Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Eaten by vultures... or freeze-dried first?

There's a very good report in Funeralwire on the progress of promession, the new Swedish method being trialled for an alternative method of disposing of the dead.

A more ecologically-friendly alternative to burial and cremation, it involves reducing the corpse to powder through a process of freeze-drying, so it can then be returned to the earth and "turned into compost by worms and bugs." (More details on the
Promessa site).

In Sweden, it's been trialled successfully on dead pigs, the Church of Sweden has 'no objections' to it and 'deceased citizens are already lying in wait' for this service.
.. that conjures up some strange mental images.

In England, several councils are already looking at it as an alternative to cremation and burial. It will need a
massive change in attitudes towards the body, grief and memorialisation to be acceptable here, but it will be interesting to watch developments.

Promession is also apparently being considered by certain religious groups in India, as a possible solution to problems created by a huge decline in the numbers of vultures
, needed to eat human remains in a traditional sky burial. The RSPB says that certain types of vulture have declined by almost 95% since the 1990s, and are heading for extinction. So a rapid change in a natural bird population, caused by local farming practices, has accidentally threatened traditional burial rituals and opened up the need for something new.

I've watched some good student presentations over the past few years on sky burial, including a video. They usually provoke a lot of discussion, unsurprisingly.

Nothing to do with freeze-dried remains, but vultures don't seem to have a very good public image really... is it because they're a bit odd looking and eat dead flesh? So they get portrayed as baddies, like the bald, green-clad Vulture attacking Spiderman on this 1963
Marvel Comics cover. I think vultures will have to go on my list of favourite deviant misfits... I'm getting quite fond of them now.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ducks and things

The Florida duck who survived being shot, stored in a fridge for 2 days and having major surgery has made the international news today.

Don't quite understand why, apart from the amazing lust for life and survival spirit of the duck, or the medical genius of the Goose Creek Vets... the duck was found in a hunter's fridge... don't hunters shoot things as a sport anyway? This one - Perky the Duck - just happened to be the One That Got Away, in spectacular fashion. Can't have been the only 'trophy' in his fridge, or the first, or the last, shot duck (or shot anything) in America. As his wife took that particular nearly-dead duck off to the vet, as it wasn't quite dead, I guess he* went out and shot a few more to refill that fridge... can't let all the pesky blighters escape, with all this sentimental attention being generated...

Nice to know some people got emotional over Perky's miraculous survival, though. At least he escaped being made into a leggy little morsel like Mrs Beeton's recipes.

Actually, I saw a couple of ducks walking along Oxford Street once, in the West End of London. They looked very purposeful, obviously knew where they were going... quite streetwise, really. Mallards. Nice.

Curious the way your mind works when you start writing, lurching from one bit of mindless trivia to another.... anyway... I noticed a new Duckie link on the Whitmore blog earlier, so I had a look. I know they're people, not ducks, but I like the Reader's Wife's Music Manifesto, as it's always good to shatter mindless stereotypes of musical taste, as they do.

Maybe I'll write something really intellectual tomorrow, now my scaffolding has been taken down, and there's no chance of being woken up first thing in the morning by builders on the balcony any longer, accompanied by their ubiquitous bottom cleavage. Not a nice sight at the best of times, and certainly not before breakfast, believe me.

*I'm guessing the hunter is a man. Sounds like a manly American past-time, somehow.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Burberry... oh dear, another problem!

Poor old Burberry, yet another well-publicised kerfuffle tarnishing their luxury brand... yesterday protesters demonstrated outside the London store, in opposition to the news that Burberry are closing their factory in Wales and moving it overseas, possibly to China. This would lose 300 jobs in a small valley community. So much for the brand being synonymous with quintessential Britishness... so British superficially, in style, but made in China...

They seem to be facing a bit of a branding challenge at the moment... PETA's anti-fur campaign Bloody Burberry was launched last autumn, pointing out that although many luxury clothing retailers have already pulled fur from their ranges, Burberry continues to use it.

Still, they've come through other 'challenges' to their brand's status. They survived Kate Moss's 'Cocaine Kate' drug-taking allegations, by dumping her as the 'face of Burberry' in their advertising campaign.

However, they do seem to be still battling against the Challenge of the Chavs. Terribly unfortunate for a luxury brand to be adopted by label-conscious but wholly 'unsuitable people' from the 'wrong' social class.... This 'problem' was addressed legally, by protecting their copyright over their tartan, cracking down on fake Burberry-style goods. It was also addressed visibly, by reducing the use of that plaid from one-fifth to only 5% of their goods. This gave the offending shoppers less choice of visibly branded products to buy, and even if the 'wrong people' managed to wear their products, it wouldn't be so glaringly obvious on the streets.

Interesting to check* how Burberry sales figures for the UK fare over the next year, to see whether, and how much, lasting damage is done to brands through certain types of publicity. I did see a complete Burberry-clad family in Selfridges before Christmas, even the baby was top-to-toe in tartan, along with mum and dad. I guess Burberry would see that as the 'wrong type of customer' as they sounded quite working class, though obviously wealthy enough... and you can still see Burberry-style nail art in nail salons, in some less affluent parts of London.

Branding is quite cynical, in the way companies define their target markets. Financially, you might be able to afford to buy the products, but are you considered worthy or stylish enough by the marketing people to wear them? Or on the other hand, putting this into perspective... at the end of the day, they're clothes, made to be bought and worn....
shouldn't matter what social class you're from, as long as you've got the money.

*Whoops, a dodgy pun, but so very appropriate!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Road Rage in Funeral Cortege

You'd have to be incredibly selfish (or stupid?) to start a road rage incident with an undertaker conducting a funeral, especially a cortege with a horse-drawn hearse. Bad enough going to a funeral at the best of times if recently bereaved, without delays caused by an aggressive altercation with a bus driver on top of that...

A bus driver apparently drove his bus straight into a London funeral procession consisting of various cars and a horse-drawn hearse, causing one of the horses to lose a shoe. The undertaker conducting the funeral, Jon Dyer from Albins of Bermondsey, said "I thought he may have pulled out by mistake, so I got out of the car and asked him to keep the bus where it was so the cortege could get past. But he drove the bus into me, and pushed me along the road until he reached the traffic islands." Another angry motorist apparently got out of his car and had words with the bus driver, while passengers on the bus looked horrified at what was going on.
(Funeralwire, 24.1.07)

I can imagine it, as it's not an uncommon incident on London roads, but in the middle of a funeral procession... There's enough responsibility for diligent undertakers to get everything right at funerals anyway, without road rage too. It's not like you're given a second chance to get a funeral right... and how are the bereaved family going to remember that event?

The illustration of the funeral procession isn't Albins, it's an actual 19th century one. Modern Victorian-style ones don't quite stretch to using feathered trays, as far as I know. I wonder if they had a Victorian road-rage equivalent... I guess angry, impatient people are fairly universal throughout history.

Update 2nd Feb. The bus driver ended up being sacked, after a disciplinary hearing by his bus company. Unsurprising, considering the situation. (Funeralwire 2/2/07)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Very minor news

Ooh, my paper for the Psychology postgrads at Bath Uni next week is mentioned in the Centre for Death and Society Research Centre's January newsletter. I'd better finish writing the paper then! Nice to be an extremely minor news item, though I don't think it'll go to my head, somehow...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ah well, could be worse...

My grandmother used to remind us that there was always someone worse off than you, when you're feeling a bit sorry for yourself. That thought is supposed to cheer you up, not that you actually care in that frame of mind, of course...

So being off sick from work with a stomach bug (yeuch... bleuch) isn't nice. It's worrying me watching work piling up before my very eyes (well, not literally, I'm not hallucinating as well), and wondering how I'll be able to reschedule things into the non-existent time available when I'm better isn't exactly great either.

Then I read an article in The Guardian about the sorry state of Higher Education in this country, reminding me that "Quality in higher education also requires job security for those delivering it. Casual contracts breed instability and personal anxiety." Yup, especially when you're ill. And a mention of the "thousands of hourly-paid teaching staff who prop up our creaking system". Yes indeed, I know them well. And a cheery reminder for anyone about to complete a PhD... "In the UK, 95% of postdoctoral researchers are on insecure contracts and many cannot get a mortgage because their employment is so insecure." Well, at least I've already got the mortgage.

Lucky that I actually enjoy teaching and research in my college, or I'd wonder what the hell I was doing it for after reading that.

But at least I haven't unwittingly had a penis tattooed on my back by an evil tattoo artist, after expecting a logo of my favourite football team, like this poor Argentinian footie fan.

See, things could always be worse - you just need a sense of proportion. Gran was right.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dream, Draw, Blog

How very lovely to get a year's artist-in-residency for your dream diary blog, as artist Robin Whitmore just has. Throughout 2007, his daily Dream Diary, an ongoing project in Blogger, will be showing as a new installation at the Dock, an art gallery in Carrick on Shannon, Ireland. The images will be projected one after the other on the staircase wall, accompanied by the descriptions narrated through audio speakers set into a specially constructed settee. The Dream Diary is set to run for the whole year, showing his illustrated dreams from 1st January to 31st December.

It will be interesting to see how the potentially interactive nature of the Blog format will work, alongside other related workshops and projects being planned, both in the gallery and online. It is easy enough for an artist to post his/her work online in a blog, but even if the work attracts comments, the viewers are not actually participating in the process of creating the ongoing work, or contributing to its final outcome.

A lot of Robin's work is very interactive, frequently taking place in settings where people contribute directly face-to-face, for example, providing anecdotes which are then translated into images, or offering their assorted body parts to be moulded in coloured cellophane, to create a complete life-size 'statue'.

A Dream Diary is different, as dreams are intensely personal to each individual, but at the same time, everyone has them. I think it is the fact that even though Robin's drawings are really interesting and often quite funny, because I know they are someone else's dream, it's more difficult to comment on them in a public blog. You don't know what real-life events might have informed the drawings and don't want to ask too personal questions or say the wrong thing... though I did have to point out a scary resemblance to Charlton Heston up a mountain in The Ten Commandments once, as it was too disturbing to go unsaid... (compare his entry for December 17th 2006 'The Mountain Top' with the blue Mr Heston above, if you don't believe me...)

I won't quite be waiting with bated breath, as that sounds a bit painful over the course of a year (might suffocate, don't want that!) but I will be really interested to see how the interactive aspect works out in this project. I think there must be a lot more potential for artists to use this element of blogging as part of the actual process of creating art, rather than using it as a static online gallery.

Dream on! (oh no, wasn't that an Aerosmith song, big hair and spandex...)

Monday, January 22, 2007

Room with a WebCam View

I love it when you've got loads to do and then something curious pops through your letterbox...

Did you know that if you join the 'Elvis Insiders' you get 24/7 access to a private WebCam with a view from Elvis Presley's upstairs bedroom window? Yes, you can spend all day (and night, if you like) staring at your computer screen, knowing you're looking at exactly the same view Elvis would have gazed upon from his bedroom window. Unless the view's changed in 30 years, but that's a minor detail... maybe the view was 'frozen in time' after he died. A very novel idea, and probably well worth $29.99 along with the other perks of membership.

There was a glut of punk songs in 1977 when Elvis died... The Clash sang 'no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977', Smeggy and the Cheesybits did 'Elvis had a Heart Attack' and Peter and the Test Tube Babies had a song called 'Elvis is Dead'. But three decades on, who's paying for a WebCam view from your bedroom window, eh lads?

Actually, I did get a bit bored with my brother's Chicken Cam when he first set that up, and the chickens were moving, doing chicken-like things. Maybe WebCams do have limited appeal in certain situations, though my Fascination with Fan-dom continues...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Vile NHS adverts

Who decided that the current NHS quit-smoking campaign on TV would be effective? It consists of a number of grimy toned adverts of various people going about their daily lives, occasionally being dragged around by fish-hooks embedded in their mouths. The intention is to make smokers want to 'get unhooked' from their tobacco addiction.

A cynical guess on my part is that a bunch of advertising creatives had a brainstorming session, and decided that the phrase 'to be hooked on something' would work visually as a deterrent to smokers, when translated very literally into people being dragged around corridors on fish-hooks. Personally, I find the adverts rather unpleasant to watch, (unless you're a fan of the Jim Rose Sideshow), and totally devoid of any imaginative content, in addition to having a very tenuous connection with their intended purpose. Smokers, please correct me if I'm horribly wrong and you've just nipped off to buy some nicotine patches after a quick viewing.

I would be really interested to see future statistics on the effectiveness of this particular campaign, to know how many smokers decide to give up as a result of watching this set of ads. Or alternatively, do they switch channels, or just squirm at the rather uncomfortable images on screen and light up another cigarette to calm their nerves? I'm also curious to know how much the NHS might have spent on this campaign, and how it was decided that this particular approach would have a better success rate than previous campaigns outlining the potential damage to 'sex appeal' or showing people dying of cancer (last year).

Have any smokers out there actually decided to 'get unhooked', or have the NHS horribly misjudged this one? Or does potential effectiveness and creative content even matter any more, as long as a new campaign is launched regularly, year after year, which looks significantly different to the previous year, showing a 'new initiative'?

It might be interesting to compare the effectiveness of the NHS campaign with the apparently much greater public interest in GMTV's Quit Smoking feature using Paul McKenna, popular British hypnotist and hypnotherapist. Can't help thinking that a grim storyline in a TV soap drama, plus Paul McKenna, might have more impact than the current NHS campaign.

Update 10th June 2008
The artist David Hockney was on BBC2's Newsnight programme last week, and mentioned how vile the NHS adverts that dragged people around on fish hooks were. Fancy that, eh! I can't believe those ads are still remembered after all that time, although for the wrong reasons, it seems.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

This Gracious Custom

I've been clearing out loads of old crap at work this week, stuff left over from the departmental move last summer (yes, things do move slowly here sometimes...). One of the few good things about sorting out really old boxes is that occasionally you find something interesting, making up for getting covered in black grime and poking your finger through a so-filthy-it-rotted-away mouse mat....

I've just found 2 post-war handbooks for tobacconists, priced at one shilling - 'All About Cigars' and 'All about Snuff and Snuff Taking'. Very educational, as well as having nice covers and adverts inside.

The gracious and sociable custom of snuff-taking, one of the oldest associated with the use of tobacco, was apparently enjoying a welcome revival in the early 1960s, according to the Society of Snuff Grinders, Blenders and Purveyors of Great Britain. The pleasures of indulgence are emphasised to draw in new customers... In the old days, snuff-taking had its own special ritual - 'a true artistic method' involving 'twelve separate operations' described by 'an eminent addict' of the 18th century.

As I don't really want to encourage unforeseen problems of the nose, I won't list the 12 steps to sniffing snuff, in case it inspires a snuff-snorting frenzy in modern readers. But watch and learn from the illustration if you must, in a return to those glorious days, as 'young women of the 18th century learn the art -some with immediate enjoyment, others with apparent trepidation'.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

So... the Pope wears Prada?

In one of those annual round-ups of the past year's news stories, 100 Things You Didn't Know Last Year, the Pope's alleged fondness for fashion got a mention. The BBC story noted that Pope Bendedict XVI is a 'fan of finery' and has been seen wearing a pair of red Prada loafers instead of the usual Papal footwear. He had also been spotted elsewhere in Cartier reading glasses (their demi lune Santos model) and 'pricey American Serengeti sunglasses — the preferred brand of the Hollywood film star Val Kilmer — which cost at least £200.' (Timesonline).

Why is the story still newsworthy, almost a year on? Is the idea of a religious leader being interested in fashion incompatible with the spiritual beliefs he is supposed to represent to others?

The fickle world of fashion has often been considered morally bereft and a sign of worldly vanity, hence the traditional sartorial rejection of its values by nuns and monks. John Evelyn, writing in 1661, even reckoned the decline of the Roman Empire was set in motion when the ancient Romans abandoned the toga for novelties in dress.

Without knowing the tailoring details, it seems unlikely that any of the other Papal ceremonial robes would be cheap garments, so presumably the media's interest in his alleged penchant for 'designer gear' is not purely a result of the actual financial outlay (though some of his items have been alleged to be 'gifts'.) So is it interesting because of the unlikely combination of high religious office and spiritual ideas with the perceived superficialities of contemporary style and the rampant conspicuous consumption frequently associated with fashion? Or possibly a sign that times are changing and Prada (and any other fashion label or non-label) is no longer just for the Devil!

If you really can't bear to contemplate the Pope's outfits, there are other interesting but trivial facts in the original BBC article... staying with the spiritual, in at number 64 is Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobiacs, the term for people who fear the number 666. So now you know!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Very Grey Day

What's worse than going back to work, first day back after the Christmas break, surrounded by all the other gloomy-faced commuters on a wet, grey January morning?

First day back, after being off on a Sabbatical for a year... getting to the office and not being able to get in, because all the door codes were activated by Security during the holiday closure.... and no-one remembered to tell you what the 5 different codes were, before you staggered up the stairs with heavy bags... finally get into the 'office' to find no phone, and computer kit still waiting to be set up....

Well, actually, it's just a bit worse...
I wasn't expected back until NEXT WEEK.

Someone kindly decided, in my absence, that I might as well come back a week later when everyone else was back. That's really nice, but no-one told me... I'd already put That Wednesday into my diary as the Back-To-Work date. Great... I could have slept a bit longer and then done something useful, like finishing the course material for next Monday.

Cheers, my dears... same time, next week then!

Still, nice to see no-one's nicked my printer again and the departmental dead rats have all gone...

We found a dead rat in our back garden once, when I lived in Zambia. It was the size of a cat. The ones at work are puny London rats, much smaller. I doubt either the Zambian rat or the London rats would have taken a cat hostage though, like in the wrinkly old vintage (but very good) King Kurt t-shirt design... I don't think it's in a rat's nature. But 50p to get into a gig seems unbelievably cheap compared to today, and often with a free haircut thrown in too, for the reckless punter... and on a very un-reckless note, I'd better go to sleep now, as I got up far too early for my liking today.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Torchwood finale

The final episodes of Torchwood shown as a double bill tonight on BBC3 were a nice start to the New Year. A really good end to the series.

Anything else pales into insignificance after watching The Time Rift open up, finally releasing the Devil over Cardiff. The Rift worked really well in those episodes, the idea that different time zones might co-exist but sometimes overlap in time and space is interesting... you sort of feel like that when you go into a disused building like the old WW2 dance hall, with fragments from previous occupants' detritus scattered around, thinking you hear whisperings or see 'things' out of the corner of your eye.

And quite a sweet storyline for Harkness to have a romantic liaison with the man whose identity he took in 1941, knowing his future fate... he seemed more human (for a non-human) after that.

I thought the death and 'resurrection' of the Captain John Harkness character was quite biblical, with his body lying shrouded in a stone-walled, tomb-like autopsy room after he'd sacrificed himself for the good of ...Wales? Then his eventual return from the dead, after being tended for days by a 'disciple' (well, Gwen, a Torchwood colleague...) also seemed remarkably like the Jesus story.

Very good double bill. I will miss it...wasn't sure about the series before, as sometimes it was a bit too gory and violent for me, but I watched the lot anyway and am sorry it's ended now. I presume Harkness has ended up with the Doctor, as the closing noises sounded faintly Tardis-like!

Actually, I've just looked at the Torchwood entry in Wikipedia, which notes that one of the main themes of the series is mortality. Ooh, so that's why I liked it! Science fiction often explores interesting existentialist ideas and questions aspects of life and death; thought-provoking, even if you're not a hard-core science fiction fan, but more of a dabbler, like me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Visualising Time

So today's a New Year's day -bright and sunny, after last night's rain and winds. I can stuff last year's diary away in a drawer and officially begin the 2007 one now. Begin at the beginning and work my way through it, page by page, until I reach the bottom of the December 31st 2007 page... eek, that's a long way off, better not think about it now!

Calendars impose such a rigid, linear, grid-like way of visualising time in our lives, at least in an urban context. Diaries and those ugly calendar wall charts in the office all make me think of time as something that starts in the top left corner and gradually works its way downwards until the end, when the next year starts, scientifically separated from the old year by calculations based on a micro-millisecond. (Time-measurement description not scientifically accurate, by the way, it's just indicative...).

Interestingly, the Science Museum, writing about the uses of atomic clocks and timing, says:

"It is not immediately obvious why we need clocks of this accuracy. However, each time the accuracy of timekeeping is improved, a new use is found for it."

So today I'm at the start of a New Year, presumably calculated officially, with atomic accuracy.

But I just end up visualising it in a really mundane calendar-like way. Seems a bit boring when the passing of time and the resulting calendars are based on astronomical changes in the relationship between the earth and moon or sun. Like in the 15th C illustration of 'Dante's Divine Comedy' (above), before atomic clocks existed. That all seems a much nicer, healthier perspective, for some reason, rooting you more obviously in 'nature' or the wider world or universe, rather than a individualistic little grid in a diary....

Which reminds me... I've only got a few days to get lots of work done before next term starts... completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but have to keep to my timetable. The office wall chart and my diary both say so.

But maybe there's a New Year's Resolution in there somewhere (if I ever actually made any) about keeping stuff in perspective. How very sensible!