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How to use those long school summers? Work at a local newspaper!

I felt like a spotty 18-year-old once again, entering an alien work place as an absolute rookie, desperate to build up some new knowledge and skill. If I’m honest, at times completing an unpaid internship felt degrading, but people treated me well, I made some excellent contacts and I got to see if this writing malarkey was worth pursuing full time.

If you can get over feeling like you’re too old to be doing this kind of thing, it’s definitely worth it. Plus you’ll end up with things to add to your writing portfolio. Like this:

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Brexit, Literature, Politics

Does Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground’ predict a Facebook exodus over Big Data?

Mark Zuckerberg is dabbling in the dark arts of Big Data and Dostoevsky reckons we’re not going to like it

A recent article on Big Data terrified me. It tells the story of Michal Kosinski who used Big Data and psychometrics to predict, with staggering accuracy, your political affiliation, sexuality, personality, alcohol use, and much more just by analysing your Facebook ‘likes’. Then ‘Cambridge Analytica’ came along. During the Brexit and Trump campaign they used psychological profiling to target their slogans at the people most susceptible to their rhetoric. They’ve essentially built formulas that can predict and manipulate human behaviour.

This would have blown Dostoevsky’s mind. He was fiercely critical of such attempts to rationalise human behaviour and issued a warning about the consequences of such endeavours:

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“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms.” Pic: Wikimedia Commons

‘If there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices — that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula — then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule?’

In other words, once humans become aware of such a formula, the urge to exercise free-will would cause the collapse of such rational decision-making. The difference with Facebook and their dark associates lurking behind the scenes is that these formulas are, aside from a few leaks, kept hidden. In 2014 Facebook conducted a ‘news feed experiment’ to see if it could control people’s mood. This year an internal report was leaked which appears to advise advertisers how best to target vulnerable teenagers when they feel ‘worthless’ and ‘insecure’. Facebook are constantly increasing efforts to appear friendly, bubbly and philanthropic: personalised videos to champion friendships, more creative ways to celebrate birthdays and even a morning colloquial greeting updating you on the upcoming weather. But behind this facade, Facebook is increasingly becoming the bad guy, building trust before selling us out to the highest bidder.who targets me

One application called ‘Who Targets Me?’ could help speed up a Dostoyevsky-esque digital rebellion. The extension, currently available with Google Crome, is seeking to make people more aware of who may be trying to influence you through the adverts that appear on your screen. It’s hoped that with the upcoming UK General Election, attempts to influence voters will become more transparent. Will people begin to behave differently once these formulas are exposed?

Dostoevsky’s argument builds to a crescendo when he states ‘for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!’ If he is right, the more people are aware of these formulas at work, the more people will begin to rebel. At what point might people get sick of being played?Will we carry on as normal? Or could this continuation of data abuse signal the start of the end for Facebook?

Now read my other post about how Dostoevsky helps explain Brexit and Trump!

Pic Credit: Pixabay

Brexit, Literature, Politics

How Dostoevsky helps make sense of the Brexit & Trump backlash

The Russian literary heavyweight’s message to the Left: the smug championing of rational thought simply won’t work

In 1863 Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote a book called ‘What Is To Be Done?’ It advocates rational egoism – a theory outlining how a utopian society could be created if only people made rational decisions about how to advance and converge their individual happiness with that of the local community’s. It went on to influence Lenin’s socialist vision of Russia.

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“What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”   Pic – Wikipedia

This broadly describes a liberal outlook of society and institutionalised political correctness is a by-product of this; express yourself freely but be sensitive to the wider community in your choice of language. Whilst this may seem like a sensible idea to many – including comedian Stewart Lee – Dostoevsky would have anticipated the backlash. In Notes from the Underground, whilst he doesn’t explicitly mention political correctness, he mocks Chernyshevsky vision of a socialist utopia, stating that ‘choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason’ and that Chernyshevsky’s smug championing of reason will only lead to rebellion. It’s human nature. After all, ‘what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice[?]’

A rebellion against political correctness and the mainstream media is often cited as a core force behind the rise of Trump and Brexit. Under the finger-wagging of political correctness people feel like they are being attacked and unjustifiably labelled as racist, homophobic or sexist in the process. The winning campaigns tapped into this narrative with devastating efficiency. Trump has repeatedly attacked political correctness and the mainstream media, we apparently live in a ‘post-truth’ world, whilst Michael Gove’s statement that Britons are ‘sick of experts’ caught great traction for ‘Leave’ supporters before the EU referendum. People became sick of being told what to think and say, invigorating the growing wave of populism.

Notes from the Underground deals with a huge range of issues not covered by this article, but when pundits have struggled to find an adequate, rational answer for why people voted Leave, it’s hard not to see sense in what Dostoevsky says about human nature. Economists and business leaders said it was a bad idea. University graduates said it was a bad idea. The Prime Minister said it was a bad idea. But this all just contributed to the rebellion: ‘one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests…however wild it may be…what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.’

Feature pic: Flickr

Travel

‘GPSmyCity’ – A new way to get piping hot travel tips

‘GPSmyCity’ have converted one of my articles onto their exciting new travel app. Try it out by:
1) Downloading the free app from iTunes here.
2) Searching for my ‘Top 3 Brunch Cafés in Russafa’ article
3) ‘Upgrading’ it for free (normally $1.99)! Available for 7 days.
How do you get your travel recommendations?
Some people use guidebooks, some people use the internet and some prefer good old fashion word-of-mouth.
Whatever your stance, smartphones have undoubtedly shifted the culture of travelling with access to thousands of recommendations in the palm of your hands. However, finding these recommendations can be time-consuming and accessing data on the move can rack up a hefty roaming bill.
What is ‘GPSmyCity’?
A new app called ‘GPSmyCity’ solves the data problem. It has a huge database of restaurant recommendations, walking tours and significant landmarks from over 600 cities. ‘Upgrading’ these  recommendations then automatically enters the GPS co-ordinates onto your phone’s map. You can create and follow your own virtual walking tour without needing internet connection.
Definitely worth a checking out.
Food & Drink, Travel

An Argentine asado, a Brazilian banquet and a side order of meat-guilt…

Is it time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?

Are environmentalists waging war on culinary traditions?

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I love meat. I’m a sucker for an all-you-can-eat BBQ, I’m part of a new ‘Burger Thursdays’ tradition and my great South America meat-binge tour is fresh in my memory. However, last week Leonardo Di Caprio told me that the carbon footprint of an individual hamburger leaves the same carbon footprint as leaving your air conditioning on for 24 hours. A feeling of meat-guilt rekindled within me. It has been clear for a long time now that high meat consumption contributes significantly to global warming. Is it now time to reconsider how we eat meat not just at home, but abroad as well?

For many people, food and drink is one of the primary reasons why they travel – to learn about a culture and to immerse themselves in a different way of life. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, claims that ‘food history is as important as a baroque church’ and that ‘governments should recognize cultural heritage and protect traditional food.’ Can this be true even if a country’s culinary habits are toxic for the environment? To what extent should culinary habits be protected in the name of culture?

‘Food history is as important as a baroque church.’ – Carlo Petrini

Unfortunately for Earth, meat is delicious. And meat sandwiches are delicious. I’m fascinated by cities that have tied a particular sandwich to their identity: the Philly Cheese Steak is described as a ‘civic icon’ and ‘cultural obsession’ by the Philipelphia’s official tourism website; Porto has the heart-attack-on-a-plate monstrosity that is the Francesinha’; and the Municipal Market of São Paulo is teeming with people gobbling down ‘mortadella’ sandwiches. Hundreds of eateries benefit from the reputation of these indulgences as tourists strive to live and eat like locals.

These sandwiches add to the charm of a city, keep culinary traditions alive and help fuel local economies, but at what point does this meat consumption become excessive? Two of the biggest consumers of red meat in the world are Argentina and Brazil. Argentina is famous for its thick, juicy steak and asado tradition. Brazilian all-you-can-eat rodizio  restaurants are heaven for meat-lovers; you watch as much as twenty different types of steak are sliced onto your plate fresh from the grill.

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Beef eating and the asado are deeply engraved into Argentina’s culture. The gaucho (cowboy) way of life, the rearing and trading of cattle, has been in existence for hundreds of years and is romanticised across the country. Beef formed the basis of the gaucho diet and the asado evolved into a Sunday family tradition. I don’t envy the environmentalists who seek to change this. Argentines will possibly feel that their history, culture, economy and way of life are under attack.

Whilst it’s possible to defend the asado as a cultural tradition, the danger is that meat obsession can spiral out of control. It’s harder to argue that Argentina’s fast food industry is anything but excessive. Whilst Burger King’s new ‘Stacker Cuádruple‘ equates to 96 hours of air conditioning use, it has nothing on the ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ available for a mere £8.

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A restaurant I stumbled across in Mendoza, Argentina.

The ‘Mega Torre Extrema’ would be right at home on ‘Man v Food’ whose food challenges certainly do not promote responsible meat consumption in the US (4th in the table of red meat consumption). Such challenges have seen a surge in popularity since the show first aired. Charlie Brooker writes that presenter Rickman ‘may as well lie down, open his gob and let a herd [of cattle] stampede directly into his stomach.’ Interestingly, the show is categorised as a travel show – the producers clearly feel that food challenges are a fun way of exploring local American culture (the catalogue of ‘pig out joints’ can be found here). The unfortunate truth is that this isn’t a sustainable attitude at a time where red meat consumption needs to drop.

The somewhat obvious conclusion is that moderation and balance are needed.

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Carlos Petrini wants you to be responsible

Returning to Carlos Petrini, he argues that ‘if you love food but aren’t environmentally aware, you’re at best naïve, and at worst, stupid.’ His argument, which surely everyone can get behind, is that celebrating gastronomic traditions and being environmentally responsible and are not mutually exclusive – that, whilst its hardly rock and roll, we can continue to travel and experience other cultures so long as we do it responsibly.

Food & Drink, Travel

Things to do in Valencia: Top 3 Brunch Cafés in Russafa

This article has recently been converted into an app on ‘GPSmyCity’! Check it out here.

In hipster district Russafa, the ever-shifting concept of brunch is producing some weird and wonderful results

It’s Saturday morning in Valencia. Get your beanie hats on, tie up your top-knots, prune your beards and bring your Apple Mac chargers: it’s time to visit three of the best brunch cafés in Russafa.

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An early reference to brunch from an 1896 edition of Punch magazine. Even the prude Victorians enjoyed a lie in.

A Quick History of Brunch

Brunch as a concept has been through quite some journey. It’s believed to have originated around 1885 as a Sunday morning hangover cure for English hunters. It then adopted Mimosas and Bloody Marys in Chicago through the prohibition era of the roaring 1920s before experimentation flourished in the 90s within gentrified areas of New York.

The gradual anglicisation of European cities has perhaps triggered this fourth wave of brunch popularity. In a district teeming with cafés and restaurants, this breakfast-lunch hybrid is serious business. High competition has led to ridiculously good value with increasingly creative and unusual twists.

Option #1 – Bluebelldsc03569-4

Selling points: quirky flavours, beautiful interior, artisan coffee

Bluebell serves up some of the most bizarre flavour combinations you’ll ever see. Whilst not ideal for fragile stomachs, the beautifully constructed main dishes are always impressive. Previous examples have included: chicken waffles in mint sauce; salmon pancakes; fish pudding; and poached egg in curry sauce.

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A coffee-lover’s Mekkah, Bluebell specialises in artisan coffee brewed using on site ‘micro toasters’
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Chicken waffles served with mint sauce
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Chocolate parfait

Brunch includes:

  • Parfait
  • Lemonade/ Mimosa/ Bloody Mary
  • Dish of the day
  • Coffee/ tea
  • Guaranteed bearded man on Apple Mac
  • Expats/ students trying to impress parents with ‘off the beaten track’ locations

 

Option #2 – Guayoyo

dsc03658-2Selling points: fresh juices, art exhibitions, yoga, dog-friendly, vegetarian/ vegan friendly

Guayoyo’s brunch menu is based on fresh, clean, locally sourced ingredients. Unlike other cafes, the ‘DIY’ system offers you a much wider choice whilst still representing incredible value for money. Healthy eating is key to their philosophy whilst still acknowledging that everyone needs a bit of cake in their life.

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Salmon and avocado tostada served with chia seeds & lemon juice
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Guayoyo’s ‘Do It Yourself’ brunch allows you to select: a fresh juice combination, fruit & chia seed yogurt, main course (tostada/ sandwich), coffee/ tea and a slice of cake

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Option #3 – Dulce de Leche

Selling points: wide menu, massive portions of cake, terrace, great service, value for money

Located dangerously close to the local gym, Duche de Leche is quickly developing a cult following among locals and international students due to its wide selection of quality cake. Despite the onslaught of caffeine/ sugar deprived Valencians, the service is surprisingly slick. Their brunch sticks to much safer, popular combinations than Bluebell & Guayoyo but it’s a winning combination none-the-less. Catch them on a week they’re serving bacon for a magnificent, bacony hangover cure.

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Tomato, goats cheese, aubergine & spinach tostada
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Typical brunch includes: fruit yogurt, fresh orange juice, tosada/ sandwich, mini-croissant, coffee/ tea

In New York and London, brunch has received much criticism for its association with white, middle class gentrification. It inspired columnist Shawn Micallef to write a book called ‘The Trouble with Brunch’ and was somewhat hyperbolically labeled by The Guardian as ‘a potent symbol of urban cultural decline.’ Luckily these arguments do not apply here.

Brunch suits the Spanish late start to the day as well as its sociable café culture. It’s therefore no surprise that these cafés attract a diverse range of citizens (of all ages) from across the city. Russafa has evolved into the gastronomical capital of Valencia and its establishments seem more than happy to embrace the  tried-and-tested yet experimental traditions of brunch.

Happy brunching!