Orient Expression

24 October, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 5:13 pm
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

休み休み- resting at times; thinking carefully

It has been, I confess, far too long. Three weeks, almost to the day, since I arrived in Cambridge, and I have yet to update my blog with the very content for which it was created.

Suffice it to say that it was not due to lack of anything to say, but rather a lack of time in which to say it. When asked during conversation classes what we do in our “Free Time” most of the class laughed bitterly. Weekends, we have come to realise, are much like weekdays but without lectures – unless one elects to attend a seminar “for fun”. Only by failing to attend several such lectures today was I able to finish my homework ahead of time and bash out a few lines for your enlightenment, after which I will be hitting the books again.

Is this not what you expected, Mr McArthur? Were you anticipating an easy ride?

In answer to both questions: no, not exactly. Some of you may recall prior to my departure that I was – ahahaha! – slightly worried that my previous study would render the first few weeks somewhat less challenging than I would need in order to get myself up to proper studying speed, and that I might not be sufficiently motivated or terrified when the real work started to hit sometime around November.

Oh, the hubris born of blissful ignorance. Pyrotyger, you arrogant twit, you were so wrong. Not only are there several in my class of 16 younglings who have either spent quite some time in Japan or studied the language extensively in the past (placing me somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of ability), but we also found to our horror that everything we had learned up until now was horrible horrible lies, and we would need to work hard just to get the basics pinned down again. What a nasty shock that was, deliberately engineered though it may have been.

Still, at least my aforementioned fears were groundless…

The course is fast-paced, and seems to accelerate relentlessly. In the manner of secondary schools everywhere, lectures start daily at 9am, and homework is set each day to be handed in the next morning. This is actually a very good system when teaching a language, as frequent usage and the pushing back of boundaries are surely the most effective staples when learning any language. Just ask any two-year-old. You have to be strong enough to take the knocks though: there are few things as disheartening as discovering, every single day, that the arcane knowledge and understanding you had fought so hard to master yesterday turns out to be nothing but simple bedrock upon which today’s horrifying tower of Babel is to be built. And the next day, and the next… It puts me in mind of the scientist’s creed: the only way to learn anything new is to decide that everything you’ve learned so far is wrong.

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

In addition to this, there are seminars, supervisions and regular lectures on the history of S E Asia which, though interesting in themselves, do cause problems when the relevant lecturers decide to throw an additional assignment or essay in our paths. Rather like the coins traditionally baked into a proper Christmas Pudding, they are no doubt valuable and useful in themselves, but will choke you to death if you’re too busy chomping away to think ahead and pick them out. Lest we think we might be actually getting on top of things, of course.

Freshers’ ‘Flu’ has been doing the rounds but, short of a couple of irritating colds, I’ve managed to avoid the worst of it. Mind you, poverty and experience mean that I’m not out drinking every other night with the other freshers, so I’m less likely to find myself “in bed with ‘flu'” the next morning (just kidding guys!)

Regarding student life, then: there is plenty to tell you, many goings-on and exciting activities, but this perhaps isn’t the time. Stress and my ineptitude with long-distance relationships have taken their toll, and there have been a few hairy moments with my girlfriend. Hopefully though, we seem to be keeping our heads above water so far. If I can make it through the first month without dropping everything catastrophically, there’s no reason I can’t tackle the second.

I’ll keep chewing through the work for now, but Christmas Pudding is about more than silver coins and brandy custard. When I start to feel I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, it’ll be important to remember that.

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3 October, 2009

Present Tense

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 8:51 am

My god, isn’t it quiet?

There are worse views...

There are worse views...

In spite of being a St Edmund’s College student, I’m billetted at Westminster College. As I arrived yesterday I was informed that most of the students here – mainly preachers on sabbatical – go home for the weekend. This made my first night here quiet and lonely, but at least I got all the hot water I could wish for this morning.

My big brother, the dysfunctor, and his wonderfully Japanese fiancee Chisako, were kind enough to turn up with a pre-made meal last night; an auspiciously authentic Japanese meal of seasoned rice and sour seaweed salad. Chisa reassured me with the same advice as my girlfriend: though my verbal fluency in Japanese is currently somewhere around zero, she is confident that problem will resolve itself within a month of actually being in Japan. Still, it would be nice to be able to talk to her with some facility in her own language, having studied it sporadically for the last two years or so…

Okay, time to bite the bullet. This little town has intimidated me for too long. I’m going to head out there and make it a bit smaller.

28 September, 2009

Kokorogumi – anticipation

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 7:53 pm

The word 心組み kokorogumi means anticipation or preparation. The individual kanji mean “heart/mind” and “assemble/grapple”. As a word, I think it’s a beautiful example of why I find the language so beguiling. As a compound of concepts I think the word is a very apt post-title as I enter my final week before starting at Uni.

And no, I’m not entirely prepared. I have pretty much everything I need, save a few items of stationery that I can find anywhere, but at my (rather excellent) leaving-do on Friday I realised that I wasn’t at all mentally prepared, even though Uni and Japanese are pretty much all I’ve thought of for weeks. I had an idea of what to expect in some sense, and that was the foundation of my emotional preparation. The plan changed recently when I was told that I would not be accommodated in St Edmund’s College as I had previously thought, but at Westminster College, a United Reformed place just down the road.

Though it’s a minor change, it does present a slew of minor inconveniences that I hadn’t anticipated. Having supervisions, the college library, the Combination Room/Bar, the gym and everything else move from right outside my door to 5 minutes up the hill has thrown my mental picture a bit, so I’ve lost that target and am left feeling more anxious than anticipatory.

Given my “previous life” of Christianity in some form or other makes me a little wary of the social challenges that will face me every day in the communal kitchen, probably in the guise of a kindly proferred cup of herbal tea, although I’ve been assured by the poor beleaguered lass dealing with the room-contracts foul-up (don’t ask) that I’m unlikely to have anything more unpalatable than a Lapsang Souchong infusion shoved down my throat. Still, I’m entertaining a friend’s suggestion of painting a goat’s-blood cross on my bedroom door, just in case…

More practical concerns are dominating my time now; namely the Japanese course’s preparatory reading list, and some attempts at regaining my fitness at the gym. More on the latter in a moment.

Right now, I’m fighting my way through the history of Japan, from all-but-undocumented prehistory to the modern day. I say fighting not because Japan’s history isn’t interesting – it really is! – but because the style of the relevant books is so desiccated and academic. I realise more and more that I will not only have to get used to reading this stuff constantly, but I’m probably expected to write this way too. No comments from the back there – I’m not that bad.

I can appreciate the need for such work to be so formal and avoid expressions of opinion or biase wherever possible, but I wonder if there’s a way to liven it up somehow. The illustrations in Mit”Premodern Japan – A Historical Survey” could certainly use some work – a full-page black & white photo of a Joomon urn in the opening chapter managed to set the tone for the whole book, it seems. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well-written, and the facts themselves are really fascinating – I get to the end of a chapter and reflectively think “Wow, there was some really interesting stuff in that.” Then I look down the barrel of the next chapter and want to vomit. I guess that’ll be a part of life for the next four years.

Anyway, there’s still plenty of reading left to do, and fitting that around fond farewells and last-minute organisational stuff (anyone want to buy a car?) is difficult, but I’m glad to say that my interest hasn’t waned. I’m still doing the right thing.

Back to the fitness, and I keep wavering between thinking I’m going to captain the Cambridge boat team and thinking I’ll be laughed out of the college team’s training programme. My times are pretty good, but I’m competing with folks ten years my junior, and it’s only going to get harder. I’m convinced that if I stick to the training and do as I’m asked, I’ve a good chance of getting into the college boat club – there can’t be that many people passionate about rowing, surely – but it’s going to take serious commitment. I’ll just have to see what being a good rower means to them, and do my best.

And, to that end, I was invited to attend the Concept 2 Grimsby Indoor Rowing Championship on Sunday. I was invited by a nice chap who keeps trying to get me to come when he sees my challenge times at the gym, but I’ve not managed to turn up before. It’s the first time I’ve actually competed in anything, so I was incredibly anxious and totally unprepared. People come from all over the region to compete (next one’s Newark – sorry guys, but I’ll be busy studying!) and there were some phenomenal displays of athletic determination there. Frankly I was embarrassed to even compete, but fortunately I had trouble finding the venue so I didn’t arrive until 5 minutes prior to my race and so I didn’t have time to think about it too much…

Go me!

Anyway, I didn’t exactly embarrass myself in the Open Mens 1 Mile event, and I gave them a show. Seeing my position on the big graphic display was enough to kick me into overdrive far too early (clearly a novice) so I dominated for the first half, and then started seeing stars and thinking I was about to reenact the John Hurt scene from Alien. I had to slack off and got my arse handed to me, finishing in fourth, or third for my category (thank god one of them was technically a Light Weight). It was still my best ever time for the mile, so I think to some extent I earned this bronze beauty.

If I were superstitious, I’d call it a good omen. I’ll just go ahead and say it’s good motivation though. Go me!

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16 June, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 1:32 pm
Tags: ,
Who's The Dick Writing Comments On My Blog
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

Utsuru (v): 1. to move (house); to relocate. 2. to be mirrored; to harmonise.

I have a Blogger-based blog. My brother has a WordPress-blog.
In helping a friend to set up a blog (to share her experiences of dealing with scoliosis and the difficult corrective surgery), I’ve been having a look at the two providers, and trying make a qualitative comparison so I can recommend the best for her.

So, this is just a test-post to see how WordPress works, how easy it is, how intuitive, how buggy… It seems to be working really well so far and, treacherous though it makes me feel, I realise I’ve been quite frustrated by some of the buggy traits of the post-editor in Blogger which don’t seem to be evident in WordPress.

If I’m impressed, I’ll be giving serious thought to the possibility of relocating. In the mean time, I’ll just be running this in parallel. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Inappropriate-yet-amusing picture provided by the magic Zemanta, as always.

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2 February, 2009

Ups and downs

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 11:33 am

If life is a roller-coaster, mine has been one of those really scary ones that rattles with worrying harmonics every time you crest a peak, subjects you to enormous g-forces at every bend, goes so fast that you can’t anticipate the next twist, and generally leaves you clinging onto the harness for dear life despite the fact that it’s pressing uncomfortably into your bladder.

I guess it was worth waiting in the queue for the last few years though!

I should probably start where I left off: my best friend’s wedding. Ben is a very likeable chap, with a disarmingly harmless air and a likeable cheekiness that makes him very easy to be around. His wife (as of December), Holly, is a bright, outgoing lass with a tendency to cope with stress by getting aggressive, which makes their relationship both energetic and amusing, from a distance…
The day went absolutely perfectly. Nothing really went wrong, everybody got on well, good times had by all, and both bride and groom really looked the part. It was a struggle to get Ben through The Night Before without getting too drunk (there were some agents of chaos out that night, working towards such a messy end), but he spruced up rather well the next morning, and managed not to fluff any of his lines.
I have to say, I was pleased at the low-key nature of the event. Not cheap or tacky, but relaxed and down-to-earth enough for everyone to just enjoy themselves, without the headache of everything being just so. A testament to Holly’s practical and unassuming nature, I think.

The speech went down a storm, having been impressively preceded by Holly’s dad. I was repeatedly approached and congratulated on my delivery, which of course gave me a great big glow but also left me feeling a little uncomfortable – it wasn’t “my day”, after all!

Still, the couple were very pleased, and that’s what counts. They recently presented me with a fantastically thoughtful thank-you gift of a fancy Parker pen, and a fetching sake serving-set (a tokkuri and four choko). Who knew being Best Man would be such a blast?

They had a fantastic honeymoon (well, honey-week) on a riverboat cruising the Nile, and they’re still together a month later. I guess that’s a good start…

This all served as a good distraction, helping me not to fret over my Cambridge application so much. So… What happened about Cambridge??

If the gifts from Ben & Hol haven’t given it away, stay tuned for the next instalment!

20 November, 2008

Fear the mighty Organ!!

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 3:48 pm
Tags: , ,

Freedom: what a terribly misleading word.

Please excuse the formatting – something went a little haywire. I’ll fix the post later.

It’s a trite but understandable observation that “Freedom to starve is no freedom at all”. When we’re free to do absolutely anything, can we be trusted to act rationally and compassionately, or do we just degenerate – as a society – into a rampant conglomerate of consuming, self-serving organisms, like a particularly aggressive sea-sponge; an irresponsible, unfettered geophage?

Hard to say. As with most sweeping observations, the answer is probably “a little from Column A, a little from Column B.” The more astute question – one posed by environmentally-conscious and socio-politically aware armchair philosophers everywhere – is “Individual acts of altruism aside, what is the general trend of our society, or of our race?”

Iain M. Banks’ supposition in his Culture series of sci-fi/space-opera novels is that, given effectively limitless resources, the cumulative impact of personal choices made by people with absolute freedom becomes inconsequential. People are still inclined to present a seemingly contradictory combination of self-indulgence and philanthropy, with variable leanings one way or the other throughout society, but it really doesn’t matter – personal choice has no societal impact.

This is a technological Utopia: when resources and possibilities are effectively limitless, there is no need for society to impose restrictions upon its members, and people find their personal unfettered equilibrium.

Banks’ implied comment, however, is that we are indeed that rampant viral consumer, and only by expanding the “world” faster than we can eat it (through technology) will we remain free of the pressures and conflicts that usually cause war, economic difficulty (or indeed “economy” at all, in the usual sense of the word) and competitive savagery. It’s a stark but not unrealistic perspective on the human race, and one that permeates the collective consciousness.

Hey, the “human virus” concept even got a mention in The Matrix. That’s, like… whoah.

(Anyone else find that Keanu’s acting revolves entirely around expressions of varying degrees of bewilderment?)

So, it’s a fairly well established posit that mankind cannot, in general, be trusted to look after its own best interests on a global scale when individuals act individually. Some form of governance is necessary – indeed, government is an inevitable product of society more than it is a navigator – and that leads to a whole big bag of socio-political philosophy and argumentation. I don’t intend to go into any of that in depth here. What I would like to mention – because it’s on my mind – is… The Media!

To set the tone: isn’t it curious that the first page of hits from The Quotations Page when entering the keyword “freedom” includes these three results? How readily – and how cynically – we associate freedom with the press.

The relationship between government, national media and the popular opinion of society is complex and fascinating field, and the clearest insights can be gained by comparing the nature of these relationships in different regions and nations.

Moreover, if it’s true that you never really know someone until you see them under stress, perhaps these relationships are most clearly emphasised during times of war. Comparing the propaganda-machines of Japan and the US in WWII with the highly critical attitude of the UK press towards our involvement in the recent Iraq conflict, and the respective governments’ popularity with the common man during those times, gives you a pretty good idea of what I’m getting at. Does the behaviour of the media during such unsavoury times reflect the attitude of the people, or dictate it? Is the government afraid of the media, or in bed with it? And who will tell you if it’s the latter? Who can you trust??

The national press generally takes two forms of governance, as far as I can tell: privately owned, and state-governed. (The mighty BBC seems to occupy some sort of middle-ground where it is privately funded and independently run, but according to state mandate. That’s a discussion for another time)

There is an appreciable correlation between ownership of the national media and the form of government, and this is no surprise.

Democratic nations have a much stronger (almost exclusive) privately-owned presence in the media, while Dictatorial government is typified by a state-controlled press. This may have more to do with the economic characteristics often associated with these opposing poles of leadership than the leadership styles themselves, but the correlation is still visible.

The symptoms of different forms of media-ownership are painted in different shades according to the political leanings of the speaker.

Laissez-faire proponents, evolutionary biologists, chaos theoreticians and anyone else with an obsessive fascination with the perfect beauty of emergent order will generally marvel at the way a privately-owned press represents the will and informs the interest of the society from which it arose. This commonly reflects a socio-political belief that iconic institutions such as the media, the church and the guv’mint are organs of society, defined by and answerable to the people. As such, any interference with the press is to be discouraged as it would disrupt the correct and natural functions of the organ. (If I wanted to be unkind, I would point out that the ultimate emergent order is the final heat-death of the universe, but that’s a bit facetious even for me)

Those who espouse a more purposeful, directed political system might be inclined to suggest that the very purpose of entrusting the state with power is so that those best-equipped and best-informed regarding the nation’s current predicament have the power and control to steer a clear and safe course. If that means giving the media a little shove here and there, to prevent sensationalist panic or to promote beneficial practice and morale, then so be it. (To those idealists, I might suggest that the reason that extreme Communism and Fascism seemed to result in such similar unpleasant outcomes, at least in Europe, was due to the extent of power granted to the state and nothing to do with the nature of government itself… but again, I’m not trying to argue one way or another just yet)

You may have noticed my occasional reference to news agencies as “organs”. This was once a fairly common and accepted term for such things as printed publications, but is now sadly only used for cheap laughs by the ever-witty Private Eye. It’s been some time since I read a copy, but I’ve no doubt they will have gladly jumped all over the recent excitement over John Sergeant’s recent withdrawal from some bloody Reality TV show.

And this is what got me thinking about our media, and its relationship with the people – or more specifically, with the proletariat. And when I say “thinking”, I mean “fulminating”.

Here is a man whose impressive and dedicated contributions to hard-nosed journalism – serious coverage in the face of mortal peril of serious issues that affect everybody, such as his coverage of conflict in Israel, or when trying to confront Maggie Thatcher – has passed almost without comment as he moved on from front-line reportage to political commentary to editorial control. A man who by rights should be remembered for his commitment to and grasp of serious high-level political affairs in his attempt to keep the public informed. And as soon as he pulls out of a light-entertainment show precisely because he was worried that popular opinion and entertainment-value were going to cause seriously committed and talented people to fall away unnoticed, he gets an hour long special dedicated to his brief dancing career.

I was once asked to define irony in two words, and seldom has my response felt more apt: poetic injustice.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single serious attempt – even by the beloved Beeb – to make clear to the less-educated members of its audience just what the hell is going on with this “economic downturn”. No more coverage has been given to the economy over the last couple of months than it ever received during the last decade of easy-going stability. Portentous buzz-words get thrown around on red-top tabloids (usually in the cont. p32 section) without any serious attempt to educate or clarify, and the Joe Public is left with a vague sense of disquiet and a fear of Negative Equity.

They may as well just print “FNORD” as the headline and have done with it.

My point is this: we are idiots. The average “me” may have a pretty good idea of what’s best for him, as long as it doesn’t get complicated, but he doesn’t have the first clue what’s best for everyone else. At the age of about 25 we all start pottering about the house having arguments in our heads with people we’re never going to meet, constructing vague right-wing social policies, but at the end of the day the whole point of government, media, churches and every other “organ” (snigger) emergent from society is to give people who might have a better idea of what’s best for everyone enough power to make a difference.

Hopefully we’ve learned not to trust such people implicitly, but somebody’s got to do it.

What’s perfectly clear from the relative press-coverage of Strictly Come Prancing and the Economic Crisis is that we, as a body of individuals, don’t know our arses from our elbows and could probably do with the occasional prod in the right direction. But then, that also means that we can’t be trusted to elect the right person either.

Churchill expressed the problem beautifully with two of his most famous – almost contradictory – quotes, each bitterly true:

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.

Too true, Winston, too true. I guess all you can do is vote with your feet, and try to read a newspaper that you trust.

14 October, 2008

With Friends Like These

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 9:38 am

Who needs iniquities?

I jest – my friends are wonderful. I can tell them anything – any moral dilemma or sticky situation – and they’ll be overwhelmingly understanding and accepting and will never judge. This doesn’t seem to tally with Toby Young‘s philosophy (Paul Carr’s relevant excerpt here) as I try to do the right thing at all times, yet my friends are strangely loyal. That probably says more about them than about me though.

However, fiercely supportive though they are, they do have a tendency to point me in the wrong direction…

There can be no “dilemma” more clear-cut or harder to resolve than the classic “I want to do something, but I know it’s wrong”. The difficulty is not in identifying what should I do, but the more ephemeral what SHALL I do? Those without a conscience can happily decry “There is no Right or Wrong: there’s just Fun and Boring.” (To finish the quote: “A thirty year prison sentence sounds pretty dull to me.“)

So when I turn to my friends and paint a picture of anguish, saying “I know I can’t really do it, but…” they do have a tendency to laugh and tell me to go for it. One friend even categorically listed all the reasons it’s a good idea, freely admitting that as far as she’s concerned the “moral high-ground” is the name for the bit of gutter she’s just left behind on her gentle descent.

Still, maybe I like people like that because they never take me seriously. I do enough of that for 10 people at least, so having friends I can turn to who won’t mirror my conscience can do wonders for my sense of perspective. I wouldn’t rely on an alley-cat for sage advice, but you couldn’t find a better creature to needle you out of your self-obsessed introspection!

So maybe I can look to my friends as a moral compass.

Just one that points South.
All the time.

And thank heavens for that.

Try to live a good and honourable life. That way, when you are old, you will be able to enjoy reliving your memories.
– The Dalai Lama

3 October, 2008

It’s PC gone mad

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 10:10 am

First an apology, of sorts, for being so quiet since… well, since months ago. I haven’t been too busy to post, nor had I retreated into my man-cave and shut myself off from the world.

I didn’t post for so long because there seemed to be so much I wanted to tell the world, yet I didn’t know exactly what to say. Life has been busy, in all sorts of good and bad ways, but I’ve always been determined that this blog should never descend into the LiveJournal trap of “What I Did Today And Who I Saw When I Was Doing It And Why He/She Is A Total Luser”. Unless I have some clear thought or issue I want to express to the world, I don’t want to inflict my opinions on the hoi polloi. God knows, I don’t need the typing practice.

However, silence is death in the Blagosphere, so here’s a brief summary of some of my key events of the last couple of months or so:

  • Spent a looong weekend doing Volunteer Steward work at The Big Chill festival with my brother & sister. This was an intense, exhausting, exhilerating, magical experience, and something I shall always remember fondly. I met a lot of lovely people, very few of the other sort, saw some unforgettable performances, did some memoir-worthy shit, and generally felt more alive than I have for months.
    Special mention to my brother, who has struggled with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for a very long time, yet put us all to shame with his enthusiasm and sociable toil throughout our shifts. My heart nearly overflows when I think about it now.
  • Finally got my house fixed up, with a lot of help from my sister and her man, and it’s going on the market now. I think I love and appreciate my siblings as an adult more than I ever did as a child.
  • I’ve started running, because I’m rubbish at it and don’t want to be. It’s actually kind of fun, once you can find a decent pair of trainers that fit, and a decent running partner when you can.
  • I’ve stepped up a gear in my Japanese studies lately, and the more I learn, the more I fall in love with the language. It’s like a fire or a rampant disease, and I don’t care.
  • As a result, I’ve decided to apply to study it at Uni next year. Cambridge. Wish me luck…
  • My PC died, horribly, catastrophically, in the worst way possible. Tech-geek warning:
    Everything was running off a 500GB RAID0 (striped) array. I was in the process of backing all my data up to a single drive, when it all went titsup. One of the two drives failed to initialise, and the backup failed, so I’ve lost the lot.
    Ultimately, I’ve lost every photo, drawing, document, song and email I’ve ever received or created in the last 10 years, plus a novel I was working on sporadically. I was devastated, but as the data is essentially intact (just not coherent) it can be recovered by a data-lab. It’s just going to cost me several hundred pounds…
    So, I’ve decided to mothball it for now and reinstall my OS on a new drive – the data is there, and I’ll get it back one day.

So that’s why I’ve been offline for some weeks. This is a courtesy-post to apologise to the world (that little corner of it that knows and cares) and tell you that I’m still here, still thinking, still thinking of you.

I’ve just not been desperate to get back online. It’s amazing how much more I’m getting done now I don’t spend so much time at my PC (and in retrospect, I’m surprised at how much time that was), and how much more I want to do. The interwebs had filled the void left in my life by the TV, when I made that Big Decision all those years ago, and I realise now that I don’t want that void at all.

My “passive entertainment” organ can shrivel up and die now; I just don’t care. I’ll be back one day, but by then I hope my appetite for this world, this place-that-isn’t-a-place, will have atrophied.

I do still miss it though.

17 July, 2008

Wait reduction

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 3:11 pm
Tags: ,

Vanity, vanity – it’ll be the death of us all.

My increased Mr Motivator activity at the gym – combined with an improved diet – has given me significant benefits of strength, fitness, stamina and (to some extent) muscle bulk. These are all good, healthy things and not to be sniffed at.

However, as with all good things, one always wants more. I can flex the old cannons in a convincingly rippling manner these days (although that’s something I’d be loath to do in public) but now I’m starting to wonder if I can tone up properly. I’ve just about halted the “going-to-seed” process that most men seem to undergo after the age of 25, but why not reverse it? Why don’t I bash that keg back into a six-pack, for example? There must be one under there somewhere… unless that’s just indigestion.

I know these things happen over time, with consistent effort. There’s no quick-fix, no magic, and wishing with all your heart just makes you look constipated. Anyone with half a brain will tell you the two obvious facts:

  1. You can’t do it overnight.
  2. It has to be a permanent change in lifestyle – if you revert to your old ways, so will your body.

That being said, the harder you work at improving your diet and increasing your exercise, the faster and more significant the change will be. That’s just common sense. And I don’t want to hang around forever waiting for my body to get the idea…

With that in mind, I’ve been complementing my gym-fix with a marked improvement in diet. No junk food, less fat, more protein, more fresh fruit & veg, and an overall reduction in calorie-intake.
And yet, my weight has done something very bizarre. Having lost about a stone over a couple of months through increased gym activity, when I sorted out my diet as well, I started to gain weight.

I gained a stone and a half in 6 weeks.

There’s little doubt in my mind that this is mainly my muscles bulking-up. The resultant increase in metabolism should make the fat-loss easier too, but it’s not happening at any significant rate. I’ve maybe lost half an inch on my waist-size since the diet-change, but the fat isn’t shifting.
To put it bluntly, I’m getting more compact, but my shape isn’t changing how it should.

So I decided to take a more scientific approach. I figured I should research the issue of calories in order to get to the bottom of this. Here are some important facts worth knowing about burning calories:

3500 (kilo)calories is equivalent to just under 1lb of fat.

The common rule-of-thumb often inferred from this is that reducing your daily intake by about 500 calories will cause you to lose 1lb per week. Massively simplistic though this is, it’s useful to know if you have a regular diet, and helps to draw some kind of measurable relationship between diet, exercise and weight.

Your body will burn muscle before it burns fat.

I still have no idea why this is, and it sucks. Still, it’s a fact, and one that men need to know when, as Kevin Spacey said, “we want to look good naked”. In my experience, most women don’t care how toned they are as long as they have the right figure. For a guy though, even if he’s as strong as an ox, that beer-belly can always sway the house when passing the Laws of Attraction.
It’s important, then, that you help your body to burn fat rather than muscle by doing the right exercises, and to rebuild any muscle it does burn by eating more protein, especially before and after heavy exercise.

Running sucks.

Running burns calories, not fat, and it is particularly effective at burning muscle. It’ll get you as fit as hell and skinny as a whippet, if that’s your aim, but don’t expect it to be any kind of short-cut to trimness. It’s like asking to have your trousers taken in by 2 inches, and returning the next day to discover that they’ve been let out by 2, died purple and had sequins sewn on the pockets. Unless that’s what you wanted, it’s done more harm than good – and you’ll have paid for it.
Saying that…

It’s really,
really important to do cardio-vascular exercise.

Apart from decreasing the risk of heart-disease etc, increasing your overall fitness and improving your energy levels – all of which are worthy results in themselves – it will boost your metabolism. Doing 30 mins of 2-min interval training (high-power, rest, high-power, rest…) will do much more for your fitness than 30 steady-minutes of running, and will elevate your metabolism for something like 34 hours. This means you’ll burn more calories even when at rest or sleeping than you would otherwise.
To that end, it never hurts to do a decent stretch on the rower or cross-trainer (Nordic skiing) every other day, as these are great for intervals, and use several major muscle-groups which makes them most effective for boosting metabolism.

There are loads and loads of important scientific facts about this sort of thing – hell, it is a science – but those are just a few facts that I thought would have been useful for me to learn right at the start rather than garnering them by browsing reams of anecdotal dross.

Which brings me to the subject of anecdotes and experts, and one point in particular:
Don’t believe everything you read, even if it looks reputable. There is more to wisdom than having letters after your name.

Ah-ha, I hear you muse, I believe there’s a story behind this…

And you’d be right. I’ve been idly occasionally tallying my calorie-intake to see if it’s generally high or low, and today I had cause to google for calories in a banana. I’m sure you can imagine why (it’s a little over 100, since you were wondering).
Now there are a lot of resources out there, most of them aimed at specific food groups or retailers, or subscription-only, or limited in range. It’s a bit like panning for gold – but then, when dealing with the interwebs, what isn’t?

And so I came upon this article. And I nearly wept. Written for thebodymindandsoul.com by Imogen Caterer BSc(Hons), Dip ION, BANT, Nutrition Consultant no less! This little gem of gallingly ill-considered misinformation would have any sane pedant foaming at the mouth, and give any decent Nutritionist an ironic ulcer.

This bint makes the rather bold claim that calorie-counting doesn’t make sense, and the central argument that has given her cause to doubt the basic scientific equilibrium-equation of energy input and output is this:

“Eat one less banana a day and you’ll disappear”
Take calorie counting to its logical conclusion, and that’s what you have to say. Here’s the “logic”. A banana is approximately 100 calories, so if you eat one less banana a day you’ll eat 36,500 less calories per year. One pound of body fat is about 4,000 calories. You’ll lose 9lb. In five years that’ll be 45lb and you’ll vanish completely in 15 years – all by eating one less banana a day. There you go. The claims of low calorie diets don’t make sense.

What?? WHAT??? *slap* I can understand someone making that argument – it has a certain 10-year-old-armchair-philosopher logic, much like “if we banned people from making guns, it would stop war”.
I can even understand someone being so smug about their little Eureka moment that they’d have a philanthropic urge to publish it online, for the benefit of all mankind. I’d still be annoyed by it, but I could understand it.
But you, Ms Caterer (ohhh, and I bet your name is just a hoot around the office – a Nutrition Consultant called Caterer! How ripe!); you with your Bachelor’s in something presumably nutrition-related *slap*; you with your many qualifications and impressive accreditations *slap*; you with your venerable office of Nutrition Consultant for NQ Nutrition *slap*; you who were given the heady responsibility of penning an article for the enlightenment and edification of neurotic diet-obsessed women everywhere, who sponge this crap up like a white shirt sucks at Bolegnese sauce *slap*!

I must ask you: How could you climb so high, while being so utterly bloody incompetent???

You have taken a clear anecdotal premise: the fact is that eating the equivalent of one less banana a day will not, as you rightly point out, cause you to disappear in a matter of years. It can never have such a significant impact.
Where have gone so vary badly, dangerously wrong is completely misunderstanding why this is not the case. You seem to be labouring under the illusion that the energy balance between intake and expenditure is fixed and immutable.

Imogen, let me – as a rank amateur in the field – present an alternative explanation for the banana conundrum.

Base Metabolic Rate

Here’s a curious thing: pretty much every website you can find that gives information on daily caloric requirements for maintaining body-weight uses some variation on the Harris Benedict equation (or sometimes its more recent equivalent) to calculate your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR), and then apply some multiplier based on your daily activity level. The key components of this equation are:

  • Sex (tee hee)
  • Age
  • Height
  • Activity Level

Let me stress that for you again, Imogen: Weight is a key factor in determining your daily caloric-intake requirements. In other words, you chumbly prat, as you lose weight (or more specifically, as you lose lean-mass) your body needs fewer calories!!

So, eat one less banana a day, and what happens? Your body will indeed lose weight – but only to the point where your body needs 100 fewer calories per day! That’s the nature of metabolic equilibrium. All other things being equal (metabolic rate, activity level etc), that sustained reduction in intake can be the equivalent of 10lb weight-loss, although it’s obviously a lot more complicated than that.

Imogen Caterer, you’re a god-damned charlatan, or at best an idiot.

I fully understand that I’m making a lot of broad-brush statements and simple assumptions, but the principles are sound. If you’re interested in the Harris-Benedict equation, the cleanest resource I’ve been able to find online includes a very honest critique of the equation, and some useful reference-graphs to give you an idea of how the whole equilibrium thing works.

In summary then – and this is for your benefit, Ms Caterer BSc (Hons) – there are 5 key factors that affect weight loss, which are interconnected:

  • Calorie intake
  • Nutrition (what sort of calories)
  • Calorie expenditure (activity level)
  • Metabolism
  • Current weight

If you didn’t learn this by lesson 3 of Nutrition 101, I don’t know what makes you think you’re qualified to advise others on their diet.

Practical change

So, if you’ll excuse me for stating the obvious, a sensible way to address all those points is to:

  • eat a little less
  • eat more healthily (high protein and fibre-rich carbohydrate)
  • do some form of moderately intense exercise REGULARLY to boost your metabolism and increase your calorie expenditure
  • make sure that it’s a diet and a regime you can commit to. If you can’t imagine still doing it in a year, you need to rethink.

I’m preaching here, I know – I’ve only just started down the road myself – but as with most things I find it helps to clarify and strengthen my own ideas if I express them. That’s why I’ve also cobbled together a rather nifty spreadsheet that takes your sex, age, height, starting weight, activity level and a start-date, and produces a calendar into which you enter what you’ve eaten each day and what exercise you’ve done, and your current weight if you’ve weighed yourself.
It then uses the Harris-Benedict formula to tell you what your calorie-balance is for the day, and produces a couple of graphs.
Not perfectly scientific, but I’m hoping it’ll be a very useful tool for spotting trends and patterns in your lifestyle. I’ll consider posting it in this blog if I’m happy with the results.


I’ve spoken to a number of health-professionals – some friends and some in a professional capacity – about my weight. When I first started out, I was interested in the issue of Body Mass Index (BMI) as this is an oft-mentioned measure of healthy weight, and I figured it would be a good idea to ensure I was within the healthy range.

The consensus was surprisingly unanimous, but here are some paraphrased remarks on BMI and general weight-loss from a particularly close friend, who is a Senior Physiotherapist:

  1. BMI is a pile of w*nk. No professional pays it any mind as it takes no account of build or body-type, and you can tell more about someone’s relative weight-health from one quick glance than you can from their BMI. Even a moderately muscular man with little excess fat will have an “overweight” Index
  2. It takes 1-3 months before any exercise regime has an effect on body-shape. You’ll notice effects on fitness and energy levels long before you have to take your trousers in.
  3. Weighing yourself every day or so does not provide an accurate picture. Water contact, time of day and all sorts of other things can have a dramatic impact, and it can be very demotivating. Once a week is more than frequent enough.
  4. Skinny and super-fit people are often not healthy. Be damned sure of what you want to achieve – and why – before undertaking any regime, or you’ll end up pursuing pointless or even damaging goals. Health should always be top of the list, as nobody wants to sleep with an attractive corpse (well, you know what I mean).
  5. Perseverance is the key. If it’s not a committed lifestyle change, your change in body-shape will be just as temporary. It takes a long-haul effort to achieve long-term effects.

As a final point, feel free to have a look at the UN FAO’s (Food & Agriculture Organisation) general reports on each nation provide some interesting figures on diet and nutrition. As at 2004, it seems that the average caloric intake of a UK resident (PDF warning) is something around 3500 calories. Meaning on average we each consume the energy-equivalent of a pound of fat every day. This is the maintenance-requirement of a highly active 16-stone man.

Is it any wonder we’re getting fatter…?

12 July, 2008

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 5:16 pm
Tags: ,

“Free wine, you say?!”

Wait, let me go back a bit…

I row. Nothing fancy, just regular sessions on the rowing-machines at the gym.
I feel I can say, with some confidence, that I’m pretty good. Not world-class by any stretch, but I’ve got a good reputation at my gym. I think it appeals to me because:

  1. I have a passion for most things nautical
  2. It’s a great cardio-vascular exercise that doesn’t require much from your feet (mine are flat)
  3. More than most cardio-exercises, it demands fitness, strength and a sheer bloody-minded determination to push harder in spite of the pain.

The machines are Concept 2 indoor rowers, and the company has all sorts of incentive schemes set up. There’s a new “challenge” issued every month – set time, distance, whatever – and people from gyms all over the country log their best attempts each month online on the Challenge Leaderboard.
I’m on there as Little Phill2 (not my choosing) on the Banana Boat 1, and now usually rank somewhere between 50th and 100th nationally, 1st or 2nd locally. I’m pretty pleased with this, even if Little Chris does regularly kick my arse in spite of being a light-weight…

Anyway, couple of weeks back I went into the gym one Sunday to discover that a rower had been set up on the raised platform. One of the gym instructors immediately bounded over to me with a clip-board:

Mo: You’re into your rowing, aren’t you?
Me: (enthusiastic as ever) Yep.
Mo: How do you fancy doing a slot on the rowing-marathon for St. Andrew’s Hospice? Can I put you down for 20 minutes? Someone hasn’t showed…

So, I did my bit. 20 minutes on the rower. I don’t try to be competitive, but seeing that clipboard with everyone’s distances on it… well, I just had to go for it.

Several Blue Man Group tracks got me through it at a decent pace, and I poured out of the seat and tried not to throw up. It’s lucky I hadn’t played Audioslave instead, or I may have ruptured my aorta. As it was, I managed something over 5km; I couldn’t see straight so I didn’t see the exact figure.

Cut to this morning, having my first crack at the latest challenge: 8x500m sprints, with 3m rests in between. This is interval-training at its cruellest, and a quick route to a heart-attack if you don’t take it steady (which of course I didn’t).

Chris, the gym manager, spots me and walks over. I haven’t seen him in several months, ever since the poor bastard got promoted out of the gym and into the office. I’m halfway through my fourth break, which means my hands have just had time to uncurl from the claws they inevitably form, and my heart-rate has just dropped to the point where I can hear through the pounding. He sits on the rower next to me and says:
“Thanks for doing the rowing marathon – you got a great distance. So now I have to ask: Red or White?”

He’s getting me a bottle of wine for getting the best distance of the day! Hurrah! Red, naturally.

I knew this fitness-lark would pay off somehow. Still, I’ve only got a couple of weeks to finally get rid of my dwindling spare-tyre before the Big Chill Festival. About which, more later…

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