Sunday, December 16, 2012

A quick update and a holiday Garland

My desktop is covered in half completed blog articles, perhaps I can get some of them finished over the Christmas break. The past couple of months I've been deluged with work but I've submitted, or had published, 6 scientific/conservation articles and graduated three graduate students, so even though I've not been a productive blogger, I've been a productive academic. My house is also full of trinkets and presents for people that I've made from "sculpey" clay, which has kept me busy while I'm not working.

In two days I'm off to the UK to visit family, then I have a day in the US before heading to Argentina and then onto Antarctica. There may be penguins, but there will definitely be a blog entry about my adventures. Until then ...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Englanders in New England

I’ve been a little slack in keeping up with this blog – one reason being that I was away on a road trip with my folks, and I’ve been a bit snowed under with work since I got back. Sorry ...

So how was the trip? I have to admit, it was a lot of fun. New England in October is ridiculously picturesque, with those vibrant fall colors and we had clear, crisp Autumnal weather for most of the trip, which essentially involved driving from one historic B&B or tavern to another.

My father and step-mother, however, despite being out of their native habitat, do not seem to get that (a) America is not England and (b) it is in the 21st century. We constantly had questions about whether we had relatively normal things (e.g. TiVO, to the door mail service, instant coffee), yet surprise when English things aren’t routinely found in America (e.g. HP sauce):

“It's not like in England”

“Yes, that's because we're not in England!”

My step-mother also had a rather irritating habit of saying “Oh gosh, really?!” after everything we said. But still it was a nice trip.

The rather convoluted journey was aided by my new TomTom GPS which has Stephen Fry’s voice programmed into it. Navigating foreign terrain is so much calmer and less fretful with the calming tones of Mr Fry telling you where to got and asking to “turn left up ahead if you wouldn’ mind”, and “it would be terribly nice if you changed lanes now”. Towards the end of the trip if felt like we had him in the car with us, and we actually started conversing with the TomTom as if it were alive. Anyway, to cut a long story short, here’s a little summary of the trip:

Day 1 – A mammoth drive from Virginia, through Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and finally finishing in Massachusetts. We stayed in the college town of  Hadley, at a quaint B&B built in 1795. For poster beds and crumpets for breakfast, who could want for anything more.

Day 2 - Up through MA, stopping in Portsmouth New Hampshire for lunch at the Portmouth Brewing Co (best known for the Smuttynose brand), for a flight of beers and to fill the trunk with “supplies”. Then we headed up the coast to Maine. Home for the next night was "the captain's house" - a quaint B&B on the shore. I love the Maine scenery, especially when it’s foggy and slightly mysterious. There were a few times when if felt like we were driving through a Stephen king novel.

Day 3 - The Captain’s house is famous for its food –and the day started with fantastic three course breakfasts starting with fruit soups and serious coffee. Behind the B&B was some extensive bogland with trails,that had to be explored. We were on a quest to try to find moose. However, some serious rain a few days previously meant that the trails were more like “the fire swamp” in the Princess Bride, and we expected to at any moment be attacked by rodents of unusual size. The weather started to close in, but not before hiking off to a coastal headland and looking for ghost ships amongst the fog and murk.


For the afternoon, we headed into “Bahaba”, a town with more lobster, moose and lighthouse crap for sail than you could shake a stick at. Also, there appeared to be only a dozen people in the whole town below the age of 60. Beer supplies were already running low, so they were replenished at Bar Harbor Brewing Co.

Back at the Captain’s house, a fire had been lit, hot chocolate was brewed up, and a couple of bottles of local wine were opened. Evening in front the fire place reading books on comfy chairs in front of crackling logs, was a perfect end to the day.

Day 4 - More excellent breakfast although our enjoyment was somewhat diminished by loud oil & gas executives in the adjacent dining room criticizing “nutjob”, “hippy”, “treehugging” environmentalists and criticizing the government for the temerity of trying to introduce some environmental safeguards. From the anecdotes that we heard about cutting corners and corruption, it seemed that the government wasn’t regulating the oil and gas industry enough. However we were far to British to make a scene and scoffed down our cranberry and blueberry pancakes with maple  syrup in silence, then slipped into diabetic comas.

More driving to the historic Jameson Tavern, in Freeport (Maine). As an aside, this tavern is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a girl called Emily, and a mysterious lurking figure in a top hat. A block or so away, or foggy and stormy nights, the locals say you can sometimes the ghost of “The Dash”, a sunken schooner, possibly a smuggling vessel, Freeport’s own version of “The Black Pearl”. Ghosts aside, the tavern had the best pub fries ever, hot chocolate to die for, and some extremely nice ales (thumbs up for Dr Hyde's angry ale and Gritty's Halloween seasonal).

The entrepid adventurers, then turned away from the coast and headed inland into New Hampshire and we stayed in another 18th century B&B in Hillsborough. Another four poster bed and a gorgeous fireplace furnished lounge. We popped into town and yet another tavern in a historic buidling : “Tooky Mills”. Although unlike most of our tavern visits, this one hadn’t always been a pub in the 19th century it had been an underwear factory – which explained why it’s décor included long johns and bloomers.

Day 5 – We headed into the historic center of Hillsborough, which was quaint as quaint can be. There were a number of traditional crafts shops, and the family aided the New Hampshire economy by spending nearly a thousand dollars in the pewter shop alone. I’m now the proud owner of a tankard the size of my head. Basically a metal bucket with a lid, although technically I have to wait until my birthday next year to use it (it’s a present). The afternoon involved a bit of work and visiting a friend who was giving a lecture/book signing event on killer whales, then off along rural roads, driving through leafy avenues and passing mom and pop convenience stores and maple syrup stalls, as we tootled around New Hampshire. As dusk drew on, the scenery became more and more like “Sleepy Hollow” as if a pumpkin-headed horseman might leap out in front of us at any moment. Very atmospheric.

Vermont was also a great place to stock up on supplies. Any remaining space in the car was filled with cheeses, maple syrup, preserves, beer/cider and other such goodies.

The final night was spent in Bellows Falls, Vermont and we had a slap up final dinner in Leslie’s Tavern (est 1795): mushroom soup, mushroom ravioli and pumpkin cheesecake. Pumpkin spiced beer and local reds. Mmmm.

Leslie's Tavern, VT

Day 6 – Time to get back to Virginia, reality, and less face it, dieting – the trip had been extremely calorific and the liver cells needed a bit of a rest L But all in all, a good time was had by all.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Proud to be a Murican

So I have finally become a us citizen (actually a dual citizen, as I could no more give up my UK citizenship than I could give up beer and chocolate - my Britishness is such an intrinsic part if me).

This is a process that has cost over a thousand dollars, has generated an inch thick file of documents and as an introduction into what it means to be in America, I have to say it does not flatter the country. Throughout, the whole process has been marred with chaos and incompetence. Lost paperwork that miraculously reappears after a call to the local congressional office - this has happened three times, and it smacks of corruption with a soupcon of evil, when who you know seems to help your process along, and without it your application is filed into the big round file on the floor. Also, letters contradicting them selves arrive from the powers that be (e.g. a  letter saying "we have not received your paper work and therefore are canceling your application" arrives on the same day another lands on the doorstep noting that my paperwork has been received and processed, etc etc etc.). Finally, the State of Virginia unilaterally deciding to change my name, leading to me have to petition the court to change it back...
Once I got my final notification that my citizenship "ceremony" was nigh, I thought the it was the end of the trail of trials and incompetence, but no, the immigration service had to have one last hurrah,
First, the address of the event said the immigration offices - it turned out it was actually in a community college's theater. As a result, a lot of participants actually went to the local offices, and missed the event.
Not as many as should have done though, because although the invitation letter distinctly said be the at 8 am without fail, immigration officers did not turn up until 8:30, to funnel 400 or so people crammed into a tiny vestibule with no idea what was going on. So there was time to get to the (closed) offices and then try to find the actual venue. Then came the farce of processing 400 people in said vestibule, with just half a dozen officers having to check everyone's paper work.
Finally everyone was seated and ready to progress by 10:30...
The initial part of the ceremony had us stand up as our original countries were called. The chief immigration officer making announcements was incredibly "chipper" yet profoundly patronizing. She so reminded me of Effie Trinket (from the Hunger Games) that when they called on me to stand, I felt like yelling out "I volunteer to be tribute!"
There then followed the oath. Now, myself, along with many others, were there to become dual citizens. However the oath you have to say has you renouncing all ties with other nations absolutely - effectively your first act as a citizen is to effectively lie. I could not bring myself to do that, so instead of swearing a blatant lie and to "absolutely and entirely renounce" my allegiance to the UK, I said my own oath: I "do not entirely renounce" ...
We were then congratulated and given little stars and stripes flags to wave, like a bunch of kindergarteners as they played a DVD of "I'm proud to be an American" * which the audience could sing along to.

Effie Trinket then reappears to congratulate us and talk to us like 3 year olds about how exciting this was and did we want to have pictures taken with immigration officials. I got out of there as soon as I possibly could, back into the jam-packed vestibule and the crush of 400 people trying to get their citizenship certificates, while a hundred or so more who had gone to the wrong location cried and pleaded to be allowed to do the citizenship ceremony. It was 1pm by the time I left.
By the end, a potentially solem and patriotic event had basically been reduced to the level of organization and grandeur of elementary school sports day. A lot of people were frustrated, irritated and upset on their first day of citizenhood, pride was not something felt by the majority.
Anyway, so now I'm a US citizen. I can vote. For the first time in ten years of paying taxes, at a rate more than double that of Mitt Romney I might add, I now no longer have taxation without representation. I think there was a bit disagreement about that in the past ...

*link to the karaoke version, so you can sing along too...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The water of life

The word whisky comes from uisge beatha, the Gaelic for "water of life" of “frisky water”. Irish whiskey has an "e" in it thanks to marketers a in the last century wanted to distinguish 'classier' Irish whiskey from large quantities of Scottish rotgut that was on the market. Oh, how times change. But nevertheless, Scotch is now always spelt whisky.
First of all I should point out the differences between vodka and whisky. Vodka, despite common misperceptions, is not made from potatoes, but can be distilled from anything with sugars that can ferment to produce alcohol. What makes it vodka is that it is distilled to as close as pure alcohol as possible, and is then cut with water. Most of the actual flavor of vodka is more to do with the quality of water that dilutes the spirit than the alcohol itself. Crappy water = crappy vodka.
Scotch is essentially distilled beer, but unlike vodka, but it's only distilled to a 75% alcohol content, and the final spirit contains 'impurities' that give it much of its flavor. The rest of the flavor and character comes from the aging process, or malting process in single malts, but more of that later…
As I said, Scotch whisky is, basically distilled beer from barley grain. The most sophisticated (and interesting) of the Scotch types, in terms of flavor and process, is single malt, and that’s what I’ll mostly be describing here. In single malt whisky, the barley is soaked in water for two or three days (the quality of the water is an important factor in the character of the whisky) and then the grain is spread out allowed to germinate for a week or more - this is the malting process during which many of the starches in the grain transform into a variety of sugars. This stage is time and labor intensive and is skipped in other types of whiskies, but it's this process that gives single malts much of their complexity. After the germination stage, the grain is dried, and this stage can also add to the flavor of the whisky. Traditionally single malts are dried in a kiln fueled by peat. The more smoke that's allowed to permeate the gain, the peatier whisky (e.g. malts from the island of Islay are smoked heavily and therefore very peaty). Again this significantly adds to the flavor in single malts, as opposed to other whiskies.
The grain is then ground up into grist and poured into a large barrel or mash tun to which water is added (again the type of water is important, and the chemical composition of the water source is important in the final flavor of the whisky). The sugars in the grain dissolve in the water and the sugary liquid, or wort is drained off. More water is added to the grist, and wort drawn off. The number of times this happens is variable and is distillery-specific.
The liquid is then has yeast added and fermentation starts on the wash as the liquid is now called. The wash is fermented for about 2 days, with a final alcohol content of about 7-8%.
Now comes the distilling. For single malts, a 'pot' still is used (which looks like a big copper Hershey's kiss) and the liquid is distilled in batches. This again is distinctive from other whiskies where distillation is continuous (in a so called Coffey still), a process which is faster and not so labor intensive.
The first distillation (referred to as the low wines; 20-25% alcohol) is taken off and distilled again (to become 75% alcohol). From this second distillate the first part (foreshot) and end part (feints) are returned to a batch the low wine for re-distilling, as they contain some noxious impurities. The middle cut or spirit is drawn off, and will be used for the whisky itself. The decision when to ' cut' is partly automated, but some distilleries rely on a still man who makes their decision based on experience, and partly magic.
The spirit is then placed in casks to age. The location for aging is important as it can affect the flavor - for example the salty sea air of Laphroaig distillery gives their whisky a distinct iodine/hospital smell (that's due to a high iodine concentration in aerosolized sea salt that permeate the casks).
For single malts the casks are charred oak bourbon barrels imported from the US (under US law bourbon barrels can only be used once). During the aging process the spirit reacts with the oak barrels, going from a clear to a golden color. The longer the spirit is aged, usually the deeper the color (and the mellower and less harsh the taste). For some brands, the spirit is transferred to a sherry, port, wine, or madeira cask to 'finish' (usually for two years) and again it picks up some subtle flavoring due to reactions with the wine infused cask wood.
During the aging process 40-50% of the whisky evaporates away and is lost. This is referred to as "the angel's share"  (as an aside I highly recommend the Scottish movie "the Angel's Share" a fun "heist" movie, although non-Glaswegians will probably need sub-titles).
When aging is completed the whisky is bottled. Scotch has to be aged at least a three years and a day, with most Scotch being 8 years. Most single malts are aged 10 years. Sometimes whiskies of different ages are mixed together, but the age you see on the bottle will be the youngest  batch in the mix. However, your bottle may be mixed with an older batch, often to give a more mellowed flavor. "Single cask" whisky is drawn from just one cask, and not mixed. The whisky is 55-57% alcohol at this stage, and so has to be cut with water again, to 40% (or 43% for export) with the signature water supply before bottling (unless it's bottled as "cask strength"). Once in the bottle, although there may be a little evaporation, there is no further aging as such - unlike wine, there is negligible oxidization in the bottle. So you might as well drink it.
Single malts can consist of multiple age batches, from multiple casks, but from only one type of whisky at a specific distillery. Blended scotches can have up to 40 different types of whisky within, from multiple distilleries, some single malt, but much of it grain whisky (see American whiskies below). But they all have to be made in Scotland under Scottish distilling laws.
For each region of Scotland, single malts have a slightly different flavor. Lowland malts are slightly citrusy, Islay malts are very peaty, Speyside malts are sweet and slightly fruity, and highland malts have vanilla and spicy tones.
My personal favourite is Glenmorangie (port or madeira wood finish). It’s also the favorite of Connor and Duncan MacLeod of the Clan Macleod, so for me there can be only one. At the moment I have 22 bottles of single malt in the house, and some high end bourbons too.
As a final note, Scotch should never be drunk with ice. That is sacrilegious. Connoisseurs will a tiny bit of water, no more than a teaspoonful, to their whisky, and this will in fact help bring out the favor of the scotch – IF, AND ONLY IF, the water is the best spring water. Adding crappy faucet/tap water to your fine Scotch is just plain dumb. You can now (from get ‘whisky stones’ for your Scotch – pieces of granite that you can cool in your freezer, and chill your scotch without diluting on contaminating it. These are fine, although they will show down evaporation and you’ll lose some of the bouquet of the whisky. Just be careful how you wash the stones after – and do not, as a friend did, scrub them with detergent, or you’ll have forever soapy-tasting whisky.    
Anyone who puts coke, or even worse, Iron-bru, in good single malt, deserves to fry (in batter) in a special layer of hell.
PS. In the US, whiskies are usually denoted by the cereal grain that the mash is largely (at least 51%) derived from, although bourbon is 51% corn (maize), whereas corn whiskey has a mash that is 80% corn. Bourbon that has been aged at least 2 (often 4) years and doesn’t have added colorings, flavorings or grain spirits, can be called straight bourbon.  In addition to bourbon & corn whiskey, you will find barley, wheat and rye whiskies in the US (barley whiskies in the US may also be malted in a process similar, but not identical, to single malt Scotch too). Tennessee whiskey is essentially bourbon, but some distilleries filter the whisky through sugar maple charcoal, which is supposed to improve the flavor. Canadian whiskies are different again (mostly corn/wheat with other grains aged 3-6 years typically, and are usually blended, even if they are referred to as “rye” whisky). The one exception is Glenora (Nova Scotia) which is a pot stilled, single malt, produced in Scottish fashion, that I am extremely curious to try.

Prologue to the next bit

I was sat thinking about what I should write about, but most of my week has been a boring succession of meetings and paperwork. There was a bright spot on Friday when we finally filed away the last of the devastation that was wrought by the crazy guy (see earlier posts) who had a grudge on me. We had to go through his numerous deluded accusations before an official panel and one by one they were determined to be baseless, and in a couple of cases that crazy guy himself was in fact culpable. There was a final determination that this had all been a big waste of time an effort, but crazy guy has now resigned (see the celebratory post below) and so hopefully his campaign against me is all a thing of the past.
So sipping a glass of congratulatory scotch, I decided to write about the item in hand, whisky. Which leads me to my next post...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fanny the pirate

One of my regular readers complained about how whiney I’ve been recently, and ask what happened to the educational stuff. So in penance, here’s some more pirate stuff, with an article on one of my favourite female pirates Fanny Campbell.
Fanny Campbell was from a rural community just outside of Boston, and was engaged to a local lad, a sailor, called William Lovell. Young William signed on to a merchant ship for a voyage to South America, but while sailing through the Caribbean his ship was attacked by pirates and the crew press ganged onto the pirate crew. William, however escaped when the ship docked in Cuba, but unfortunately the local authorities arrested him and some of his fellow escapees and he was imprisoned for piracy. After a year of imprisonment, one of William’s fellow convicts escaped and stowed away on a ship heading for Boston, and sent a message to Fanny telling her of her fiancé’s woes.
Now, this is where it gets good - Fanny decided to take things into her own hands. She disguised herself as a man joined the crew of a merchant ship (as a ship’s officer) sailing to England via Cuba. Fanny had been taught how to sail and navigate by her beau, and used this skills to get herself a position. En route to Cuba, Fanny started rumors that the Captain of the ship was going to encourage the Royal Navy to press gang the crew (for his own personal profit of course) , and that the First Officer was in on the deal. As neither were liked by the crew (the Captain was particularly harsh), they believed her and she effectively led a mutiny. The crew decided to “go pirate” and chose Fanny Campbell (still disguised as a man) as their Captain. She turned out to have a very tactical mind and on route to Cuba they sighted, boarded and captured a British gunship. The two ships sailed into Havana, and a small team of the crew snuck into the jail and rescued William and a number of other captives, largely Americans.
Despite having rescued her beau, Fanny kept up her manly disguise, and continued commanding her small squadron of pirate ships, and quickly captured another British vessel. In addition to the plunder from the merchantman, they also discovered that America had declared war on Great Britain. This meant that British ships were fair game to American vessels and instead of pirates, Fanny’s largely American crew became a band of patriot privateers raiding, looting and capturing enemy vessels.
However, technically in order to be bona fide privateers Fanny’s squadron of pirate ships needed official letters of marque from the American authorities, and so they sailed to Massachusetts and not only filed their piratical paperwork , but Fanny and William also got married. Her cover now blown, and also pregnant, Fanny decided to stay in Massachusetts and began to raise her new family, while William went back to sea, now a legally recognize privateer in the service of the newly minted United States of America.
Although there does seem to have been an actual Fanny Campbell, a lot of the legend associate with Captain Campbell was embellished thanks to the book “Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain; A Tale of the American Revolution” published in 1844 (by Maturin Murray Ballou), which is about as accurate to history as “Braveheart”. Despite being exaggerated, the published tales of Fanny actually inspired many young women to disguise themselves as men during the American Civil war, several of whom ultimately became as famous as the fearsome Fanny.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I'm drawing a blank

For the umpteenth time, a student came into my office and launched into discussion expecting me to immediately know what they are talking about and in my head I was thinking (a) who are you and (b) what the hell are you talking about? Partly it may be because I think the human brain can only remember so many names and faces and each time you have  new classes in a new semester, some of those old students just have to be deleted to make space. Partly I think it's because for so many students today the world revolves around them, of course you must know who they are and what they are doing, because they are the center of the universe. But I often get students getting insulted and grumpy that I don't remember very tiny thing about their lives. To be fair we have over 1,800 students in the two majors I advise for at the moment, and can get 20 or 30 come through my door on a busy advising day.

As I discovered last week, I have the same problem in conferences. I have to do a lot of schmoozing and socializing in my job, but often has been the time when I've awkwardly tried to steer the conversation and avoid having to introduce someone, because, I just can't remember their name. Recognise the face, dimly, but who they are and what they do, well it's just a blank. Admittedly sometimes there are mitigating circumstances. For example (a) they have a foreign name or strong accent so I didn't get it; (b) I met them in a loud and rambuctious party and didn't hear; (c) I was drunk; or (d) they were so boring I just tuned out and was day dreaming about lying in my hammock/ dragons/ a new research project idea/ a crush or cutie/ beer. So if I'm at a party with you, and I'm politely chatting to an aquaintance, if I don't automatically introduce them to you, please don't ask me to ...

For those of you who sympathize, here's a song just for you ...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ding-dong the witch is dead

I posted a week or so back about the problems I'm having with a crazy person hassling and persucuting me. Well they have finally succumbed/ surrendered without having to go to the matresses and hiring lawyers. That's an enormous stress off my shoulders. I got my first good night sleep in in don't know how long last night. Now life can go back to normal (ish) ... I hope.

Who am I?

This is just a quick post because several of my friends spoke to me over the past month about the Myers-Briggs test. I remember doing one when I was a kid and all I remember was that it came out as just in the introverted category. Well, I had a go and this is what I got

Extravert(27%) iNtuitive(62%) Feeling(25%) Judging(1%)

Intuitive didn't surprise me - I'm a big picture / strategic kind of thinker. The Extroverted part did, as a lot of the time I'm on my own and in my own head much of the time, and like my quiet time. But I am also huge attention-ho these days, so maybe that's it. Despite being a scientist, anyone who knows me would atest to teh fact that I'm not always the most logical. Spock I ain't.  what did intrigue me was that according to one website I am a close personality match for Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley, and if you've read my blog entries from the beginning, you probably know my huge teenage crush, and how that would tickle me.

That's it for now. I'm currently recovering from a manic week-long trip to Scotland, but have a few posts warming on the hob ...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

I wish I taught at Hogwarts

It’s been nearly a year since the Harry Potter movie and five years since the last book was released. I have to admit that I’m suffering from Hogwarts withdrawal. Despite having health and safety practices that would make the average school administration run screaming (I mean, the health and safety issues in just a game of quiddich, let alone the tri-wizard cup tournament !) the ancient history that permeated Hogwarts bones, and the coziness of the school – four poster beds for students and common rooms with tapestries and roaring fire places.

Perhaps it’s because I went to a British boarding school (although I didn’t board myself), and went to university in the spired ancient, alcoholic gloriousness that is Oxford, and taught at a high school that is probably as close to Hogwarts as one can get without using wands (Christ Hospital School in West Sussex), that I felt at home with the idea of Hogwarts.

 Maybe it’s because I associated with the characters of the books too.  Although I was the spitting image of Daniel Radcliff when I was a tween, I probably associate more with Hermione: the clever, bossy smart-arse, and outsider, whose family background was profoundly different to her classmates. Although being a bit of a class clown, getting into scrapes, and for occasionally being oblivious to goings on, I had/have certain Ron-like tendencies. 

But despite trolls lose in the bathrooms, and basilisks in the basement, Hogwarts had a homey feel that I craved and missed. I wish I was teaching at Hogwarts. The university I’m at lacks the history, class and grandeur of Hogwarts, the student body lacks the camaraderie, familiness and school spirit, the president lacks the wisdom and drive of Dumbledore and the provost lacks the organization, courage and sassiness of MacGonnegal, although we have more than our fair share of Professor Trelawnes, Lockharts, Quirrels and Snapes. Class would also be so much interesting if you could wave your wand turn the student at the back, who’s been watching youtube all the way through class, into a skrewt. 

Don’t make me get Mr Knightley on your ass

One of my guilty pleasures is Jane Austen, and two of my favourite scenes from Jane Austen movies are when Edward Ferrers (Hugh Grant) tells Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) that he isn’t, after all, married, and she makes that amazing “uhguffle” sound, of relief.


My second favourite scene (any version) is when George Knightly chastises (“badly done Emma, badly done”) Emma Woodhouse for snapping a witty retort that ends up insulting and hurting a friend. George chastises Emma even though she will take the criticism badly, he knows that she will get angry, hate him for it, but he criticizes her none the less because he loves her deeply, and knows she is better than that.

This is my favourite version of the scene ...

Now why am I bringing this to your attention? Well, to give you a bit of background, as I’ve mentioned before probably 90% of my closest friends are female, I have many of them, and they tend to be of a type: outspoken, witty, very clever, vivacious, go-getters. Most are outwardly seem super-confident (although often vulnerable beneath), and although a couple are shy, most like to be center of attention. They are often very willful. I love them all dearly. But sometimes being outspoken they go across the line. One of my friends behaved recently in a way that could have consequences, and would likely end up hurting people. She didn’t really mean to, but that’s the way she is, sometimes there’s collateral damage. And so I went all Mr Knightley and told her “badly done … badly done”. But it was because I cared. This made me start thinking about the all times when I should have called friends on what they were doing, when I should have spoken up, but I didn’t. Sometimes I thought I should just let things slide, sometimes I was worried about offending, or starting an argument. Well if a friend doesn’t appreciate when you are trying to help them, or to get them to see another point of view, even if they don’t like what they hear, well they aren’t really that good a friend after all.

Albus Dumbledore wisely said "There are all kinds of courage. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." If you can’t stand up to a friend when they are doing something that will reflect badly on them, or when they are doing something that could hurt others when they don’t mean to, well what kind of friend are you anyway. I’ve really appreciated it when friends have called me on some of the things I’ve done, even though it might have pissed me off at the time, it increased my respect for them. Boy, do I need reining in on my behavior at times! So if you’re a friend of mine and I see you doing something that might hurt you, or hurt others, don’t make me get all Mr Knightly on your ass !

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sage advice: Chimpanzee politics and alpha males

OK, I’m back with another article for my female friends about how to decipher how men think and behave. This post is about being Alpha.

Whenever men get together they are constantly, sub-consciously assessing each other and establishing hierarchies. Who is the Alpha chimpanzee, who is Beta, and who is the lowest of the low, the Omega*? I started thinking about this past weekend when out with a group of friends, to noticed that the guys were deferring to me – even though one was my age, and was ex-special forces and could probably kill me with his pinky, I was the one who was making all the decisions, and being deferred to (this was probably because I was the boss of his girlfriend, and the supervisor of many others there - and so was the one that most there were automatically looking to). 

Usually when men meet there is some subtle, or not so subtle jostling about who is alpha. This may involve non-verbal communication, such as posturing. Standing straight with legs apart, or sitting, leaning back, legs spayed, this are typical alpha poses. Me top chimpanzee, look at the size of my impressive genitals.

Even something like a handshake could be involved – my father taught me to try to give a strong, near crippling hand shake whenever possible. Some men however use this and close a handshake super-quick, so that before you can get a good manly grip, you are instead left grasping fingers of a firm hand shake you are – you have been up-alphaed by trickery.

Sometimes the posturing is verbal. Usually in the form of trying to out compete the other males by stories, tales of prowess, or mastery. Because, as I’ve mentioned before, everything is a competition for guys, and status is everything. In many ways, the tales of “how much I had to drink”, “she was so into me” or “I’ve just bought a new Bugatti” are no different to the tales of battles and cunning Vikings would tell around the fire place in their mead halls, all attempts to establish hierarchies. However, sometimes chimpanzees lie, and in due time you will see the other chimps testing this verbal posturing – can they back up their claims? Or will they be caught in a lie? The chimp caught out, will soon find their place in the hierarchy faltering and they plummet in status. I have a couple of relatives who were particularly bad at telling stories and exaggerating to promote their status, and they were easy to see through, however, to call them on it would cause them to lose status, cause embarrassment and ruin Thanksgiving.  

By agreeing with, or even bolstering the verbal bragging of a higher status, alpha male a younger chimpanzee gains favour with the elder, and also is seen as being less of a threat, subservient and less of a competitor. To see this in action just watch any (socially aware) guy who is meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.

Now, woe betide you if you get a group of established alphas in a room together. They will start jostling for superiority, and the inner chimpanzee may come out, and poo may be flung. In my world this is called “a faculty meeting”. The posturing and whatnot is usually more pronounced in academia, as many professors are used to being alphas in their labs or classes, and moreover often lack social skills or self-awareness to moderate their behavior so that it’s more subtle. Amongst so many wanna-be alphas, sometimes a chimp needs to get a bit stick and clout the competition – metaphorically of course.

Personally, at work I’m an alpha through and through. To adequately control a class of over 100 students, you have to make yourself their alpha. For graduate students, this is particularly important, as they may be used to being top dog in their offices – many of my graduate students, in fact I would say close to a half, are older than me and often have senior government positions, frequently out earning me, so you have to show them who’s boss quickly – and in an academic setting, this is usually through leadership skills, organization, and showing that you not only know what you’re talking about, but you know more than they do. You can tell a class where the instructor is not the alpha – students aren’t listening, they are always arguing and talking back, or getting obstructive. Being alpha is particularly difficult if you are younger, or look younger (as I do/am), so you have to exert yourself more and establish that dominance early. I also chair and organize multiple committees and groups of academics - which again is pretty tough when you are relatively young. This involves constant chest beating and alpha-ness trying to get squabbling academics to listen to you, to respect your opinion, to agree, with your plan; to stop their academic hand-waving and posturing and to concentrate on the matter of hand and get organized. In many ways, my short term as an elementary school teacher and as an uncle of a bunch of feral nieces and nephews was very useful, in trying to control the bunch of ADD children that are many academic faculty. 

Being alpha is particularly important in a field setting. You could be in a situation where carrying out a command could mean the difference between life and death, or at least a serious injury or problems. This past summer, although at times had a group of 50 or so students, if I said the night was over, we are going home, or “you will be at the bus at 7:30”, it was done. No arguing. Everyone left the bar as if a fire drill had been called. That’s alpha.

One of my students recently had problems controlling a class. That was because she tried too hard to be a peer and a friend, without establishing ground rules and dominance first. So that when things went south, it was hard for her to get control. When I was a high school teacher I was once told “don’t smile until half term”. This is a dominance trick. Look fierce, aggressive, look in control. If you try to be the student’s friends too soon, you lose our ability to rein them in. It becomes easier at university, but you still need to use similar tricks. I saw a colleague lose a class when they realized that he did not know the subject and was trying to bluff his way through. Come in strong, and knowledgeable. Set the ground rules quickly. Show that against wrong doers that you will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger” to quote the bible/Samuel L. Jackson.
Now, as I said before, for men, it's all about status and ego, and alpha-ness is part of that. Want to crush a man, you undermine and destroy his status, especially in front of others who are assessing him. You can sometimes see this happening in relationships that are collapsing. She openly contradicts his verbal posturing in front of others, especially males who he is trying to impress. It's also a staple scene in many sit coms (just think of the US, or especially the British, version of "The Office"). It's funny, because it strikes a cord, and you are extremely thankful that it's not happening to you.
Now women have hierarchies and plays of status and dominance too, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that they don't. It’s just men do it ALL THE TIME, and we are not as subtle and sophisticated about it. We are still chimps at heart. Women are a little more involved ... and evolved.

*The omega male is the lowest of the low. Imagine a colony of elephant seals on a beach. The Alphas and betas are the beach masters, controlling the beach. The alpha lies in wait in the surf until the beach master is preoccupied fending off a competitor, or a predator, to sneak onto the beach and force his unwanted attentions on the female elephant seals. In a night club, this would be the sleazy guy who waits until the end and tries to hit on the drunk and vulnerable, especially when the alphas are not there. If caught by the alpha and beta males though, the omega will get an ass-whuppin’.

It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life ...

Something to mellow out to ...

We can dance if we want to …

The past two days I’ve been indulging in one of my guilty pleasures: dancing. Now, the average British male doesn’t dance, or if forced, they dance like this:

I have many times been complimented on my fancy footwork, and my ability to ‘riff’ off another dancer. I like to think I dance like this:

Admittedly, when I really let go, I can end up dancing a little like this though:

My parents were dancing instructors (for Scottish / English country dancing), I grew up watching Grease and on a diet of Saturday afternoon repeats of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, my first girlfriend was obsessed by Dirty Dancing and at one time i could pretty much do the whole routine, and these days I spend a lot of time working in Central / Latin America, which ultimately leads to evenings on the dance floor, in countries where it is not seen as odd, or unmanly, for guys to get up and go dancing. So this may explain where my dancing feet come from.

Anyway, this past Friday I went out with a group of my younger, more adventurous, besties for an evening of micro-brews and fun. The evening ended up at a club, and I found myself (a) the only guy dancing in a group of close to a dozen women and (b) the subject of some jealousy from the non-dancing menfolk in our group. So I had a little impromptu dance class, so now I'm imparting thios advice for the wider world:

Dance tips for guys who wanna dance wid the ladies

(a)  Move your frickin’ feet. Do not stand immobile like a tree rooted to the dance floor. Learn a basic salsa foot pattern, and move those feet.

(b)  Move your hips too. And your knees, bends them. Seriously. That’s what makes the sexy.
c)  Music has a beat/rhythm. Listen to it. Move with it. Don’t dance in a sequence of random movements that have no relationship with the music. At its base, most music has a rhythm that follows a heartbeat. Listen to your heart.

(d)  Relax. Don’t over think things. Don’t get self-conscious (actually that‘s probably good advice for life in general).

(e)  Be confident (ditto on the general life advice). Don’t let the stares from the non-dancing guys standing around the edge of the dance floor make you self-conscious. They’re just jealous that you’re dancing with the ladies.

(f)   Concentrate on the lower half of your body. Let your arms do what they will. Too many guys dance concentrating on their arms to the exclusion of everything else.

(g)  But … do let your arms move – unless you are riverdancing.

(h)  Shoulders should move sinuously and smoothly. Not violently popping up and down like you’re doing some sort of strange abs workout.’

(i)    Sometimes, less is more.

This has been a public service announcement …

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Beer and loafing in PA

So I’m back, if not from outer space, at least from outta this century. I’ve just spent the past two weeks at Pennsic – two weeks of camping amidst 11,000 card-carrying hardcore nerds, geeks and history/fantasy buffs. My people.

Two weeks dressed as a pirate, attending classes on mediaeval/ renaissance history, spending money I can’t afford on baubles and trinkets, and drinking quantities of alcohol that would make Robert Downey Junior go “hold on, that’s a bit much”.

I normally go every year for a week of escapism, but this year I went for two weeks. My liver is still aching.

Now there were some fun parts to Pennsic this year. I learnt how to roast coffee beans. I taught a couple of classes myself (about the history and folklore of marine mammals). I went on the annual “rum roam” with an old buddie, had some quality time and caught up, and enjoyed an excellent “pub” crawl to boot. I learnt how to play scrabble properly, so that I actually started winning games (this is the one board game I always get trounced at normally – I just used to like making cool words, instead of playing strategically. But now I get it !). I had fun drawing on people with henna (including a henna Cththulu and elvish phrases, that looked totally awesome). We had an excellent band visit camp, who sang us piratey/bawdy ballads. I also had some quality time with a male friend of mine I only see once a year, who is hilarious as hell, and one of the nicest people I know – such that there was teasing in camp about our bromance. Plus, I GOT TO WEAR PIRATE CLOTHES EVERY DAY !

I also: (a) nearly got into a bar room brawl with someone over the war of 1812 (one of my special skills); (b) got very drunk one day and embarrassed myself with a fit of bad singing and obnoxiousness; (c) got hit in the head by at least three tent/ridge poles while trying to help camp mates; (d) spent way too much money; and worst of all (e) dropped my glasses in the porta potty (ewwwww!) – luckily I had a spare pair.

Duckpocalypse now !

Sometimes you just have to catapult rubber ducks from one half of camp to the other. You need to keep the riff-raff in their place by raining ducky destruction down upon their heads. Unfortunately this led to some revolution from the other half of camp, with us finding one day, the heads of decapitated rubber ducks on kebab skewers lining the walkways – very ‘Game of Thrones’. Ducks were also placed into a pie and presented to “duckmaster general”.

The resistance was brutal

A woade design on a member of the duckie resistance

This of course spawned duck-hurling retribution, with the cry “release the quacken !” more rubber ducks hailed down onto the revolting camp mates. This then spawned a follow-on coup, involving the other half of camp painting themselves blue and reenacting the “Freedom” speech from Braveheart (I admit though, being a Beneduck  Arnold and switching side at this point, and helping to mastermind the revolution – hey I’m a British/American dual citizen, I sometimes get conflicted).

So you can shower me with ducks, you can drink my rum, you can hit me o'er the head with a tent pole, you can even gossip  and make up rumors about me all you want, but ... you can NAEVER TACK AWAE MA FREEDUM ! "