Friday, 29 November 2013

Greenwich Fun Day

I took a few days off work this week to see some exhibitions that I've been wanting to see for awhile. This meant spending a lovely (though chilly) day wondering the streets of historic Greenwich.

 The beautiful Greenwich University. 

First destination was the Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. I thought this was a beautifully done exhibition. There was a lovely range of objects from uniforms to musical instruments, books, weapons and illustrations. There were some amazing paintings - the kind of massive canvasses where you have to step way back to take everything in. The light fixtures on the ceiling looked like sails which was a nice touch. While I thought this was a great exhibition, if you're not that into naval history or war, you should probably give this one a miss.

 Giant Palmier makes me happy...

 There were a lot of these lovely old naval lamps at the museum - it was a hipster dream!

 The tulip staircase at the Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum

After the Nelson exhibition, my flatmate and I went to the Turner exhibition. I was amazed at how wonderfully quiet this exhibition was; there was hardly anyone there which meant I got to wonder around in my own little world, surrounded by these huge Turner masterpieces. A large part of the exhibition was dedicated to Turner's watercolours which was a bit underwhelming since most of them were on loan from the Tate Britain so I'd already seen them there. The large canvasses were amazing of course. There wasn't much of his later work which I thought was unusual since those tend to be his most popular pieces.

 Beautiful painted ceiling in the Queen's House at the National Maritime Museum.

I also went to the Georgian Britain exhibition at the British Library. This exhibition was beautiful. I'm a big map nerd and there were some beautiful old maps of London. Opera music was being played throughout the exhibition which I thought was a nice touch; I don't know why more exhibitions don't have atmospheric music. And, of course, I can't possibly go to the British Museum without buying cupcakes from Peyton and Byrne.

If I had to choose one of the three exhibitions to recommend - I'd probably go for the Turner exhibition. Greenwich might be a bit of a trek but some of the paintings on display are some of the most stunning paintings ever made by man. A lot of the paintings there were also from private collections which means that this is probably you're only chance to see them before they're secreted away.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Internet is not (just) for Porn

Anyone who knows me knows that I am frequently annoyed by people saying stupid things on the internet. Most of the time when I encounter something moronic, I just ignore it and carry on with my life. Occasionally, I'll vocalise my frustration to whomever happens to be in proximity to me when I'm perusing the internet (thank you Anna, my lovely flatmate, for your unending patience in the face of my internet-fueled ranting). And sometimes, when I encounter something really egregious, I'll write a response.

The other day, while reading The Guardian's otherwise estimable new coverage, I came across an article containing three paragraphs that are just so very wrong that I'm pretty certain I audibly gasped. The article in question looks at the censoring of child porn images on the internet and how censoring is only a first step which must be followed by action in the real world in order to adequately protect children from predators. The article overall is pretty inoffensive and I don't really have any objections to the argument put forward by Jackie Ashley.

But what I do object to is the article's opening three paragraphs which describe the internet in such sensationalist terms that I momentarily thought I was accidentally reading the Daily Mail. Jackie Ashley describes the internet as such a hotbed of corruption and sexual deviancy that I can't help but wonder what kind of sites Ashley is perusing. 

Ashley starts her article by lamenting that, "there's something very sad about what has happened to the internet." She then follows this statement by painting an image of a bygone time when the internet was "a cornucopia of democratic wonders", making knowledge and independent entertainment freely available to the masses. However, instead of ushering in a new era of enlightenment and freedom of information, the internet has just unleashed an unending stream of paedophiles and sexualisation of children. The reader is urged to remember "that earlier, optimistic vision" of the internet rather than the sex-filled internet of today. This is a massive oversimplification of the wonderful diversity in information and entertainment available on the internet. While Ashley's article seeks to discuss the important topic of how best to protect children from sexual predation, she undermines herself by making shrill, tabloid-style proclamations about the degeneracy of society at the hands of the malicious internet.

I will be the first to admit that there are some utter cretins roaming the internet. Think of the horrific internet backlash experienced by the women who campaigned to get Jane Austen on the £10 note. Or how about this blog post from former National Review columnist, John Derbyshire, which argues that slavery in the US wasn't actually that bad of a deal for the slaves. Or how about this man who stripped his unconscious wife and bared all to the internet via webcam. But to conclude from this that the internet is "all about predatory paedophiles" is just wrong. And by saying that the internet has failed in its original vision to "bring the best information and entertainment to the billions" is doing a disservice to the intelligent, innovative and creative minds currently doing exactly that.

There is an amazing and ever-expanding treasure trove of education-related entertainment being produced. There's Vihart's youtube channel which wittily and artistically explains mathematical concepts, from the Fibonacci sequence to Pythagoras and irrational numbers. Her videos are as intellectually stimulating as they are visually arresting. Or how about Crash Course which has hundreds of videos covering topics including the history of atomic theory, stoichiometry, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the Peloponnesian War. The comments sections on both of these channels are some of the most civilised I have ever encountered. 

Ashley's claims that the internet has failed to democratise tycoon-driven media empires overlooks the amazing range and quality of independently created media available on the internet. There are countless media channels available, covering current affairs, film critique, comedy shorts. I posted a few weeks ago about how the internet is retelling classic stories in fascinating and more inclusive ways. And the variety of mind-blowing, independently-produced music is incredible. How about Peter Hollens' incredible acapella songs. Or Pentatonix's beautiful musical arrangements that are bursting with enthusiasm. Or Lindsey Stirling, the dubstep violinist, making classical music accessible to the social media generation.

The internet is being awesome in ways that Ashley probably doesn't even realise because I get the impression that she doesn't actually spend that much time getting involved in online projects or communities. There are huge online communities of like-minded individuals that are making genuine contributions to improving the lives of the less fortunate. On a more personal note, when I was freaking out over medical tests that I needed for health problems that my doctor had trouble diagnosing (I was utterly convinced I had cancer), reading and watching testimonials from other people living with chronic illnesses was incredibly comforting. 

So, yes, campaign for protections that will ensure that children are safe on the internet. But don't malign the internet as universally abhorrent because of a few unsavoury factions; it does a disservice to all the incredible and talented individuals using the internet to create and propagate amazing ideas and projects.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Bits and Bobs

I've spent most of my Saturday napping. Hopefully you've been far more productive! Here's some interesting and have a wonderful week.

- The controversial Heidelberg Project turns a decaying community in Detroit into a colourful, surrealist, work of art.

- Anders Ramsell painted nearly 13,000 watercolours to make this 34-minute paraphrased version of Blade Runner. It's amazing and beautiful.

- The Beckham recently donated some designer apparel to a charity shop to raise money for the victims of the recent Philippines typhoon. Here's a list of the best charity shops to frequent when looking for designer gear.

- The Atlantic has a really interesting article about massive data mining and how it's changing employment. There's a section about names and CV bias that reminds me of a chapter from Freakonomics. I don't know if I find this sort of large-scale data analysis interesting or scary.

- While we're on the theme of large-scale data analysis - here's an interesting article looking at how anthropologists use twitter to study movement patterns.

- Do you want to read about the kinky sex lives of spies? Of course you do!

- Film special effects these days are pretty spectacular but here are some things that still don't look right. For me, I always think that flying looks odd in a film - no matter how great the other special effects are.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

War Between Women

 Don't be fooled by the smiles; we all hate each other...sluts...

A study was recently published in the journal, Aggressive Behaviour, which apparently shows that women will act bitchy towards other women they see as promiscuous. Several websites have reported on the study but, disappointingly, haven't pointed out how epicly flawed it is. In the study, 86 participants were left in a room with another woman (either a friend or a stranger) and told they would be contributing to a study on friendship. Instead they were interrupted by another woman. Half the women encountered a pretty, blonde woman in a blue t-shirt and sensible chinos. The other half encountered the same woman in a hot-pink, low-cut top, mini-skirt and knee-high boots.

The participants' reactions to this interloper were assessed according to a 'bitchiness' score of 1-10.  The authors of the study, Vaillancourt and Sharma, found that the participants were more likely to be bitchy when the 'sexy' woman walked into the room and that their bitchiness was more pronounced when the participants were with friends, rather than strangers. The authors concluded that women stifle each other's sexuality through indirect aggression, bitchiness, because women use sex to negotiate with men and it is therefore in their best interest to punish promiscuous women to maintain a limited supply of sex. Vaillancourt's study is small but supposedly demonstrates slut-shaming in an experimental context.

To me, the first, and most obvious, criticism is the very concept of a 'bitchiness score'. Observing someone's reactions and placing them on a 'scale of bitch' seems preposterously unscientific, even by psychology's standards. Is an eye-roll more bitchy than a laugh? Is a smirk more bitchy than a glare? And facial expressions may not always accurately portray someone's opinions. A participant may have an excellent poker face - that doesn't mean she's not thinking bitchy things. Given psychologists' propensity for questionnaires, why not use a carefully crafted questionnaire to quantify the participants' opinions rather than the far less rigourous method of observation? Of course observation can be an invaluable tool for scientists in experiments but you can't arbitrarily assign numbers to vague observations and then think you can make meaningful conclusions from an analysis of those numbers. 

I also question whether the woman's differing outfits really convey what the authors want them to convey to the participants. 'Sexiness' is an incredibly subjective attribute. I don't think her outfit looks sexy, I think it looks immensely unflattering (hot-pink is no one's friend). And even if we were to decide that there is only one universally recognised standard of 'sexiness', sexy is not coterminous with promiscuous. I can think that someone is sexy and not think of them as a potential home-wrecker.

Even if we were to accept that bitchiness can be objectively measured, and that 'sexiness' and 'promiscuity' were both coterminous and universally recognised, the study still fails to show that women slut-shame other women because it excludes men. Various news sites have picked up on this study to conclude that there exists a war between women. But if men also show this same behaviour against people they perceive to be their sexual rivals, clearly we don't have a war between women but just war between people. Other studies have in fact shown that both men and women display competitive behaviour, using strategies of self-promotion and competitor derogation. This experiment is only half of the story and any conclusions about female behaviour, as separate from human behaviour more generally, are completely unfounded.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Bits and Bobs

Hello interweb! Hope you're having a lovely weekend. Here are some interesting things I've read in the last week - enjoy!

- The increased emphasis on organised clubs, the lack of appropriate outdoor spaces in our cities and the fear of predators means that children now spend less and less time just playing. Here's an interesting link at why a more structured life is not necessarily better for children.

- An awesome graffiti-covered building is about to be demolished to make space for a soulless apartment block in New York. Sad times! Check out the amazing photos here!

- Musician James Murphy wants to make the turnstiles on the New York subway play music. Sounds awesome to me but then I don't have to work in the stations and listen to the cacophony of rush hour.

- Photos of a beautiful abandoned Art Nouveau casino.

- This journalist manages to discuss both the McDonald's Chicken McNugget and the work of Holbein in one article - genius!

- Check out how to make the perfect buttercream icing here.

- I recently wrote about how women in politics are unfairly judged on their sartorial choices. This article on Janet Yellen's wardrobe seems to validate everything I said.

Friday, 15 November 2013

In Defence of the Disney Princess

I've written about Disney princesses before but I'm writing about them again because the vitriol they seem to inspire in people annoys me. People are often incredulous that I both love Disney and consider myself a feminist. But Disney and feminism are not mutually exclusive! Of course there is a lot to find objectionable in Disney, particularly the classic films from the 40s and 50s: the princesses are far too passive in their stories; they spend too much time pining after men; and older women are portrayed as evil, manipulative witches. But there is also a lot to commend. 

The fact that Disney has been championing female leads since the '30s is itself commendable. I have come across many statistical analyses of female characters in films (most recently, here) and none of them have been encouraging. Films with female main characters are still depressingly rare. In fact, films are woefully devoid of female characters altogether, whether they are in the lead role or not. The fact that Disney is repeatedly showcasing female stories is laudable. It's important to show that women's stories and women's lives are important enough to be put into film. 

The most well-known method for determining whether a film is feminist is the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test, a film must feature two or more female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Off the top of my head, most Disney films do not pass this test (although Sleeping Beauty does despite being frequently lambasted as the most anti-feminist of the Disney opus). In fact, depressingly, most films fail this test so it would be unfair to pick on Disney specifically for this failing. But there are other ways of determining how pro-women a film is. For example, a character can be feminist while the film is not. Like the Bechdel test, there is also the Mako Mori test, which asks whether a film has at least one female character who has a narrative arc that does not support a man's story. A female character with an independent narrative arc is the subject rather than the object of the story, capable of having her own thoughts and desires. In this regard, Disney princesses fare much better. Mulan, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White (perhaps surprisingly) and Brave's Merida all pass the Mako Mori test.

However it is pretty widely recognised that these tests are flawed when it comes to determining whether or not a film is feminist or sexist. Beauty and the Beast fails both the Bechdel test and the Mako Mori test and yet Belle is often championed as a feminist role model. I adored Belle as a child because I was incredibly nerdy (and, obviously, still am) and loved to read; to watch a heroine who unabashedly loves books and mocks men for being ignorant tosspots was incredibly liberating for me. Belle taught me that it was ok to go against other people's expectations.

Of course I also desperately wanted Belle's magnificently puffy ballgown. But wanting to flounce around in a flamboyantly impractical dress is not anti-feminist! There seems to be the pervasive attitude that overtly feminine clothing (floral, fluffy, sparkly) somehow undermines a woman's strength or achievements. David Trumble recently posted several pictures to his Tumblr depicting famous female role-models in poofy, glittery dresses. His intention was to show that strong, inspiring role models don't need to be princesses and that putting them in ultra-girly princess attire trivialises them. I find this incredibly patronising. I like wearing skirts, I like sparkly jewellery and my love of floral print is bordering on the obsessive. But my fashion choices do not negate the fact that I am also an intelligent, argumentative and opinionated young woman. I am not trivial, shallow or stupid because I like to wear the occasional ballgown.

It's not feminist to attack those things traditionally considered feminine - like pink, glitter, flowers or kittens. We need to stop seeing femininity as silly or frivolous in contrast to the strong and stoic masculinity. Both are equally valid.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Why Disaster Films are like Romance Novels

My flatmate, in the ultimate display of friendship, has given me her Netflix log-in details. This has changed my life.

So for reasons that defy human understanding, I recently found myself watching Roland Emmerich's terrible natural disaster film, 2012. This was followed by an epic session of binge-watching Twister, Volcano, Dante's Peak and The Day After Tomorrow. Now I bloody love a good disaster film; you put an improbably attractive scientist, some naysaying politicians and the unstoppable onslaught of Mother Nature into a film and I will be there in a heartbeat. And I'm clearly not the only one: Twister was the second highest grossing film of 1996, grossing nearly $500 million worldwide, The Day After Tomorrow grossed over $544 million, and 2012 grossed over $770 million despite being mind-blowingly terrible.

So why do we love disaster films? What is it about massive human casualties and the destruction of beloved national monuments that makes us want to hand over our money? My theory is that disaster films are a lot like romance novels. 

As a part of my undergrad degree I studied the sociology behind romance novels (because this is the kind of knowledge that is going to give me an edge in today's highly competitive job market) and there are a lot of similarities between romance novels and disaster films. Numerous sociologists, such as Ann Douglas and Janice Radway, have noted that romance novels can be pretty brutal. On the surface this seems somewhat counter-productive since the women these authors interviewed claimed that they read romance novels as an escape from their everyday lives. If romance novels are supposed to be an escape, why do women want to read about women experiencing graphic brutality?

According to the sociologist, Geertz, all art forms render everyday experiences comprehensible by presenting them in forms where the practical consequences have been removed. By reading about a violent event, we can experience something horrific, but without the horrific consequences. The horrific becomes comprehensible and therefore surmountable without any personal risk. 

For the women Radway interviewed for her book, ‘Reading the Romance’, it was important for them to read about the stories’ heroines experiencing something terrible but surviving and coming out of the ordeal as stronger individuals, still capable of loving and being loved. This theory also makes sense when applied to disaster films. When you watch a disaster film you inevitably place yourself in the role of the protagonist and imagine how you would fare in the face of epic disaster. It is comforting, and maybe even thrilling, to see ordinary people face the monstrous power of Mother Nature and come out triumphant. 

This is why the protagonists in both romance novels and disaster movies are so monumentally bland. If we go back to Radway’s book, for the women she interviewed it was important for the readers to feel like they were the character in the story. They didn’t want to just read about a romantic relationship but what it feels like to be the object of one. This is why Bella is such a popular character in the Twilight series despite lacking any kind of personality – she’s supposed to be dull so that whoever is reading the book can imagine themselves as the object of obsession for a sexy vampire. Disaster films feature similarly bland characters so that we can more easily insert ourselves into the story and personally experience man’s victory over nature. 

Disaster films, like the more violent sections of Romance novels, allow the audience to experience something harrowing and survive, without having to face any actual peril.

Radway J (1984) Reading the Romance
Geertz C (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Bits and Bobs

Hope you're all having a wonderful weekend. Did anyone see any big fireworks displays for Guy Fawkes night? I live on the third floor of a house on top of a hill so I've had a pretty splendid view of dozens of fireworks displays all week.

- Photoshop can do some pretty terrifying things. But as long as photos have been around, there has been photo-manipulation. Here's an interesting article about the con-men who sold photos of ghosts.

- I love a good natural disaster film. This article discussing what would happen if ocean water was replaced with heavy water sounds like a Roland Emmerich film waiting to happen (although, with far more scientific accuracy).

- Can you guess which countries these Miss Universe contestants come from based on the always hilarious national costume round of the competition? I did freakishly well at this quiz and I'm not quite sure what that means about me.

- Here's an absolutely fascinating article looking at Nazis and medical science (not for the faint of heart).

- Every year everyone complains that Christmas is getting earlier and earlier. But apparently the Victorians campaigned about starting Christmas earlier as a worker's rights issue - starting your Christmas preparations earlier meant there wasn't a last-minute rush at the shops which ensured better working conditions for shop assistants.

- I love film score composer Hans Zimmer. Here's a really interesting interview where he talks about his favourite scores and the people he's worked with. I think it's great to have an insight into film-making from the composer's perspective since most interviews tend to focus on the director and actors.

- If you've recently seen the film Captain Philips but don't really know much about Somali pirates, you should give this article a read. For many people, partaking of piracy seems illogical considering the harsh penalties upon capture. But piracy is a multi-million dollar industry and money is a pretty strong incentive for young men in a country with a very young government and very poor economy.

- My home-town of Cambridge has apparently installed intelligent, glowing bike paths. Cool.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Tips for Women

Me as a Parliamentary intern, brazenly sporting long hair.

Law firm Clifford Chance recently sent out a 163-point memo entitled 'Presentation Tips for Women'. Its contents are both hilarious and immensely depressing. Advice ranges from the mundane ("don't use a draggy pace") to the bizarre ("move your mouth when you speak" - how else does one speak?). But mostly the document is patronising and offensive; women are told not to giggle, not to wear party dresses, and to lower the pitch of their voice (those shrill, inappropriately-attired harpies). Well thank goodness the women of Clifford Chance now know to put their cleavage away and "watch out for the urinal position" - I can practically hear the glass ceiling breaking from here.

Reading this memo reminded me of when I attended a training session held as part of the Lib Dem Party Conference entitled "What to Wear as a Woman in Politics". Alas, the men were not privy to a similar training session and their sartorial blunders are undoubtedly thwarting their political careers as we speak. 

Candy, the Lib Dem image consultant, imparted us with such timeless words of wisdom as "no knee-high boots" and "no animal print". She also instructed us how best to tie a scarf depending on the situation (use the Slip Knot while canvassing door-to-door but the more flamboyant Ascot Wrap for a hustings) and which colours to avoid (pretty much anything bright).

After giving general advice, Candy then went around the room and pointed out the myriad ways in which the women in attendance were wrong. I was praised for my deployment of opaque tights (never go below 70 denier) and sensible flat shoes. Unfortunately I undid all my fine work in the tights-department by being in possession of long hair which I - foolishly! - was wearing loose around my shoulders. I was told that I should either get a haircut or tie my hair up or else men would be encouraged to stroke me. If the male denizens of the Houses of Parliament are so devoid of self-control that they are powerless to resist stroking young, female interns, might I suggest that we have bigger things to worry about than my hair.

I obviously found the suggestion that my hair was an invocation for gentle petting from my male colleagues utterly hilarious. But at the same time it's disheartening that the conference organisers thought that a training session on female politicians' fashion-sense was necessary. I can understand the thinking behind it. I once had a conversation with former Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather in which she complained that whenever she said anything in Parliament, the media only ever reported on what she was wearing, not what she was saying. This was undoubtedly very frustrating for her and it makes me angry to think that female politicians' sartorial choices are being given more media attention that their opinions. But I don't think opaque tights and a pixie cut are the solution. 

Parliament is woefully devoid of women, particularly young women, and telling current MPs to avoid colour or pattern or anything that might suggest they have a personality is not the way to encourage young women to get involved in politics. If we want the media to stop reporting every time a female minister sports ostentatious footwear, we shouldn't force her into sensible grey pumps, we should flood the Houses of Parliament with so many pairs of fabulous heels that it is no longer worthy of note. When the halls of power and the boardrooms of law firm are replete with leopard-print clad women - expressing their opinions in their shrill, nasally voices - then perhaps we can finally dispense of all the silly advice.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Bits and Bobs

Happy weekend! I hope you enjoyed your respective Halloween celebrations. This time between Halloween and Christmas is my favourite time of the year - primarily because it's now seasonally appropriate to watch this film over and over.

- Last Sunday I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It was awesome and you should definitely go! But first, check out these beautiful glacier photographs.

- Here's a really, really interesting article about racism in films and how celluloid film technology has contributed to keeping black skin off our screens.

- This bbc article explains why we're afraid of near-human faces.

- Check out this slideshow of incredible film costumes designed by Hollywood legend Edith Head.

- This is a fascinating article analysing the epic advertising campaign devised for the latest Hunger Games film. I've never really thought much about the creativity and planning that goes into marketing a huge franchise film.

- Apparently the Russians gave assorted world leaders gift bags containing surveillance equipment. The Atlantic has chosen a particularly hilarious picture of Putin to accompany their article.

- There is nothing more obnoxious than someone who incessantly posts selfies online (even the word 'selfy' is kind of obnoxious). This article defends the selfy as just another form of self-portrait.

- Anyone who knows me knows that I love both Musicals and Disney with a ferocity that is, at times, bordering on the obsessive. So here's an incredible version of Chicago's Cell Block Tango featuring assorted Disney villains.