lady cyclist donned her bloomers and careened down the street. Yet attempts to rationalise power dressing seem doomed to disaster. The 1980s, which saw women finally wage a sustained assault on the glass ceiling, also gave birth to a look that would have appalled early reformers for whom practicality and comfort were the key signifiers of emancipated dress. More recently, the corset has been re-appropriated as an expression of empowered female sexuality. Elsewhere, the controversy surrounding the right to wear the veil proves that liberating women through clothing is never as simple an issue as it seems. For those unsure of what power dressing means – who begin to wonder if we are destined to be always unwitting sartorial agents for shadowy agendas – there is a solution. And it’s a simple one. Because true power dressing is about dressing like yourself. And in this, the age of personal branding, it’s never been easier (or more important) to indulge in a bit of self-aggrandising propaganda.

Clothes are my way
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The pleasures of solo dining

There’s a brilliant scene in the film Shirley Valentine that perfectly sums up an enduring cultural taboo: solo female diners. Our holidaying heroine walks into a crowded restaurant and as she is led to a table for one, the room falls silent; discomfited diners look on aghast. “Funny, isn’t it,” she muses, “that if you’re a woman on your own you don’t half seem to upset people?” This scene may have been hammed up for comic effect, but certain elements ring true: first, the assumption that a woman can’t possibly be dining alone out of choice – and then, worse, the realisation that perhaps they are. While this ritual has long been perfectly possible, it hasn’t always been an enjoyable or straightforward experience. My mother recently recounted a story from her business travel days. Shown to a table slap-bang in the middle of a vast and near-empty hotel dining room, she told the waiter it would not do, and that she’d be waiting in the bar until he’d thought about where a woman dining alone might be more comfortably seated. She was meekly offered a discreet corner table and treated like a queen.

Changing industry attitudes
The fine-dining obsession of the 1990s and early 2000s, with its big-ticket, splendidly starchy dining rooms (London’s Criterion or Quaglino’s, or any restaurant with chef Alain Ducasse at the helm) was best suited to couples and groups. A lone diner may have been tolerated and looked after, but a table conspicuously set for one, in a vast salon, was never an attractive prospect. Now, thankfully, restaurant trends in the UK have given way to a more relaxed approach – good news for the solo diner. “The smaller, more intimate, fastturnaround restaurants serving tapas, dim sum, ramen and small plates – often at the bar or counter – lend ... More

Female power and the art of negotiation

The advert for the BBC series The White Queen proclaims “Men go to battle. Women wage war". As apt as that may have been for Elizabeth and her medieval kin, does it still hold true in today’s world - particularly in the boardroom? And, if so, what does that mean for how we negotiate?

Much has been written about the burgeoning shift from male to female values in business, but the boardroom remains an overwhelmingly male domain. On average, FTSE 100 companies have only 17.4% female representation on their boards, up from 12.5% in 2010 (prior to Lord Davies’ report). The FTSE 250 paints a bleaker picture still, with only 13.8% women directors, up from 7.8% in 2010. Momentum is building, but there's a long way to go before we reach parity.

That said, the financial crisis has triggered a period of soul searching about the prevalent business culture, and this openness to change has catalysed a new power. Those who possess traditionally 'feminine' leadership traits (collaboration, listening, empathy) are set to rise to the top of their domains. Women are wired in a way that gives them a profound advantage in a world built on networks.

Howard over Heidi

This ascendancy has not yet translated into greater power, largely because of entrenched gender stereotypes. Femininity might be a bonus for women in business - but behaviour that's seen as falling outside of this relatively narrow category isn't embraced quite so warmly. 

The Howard/Heidi case study has become an infamous illustration of inherent gender bias. In 2003, two professors from New York University and Colombia Business School, Cameron Anderson and Frank Flynn, ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.  They took a real life Harvard Business School case study about a venture capitalist called Heidi Roizen, who became very successful by using

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Robot drivers and the future of city cars

Space is running out in our cities. Every day in London, Birmingham or any other major British conurbation, the evidence is there: queues of cars, nose-to-tail, filling the road space. Big Ben, the Shard and the Bullring tower above congested streets and frustrated drivers. It’s now 127 years since the car was invented and they are evolving at a faster rate than ever. But the shift to urbanisation is also gathering pace. So what does all this mean for the future of motoring? It’s little wonder that many of Generation Y, known to marketers as millennials, seem less engaged with motoring than their baby-boomer parents. Born since the mid-1980s, these tech-savvy 20-somethings, newly in the workforce and saddled with student debt, seem less inclined to splash cash on cars than their forebears. That teenage milestone, learning to drive, has loomed a little less large for them than previous generations. It’s not just growing congestion that has influenced rapid change in the motor industry; increasing environmental concern and an acute awareness that fossil fuels are finite are other major contributing factors. At the turn of the millennium a typical family car had an overall fuel consumption of not much more than 30 miles per gallon. In 2005, the average was 35 mpg, and the Global Fuel Economy Initiative set a target of improving this to 60 mpg by 2030. At the same time, cars’ output of carbon dioxide emissions ‒ one of the greenhouse gases blamed for affecting climate change ‒ needs to be reduced. These goals have brought about a sizeable shift in motor-industry thinking over the past eight years. Cars are increasingly lighter in weight, more aerodynamically streamlined, have smaller engines and are far more fuel-efficient than they used to be. It’s now by no means unusual for small or medium-sized family cars to ... More

Biohacking a better me

Biotechnology has progressed beyond tweaking the DNA of bacteria, viruses, yeast and plant cells. It’s possible that soon we’ll have the technology to challenge philosophical beliefs about the appearance and limitations of the human body. If you could redesign yourself from scratch, what would you change?

Science for the people (and dogs)
One of biohacking’s main goals is to make scientific research about the human body accessible to all. Instead of keeping their findings locked away in high tech labs, biohackers are looking to bring their research to the masses. They hope that by encouraging people to become informed, they will be more open to the possibilities of biohacking and transhumanism. To this end, molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen opened what is now the world’s highest-profile biohacking lab, GenSpace, in 2009. Members pay a monthly fee to hire space for their own experiments, either for commercial or artistic purposes, or just for (whisper it) fun. There’s a popular anecdote about a biohacker at GenSpace using his newly gleaned scientific insight to track down the dog responsible for fouling a neighbourhood pavement. By throwing tennis balls to dogs in his area, he collected saliva samples from which to extract DNA, identified the offending dog, and then confronted the owner. At the opposite end of the spectrum are hackers like Lepht Anonym. In 2010 and 11, Lepht implanted sensors under the skin that unlock computers and other personal devices, including doors and keypads. The goal was to “transition to a physical cyborg state”, enhancing and even developing new senses. Lepht does all of these procedures him/herself (Lepht is ‘genderless’), without anaesthesia, and uses his/her own body as a test dummy. The implants contain magnets coated in gold and silicon to prevent them being destroyed by the immune system. The implants then pick up on the electromagnetic fields generated ... More

Notes from a small island

Despite its minuscule size (710 sq km), Singapore is the little island that truly punches above its weight. It is the world’s fourth leading financial centre and is home to more than 7,000 multinational corporations from the US, Japan, and Europe. The World Bank has ‒ for seven consecutive years ‒ named it the easiest place in the world to do business. Some business visitors could struggle to fill any spare time they might have, unable to see past the nationstate’s sterile reputation of strait-laced conformity. But those with even a free day or two can get under the skin of this buzzing metropolis by acquiring a taste for what fuels the population.

First stop food
With an astounding 20,000 eateries to cater for a nation of around 5.3 million, it’s fair to say that food is an important part of Singaporean life. While breakfast and lunch tend to be rushed in favour of the working day (if the opportunity arises, try Wild Honey for a breakfast meeting or upmarket Les Amis for a lunch to impress clients), evening meals are an entirely different matter. The best places to experience local dishes are the hawker markets ‒ Newton Circus is the most famous, but for a less touristy experience head to Lau Pa Sat or Maxwell Road. Must-try dishes include chicken rice, beef rendang, roti prata, satay and chilli crab. Lately, Singapore has morphed from a street-food paradise into the food capital of Asia. The tiny island is now positively heaving with gourmet venues run by leading chefs, from L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (the Frenchman who wields an incredible 28 accumulated Michelin stars) to Japanese-born Tetsuya Wakuda’s restaurant Waku Ghin (the chef’s first outside Australia) and Jason Atherton’s Pollen (sister of London’s Pollen Street Social), which is housed in a vast, cooled conservatory ... More

What lies beneath

There is a moment in The Simpsons when Shackleton-esque explorers present shop owner Apu with an ice delivery: "You've gotta start paying more than a dollar a bag, we lost four more men on this expedition!" Apu's retort is instant: "If you can think of a better way to get ice then I would love to hear about it." It seems like an absurd joke: the idea of anyone travelling across the globe with such an ephemeral cargo is Sisyphean. But in the days before our shops and homes were filled with freezers, entrepreneurs were actually doing this using only Victorian technology and storing ice in wells that still exist beneath our feet.

It is the hidden and almost mythical quality of these subterranean spaces that made them such a perfect location for Covariance, an interdisciplinary artwork commissioned by the Institute of Physics that was on show at the London Canal Museum in September 2013.

Glimpsing a particle chandelier

Inspired by Dr Ben Still's work with neutrinos – the vital building blocks of our world that are notoriously difficult to observe – artist Lyndall Phelps created an installation. 

After the excitement of donning a hard hat, descending into the first well – it has to be said – is a little underwhelming. Three lonely lightboxes, created to the size that the ice blocks would have been, show images of colourfully embellished discs trapped in (you've guessed it) ice. But turn around and you glimpse something magical: a shower of sparkling droplets seemingly frozen in time, cascading from floor to ceiling. Framed by the dark, dank doorway to the second well, it looks like an Aladdin's cave and I could not wait for our guide to take us through. As we ducked under the original beam, an audible ‘wow’ escapes the small group of well-goers. Beautifully lit in this cold,

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Corporate cobblers

Words and expressions used in the workplace are often designed to impress those not in the know, out of a desire to sound clever on the part of the person using them. They are a kind of argot, causing little to actually be communicated and much to be guessed at. Animal imagery plays a colourful and disproportionate part in day-to-day corporate parlance, with ‘shooting the puppy’ (daring to do the unthinkable); ‘putting lipstick on a pig’ (putting a favourable spin on a negative situation); ‘a pig in a python’ (a surge in a statistic measured over time); ‘boiling frog syndrome’ (a failure to detect gradual market change); ‘moose on the table’ (an issue that everyone in a meeting knows is a problem but no one wants to address); ‘elephant in the room’ (the big problem that’s obvious to all, yet everyone ignores or avoids mentioning because it might be politically or socially embarrassing); and ‘seagull manager’ (one who flies in, makes a lot of noise, shits all over everything, then leaves).

Clear your desk
As for getting the sack or being made redundant, it’s so unpleasant asking people to take their skills elsewhere that a huge number of words and phrases have been created to soften the blow. You might have been handed your cards or perhaps you’re clearing your desk, considering your position or becoming a consultant. Maybe you’ve been deselected or you’re taking an early bath. Then again, perhaps you’re surplus to requirements or you’ve even been excluded. You’re leaving to give time to other commitments or else you’re off on gardening leave. If you’re lucky, you’ll have negotiated a golden handshake rather than a mere leave of absence or having been let go. When you are given notice let’s hope they don’t say it’s natural wastage or that you’ve been stood ... More

Statue-ary rights

The practice of defacing public art has been going on for hundreds of years. Take the Great Sphinx of Giza. This great totem of the ancient world allegedly had its nose ripped off in 1378 by tyrannical overlords, in a bid to maintain order in a society still worshipping the old gods. Of course, we don’t actually have any evidence for this - it’s just one of many theories as to why The Sphinx is missing its snout. But the bigger question is: what would Marcel Duchamp say about it? In 1957, the great artist and forefather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, presented a paper titled ‘The Creative Act’ to the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, Texas. In it, he declared that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone, the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution.” Art was therefore deemed incomplete without the contribution of the public experiencing it. It was an idea that changed modern art, promoted audience interactivity, and heralded the onslaught of performance artists like Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovich. It also changed the status of public art. Suddenly, what we thought about objects, even those on the street, mattered, because we were part of it.

Desecration: the sincerest form of flattery
Duchamp also loved to deface things, doing so as part of a larger political statement. Adding a moustache to a postcard of the Mona Lisa in his 1919 piece ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’ wasn’t really aimed at Leonardo personally, but at the lionisation of artworks in general. The title, when sounded out, sounds like ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, or ‘She has a hot arse’. He had disgraced the Louvre’s most precious painting and simultaneously added ... More

Money for old folk

Here’s some rather amazing news: there has been a fivefold rise in centenarians in England and Wales over the past 30 years. In 1981 there were 2,420. Now, there are well over 12,000 and some 600 of those are over 105 (this lot get a card from the Queen every year). The over-90s are doing pretty well too; there are 465,000 of them, up from 157,000 in 1981. I find this rather thrilling. A couple of decades ago I would have been considered almost middle-aged. But my doctor now tells me he doesn’t consider people to be hitting middle age until they are in their 50s. Thanks to everyone else getting old, I’m still considered young. I like that. But there is a problem with having a very long life. How are you going to pay for it? Most of us try not to think about this bit. We figure if we keep our heads down, pay off our mortgages and try not to run up too much credit card debt we will muddle through. Good news, then, that the government has been thinking about it for you.

Paying it forward
Last year the UK started to auto-enrol people into pensions. If you work at a large company you should have already found that you have been opted into a new corporate pension scheme (you are paying in 1% of your salary and your company is paying in another 2%). And if you work at a mid-size or smaller company you’ll get your chance over the next few years. By 2018 – assuming you don’t opt out – a total of 8% of your salary will be ending up in a pension fund. This sounds pretty good. So much so that you might be beginning to feel rather relaxed. If you save that much ... More

Kind of strange

Have you noticed what’s been happening on the internet? I don’t mean the trolling, the cats or everything George Takei posts. I mean the explosion in niceness. With every like, follow, retweet, share and ‘heart’, we’re all out there geeing each other up, showing support and just generally being nice – often to complete strangers – all the time. More’s the pity then that this gentle current of ‘fingertip caring’ rarely carries over into good old 3D real life. Why is it that we share the love online without a second thought but can barely be bothered to acknowledge each other on the street, the bus, the shop – wherever there’s an opportunity for authentic human interaction? We urban dwellers are, of course, eternally ‘busy’. Ask any of your friends how they are and invariably the answer is: “Oh, you know, BUSY! Work, work, work, kids, parents, dog, stuff… BUSY!” This, of course, is the standard excuse trotted out for not having returned a call or text or email, reciprocated a dinner party invitation, or rescheduled a lunch date (let me pause here to calculate my current guilt quotient – I’ve been BUSY!). But these are just everyday bare-minimum expectations – the sorts of behaviours that should not exactly be taken for granted, but which don’t necessarily cause the same kind of awesome love wave that results from seeing your new profile picture liked by 100-plus of your nearest and dearest. So how do we replicate that glowy good feeling when there’s not a screen between the receiver and the bestower of the affirmation?

Once upon a bus…
As all stories with happy endings begin, a chance encounter with a handsome stranger can be just the thing for inspiring a new perspective and turning our navel-focused gaze towards some simple, elegant, life-affirming niceness IRL ... More

Hysteric or Bitch, Sister or Saint: Who’d be a woman in power?

In 2009, Marissa Mayer found herself at the centre of a very odd furore. Having joined the company in 1999 as their 20th employee and first female engineer, Mayer was now responsible for maintaining Google’s iconic search page. But the Google home page used a different shade of blue to that used by Gmail and, rather than let a designer choose, Mayer decided to user-test 41 different shades to see which one got the best response. Mayer was portrayed as a cold, unfeeling person who prioritised numbers over gut instinct. As Mayer’s profile grew, so did the stories about long hours, her ‘legendary work ethic’, her ‘ball-busting’ management style. Mayer was no longer a person, with all the complexity and contradiction that being human involves, she was a robot: over-analytical and obsessed with data. The media, reflecting society in general, frequently turn influential women into caricatures. Carol Bartz, the ex-CEO of Yahoo!, was criticised for her propensity for swearing on earnings calls, at conferences, or in interviews and her “salty language” became a focus of analysis when she was fired. The implication was often that she was overwrought and unable to control her emotions. Would a sweary male exec be subject to such criticism? Would it even be noted? And would it be written about in such prissy language as “salty” or “blue”?

Turning women into tropes
“While male leaders are allowed to have complex personalities, powerful women are often summed up by hackneyed stereotypes that undermine them and their power,” said Jenna Goudreau in 2011. She asked powerful women, as well as career and gender experts, to give her their “least favorite stereotype about powerful women” and boiled them down to a top ten: Ice Queen, Single & Lonely, Tough, Weak, Masculine, Conniving, Emotional, Angry, Token, Cheerleader. But ... More

High fashion kids are hot on our heels

When I was about nine, I dreamed of owning a particular pair of leggings (particularly frigging awful). They were white, and featured the words 'New York', 'Paris' and 'London' in hideous splattered neon 80s fonts. They made my legs look like sad graffitied sausages, and I somehow managed to make it all even worse by accessorising them with a tubby puppy-fat belly, a Joe Cool T-shirt, a bowl cut and slip-on shoes. The way things are now, though, I realise that this was a Look. I could have started a pre-adolescent fashion blog full of rainbow unicorn GIFs and become a style icon overnight. But back then there was no internet, and fashion was only for rich and famous models. So I just went home to watch The Littlest Hobo and arrange my collection of scented erasers. Today, however, for even very young girls, the assimilation of high fashion into the high street means they all have an awareness of and longing for brands that I never knew existed. (The only brand I, aged nine, was familiar with was Mattel, or at a push, Tizer.) Style is everything now, whether you're old or young, rich or poor. It's no good for a girl to just be wearing clothes. According to all magazines, what you wear must contribute to the creation of a Look, even if it's just a onesie and a pair of Uggs. You don't wear things, you 'work' them. It's a job. Actually, for some people it can be. And it starts early.

Designer spectacles
Take Tavi Gevinson, whose blog Style Rookie made her an official fashionista - at the age of 11. Rather than seeing a kid playing dress up, the fashion set saw a lucrative sartorial fearlessness. US Vogue's Anna Wintour even took time out from hissing at the ... More

Feeling (financially) repressed

You hear a great deal these days about how the government doesn’t have much of a coherent plan to get the UK out of its current difficulties. But this isn’t entirely true. Take a close look at what is going on with your own money and you will see that it has a perfectly good plan – something economists call financial repression, which, in its simplest form, refers to running a policy that consistently keeps interest rates lower than inflation. How does that get us out of trouble? It gets rid of the debt. The UK’s main problem is that not only is the population as a whole labouring under previously unheard-of levels of personal debt, but the state has also run up the largest ever peacetime public debt. These debts are too big to ever be paid off in any honest or straightforward way. Repression allows them to be gradually inflated away by transferring wealth from creditors to debtors. Here’s how it works. Savers lend their money to banks (by leaving it in deposit accounts) and get back less in interest than they lose in inflation, while investors – and pension funds in particular – put their money in government bonds and suffer in the same way. The result is good for those in debt (they pay very little in interest and inflation makes their debt smaller in real terms) and absolutely awful for those trying to protect their wealth.

History with interest
The last time the UK government ran a period of repression was 1940 to 1956, when interest rates, as Tim Bond of Odey Asset Management points out, were lower than inflation for the entire period. The result? If you had been holding government bonds, you would have effectively lost 46% of your wealth over the period. Holding cash would have ... More

Behind closed doors in Georgian England

In spite of a new sense of freedom, propriety in 18th century London still required certain domestic divisions. Contemporary interior decoration is very much a matter of individual taste. And the seemingly limitless range of options we have today means we play with space, light, materials, effects and colour in variations that were unthinkable in previous centuries. As a consequence, the way we use our domestic space is more flexible than it has ever been. In 18th-century Britain, however, things were very different. Interiors followed a strict set of rules which changed dramatically over the Georgian period. Houses were expressions of status, and their decoration was carefully considered and for show. Men and women occupied separate spaces then, both publicly and privately. The rising middle class often married out of mutual affection rather than dynastically and pressure on space meant that shared bedrooms became the norm. The bedroom, once as much a space for entertaining as for sleeping, was gradually removed from public life. Glimpses within it, depicted in pictures and cartoons, became intimate, sensual and, when depicted through caricature, often grotesquely sexual.

Public pallor, private colour
As the 18th century progressed, this mixing of notions and rituals, and of what constituted public and private, had a strong influence on the decoration of the home itself. Interiors became more harmonious, progressing through the different areas of the house, rather than the formal stage sets of earlier decades. Heavy use of decorative plasterwork, mirrors and lighting made spaces even more opulent, but also dictated and indicated what the room was used for. No one would expect to see a chandelier in a bedroom. Bright overhead lighting was strictly for public spaces. It was not only architecture and decoration that created these effects – colour was key. ‘Public’ domestic spaces, such as the hall, staircase hall and ... More

An old hand at solitaire

Solitaire is the overarching term for games requiring only one player; Patience for games involving playing cards. The latter is a family with many cousins, including Pairs, Fourteens, Caesar and Napoleon’s Favourite – the exiled Emperor clearly had a lot of time on his hands during his enforced stay at Helena. In Patience, one plays not just with a pack of cards, but against a pack of cards. In this sense, the player is embarking on a battle of wits against an abstract, unknown adversary. Unlike a game of poker in which the player can scrutinise her opponents’ behaviour for clues as to the most beneficial strategy, in Solitaire it is just her and the cards – and the cards stare blankly back.

Dealing with fate
Solitaire is essentially a tussle with fate, and as in all games where fate plays a role, it is tempting to read significance into the outcome. A player in a prison cell is more than just whiling away the monotony of the hours. The game becomes a distillation of current circumstances, a summation of the struggle against the world at large – the outcome of which is inextricably linked, at least in the player’s mind, to the circumstances of her incarceration. There is in fact some evidence for Solitaire having its roots in the occult. In Scandinavian countries, where it is thought to have its origins, it is known as kabale or cabale (‘secret knowledge’), and the earliest recorded mention of the game occurs a few years after the first descriptions of cartomancy – cards being used in fortune telling – appeared in 1765.
A game of self-reliance
Beyond all this, Solitaire is about time, and most importantly, time spent by oneself. The process of setting up a card layout can be just as intricate and time-consuming as playing ... More

Making good money

Today, being green is pretty mainstream. The ethical investing industry even has its own dedicated index (FTSE4Good) and the UK is home to around 100 different funds all claiming to help you feel good about where you put your money and make at least as much as other, less caring, people along the way. But is this really possible? Probably not. First you might think about just how your define sustainable and ethical. About 80% of the companies in the FTSE 100 index make it into the FTSE4Good index, as did BP until its little accident in the Gulf. Would you consider all those firms to be do-gooders? I'm guessing not. And here we have the problem. Most people would agree that an ethical fund shouldn't invest in tobacco or defence companies. But what about nuclear power? It's nuclear but it is also clean energy. Big banks? They behave shockingly badly (and still are), but we still need them. Without them where would we keep our saved money or borrow new money? Fast food companies and pharmaceutical firms? You can make a case either way. And what about technology? It makes up a large part of most ethical funds because it is somehow considered to be cleaner. But is a huge firm that arranges itself in such a way as to avoid paying tax (such as Amazon) really 'good'? And what of a firm that uses rare earth metals mined in horrible conditions (almost all producers of phones)? Then there is retail. You might think that's pretty harmless but most retailers will have arranged to have at least some of their manufacturing done in Asian sweat shops. The fact is that if you buy an ethical fund you are delegating decisions to a manager who may think that things you are horrified by ... More

The pleasures of swearing

The only excuse for watching professional TV conflict catalyser Jeremy Kyle is to sate a hankering for a good, mouth-filling oath. Bollocks and cocking are two personal favourites, and particularly effective when combined: a staccato punch for the person on the receiving end of this satisfying epithet. (Try it - it's very effective.) My landlord, however, does not approve; he refers to me only as "the swearing lady". But as far as I'm concerned, if you ain't swearing', you ain't livin' - and don't just take my dirty words for it. That reliable liberal go-to, Stephen Fry, has referred to the practice as one of life's great pleasures, and even Queen Elizabeth I was a fan - a fact that led one contemporary to describe her as "more than a man and sometimes less than a woman". In his brilliantly researched book on the subject, Geoffrey Hughes deems swearing an act worthy of a noblewoman, and the sheer creativity required - which spawned such choice requests as "kiss the cunt of a cow" in the Elizabethan era - does indeed command respect. In Victorian England, linguists would tour working-class areas to gather examples of "lower register" language, ostensibly for moral purposes. Although the resulting tomes proved curiously popular in high-society circles. In an oft-repeated anecdote, Samuel Johnson, a great swearer in private, responded thus to two women who'd praised the lack of obscenities in the dictionary: "What, madam, then you have been looking for them?!"

In defence of offence
There are no rules to swearing - it's not taught in schools (well, not officially) so isn't subject to the same rigid structures and conditions of grammar and prose. Instead, it is wordplay of the most exquisitely imaginative kind. Peter Capaldi, the actor and creator of everyone's favourite foul-mouthed grump, The Thick Of It's Malcolm ... More

Eight facts about hats

As a milliner once told us, the presence of a hatbox does funny things to people. It makes them instantly curious, in an unexpected but wonderful way. A hatbox is, after all, just a box for a hat. But carry a hatbox down the road, or on the bus, and the overwhelming response you will get will be that of intrigue. What’s in it? What does it look like? Where did you get it? The wonder of a hat seems universal in its appeal - so we've put together eight facts that unravel the mysteries of millinery.

1) The first record of a human wearing a hat was found in a cave drawing in central France, estimated to be 15,000 years old. 2) The first famous milliner was Rose Bertin, who made extravagant headwear creations for Marie Antoinette. She is also considered the world’s first stylist. 3) The term ‘milliner’, first recorded in 1539, is derived from Milan, the origin of quality straw materials for hats. 4) In 1948 people assumed that ‘hatlessness’ was a fad and would soon pass. Why exactly people stopped wearing hats is not known, but generally attributed to changes in hairstyle, wearing sunglasses and the rise in use of cars as transport after WWII. 5) The expression ‘Mad as a Hatter’ stems from the use of mercury in the 18th- and 19th-century hat trade to bind felt fibres. Milliners working with felt would inhale the fluff and after a while the ingestion of mercury would render them insane. Similar symptoms displayed by hatmakers in the Danbury factory in the United States were referred to as ‘the Danbury Shakes’. 6) Panama hats are actually made from straw in Ecuador. 7) The Edwardian trend for overloading hats with feathers – and
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The done thing at dinner

Of course, what I should have said was: "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" But as the consummate hostess I instead came out with: "My pleasure, thank YOU! What a fun evening!" Waving goodbye to the Worst Dinner Party Guest ever to darken my door, I smiled - insincerely - and didn't let my inner sweaty, judgmental self break the surface. Because - and I say this with full awareness that the Hypocritical Police can throw the book at my rational-atheist head for even thinking it - what goes around comes around. Do unto others, one good turn, etc. And all those other kindness homilies that God-fearing people live by and conscientious parents trot out to their children when faced with the dilemma of transgressing the threshold of good manners and saying what they really think. Now is the time to step things up to a 'do as I do, not as I say' approach. Which is why I've consciously chosen to lead by example when it comes to human behaviour - preferably of the thoughtful, civilised kind. Of course we are all of us flawed - deeply - and I suppose one could blame overcrowding and urbanisation and stress modern life for those occasions on which we simply fail to notice that someone else was in the queue ahead of us, or that we've been shouting down our mobiles while seated in the quiet carriage (reservations required). And can you really be expected to clock a standing pensioner with a walking stick on the bus when you're importantly tweeting your observations of the day?

DIY Debrett’s
At the turn of the good old 20th century, people's behavioural peccadilloes were concerned with such piffling matters as when and how to curtsey or accept an invitation, the ins and outs of ... More

The many dimensions of Ping Fu

There's a half-hour interview slot available at the tail end of Ping Fu's press day - set up to promote her newly published memoir. On our way to the interview room, I offer up some sympathetic platitude about how tired she must be, which is received without so much as the bat of an eyelid. Ping doesn't promote work-life balance, I find out later - or see long hours as an obstacle to happiness. Nor does she go in for platitudes. Instead, she peppers her speech with Eastern philosophical concepts, like 'flow': "When you love what you do so much you forget about time. I really want people to think about whether they're in flow with their career," she says. She also challenges her employees to think about how meaningful the work they're doing is, and whether they are complete as individuals. It's not the line usually taken by senior management. "When I started saying this stuff 15 years ago, people were like, 'Oh that's just Ping's social experiment'," she says. They're no longer so dismissive. The agility implied in her memoir's title - Bend, Not Break - may now be the modus operandi of leading-edge business, but it's been part of Ping's approach to life since she was a child. Snatched from her parents at the age of eight and taken to a labour camp in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, she found herself leaning heavily on Chinese proverbs for psychological protection. Force-fed dung and dirt, beaten and raped, with a young sister to care for, the only respite came from kindly strangers: pots of rice left outside her door, a carefully wrapped sweet, precious forbidden reading material - including Gone With the Wind - left by visiting relatives. She learned to adapt and survive, and always practised compassion, even volunteering ... More

Why Jane’s not a currency calamity

In July 2013, after a three-month campaign against the removal of historical women from English banknotes, it was announced by Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, that Jane Austen will be the face of the new ten pound note. Campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez defends the decision. Given the ubiquity of costume dramas, from which most people get their Austen fix, you would be forgiven for seeing Jane Austen as “the 19th century version of Barbara Cartland”. She has become a byword for good girls who wait quietly in the wings until they get their just reward – the reward of course being Colin Firth in a wet shirt. But there’s a reason why John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London, has called Jane Austen “the greatest English writer apart from Shakespeare.” Austen’s writing is alive with the subtle wit and verbal vivacity that we so prize in our greatest playwright. But she wasn’t just a wordsmith - and those who would insist that “George Eliot's books provoked more social change” or that “Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist philosophy is more relevant to modern society”, do little more than buy into assumptions about the frivolity of books that focus on female experience.

A bull market
Austen’s writing is acutely aware of the constricted lives women led in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her focus on the marriage market – and market is absolutely the way she portrayed it – is profoundly satirical and critical. She may not have written about the Napoleonic Wars, but to judge her books as remiss in some way is to value the male over the female experience; and how would that fit in with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy? In fact, Austen’s own feminism is abundantly clear. It manifests itself in Mr Collins’s marriage proposal in Pride & Prejudice ... More

Rules change, the game remains the same

The television series is fast replacing the feature film as our favourite means of storytelling; the appeal of the latter now lies mostly in the visual experience. Thanks to Netflix, the TV series is also changing: the network has a habit of releasing all episodes of a series at once, so whenever a new season of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black comes out, we get seven glorious hours of uninterrupted binge-watching.  It's no coincidence that House of Cards calls its episodes 'Chapters'. Back in Victorian times, chunks of uber-long novels were dished out to the public in a serialised format. Queuing up to get their latest Dickens fix. Regularly produced - and very large - doses of entertainment gave room for a more nuanced exploration of characters and social criticism.

But unlike 19th

century novels, contemporary TV shows are written to be watched, not read, making them a bit like Shakespeare's plays. Comparing modern telly with Shakespeare might sound strange, but you'd be surprised how much the two have in common. Warning: spoilers may follow.

The Malcontent

Kevin Spacey spent much of 2012 playing Richard III in London and New York - and this certainly comes through in his portrayal of scheming politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Like Richard III, the drama explores ambition, revenge, manipulation and 'sportive tricks' that stir the Presidential election victory afterglow. Like the original, Frank address the audience through theatrical asides. The parallels are uncanny; words would not be amiss coming out of Frank's addresses: "determined to prove a villain / and hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Frank Underwood loosely fits the Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. He's not an ordinary man - he's got a tragic flaw. The reverse could be said for Breaking Bad’s lead character Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. While Walter White is another malcontent, he starts off as a completely

... More

Cruising’s curious appeal

With the notable exception of a week in Benidorm, there is perhaps no other ‘leisure break’ that carries greater social stigma than a cruise. The vivid image of gargantuan white elephants taking to the waves with thousands of garish tourists squeezed aboard is one likely to make even the bravest adventurer shudder and announce haughtily: ‘It’s not my kind of holiday’. But cruising is a fast-growing industry – it accounted for one in every eight package holidays sold in 2012, and demand is increasing, undeterred by near-weekly news reports of fires, power cuts and infectious outbreaks. Which suggests – gasp – that more of us are doing it. And, dear reader, I’m afraid that I’m about to tell you that it’s not actually all that bad. In truth, it can pretty spectacular.

Less boozy, more choosy
Traditionally, cruising was the preserve of the upper classes. In fact, folklore suggests that the word ‘posh’ originated as cruising terminology, referring to the best cabin spots when passengers were sailing from England to India. P.O.S.H. was, supposedly, shorthand for ‘port out, starboard home’ because those cabins would stay cool during the day and enjoy the sun in the early evening. Sadly, there is no historic evidence to back up this theory. The first record of such excursions was in 1818, when the Black Ball Line shipping company began to offer travellers passage from North America to Europe on their trade vessels. These journeys proved popular, so other companies began to schedule voyages allowing for people alongside cargo, and soon ships were being built with human comfort in mind. In 1844, P&O Cruises (then known as the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company) took the first dedicated ‘leisure’ cruise on a tour of the Mediterranean. The holiday gained traction and new ships were introduced, each offering better levels ... More

Efficiency out of the ether

The internet provides ample daily opportunities for procrastination, yet it can also be good for productivity. Here are some great digital tools to help you get organised - and most of them are free. A good administrative assistant is almost essential to the success of any company director. Luckily for those of us with a budget that can only support one salary, the internet is crammed full of time-saving resources that can pretty much fill the role of a personal assistant; one that is based in the cloud, and so is accessible at any time, from anywhere, and is prepared to work 24 hours a day and never ask for a pay cheque, let alone a pay rise. List managers like Nozbe might not be able to bring you a cup of coffee, but they do provide a central organisational hub through which to share and monitor team tasks from your desktop, tablet or smartphone. One intelligent feature is the ability to add context to a task. For example, buying light bulbs could be linked to a GPS location such as your local hardware shop and the next time you find yourself in that area with a few minutes to spare, the app would ping you to remind you to pick some up. NirvanaHQ is a similar tool from the Getting Things Done franchise. It adds the personal touch by letting you categorise tasks according to how much energy they’ll take to complete. This way you can dial up a list of things to do that suit a particular mood.

Your cloud PA
Despite all this it’s possible that you might still occasionally feel overwhelmed by administration, in which case I can highly recommend treating yourself to a little admin therapy – and perhaps even give yourself time to indulge ... More

No drink for old men

Speak to anyone in the whisky industry and they will tell you one thing: there's change afoot. Whisky is getting a makeover, and is beginning to carry weight with a younger, more affluent consumer, especially women. Now, this is not to say women haven't always drunk whisky - they have. But women are getting more vocal about their love of a good malt - helped by a strong 'whisky community' on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter - which is, in turn, encouraging others to experiment with the drink. If you're new to whisky, however, it can be a daunting first step. Advertisements feature bold, daring men, or groups of men sharing a whisky (hardly an encouraging marketing angle), while women are told to stick to vodka. It's also a complex product, with numerous options to pick from. Both of these factors make ordering a whisky in a bar nerve-wracking. Many bartenders will suggest a 'feminine' whisky (read: light and floral) to their female customers, which doesn't help - it's patronising and lacking in education about the huge variation in this spirit. And, boy oh boy, are there different types. There are light, fruity ones, bold brash sherried ones, heavy-duty smoky ones and those that combine these into one complex blend.

Palate cleanser
A common misconception is that all whiskies are smoky. This is wrong. In fact, smoky whiskies have not always been popular. The famous Cutty Sark Blended Whisky was created by Berry Bros. & Rudd partly because customers of the London wine and spirits merchant were looking for a whisky which would not spoil their palates before the fine wines to follow with dinner. But, if you are interested in a smokier dram, you've got lots of choice. While they can come from any region in Scotland, many originate ... More

The 10,000 year clock

Isn’t it annoying to wait for things nowadays? Like a reply to that email you sent this morning, for example. With internet on our smartphones, we’re now willing to wait even less time for a response. Our collective impatience might work for us now - but it doesn't say much for humanity's prospects. Composer Brian Eno calls it a 'peculiar form of selfishness, a studied disregard for the future.' Trying to change all this is The Long Now Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation of which Eno is a founding board member. They want to make long-term thinking more common through a series of though-provoking projects, including a clock hidden deep in a Texas mountain that will tell the time for 10,000 years.

The mountain is alive with the sound of music

Reached through a hidden jade door almost 2,000ft above the valley and up a spiral staircase cut into the rock beyond, the clock will reward intrepid pilgrims who wind it up with the correct time and a melody that has never been heard before. Acting as a computer, it calculates the sequence of chimes to play from a melody generator composed by Eno, all without electricity or traditional gears that would age and wear.

Metallic rods expand and contract to harness energy from the desert’s dramatic daily temperature changes, keeping it going even when it’s not wound up. The clock adjusts itself according to the diurnal cycle, so it will work out the astronomical time as long as the sun keeps shining – regardless of whether humans are still surviving on earth.

But that's not to say the clock doesn’t need visitors. While the clock ‘knows’ the time, it won’t display it until the separate mechanism on the face is wound. And although the clock can continue to chime for a while of its own

... More

Rounds of negotiations

Word is getting out that in China, professional success goes hand in hand with heavy, often excessive, eating and drinking. In fact, such practices have been known to have fatal consequences. Medical researchers report that binge drinking has become an epidemic in China among adults aged 35 to 44. Among male drinkers, a staggering 57% binge, while for women, the figure stands at 27%. And this phenomenon extends to expats, male and female alike. Harvard Business Review cites an example of an American CEO negotiating with a Chinese counterpart. At dinner, the Chinese CEO comments "...If you aren't drunk tonight, there will be no contract tomorrow." The American CEO drinks. The next day he can't remember how he got back to his hotel. The Chinese CEO greets him with a "big smile, and a fat contract." And this certainly isn't the only account of negotiations broken via rounds of drinking.

Empty cup, full wallet
The traditional Chinese toast is 'Ganbei', meaning 'to empty one's cup'. The beverage of choice is baijiu, which has been likened to kerosene or jet fuel. An American woman lawyer in Shanghai laments, "...." A female expat legal scholar says her pregnancy is "wonderful for baijiu avoidance." One blog for expatriates advises that women don't have to participate in drinking rounds, but if they do, they get double points for "ganbei-ing". Unlike a business lunch in the US, with probably around two courses plus drinks, a Chinese meal might consist of a whopping 20 servings of food, accompanied by rounds of toasting. The Chinese are not supposed to drink alone, so this is done in a group, and only when a toast is proposed. Hours of karaoke may follow. A 36-year-old Chinese businesswoman laments: "Repeatedly... clients come to me proposing toasts, and they won't stop until I'm drunk." The practice has ... More

The future of work

The nature of work is set to change in unimaginable ways, with drastic consequences for production and distribution. There are several societal shifts driving this change: an ageing population and a rise in unskilled workers, coupled with advances in cloud technologies and new possibilities for human enhancement. According to the European Commission, in the UK alone, the over-65s age group will have increased from 17% of the population in 2010 to 23% by 2035, with 2.5 million more over-85-year-olds in the same period. And it’s predicted that the number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will be 22% by 2050 ‒ double what it was in 2006. Increased unemployment in developed countries will also wreak havoc on our economies. Today, 40 million workers in advanced economies are unemployed, according to management consultancy firm McKinsey. Simultaneously, businesses in these nations can’t find workers with the skills they need: a catch-22 that risks stalling economic growth. McKinsey predicts that by 2020 France will be 2.2 million Baccalauréat-qualified workers short to meet demand, with an excess of 2.3 million less-educated workers struggling to find employment.

Working the cloud
These two factors create the perfect storm for new systems reliant on cloud technologies, robots, and human enhancement. Here’s why. Cloud computing is a hot topic, and for good reason. It’s been hailed as one of the best ways to ensure future productivity, collaboration, and innovation. Forrester estimates that by 2016, 43% of the US workforce will be virtual. A study by ABI Research finds that the social collaboration sector ‒ comprising social sites which allow groups to share knowledge and swap favours ‒ will reach $3.5bn by 2016, up from just under $1bn in 2012. This quid pro quo arrangement will fuel unprecedented innovation in consumers and products. Cloud technologies could also help to ... More

Chic lit

Are you in a flap about flappers? If you read fashion magazines, it seems you should be. 'Get the Gatsby look!' they shrill, in anticipation of the blockbusting film version of F Scott Fitzgerald's book. Yet however revolutionary drop waists or cloche hats are supposed to be for this year's wardrobe, they were genuinely boundary-pushing the first-time around. Clothing has always been an important interface between the personal and political; societies and the women within them are endlessly judged by what they wear, whether the topic is burqas in France or miniskirts on assault victims. In the same way we associate the buttoned-up women of Gissing or Gaskell with the restrictions of Victorian society, so too have the glamorous trends of the Jazz Age become shorthand for the new way of doing things. Laying weary eyes on British women for the first time since the Great War ended, Virginia Woolf's Peter Walsh reflects in Mrs Dalloway: "There was a freshness about them; even the poorest among them dressed better than five years ago surely; and to his eye the fashions had never been so becoming."

Focus on frivolity
The renewed emphasis on appearance was doubtless a reaction to the austerity of war. "To dress extravagantly in times of war is worse than bad taste. It is unpatriotic', proclaimed posters. With this government-sanctioned restriction on fashion lifted in peacetime, the interwar years burst with the freedom of experimentation. Inspired by tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, women did away with the restrictiveness of corsets and embraced her on-court style of one-piece dresses with floppy hems. At last, fashion for fashion's sake was no longer off limits and contemporary writers duly revelled in garment details. Fashion is a rich thread that runs throughout Edith Wharton's work. When the narrator of The Age of Innocence catches sight of brazen divorcée ... More

Analysing our accessories

The handbag is one of our most debated, most gendered cultural artefacts. It can be a powerful status symbol, and is a universally recognised indicator of femininity. When Lego first introduced its girl-oriented line last year, it also introduced a Lego handbag accessory. So what is it about handbags? In many ancient cultures, the shape of the handbag represented the woman's womb and fertility. For example, the goddesses of fertility Ubertas (Roman mythology) and Rosmerta (Gaulish Celtic mythology) are depicted holding both a cornucopia and a purse, connecting the woman's womb-purse with the harvest. In pagan wedding rituals, coins were put inside a bride's purse to 'fertilise' it. However, women's handbags weren't initially designed to carry money. The reticules of the 18th and 19th centuries could fit a fan, calling cards and smelling salts - which rendered the bag as useless as its contents. And they were purposely designed to reflect lack of purpose, which placed women firmly in the ornamental domain.

Pockets of difference
It's no wonder, then, that the feminists of the early 20th century demanded pockets. American feminists such as Alice Duer Miller and Charlotte Perkins Gilman saw women's bags as a metaphor for sexual inequality. Perkins Gilman went so far as to imagine an Amazonian utopia where women were equipped with pockets of every size and variety, enabling them to keep their most precious possessions to hand. Particularly money. "Her own earned money, hers to give or to withhold, not to beg for, tease for, wheedle for - hers." At that time, pockets were an obvious indicator of who was in charge of the finances. As women gained more freedom to travel and work, the tiny reticules of the 18th and 19th centuries were superseded by bigger, more utilitarian bags, such as the Edwardian bag and the clutch bag of the ... More

Family request: genetics and social media

‘D’ would like to make contact with me. He might be my fifth cousin and wants to explore our relationship. I’ve never met him, but by looking at two short pieces of genetic information he includes in his message, I can tell you the sorts of things your mother would want to know about D if you were going out with him (and then some). Who are his mother’s people? Well, D can trace his maternal ancestry to some of the earliest humans to colonise Europe. On his father’s side, one of D’s distant male ancestors may have hailed from Doggerland, an area of northern Europe swamped, Atlantis-style, by rising sea levels some 8,500 years ago. If I simply click on ‘yes’, I can share information about my genes with 
him via the website of 23andMe, a California-based personal genomics company that has studied my DNA. 
D has also had his DNA analysed, and has asked the website’s Relative Finder facility to look for other 23andMe customers who look as though they share recent common ancestors. If I agree, he and I could compare notes about what our gene analyses say about our physical characteristics, ancestry or potential health risks. We could trace our roots and see whether we are in fact distant cousins. It’s all potentially fascinating, but I hesitate.

New family request
Others aren’t so shy. In fact, sharing genetic information via online social networks is a trend that is changing how consumers access and interpret information about their genes, health and ancestry, and possibly how they construct ideas about identity and notions of family. In days gone by, one would construct a picture of one’s ancestry by listening to the oral history passed on by wise old aunts or by leafing through family albums and genealogical records to fill ... More

Thank you for smoking

Getting that Deep South BBQ flavour on your modest city stovetop needn't cost the earth. We asked some of the UK's leading industry experts and smoke aficionados how and why to DIY. Nicola Lando, Founder of specialist e-tailer Sous Chef "Interest in Scandinavian cuisine has been growing for some time, and cold smoke fits very well with the Nordic flavour profile - light, fresh, pickled - then with a hint of smoke to add depth and complexity. Restaurants like North Road, and later Dabbous, did fabulous things with smoke. Dabbous' dish 'coddled hens egg with woodland smoked butter' was the talk of the London restaurant scene. People try it in restaurants, and then they want to eat it at home - we put up a recipe for a 'smoked coddled egg' on the Sous Chef site, and it's the one that gets the most search traffic. "Slow hot smoking - or American BBQ - is still big. I think that one driver behind the US trend is blogging. There are so many great food blogs in the US, which showcase everything from hot and cold smoking, to delicious Deep South cuisine. "Access to the equipment and ingredients is also important. These days, a simple small metal coil that you fill with chips (ProQ Cold Smoke Generator) can generate cold smoke at a consistent rate for just £35. Now anyone can smoke a salmon in their garden, or bring a little special something to cheese for a dinner party cheeseboard. Our bestselling Cameron smoker was incredibly popular during January, when people were dieting and detoxing, and looking for low-fat ways to make fish and chicken a bit tastier. "I think smoke adds an extra level of depth and complexity to a dish. Clearly it's not umami, but it's something similar - might we have a ... More

Pick up a payphone, hear a New York story

Last year, New York based project ‘Recalling 1993’ matched up working payphones on the city’s grid with an event from 1993 specific to that street corner. All you had to do was pick up the phone and dial 1(855)-FOR-1993, and you were told a short story. The installation was launched by ad agency Droga5 to promote the New Museum’s 'NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star' exhibition, which explored a pivotal time when social and cultural pressures, political agendas, crime and art all collided in the city. The project, which featured over 150 recorded oral histories from locals, transformed New York's 5,000 unused but operational payphones into artistic and educational playthings. It seems we now desire ‘high performance’ objects that aren’t just fully functioning - but can teach us and entertain us too. What's more, we are social beings, and it's somewhat ingrained in us to get to grips with our territory: if you know your 'hood the best then you belong there the most, right? In New York, this sense of geographical identification goes down to the block and even building level.

Sounds like change
Trendy visual infographics have become immensely popular over the past 5 years or so. This seems to have developed out of a sense of uncertainty and mistrust in the world: visualising the invisible means we can attempt to understand it better. However we're now seeing a backlash against this obsession with making everything tangible. Over the past year we've had The Barbican’s Rain Room as well as a host of giant scale light installation projects from Japan to Lisbon, demonstrating our cultural appetite for the immersive, enchanting and unusual. The surreal is starting to become a valuable source of escapism. Auditory media are especially good at capturing our imagination. Without visuals, we're free to more creatively interpret what we hear - so we're now starting to see ... More

The joys of trashy romance novels

The heroes in Mills & Boon stories used to fall into one of three categories: sardonic Greek tycoon, enigmatic Arab sheikh or arrogant Italian playboy. These days you can get every permutation of fantasy lover imaginable. Perhaps you'd like a prince who happens to be moonlighting as a doctor on a cruise ship? Or a lover who helps you defeat a vengeful, baby-stealing demon (you're a witch, incidentally)? I've even read that the next kinky fantasy to feature in Mills & Boon's erotic imprint is centaur porn. I'll leave you to speculate on which half will be man and which half will be horse. Mills & Boon is now 105 years old. Judging by sales figures, one could argue that it is Britain's most famous publishing house and one of the most successful in history. It has also had a boost from devices such as the Kindle: digital sales are outnumbering print editions two-to-one on account of a growing number of 30-somethings who can now indulge their guilty pleasure in relative privacy. According to the publisher, while digital readers tend to prefer the raunchier reads of the 'Spice' category - thank you, Fifty Shades of Grey - it's the far-fetched, glamorous billionaires and princes of the 'Modern' series that are the most appealing in print. Even so, given the formulaic boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-realises-error-of-his-ways-gets-girl-back plots, what is their enduring appeal among educated women? I have written for Philosophy Now magazine and my poetry has appeared in such august publications as Poetry Review. Yet I also have a penchant for Mills & Boon's 'Blaze' category, in spite of the ridiculous titles - see Purchased by the Billionaire  and  The Greek Tycoon's Unwilling Wife. Yeah, I'm woman and I'm complex like that.

From chaste courtship to kids out of wedlock
When I first encountered their fiction, I was a 14-year-old ... More

A search engine for metaphors

Much like the Heinz of internet search, it's said Google uses 57 different filters to personalise the information we see online. Yes, all of us. Even you over there. This may sound like a perfectly reasonable and relatively innocent way to parse a gigantic world of sources, but these filters carry a heavy bias and can stop you from seeing the bigger picture. For example, if Google knows which political party you support, based on your choice of online reading materials, it will continue to tailor your results to fit that world view. And lots of those filters continue to work when you’re not even online. Furthermore, now that web searches are frequently conducted on mobiles, there is also an overlap between your activities on the web and your activities in the physical world. Next time you search for a café while you are walking down the road, ask yourself: How much of the city is Google stopping you from seeing? For a few years now, analysts and academics (including John Hagel, Eli Pariser, Aleks Krotoski and Adam Greenfield to name a few) have fought to make people aware of the dangers of this over-reliance on Google. There’s another 
more philosophical argument surrounding all of this, too – 
on some level, missing out on random finds outside our sphere of reference detracts from the human experience. Conversations with random strangers often lead to exciting new ideas and discoveries – but what happens to those discoveries when there’s no randomness any more?

I'm feeling lucky
Enter a different kind of search engine. YossarianLives!! was built to generate random, serendipitous results as a counter to these kinds of hidden information filters. Here’s what happens when you search for something: a picture comes up. That’s it. No signposts, no key words, no explanations. Through some computational ... More

Slow gin

When I was 22 or so, I imagined that in my future adult life in the 21st century - right about now - I would be living the kind of technologically advanced, sophisticated city life that would make the characters in LA Law look like the Beverly Hillbillies. Funny, then, that at the time I looked to the future for civilisation, whereas now I'm in the future, I sometimes find myself looking backwards for it. Why? Because at times, it feels as though everything is too big, too fast, too much. Supersized and on-demand has rudely shoved perfectly formed and in-good-time to one side. In the main, this is well and good. Bring on the tech, the new and the progressive! But aside from invention, let us not forget revival, because some things were pretty good the first time round and deserve another crack of the whip.

Making time for a martini
One of these things is the cocktail hour. The one we see in old films - civilisation and sophistication, preserved in black and white and perfect RP accents, complete with clinking glasses and lively chat. Wouldn't you rather - just sometimes - enjoy that, rather than dash in from work exhaustedly, and down half a glass of Picpoul while slumped against the fridge? If anything in life is worth reviving, that hallowed hour surely is. Imagine just one hour a week, to start at least, when the best glasses make an appearance, the spirits are mixed with reverence, the sounds are soothing, and the ambience urbane. It used to be that certain social classes were able to take the cocktail hour for granted - as a birthright, as an essential part of their version of modern life. A bar set (ice tongs, long spoon, strainer, jigger and shaker, at the very ... More

How the icemen cameth

If you were asked to put a date on the first recorded restarting of a human heart using electricity, what would you say? Perhaps 1947 in Ohio when Claude Beck used it to restart the heart of a boy suffering a congenital heart defect? Or perhaps any time after 1899, when the first defibrillators were demonstrated in Geneva? Yet in 1794, the first use of electricity to restart the heart was recorded in Soho. Young Sophia Greenhill fell from a window, suffered a blow to the head and was pronounced dead at Middlesex Hospital. A local man, Mr Squires, heard of the accident and hot-footed it to the hospital. Using a friction-type electricity machine, he began to shock her chest. He felt a pulse, and the child began to breathe again. She survived with only a concussion. Mr Squires’ achievement was part of the growing fund of knowledge in late eighteenth century London regarding resuscitation and cardiac massage. In 1773 Islington-born doctor William Hawes paid for ‘reception houses’ between Westminster and London Bridges where drowned or injured people could be brought and attempts would be made to resuscitate them. By summer 1774, the reception houses had been so successful that Hawes met with a group of philanthropists including playwright Oliver Goldsmith in the Chapter coffeehouse in St Paul’s Churchyard and formed the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.

The most potent resource in nature
In 1776, the Society changed its name to the Humane Society. In the same year one William Henly wrote in with a suggestion that electricity be used to shock the heart in ‘cases of Apparent Death from Drowning’. After all, he reasoned, why not use ‘the most potent resource in nature, which can instantly pervade the innermost recesses of the animal frame’? The research continued and Mr ... More

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