Wednesday, 30 September 2009

UK Biobank

A while ago I took part in the UK Biobank study. It's a very large study of the health and habits of the population of the UK. Sounds like a good way to spend my tax money.

Except it isn't. There wasn't one question that made me think “why are they asking that?” Every question came out of current Government conventional wisdom about diet, exercise and personal life. I could write the text of the report now, leaving blanks for the actual percentages. It will say that not enough of us are eating five-a-day and too many of us aren't eating enough lean meat, and no-one is doing enough exercise and we're all overweight. Worse, I know that if the survey did turn up something surprising – such as that people who eat lots of red meat aren't keeling over with heart attacks (and they aren't or you would be going to their funerals, wouldn't you?) - it would be ignored or spun.

At the end I was given a summary of some results. It liked my body-fat (23%) but didn't like my BMI (28). It told me to lose 23lbs, which would take me to a BMI of 24.4 – just inside the officially-acceptable range. The last time I weighed 79 kilos (about 12st 6lbs) I was in my mid-twenties. I don't really want to lose that much muscle or useful body weight, so this means losing about 8 kilos or so of fat. This would put my body fat at 15%, which is in the “serious athlete / special forces” range. Right. That would be nice, but at my age, it would also be just a little grotesque.

Not that some of the tests weren't interesting: the one about remembering to push the orange circle not the blue square at the end of the hour-long computer quiz was neat. I liked the reaction test: hit the big button when you saw two matching shapes on the screen. Sounds easy, but I was surprised how many times I had to stop myself reflexively hitting the button. Why medical people test strength by a grip test I will never know – I could heft some weight back in the day but my grip strength was always awful. They took bloods and urine as well, but I'm not sure if I hear about the results. You know the answer anyway – a huge proportion of the population are “pre-diabetic” or even have “type two diabetes” and need to exercise, eat less and be force-fed ghastly drugs that cause nausea and diarrhoea.

Will they test for blood alcohol and drugs as well? Now those results would be really worth reading - as if they would ever be published. After all, we know the answer: it's the underclass and younger people who take drugs and drink too much. Isn't it?

Monday, 28 September 2009

What I Did on my Holidays: Part 231

I had a few days in Nice last week – my first foreign holiday for almost a year. 

Holidays for me are about a) food, b) art, c) lazing about, d) ice cream. Nice has the best ice cream west of the Italian border at Fennochio. I had lunch mostly at le Safari on the Cours Salaya, dinner once in Le Merenda and twice at my new favourite La Villa on the Rue de l'Abbaye. (If you're the tall blonde girl in the leather jacket who had dinner there with a friend Wednesday evening – I love you madly!) This time I finally got round to seeing the Musee Matisse, Musee Marc Chagall and Musee Massena. To my mind, the Musee Massena is worth visiting just for four paintings on the second floor: portraits by Carlo Garino, Raphael Pontremoli and Alexandra Cabonel, as well as the frescos of the Massena clan (and a harder-faced lot you'll have a long way to go to meet) by Francois Flameng. Having said that, the Musee des Bueax-Artes has a whole bunch of Raoul Dufy's, the only Fauvist I like.

It was way, way too hot for me and I'm way too fidgety for public sunbathing and don't feel comfortable in shorts-and-trainers, and that's what you need to be doing in those temperatures. I stayed at the Hotel Windsor, which has a shady garden over-run by mature trees and plants.

Some tips:

Take the 98 bus from the airport into town. It's 4€ vs 30€ by taxi and the ticket is valid for the rest of the day. But before you get to the bus stop...

Euro coins. You cannot get these from French banks, whose (lack of) service make you realise that British banks are unmatched exemplars of customer service. There are machines at Nice airport (left hand side on your way to the bus station) that will give you Euro coins in return for notes. Use them!

All the art galleries you want (Musee Matisse, Musee Marc Chagall, MAMAC, Musee Massena and the Musee des Bueax Arts) are on bus route 22. Get an all-day bus pass for 4€ from the ligne d'azur office in the Place Massena and pick up a map from the display by the door.

Check out the roller-bladers practising on the Promenade des Anglais on your way back from dinner in the Old Town. The girls are pretty and the guys have mad skills.

White tee-shirts (yes, I did) make you look like an English tourist. If you must wear a tee-shirt, wear coloured ones. This rule does not apply in northern Europe, where the weaker light makes white tee-shirts look acceptable.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Arrive on time...

...punctuality is the politeness of princes.

Leave on time: only servants wait around at the pleasure of their masters.

If you have to work early or late, make sure they say "thank you".

When you're at work, work – those of you who talk about football irritate those of us who don't.

Follow the local dress code, unless you are really sure of your own style.

Don't come in drunk, hungover, stoned, buzzing or crashing. Stay home, sleep it off.

Don't cancel one meeting so you can make another. That just tells the first group of people that they are less important to you than the second.

Work out how long it will take to produce what you've been asked for, then double it.

A face-to-face is better than a phone call, a phone call is better than an e-mail.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Avoid The Crowd

One of the secrets of a pleasant life is to be where the Crowd are not. You don't always have to be where the In-Crowd go, but you can't ever be where the Crass congregate. It will do your equanimity no good and strain your tolerance muscles beyond their natural load. A lot of people don't always make a Crowd: once inside the stand at Twickenham, all those people are just a crowd: let them out and they become a Crowd. Any Hen party is a Crowd, and so are even two Dreadful Parents dragging tired tetchy children around a shopping centre. The teenagers in a skatepark aren't a Crowd, but the drunks on the High Street are.

The rule of never being in town on a Friday or Saturday night is still a good one. I leave the whole of Saturday to the Crowd these days, venturing only as far as a local supermarket, cinema or one of the royal parks within half-an-hour's drive of my house. During the week, the return commute takes some timing to avoid the later-evening drunks and fast-food scoffers, as well as the general air of wired exhaustion from people who should have left the office hours earlier than they did. I'd rather watch my films without the sound of popcorn and chatter, so I have to choose earlier rather than later performances and not see well-publicised films at the start of the run.

Avoiding where the Crowd go is one thing, avoiding what they do and consume is just as important. Very little of what is made for the Crowd is anything more than candy-floss and cheap hamburger, whether it's a TV programme (Big Brother), film (Funny People), book (Harry Potter) or music (The Saturdays). Avoiding the cultural equivalent of junk food is obvious enough, avoiding ostentation and crank-hood is not quite so. Test any purchase with this question: do other people buy it to make a point, display their wealth, because they are early adopters or they think it's cool / stylish / whatever? If the answer is yes, put it back on the shelf. Now. Unless you have a genuine business-related reason for using it. iPhones are still a little suspect: okay if you're a young blonde graphic designer, not so good if you're starting to lose your hair already. It's impossible to state all the don'ts – it's easier to state the do's: restrained, understated, classic, quality and, not to put too fine a point on it, European.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tuesday Night Soho Rain

After my regular Tuesday meeting, I had espresso and pancake (jam and cream cheese) and a read of Aristotle's Poetics. Then the rain came down.

My route back involved finding out at Barons Court that there were no Richmond trains (flooding?) and taking the following route: Barons Court -> Victoria -> Vauxhall underground -> Vauxhall overground -> Clapham Junction -> change platforms -> home. I was tired and wet when I got back. It was this wet...

Monday, 14 September 2009

What Did She Say?

The other day our Director invited a number of us for a coffee session: it's a semi-informal Q&A with missing supervisors, so he has a remote chance of hearing something like the voice of the people. Which in The Retail Bank is very faint. The employee satisfaction figures had tanked so bad they weren't being circulated and he wanted some idea why – gee, d'ya think that's because they took seven months to re-organise us? At one point, however, Herself The Lovely One Whose Very Passing Makes Men Sigh, an intelligent, hard-working, sensible and no-nonsense early thirty-something, said in context that she “felt very cocooned in the brand”.

I swear. I am not making this up. I couldn't. I don't use language like that. “Cocoon” is a noun naming the silk casing round a grub silkworm and a “brand” is a set of tradesmen's marks on packaging. It's also a carefully-constructed (well, sometimes) fantasy in the minds of... well, consumers, media types and a handful of corporate managers. Fantasy. Not reality. So when Herself The Lovely One Whose Very Passing Makes Men Sigh said she “felt cocooned in the brand” she's saying that she is living inside a fantasy about what our mutual employer is like. Except she can't be, because she's way more practical than that. I think she was saying, in my language, that she felt as if she belonged in the company and it felt like a reasonably secure place to be working. But what she said “cocooned in the brand”. Which carries a whole other set of meanings whether you meant them or not. Even to the person saying the words, no matter what they thought they really meant.

The photograph? On my way into work the previous Friday, I passed this ice-sculpture being installed. Don't know why they were installing, but I do know that everyone who passed it took photos.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tank Magazine Vol 6 Issue 1

Every now and then I'm entitled to a really trivial entry. I remember Tank when it first came out. It's always had more interesting essays than most style mags – check out The Cruel Jerk by Kevin Braddock as an example of one of the better essays – and an interesting line in photography and styling. Well, they've changed the format, made it larger, put in a spiral binder and in the latest issue, have lots of pictures of la Claudia. What's not to like? You can download a pdf of the shoot at their website, but here's something to be going on with.

You can, by the way, do a lot worse than see a movie just because it's got la Claudia in it (okay, other than Ritchie Rich): Black and White, The Blackout, Friends and Lovers and Love Actually are all a better way of spending your time than watching Funny People or The Hangover.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Why Sadness Follows a Politic Lie

Something I say all the time is “they don't mean that, they're just saying it to be nice / polite / because it gets them off the hook / whatever.” Remember how one the things I do is lie even when it would be easier to tell the truth? Well, I'm the one who says something polite, evasive, nice, vaguely sympathetic or ambiguously assenting when someone says something dumb, misguided, tasteless, crass, ignorant or otherwise fattening. For all I know, other people may be expressing their opinions honestly and with a minimum of editing and sugar.

So why am I lying? Because a) telling the truth (or telling my truth, which is not quite the same thing) would not achieve anything; b) because sometimes it's the polite or politic thing to do; c) because I can tell I'm dealing with a loony, a-hole, bigot, ignoramus, or someone who just doesn't get it and want to cut the whole encounter short. As for polite lies, no, of course your bum doesn't look big in those jeans.

As an example of the first type: somewhere out there is a woman in her mid-thirties who honestly believes that if the parents do anal sex, their male children will become homosexuals. She thought it said so in the Bible, and she's a fundamentalist. I know this woman exists because I've had lunch with her, and she was a guest of our mutual hosts. I said nothing while she spouted this hate-filled nonsense, and I haven't quite liked myself as much since. Why didn't I call her out on it? It was lunch and I was guest. She was the one breaking the rules by expressing such opinions. Anyway, nobody who believes such things would possibly be influenced by argument and facts, or even see the relevance of facts. (Fundamentalists believe despite the evidence – politicians and management don't believe and ignore the evidence.)

As an example of the third type: the other day at a meeting I found myself sitting next to a woman who, after we'd shaken hands and swapped first names as is an acceptable practice, proceeded to give me what ought to be hereinafter known as the “AA Check-Out”: how long had I been sober? How many meetings a week did I go to? Do I have a sponsor? Do I have sponsees? She was checking that I was an orthodox AA. From what she said later, she was hoping I would unwittingly admit to having some problem with my sponsor, so we could share. In my experience people who do the AA Check-Out are not so emotionally sober, and usually are having some sort of problem with AA as a social practice. Once again, I vanished behind some vague politeness and a comment that sponsors are like lamp-posts: she had to be sure she was using hers for illumination, not support. Get this person out of my life. Now.

When I started this entry, I thought what I felt on these occasions was guilt that I hadn't spoken up for myself. But it isn't. It's a little stab of despair that this is who I meet, an urge not to be near or talking to yet another head case. Somewhere there's a place with people I'd like to meet and who would like to meet me – and once again, it's nowhere I am.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Motivations of Management

I've been reading Talent is Over-Rated by Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune. It's a quick, clear read and a much more detailed discussion of the “10,000 hour” rule that Malcolm Gladwell travestied in his last book. Colvin is summarising a bunch of research which suggests that people who do anything – music, sports, mathematics, writing – at a very high level spend a lot of time doing deliberate practice: practice that is carefully designed to take you past your present limits and to remove any sticky spots in your present technique. Top-flight anyones do a lot of this. Indeed at the top level, you don't train to compete, you compete to train. Competition is there solely to identify the weaker points of your game.

Colvin is very good about the way that large corporations are set up exactly not to provide the environment and culture in which people can develop and perform excellently. “How often is feedback at most companies constructive, non-threatening, and work-focused? Evaluations at most companies are exactly the opposite: telling the hapless employee what he did wrong, not how to do better, and specifying personal traits (attitude, personality) that must be changed, all under the unspoken looming threat of getting fired.” Sounds familiar to me. What Colvin shys from saying why it's like this in most companies.

The research he's using suggests that the motivation of top-flight performers is intrinsic to the activity, it's about being excellent at what you do. It's not about winning, proving yourself to your peers, making lots of money, lavish praise, promotions and honours.

Well, unless you're a manager. Then your intrinsic motivations are exactly about proving yourself, winning, making money, status, praise, promotions and, who knows? Even honours, should you do the right thing by the incumbent Government. A manager's skills are the dark arts of seeking preferment, influence and advancement and avoiding responsibility, blame and ill-favor. Managers really are motivated by fear, praise, financial rewards and gee-gaws and they make the company in their image.

That's why most corporate appraisal schemes are fear-based and fault-finding; it's why the training is on the corporate intranet, non-accredited and shallow; why the courses they trumpet are about “leadership” and “effectiveness”; and why they can churn people and organisational structures every two or three years. That's why techies regard managers as untainted by the slightest skill or knowledge, and why the rest of the people who work there regard them as slightly sad or bad. Because they are motivated by the preferment of the powerful and the pursuit of power and influence, and there is something not quite right about that.

it's not to Colvin's detriment he didn't write that - because I'm sure he knows it - but it is a sign of how good the book is that it becomes obvious.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Never change your mobile phone number...

... and always have the phone charged and on. Lots of people don't update their records when you send out that mail about your new contact details.

Your work is what gives you satisfaction. It may or may not be what you do in your employment.

Your job is how you earn your money. You earn money now by doing what your current employer wants you to do, you earn money tomorrow by training on new stuff and finding your next job. When there was "full employment", that next job was with the same employer. Now there is a "flexible labour market", that next job might be with your current employer or it might be with another one.

Always keep in touch with your recruitment agents
Always go to every interview: you need the practice and you learn a lot
Keep your on-line CV's updated and consistent

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Body Fat, Weight Loss and All That

I've been reading The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes, which I commend to you if you want to know anything about diet and nutrition. It prompted me to think over the whole issue of weight loss, diet and exercise properly.

Let's start with the basics. You eat a 300 gram apple. As a result, you now weigh 300 grams more than you did. The only way you will weigh the same as you did before you ate the apple is to lose 300 grams. How do you do that? Well, what goes in has to go out or be stored. The stores are triglyceride molecules in fat cells or additional bone or muscle mass. What goes out is urine, sweat, faeces and moisture in your breath.

How about losing weight by exercising? Say, walking a mile at about four miles an hour. This will burn roughly 100 Calories. The body stores 7,700 Calories in a kilo of (white) body fat. So you have burned up 64 grams of body fat. The catch is, aside from the sweat you dripped onto the pavement or absorbed in your clothes, you haven't lost any weight yet. The body fat has disappeared in a reaction using oxygen and other chemicals to make various waste products: the mass of the waste products equals the mass of the body fat, oxygen and other chemicals. (To many, many decimal places, chemical reactions conserve mass.) Those waste products are still in your body, so you still weigh the same – this is why you never seem to weigh less after a work-out at the gym. You won't lose the weight until you pass water or faeces. What the exercise does is increase the amount of waste material you pass.

By 64 grams for a mile-long walk. Unless you are an athlete or an infantryman, you will use very little energy by “exercising”: most of your energy use is in your basal metabolic rate – keeping your core body warm, processing food, re-oxygenating blood, making all those cells to renew your body and other such work. For a man, that's about 2,000 Calories a day. Cut down your food intake to 1500 Calories in the right way, so that you burn body fat and you are losing 300 grams a day, or 2 kilos a week. That's how you lose weight without having a Hollywood trainer and all day to exercise.

So how do you make sure you burn the body fat? The answer, Taubes is suggesting, is “carbohydrates drive insulin, insulin drives fat”. Cut down on sugars and starches, your insulin levels go down and your body releases more fat from its cells, which burn up and create more waste products. It also reduces the need for all the water needed to handle carbohydrate-based food processing. A good chunk of weight loss in the early stages of any diet is water being disposed of because it's suddenly become surplus to requirement.

This, at any rate, is how I make sense of what Taubes is saying. I'm trying it right now. The challenge is eating a low (refined-) carbohydrate, low sugar diet while working in an office in central London.