A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: July 2014

You Can Fool All Of The People Some Of The Time


During my long career in the financial services industry I have been interviewed a few times and interviewed countless people. The process is fraught with difficulties and often it is the impression that the candidate makes at the interview which sways the decision rather than their qualifications and experience.

Research recently conducted by the University of British Columbia suggests that candidates who are not shy about blowing their own trumpet are likely to be more successful in job interviews (and brass band auditions) than those who act more modestly. These characters, described as narcissists by the shrinks after the Greek hunter from mythology, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, flourish in interviews because it is one of the few social situations where it is acceptable to talk about yourself and big up your achievements and qualities.

The research involved candidates completing questionnaires to establish the degree of their narcissism and then they were videoed in interview and scored by a panel of would-be recruiters. Narcissists, not surprisingly, were keen to talk about themselves, made eye contact with their interviewer(s) and asked more questions. On the whole, the study found, the interviewers tended to find candidates exhibiting narcissistic qualities more attractive candidates for the position.

Interestingly, the study identified some definite cultural bias. Candidates of East Asian origin – Japanese, Chinese and Korean background – showed a lower propensity for narcissism and received fewer definite hire ratings.

The problem for the employer is that someone who is a full-time narcissist rather than one who is feigning the trait to secure employment can be a bit of a pain in the arse. Over-exposure to such behaviour puts people off. Arrogant behaviour, lack of empathy for other people and a need for admiration are not qualities that co-workers are likely to find immediately appealing. Indeed, the study suggests that employers would be well advised to give these characters a swerve and not be sucked in by their interview performance. They should give more credence to the candidate’s ability to fit into the organisation.

You might think that is sound advice and is something that should be extended to include grumpy bastards. Every workplace has at least one. But we curmudgeons should be cherished, according to researchers from the Universities of Illinois and Pennsylvania.

The participants in the study were tested for their attitudes and characteristics and then were required to report on all of their activities during the week. What the study revealed is that the workers who were characterised as grumpy sods were less active because they did fewer things than those with a positive attitude but were more focused because they spent more time on the smaller number of tasks. They were less likely to be distracted by gossiping at the water cooler, organising the dread office sports and social event or any of the other things that make the office day pass tolerably by. When they find something they actually like, the curmudgeons may invest a larger amount of time in that task and, consequently, develop a higher level of skill. Conversely, the life and soul of the party who invests a small amount of time on a wide variety of activities will never develop the same level of expertise in one activity.

So there you are – avoid the narcissist and hire the grumpy sod.


Food For Thought


Readers of this blog will, doubtless, be gratified to learn that I while away my hours exploring the highways and byways of the information super highway that is the world wide web in the search for nuggets of information which pique my (and, I trust, your) interest. Of course, for the unwary the entry of seemingly innocent search criteria into the search engine of your choice can lead you to parts of the internet that most people would rather not encounter.

But, and we have reported on this before, there is a sub-set of the population who seem to spend a good part of their leisure time watching what is termed sexually explicit material on the internet. Some research, recently published in the ever popular journal, JAMA Psychiatry, has revealed that the amount of grey matter to be found in the brains of men who are habitual viewers of pornographic material is smaller than in the brains of other sectors of society. Disappointingly, the researchers can’t say whether it is the regular exposure to porn which shrinks the brain or whether it is individuals with a smaller brain who are more susceptible to and have a greater appetite for porn – a subject for further research, no doubt.

The research was carried out by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and involved 64 male subjects aged 21 to 45 who were described as having a broad range of pornography consumption. Although the report is not specific on the subject I suspect that some of the other qualifying criteria were long, dank hair, bottle thick lenses and greasy overcoats.

The men were lured into the experiment not on the promise of unfettered access to porn but to assist in an experiment which involved MRI scans. It was only later, during a telephone interview, that they were told that the research would involve pornography. None dropped out at that stage – fancy that?

During the process they were asked about their porn viewing habits – on average they owned up to browsing porn for around four hours a week. MRI scans of their brains were taken when they were exposed to pornographic images and images without any sexual content.

What the researchers found was that the grey matter volume in the striatum’s right caudate was smaller with higher pornography use and that when sexually explicit material was shown the guinea pigs’ MRI scans showed a reduction in the functioning of that part of the brain which processes motivation.

Fascinating stuff and more proof if we needed it of the complexity of our brain. Maybe it will even make you see adolescents who can’t be bothered to do anything in a new light! Food for thought indeed!

Wurst Story Of The Week


I’m partial to a German wurst but it may be that I have been paying over the odds for my pleasure if there is an umlaut of truth in this news story which reached me this week.

33 individuals and 21 companies associated with the manufacture of German sausages have been fined a total of €338 million for cooking up a plan to fix prices. The Atlantic Circle, so-called because they met at the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg, are said to have met for at least 10 years to push through higher prices and agree price ranges on various products. The authorities were tipped off by a deep-throat.

Naturally, the fine is being contested by some of the parties, not least because there are some 1,500 different types of German bangers, according to sources, and it would be incredible to be able to manipulate the price on each and every one. That may be so but, methinks, their goose has been well and truly cooked.


Pogonophiliac Moment Of The Week


It may have escaped your attention but here in Blighty we have just had a morning of the stilettos with a major Cabinet reshuffle. The meejah seems to have been fixated on minor issues such as was this a lurch to the right (undoubtedly), whether it saw the ascendancy of the Tory woman (marginally but by our estimation there are still as many tits in the Cabinet) and whether the pugilistic Gove had got his comeuppance (yes). However, they seem to have missed the major story which was with the appointment of Stephen Crabb to the post of Welsh Secretary the Tory Cabinet has its first bearded (male) member since the 4th Earl of Onslow who served as President of the Board of Agriculture from 1903 to 1905 in Balfour’s government.

Now, there’s progress!

It’s A Doddle


There are pluses and minuses with internet shopping. The pluses are convenience, price and availability. The minus is inconvenience, principally in the delivery of physical goods. It is all very well being able to select and purchase a piece of clothing at a time to suit you but a constant source of irritation is to have to wait in at home for the thing to be delivered or, even worse, to get home to find a card posted through the letter box telling you that your goods couldn’t be delivered and you have to go to somewhere in the back of beyond to collect it. It is particularly irksome if you have paid good money for that add-on entitled postage and delivery.

As you would expect in a capitalist economy, where there is a gap in the market enterprising organisations will spring up to fill it. We are already beginning to see the rise of the click and collect service. In concept it is so simple you wonder why it hadn’t been thought of earlier. The shopper gets the benefits of internet shopping – the ability to shop when they want and, hopefully, discounted prices – together with a saving on the delivery charges (and frustrations) in return for getting off their posteriors and going to a designated place to pick up their goods. Some 30 million of us, apparently, use the facility when offered.

I have experienced this enhanced shopping experience and it seems to work. Some retailers such as John Lewis have teamed up with an outfit called Collect+, which allows you to pick up your goods from a network of around 5,000 independent retailers. Garages, at least in our neck of the wood, seem to be a popular pick-up spot. Amazon seems to have teamed up with the Co-op to offer a click and collect service whilst eBay have cosied up to Argos.

Regular commuters will have deduced that Network Rail and London Underground have long given up on the concept of providing a half-decent infrastructure which might encourage a vaguely punctual public transportation system. Instead they are concentrating on providing their customers, as we passengers are cheerfully referred as, with entertainments to while away the time spent stranded on the platform. So we have an array of shops and gaffs selling dodgy and unhealthy foods and drinks and free wifi so we can tweet our frustrations on to the world-wide web.

The latest brain wave is to team up with an operator called Doddle to use stations as click-to-collect stores. Network Rail have announced that three hundred of their stations will be used for this purpose and pilots involving suppliers such as Asos, New Look and T M Lewin are already running at Milton Keynes and will extend to London Waterloo, Bromley South, Brighton, Chelmsford and London Cannon Street before the end of August. The announcement that the 6.16 has been cancelled due to emergency improvement work won’t seem so bad after all! Not to be outdone London Underground are experimenting with six click-to-collect points for Asda in station car parks.

So our stations are set to become our shopping malls of the future. Let’s hope the collection points are not shared with the lost property offices, otherwise chaos will bound to ensue!

If Music Be The Food Of Love..


For me one of the banes of restaurant eating is the all-pervasive sound of music thoughtfully provided by the restaurateurs to improve the ambience of their gaff. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against a bit of live music to liven up proceedings, provided there is no bagpipe in hearing distance, but I find the usual fare of what can only be described as muzak a sensation I can well do without.

It seems, though, according to some researchers from Oxford University that by playing mood music the restaurant owners are actually playing mind games. The phenomenon, dubbed sonic seasoning, tricks the brain into thinking that a foodstuff is sweeter or saltier than it is simply dependent upon the type of music that is playing at the time. The men (and women) in white coats claim that the type of music playing at the time you cram some scran into your mouth can alter the taste sensation by up to 10%.

Why is this? Well, the sensation of taste is nothing more than a set of electrical impulses sent to the brain which then interprets into something salty, tangy or sweet. Mellifluous or discordant music also stimulates the brain into a response. Sonic seasoning is little more than marrying the two up.

So what music goes best with what? Low pitched notes, associated with brass instruments, are associated with bitter tastes such as caffeine. If you don’t like sourer sensations, better give a jazz club or the Sally Army kitchen a swerve. Conversely, high-pitched sounds, such as those emanating from a well-played joanna, can induce an enhanced taste of sweetness. The choice of tempo and instruments can have an effect on the way we perceive and appreciate food.

Inevitably, the first serious experimentation into sonic seasoning took place at Heston Blumenthal’s gaff, the Fat Duck, in 2011. Diners were served ice cream flavoured with bacon and eggs. When the sound of sizzling bacon was played, the poor unfortunates claimed to better taste the meat whereas the taste of egg came to the fore when they heard the clucking of hens.

It puts in my mind of one of the more surreal dining experiences I had – in a restaurant in Melbourne called Vlado’s – wonder if it is still going. It was meat dish after meat dish served in a room which had pictures of grazing cows on each of the walls – very unnerving. Are we straying into Douglas Adam’s territory here? – remember the marvellous scene in the Restaurant at the end of the Universe where the waiter is a cow extolling the taste of each of its body parts to the diners.

It seems that sonic seasoning applies equally to drink. The scientists claim that the Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again – very apt, I did check that this research wasn’t published on 1st April – is the perfect accompaniment to a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing out its depth, whereas Blondie’s Atomic is ideal for Chardonnay and Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay for Merlot. OK, a glass of Cab for me then.

Where does this all get us? Unless you are dining at a restaurant serving a fixed menu, the choice of music will only enhance the taste sensations of a subset of the diners. Perhaps when we have given our order, the more scientifically enlightened gaffs will give us an IPlayer each with a playlist especially attuned to play music that will heighten our taste sensation. At least we wouldn’t have to resort to our mobiles to avoid talking to our guests. Only a matter of time, I tell you!


Book Corner – July 2014 (2)


The Village In The Jungle – Leonard Woolf

Leonard Woolf was a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, a political theorist, a publisher and husband of novelist, Virginia. However, when he set out on what is known as the journey of life, he spent seven years as a colonial administrator in what was then known as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

This novel, a classic in Sri Lanka but, regrettably, less well-known here in Blighty, was published in 1913 and draws heavily on his experiences on the island.

Unlike Orwell’s Burmese Days, the colonial elite rarely intrude into this narrative, other than to be the dispenser of summary justice. Rather it is about and written with a sympathetic understanding of the indigenous population which, I’m sure, accounts for its popularity on the island.

The tale centres around a small village in the jungle of South East Sri Lanka called Beddagama – Sinhalese for a village in the jungle – consisting of 10 crude huts. The locals live a brutal, hand-to-mouth existence. The threat of hunger is ever-present, they are at the mercy of weather – absence of rain could be devastating as it meant no or poor crops –and in hock to the local chief and the usurer who comes in from Colombo. As might be anticipated with small, insular communities petty quarrels are magnified with devastating consequences.

The book – I won’t give the story away – set around 1900 focuses on a hunter, Silindhu, and his two daughters, Punchi Menika and Hinnihami and their struggles to survive and to overcome the maliciousness of their neighbours. Silindhu is painted fairly unsympathetically at first – he beats his wife for bearing two daughters – what use are they? – but as the book progresses we grow to appreciate that he is one with nature and the environment in which he lives – perhaps the feral spirit of the jungle in human form.

The overwhelming theme of the book is the power and force of the jungle. The vegetation takes any opportunity to reclaim for the jungle what man has scratched away and inside the jungle feral creatures await the unwary. Wild boar snuffle around the huts although I imagine the doors and walls of the village dwellings offered little protection unlike the solid structure of my 5 star accommodation at Yala which was also visited by the creatures.

Woolf makes good use of the local storytelling traditions and his style betrays a deep understanding of the island and its culture and a sympathy with the islanders. As a Jew and, therefore, himself an outsider to the British colonial elite, probably Woolf had more opportunity to observe, understand and empathise with the local people than the average British colonial administrator.

A fascinating book – I probably got more from it having just been to Sri Lanka – and a remarkable outlier to the usual output from the British imperial tradition.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Thirty


Charles Goodyear (1800 – 1860)

Most people have heard of Goodyear Tyres and would naturally assume that if there was an eponymous owner of the company, he or she would have made a mint. But not a bit of it which is why Charles Goodyear is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

Although there is evidence that the Mesoamericans had mastered the art of turning rubber into balls and other objects as far back as 1600 BCE, they never seemed to have seen the need for a wheel, never mind one coated with rubber. Consequently, the art of stabilising rubber was “lost” to what we call Western civilization.

Charles was interested in the possibilities presented by rubber and hooked up with a Nathaniel Hayward who ran a rubber factory in Woburn, Massachusetts. For a period of 5 years or so from 1838 until 1844, Goodyear carried out a series of experiments around Hayward’s practice of drying rubber using sulphur. He made the key discovery that by heating rubber with sulphur you created a more durable and useable substance in a process which we now know as vulcanisation, named after the Roman god of fire.

How he came to make his discovery is shrouded in mystery. Goodyear, in his autobiography Gum Elastica, admitted that it was not the result of systematic scientific experimentation but rather through application and observation. It has been claimed that the discovery was the consequence of Goodyear spilling some rubber onto a stove and observing the effects of vulcanisation.

However  the discovery came about, Goodyear set about raising capital to industrialise his vulcanised rubber. Unfortunately, he did not find a queue of eager investors – Goodyear had a track record of financial failure – but eventually secured the backing of the New York brothers, William and Emery Ryder. The bad luck we associate with our inductees followed Goodyear around and soon the Ryder Brothers’ business failed, leaving our hero back where he started.

Some years earlier Goodyear had set up a rubber factory at Springfield to which he moved his main business in 1842. His wealthy brother-in-law, Mr DeForest, supplied the capital to allow Charles to bounce back and he applied for a patent (number 3633) in 1844.

But misfortune continued to dog our hero. A Brit, Thomas Hancock, an employee of Charles MacKintosh & Company, also claimed to have discovered vulcanisation and received a British patent, initiated in 1843 and finalised in 1844, weeks before Goodyear’s was awarded. The dispute over primacy went to the courts and after three separate hearings, Goodyear who, had he prevailed, would have had the British patent to go with his American one and the keys to a fortune, lost.

Goodyear’s death, as you would expect, was tragic. He travelled to New York City to see his dying daughter. On arrival he was told that she had already died, he collapsed and died himself shortly afterwards on 1st July 1860 at a Fifth Avenue hotel to which he had been carried.

The Goodyear Tyre Company was not founded until 1898 by Frank Sieberling. It had no connection with our hero other than using his name to honour the modern founder of vulcanisation (possibly).

Charles Goodyear, for discovering and industrialising the vulcanisation of rubber, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

It Is Difficult To Think Anything But Pleasant Thoughts While Eating A Homegrown Tomato


TOWT is a great fan of the tomato in all its forms – I am not so taken by the fruit – and rarely misses an opportunity to include it in a meal. She claims, as I grimace when I see it on my plate, that it is good for me. Far be it for me to dispute  her wisdom. Indeed, some research just published in the on-line scientific journal, Plos One, suggests that not for the first time she may just be right.

As well as the so-called fifth taste, umami (vide infra), the tomato is full of lycopene, a bright red carotene which contributes to the colour of the fruit. Other red fruits and vegetables such as carrots, watermelons and papaya contain it – but not, lest you get carried away in your fervent search for lycopene, strawberries, red bell peppers or cherries. According to the chaps in the white coats at the University of Cambridge there is a supplement in lycopene which acts as a powerful antioxidant and is ten times more powerful than vitamin E. What this supplement does is improves and normalises our endothelium. If like me you have gone through life not knowing what your endothelium is and how important it might be, it is the thin layer of cells that lines the interior surface of your blood and lymphatic cells. So quite important then.

The research conducted at Addenbrooke’s hospital involved 36 patients suffering from cardiovascular disease and who were on statins and who had impaired endothelium function and 26 healthy volunteers. Some of the guinea pigs were given Ateronon, an off-the-shelf supplement which contains 7 mg of lycopene, and the rest were given a placebo. Neither the patients nor the researchers knew who was getting what.

The results of the trials showed that for patients who were suffering from cardiovascular problems and were receiving the lycopene supplement, their blood vessels were widened by some 53%. Taking the supplement had no detectable effect on those who were healthy. The supplement had no effect on blood pressure, arterial stiffness or lipid levels.

Of course, the constriction of blood vessels is a major contributor to heart attacks and strokes and so the findings of the research may help to prevent cardiovascular patients suffering such a fate. It may also help explain why people who follow a Mediterranean diet – lycopene’s potency is enhanced when the tomato is served with olive oil or pureed or in ketchup – have a lower tendency to suffer from cardiovascular problems.

After all that I will look at the tomato on my plate in a whole new light!

Irony Of The Week (2)


I’ve said it before and, doubtless I will say it again but it is irony that makes the world go round. I can’t get enough of it.

Bill Hillmann, the co-author of the book “Fiesta : How To Survive The Bulls of Pamplona”, which was published last month, is recovering in hospital from severe but not life-threatening injuries sustained – yes, you guessed it – when facing off (as I think the technical expression is) the heaviest of six bulls in the third run of the San Fermin in Pamplona. Not sure whether he slipped on the outpourings from his book.

Let’s hope he did well in pre-sales otherwise it is one for the remainders pile.

..and on an unrelated subject, I learnt yesterday that the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform is Frances Crook. Naturally!