Orient Expression

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.


16 October, 2008

I fear I to be unable such a thing do, Dave.

Filed under: language — pyrotyger @ 1:19 pm
Tags: ,

Learning a language is like digging a moat for your sandcastle, as the tide inexorably rises. Or maybe like gardening. It isn’t enough to say “There, I’ve done that bit – now I can move on” – you must constantly revisit and renew your earlier endeavours, or they will be washed away, overgrown, lost like tears in the rain…

I have a pretty good facility for languages, I think. I don’t know why – a memory for detail and vocabulary, decent ability to pick up accents, or simply enough interest to make it stick – but whatever the reason, it’s something I struggle with less than most. Some years ago, during a very brief and somewhat abortive relationship with a lovely South African girl, I couldn’t help trying to pick up a bit of Afrikaans as a courtesy.
The accent wasn’t difficult – light on the tip of the tongue, heavy on the pharynx – and the grammar was the simplest I’d ever encountered (except perhaps Chinese), so it was good fun to throw new phrases I’d learned into conversation, and have the occasional slow, stuttering conversation in her native tongue.

As you can imagine, the opportunities to reprise my conversational Afrikaans have been somewhat scarce since then. I didn’t realise just how much of it I’d lost until someone offered to make me a cuppa tea. “Please”, I wanted to respond, and perversely chose to do it in Afrikaans. Only… I couldn’t remember the word!!
I mean, please, for goodness’ sake! It’s got to be one of the first ten words or phrases you learn in any language, and I was stumped. From having been able to understand and construct simple sentences, I suddenly had next-to-no vocabulary, just six years later.

The phrase I wanted (I remembered after a few moments) was Asseblief – roughly “if you please”. And yet I had no problem recalling the phrase for I only speak a little – it’s a pretty language, but I never use it. Obviously this phrase was one for which I’d had more use…

Human memory, of course, works nothing like a database. There are no convenient boxes in which to store information. There is no empty Tweetaalige Woordeboek (bilingual dictionary) waiting for you to indelibly inscribe it with every acquired transliteration.
Memory serves its purpose by retaining and reinforcing that which is used frequently, and slowly losing grip on that which is fleeting or trivial. The passage of memory from short-term, through its various stages, to long-term memory and (in the case of a skill like languages) into active process has been thoroughly researched by neuroscientists, linguists and tinkering hobbyist educational reformers for decades, and it all comes down to the three ‘R’s of learning:

  • Repetition
  • Redundancy
  • Repetition

(The above stolen from a Jhonen Vasquez comic about the spirit-crushing drudgery of state schooling, but I like it anyway.)

So it’s about what you use, and how often you use it. You can even unlearn your native tongue through atrophy. I know of a man who moved from England to Germany in his early thirties. Now at 65, he is still in touch with his friends in England – but he finds he can only communicate, haltingly, over the phone. If he tries to write or email, he struggles with the English language. In a Firefox-esque feat, he now thinks in German, quite naturally, and struggles to do so in English.

I wonder: will I ever be that good at Japanese? If I work hard, and move over there someday then… well, why not?

The process of professional translation intrigues me; I find myself wondering, how does it work in their heads? Do they listen in one language, and then express it quite naturally in the other without any intervening explicit process? Or do they listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other – donning a different thinking-cap, as it were – before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I’m quite certain that it’s possible to “think” natively in more than one language…

Even then, translation is not a simple process. Grammar notwithstanding, even syntax can become confusing when expression is rendered in culturally-significant shades of meaning.

I recall hearing of an assembly in the European parliament being brought to a standstill as, during a speech by the French representative, several of the English-speaking delegates burst into laughter. Having made an appeal for calm and rational consideration of the issues, he exclaimed that what the problem needed was “la sagesse Normande”.
The English translators, quite faithfully, relayed the speech thus:
“What we need is Norman Wisdom!”

That’s not the half of it though. Humans, with their inherent understanding of the ideas behind the words, can translate faithfully rather than accurately. Computer software has no such cognitive gifts at its disposal, and the results of even the most sophisticated attempts at translation are derided throughout the blogosphere.

It’s the same problem: a database can give you a word-for-word equivalent, but nothing cogent or intuitive – and even with simple words, cultural ignorance can lead to confusion. A generation or two ago, there was no distinct word for “green” in common use! あお (ao) is taken to mean blue, but it was also used for green not so long ago, and some Japanese still use it as such. This sort of cultural knowledge is invaluable when trying to make sense of, for example, Natsume Sooseki’s Ten Nights of Dream. It’s easy to get stuck trying to understand the significance of the lily’s blue stalk…

Does this mean that elderly Japanese people can’t tell the difference between blue and green? No, of course not…
And yet, there is some truth in that statement, bizarre as it may sound. Not in an extreme sense, but studies have shown the importance of language to perception. According to research undertaken at Goldsmith College (and almost certainly many other studies since), the range of words you have for different hues affects your ability to distinguish between them. If we had 20 words for subtly different shades of orange in the English language, we would perceive them as distinct colours, and would recall them as such without difficulty.

It all smacks of Derrida and Phenomenology, doesn’t it…?

This ties in nicely with another study (thank god for New Scientist) investigating the way in which our infant brains adapt to perceive distinct sounds characteristic to our mother tongue. Through repeatedly hearing – and presumably expressing – certain ranges of sound and learning to interpret them as the same sound, we lose the ability to distinguish between the subtle variations. This is quite necessary, for the sake of efficiency in communication, but can be a hindrance when learning a new language.
The classic example is the Japanese l/r sound, which is neither one nor the other. Through careful and diligent study, one can relearn the distinctions lost in infancy, but it is difficult – the mind learns to perceive certain patterns in the chaotic landscape of reality, and convincing our brains to jump tracks in its well-worn neural grooves is hard work.

So how can there be any hope for computers? Is it possible, somewhere in the hypothetical space-opera future, for software to “understand” language in the same way that humans do? Derrida or Heidegger might argue that all of perceived reality is exactly that – perception only. Given that language is the exclusive realm of signifiers and symbols, one might suppose that computers – which deal only with symbols and signifiers – would be ideally suited to the task. Can one be “trained”, in the manner of a human mind, to have intrinsic understanding of a concept? Can an artificial mind be kicked out of its paths of databases and into a more functional, fluid form of expression and translation?

Perhaps the answer lies in that last question. Functional programming languages (Haskell, Lisp) operate on a basis somewhere beyond the mechanical strictures of Structural languages (Pascal, Aida) or the deliberate and measured methods of Object Oriented Programming (Java, C++). My brother (the Dysfunctor – get off your arse and fix your Blog, mate) could tell you a million times more than I could about this topic, but I have some very basic understanding. All things are functions – processes, if you will – and everything is signified rather than explicit. Sound familiar?

Artificial Intelligence (the emergent kind) and a computer really learning a language are in the same chapter of philosophy – the same page, even – because language, perception and intelligence are so closely linked. They’re pretty much a blurry smear of concepts, as any drunk philosophy undergrad will rant. There’s no point trying to tackle one without approaching the others, but if we come at it side-long, with a very long game-plan in mind, and functional programming as the tool (or the precursor to a better one), then who knows…?

Still more curious: if we created machines with the ability to learn and communicate, but didn’t teach them anything, what language would emerge from their society? What could we learn from their linguistic development?

Before they wiped us all out, I mean.

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

9 October, 2008

The persuasive power of nothing

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:45 pm

Always leave them wanting more…

If you can tell me who said it, you get a gold star. I mean, who originally said it. A 10 minute trawl of Google, Wikiquote and a whole raft of Quotations databases has turned up nothing but half-remembered film-quotes and the occasional educated guess.

Someone said it was Walt Disney, but if his early films are anything to go by then it’s certainly not a maxim he employed much. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s nothing more rounded-off and wholesome than a Disney film, and that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the phrase.

No, I think the implication is that you should never try to completely satisfy someone if you want them hooked; just give them enough of what they want to enjoy it, and hint at the promise of more to come. That’s the essence of desire, as any established flirt, stage-magician or heroin-addict will tell you. It’s the secret of every burlesque show, the art of the thriller-movie, and the only possible excuse for that shambolic ’80s fashion of nouvelle cuisine.

It sounds vaguely P.T. Barnum-esque in style, but not in spirit – there’s no mercenary edge to it, and Barnum would quite happily have satisfied your every craving for a steep price given the opportunity. It’s not even Machiavellian, although manipulation is of course the purpose.

Give them a little of what they want – but not enough to lose their attention. I feed my cat with enough to make him healthy and athletic, without satisfying his every craving – for there lies the road to the sack-of-porridge look of spoiled house-cats everywhere – and his interest in me is seldom stronger than when he’s had enough to enjoy it, but not enough to lose the taste.

Budding authors would do well to take note of the instruction, I think. There are many skilled novelists and playwrites who can give you a really satisfying yarn, rich in detail and full of exposition; but the best – the true craftsmen – will only hint at the truth, will give it form but not definition, will point you at the heart of a matter and say “look, it’s right in front of you…” but will never actually spell it out.
Some of the greatest works of art are not photo-realistic reproductions of real or imagined scenes, but are impressions or outlines, with just enough detail for the mind to fill in the rest.

As Pratchett explains in his recent bestseller Going Postal, the true art of the forger is not in perfection, but in suggestion. Present enough detail to suggest the real thing, he notes, and the human imagination will gladly do the rest, rejecting a perfect forgery but happily accepting one that is far less accurate, because the mind will not notice a discrepancy when it has conjured the detail itself…

So, then, desire is a function of our curiosity, not of our needs. It springs from the human need to wonder: what is behind the next door?, or what happened next?, or – tragically – what would it be like with someone else? I will never forget reading an article in New Scientist some years ago, which sought to explain the neurochemical mechanism of addiction. As an important aside, it was noted that heroin’s dangerously potent addictiveness springs not from its effects on the pleasure centres, but from the fact that it chemically simulates desire. When the drug reaches the brain, it floods the synaptic gaps with chemicals that scream “I want this!!” rather than “I like this!!”

These thoughts came to me when writing my UCAS Personal Statement. This is a university-applicant’s open audition, a 47-line window through which one must sufficiently impress or intrigue the admissions tutors for them to invite you to interview. It’s easy to talk about yourself if you have the confidence, but when presented with a 4000-character (not word) limit, I had to ask myself: What am I trying to achieve here?

The answer was quite obvious. I wanted an interview. There are ways of achieving that goal, but the fundamental purpose of my prose has to be this: Make Them Want More.
That’s right. Always leave them wanting more, kiddo. If you can get that hook in someone’s head, you’ll always have an opening for the future.

As far as I can imagine, there are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Knock their socks off. The masterful authors, musicians, artists and craftsmen of the world can do their thing, give you the very best, and leave you changed. That sort of profound work will always stay in your mind, and that’s a certain way to win someone’s interest. But there are limits to what you can say about yourself, especially in 47 lines, and if I could do that I would be an author.
  2. The Cliffhanger. Device of every literary and cinematic hack out there, and not very elegant. It’s easy to get it wrong and just frustrate your audience, leaving them thinking “So where’s the rest of the story? Did you miss a reel…?” Besides, it’s hardly appropriate in the circumstances. Definitely not.
  3. The subtle art of suggestion. Make allusions to bigger topics. Indicate your intentions and interests, but don’t describe them exhaustively. The ripe fruit of outlined potential is tempting indeed and, just as importantly in the circumstances, it’s economical! Let the audience pick up on what interests them, and they’ll want to know more. If they don’t, you haven’t wasted a paragraph explaining why taiko excites you so much, or exactly what depth of understanding you’ve developed of generational conflict in Japanese cinema. If they want to know more, they can ask – and ask they will. That’s what the interview is for, after all…

So I’ve pretty much finished my personal statement. All of the above is just rash theory and extemporisation after the fact – I write how I write, in a way that makes sense to me at the time given the context and the audience, and then try to understand why I felt compelled to do it so. It always seems to work, which suggests to me that I have sufficient natural facility for language and persuasion to get it right (or at least, right enough), and I make no apologies for that. If I have a gift for expression then nobody could accuse me of resting on my laurels now.

Wish me luck, one and all. I’ll let you know what happens, however it pans out.

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…

2 July, 2008

Opening credits

Filed under: Uncategorized — pyrotyger @ 10:31 am
Tags: , ,

I had a dream last night that someone important (I forget who) was visiting my house, and I was hopelessly unprepared. This isn’t unusual, in dreams or reality.
What was unusual was that a kind person of my acquaintance (again, I forget who) had taken a moment to clear away the pile of unopened or unregarded mail behind my front door. I say pile; a more accurate term might be “drift”. Again, this isn’t unusual.
So I only realised this had been a dream upon leaving the house the next morning, passing that very same avalanche of junk on the way out.

Mail is a headache. While any piece of mail was a package of excitement and anticipation in my youth, once I hit 18 and started getting bills and regular bank-statements, I quickly lost interest. You start to become part of the real world, where paper communication serves a utilitarian function rather than – as most things do when you’re a teenager – some form of entertaining or social purpose.

These days my mail is roughly composed of:

  • 50% local freesheets of varying purpose and quality
  • 30% advertising junk
  • 13% bills/statements, which I can recognise within one glance and therefore needn’t open
  • 5% “No longer at this address” (going back 3 generations, I believe)
  • 2% “Ooh, I wonder what that is…?”

That 13% chunk still needs opening and checking periodically, of course, but it’s an annoying chore that can be avoided until you have the gumption to sort it out – like vacuuming, or updating your blog.
So only the 2% is of any real interest, and that means every morning I can happily trample over the strata of the last couple of weeks without giving a second thought to the fact that I May Already Be A Winner, I Have Already Been Approved For [something], or the front-page news that invariably includes a picture of pre-pubescent kids in hi-viz tabards holding brooms or binbags and looking very pleased with themselves.

This week was different.

This week, I received two things in the mail that made me happy.

First was the DS cartridge: Kanji Sonomama Rakubiki Jiten – my stylus-enabled Japanese Kanji dictionary. This thing is, as I had hoped, excellent. Hiromi was impressed, and I use it constantly along with my two-way Japanese dictionary whenever I’m doing homework. It’s all in Japanese so I’m still finding my way around, but it’s got pretty much all the functionality you could hope for in something like this, and most of the entries have an English definition against them.

I would heartily recommend this software only if your Japanese is at a sufficient level. If you’re somewhere around JLPT level 4 or 3 then you’ll be able to use this to great effect, but otherwise you’re wasting your time. Don’t try to run before you can crawl, especially if you have ragged stumps instead of legs.

Second, and probably more significant, was the arrival of… *drum roll*… my Diploma in Higher Education – Civil Engineering With Management!
This is something I’ve been meaning to collect for some time (7 years), but never got around to somehow. It represents the two years of study I did attend at the University of Birmingham, and in truth I did rather well during those two years. It’s still my greatest regret that I never completed a degree course, and something I burn to rectify sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Maybe I’ll get a mail-order degree. The University of Mountebank sounds quite reputable.

Anyway, at least I got something out of it. The credits from this can be put towards another course of study, naturally, but I can’t really make any practical use of the qualification itself – it’s been too long since I did any real Civil Engineering to consider myself suitably qualified, although a Diploma could still get me a decent wage standing by the roadside in high-viz gear waving a stripy pole back and forth while some career-voyeur looks at me through a theodolite…
Yeah, I think I’ll stick with my current situation. I’d rather be ambling along a road to the future than standing on the hard-shoulder dodging traffic.

So, many thanks go to Dr Lawrence Coates, my old tutor and confidant, for so swiftly and kindly sorting this all out for me (and arranging the waiver of my outstanding library fees), and to Mr Kamel Hawwash for agreeing that I may as well have a with Management tacked on there, which will probably do more for my present career than the Civil Engineering part (“Critical path? Sir, I am the critical path!!”)

My tacky, mauve, faux-vinyl National Record of Achievement folder already feels heftier with the gravity of it.

Next, the JLPT?

25 June, 2008

Mada wakarimasen (I don’t yet understand)

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 6:35 pm
Tags: , ,
My Japanese teacher set me the task of writing a four-panel comic last week. I just had time to finish it before my lesson, so I didn’t get the chance to scan it in. You’ll have to make do with hastily-shot camera-phone photos (my translations follow each panel):

LONG DAYNot again! You lazy #%!!*!

I work so hard, and you just do nothing…

I’m always looking out for you, but you never show any gratitude!

Myow? (Not again…)

The translation in the last panel was going to read “Feed me” – which would be funnier and, let’s face it, much more true to life – but I don’t know how to conjugate the Imperative Form yet, and I like having the cat throw the starting exclamation back at the woman.

The more astute students of Japanese will spot my obvious error (apart from the laughable simplicity of most of the grammar I’ve employed) – the second panel should end せん (Negative form) rather thanす. It probably reads to a native Japanese-speaker the same way as a double-negative does to me, meaning it probably makes your eyes bleed.
Well nuts to it. It’s my first comic ever to see the light of day, so just one glaring error in an unfamiliar language is good enough for me. Mind you, this post is now available for comment, so I’m sure I’ll be told soon enough just how many other linguistic gaffes I’ve managed to cram into four panels…

The more astute students of art, humour and other matters of taste will spot the fact that my comic is neither pretty nor funny, since I can’t draw or come up with jokes. Strictly speaking I imagine the only thing that qualifies this as a “comic” is the fact that it has four panels. This gives it the same artistic merit as a Ford Transit, only without the choice of colour an optional SatNav.
Still, I did make the effort to go slightly manga-ey in the first panel, and that’s got to count for something. Please.

Aside from this travesty of the modern medium, the lesson was even more interesting than usual. We over-shot my allotted hour – by about an hour! – partly thanks to the distraction of a burgeoning friendship between Hiromi’s son & me (based principally on DS games and the ability to pull faces), but mainly due to an extensive discussion about language and learning.

We chatted about our experiences of learning different languages and, as is often the case, the act of discussing the topic caused my thus-far nebulous ideas of the subject to coalesce into a clearer opinion. In essence, I think we progress through successive stages of fluency, something to the tune of:

  • parroting – repeating words and phrases exactly as you hear them.
  • knowledge – getting to know what those words & phrases mean, and recombining them in context.
  • understanding – coming to grips with the interplay of context and content: conjugation, form and style (this is where you start to appreciate the fundamental differences between languages with different roots)
  • application – using your understanding to apply the language in different everyday contexts: on-the-fly construction of appropriate sentences, the beginnings of real expression.
  • habit – over time, on-the-fly processing becomes embedded: at this point, you’re able to actually converse at a practical depth and speed.
  • intuitive use – the habits embed deeper: you can pretty much “think” in the language.

So by this token, my learning of English as a native should have followed a similar pattern, right? Well, there are probably hundreds of books and papers on the subject, but nothing makes for a blog-entry like an embarrassing anecdote…

Cast your imagination back to my childhood – we’re talking 20 years here…
*pause for a little cry*
…sat cross-legged on the floor of the village primary-school’s assembly hall, staring up stiff-necked at the projected lyrics on the wall, hoping some poor kid doesn’t wee themselves again (there really is nothing as pitiful as a little boy sat silently with his red, tear-streaked face in his hands as, one by one, his former friends leap away excitedly from the slowly-expanding pool of wee in which he stews…).
The song may be a well-known one, or it may be something our musically-inclined head teacher composed himself. He wrote assembly songs with the same casual frequency that other people make a cuppa tea. What matters is, the last line of the chorus was a sustained:

“And praise your hoooooo-ly naaaaaame!”

(Thinking about it, Mr Johns was a bit secular to have written that.)
The line was not – I can’t stress this enough – the more confusing “And prisha-horrrrrr-lee-naaaaaaay!”

Not that I was aware of this, becase that line had mostly smudged off the acetate sheet, but then it didn’t matter. I was parrotting the phrase in order to sing the song, but without knowing much about the lyric’s significance and only having heard it sung the same way, I didn’t have any reason to think differently. I was hardly likely to have the opportunity to apply the phrase in my playground banter and have it corrected, and frankly it served its purpose without requiring any knowledge of its real meaning.
At the time all I cared about was getting through the song so I could relax my neck, and not sound like Andrew Bunting in the process (a boy whose curiously rich, tone-deaf bass was probably the cause of all that embarrassing incontinence – I suspect he would have caused whales to beach themselves and go into premature labour given a sufficiently low melody)

Those who were fortunate enough to watch TMWRNJ, back in the day when there was anything on telly on a Sunday except bloody Hollyoaks, may remember Richard Herring banging on about a similar misunderstanding, insisting that Jesus was “the Lord of the Dance Settee” (said he). Come on, there are whole books dedicated to children mishearing speech and believing that “the ants are my friends“, or whatever.

The point is, we learn the same way as children, it’s just that when learning something new we don’t have any preconceptions with which to judge our current understanding – until we come to learn a second language.

So last night, in learning how to conjugate verbs to give the Past Tense, I discovered that shouting できました (“dekimashita”) at the end of a round of Hiragana-bingo in our early lessons was not equivalent to shouting “House!”
It meant “finished”.
I have developed some minimal level of proficiency in Japanese, which has helped me to evolve this little island of (incorrect) Knowledge, giving it a land-bridge to the ever-expanding continent of Understanding, wherein the highway-planning agency of Directed Learning is extending it’s road network of Application, so the articulated lorries of Habit can start to wear their useful grooves into my neural pathways…

So, for all that I find Kanji attractive and interesting, learning stroke-order is as nothing when compared to trying to compose an admittedly un-funny joke, for in such ways are we forced to re-evaluate the misheard lyrics of our early lessons, and come ever closer to understanding the heart of what is, at this stage, still a foreign language.

Which is why you’ve been subjected to my Ford Transit of a comic.


20 June, 2008

Dirty Secret (Lite)

Filed under: Japanese,language — pyrotyger @ 4:02 pm
Tags: , ,

I have a confession to make. I did something recently that I shouldn’t have done, for various reasons, and I’ve avoided telling people where possible because of the shame.
It’s addictive, expensive and endlessly distracting, and I’ve come up with all sorts of rationalisations, but the fact is I shouldn’t have done it, and now I can’t stop.

I bought a Nintendo DS Lite.

So far I don’t have many games for it, but I can see that it’s going to be an effort not to start pampering it like a spinster would a beloved pet. I’ve already found myself “brain-training” during my lunch break – and no, I can’t claim the time back as “training and personal development”. That’s the excuse I use for trolling Slashdot.

My inherited puritanical guilt is being subsumed, however, by the relentless onslaught of sheer childish delight. I’ve not been attracted by the power of its graphics or the range and intensity of its games (Mario can go felch Yoshi for all I care), nor even by its shiny black case (and just how did we ever phone people before the iPhone…?).

So if it’s neither the love of hardcore gaming nor posing techno-lust, what (I hear you ask) has wooed me so?
It’s just so much fun!
Not in the blam blam zoom k’pow way – and I’m someone who once lived for the seated adrenalin-rush of blasting the legs off an attacking swarm of ant-lions from a speeding dune-buggy in the resplendent immersion of Half-Life 2. If I want to relish in that kind of pornographically-violent thrill, I have a whole hulk of a PC purpose-built for the task.

No, the thrill of my newest toy is something much simpler: it really is a toy. Its very design-principle seems to have been “Don’t try to impress – just make it fun,” and everything seems to have flowed from that.

I’ll give you a nice pure example of the sort of thing I’m talking about here: Electroplankton. This fantastically intuitive bit of kit isn’t a game – there is no goal, no reward system, nothing of the sort. In essence you are interacting with a whole host of little semi-autonomous fellas, who in turn interact with their environment and one another, and create sounds as they go, resulting in some occasionally breathtaking symphonic chain-reactions.
This goes beyond bashing out drum rhythms. You influence things by poking them, moving them, directing them with your stylus; by altering tempo, frequency and even fluid current direction with various buttons; even by talking, singing and clapping into the microphone! This isn’t a game, but it’s undeniably fun. The obvious word is toy.

Even something as straight-forward as the cute platformer wholesomeness of Lego Indiana Jones is infected with this sense of intuitive fun. You want to blow out torches in the Temple of Doom? Blow into the microphone! Need to swing across the rooftops of Cairo? Drag across the screen in the direction you want to “whip”! Such simple elements, but they all add up to offer a cornucopia of immersive delight and discovery from a device with a couple of screens the size of business cards.

The classic Brain Training titles, to give another example, are the adult’s equivalent of those interactive play-mat things that parents get for their babies so they can develop normally in a sterile lab: in a similar but more direct way, the point is to learn and to enhance your brain’s natural abilities by interacting with something rewarding, and by working things out yourself. No adrenalin, no tension, no steep learning curve, just get stuck in and enjoy yourself.

A final mention goes to the imminent arrival through my letter-box of one of the most valuable bits of kit for the DS I could hope to obtain: a Kanji dictionary. You can use the stylus to actually write a Kanji, and it’ll recognise your atrocious scrawl and present you with a definition! No more hunting through the dictionary by Stroke-Count or Radical, just write the damned thing in. If I were to buy an electronic kanji dictionary even approaching that level of functionality, I’d be looking at a few hundred quid for a start.

All this speaks well of the DS, but there also seems to be a universal appreciation of the Nintendo Wii – the DS’s big brother – that has overcome the traditional barriers and boundaries of gaming culture and the usual hardcore market demographic by having much the same philosophy. Presumably as a result of this, the DS and Wii are exalted leaders in their respective markets. How is it that Nintendo got it so right where others seemed to be churning out the same old thing, harder and faster than ever before?

I’m tempted to think that it says something about Japanese culture. I’ve always felt that, as a society, Japan seems to be fairly unashamed to pursue its own interests on an individual level (such are the observations one makes when wasting teenaged Friday evenings watching Eurotrash). Maybe it’s down to the fact that people are unlikely to say anything if you act a little differently over there (however strongly they might feel), or maybe I’m just demonstrating my as-yet juvenile understanding of the culture.
It seems to make sense though. In all matters of personal taste and expression, Japan seems to shamelessly pursue an unfettered purity. From fashion to film to fun to – let’s face it – porn, if you want to know how far it can go, look to Japan. Maybe that’s unhealthy when applied to some of our less-savoury appetites, but I can’t think of a better philosophy when it comes to just having fun.

Of course, that whole idea falls down when you remember that one of their direct competitors – Sony – is principally Japanese also, and hasn’t managed to generate half the market-trouncing furore of Nintendo. Still, if you want multimedia excellence right along the chain from artists through production to electronic reproduction, you could do worse…

Okay, I admit it. I’m doing some intense high-brow rationalising here. £100 is £100, but I really am enjoying myself. Brain Training repeatedly tells me I have a Brain Age of about 20, and this gives me a bit of glee every time. At least it did until someone told me it doesn’t go below 20, and Dr Kawashima is probably trying to imply that my Brain Age is somewhere nearer 8.

I don’t care. I’m having fun, and I don’t have to blow the legs of anything to do so.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to go trade games with my Japanese teacher’s 8 year old son…

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