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Archive for December, 2010

How much time do you ‘waste’ at work doing one of the following: making tea or coffee for yourself; drinking tea or coffee; offering to make tea or coffee for others; actually making tea or coffee for others; talking to others in the place where you make tea or coffee without actually making any tea or coffee?

Tom de Castella asks these profound questions, and many more, in a recent article. It seems that British workers ‘lose’ an average of 24 minutes per day getting tea or coffee. But the real question is whether this benefits personal well-being, office harmony, and general productivity; or whether it’s just a way of skiving off work.

Four in 10 workers make a hot drink for more than one colleague every day, while the under 30s get their caffeine hit from runs to coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa. The average adult spends 24 minutes a day on fetching and drinking hot drinks, costing their employer £400 a year in lost man hours, says T6, who conducted the survey of 1,000 people. It estimates that over a lifetime the tea run accounts for nearly 190 days of lost productivity.

So is all this slurping of warm beverages a good use of employees’ time? Bill Gorman, chairman of the UK Tea Council, says the research ignores the “kindness” of the tea break. “Tea drinkers are very sociable. It’s a caring thing to know how your colleagues take their tea. What are the pollsters saying? That we should just keep working at our desks with a glass of water beside us?”

Occupational psychologist Cary Cooper agrees, saying breaks are an essential part of coping with sedentary office life. “Nowadays we sit in front of screens not communicating eyeball to eyeball and even e-mail people in the same building,” says the professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School. “We need to make people more active and see other people. The coffee break is one way of doing this.”

Companies should organise morning breaks twice a week, where people are encouraged to leave their desks to chat over free hot drinks, suggests Prof Cooper. Not everyone likes tea or coffee of course. People who don’t drink caffeine should have other options like apples or herbal infusions, so as not to feel “alienated”, he adds.

Indeed – it’s hugely important not to make apple-eaters feel alienated…

What are your own tea/coffee routines at work – and what do they mean? Has the kitchenette or coffee machine become the real boardroom or hearth or even altar at your workplace – the place where deals are done and relationships managed and souls soothed? Or would we be better just taking in a Thermos flask each morning and getting on with the job at hand?

If you want to read more about the supposed effects not just of the ‘making the tea/coffee ritual’ but of the consumption of caffeine itself, then see the full article here.

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How much do you drink? Per day? Per week? I don’t mean cappuccinos and milkshakes. I mean units of alcohol.

I’m not assuming you are middle-class, but middle-class drinking is the focus of Robert Crampton’s article about the increasing acceptance of moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as part of an ordinary British lifestyle. [The Times Magazine, 12 Dec 2010; subscription only]

Over the last few years, alcohol consumption has actually fallen slightly, but not for everyone:

Among the middle-aged and older, and the more affluent, it has continued to rise. And because measuring consumption in the home is harder, and middle-class people tend to drink in their own and each other’s homes, the rise is likely to be higher than recorded.

Anecdotally, certainly, the evidence is clear. Most of my friends drink pretty much every day; the norm is none or one dry day each week. They sink maybe two or three beers or a half a bottle of wine, plus maybe a Scotch or a gin each night, sometimes more, in the week; then more, sometimes a lot more, at weekends. And then you’ve got holidays, special occasions, obviously the Christmas party season, already well under way.

We’ve come a long way from when we were kids in the Seventies and the booze stayed in the sideboard, a luxury that came out with the best crockery two or three times a year. To be middle class in Britain now is to drink, often rather a lot.

What’s the effect of all this drinking?

You get fat: I put on half a stone just in August. You sleep badly, either not enough or far too much. After a big, marquee night, a 20-unit extravaganza, you can lose a whole day to a hangover. Even at 11am, your wife is shushing the children because daddy’s not feeling well.

You make bad decisions. You get grumpy. You slur. You fall off your bike late at night. You have conversations with strangers you then can’t remember – the conversation or the stranger. Some people take advantage of your drunken generosity. You send e-mails and texts you probably shouldn’t send. And it costs you, what? Depending on where and what you’re drinking, 50 quid a week? Eighty quid? One hundred quid?

Why do people drink more? Everyone will have their own personal story, but Crampton thinks the bigger cultural changes have had a significant influence.

I grew up thinking heavy drinking was like gambling, something some idle rich people did and some deluded poor people did, not something those of us in the middle did. Or if we did do it, we felt bad about it. I think that was the way of it for most middle-class people my age, irrespective of religion or politics.

My parents had grown up in a mid-20th-century Britain constrained by war, rationing, lack of money and the residual influence of church or chapel. In mid-century, the country drank less than one third of what it had drunk in 1900, and just over one third of what it would drink in 2000. But even as I imbibed the idea that regular, let alone heavy drinking was at best strange, at worst sinful, the reality on the ground was shifting. By the time I turned 16 in 1980, the country was drinking twice as much as it had when my dad had turned 18 in 1950. And for the first time, a significant measure – about 15 per cent – in the national cocktail was wine, the middle-class tipple.

In the 30 years between my 16th birthday in 1980 and my 46th this August (three champagnes, two white wines, two margaritas, one red wine, one pint of Guinness) we have got richer and booze has got cheaper. Any religious restriction on drinking has all but evaporated. Foreign travel – and thus access both to even cheaper booze and an agreeable, vinocentric culture – is routine. Working hours are more flexible. Food is about 100 times better: there is far more incentive to combine a bottle of wine with what we eat in 2010 than with what we ate in 1980. The middle class has all but abandoned one vice, smoking, and adopted another, alcohol, in partial replacement.

I think something else has changed in Britain in those years, too, something less tangible. The middle class – even the strait-laced section I hail from – has learnt to value sensual pleasure in a way that would have seemed almost immoral to many even 30 years ago. And what more easily available sensual pleasure is there than drink?

Thirty years ago, at some level, we thought drinking, not just heavy drinking, was wrong. We don’t think that way any more. But maybe we should. Not all the time, four or five days out of seven would do the trick.

Crampton is not a puritan – that’s what makes his article so interesting. He just wishes we could find some balance and moderation. He wants us to recognise that there is a downside to our increasing dependence on alcohol. And he wants us to be more honest about the desires and needs that drive us to drink in the first place, and to ask whether we could meet them in other ways that would be equally fulfilling.

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Just a few weeks ago, on 31st October 2010, at 01:59 and 59 seconds in the morning, millions of us in Britain, and many millions more throughout Europe, travelled back in time by one hour, and found ourselves in the same position in the same bed, but now – instantaneously – at exactly the same time we were one hour before. I wanted to say this took place at exactly 2 o’clock in the morning, but that’s the point: this particular 2 o’clock in the morning never arrives, it doesn’t exist; it’s lost in an alternative universe, and we have to wait another hour for another 2 o’clock, when the new time pretends it has caught up with the old.

This isn’t science fiction, it’s the twilight zone of moving from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, when the clocks change each autumn. An event so ordinary and yet so mysterious that we hardly think about it. Or dream about it. I’ve never been awake when the clock actually changes – and I have one of those digital radio clocks by my bed, so in theory I would see it change before my eyes.

We can just change time. How staggering! Or is it just a great act of make-believe? Most of us are so disconnected from the natural rhythms of the world that we don’t notice whether this ‘conventional’ time fits in with ‘real’ time or not.

One of my obsessions when I was studying philosophy was the notion of ‘measure’, and how important it is that we have rival and non-standard units of measurement, to remind us that a unit is simply a convention, that there is no intrinsic truth to any one way of mapping the world, and that each form of measurement allows us to see the world in a particular way. Thank goodness that in Britain we still have both metres and yards, litres and pints, kilogrammes and pounds.

My only sadness, in the context of this post, is that we don’t have alternative ways of measuring time. Or do we? ‘Noon’, possibly, means ‘when the sun is at its height’, and not necessarily 12.00 – which no longer has any natural connection with the height of the sun. It’s a miracle that we haven’t got metric time – that we still stick to units of 24, 12, 60, etc. Although we have creeping metricisation (is that a word?) with the millisecond.

I started all these thoughts about the clocks because we are now one small step closer to tinkering with time even further, and keeping British Summer Time throughout the winter too. Which would mean darker mornings and brighter evenings in the winter.

What’s not to like? The Independent gives the arguments for:

Almost unheralded, the question of daylight saving is back on to the agenda – and a very good thing that is, too. A Private Member’s Bill, which passed its second reading [on 4 Dec], would require the Government to open an inquiry into the benefits of keeping British Summer Time throughout the year.

There is, of course, a nostalgia issue here. In some ways it would be a pity to lose Greenwich Mean Time, which has such resonance both in Britain and around the world. This, however, is a detail compared with the many advantages that would accrue from a switch to year-round BST. Road safety groups say that 100 road deaths could be prevented every year. There would be significant economies on energy consumption, as the daylight hours would match most people’s waking and working hours more closely than they do in winter at present. And organisations as diverse as the Football Association, green groups and tourist concerns are also in favour. An additional plus is psychological: it would eliminate the damper that early darkness puts on the national mood each autumn.

The Daily Mail gives the arguments against. And instead of calling it ‘Year Long British Summer Time’ it prefers ‘Berlin Time’.

Britain has been warned that switching to Berlin Time could have a damaging effect on health, education, energy consumption and commerce.

As MPs prepare to vote on the proposal this week, warning bells were sounded in Portugal, which went through a disastrous four-year experiment with Berlin Time in the Nineties.

The official line in Portugal was that moving the clocks forward by one hour would create jobs, reduce road deaths and encourage participation in sport. But the opposite proved to be the case and the government had to heed public opinion and return to GMT.

Opponents [to the British plan] point out that millions more people all over Britain would have to go to work and school in the dark.

London would be in semi-darkness at 9am on the shortest day of the year, December 21, and the sun would not appear in Carlisle on that day until 9.34am.

There is also concern that the longer summer evenings could lead to more outdoor drinking and anti-social behaviour. Sunset in Glasgow on the longest day of the year, June 21, would not take place until 11.06pm, while in Nottingham it would be at 10.34pm and in Dover it would be at 10.14pm.

The Portuguese found that changing to Berlin Time – officially known as Continental Time – led to poorer exam results as children could not get to sleep because of the lighter evenings and were therefore tired at school the following day.

There was also an increase in stress levels, insomnia and consumption of sleeping pills. More road accidents occurred during the darker winter mornings and energy bills rose because households used more electricity.

I’m for it. Longer evenings. That’s the clincher. What do you think?

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Very rarely does an advert on a billboard make me stop and think. This one did.

In case you can’t see the image well, the poster reads:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

Well, I was driving along the A41 at 50 mph, so I didn’t stop. But the mental processes were interrupted for a moment, and I found myself thinking about all the times that I distance myself from the people or events around me, treating them as ‘other’, when they are really me, and I am them.

Traffic jam in Bangkok

 

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What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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Monsters is a slight but beautiful film. It’s not really about alien invasions – it’s a road movie, a love story, and almost a political parable. The photography is stunning. The two main characters are just quirky and wounded enough to be interesting. You can see the trailer here (which pretends that it really is a film about alien invasions).

[WARNING: Minor plot spoilers follow]

The aliens are more than just wallpaper. They give the initial momentum to the plot, one or two small scares on the way (don’t worry – the film is only a 12A rating), and a slightly strained epiphany at the end; but that’s about it.

In a road movie you need to be running away or running home or both. But it doesn’t really matter what you’re running from. It could be a tyrannosaurus rex or a band of vigilantes or a wicked stepmother. It could be your past, or even your future.

The key is wanting to be somewhere else; and sometimes wanting to be someone else. That’s why we can identify with it even if we are not at this particular moment being threatened by aliens ourselves.

And in a love story, to the extent that we identify with one of the protagonists, we think we are longing for love. But it’s deeper than that. We project our own longing onto the story, whatever that longing is, and whatever the story is. And in fact the deepest longing is not a longing for this or for that, it’s a longing for the idea of fulfilment in itself – the ‘happy ever after’ of a fairytale or a romantic comedy.

It’s almost a longing to long for its own sake; a yearning that doesn’t actually want to latch onto anything concrete, because then it would limit itself. The road movie and the love story allow us to admit not just that we want more than we have, but that we want more than we want – and we don’t know what to do with that extra wanting. But to deny it would be to deny something fundamental about ourselves.

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"St John the Baptist Preaching" by Rodin

I don’t want to turn this blog into an archive of Sunday sermons, but here is one thought from a recent Advent homily – about procrastination and the difficulty of doing what we really want to do.

I’ve spent the twenty-five years of my life as an adult telling myself that next week I will start flossing my teeth. Tonight, I’ll stand in front of the bathroom mirror, as I always do, with the same excuses: “I’m tired. It’s been a long day. I need to sleep. But next week, definitely, absolutely, I’ll begin.”

What’s dental hygiene got to do with Advent? Nothing at all. But my personal struggles in this area are an example of how easy it is for us to put things off. Little things. Big things. Life changing things. There’s always a tomorrow; and we always think we have more time.

John the Baptist is the patron saint of ‘not putting things off’. He bursts onto the pages of the gospels like someone from another world. And meeting him is not a comfortable experience.

You know when you are sitting on the top deck of a bus, and someone slightly deranged gets on, talking to no-one in particular, staggering around – and everyone freezes, uncertain where this is going to go, self-conscious, and slightly frightened.

Or when you’re driving the car, lost in a day-dream, and something jolts you awake, and you realise you were within an inch of a terrible accident; and in those moments afterwards your experience a strange mix of alertness, gratitude, vulnerability and delayed terror. These are some of the feelings aroused today when John the Baptist starts to preach.

You can put his message into one word. “Now!” Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to bear fruit. Now the axe is about to strike the root.

Think of anything important in your life that you have been putting off. Anything good and worthwhile. And John says: If it is really important, then just do it. Now. There may not be another chance.

Is there a promise you haven’t kept? A responsibility you haven’t fulfilled? Is there someone you need to love more, or see more, or avoid seeing? Is there someone you need to forgive, or say sorry to? Is there a decision you’ve been putting off, an opportunity you’ve been afraid to seize, a holy ambition you haven’t pursued, or a vocation you’ve been running away from? Is there a tiny change in your habits or lifestyle or view of the world that would make a huge difference to yourself and to others, that you haven’t made simply because you haven’t got round to it?

What would John the Baptist say? “Now!” Deal with it now. You may never have another chance. And you may spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t put things right or take things forward while you had the chance.

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