Ends and means

Julian Barnes in the Guardian today:

‘The peacenik question before the war went like this: suppose Saddam destroys all his weapons tomorrow, do we still invade on humanitarian grounds? I can’t imagine there would have been too many cries of, Yes please. But that, in retrospect, may be what we’ve done, or shall endeavour to claim we have done and therefore had been intending. Does it look like a humanitarian war to you? Are “shock and awe” compatible with “hearts and minds”? Early on, a US infantryman was seen grimly returning fire over a sand dune, then turning to camera and complaining: “They don’t seem to realise we’re here to help them.” How odd that they didn’t.’

I thought the war was a bad thing before it started. I have been opposed to it throughout. And when it is over (but how will we know? We still don’t even know what we went to war for) I know it will still have been a bad idea.

Whatever benefits may (may) fall to the Iraqi people, Britain and the US have proved ourselves to be willing to go to war on the flimsiest of evidence, for reasons that were impossible to define before the fact, and with brutal disregard for both internal and international opposition.

I fear for the new century.


It’s diet time again. We said we would lose weight after Christmas, but it didn’t quite happen. This is after trying to diet in the middle of last year, and failing then, too.

Traditionally, Abi and I have lost weight by eating less. Specifically, when we each lost 7kg back in 1997 (eek–long time ago), we did this by counting calories. We didn’t cut out any foods, we just ate less of them. I was unwilling to give up chocolate and crisps, so I ate a Cadbury’s Finger Of Fudge (120 kCal) and a packet of Hula Hoops (170 kCal) each day. So long as we stuck rigorously to an upper limit of 1500 kCal a day–and we did–we were able to eat anything we liked. It took about four or five months to drop those 7 kilos.

Whenever we have lost weight since then, we have used that same strategy, but never with the same level of success. Yes, we have lost weight, but less of it because we didn’t keep up the sustained effort for as long. Some of this comes from feeling either feeling too unhappy to give up eating, or otherwise too content with life to care about being overweight. Losing weight feels like a hardship, and there’s always a reason not to do it.

But it’s getting to the point where we are both feeling like we really need to do it. In 1993, after three years of living in a vegetarian household at University, I weighed 67kg. That was nice. In 1997 I came down from 76kg to 69kg. Since then, I’ve gone up again as far as 75kg, and have on occasion come reached 70kg again, but usually I hover between 72 and 74. Right now, though, I’m up at 77. Big yikes.

We first heard about the Atkins diet, sorry “Nutritional Approach”, last year. I know it’s been around for ages, but it’s only recently that Britain has picked up on its buzz. For those of you who haven’t come across it before, the Atkins way revolves around carbohydrates, or rather the lack of them.

By preference, the human body burns carbohydrates for fuel. If it doesn’t have any carbohydrates available, it will go over to burning fat instead. The body stores fat; it doesn’t store carbohydrates. So if you cut out enough carbohydrates from your daily intake, your body will exhaust these reserves quickly, and then switch to burning fat from your stores instead.

Something like that.

Dr. Atkins claims that changing your eating habits to in this way is also better for your health. Biologically, this looks plausible because most of our daily carbohydrates come from refined sugars, flour, and grain products. (Think: pasta and bread.) But also lots of other starchy or sugary foods such as potatoes, rice, carrots, bananas, etc. Cut a lot of these out, and you end up with a diet containing lots of meat and green vegetables. This is closer to what our early ancestors ate while they were roaming the savannah and hunting giant chickens into extinction, and further away from the modern Western diet of highly processed, and often sweetened food.

Fair enough. I suspect that the fact you are positively encouraged to eat sausages, bacon and eggs may also have something to do with Atkins’ popularity. This doesn’t sound like much of a hardship, but on the other hand, cutting down to about 20g of carbohydrates a day means giving up my three favourite foods: bread, rice, and, uh, bread.

Yeah, we’re going to give it a try. But after Alex’s birthday party this weekend. Abi’s making her famous chocolate cake. Can’t miss that.

AccordionGuy and the New Girl

And I thought my identity theft incident was creepy. It pales in comparison with this story. Joey “Accordion Guy” deVilla starts going out with a cute girl. He is so happy that he writes an entry “Ten Cool Things About the New Girl” on his blog. Then, a concerned reader contacts him to say that the New Girl isn’t who she says she is….

The story Whistleblower told me meshed with New Girl’s, but in all the wrong ways. Whistleblower, it turned out, knew New Girl from the days when they both lived in another city. While in that other city, New Girl was taking courses towards getting a high school equivalency diploma. She didn’t complete them.

Then Whistleblower followed with a series of identity theft stories. New Girl would steal online photos of various gothgirls and claim to be them in various chat rooms, chatting up gothguys and in some cases convincing them to fly up to meet her. One poor guy came incredibly close to doing so until the person whom she was posing as managed to warn him.

Then there’s this little matter:

Whistleblower: Has she shown you photos of a niece and nephew?

Me: Yeah, I’ve seen them. Cute kids.

Whistleblower: They’re not her niece and nephew, they’re her son and daughter.

Me: (sounds of choking on Guinness)

Read the whole story, because it gets even worse than that. Incidents like this show that real life can still go head to head with fiction and win. (As if reality show viewer ratings hadn’t convinced you already.) People really are that messed up.

On the other hand, as one of Joey’s friends said, “Dude, you were saved by your blog!” For every nut, there’s a raisin.

I think the incident says more about human nature than it does about the nature of weblogging and modern communications technology, but it does make you think about the place blogs currently have in the “global village,” and where they may go in the future. (via BoingBoing)

Soap. Shampoo. Toothpaste?

We’re just back from a weekend away in St. Andrews. We were staying at Rufflets (very nice), courtesy of my parents and Scott & Angela, who gave us a voucher for dinner, bed & breakfast there for our Christmas.

When I got up this morning, I found that I’d left my shampoo at home. (Alex had decided to unroll all our toilet paper and flush it down the loo while I was packing.) Helpfully, though, the hotel had provided a small bottle of Gilchrist & Soames “Spa Therapy” Sea Lettuce-flavoured shampoo.

It struck me that hotels all over the world are quite happy to provide you with soap and shampoo. The better ones will lavish you with tiny containers of balms, lotions and other sweet-smelling potions. If you’re really lucky, they might even throw in a shower cap. But what’s missing from this line-up of toiletries? Toothpaste.

So if I happen to forget my sponge bag while I’m travelling, I’ll never have to fear body odour. My hair will smell of tropical fruit and my armpits will be scented with wild flowers. That’s nice. But my day-old travel breath will still be lethal at up to twelve paces.

Why are hotel guests not welcomed with little samples of exotic toothpastes above their bathroom sinks? Is there no-one that will supply tiny tubes of “mint and mango” toothpaste? “Strawberry Spearmint?” “Oriental Lily Fresh?” Or how about aromatherapy toothpastes? Not only would they refresh your mouth, but they would have the power to relax or invigorate your dinner partner or business associates.

Actually no, that would probably be silly.

But why is it that hotels have all settled on offering a certain selection of toiletries, but not others? Who did the market research to figure out that people like washing with a complimentary bar of soap (or just taking one for their personal collection), but not brushing their teeth with a tube of free toothpaste? Are people just more likely to forget to bring soap and shampoo than their toothbrush and toothpaste? And now that span and shampoo are the international standard, do people nowadays knowingly set out to travel without these items in their collection of personal toiletries?

It’s puzzling.