Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Transatlantic Chocolate Crisis (Week 10)


Just one piece of chocolate and instantly time suspends chaos for a moment, the sun warms the soul, life's strifes allow a smile to peek through. "After eating chocolate you feel godlike, as though you can conquer enemies, lead armies, entice lovers."

What else is as perfect as chocolate? I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I can be bought with chocolate, or that I can consume large and lavish quantities of that delicious goodness. But this post is not about my love affair with chocolate. I do not have enough time for that. I am not even going to list all the wonderful chocolate shops around London. Instead, I am going to pose a simple question that came from a single chocolate experience.

Why is British chocolate so much better than American chocolate?

While I was wandering around Soho the other day, I made a startling discovery–there is an entire store with five levels devoted to...M&Ms. I fell to my knees and wept. Though M&Ms are not my chocolate of choice, I do love them. Particularly the peanut butter ones (but peanut butter is not a UK commodity so there weren't any in the store :( ). There were, however, plain and peanut M&Ms in any color you could imagine, and a few of the canisters were filled with the rare star, crispy M&Ms. Anyway, some time later I emerged from this haven with a bag of plain M&Ms. What can I say, I was a child in a candy store. To revive myself from such an awe-inspiring experience, I ate a few. And then, surprised, I had to sample a few more. (Note: my definition of 'few' is probably not the accepted definition). The M&Ms were different. They tasted like...chocolate. Real, creamy milk chocolate instead of sugary confection with a stale chocolate taste. This phenomenon of quality chocolate extends to all chocolate: bars, twirls, buttons, nuts, etc.

So why? Why is even the cheap chocolate better here than in the US? Concerned, I began my research. Simply put, it all has to do with numbers. In the US, for something to be considered "chocolate," it must contain at least 12% cocoa solids with only cocoa butter and solids as the fat allowed. In the UK, that number is almost double-20%-with other fats, such as vegetable oil, allowed. Lower quantity cocoa, my friends, is the US's problem. Instead of filling up the chocolate with cocoa, the US uses sugar to mask the lack of cocoa solids. Also, the US uses the additive PGPR in place of cocoa butter due to expense. Brits, on the other hand, accept the expense and shorter shelf life (why does chocolate need a long shelf life anyway? It's not like it stays on the shelf for long) in return for better chocolate.

In short, Brits take their chocolate more seriously. In US, chocolate bars are thought of as "candy," targeted towards children, and are therefore mostly sugar and preservatives. Chocolate bars are a sedative, a bribe. On the other side of the pond, the UK sees chocolate as a delight, a tradition, a sanctuary–an attitude reflected in the taste in my opinion. 

So go out, sample some chocolate, and tell me about the differences.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bring 'em down! (Week 7)

In defense of...myself.

For those of you familiar with a recent post by Natalie Johansen, I am the reason for her proclamation defending those odious creatures. But let it be known I did NOT rejoice to see a dead pigeon. I merely stated I was sorry that I did not feel sorry for the death of the pigeon. Had it have been any other bird, I would have felt a pang of sorrow; I'm not completely cold-blooded. However....

I confess. I hate pigeons. Ew ew ew ew. I get disgusted thinking about them. In fact, "I'm going to be violently ill" (name that movie).

Not all pigeons, just the ones people think of when they hear "pigeons." Specifically, I hate city (feral) pigeons. Misbegotten creatures of a city, pigeons are gray, oily products of humans. They exist primarily because humans exist, a product of our waste. A shameful existence. A debased life. They do not even follow the adage "survival of the fittest;" theirs is survival of ones who happen to be in the right place at the right time. Really, do pigeons even fly across cities? Probably not because they are fed right in their homes. Why bother with the traffic?

Now please know I am not advocating poisoning pigeons in the park. It is just they are everywhere, infringing on my space. I will not feed them, but they still creep up begging for food. Look at one in the eye; they have red eyes. Devil eyes. If eyes are the windows to the soul, I think pigeons don't have one.  Ok, a bit harsh. A pigeon is God's creature. But man corrupted it. 

To me, a pigeon is a type of the follies of man. Aggressive, unwilling to share a crust of bread with a fellow bird. Lack of mercy, lack of respect. Show me a pigeon with humility, and I'll show you a man without an ulterior motive. A bit of an overgeneralization, but you get my point. Even the coloring is a symbol of the debasement of men. Pigeons are gray, dull like concrete. The feathers on their necks are the same as an oil spill on asphalt or trash in the corners after a dreary rain. Red eyes and red claws–they are the color of man at war with nature. 

This is why I hate pigeons. They are a symbol of the weakness in humans.

A Modern Disappointment (Week 6)

I feel like a traitor to my profession. Not to statisticians, but to being an art consumer. I did not enjoy the Tate Modern. No, that is not appropriately expressing my opinion. Not only did I dislike the Tate Modern, I left feeling upset, dirty, and slightly sick. Furthermore, I do not even want to go back to see the Munch exhibit (I love The Scream so this is saying something). It was the art that got to me.

Though I am not an art historian, a critic, or even an amateur artist, I appreciate art. I have taken so many art history classes and been inspired by many artists. And being a human, I can enjoy art for art's sake. I enjoy pretty scenes, thoughtful slogans, even political statements in art.

None of which you will find in modern "art". At least, you have to look hard, trudging through the sleaze.

Am I being too harsh? Just because "I don't get it" I say I hate modern art? That would not be fair, if it were true. I don't get some of it, but that is not why I don't like modern art. (Besides, "getting" the art is not always an uplifting experience.) Artists are a mirror of society; what they paint, why they create, reflects the mores and opinions of people. Society creates the atmosphere where artists learn. Look back on history and note the evolution of art.

Stone Age:               Survival of the human race. The art focuses on fertility of the land and the race. 
                                 Cave art, Woman of Willendorf  

Egyptian:                  Concern with status and afterlife
                                 Pyramids, Book of the Dead

Greek:                      Balance in everything. Perfection of the body
                                 Parthenon (the most visually correct building in the world), the Discobolus

Middle Ages:            Church, religion is supreme and man is nothing
                                  Notre Dame, buildings to commemorate God

Renaissance:             Humanism, rebirth of ideas in sciences, 
                                 techniques, and religion
                                 Michelangelo, da Vinci 

Baroque:                   Religious wars
                                 Rembrandt, Caravaggio

Romanticism:            American and French Revolutions
                                  Turner, Liberty Leading the People

Impressionism:          More revolutions, people getting restless with old art
                                  Monet, Pissarro

Cubism, Futurism:     WWI, Russian Revolution
                                  Picasso, Leger

Surrealism:                Great Depression, WWII
                                  Dali, Duchamp

Pop art:                     Cold War, revolts
                                 Warhol, Pollock

Yes, I skipped a few art movements, but you can see the trend and correlation between society and art. So what is today's world focusing on? Throughout the last few decades, people have been growing more and more secular and apathetic about everything else. Think about it: in "civilized" countries like the US and UK, people are focused on other people (how much time did you waste on Facebook today?), anything to get them from taking responsibility for their own lives, anything to stop them from looking beyond the surface, the constructed front everyone has. Days have become routine, and to break the routine, people do the same thing (usually involving getting drunk or spending money on clothes or vacations or glossy magazines). They work, they spend the money, and they waste time, just waiting for...something. Self-reflection is a fad, religion is a joke, and living for and in the moment is void. And the trend of dissociating oneself from life and reality is growing ever stronger. People are growing lazy; if they want something, they want it now, a quick fix, the snap answer.

Modern art reflects this disease of apathy for reflection, dissociation from reality, and need for instant gratification. Modern artists aren't interested in developing technique, patience, or thought. They are going for the shock value. Pornographic, bizarre, and just plain disturbing–that is what is seen as art now. It is almost a challenge from the artists; this is art, can't you see? If not, you must be a closed-minded freak.

Looking at some of the pieces in the Tate I could not tell what the artist was thinking or trying to convey. All I got was the artist must have been bored or psycho. The art was not for a cause, none that I could see anyway.

So, is this art? What constitutes art?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Gonna Go Down the River Once More (Week 5)

The time shall come, when, free as seas or wind,
Unbounded Thames shall flow for all mankind,
Whole nations enter with each swelling tide,
And seas but join the regions they divide;
Earth's distant ends our glory shall behold,
And the new world launch to seek the old.

                                                       –Alexander Pope

One of my favorite parts of London is the Thames. Though it pains me not to be able to jump in (I sometimes have these urges to play in any body of water), I love just walking down on the Thames path right next the banks. It even has tides; I dare you to name one river in Utah with tides. 
Not only physically central in London, the River Thames is central in London culture and history. In short, the river embodies London. At least, it embodies my perception of London. First of all, it is flithy and disgusting. Like the city, the river is completely polluted. But one usually does not dwell on that fact. The pollution in the city is overlooked for the more impressive sights of ancient cathedrals and churches welded together with modern apartments and offices. Likewise, the river's pollution is (typically) unnoticed as one sees famous landmarks such as the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, or the Tower of London abutting the banks. And the bridges! One should be willing indeed to forget the muddy waters for the engineering of the bridges from the Tower Bridge to the Millenium Footbridge.

Besides walking up and down and over the Thames, my favorite part of the river is how it looks at night. The River Thames, an eerie cold gray in the perpetual rain transformed to a glittering mirror of the lights at night. The new imposes itself on the old. As the lights swim across the inky black, from bank to bank, the harshness of the concrete city is blurred. For a moment, London is only light and air with the clamour tucked under the bridges binding the river. If you have not seen the River Thames at night, you are neglecting an entire facet of London. Yes, the footpath winds in and out of various restaurants which may get a little wild on Friday nights. But seeing the lights on the water cumulates the London experience. It is modern and classic, barely growing and ancient. Here you have a river that stalled Julius Caesar, that allowed the Vikings to penetrate Celtic tribes, decorated with engineered starlights of a modern civilization. It shows the city trying to contain nature but nature still managing to creep out of its bars. 

Recently, I had yet another experience on the Thames. John Burns, a member of parliament representing Battersea, claimed that "The Thames is liquid history." And that's exactly what I saw. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Flotilla floated down the Thames, mimicking the flotilla of the Queen's coronation. History right there. Unfortunately, I only saw glimpses of that history being made. Mostly, I just saw the backs of heads and glares when I tried to get closer to the bank. We got there early; well, what I thought of as early. Though we two and a half hours early, we were essentially too late to get a comfortable spot. We were approximately five or six rows of people back, but given that the Thames was not at the end of those people, there was not much to see. I got a sore calf from standing on my tippy-toes and a couple of rather blurry photos (that one isn't mine), but I was there.

In short, the River Thames does not merely snake through London; it is London. History is made on the river, culture is displayed, and the ambience of London is personified.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Keep Calm and Pick Your Poison (Week 4)

Of all the exported brilliancy of British culture, the motto to "Keep Calm and Carry On" is most likely one of the most famous. More common than humbugs, more quoted and parodied than the Queen, and more far reaching than high tea, this wartime slogan is British culture in more than one way.

First of all, KCCO was designed during a critical time period in England, a time of lasting influence. Created at the beginning of WWII, KCCO was part of a three-poster to strengthen morale in case of war. Though not widely distributed during the war, its association with WWII made it an icon. While it is certain that World War II is a scar for every country, for Great Britain, it was a defining and intense development of its culture. During the Blitz, Britain stood alone in Europe with no certain survival, and its people hoped and believed, defying the bombs and doom. Today, the shrapnel shards still pepper buildings and roads all around London as a reminder. The holes could be filled, but instead they remain as part of the culture. So it is not really a surprise that when the KCCO slogan was rediscovered in 2000, it became an instant British icon.

Another way KCCO is British culture is the way it completely sums up British outlook. Basically, mind your own business, do not get over excited, and keep going. That's not to say no one in England gets upset or angry because they all do (some rather publicly too). But it seems to be frowned upon, this display of emotions. When someone is arguing, others around either push their noses further into a book, walk away with a remembered errand, or otherwise try to make themselves as tinny as possible. In short, they avoid the display, refusing to take part or worse, take a stand. Another example–on Wednesday after a long work day (at least it was for me), some man missed his bus. There was another one ten minutes. Oh the horror. He let forth a slew of choice words, albeit words I would not have said. Everyone else around was waiting for the same bus, in the same situation as the swearing man. But no one commiserated with him–they kept calm and carried on with their business, namely ignoring the anger. On the tube, people do not raise their voices or even their eyes. They just carry on with staring into space, tactfully keeping calm and ignoring everyone else.

While my observations are generalization, they hold for a majority of the English a majority of the time.  Yes, there are demonstrations and marches and even riots, but compared to other countries, they are mild and relatively tame. People march by, but others not actually in the demonstration advert their eyes, change their path, or passively watch the participators go by. Things typically do not get out of hand because the English take events in their strides, carrying on with their duties.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Watch: the Fabulous and the Functional (Week 3)

I love watches. Classic elegant, neon green rubber, suave leather, blingy gold, snap-on pink  – so many options, it's just so exciting. As a fashion-forward child, I always wanted a watch (because I would go through them pretty quickly; don't ask how). Unfortunately, I never needed a watch. No one really does. In elementary school, I couldn't tell time anyway. Junior high and high school were dominated by bells telling people when to leave and come, and every classroom and hall way had at least one clock. Besides, around the time of high school, everyone had cell phones for the time. Watches were basically obsolete, functionally; they became merely a fashion accessory.

Ever since I got a cell phone, I stopped wearing my watch. Occasionally I'd wear one if I had an important test in an unfamiliar building or if I wanted to look more professional for a presentation. But most of the time, there was no need for it.

In London, there is a need for knowing the time all the time. I've worn my watch almost every day since I got here. And I'm not the only one. Places are pretty stingy with clocks, and phones have gotten so big they have to go in a purse or large pocket. Because it is so important to have the time right then, it is very difficult to dive into a purse, conduct a search for a phone, and emerge triumphant. It is much easy to wear a watch.

Before, I thought I was fairly monochronic with my time. I don't like to be late, and I follow schedules pretty well. In fact, it drives me nearly bonkers when someone flakes on me or fails to have a concrete plan. But I am nothing compared to the giant system of London. It runs on schedules and precise planning. London is Time, a giant clock commanding everyone's life.

A main cause of London's monochronic personality is the public transport. Usually, I'm not too bothered by waiting for the Tube or a bus because there is nowhere I have to be at a particular time. However, my Wednesday trips to Southampton are proving to be intensely involved. I have to be at Clapham Junction at a particular time to catch the train. To get to Clapham Junction, I have to switch from the District line to the Overground. Each change has to be calculated so I will have enough time to catch the right train. If I'm late, I miss the train, and I have to wait and wait forever until there is another one. If I'm early, I have to wait some more.

Because trains are supreme, people wait. Because everyone needs to be somewhere at a specific time, people wait. Because being late is frown on, people wait. The monochronic atmosphere in London forces a Molbius strip: monochronic system gives value to time which the inhabitants waste waiting for the monochronic system. Like time, this dilemma will not end.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Fight fight fight! (Week 2)

On my way home from school today, I saw something frightening–a fight almost broke out on the tube. Yes, Londoners were actually snapping at each other and being very rude. More specifically, a business man (in a tailored suit–need I say more) was arguing with a tube worker A perfect storm of a long day and tired people, the antsy disagreement crescendoed into fifteen to twenty minutes of waiting for the tube to continue on its way. (Note to future self: don't argue against the man with the power to hold the train; you can't win.)

It was about seven, the end of a long work day. And a Wednesday no less. The tube, like usual at rush hour, was pretty crowded. Because we were at Clapham Junction (the end of the line), hordes of people were waiting while everyone got off. Naturally, it took a while to unboard and reboard. When everyone was getting on, somehow the door kept closing. There are a thousand of reasonable explanations as to why. Well, at least two: it just does that or someone kept knocking the close open accidentally. But some tired P.U.S (poor unfortunate soul) was convinced it was the station worker purposefully closing the door on him. I guess when P.U.S gets tired, his mind doesn't make very logical conclusions. Then again, maybe he actually does believe the world revolves around him and his suit.

Whatever the reason, his mind or his suit, the P.U.S stood there, hating the tube. While he never raised his voice, the P.U.S kept arguing with the man with the power–the tube worker. "You're abusive, that's what," said the P.U.S, repeatedly. I couldn't actually hear what the worker said ever, but I gathered that he wanted the P.U.S to step off the train to deal with the situation. Of course, however, the P.U.S had other ideas, namely he wanted to go home. Unfortunately, so did everyone else except the worker, who held the train. For twenty odd minutes. Waiting the the P.U.S.

Later, once we were out of the line of fire, I started to think about the clash of personalities. In the US, I don't think the people in the compartment would have been so quiet. During the incident, there was one man who would periodically yell for the P.U.S to quit arguing, and one mother with an autistic child who was worrying (and the child who was...getting anxious). Oh, and one other man who was trying to smooth out the situation. Everyone else was either silent or having a very quiet conversation with one other person. In the US, this probably would have been upgraded to calling the police to subdue the train because everyone would want to have his opinion known. As it was in London, I think people were super annoyed with P.U.S (at least, I was), and I think they were surprised at the argument and didn't know exactly how to handle it. So, being English, most minded their own business.