Neurological Free Lunch

I once spent two weeks caffeine-free on a whim – I wanted to see what life was like.  Turns out that after the withdrawal was done, life was exactly the same, only slightly less fun.

After all the studies on caffeine seeking to show that it is harmful, and the continual drizzle of bullshit from Buzzfeed repeating old wives tales, perhaps it’s time to accept that maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as a perfect drug.  Yes, if you have trouble sleeping, are unusually sensitive to caffeine’s effects, are allergic, have firm views about the working conditions of brown people, or otherwise have a serious and thought-out reason for refraining, perhaps then caffeine isn’t for you. Or maybe you just don’t like it, that’s fine.

But for all the people who assume that because it’s enjoyable it must be bad for you I would say the following: Firstly that it’s not been shown to have any significant negative effects, but it has been proved protective against diabetes and alzheimers. Secondly, your assumption that fun things are always bad seems quite perverse to me and has echoes of those Northern European Protestant movements which basically tried to make life as un-fun as possible, in contrast with the barmy but undeniably fun Catholic church.

Yes, there is such a thing as a free lunch, or at least one that is easily affordable within your neural budget. Just don’t overdo it, although you probably know that already.

David Gilmour – Rattle that Lock

In the ongoing Floyd Wars I’ve always tended to side with the David Gilmour camp.  I have little patience for Syd Barrett’s wafty hippy psychedelia and I felt that Roger Water’s work was thematically strong but musically boring.  That said, I’ve never been hugely impressed by Gilmour’s solo work.  I know that’s unfair since by comparing 1970s Floyd with 2015’s Gilmour I’m looking at the same person at opposite ends of his lifetime; however it’s difficult not to look for commonalities and comparisons. The overall theme of the album centres around death and getting older, which makes sense given that Gilmour is no longer a young man.

The strongest connection between old and new David Gimour is undoubtedly the sound of his guitar.  It’s so distinctive, I think I’d be able to recognise his playing from a three second snippet. One of his strengths has always been that he’s known what not to play – the space in his music is often its greatest asset.  On his new album though I feel that it’s overdone. The listener drifts away on all those familiar sounds and song structures into a general feeling of Gimour-esque warmth, without actually noticing much of what’s happening. The lyrics (written by Gilmour’s wife and collaborator) jar occasionally –  it seems to me that the ethereal nature of much of the music is brought down by workmanlike lyrical content.

There are a few memorable moments – the title track is strangely mesmerising and there are a few guitar solos which grab the ear.  But overall I found Rattle That Lock to be pleasant and comfortable, if not gripping.

The Ur-Infographic

I love a good infographic, but most infographics aren’t good.  They’re noisy, design-trend heavy, or worst of all they attempt to illuminate trivial topics.

Consider then, the following image.


This is the Ur-Infographic, believed to be the first one ever developed.  It was designed by a man called Charles Joseph Minard, a Frenchman from the mid-19th century.  He was trying to document the Napoleon’s losses in his campaign in Russia in 1812 where, over a course of several months, he lost something like 95% of his army to disease, cold, starvation, desertion and occasional enemy contact. It’s easy to read that statistic and be amazed, but I think this graphic does a sterling job of showing you what happened. As the Grande Armée heads east it begins losing strength almost from the word go; the return trip is devastating. This data is cunningly correlated with geographic information as well as the weather.

Have a close look at the image – there’s more to see than is immediately obvious.  Follow it up by reading Napoleon the Great, by Andrew Roberts, an excellent single-volume biography of Napoleon.

Literary disability

For someone who reads a lot, I have a really hard time with so-called “literary” fiction. Snide judgements about definitions aside, I’m much more of an information-centred person, rather than a story-centred person.  The snarkier part of me points out that a lot of lit fic is devoid of plot as well, preferring to concentrate on the human condition, whatever that is.

The main reason for my reluctance is that whenever I read such a work (and I do try, periodically), I feel like I’m missing most of it. It’s like there’s a joke that no-one let me in on. Granted, my forays into the formal academic study of literature aren’t extensive, but perhaps there was something in it.  High school literature classes left me cold.  After close readings of texts I normally felt that either the revealed profundities were less than profound or that they were obvious, that there wasn’t a subtext. Reading other novels as an adult I find myself searching for plot or explicit information, rather than the artistry of it. Implications and subtexts are way beyond my remit it seems.

Perhaps I’m just not wired for it.  I’m envious of people who find lit fic rewarding, I wish that pleasure was accessible to me.  But I have a fairly literal mind; perhaps I’m unable to dislocate my neural machinery in the right way to handle these kinds of abstractions.

That all probably makes me immensely shallow.

Eric Clapton’s Blues

Poor Eric Clapton.  He would have been the greatest guitarist of the 20th century* if Jimi Hendrix hadn’t come along and, more importantly, died. Clapton’s fame in London in the 60s extended to people writing “Clapton is God” on walls, and yet when he saw Hendrix for the first time even God himself was shocked at how great a musician he was. Hendrix was wildly inventive and swiftly shunted rock music sideways in terms of sound, while sticking to the same fundamentals as Clapton.  Hendrix’s rock star death meant that was immortalised young and perfect, and could never have the inevitable tragic decline.

Meanwhile, Clapton spent the 70s producing a lot of mediocre work but also some utterly excellent stuff.  It seems to me that the Post-Hendrix world forced Clapton to look more broadly into Reggae and Gospel music, because the blazing blues-rock god position had been taken.

In the end maybe it was all for the best – Clapton seems so modest and taciturn and never happier than playing some simple but endlessly subtle blues riff with a couple of friends.  His own life has settled down over the last 20 years and allowed him to do just that. Maybe it’s all he ever wanted.

* With the possible exception of Django Rheinhart