Thursday, 31 October 2013

St Augustine

I haven't done a picture post in a while.

The family and I recently visited St Augustine, the oldest city in America. St Augustine was founded in 1565 by the Spanish navy and subsequently served as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years. It repeatedly switched between Spanish and British hands until the Spanish, broke, sold Florida to the Americans in 1819. Yay history!

 The St Augustine lighthouse was built in 1874. This is the second St Augustine lighthouse; the first fell into the sea.

 The view up to the top of the lighthouse. There are about 170 steps to the top; this is about half the number of steps as Hampstead tube station which, at 190 feet below ground level, is the deepest tube station in London. Yay for random, useless facts! The next time you go to a pub quiz there will blatantly be a question about the deepest tube station - you're welcome.

  The view from the top - it was pretty stormy

 Me in the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental US. There were jaunty people in dubiously period costumes, leading me to the conclusion that all historical sites should have jaunty costumed folk.

 I bloody love a good canon... 

Petrified wood at the Lightner Museum. 

The Lightner Museum is one of the oddest museums I have ever been to. The building was beautiful but the rooms were just crowded with the oddest assortments of things. There was one room devoted to some guy's toaster collection. In fact the whole museum, with its large rooms of random items, reminded me of this creepy scene at the end of Return to Oz (which, to be honest, is pretty creepy from start to finish).

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Women as Reward

Last month I saw the Puccini opera, Turandot. The staging was incredible and the costumes were stunning but as the story unfolded, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with the plight of the story’s hero. Puccini’s opera is based on a story from the book ‘Seven Beauties’ by the 12th century Persian poet, Nizami. In the opera, a Prince falls in love with Princess Turandot but in order to marry her he needs to solve three riddles. After solving the riddles, Turandot tries to renege on the deal, claiming that she has vowed never to be possessed by a man. Fair play, Turandot. However the chorus insists that the Prince has been successful in his challenge and therefore deserves to be rewarded with the princess’s hand in marriage.

While watching Puccini’s opera I couldn’t help but think of this article on (is a sentence no one has ever said before). The article argues that men are trained from a young age to believe that if they are successful, brave or cunning, they, like the prince in Puccini’s opera, will be rewarded with a beautiful princess.

This trope of the man being given a woman as a reward for some achievement is very commonplace in fairytales. The 12 Dancing Princesses, Sleeping Beauty and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinderbox all follow this general story.

Now the idea that men should be rewarded for their actions with women is perpetuated not by fairytales but by films. The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, Speed and Avatar are among the numerous examples given by Cracked of films where men are rewarded with beautiful women. Some films are obviously worse for this than others. The Cracked article mentions Transformers but I don’t actually think that Transformers deserves all the criticism it gets (is a sentence no one has ever said before). Shia LaBeouf’s character may be completely devoid of charm or talent but at least he and Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela, actually have conversations and vaguely get to know each other before getting together at the film’s close.

I actually think one of the worst offenders for this clichéd trope is The Matrix. Neo spends the entire film looking bewildered and underwhelming people and yet, when he’s getting a serious ass-kicking by Agent Smith in the third act, Trinity declares her love for him. Really? I don’t think they actually have a conversation that is a) longer than a few minutes or b) not about how awesome Morpheus is. Essentially, just by virtue of being The One, Neo gets a hot woman and a badass coat.

So from where has this trope originated? One theory suggests we have the ancient Greeks to blame. In Greek mythology, inheritance is often passed down the female line so the man who marries the king’s daughter inherits the throne and the wealth. In The Iliad, Menelaus becomes king of Sparta through marrying Helen; Oedipus becomes King of Thebes by marrying the recently widowed queen. And there are similar examples in Celtic and Breton myths. In a system of matrilineal inheritance, it seems reasonable for young men to be awarded marriage only after proving themselves through some sort of challenge because it ensures that the throne and the kingdom’s wealth isn’t going to some incompetent moron.

The ‘woman as reward’ trope as seen in films is different from the trope as seen in fairytales. Usually films show the couple getting to know each other and falling in love over a period of time to make it more palatable to modern audiences. The women are seen to choose the men rather than just being presented to them. And there are films that subvert this trope such as Casablanca, Hancock and, of course, Harry Potter where it’s the ginger-haired sidekick that gets the girl rather than the titular hero. The ‘woman as reward’ trope probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon but at least films have to try and show that the woman has some agency in the matter.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Bits and Bobs

Apparently there's going to be a big storm this weekend (the biggest since 1987) so here's some interesting reading for you to peruse while escaping the weather...

- I was an avid watcher of the webseries, the Lizzie Bennett Diaries. You should binge-watch them all right now. The Atlantic has an interesting article about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and whether they represent a new form of interactive entertainment.

- The internet might love Benedict Cumberbatch and Jennifer Lawrence but that doesn't necessarily translate into success in Hollywood. Vulture looks at how internet popularity effects the careers of film stars.

- Read this amazing story of a young man searching for his mother in the Amazon.

- Banksy has been making waves during his month-long residency in New York. Check out this interesting article in The New Yorker which discusses our ability to assign value to art.

- This 19th century criminal slang is amazing! I am determined to use the phrase 'sluice your gob' in the near future... also 'tooth-music'.

- A guy at an entrepreneur's conference made a somewhat disparaging tweet about women who wear high-heeled shoes. I found this interesting because I work in an overwhelmingly male workplace and I often wonder how my sartorial choices affect how my coworkers perceive me. I work in a casual office and it would be perfectly ok for me to rock up at the office in jeans and a t-shirt. But I tend to dress more formal than is required because it makes me feel more professional and it creates a sort of demarcation between work and leisure time. From reading this article I'm now wondering whether my male coworkers interpret my smarter apparel as a sign of vanity or a lack of seriousness.

- Ben & Jerry's are releasing a limited-edition flavour in honour of the upcoming release of Anchorman 2. I feel like the world is now a slightly better place.

- A female model reaching the end of her modelling career decided to cut her hair off and is now making a successful career as a male model. Here are two interesting articles on her career move.

- Scientists (actual, legitimate scientists) carried out some mathematical modelling on a potential zombie virus outbreak. The conclusion is kind of grim. The article is amazing though and I can't believe I have only just discovered its existence.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

War as a Driving Force for Civilisation

Andrew Brown at The Guardian posted an article at the weekend about war. I, unsurprisingly, have opinions.

The article itself is actually pretty good at showcasing a point that is often overlooked by people who aren’t as into war as yours truly. Brown discusses a recent study which uses computer modeling to show how war has been the driving force behind the emergence of civilised societies (societies with bureaucracies, networks of mutual trust, public order etc.) The authors of the study mapped Europe, Asia and North Africa and found a strong correlation between the development of military technology and the development of ‘ultrasocial’ societies. This is a fascinating rebuttal to those who, like Edwin Starr, think that war has only played a destructive role in the development of human societies.

While I don’t disagree with the content of the article, what irks me is that Brown is presenting this information as if it’s new! What about Charles Tilly? What about Philip Bobbitt? While the use of computer modeling to show the relationship between war and human society is new, the argument that war is a powerful driving force for societal innovation is certainly not.

Charles Tilly argued in 1975 that “war made the state”. According to his theory, military innovation (such as large, conscripted armies and gunpowder) made war extremely expensive. Only the richest, most populous states could maintain the military capability required to guarantee their security and survival. Thus the modern state, with its taxes, and the bureaucracies required to collect those taxes, developed as a way of feeding the war machine.

This idea is expanded upon by Bobbitt in his excellent book ‘The Shield of Achilles’. Bobbitt takes an epicly broad, historical perspective to demonstrate the importance of war in shaping constitutional innovation, the nation state and the free market. His book is too immense (the book’s nearly 1,000 pages long) to summarise for a blog but his core argument is that there is a reciprocal interplay between military strategy and constitutional innovation. So the French revolution brought about the Napoleonic revolution in military strategy, and the innovations in artillery during the Renaissance brought about the princely states.

Brown writes books on religion so I don’t really expect him to have an encyclopedic knowledge of war literature. But Tilly is a classic! Even the most perfunctory of Google searches on war and the development of the modern state would have revealed that the study Brown is discussing is hardly groundbreaking. Since Brown quite regularly discusses war, it might not be a bad idea for him to peruse some Bobbitt. 


Tilly C (1975) The Formation of National States in Western Europe 

Bobbitt P (2002) The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Bits and Bobs

The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder and the heating in my flat is refusing to cooperate. Ho hum, Autumn is undeniably here. At least there's lots of interesting reading to enjoy while huddled under a fluffy blanket...

- The Rolling Stones looks at various schools in receipt of state funding in the US that are discriminating against gay students despite the supposed separation between church and state.

- Disney claims that women are too hard to animate. Damn those females and their abundance of emotions!

- You had me at 'cyborg cockroaches'

- Here's a fascinating article written by a journalist who went undercover at a sweatshop in Bangladesh. A couple of days later I came across this article in The Guardian which similarly discusses whether cheap goods are worth the price we pay in terms of human costs. The Guardian article takes a broader look - not just discussing sweatshops but also human trafficking, low wages and the cuts to funding for services that look after the elderly.

- Tree houses for grown-ups?! Yes please!

- According to a recent study, just looking at food can help satiate hunger. This makes a lot of sense to me! Several months ago I had to fast before a medical procedure and I spent the entire day watching The Food Network and looking at pictures of food on pinterest. I thought I was being a masochist but clearly I was just trying to satiate my (considerable) hunger.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Alcohol and Sexual Violence

On Tuesday, Slate's Emily Yoffe wrote an article about the link between alcohol consumption and rape. The internet did not take it well.

Yoffe's article starts by summarising a number of studies regarding sexual assault and rape on college campuses. The findings of these studies are pretty grim: by the time they are seniors, 20% of college women will have been victims of sexual assault; very few of these assaults are ever reported. Yoffe then goes on to discuss the numerous studies that have linked sexual violence at college campuses to significant alcohol consumption. 80% of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and woman have been drinking. Yoffe concludes from these studies that women should curtail their alcohol consumption in order to protect themselves.

It's at this point that Yoffe starts to earn the ire of the internet. Yoffe's recommendation that women limit their alcohol intake has been interpreted by numerous writers as victim-blaming. Instead of telling women to stop drinking, we should be telling men to stop raping.

However, Yoffe also has her defenders. Emily Matchar of The Atlantic Wire argues that Yoffe makes a valid point: alcohol and sexual violence is intimately linked. However Yoffe's error was in directing her advice only to women; men too should be educated on the links between alcohol and sexual violence. Yoffe's article links to a really fascinating survey by Antonia Abbey of Wayne State University which brings together the findings of numerous studies on sexual violence on college campuses. These studies show that: college men frequently view drunk women as being sexually promiscuous and therefore appropriate targets for sexual aggression; men who have consumed large amounts of alcohol are more likely to misinterpret social cues from women (viewing simple friendliness as sexual advances); and college men frequently believe that alcohol consumption is a justification for socially aggressive behaviour. Instead of telling women to protect themselves from rape by not drinking, we should be countering these disturbing and depressingly common beliefs about alcohol. Alcohol does not absolve you from responsibility for your actions. And a drunk woman is not 'asking for it'.

After reading the original studies to which Yoffe's article refers, I can understand how Yoffe has come to the conclusion that women should be educated on the importance on limiting their drinking. However from reading the studies it's also clear that educating men is similarly as important.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Politics of Celebrity Covers

I remember when magazines had models on the front covers. Those days, however, are long gone and now it's only celebrity faces gracing the front covers of women's magazines. The simple reason for this change is that magazines with celebrity covers sell better than those with anonymous models. So the magazines made the shift to showing only celebrities on their covers and while models do, of course, occasionally land the highly sought after cover, it's only the model mega-stars like Kate Moss. But some celebrities are better at selling magazines that others and a lot of thought goes into which celebrity should front which issue to maximise sales for that month. Check out this article for an interesting breakdown on the selling power of the various celebrities.

This month's cover of Elle features Melissa McCarthy (from Bridesmaids and The Heat) and the verdict is pretty mixed. Some are celebrating the inclusion of a plus-size woman on the cover of a prestigious magazine. Most seem critical that Melissa McCarthy's body is entirely obscured with a large coat. What makes Melissa McCarthy's ensconcement stand out more is that the alternative covers for this month feature Reese Witherspoon in a skin-tight black dress, Marion Cotillard in a crop-top and Shailene Woodley in her underwear. So it's nice to see Melissa McCarthy on the cover; it would have been nicer to see more of her.

Vogue UK garnered similar levels of scorn in 2011 when they featured the wonderful Adele on their cover but used a close-up image in what many claimed was an attempt to hide her body. However according to Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman, Adele herself requested that a close-up photo be used due to her own insecurities over her figure. Whether or not the close-up shot was Adele's idea, it's undeniable that magazines tend to use the same tight headshot when featuring larger women on their covers. Melissa McCarthy's cover probably wouldn't be as big of a deal if it wasn't a part of a long line of covers obscuring larger bodies.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Bits and Bobs

Here are some interesting things I've read recently...

- Anyone who has watched a film with me or been to the theatre with me will know that I am a crier. I cry when Mufasa dies in the Lion King, I cry at episodes of Doctor Who , I cry every time I hear this song. So I was interested to read that I am not alone when it comes to uncontrollable crying; a lot of people apparently can't help but cry on planes. Here's an article trying to explain why.

- I really, really want to see Alfonso Cuarón's new film Gravity. The reviews are practically breathless with praise. So to temper that praise, here's an article ripping it apart for factual inaccuracy. I'm always interested to see the extent to which films are accurate, though I usually don't mind films sacrificing factual accuracy for the sake of good storytelling (within reason). And then here's an article pondering whether there's any use in fact checking films.

- Slate looks at the trend of using the term 'fiance' even when a couple has no intention of marrying.

- The New York Times looks at the statistics for accidental child shootings in America and finds that idiosyncrasies in official records may be obscuring the true death toll.

- I recently wrote about chemical weapons and why they are seen as particularly intolerable compared to conventional weapons. Here's a good article looking at a lot of the same points.

Uncontrollable crying, accidental child shootings and chemical weapons? Well this is an abnormally depressing installment of bits and bobs - here's something cheery...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Dancing Towards Greater Diversity at Fashion Week

Eden Miller was the first designer to show a plus size range at New York fashion week and I responded with some scepticism (or perhaps... restrained optimism would be more accurate). Well at Paris Fashion Week, designer Rick Owens decided to use an American college step team rather than models to showcase his clothes. His show, and his eschewment of the usual tall, skinny models, has won him considerable praise and and some decent press coverage too.

Read about it here... and then watch the video here...

So I'm upgrading my optimism levels from restrained to gentle.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Roots of Terrorism

I recently came across this Slate article discussing comments made by President Obama, when he was still a Senator, about the causes of terrorism. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Obama argued that extremist violence “grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance.” The Slate article gives a really good analysis of these claims and the wider academic debate surrounding the idea that terrorism is caused by poverty and ignorance - go give it a read.

I think this is a really interesting topic of debate! Terrorism is often associated with poverty because it is compared with crime. The extensive literature on the economics of crime offers some reason to believe that poverty and lack of education are linked to illegal activity. However violence crimes, such as murder, are generally unrelated to economic opportunities. And anyway, terrorism isn’t really comparable to crime.

The Slate article mentions the fantastic article by Krueger and Maleckova (2002) entitled ‘Education, Poverty and Terrorism’. In their article, Krueger and Maleckova argue that terrorism may actually offer greater benefits for those with more education. Well-educated individuals may participate disproportionately in terrorist groups if they think they will assume leadership positions or if they identify more strongly with the goals of the terrorist organisation than less educated individuals.

It’s also important to consider the demand side of the equation, not just supply. This is a point elaborated on by Pape in his fascinating article ‘The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’. Terrorist organisations may prefer better-educated individuals since a high level of educational attainment is probably a signal of one’s commitment to a cause as well as determination and ability to prepare for, and carry out, an assignment.

Krueger and Maleckova also make the excellent point that there needs to be a distinction between suicide terrorists and other terrorists. Suicide bombers are obviously less motivated by personal gain (although promises of larger payments to their families may be a factor) and thus their primary motivation derives from their passionate support for their movement. Eradicating poverty and improving education is unlikely to change these feelings.

This is just a brief summary of the debate. You should really check out the Slate article, then click on the links and read all of those articles too! When you’re done reading all those articles… check out the books and articles below…

Chapter 5 of Barkawi (2005) 'Globalisation and War' has an interesting discussion on terrorism

Pape (2003) 'The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism'

Crenshaw (2007) 'Terrorism and Global Security'