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Women, autism and intimacy

“Does sex matter?” asks Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge. While this brings a smile, it's a question that relates to one of the hottest and relatively unknown topics of this decade. Is there a difference between female and male autism, and does this difference matter? The quick answer is yes there is and yes it does. According to current research, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects one in 100 people (or one in 88 if you are in the USA), but what about the male to female ratio? There's no definitive answer to date, and the reason for this is the burning question on many clinician and researcher’s lips, and broadly the topic of my PhD. Varying studies place the male to female ratio in the diagnosis of ASD at anything from 2:1 to 16:1. Whatever the true ratio is, there's been a steady increase in female referrals to diagnostic clinics across the UK in the last 10 years - and yet because of the male bias in both the definition and the diagnostic criteria of ASD, girls are less like to be identified as ASD, even when their symptoms are equally as severe if not as easily identifiable.

Parents, lovers and friends
How does this subject relate to our understanding of intimacy and empathy? Well, autism is characterised as "a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people" (The National Autistic Society). When we hear 'autism', most are hard-pushed to not draw up memories of watching Dustin Hoffman counting toothpicks in Rainman. While his performance was Oscar worthy, in many ways his portrayal did a disservice to people with ASD. When we visualise autism, we think 'aloof', 'absent-minded Professors' or people with intense specialist skills involving numbers. Not many would automatically think of ... More

Making Mr Cello

"You know when rock and roll bands smash up their guitars at the end of a set? You just couldn't do that with a cello. It's like a living thing. Your interaction with it influences how it sounds, its value, how open it is. It's deeply personal - even the way you hold it. And its form is like a human, isn't it?" Cellist and composer Lucinda Chua pulls her instrument closer protectively as she makes her case. “A piano is like a piece of furniture. String instruments are an extension of yourself.”

"They're very temperamental", agrees Peter Gregson, whose compositions have landed in Hollywood films. “They travel so much you have to give them a name and a gender." He shows me pictures of Mr Cello Gregson, strapped into a window seat in economy with a multitude of belts. It's fairly comical. "But one of the benefits of modern instruments is in fact that they travel very well. They’re built with jetset aspirations." This was much less the case in the Stradivarius era: they weren’t really expected to be shipped around the globe several times a year, with all the temperature and pressure changes.

Luthier Robert Brewer Young is a purist, however, and happy to keep these historical quirks. For the last 20 years, he’s been shaping, whittling and tuning instruments to be as identical to their original intention as possible. He uses similar wood and treatment, and traditional measuring techniques which reference a proportional system rather than an outside standard like the inch or metre. 

One of Robert’s principal cello models is based on the Marquis de Corberon Stradivari, whose original we will meet in a moment. He fell in love with it when he first heard it, and its design patterns have much to do with that. “The amazing thing about the Marquis

... More

Scenario 2050: a long view of urban economies

You may have heard that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. Perceived by some as polluted, overcrowded, high stress environments we nonetheless need to understand cities’ potential and actual contributions to wellbeing. There is evidence that concentrating people in one place increases economic activity, return on infrastructure investment and social vitality. If the population of a city is doubled, there is an average 15% increase in the wages and patents produced compared with two cities of the original size. There is also an inverted effect in terms of infrastructure: if the population of a city doubles, it needs 15% less physical infrastructure than two cities. Join us in a thought experiment as we take you through four possible global scenarios for 2050.

Scenario 2050
Scenarios combine what we can anticipate with an exploration of uncertainties. There are two possible threads in this essay. One is a network of global cities, with city states replacing many functions of the nation state. Alternatively, connections, and therefore markets, could be global and thus largely virtual, replacing geography with other organising structures such as affinity groups. Those threads then lead us to four scenarios, which provide a framework for thinking about the context, role and shape of cities. In describing the evolution of the scenarios, we take into account the recent financial crisis in the western economies. In the narrative, for simplicity, we introduce a hypothetical event - where severe weather or another natural cause creates global food shortages - in about 2030. In two of the scenarios, this event causes the collapse of the current world order, i.e. the Washington consensus. Imagining the world beyond the Washington Consensus is challenging since so much of our infrastructure, both physical and governance, is based on western values and management.
The Second Hand scenario
The Second ... More

Studio Ghibli’s feminist fairytales

Lauded by film critics and cultural commentators alike, yet comparatively ignored by many in the UK, Japan’s Studio Ghibli has much to offer. This is particularly true for people seeking feminist heroines in a culture more often associated with repressed sexual desire and unhelpful attitudes towards women - such as artist Megumi Igarashi's recent arrest under obscenity laws for turning a 3D scan of her genitalia into a canoe. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno

Bettelheim observes that the human spirit requires the dark fantasy of fairy stories through which to discover and make sense of our humanity. F

airytales offer us opportunities to

develop a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our own lives, and the animated fantasies of Studio Ghibli are arguably some of the best contemporary examples. 

Complex, subtle and cautionary
Founded in 1985 by visionary director

Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli boasts endless standing ovations at festivals, the two highest ever grossing home-produced films in Japan (Spirited Away in 2002, Princess Mononoke in 1997) and perhaps most importantly to Miyazaki himself, an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (Spirited Away) at the 75th

 Academy Awards. Not bad for a studio that claims to make each film without a script, allowing the story to take shape through its storyboards. 

Often compared to Disney (who own the distribution rights to the films in the West), Ghibli animations have a distinctly Japanese flavour which is kept pure by a strict ‘no cuts’ policy for its western distribution. Whilst Disney can perhaps claim a monopoly on the animated retreading of classic rags-to-riches fairytales, Ghibli craft an altogether different kind of narrative. Miyazaki’s plots also tend to revolve around cautionary themes - environmental issues, anti-war, the illusion of physical beauty - albeit in a more complex and subtle package.

Sophie, grace and ageing

Take Howl's Moving

... More

Fake it ’til you make it

Say the words ‘copy’ and ‘China’ to Westerners today and most will think of Silk Alley counterfeits, Shenzhen knock-off factories, Guangdong sweatshops, or Nanjing’s legendary fake mall with its frontage of entirely bogus outlets such as Haagon-Bozs, Pizza Huh, Buckstar Coffee, KFG and McDnoalds: the brainchild of a property developer who wanted to create buzz around his new development. Not quite so amused by the knock-offs are the businesses, mostly in the West, who are losing money as a result of the estimated US$600 billion worth of fakes produced every year. Most are made in China, currently the world’s leading counterfeiting superpower. What manufacturers would prefer to keep a lid on, is that at least one in ten of the goods you buy – from luxury brands to smartphones – is a fake. But is it a zero-sum game: are counterfeits as good news for the faker as they are bad news for the faked, or can copying actually be good for business?  Can imitation help to create industry and benefit the economy?

There's a reason it's called china
A glimpse into the past suggests it often does. A mere three hundred years ago the current roles were reversed: only China had the technology to be able to make that most desired of luxury goods – porcelain, and the West were desperate to develop, copy or hack the secret of its manufacture. Known as ‘white gold’ by kings and nobles (incidentally the only ones who could afford its exorbitant price), porcelain is still called ‘china’, a direct result of the 1000-year hold the Middle Kingdom had over the secrets of this exquisite pure white ceramic. Hugely prized, yet seemingly impossible for anyone, other than the Chinese to make, porcelain was translucent to the light, gave out a clear melodious ‘ting’ when tapped, was thin walled ... More

Lightening up about death

This is the idea put forward in Atul Gawande’s new book Being Mortal. Gawande, who is a practising surgeon and staff writer at The New Yorker, is critical of the medical profession’s approach to death. Instead of focussing all our efforts on putting off the inevitable, he asks, shouldn’t we also be trying to come to terms with it? As late as 1880, approximately 20% of all children born in Western society died before their first birthday, and another 20% before their fifth. Global average life expectancy at birth was around 30 years. No one even got around to considering death from natural causes. Thanks to advances in public health and modern medicine, the average lifespan in the West is now 78 years, and this average increases by two years every decade. But a culture that grows old pushes the subject of death to the periphery. Death and dying are relegated to hospitals and care facilities. While we might, as Philip Larkin said, have a ‘real talent’ for ignoring death, it’s always been a big topic in literature. Tennyson goes on about it for 700 stanzas (In Memoriam). What's different about Gawande’s treatise is that it takes what has been a fairly popular cultural debate around the notion of a good death into the clinical domain. Of course, palliative care specialists have been doing this since Cicely Saunders pioneered the concept in the sixties. But the medical profession and culture at large have been fairly slow in following suit.

Coming to terms with the body
Accessible healthcare is one of the many privileges of 21st century living in the West, but leaving everything up to the professionals has contributed to the sanitisation of what is in reality less a sudden event than a bodily process, and a messy one at that. “The thing ... More

The Used Future Manifesto

It’s a geek cliché to wax lyrical about Star Wars. The George Lucas films, not the American über-space-weapon programme. And yes, I’m going to, about the first three films, but just a little bit, because those are the films that informed my sensibilities as a proto-geek. What those films opened my eyes to was the concept of the Used Future, and more than just an epic battle of good versus evil — this was a visual contest, a codified aesthetic war representing two apparently competing positions on technology: the seamless and the seamful. Up to the point at which Star Wars blasted its way into my consciousness, sci-fi in general had been a unified vision of smooth surfaces, gently bleeping LEDs and spacecraft hewn from single lumps of some magical space-dust-repelling material with single-palette interiors. Space Command had tendered that brief to iKEA2042 and they had done a sterling job. Communicators and torch-surgery wizywigs at the ready, set to blend.

The Empire vs the Rebellion
And then came Star Wars and the incredible work of legendary production designer John Barry. Both he and Lucas were looking for a different vision of the future, one from long ago and far away. Against the smooth, shiny, sleek, depersonalised, modular and inscrutable design of the Empire was the Rebellion; lived-in, mismatched, scruffy, scarred and showing its age and heterogeneous heritage. This was the aesthetic of the Used Future. Its origins were visible before Star Wars, in John Carpenter’s student film Dark Star and the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris. And before either of these, the books of Robert Heinlein were frequently set in futures already lived in and starting to decay. In the wake of Star Wars, its influence was immediately apparent in Ridley Scott’s genre-defining Alien series and the geek beacon Blade Runner. What Lucas and Barry reinvented was ... More

The power of glamour

When we hear the word ‘glamour’, we envision beautiful movie stars in designer gowns or sleek sports cars and the dashing men who drive them. For a moment, we project ourselves into the world they represent, a place in which we, too, are beautiful, admired, graceful, accomplished, powerful, wealthy, or at ease. Glamour lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. It creates a distinctive sensation of projection and longing. What we find glamorous, like what we find funny, varies with personality and culture. But all glamour promises transformation and escape. In the image of a rising jet or a speeding convertible, a runway model or a martial arts hero, we experience the same dream: that we might soar beyond present constraints to become better, more accomplished, admired, respected and desired versions of ourselves. Glamour lets us project ourselves into new identities, imagining the ideal in the half-known. As a result, glamour can be as powerful as it is pleasurable. By focusing previously inchoate yearnings, it motivates not just momentary fantasies but real-world action, from buying holidays and high heels to moving to new cities and pursuing new careers. In fact, more than we like to admit, glamour influences our answers to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Stars of their own show
For young children, to whom the very idea of adulthood is alluring and exotic, the responses are almost always pure glamour: movie star, athlete, fireman, model, pilot, dancer, and, especially for the preschool set, princess or superhero. Children, their answers tell us, long for lives of power, excitement, beauty, fame, and significance. So do adults. Whether experienced as children or young adults, the idealised professions we glimpse through books, movies, and TV shows often determine grown-up career choices – most of which ... More

The anthropology of laughter

We all know laughter is good for us. But is it more than that? Is it also good for those around us ‒ for politics and the wider world? Stand-up comedians, like court jesters, are known for treading on dangerous ground and getting away with it. Despots never have a sense of humour: they can’t risk laughter from the populace. An excellent way of puncturing the pretensions of the rich and powerful is to get together and laugh; humans have been doing this since the beginning of time. When our species first evolved, everyone lived by hunting and gathering. Whereas monkeys and apes live in social dominance hierarchies ‒ there’s nothing communistic or egalitarian there ‒ hunter-gatherers emphatically resist being bossed around. Back when language and culture evolved, humans were insistently egalitarian and laughter played a crucial role.

Comedy equals
Try asking the Kalahari Bushmen, “Who is your king?”. “All of us!’, they’ll reply. A man who has killed a large, fat game animal must be careful to avoid showing off. In fact, he will have to endure merciless teasing about how skinny and gristly the meat is. When anthropologist Richard Lee asked a local healer to explain why, he was told: “Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” Anthropologists have come to admire the relaxed egalitarianism of the Bushmen. They spend much of the time laughing, mostly to stop people getting too big for their boots. Among the Pygmy forest ... More

The comedy genius of the Simpsons

If you want to make redshift and its importance in understanding the Big Bang memorable, then why not pass a potentially lethal electric current through a gherkin? Not all theatres will let you do this, and if you get away with it the first time, they may be more tremulous about allowing you to do it again ‒ but this is the way Simon Singh does it. Singh combines a firm grasp of scientific understanding with a flair for showmanship, accentuated by his trademark pineapple-peaked hair, making him the easiest science populariser to recognise in silhouette. Having written books on Fermat’s last theorem, cryptography, cosmology and alternative medicine, as well as successfully fighting a case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association which led to a successful campaign for libel reform, he has now just written about The Simpsons. Or rather, he is using The Simpsons and the mathematics that is secreted in it, to bring sometimes difficult and intriguing mathematics to a mass audience. Simon has been a regular visitor to stand-up clubs since he was a student, so I wondered whether he was drawn to writing about The Simpsons primarily for the humour or for the mathematics. But, much as he loves comedy, it is always the maths that comes first.

From Harvard to Springfield
“The maths in The Simpsons generally isn’t funny maths,” Simon says. “It’s just maths put in there for the sake of the writer. So that’s all I was interested in. When I went over to meet the writers, I was interested in their mathematical more than their comedy backgrounds.” Simon then discovered that The Simpsons is written by some heavyweight mathematicians. “They’re not people who are fond of maths, they’re people who have degrees in maths. Al Jean was 16 when he went to Harvard to do ... More

The joy of footnotes

For an avid reader, coming across a footnote is a bit like checking your phone for texts during oral sex.1 They’re an interruption, hard to read, pedantic, and probably written by people who sport a thick layer of chalk dust on their bat gowns. Surely they have no place in real life? The New York Times, ever the cultural barometer, had no problem declaring their death at the end of the 91% analog 20th century,2 the coup de grace delivered by the scythe of new science, which replaced fact-finding with theorising. But as scientists discarded footnotes and got their bass guitars out of the loft in pursuit of a career in TV, the masters of literary fiction crooked their fingers, patted the velvet banquette coquettishly and asked footnotes to slide on over. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (best read with a dedicated footnote bookmark) was published in 1996; almost as impenetrable as the five-year-old internet, it had endnotes with its own footnotes. It was bought but largely left untouched for months, as we revelled instead in a World Wide Web that now offered Google and was working out what to do with graphics. Social media held out its hand for VC money and we discovered that a fragmented personality was required to cope with its demands. Literary fiction stepped in and offered us Mark Z Danielewski’s disturbing postmodern epic House of Leaves, a story examining the absence of meaning at the heart of life using footnotes as characters in their own right. With it, the reference transitioned smoothly from an aid to a part of the story, reflecting our struggle to make our work and social selves exist simultaneously.

Funny in the margins
As the digital decade developed we began to see the fun of our avatars as well as the ... More

In defence of dark humour

Within hours of last December’s dramatic ceiling collapse at London’s Apollo Theatre, social media networks went into overdrive. As one might expect, there was the usual outpouring of shock and occasionally anger as the story began to unfold on social networks. Then the jokes started: “Just heard about the show at the Apollo. It brought the house down!” Of course, this sort of puerile humour is a speciality of social media – within days, the very same networks were awash with Nigella jokes. What made this different, however, was that one of the tweeters was then outed as a political activist who had encouraged Facebook users to post details of benefit fraudsters on their pages. It didn’t really matter that his post wasn’t particularly funny (“I was just at the Apollo Theatre last night and sickened by what I saw… five quid for a bag of Maltesers?”). The implication was that he’d sunk to a new low, worse even than whipping up trouble about benefit mis-claimants. Some things, it was said, are simply beyond humour. There's a rich tradition of finding comedy in the face of trauma, suffering and death. As the name gallows humour suggests, jokes originally took inspiration from executions. For example, while being martyred over roasting coals, St Lawrence of Rome is reputed to have told his tormentors, “I am done on this side, you may turn me over.” Similarly, as he placed his head on the block, Sir Walter Raleigh said of the executioner’s axe, “‘Tis a sharp cure, but good against all ills”. And even as recently as 1928, mob boss George Appel is reported to have quipped to the guards strapping him into the electric chair, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel”. This form of humour works because, although its source is ... More

The evolution of board games

The world’s largest trade fair for paper games happens once a year in the German city of Essen, with turnstile attendance of over 150,000. It's an overwhelming sight: huddles of people as far as the eye can see, each concentrating intently on a different byzantine configuration of dice, cards, counters or chips; new games created by contemporary game designers. There have been some global smash hit successes in the past decade, some of which you're likely to have heard of - Settlers of Catan perhaps, or more recently Cards Against Humanity (which at time of writing occupies the top four bestselling items in Amazon Toys & Games category). But none of these have on their own been responsible for the sector’s rise, which is instead a consequence of broad growth across gaming in general.

Game everything
One would imagine that board games would be largely usurped by digital games. The latter are a $20+ billion industry, eclipsing music and on par with film. With the introduction of the casual games market and an increasing diversification of platforms - personal computers, living room and portable consoles, and smartphones - interactive entertainment has become a mainstream, mass market activity. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 58% of all Americans play digital games, and of those 45% are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater proportion of the game playing population (31%) than boys aged 17 or younger (19%). In fact, one can recognise an increased appetite for interactivity in general. In theatre, we see a strong trend towards immersive and site-specific work, most famously by Punchdrunk with their landmark production The Masque Of The Red Death, and more recently The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable in which the audience don masks and are free to roam the extensive set. In television, all ... More

Grey sells: rebranding social isolation

Jill Shaw Ruddock is all brisk efficiency ‒ a fast-talking American who doesn’t suffer fools. She shakes my hand and tells me that, because I’m early, she’s going to be next door catching a bit of the art history class. “Kevin’s our best teacher,” she beams. The Second Half Centre is a disarming combination of Oxbridge professors, volunteers and energetic senior citizens housed within a busy West London NHS facility. A “modern-day community centre”, it’s the physical manifestation of Ruddock’s campaign to rebrand old age. Along the corridors, posters designed by Ruddock featuring glamorous 50-something celebs proclaim: 'This is what old age looks like.' “People over 50 are really dominating theatre, the arts, medicine, entertainment…we’re dominating thought. Even though young is still what people worship, copying us – they haven’t really created an identity. But we have an identity and we’re going to redefine what that means. "Old means energetic, connected, inquisitive, vivacious – as long as we believe that and give people the opportunity to be it.” In fact, a pair of researchers in Switzerland recently discovered an attitude common among the very old they’ve dubbed ‘senior coolness’ ‒ characterised as a nonchalance, or indeed an indifference, to old age.

Growing better with age
Hidden at the heart of Ruddock’s manifesto is the considerably less glamorous issue of social isolation. Its effects on ill health have been extensively documented and include mental illness and increased blood pressure. Originally, though, her ambitions were primarily to write a book about ageing well, after she discovered that the persistent, inexplicable unhappiness she had been feeling turned out to be the menopause. “I thought out on many doctors and found that no-one could argue with it, I had a thesis. “What happens to the brain when you go through menopause is you first lose 100% of your ... More

Bedroom broadcasts: the new teen celebrity

There’s no great revelation in the statement, ‘the comedy world is not the easiest place to be a woman’.  While it’s dawning on some movie executives that funny female leads may actually be a draw to at least half of their audience ‒ comedies such as Bridesmaids and The Heat both found critical and commercial success ‒ mainstream comedy remains stubbornly male dominated. Women are still more likely to be wheeled out as eye candy than to generate laughs. But while the ‘old media’ vanguard remains creaky in its approach to gender equality, it’s also very different to the way many young people are creating and consuming content. TV watching among under-25-year-olds is in steady decline, and ‘second screening’ ‒ consuming or creating additional content, usually on a mobile or tablet while watching the box ‒ has created a generation who see YouTube, Instagram, or Vine (the six-second film channel), as no less legitimate forms of mass entertainment than TV or film. Of course, the internet is no egalitarian utopia ‒ you only have to glance at MailOnline or the abuse levelled at opinionated women such as Caroline Criado-Perez or Anita Sarkeesian to see that ‒ but it is an environment where we can be blissfully unaware of what the mainstream says we should be consuming.

The new celebrity
By steadily dissolving divisions between the mainstream and the ‘underground’, the web has not only created an entirely new cultural dimension between the two, but handed the keys over to anyone who wants them; rewriting the rules about what it means to be (and who is allowed to be) famous. Performers who might have struggled to get past producers in an analogue world now have the opportunity to float their talent on the open market of the web ‒ and see whether it ... More

On feminist zombies

It's a rather cold Saturday afternoon in East London, and the undead are all around me. Corpses in varying states of decay, blankly shuffle across the rain soaked pavement uttering the odd moan, some disgorging a black sticky liquid from the corner of their mouths which dribbles down blood stained clothes. In the corner, three schoolgirls dressed in ragged kilts, grimy blazers and straw boaters claw at each other, smearing blood and puss over each other’s faces. 

Suddenly one shouts ‘Tash! Don't get it in my eyes, I told that stings”. Her two companions flick off her boater and then collapse into fits of giggles as she whips out a tissue and frantically scrubs at her face. Luckily for me this is not the much-awaited Zombie Apocalypse, but simply DeadFest, a cosplay event taking place at Excel London.

Zombies, zombies everywhere There's certain degree of zombie-chic around at present. Once relegated to the fringes of low-budget horror (think Romero’s Living Dead trilogy, or 80’s Italian Horror), AMC’s The Walking Dead, alongside numerous films and computer game franchises have helped to make zombies very cool indeed. So it is perhaps not hard to see the attraction of indulging in a little undead dress up. Kat, one of the decaying schoolgirls, explains: “Zombies allow horror cosplay to be more creative. Vampires pretty much have a uniform, all flamboyant and gothic and have been ruined for us by ‘Twilight’.  You won’t see Kpat in Walking Dead (laughs). Zombies let you be whatever you want, brides, soldiers, even a schoolgirl.  You can experiment with make up, body movement everything. They're like a blank canvas.”

Whilst The Vampire Diaries and Twilight have arguably dragged vampires into the world of post-pubescent angst, screen-zombies have remained positively visceral . Despite their many manifestations, zombies are universally defined by their undeadness

... More

Dismantling the smart city

Have you noticed how increasingly difficult it is to open a magazine, turn on the television or make one’s daily rounds online without tripping across something called the ‘smart city’? As I write these words, as a matter of fact, it’s right there on the front page of the BBC website, which has devoted some of its prime on-screen space to an article surveying such places around the world, and arguing that these are the “cities of tomorrow”.

What do those words even mean, though? And what might all this interest in the smart city imply for the places we live in?
For clarity’s sake, we should separate out the two complementary but entirely distinct lines of thought and development that tend to get conflated any time the subject of the smart city arises. Originally, the phrase was used to describe a small number of development projects initiated over the past decade – blank-slate efforts like the Korean New Songdo, Masdar City (pictured) in the United Arab Emirates, and a curious development in Portugal called PlanIT Valley. These are smallish environments, the size of a new town at best, that have been designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities quite literally embedded in all the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions of everyday life. The roadways and the lamp posts and the buildings, even the city’s sewerage system: in these schemes, all of these things are to be networked, they all talk to one another in the universal digital language of ones and zeroes, and all of them adjust their performance in real time as conditions change.
Optimised living, but for whom?
There has been no dearth of breathless commentary on these places over the past half-decade. They’ve been held up to us as forerunners and exemplars of the kind of ... More

Cryonics: ice cold comfort

Over tea on a gloomy afternoon, I’m in the kitchen of a detached house in English suburbia with seven or eight people, all making those tentative conversations strangers initiate with one another. They’re a brief interlude spent looking at our current lives before returning to the reason that brought us all here for the weekend – resurrection and immortality. I find myself wondering under what other circumstances a varied group like ours would engage in such topics. This could easily be a Christian gathering – but our discussion is not based on the scriptures. We are consumed by a science so visionary that it has not yet been committed to text. This is a meeting about cryonics.

Deep and meaningful freeze
A far cry from the concept of Universal Judgement, cryonics asserts that resurrection will one day be possible, and medicine will have progressed enough to effectively reverse death. Meanwhile, believers advocate the deep freezing of corpses, and it's this last concept with which the term is associated. The movement has been around since the 1970s, after its founder, Robert Ettinger, coined the word and popularised the idea in his 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality. The concept has since entered into global consciousness, but not in the way Ettinger intended. Perceived more as bizarre curiosity than scientific possibility, cryonics was first met with scepticism and ridicule. Ettinger was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1918, and before he died in Detroit in 2011, he established a cryonic suspension centre, the Cryonics Institute, in Michigan, where his body is currently stored. Until recently, the United States was the only country where cryopreservation was offered (two centres currently exist there) and for many years cryonics seemed to be one of those excessive and flamboyant-to-the-point-of-ridicule ideas – like Big Mac diets and Disneyland.
Chill, it's no big deal
Yet ... More

Silly novels by lady novelists

First published in 1883, George Eliot’s essay is a delightfully acerbic and frequently funny commentary on vapid “mind and millinery” texts, ostensibly containing deep social commentary but in fact little more than a vehicle for the writer’s vanity, piety and frustrated social ambition. Particularly incisive at the time, Eliot’s sentiments around the motivations of silly novelists still ring true 130 years on. Closer reading leaves one wondering how much of Eliot's vitriol is down to internalising the misogyny prevalent at the time; she was, after all, Mary Ann Evans, taking on a male pseudonym to ensure her work would be taken seriously. A note on the edit: Where paragraphs have been cut, they’ve been cut in their entirety so as not to warp the meaning of Eliot’s prose. The only other amends have been to punctuation and formatting for the sake of clarity. Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them – the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these – a composite order of feminine fatuity – that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species. The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the ... More

Always present, not quite there

Indulge now, suffer tomorrow: it’s a simple axiom that perfectly captures the constant struggle of modern life. We eat fast food. We smoke cigarettes. We shop on credit. We drink alcohol. We have sex. And then we get fat. We get cancer and amass debts. We get hangovers. We have abortions. Our 'now' bias is where most of tomorrow’s problems begin. The way we consume information is no different. Just as we evolved to stock up on fat and sugar whenever possible, we prefer sensation and fear, we like affirmation, we like entertainment and, of course, we love fluffy kittens. Our behaviour online mirrors our behaviour offline, leading to what The Economist labelled ‘cyber-hedonism’. We are drawn towards instant gratification at every opportunity. Giving people what they want is far easier in an online environment than in a food manufacturing plant. Every website is a two-way mirror and every click, search and decision is crunched to reveal our hidden preferences. In this way, the digital economy has within it the means to constantly improve, update and optimise. It’s like eating a cheeseburger — one that tastes better with every bite. Every click brings us closer to our informational bliss point. Just look at the headlines on the can’t-look-away Mail Online (“What’s Wrong With Zooey Deschanel’s Eyelid?”). Relentless use of data, eye tracking and heat mapping made the site the world’s most successful online newspaper, outperforming both The New York Times and The Guardian.

Info addicts
We consume an average of 11 hours of information each day — more time than we spend sleeping — and it’s not just during ‘downtime’. We do it anywhere and at anytime: in the car, on the toilet, in the bedroom, even at a wedding. More than 60% of Britons own a smartphone, and Finnish researchers say we are developing new mobile habits, like smoking or nail ... More

The history of a hopeful tongue

Whilst generations educated before the onset of the National Curriculum might have been exposed to Esperanto as an introduction to language learning, many people now leave school without hearing the briefest mention of the man-made lingua franca.

A brief historio
Esperanto was developed in the late 19th century by Doctor Ludwig L. Zamenhof. Born in Poland in 1859, Zamenhof grew up in a society that was under Russian rule and fraught with conflict. By his mid-teens he had come to believe that language barriers only contributed to the friction between the isolated communities of Poles, Russians, Germans and Jews. He began laying the groundwork for a language easy enough for anyone to learn, regardless of nationality. His first book, Lingvo Internacia, was published in 1887 under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto - 'the one who hopes'. Hope would soon become reality; beginners were surprisingly eager to speak the language, and its simplicity helped to boost its popularity as it spread from Europe to the Americas and Asia. In a time before budget airlines, hundreds of followers made it to the first Esperanto World Congress in France in 1905, keen to be a part of Zamenhof's great vision. Despite its promising start, few of us are likely to use Esperanto today - for most, English seems a much more convenient option. But Brian Barker, Information Officer at the Esperanto Association of Britain, is keen to point out that the notion that everyone speaks English is an urban myth: "Take London, for example; even here there are people who don't speak English. What does that say about the rest of the world?" He points out that rather than replacing English, Esperanto's role is to offer a politically neutral alternative. "After all, Esperanto was designed to be an international language; it has no associated country, culture or race. ... More

Spacial awareness

In more than four decades since the last manned Apollo mission, humans have all but abandoned the dream of establishing a colony on the Moon, using it as a galactic pied à terre from which to explore. Instead, we have learned to suppress our probing cosmic loneliness by counting down until the launch of smartphones with 4G and better cameras. Yet according to a survey conducted last year by Eden TV, the question Britons would most like to see answered is whether or not we are alone in the universe. The gravity of such a discovery is likely to transform our definition of life, and perhaps even what it means to be human - a topic science fiction authors have wrestled with for decades. "If we can build a base on the Moon, it will be ideal for staging deep-space missions,' says Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a British space scientist. "Because there is lunar ice, we have access to hydrogen and oxygen, which are both necessary to fuel a spacecraft. Also, unlike Earth, the Moon does not have a large mass, and it would not slow down spacecraft at launch." We are still some way off from deep space voyages, however. Ruling out the financial burden and the relatively short span of a human life, a trip from our planet to the closest star system, Alpha Centauri, would take around 76,000 years. A trip to Mars, around the corner by comparison, would take eight months - but humans still haven't been there either. Yet. With new players, plus increased collaboration between public and private companies, we can expect to see broader interests shaping the Space Age of the future. To paraphrase the 20th-century American astronomer Carl Sagan: "We have waded only a little way out into the cosmic ocean, but the water seems inviting." Although ... More

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