Laughter Lines

In late 2015, after physically healing an injury I’d sustained in midsummer, I was looking for some psychological healing experiences. Laughter, of course, is often called ‘the best medicine’ and there seems to be some truth in this. I discovered laughter yoga, which I found an excellent tonic.

What’s the medical evidence for this? Somewhat inconclusive it seems. We know laughter produces endorphins, and seems to involve the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus and the amygdala. In other words, it’s ancient, something laid down early in our primate evolution, and indeed laughter has been observed in other primates.

On the other hand, there’s some evidence the cortex is involved: there’s a cognitive component. This makes intuitive sense. I’ve been told I have a very sophisticated sense of humour. I will laugh or smile along with the rest of humanity at funny cat videos, but I also laugh when others do not. For example, I recall watching the 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in my view an underrated film, and finding it hugely funny in the way it uses American cliches and mythologies to satirical effect. You can’t find that funny without a certain level of cognitive sophistication. My co-watchers were confused as to what I found so funny, while I found the film a fresh look at America. Christopher Hitchens was inclined to consider irony one of the consolations for the losing battle we are all fighting, and something he couldn’t live without; I’d agree irony and wit are precious jewels, producing such satisfying smiles.

Laughter seems to have evolved as a survival strategy for both individual and social health. There’s evidence it relieves stress, boosts the immune system, helps keep a healthy heart and blood flow, and even reduce allergic reactions. It may extend life. It also has social benefits, improving relationships amongst humans. It can also be used to reinforce social isolation of particular humans while improving bonding amongst those who join in the laughter, thus reinforcing shared social norms. The object of the laughter thus plays an important role in those relationships.

In these times, anything that can help our health, particularly the immune system, as well as improve social relationships, has a value that perhaps should not be understated. So I thought I’d share with you three videos that have made me laugh a lot recently.

Thinking about the first example, I guess this is a case of laughing at someone else’s expense, in this case Liam Gallagher’s. And who better? Here’s Sacha Baron-Cohen, on an American chat show, with a very funny story about him:

Chat shows, in amongst the tedium, can provide some spectacular moments of wit and humour. I’ve always been an admirer of Graham Norton. His early forays into the chat show format on Channel Four I thought constituted a quiet revolution in the chat show format. The way he re-focused the format away from the guests and onto the audience, facilitating their participation in the conversation, was very clever. Using early internet humour to widen the tired chat show format into something that could comment on our wider culture, stands as a genuine advance in the form, and he’s partly responsible I think for bringing internet culture to the mainstream.

Here are two examples of humour, again at someone else’s expense. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hanks seize a golden opportunity to make fun of David Walliams, who runs with it beautifully.

My final example is an example of self-deprecating humour, but also perfect timing. Lee Mack tells a very funny story of how he got sacked from Pontins, so perfectly told it even has John Cleese doubled up. Mack apparently regarded this as one of the proudest moments of his career:

laughing buddha

Laugh every day, even if you don’t want to. One thing I learned from my laughter yoga experiences is that simulated laughter brings many of the same health benefits as the ‘real thing’, and can easily lead to ‘real’ laughter in ourselves and others.

Laughter, in fact, has been called one of the most contagious things known to humanity, and usefully is transmittable over a distance of more than two metres. Along with orgasm it’s also one of the most effective natural analgesic mechanisms available to us. Perhaps in addition to collectively clapping for those on the front line, we could engage in collective laughter at those responsible for the current crisis, as a way of excluding them from society, and improving social bonds amongst the rest of us?

We have nothing to lose but our pains.

This post’s featured image is copyright Amauta Fotografia, used under license.

Three Sumo Psyches

One from the archives for you today. I’ve never been a fan of watching sport, with one exception: Sumo. A couple of years ago I recorded some Sumo commentary, as a pilot for a series that never took off, mainly because I couldn’t find a good source of footage for the non-contact psychological conflict that forms the initial stage of any sumo bout. This section can be considered most important, but it’s often unseen.

I released the video on select social media channels, but not publicly. However, someone mentioned it yesterday and I thought it was worth re-cutting and airing. So here for your pleasure is my commentary on three bouts from the first day of the November 2017 basho.

XOM and the question of music, part 3

In Review: XOM’s classic Rockyoke

Part Three: Another Overload
The Boar’s Head, Kidderminster, 23 March 2019

Kidderminster, described by Pevsner, the art and architecture historian, as “uncommonly devoid of visual pleasure and architectural interest”, can claim some musical heritage as part of the Midlands scene. Robert Plant played some of his early gigs here, while attending King Edwards Grammar School in nearby Stourbridge, and went on to buy a farm just outside the town. Stan Webb, front man of the blues band Chicken Shack, and rhythm and blues singer Mike Sanchez, both lived in Kiddie – as it’s known locally – as well as Ewan Pearson and the late Tony De Vit, prominent producer-DJs.

Enhancing this history, X0M made their Spring 2019 sing-along appearance at The Boar’s Head, a Kidderminster pub which has distinguished itself as a live music venue and art gallery.

I’d last encountered the band for their Stirchley Christmas Sing-along, at the end of a stressful year. This spring event found me in a happier place. I had just finished a rewarding, but rather exhausting stint performing in Birmingham Opera Company’s acclaimed production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. With my birthday coming up, I was sorely in need of a knees-up, and where better than a town seven country miles from my birthplace?

I encountered the band in the beer-garden, and was warmly welcomed, with the caveat that the sound-check had been problematic. As the band took the stage, Mr Sandilands warned us to expect high volume.

They began reprising the encore from winter’s solstice, Linda and Paul McCartney’s Live & Let Die (probably not my favourite Bond theme but certainly one of the better movies), followed by U2’s Vertigo. If these were intended as two belting crowd-pleasers, they were followed with two perhaps lesser known songs.

XOM performed Queen’s Now I’m Here, written by Brian May. It was originally released after Queen’s breakout ‘power pop’ hit Killer Queen. Freddie Mercury felt Now I’m Here

was just to show people we can still do rock ‘n’ roll – we haven’t forgotten our rock ‘n’ roll roots. It’s nice […] I enjoyed doing that on stage

Freddie Mercury,1976 (cited on Queenpedia)

By this point I was dancing my heart out. In the opera I’d had a chance to try out what I hesitate to call pole dancing (see video), but the Boars Head venue had these pillars that seemed ideal for developing that particular art. And so the next song, Elbow’s Mirrorball, had me using them to help me dance in the most seductively responsive way I could muster.

I was not familiar, or even aware of Elbow and their music until this point, which reiterates the point I made in my first review:

good artists lead and educate an audience as much as merely entertain

https://words.korvin.org/2019/xom-and-the-question-of-music/

So it was good to see XOM continue to vary and diversify their set. This to me unknown, ethereal song captured me, so beautifully played and sung.

Continue reading “XOM and the question of music, part 3”

Covid-19 in the UK

One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.

The gathering storm

Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.

As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:

there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”

[…]

In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…

Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020

Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.

Herd it through the grapevine

Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “

He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”

The Guardian, 13 March 2020

Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.

Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.

Their finest hour

In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:

all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary

Silver linings, unexpected consequences.

The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.

Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:

Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.

Hunter, D. ibid.

Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England)
Regulations 2020

Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.

Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.

It was my birthday yesterday, here in virtual lockdown in the UK.

It was weird, but by no means the weirdest birthday I’ve had. I think the weirdest is still the one where I woke up in a rhododendron bush in Staffordshire one birthday morning, with no home and £2 in my pocket. I ended the evening playing the congas in a club in Moss Side.

That was unexpected.

For this birthday, someone sent me this video, which I appreciated, and thought worth sharing too:

Opiatic For The People

On becoming an undergraduate, I soon looked up Karl Marx’s well-known, and often quoted remark on religion: the opium of the people.

Nuance and subtlety drift over time. We may assume Marx dismisses religion as a soothing crutch, or more pejoratively as a harmful addiction. But we can assume nothing from one out of context quotation. For Marx and his world in 1844, opium’s connotations would have been so different from ours, it seemed to my new undergraduate brain trite and naive to assume anything at all about Marx’s remark. Besides, Karl’s pipe was tobacco-laden. It’s just a metaphor. I wanted to look at the whole text of the remark, and to understand, without prejudice, the whole argument.

The remark comes from Marx’s Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), which begins:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

Two bold claims. Let’s see if we can unpack this.

Continue reading “Opiatic For The People”

Remote Control?

Many of us, in the current conditions, will be home working if not for the first time, then more often than usual. Automattic, the company that owns wordpress.com, WooCommerce and Tumblr, has distinguished itself by hiring many remote workers – indeed, much of its workforce is globally distributed.

Not one to let this wealth of experience or, it may be said, let a clickbait opportunity like this go to waste, the WordPress.com blog leads on Working Remotely: An Automattic Reader

The post seems like a useful collection of resources on this subject though, with tips and tricks to help everyone, whether it be the humble worker or the team manager. So I pass it on. Happy home working!

During the pandemic, the online tools so assiduously created by third parties can come into their own, and not just for work. Two yoga teachers of my acquaintance, not as far as I know known to each other, are independently using the video conferencing application Zoom to run online classes.

Indeed, on Thursday the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted Zoom “has quickly become a popular option to work and keep in touch with others in the midst of social distancing and shelter-in-place protocols”, in a great piece entitled What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 Crisis. The piece also reproaches Slack for it’s data retention policies, points out the growth of surveillance in schools, and most pertinently in the current crisis, points out a potentially dangerous regulatory change.

The US department of health is “allowing health care providers to use applications such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc so they are able to provide care to patients remotely”.

The EFF suggests that if our healthcare is conducted remotely in this way, we should check what safeguards they have in place to ensure patient privacy.

In other COVID-19 surveillance-related news, the EFF also report a tweet sent by the Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the US customs and border agency, who co-incidentally shares a name with one of the co-creators of Judge Dredd:

The EFF repeat their call for a ban on facial recognition technology, under the headline Face Surveillance Is Not the Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis

XOM and the question of music, part 2

In Review: XOM’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Sing-along

Part Two: The Greatest Gift
British Oak, Stirchley: 20th December 2018

Christmas comes but once a year, and as Christopher Hitchens remarked, you can’t get away from it then, like a one-party state, with its regulation songs, symbols and, ‘sickly Santa Claus obsequies’. Contrary to popular belief, even suicide rates decline in midwinter’s icy grip of good cheer, by order.

Having successfully batted away that pesky GBH charge, and completed my teaching qualification, I’d been looking forward to a pleasantly healing and productive autumn.

Yeah right. Turned out to be yet more unrelenting trauma, topped and tailed with all sorts of tiring idiots making outrageous and unacceptable demands on my liberties. Professionally it was full to the brim with “thoughtful and insightful work” writing and designing, as well as various interviewing and speaking engagements. And with my principle antagonist somewhat chastened I did get some peace and quiet, some rest, until Xmas, and was able to put more time into my stringed, percussive, and choral pursuits. So it turned out to be a musical fall, bound for winter’s ground cushioned by the comfy chair of XOM’s Xmas sing-a-long.

Earlier in the year I’d been asked to write some site-specific verse to be performed at one of Birmingham’s Oak trees, and came up with a serviceable enough piece of work that referenced the British Oak, Stirchley, a pub which turned out to be the venue for this event. I like Stirchley, and have been touting it as ‘the next Moseley’ for about eight years, so it was good to venture there with some good friends.

Once again, lyrics sheets for these classic rock ‘n’ roll anthems were distributed around the yard, singing along being encouraged. The songs for this gig danced around the decades, and seem thematically well sequenced:

  • Live and Let Die (by Wings) – the most rock and roll of all the Bond themes
  • Vertigo (by U2)
  • Are you gonna go my way (Kravitz) – as we discussed last week: ubiquitous, but fun and gutsy
  • You really got me (the Kinks; XOM add a note that they’re essentially doing the Van Halen verison
  • Just (Radiohead): written by Thom Yorke, supposedly about ‘a narcissistic friend’ (we’ve all been there), and apparently a competitive bid by Yorke to ‘fit the most chords into a song’)
  • Whole lot of Rosie (ACDC): I always enjoy a bit of AC/DC
  • Jump (van Halen)
  • Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) – lovely tune,really good to hear this one
  • Another Brick in the Wall p2 (Pink Floyd)

Intermission

  • We will Rock You (Queen)
  • We Are the Champions (Queen)
  • Here I go again on my Own (Whitesnake) – last week I noted the interesting history of this song. Originally recorded in 1982, there’s the line ‘like a hobo I was born to walk alone’, but this was later changed to ‘drifter’ in the 1987 version, apparently to avoid the word being misheard as ‘homo’. I thought this was a terribly interesting moment of queer history, and wonder what it would be like to, as it were, reinsert the hobo into the lyric.
  • Don’t stop Believing (Journey)
  • Final Countdown (by Europe), a song which I suppose can’t be avoided in current political circumstances
  • Champagne Supernova (Oasis)
  • Smells like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
  • With a little help from my Friends (The Beatles/Joe Cocker version) – Joe Cocker
  • Living on a Prayer – Bon Jovi
  • Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) the third Queen number of the set, this again rather ubiquitous number has in some ways been a victim of it’s own success, its passage into jokey culture maybe masking something of how innovative and special it really is. One wonders, idly, what more could be done with this song.
  • Wish you were Here (Pink Floyd) – always good to hear
  • Here it is Merry Christmas (Slade)
  • Do they know it’s Christmas (Band Aid)

The band performed with their usual energy and passion. Once again, as Gary performed his vocal and keyboard duties, Jon Sandilands encouraged us to sing, Banks and Smalls on the rhythm section keeping us in time.

Ace rhythm guitarist Iain Davies, I believe the latest addition to the band, emerged somewhat into the light. Jon introduced him in his capacity as a vocalist, and as someone with more to contribute to the band. To be honest he seemed a little unsure of himself, but he acquitted himself with skill and grace, and this reviewer always appreciates a Monty Python reference.

Since this gig fell on Winter Solstice Eve, Solstice Bells by Jethro Tull, in contrast to either the Slade or Band Aid numbers, would have delighted me. As it was, that Geldof/Ure charity smash ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ sounded the clanging chimes of doom, or possibly last orders, and by this point however I don’t think anybody cared whether it was Christmas or not, let alone whether people in Africa were aware of it, or the possibility of snow in that rather large and varied continent.

XOM’s custom of reprising a song from the set, as an encore chosen by audience voice speaks to that great sense of participation that marks XOM out from the crowd. The popular vote, Live and Let Die by Wings, rounded off Solstice Eve with a flourish. Jon said it was a strange encore, and now I come to think of it there did seem to be a rather charged atmosphere, as the very sun came to the beginning of that three day standstill, nights at their very longest before the creeping dawn of Christmas Day.

Ring out, ye solstice bells. I emerged from the gig energised and ready to take on Christmas. I found it a lovely way to spend Solstice Eve, and choir the following day was all the sweeter for it.