Unreliable and possibly off-topic


Friday, September 30, 2005

On the road

I've been enjoying the Bob Dylan bonanza on BBC, especially live film of performances of familiar studio-recorded songs. Not because I worship the man (though I continue to admire him), but because those songs have formed a soundtrack to my life from childhood. My parents were young, beatnik folkies in 1964, carrying me (a small fat baby) from flat to flat and job to job, when they started collecting Bob's recordings. An amusement of ageing is to contrast my diffuse amnesia for recent events against a curiously conserved ability to singalong, word-perfect, to early Dylan songs from the 60s and 70s, lodged in some separate and durable, hard-recorded memory bank.

Like Jack and Bob, I'll be taking to the road shortly, and away for 10 days in the western US states. While the trip won't be all duty, I hope, the main reason is the death of my dear one's brother, Matt. Keeled over with a ruptured aorta, alone in his flat aged 45 yrs. Let that be a lesson to us all to live each day as it comes. There may be practical help needed (which I can be good at) with clearing Matt's flat, seeking financial paperwork, finalising affairs and ensuring his 13 yr old daughter gets any assets. There's been a truly black comedy of family dispute ongoing in the background since Matt died, concerning the ownership and fate of his ashes. You couldn't make up some of tragicomic dialogue and behaviour that's gone on in that family over a 5-lb bag of carbon, though Matt's wishes to his best friend were to be laid to rest in Arizona. So the other lesson is to make sure you have a will, especially if you're a parent.

Ashes or not, the plan is to dedicate a memorial bench for him at the local Greek orthodox monastery where he meditated and gave tours when off work. He'd been working to establish a new college in his small Arizona town, with its 5 prisons and not much else, and a population economically dependent on the incarceration industry. No wonder the brother loved the monastery, with its adobe architecture, expansive desert views, shady courtyard and icon-enriched, cool, open interior.

It's been gales and rainstorms the last few days in Edinburgh, and the gas fire's back on in these autumn evenings. The maples were starting to turn in the Botanics when DoDo and I visited at the weekend. It feels odd and quite probably sinful to be packing summer dresses and sandals to accomodate the current 80F weather in San Diego and 100F in Arizona. I'll also be smuggling over a specially-requested order of 'See You Jimmy' hats for dear one's barfly companions at the sleazy blues hangout where we met. They're easily amused by tack and kitsch.

Today's Indie soduku scores:
Quick 16 mins
Advanced 22 mins, distracted by Judge Judy
Rating: Improving
Acknowledgement: Mum, bless her, for saving me the superduper sudoku CD from Sat's Indie.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Latest scores on Independent's sudoku:

Level Date Time Comments
Quick 27/9/05 17 mins
Quick 28/9/05 26 mins ~8 min interruption,
Advanced 27/9/05 23 mins
Advanced 28/9/05 21 mins ~6 min interruption, getting tipsy

It's been interesting to spectate on how I developed tricks to solve these. There was a pretty steep learning curve over 2 weeks or so. I realised the importance of logical deduction and induction from the start, but continued to make logical errors in the solution around 50% of the time. But error rate then dropped off to a current plateau at ~10% incorrect solutions. With practise, the initially naive, best-guess, intuitive style of completion has been replaced by a gradual dawning awareness and operationalisation of the logical, cognitive processes in cross-checking potential solutions. The mechanical aspects of the process, now that I seem to have reached a limit on technique, have somewhat taken the gamble and the fun out of it, to be honest. I've had a go at the monstrously fierce sudokus which use up to 5 letters as well as the conventional sudoku lexicon of 9 digits, but they make my brain ache.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sits Vac

Could this be it, my new job? For those who can't be arsed to click the link, the National Trust is advertising for knitters to emigrate to and occupy empty crofts on Fair Isle. My CV includes a queer liking for desolate landscapes and knitting a series of chequered teacosies as presents one Xmas. However, even my considerable tolerance for dreichness, long winters and weather might be challenged, judging by the webcam here. A Radio 4 program a while back, possibly 'From our own correspondant', focused on Fair Isle's whaling traditions and Norse-inflected dialect, making it sound delightfully odd. If the NT threw in limitless book purchases as a perk, I might just be persuaded...

Oh well (yawns and stretches)- that's my job-hunting duties over with for the day, so now I can kick back. Although work hasn't occupied much of my attention lately, getting free of it (even temporarily) feels absolutely wonderful. Now I can slouch and shirk without guilt and anxiety at the work undone and a delightful idleness filled mostly with reading, sudoku, cooking and brisk walks has taken over.

Reading has resumed the wonderful, indulgent and preoccupying pastime I remember from childhood and adolescence. This week it's been 'Mutants' (popsci on evolutionary embryology), 'Bobby Fischer Goes to War' (Fischer vs Spassky chess match in Iceland 1972), 'The World of Christopher Marlowe' and Ackroyd's biography of William Blake. David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' is my current fiction project. I have problems with committing to fiction and often make slow progress, but this one's been rewarding. I still adore sudoku but it's reined back to timing myself on the Independent's back-page quick puzzle. I'll tackle the advanced one too if that doesn't suffice, but (at the risk of boasting) the easier ones are unsatisfactorily mechanical.

Being at home during the day gives opportunities for long, slow casserole-style cooking with pulses and for breadmaking, both of which I could learn to love. I can manage a decent loaf through the miracle of fermentation, but success with shortcrust and self-raising recipes is poorer. My scones usually emerge flat, tarnishing the earth-mother fantasy I'm currently nurturing.

I shall be taking smash's advice and doing not very much for a little while- maybe working up a few points on the excessive drinking. I tried hard the other night, anyway, with a spectacular fall on the 50m saunter to the all-nite garage for fags, scraping up my knee and smacking my arm too. I'm pleased to report that two passers-by ran over promptly to help me up, restoring faith in community spirit if not my dignity. Although I felt little at the time, my knee and arm have ached for the last 2 days to remind me of my folly.

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Hey- maybe I could getta job as a permanent casualty for paramedics' training! I see a career opportunity knocking!


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Gissa job

OK- serious query here. I've recently left an academic post after 18 yrs employment. Apart from the faculties or interests signalled here, my practical circumstances are as a middle-aged single mother of 2, and I would like to work from home part-time if possible. Suitable suggestions would be gratefully considered, so long as these exclude prostitution (since I've already been married) or cockle-harvesting. I'm not asking here for a job offer, but instead the opinions of friends as to what I might be suited.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Evolution and female orgasm

Any smirks should be wiped off faces, for this is an academic post on a subject of several recent Kuhnian revolutions. Since female orgasm is not necessary for conception (ask any Pramface lassie), its nature, function and modus operandi are particularly interesting.

The historical/philosophical background of female orgasm is one first of absenteeism, then of Freudian good/bad vaginal/clitoral forms, then mid 20th C physiological studies proving its clitoral origin (Kinsey) and surveys showing only a third acheive orgasm through penetrative sex alone (Hite). Referral patterns to sex therapists show an overwhelming gender bias of premature ejaculation in men and anorgasmia in women. Conversely, anorgasmia in men is almost always physiological in origin (physiological impotnece or foreskin insuficiency) and premature orgasm in women is vanishingly rare.

The evidence is overwhelming that reproductive sexual behaviour (penetrative sex) is more likely to lead to climax for men then women. Nevertheless, even anorgasmic women enjoy sex, and orgasmic sexuality, relationships and family life remain a preoccupation for women at least as much as men. And it's this that drives much of the advertisement industry, and the enormously profitable porn industry.

However my interest is neither personal (since I know how to get there) nor political (since to me the sex industry is a fact). But evolutionary theory can help to examine and analyse female orgasm's significance by examining the evidence.

Three suppositions I discounted are these:
1. That the evolution of female orgasm has yet to catch up with the mechanisms of penetrative sex, and that in time the clitoris will move southward closer to the vagina.
2. That the uterine contractions of the female orgasm function adaptively to wash sperm upstream to fertilise a waiting ovum.
3. That the human clitoris is adapted for face-to-face sex, as frequently practised by humans.

1 a) Sexual reproduction evolved a very long time ago in single cells, and has continued to have been employed in most eukaryotic, multicelled organisms. That evolution has been 'too busy' to move the clitoris south in humans is not rational.
b) Female fertility peaks at approx ~20 yrs, while orgasmic capacity for women increases with decline in fertility from 35 yrs onwards.
c) Women can have orgasms at all times of their cycle, whether fertile that day or not
2 a) Female orgasm is not needed for conception
b) Women have variations in their orgasmic capacity over their ovulatory cycle. While some peak in libido and orgasmic capacity at ovulation in most women peak sexiness corresponds with their least fertile periods (just before menstruation).
3 If the clitoris is placed to produce simulataneous orgasm in both human sexual partners, why isn't it located in the vagina or the throat (as fantasised in a famous film).
In the Mating Mind, a book about sexual selection pressure's effects in evolution, Geoffrey Miller suggests that the elusiveness of the human female orgasm is an engineered mechanism for females to assess male's fitness as partners and parents. The normal strategy of male sexual organsims with a plethora of sperm is to inseminate as many females as possible, with a blunderbuss approach to reproduction. However, female reproductive strategy, with scarce ova, is to pick and choose the fittest male mate possible. In crabs, this might be the oldest, biggest male with the optimally adapted sperm, but in an altricial species with pair-bonding and optimally shared care of offspring the balance will shift.

It takes considerable care, expertise and patience to produce a female orgasm, most usually through direct clitoral stimulation. Miller's hypothesis that female orgasm is a tool for women's sexual selection of mates appeals to me very strongly, especially in the peculiar circumstance of human concealed ovulation. The remarkably long neoteny and extended care required by human babies quite rightly invokes special screening techniques for women, biologically, and a male attentive enough to produce an orgasm just could be an indicator of committment needed to get a baby past toddlerhood.

I came across this weekend a book on the subject- The Case of the Female Orgasm : Bias in the Science of Evolution but it was only available in hardback, and my shoplifting skills are rusty these days. It's probably developed better arguments than my amateur ones above, I'd hope, but until it's in paperback I'll remain ignorant.

PS My natural scientific/evolutionary bent means that I wish knowledge of the sexual behaviour and response in other animals besides humans, but I don't except for the wierd stuff, like the spotted hyenas who have clitorises as large as their males' penis, and who give birth through a shared urethral/vaginal canal in their clitoris. I'm particularly interested in the genital anatomy of primates, wondering how coitus with the male behind the female could access or stimulate a frontal clitoris. I believe the evolutionary blogger Pharyngula may have addresses some of these issues.


Monday, September 19, 2005

Happy families

Buy 2 books and an outfit for presents, throw together a homemade bolognese sauce with rigatoni, green salad with capers, crusty bread and chocolate birthday cake, and you too can fake your birthday girl too into believing that she's had a fabulous, spoiled day. Staying up late to watch 'Wife Swap' together (a family favourite) was an extra license since tomorrow's a school holiday. Nini wasn't bothered for a proper party, and at age 9 falls between playcentre and disco party-markets. We'll ask her friend N over for a cinema trip and a sleepover next weekend as a belated treat instead.

How do you make a happy family? It's a challenge facing all of us with relationships, encompassing the plural families we collect and make when born, growing up, choosing friends, making and breaking alliances and (sometimes) reproducing. Those claiming that their particular family style is the only acceptable permutation among the numerous successful combinations evident in practice must be blinkered.

The blinkered miss out on the enrichment that can come from friends acting as family members, or from the broadened horizons when two parents have different lifestyles, or the adaptability promoted when, over time, family structures fracture then reconstruct themselves in new, sometimes surprising and delightful arrangements.

Astute readers may discern that dynamic changes in family circumstances enter my past and current experience. Behind is a long marriage producing two wonderful children and family-style roles for some close friends in the single-parent family reconstituted when this ended. Over 5 years I had a couple of go's at partnerships but neither were sustained. As the second of these was coming to a close, a casual encounter with a stranger met in a blues bar in a foreign city turned into a love affair more intense, irresistible yet comfortable than any I've felt before. An encounter intended as a zipless one-night-stand turned into something else entirely.

I hauled in my nets as soon as I returned home, making haste to finish with the pleasant boyfriend of whom my kids were so fond. Over the succeeding 4 months, I've revisited and met my beloved's important others (esp. his 18 yr old daughter, J), and he and J have counter-visited to check out Edinburgh and meet my kids too. Both trips helped cement our certainty that the affair was both feasible and fated.

Ahead are the challenges looming to make a new, blended family better than its constituents, joining me and my children in a working, growing enterprise with the man and daughter of my choice. Rationally I should be pessimistic, but somehow I know everything will be fine, and that happiness awaits this new extended family. Wish us all luck, which we surely deserve.


Imperfect but good-enough parenting

Wrote a recently rare email to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of the Independent today when she joined the trivial and overblown tabloid outrage at allegations that Kate Moss has sniffed cocaine and engaged in sexual activity with more than one person of more than one gender at a time. And, shock horror, she may have indulged in these activities even after she became mother to her 2 yr old daughter, even if there's no implication her daughter was exposed or witness to either.

Well knock me down with a feather. Yasmin goes on to revel in a Catch-22 of accusations against inadequate celebrity parenting, condemning Kate Moss both for daring to enjoy herself in victimless offenses (recreational drugs or sex) while away from her daughter, and/or by entrusting her daughter's care to others when she wishes to work or to play.

This really pissed me off, and at first I wondered why I reacted so. Later, while chatting to my Mum I was to realise that the cause was a guilty subconscience, when it struck me that that my daughter's 9th birthday was not next Monday as I'd believed, but today. This may well be an example of poor parenting as judged by Yasmin, and a subject for immediate intervention from Social Services as she recommends for Kate. However, I'd argue it was still 'good-enough' parenting, because I've managed to shop for and wrap her presents, buy a cake and decorations and cook her favourite dinner in 1 hour flat. And only my Mum and I will know how close a call on bad-parenting this was.


Friday, September 02, 2005

Disgusted of Morningside

Expressions of outrage are ten a penny and often a waste of time, energy and breath. However, the human tragedies played out in this week in Baghdad and in New Orleans are appalling in their scale and upsetting in their media portrayal.

What's concerned me most is the culture of victim-blame attached to both, and the failure to recognise social/political contributants to either. The stampede in Baghdad was overwhelmingly attributed to fear of suicide bombers in the Shia crowd. The notable exception was Fisk's article in the Independent, which reported the mortar fire that sparked panic. Their frontpage photo of a beach of marooned sandals tells a terrible tale- each lost shoe emptied of an owner dragged away on a human tide. If those dumb Iraqis would just accept they're liberated and safe, no problem would have arisen, we hear. Also that Iraqis collectively are themselves to blame because they harbour insurgency and because they in their panic were their own murderers.

Only over the last 24 hrs has the culture of victim blame of the New Orleans refugees (for such they are) sofened somewhat, as the true scale and life-and-death horror of that 'natural' calamity emerges. For the first 3 days there were only stern warnings against the 'looting' (of food, drink and clothing by the hungry, thirsty and dirty), and public disbelief that so many people had 'disobeyed' evacuation instructions. It seems unbelievable that there was no emergency plan to deal with those with difficulties in evacuating themselves, through lack of transport, money, foresight or places to go.

The long shots of the central streets and Superdome show overwhelming brown and black faces, and the closeups a high proportion of wheelchair users. The poor, disabled or weak abandoned to their own fate. It appears that many people died not from the storm but from exhaustion, lack of medicines and dehydration as they endured a futile wait for rescue. Some of the worst stories emerging so far are from nursing home and hospitals, including pleas from the Charity Hospital. And there will be many more appalling stories. And again there's collectivisation of punishment and blame, with failures to deliver aid to the Superdome blamed on refugees shooting at helicopters. While this isn't a smart thing to do, a crimewave could've reasonably been expected and there appears to have been no contingency plan. And its nowhere near over yet. There's a million people and more now seeking new homes, new jobs in an already fucked economic climate, and there's no safety net to catch them as already amply demonstrated. Richest country in the world, and quite pitiless. And much as I would wish it, Bush won't even suffer for this, because it'll be blamed on the victims, the mayor and the state, and not on the system.