Friday, August 29, 2014

Look! Down on the Plate!

So what is a superfood?  Suddenly every second advertisement on television is spruiking the staggering benefits of this or that superfood.  New ones pop up every day.  I've just heard that boysenberries have thirty seven times the Omega-3 of a cattle prod.  How is it that the miraculous properties of boysenberries have eluded us for so long?  What is a boysenberry anyway?  But back to my original question.  A superfood is essentially one that you will pay a ridiculous amount of money for.  It may have this nutrient or that vitamin, it is possibly stuffed with an essential amino acid or protein chain, most foods have something of the like.  That's why we eat them.

Not many people know this but superfoods have been around for centuries, millennia even.  Back in the old days we just had another word for them.  We called them food.  Mind you back in the old days we'd call anything we could throw in a cookpot food even it made quite determined attempts to crawl back out again.

The principal differences between superfoods and traditional foods is that superfoods come in smaller quantities and cost more.  Still, I suppose that's only fair.  Has anyone done a price comparison on coal and diamonds lately?  It's pretty much exactly the same stuff, its just the packaging that's different.  And packaging is the most important thing because without packaging there could be no marketing and without marketing we wouldn't realise we were eating superfoods at all.

Marketing ordinary foods is hard.  OK, you have a good basic hook "eat or you'll starve to death" but to get people to eat your particular product as opposed to any of the others on the market is a lot more difficult.  After all, why should anyone pick one particular foodstuff over another?  By the time we're old enough to buy our own food we generally know what we like.  If you want to market food you've got to create difference and add value.  Hence superfoods.  In fact, superfoods are a marketing department's wet dream because you can add value and create difference without doing a damn thing.  A car manufacturer, for example, if it wants to create difference and add value actually has to create difference and add value.  Their product has got to be faster or sexier or more fuel economic or more family friendly than the competition.  All the producer of superfoods have to do is produce the same old stuff and slap a new label on it, even most marketing departments are capable of that.

So, we know why people sell superfoods.  Why do other people buy them?  This is the clever bit.  Superfoods plug into two basic human traits; concern for their health and fundamental laziness.  Sure you could exercise and eat a balanced diet but why bother when you can spread some superfood on a biscuit and live forever?  In actual fact anybody above the poverty line in this country has a longer and healthier life expectancy than in any previous generation when a good number of the people were eating superfoods because it was the only thing they could get their hands on.

One interesting thing about superfoods is the implicit assumption that we're not going to be eating them because they're the only thing between us and starvation.  Superfoods are for people who already have a functioning food supply but want to trade up to impress the neighbours.  Strangely a good many of the people who are living much closer to the starvation line are eating superfoods.  They have to, there isn't anything else.

I gazed over a list of superfoods in preparation for this blog entry (not even I am game to call that "research") and I noticed something quite interesting.  With the exception of quinoa which I am comfortably certain she had never heard of pretty much everything on the list was the sort of thing my mother told me to eat "because it was good for me".  My mother doesn't have a degree in nutrition and her food shopping was largely determined by what we could afford but there the superfoods were sitting unloved on my plate while I tried to distract my mothers attention as I lobbed them discreetly out the window.  If I had only kept them I could have sold them for a fortune now.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Try Sticking Your Face Down in a Toilet Bowl to Cure Cancer

Apparently you can cure motor neurone disease by pouring a bucket of ice water over yourself.  If you have no ice water to hand the inhabitants of Gaza have discovered that a bucket of sand works just as well.  This is actually true; a bucket of sand is at least as good at curing motor neurone disease as a bucket of ice water.

At this point I should include a disclaimer.  Pouring a bucket of ice water over yourself will not cure motor neurone disease (and research on the bucket of sand has so far proved inconclusive) but if you pour a bucket of ice water over yourself you can donate to the charity that is trying to cure it.  Of course you could make that donation without pouring anything over yourself but if you did it like that you wouldn't get yourself onto social media which seems to be the principal objective behind any sort of charitable or social awareness campaign nowadays.

It can be claimed that such social media activities build awareness and this is true.  I've been hearing about the ice bucket challenge for weeks now.  Unfortunately the awareness built is largely about the challenge itself.  I had no idea what it was actually for until I broke down in my lunch break this afternoon and googled it.  Mission accomplished for social media I guess but if your fire brigade had a three week reaction time you would be entitled to be a little annoyed.

In my research on the challenge (note how typing "ice bucket challenge" into google is now dignified with the term "research") I discovered two interesting facts.  Firstly, the challenge and the charity it is supposedly supporting are opposed by both Pamela Anderson (they experiment on animals) and the Catholic church (they also experiment on infant stem cells).  Thus the research is opposed by both the sublime and the ridiculous, I'll leave it to you to decide which is which.  The second fact was that Steve O had criticised the challenge and the celebrity participants for not telling anyone why they were doing it or where people could send money if they were so inclined.  To Steve O I say "a very good point sir" to everyone else on the planet I say "What the hell is wrong with you that Steve O has to be the voice of reason?"

But I'm being too harsh.  These social media challenges, awareness campaigns and suchlike fulfill a very important role.  Sure a few extra dollars might trickle towards the cause of choice and that's great but the principal achievement is to make the participants feel good.  To feel that they are part of the solution rather than the problem.  It would be an act of absolute churlishness to point out that the solution doesn't work.

Some months ago a bunch of Islamist nutjobs in Nigeria who call themselves Boko Haram kidnapped over two hundred and fifty girls apparently intending to sell them into slavery or something.  The social media response #BringBackOurGirls resonated around the world.  People got on board from Michelle Obama all the way down to Chris Brown who took his hands off Rihanna's throat long enough to tweet his support.  It was an amazing outpouring, the only people who refuse to be impressed are Boko Haram themselves who are steadfastly holding onto the girls.  The only ones who have been "brought back" are ones who escaped and brought themselves back.  Possibly a social media campaign to raise funds so the Nigerian government could hire an Israeli commando team might have been more helpful.

Still social media does do one thing.  It gives a voice to the voiceless always assuming that the voiceless have access to social media.  Its always possible that various governments will be pressured into doing something if only to get the voiceless to shut up.  And if they don't at least we can say we've done all we can.  Sadly this is probably true.  The only other thing we could do is go in with fire and sword and start building pyramids of human skulls.  This might work but it looks absolutely terrible on social media.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Astonishing Truth About Tapeworms

You may recall gentle reader that a short while ago in the pages of this very blog I promised to reveal the astonishing truth about tapeworms.  Actually I promised this on the 5th of June 2011 but that's still a short while geologically speaking.  I fully intended to keep that promise but at the time I had no idea of the dark undercurrents swirling around this story.  Shortly after I made that promise I was interviewed (you can say "recruited" if you like) by some very serious people who persuaded me that the safety of the world depended on my silence.

The events of the next few months were terrible indeed and when the dust (and the tapeworms) had settled my colleagues and I swore an oath on the bones of our ancestors (at least, I'm pretty sure they were someone's ancestors) to keep silent about the whole affair.  It took it's toll though, to this day I cannot look at a pomegranate without screaming but at the end of it the world was safe, although I still wouldn't advise drinking the water.  Or playing the banjo.

But that was over two years ago now.  The governments most directly involved have fallen, times have changed and most of the participants are now dead.  Indeed the last of them died last week in the departure lounge of Karachi airport with a tapeworm wrapped around his throat, and his torso, and his legs, and seven pieces of matched luggage.  I now feel free to speak.

It isn't my intention to go into complete details.  To fully understand what when on in those grim times when the future of civilisation hung by a thread you would need an intimate knowledge of string theory (as it applies to tapeworms), tapeworms (as they apply to string theory), ballistics, metallurgy, Mayan astrology and an understanding of the internal court politics of the Kamakura Shogunate.  The last isn't essential but it's a fascinating topic.

Did you know tapeworms are really intelligent?  Think about it, how many animals manage to have their home, transport and food source concentrated in one convenient animal.  It would be like living in a mobile home made of meat.  And if you do live in a mobile home made of meat you quite likely have tapeworms.   What few people realise is the extent to which humans are manipulated by tapeworms.  Do you really think anybody wants to play with a skipping rope really?  Of course not, its just tapeworm pornography.  And don't get me started on string theory.  Physicists may think they're unravelling the mysteries of the universe but actually they're just translating the tapeworm bible.  Tapeworms are actually astonished its taking us so long, all it really says is "Let there be tapeworms".  Quite a simple and elegant little theology really.

Mostly tapeworms are a friendly and easygoing bunch living in harmony with their human hosts (or "meat wagons" as they affectionately call us) but of course there always has to be that small handful who ruin it for everybody else.  I'm talking about the isolated, embittered tapeworm who decides he's had a gutful of humans which is ironic if nothing else.  These moody loners make their way to the brain and start playing silly buggers with their host's neural pathways.  Most of the time this is amusing enough but occasionally they do it to somebody that everyone, tapeworms included, rather needs to stay sane.  At which point chaos ensues.

Fortunately the last time this happened some public spirited tapeworms managed to contact these colleagues of mine and certain steps were taken.  I'm not going to go into details or provide dates, times, places, circumstances, context or supporting evidence.  If you were paying attention to the state owned media of Belarus and San Marino at the time you'll be able to join the dots.  All that you really need to know is that when the chips are down the tapeworms have got our back.  Or at least our backsides.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Birthday Greetings #42

I envisage that a time will come when I will run out of emperors to say happy birthday to.  Fortunately that day seems to be a long time coming aided by the Romans who spent most of the third century changing emperors the way some people change shirts.  It's safe to say that the emperors of those days didn't need to worry about retirement planning.

Happy birthday therefore to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus.  This isn't the famous Marcus Aurelius who wrote a little book on philosophy and reigned for decades but a much less well known chap who turned up around a hundred years later.  Not much is known about his early life although his father was either a civil servant or a market gardener.  Probus joined the army and must have done reasonably well because he held important commands under the emperor Aurelian and his successor Tacitus.  When Tacitus died (murder was suspected but by this stage it always was) Probus refused to serve under Florian who had proclaimed himself emperor.  Probus held a command in the east and when Florian advanced against him with a larger army he managed to persuade the soldiers (who were suffering from sunburn and were really annoyed) to kill Florian instead.  This left Probus as sole emperor.

With internal harmony (very briefly) restored Probus could attempt to do something about the borders.  When Aurelian (three emperors and two years ago) had been murdered a bunch of Vandals, Franks, Burgundians and others had taken the opportunity to overrun much of Gaul.  Over the next couple of years Probus beat the crap out of all of them and others besides and restored the imperial border on the Rhine.  With peace (again, very briefly) restored Probus took time out from killing foreigners to deal with an insurrection that had occurred in the east.  He also apparently wanted to reconquer Mesopotamia from the Persians.  Probus crushed the revolt, aided by the fact that its instigator had already been murdered, but took a wary look at the Persian empire and decided that discretion was the better part of valour (I told you he was a talented soldier).  A peace treaty with the Persian king was the result.

The peace treaty turned out to be very useful as a couple of other ambitious characters declared themselves joint emperors in Gaul.  Probus marched against them, crushed them and celebrated a triumph in Rome.  Things seemed to be looking good.  Yes the Vandals had invaded again but Probus beat them again, every would be usurper was comfortably dead and even the Persians were making friendly noises.  Things seemed to be looking up for Probus.  Then he was murdered by his own troops.

Apparently when they weren't actually fighting (either barbarians or each other) Probus tried to keep his men busy getting them to plant vines, drain land and generally undertake rural improvements.  It was partially to keep his troops occupied and possibly an attempt to kickstart the economy in regions that had suffered badly from barbarian invasions.  However when you consider that the army deserted his predecessor because of sunburn you can imagine what their reaction was when instructed to plant grape vines.  A group of soldiers proclaimed the Praetorian Prefect Marcus Carus emperor and some soldiers in Probus's army killed him to help their succession plans along.

For the time and place Probus was quite a success as Roman emperor.  His reign of six years was longer than that of his three immediate predecessors combined.  The worst of the chaos of the third century was behind the empire now, indeed Carus, his successor died of causes that were almost certainly natural.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

If its Glorious it Must be English

Today is the "Glorious Twelfth".  As soon as you hear the word "glorious" attached to a date you know you're dealing with something English.  They have the Glorious 1st of June to commemorate a day when their navy more or less beat the French, they even have the Glorious Revolution to commemorate the English decision to take a boring Dutch protestant as their monarch in preference to a boring catholic of any nationality.  Today, as previously mentioned, is the Glorious Twelfth when a thin baggy tweed line is the only thing that prevents Britain from being overrun by marauding packs of ferocious grouse.  It is in fact the start of grouse shooting season (unless the glorious twelfth falls on a Sunday in which case it is postponed until Monday).

I'm not quite sure why grouse shooting is particularly glorious.  Oh I understand the appeal; there you are alone with all your friends out in the wild (or at least the overgrown) with nothing between you and the ravening grouse except several thousand dollars worth of animal killing equipment.  The heart beats faster at the very thought.  No wait; that's angina, must lay off the port.  But glorious?  Frankly, accidentally running down a dog with your car is an act of heroism by comparison.

As you might guess from the previous paragraph I'm a little conflicted by the concept of hunting.  On the one hand I'm utterly opposed to it on ethical grounds but on the other I have a sneaking suspicion that if I tried it I'd probably enjoy it.  What I'm less certain about is whether grouse shooting actually counts as hunting at all.  In a nutshell grouse shooting consists of driving to a moor, frightening some birds and shooting anything that flutters upwards.  If you're careful you should be able to achieve this without spilling your drink.  When I think of hunting I think of cautiously making ones way through woods or crags, eyes alert to every flicker of movement, freezing in uncomfortable spots for hours and getting (if you're lucky) just one opportunity to drop an animal you might see for a couple of seconds at best.  Grouse shooting is more akin to hunting in a zoo.  The success rate is higher but I can't help thinking the bragging rights diminish in proportion.

I'm sure grouse shooting requires skill, hitting a small bird on the wing isn't easy even when you're using a shotgun but it isn't what I consider hunting.  Proper hunting would consist of being stripped to the waist and taking on a tiger with a bowie knife.  If I came out on top in that struggle I would damn well be putting the thing's head on my wall no matter how politically incorrect it was.  Still I'm probably being unfair, Britain isn't exactly overrun with tigers so the hunters have to make do with what they can get.  And on the 12th of August what they can get is grouse.

In keeping with humanity's schizophrenic attitude towards animals generally the grouse is one of the best documented and understood birds in Britain.  Apparently we only really notice an animal when we're about to kill it.  The grouse shooting season only lasts from August to December after which any surviving grouse are given time off to breed.  As an animal conservation technique this seems to have worked considerably better than a number of others that don't involve killing large numbers of the animal in question.  Between January and the 11th of August it would appear that all grouse shooters spend every waking moment learning as much as they can about grouse and writing knowledgeable tracts about them.  If the grouse hold out we'll know everything there is to know in a generation or two.

Here is everything I know about grouse.  They're relatively small, they live on moorland, they are not an endangered species (ironic when you think about it) and the more pretentious of them call themselves ptarmigans, which doesn't stop them from being shot.  I'm sure that if I went out and killed a bunch I would feel compelled to learn a lot more about them but the truth of the matter is that I'm just not that interested. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014


So from taxes to death which might seem like the wrong way round until you think about it for a moment although some governments have nobly attempted to square the circle by taxing death.

A friend of mine recently asked me if I believed in reincarnation.  I don't as it so happens although I will concede there is a bit of wish fulfillment in that statement.  I have no particular complaints about my life but neither do I particularly want to do it all again.  Been here, done this.  Besides, if everyone is a reincarnation of everyone else then there shouldn't be any population growth.  Where are all the extra people coming from?  Some of us must be doubling up.

Still less do I accept the possibility of being reincarnated as an animal.  While it may be pleasant to contemplate the prospect of certain people being reincarnated as cockroaches the whole concept loses a little of its flavour if they don't actually realise it.  I also can't help wondering what acts of staggering nobility a cockroach must perform in order to be reincarnated as a human.  Somehow I think it would have to be a little more than warning the ranger that Timmy was stuck down the well again.

I don't actually think I'd mind being reincarnated as a cockroach.  I could find a snug little berth under the fridge and there would be food absolutely everywhere.  There would be none of this rent paying malarkey and I'm pretty sure cockroaches don't pay tax.  The only problem I can see is working out how to operate the TV remote.

Possibly the reason for the interest in reincarnation is a human reluctance to accept death as final.  Religions around the world have been living off this reluctance for millennia.  Almost all of them seem to promise some sort of existence after death whether it be as cockroach or member of the heavenly choir.  Even Hell is a guarantee that something is going to happen after you're dead other than the certainty of becoming wormfood.  Paradise, no matter which religion promises it, is a guarantee of life eternal.  Try not to think about exactly how boring that would rapidly become.  Still it would be a brave religion that promised its worshippers nothing but the certainty of death.  Brave and I suspect, quite small.

Each religion has its own take on what the afterlife will actually consist of.  I have no idea which is correct but there is one thing I can state with confidence.  It will be crowded.  Possibly its time to take another look at the cockroach option.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


They say, "there is nothing certain except death and taxes".  Which prompts the questions, Who are "they"? And why do they spend so much of their time making statements of the bleeding obvious?

As you might have guessed from the introduction tax time has rolled around again.  That time when decent citizens pin down a feebly protesting federal government and force money into its reluctant hands to be spent for the benefit of all.  In response the government, well, no doubt it does its best.  Somehow through the layers of bureaucracy, inefficiency, halfwit policy decisions and the half baked implementation of halfwit policy decisions enough money trickles through to ensure that the nation stays, if not afloat then at least wallowing just below the surface like a water logged hulk.

From time to time no doubt well meaning politicians vow to eradicate waste and reduce government expenditure.  This is a noble ambition and should be encouraged if only to keep the waste and government sprawl to within manageable limits.  We shouldn't expect too much of it though.  After all what is the only tool the government has to reduce waste and government expenditure?  Government itself.  And since the government is representative of the country and in a sense can be considered the country any time it tries to do anything to itself or for the country we are largely in the same position as someone attempting surgery on themselves.  You might be able to splint the occasional broken bone but I really wouldn't recommend a heart transplant.

It wasn't always like this.  In days gone by (no one with any sense would call them "the good old days") governments spent little and generally earned less.  Nationwide taxation was limited to a handful of indirect imposts and any major policy decision (such as wars) tended to be preceded by an unedifying scramble as kings (depending on their level of support) demanded, requested or begged their governments for permission to raise extra revenue.  Naturally if the king was an absolute monarch he could simply take what he wanted and if his aristocracy were sufficiently cowed he might even get away with that once or twice before they introduced him to the concept of regicide as a tool for governmental reform.

Of course the method that the governments of those days used to keep taxes low or non existent was to spend very little.  Health, sewers, roads, welfare, education, adequate policing and subsidies for sport and the arts were never really contemplated much less attempted.  Some of the slack was picked up by the church who levied their own version of taxes to help pay for it but basically the government got by on very little by doing very little.

Nowadays our government soaks a fair bit of tax revenue out of its citizens both corporate and individual.  In return we get a bloated, shambolic bureaucracy which nevertheless manages to do all of the above and more.  Not bad for someone performing surgery on themselves really.  In a kind light you can hardly see the scars.