Tuesday 27 September 2011

A shout to the Google Alerts heads

A big "hello" to anyone who got here from a Google Alert (is this reverse stalking?). Particularly if you are Foxtons, the Old Vic, Tom Ewing, Dubit, or dreamthinkspeak. Give us a wave!

Monday 26 September 2011

Decision making (2): choosing a seat on the bus

I conducted an informal five-minute focus group on Friday afternoon with colleagues. The topic of discussion was: imagine you go to sit upstairs on the bus. Every double seat has one person sitting in it, so you have the choice of the whole top deck, but you'll have to sit next to someone. Who do you sit next to?

Instant reactions included "completely random", "somewhere near the front", "over the back wheel", "the hottest girl" and "not next to anybody fat or smelly". All fairly predictable stuff.

When pushed a little further, people started to realise the subtleties of the decision. Did they sit on the left or on the right? Next to men or women? What if there were several places that all looked as good as each other?

A couple of people stubbornly refused to believe their choice was random at first, but had to admit that they had to make a conscious choice to actually do the action of sitting down. The discussion was fascinating, with several key areas coming into play.

The most cited motivations for choice were "someone ordinary", alongside "convenience". Ordinary meant not fat or smelly, not taking up the whole seat with bags, and no loud music. Even the blokes who said "I go straight for the most attractive girl" managed to elaborate: when I asked "wouldn't it look a bit obvious going straight for the hottest girl when you've got the whole bus to choose from?" everyone agreed, amending their choice to "across the aisle", "the most obtainable girl" (!) or "in which case I'll go for the second most attractive". Feel privileged, ladies.

Then a thought occurred to me. With as deadpan a tone as I could muster, I asked if they tended to sit next to white or black people. Everyone initially insisted this didn't cross their minds, and I was careful not to push anyone to say anything indiscreet...but then one of the (white) girls admitted she probably sat next to white people more of the time, which led to one or two other people mumbling something similar.

When I asked why this was, she came up with a fascinating piece of insight: "I think I try to sit next to people who are similar to me." I was delighted and leapt on this; it tallied with the fact that she had already said she tended to sit next to women (and perhaps gave a little more insight into what people meant by ordinary). Another girl separately said that she would sit next to people "about my age or a bit older." This all tied in neatly with Thomas Schelling's theories about racial segregation: a very slight preference to be amongst people like ourselves can result in near-complete racial segregation which can sunder a whole city. I wonder what Rosa Parks would make of a theory that perhaps segregation on buses could be more naturally occurring than one might think?

According to Robert Cialdini, we subconsciously lean towards choices that remind us of ourselves (although I reserve the right to remain sceptical about nominative determinism, as explained by Wired this month). If this is true, what questions does this answer for people wanting to affect decisions? Is this why Dove's campaign for real beauty struck a chord because people saw themselves in the ads? Or is that going too far?

So there seemed to be rational motivations (I could suggest loads of others - from window/aisle to proximity to the emergency exit to wanting to pretend-drive the bus from the front seat) and less rational ones. But what else could be affecting our decisions? For example, let's amend the parameters slightly - this time a couple of people get on in front of you. Perhaps their choices affect yours (the Herd effect). If you are with friends, how would that affect your decision (and how would your presence affect theirs?) What about if you were on the phone and therefore slightly distracted? How does experience affect your decision - would someone who takes the bus every day make a different choice to someone who has never taken a bus in their life?

But here's a tester: would people choose the same seat again, given the same initial conditions? Asking people they thought "no" but then these were the same people who thought their choice was random in the first place. But do they have a point? Stochastic choice models would suggest that yes, there will be a "random" element involved to a certain extent. Thinking about this, my gut reaction was to think "well of course that makes sense, with 20 seats to choose from it's hardly likely that you'd choose the same one each time" - but surely the fact that the probability of choosing the same seat ten times running is a function of the number of possible outcomes suggests that there is, in fact, a chance that with only two choices you wouldn't go for the same one each time. In general, though, it seems that stochastic models for decision making are generally preferred among academics. Comparable to quantum mechanics, they imply that any input-output model for a decision can only give a probability that a certain decision will be taken, given a certain set of initial conditions.

You could extend this psychology of seats on buses. On an emptying bus, at what point does it become appropriate to move away from the person next to you into an empty seat? And at what point do you become irritated if your new-found companion insists on staying put, rather than moving into a free double seat? In addition, if you're sitting on your own, presumably you breathe a sigh of relief when people decide to choose someone else (according to what you've learned today, you need to look as little like that person as possible!) but do you get paranoid if you are the last person to be chosen? I certainly do! All this is very similar, of course, to the etiquette of choosing a urinal - every self-respecting bloke should know this, but if not, then have a go at this game...

We make odd choices and have odd motivations depending on our circumstances. For some reason I'm reminded of a time, years and years ago, when I was in the local organic/health food shop with my dad - you know, the sort of place with business cards advertising reiki and aura therapy. In the vegetable section there were two boxes next to each other: Carrots (Dirty) and Carrots (Washed). The Carrots (Dirty), which were covered in soil, were more expensive than Carrots (Washed)! Another example of creative pricing!

The bus discussion evolved somewhat with my girlfriend in the pub (the Black Lion on Kilburn High Road, which is a cracking place). A couple of days previously Rachel had picked up some beers in the supermarket. We did our best to deconstruct the process.

She started out by looking to see if they had any Peroni, because she knew I like Peroni (bless her). They didn't have any in multipacks, so she looked at what was on special offer. There were a few options. She only looked at bottles - not cans. Why? Not sure, she was in a rush, and tired. How did she choose the crate of bottles, then? Some were 6 for £5, others were 8 for £6 which she thought was a better bargain. Did she look at the volume of the bottles? No. Why not? She was in a rush, and tired [she was becoming increasingly irritable by this point in the discussion!] Did she consider standard "session" lagers (Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters), or just premium lagers (Heineken, Stella, San Miguel)? Just premium lagers. Even though her primary motivation appeared to be cost? No, just premium lagers. Would she still agree that price was her primary motivation? Rachel glanced at me, then meaningfully at her empty glass, then at the bar, and then at me again. I took the hint.

I've written much briefer post on decision making here and there's another half-written one in the pipeline - watch this space.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Autumn/winter theatre highlights & previews

There are plenty of shows worth getting your paws on over the autumn and well into next year. Here are a few that caught my eye.

To kick things off there are some heavyweight Shakespeare productions to look out for. You've just missed Sam Mendes's Richard III at the Old Vic which was excellent. Kevin Spacey was louche in the title role and there was a driving energy powering the whole production. There are  a couple of promising Hamlets: Martin Sheen et al at the Young Vic is the blockbuster (sold out, but more tickets go on sale on 27 September), but there is also a rather exciting proposition at the Barbican where Thomas Ostermeier and his Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz ensemble have a tempting modern interpretation. The Barbican are also behind Jonathan Holmes's take on The Tempest at St Giles's Cripplegate. It's part of the misnomered freeB festival: tickets are £21.

Looking further ahead, in the spring Filter and Sean Holmes return to the Lyric to present their take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Potentially best of all is the Shakespeare project in the pipeline from dreamthinkspeak, The Rest Is Silence, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. It kicks off in the Brighton Festival in May, before transferring to the Riverside Studios in London and Northern Stage in Gateshead the following month.

If you can get your hands on a ticket for the sold-out Roadkill at Theatre Royal Stratford East then grab one as reaction from Edinburgh last year was universally positive and it came away laden with awards.

One thing that depresses me is the predictability of opera programming at the moment. Yes, we're in the middle of a recession so less risks are to be expected, but there's a frustratingly familiar cocktail of Verdi, Mozart, Wagner, Donizetti and Tchaikovsky being put on by the main opera companies. A quick scan of the  next twelve months' programmes reveals a dearth of pretty mainstream opera composers like Monteverdi,  Britten, Handel and Strauss. On the other hand, highlights include ENO presenting the UK premiere of Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer which promises to be worth seeing. Also at ENO is Rameau's Castor and Pollux - a great bit of programming and one that shouldn't be ruined by being performed in English. Finally on the opera front, Rory Bremner translates Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld for Scottish Opera - might be worth a look - I was unaware that Bremner, a languages graduate, had already made translations of several other stage works. According to the Guardian this one is supposed to be pretty Bullingdonian, which is all good in my book...and the poster looks cool:

Ontroerend Goed's latest show Audience divided critics in Edinburgh but is surely still worth checking out, for better or for worse; it comes to the Soho Theatre in December. As with Internal, it seems that Audience will really screw with your mind as a viewer and the performers will get under your skin...but would we have it any other way? Devoted fans will certainly be going.

Looking further ahead, I've got tickets to Frantic Assembly's Lovesong at the Lyric; it'll be interesting to see how it compares to the other productions of theirs that I have seen, the lively Stockholm or disappointingly tepid Beautiful Burnout.

Michael Frayn's brilliant farce Noises Off comes to the Old Vic over Christmas. I saw it in the West End a few years ago and it remains a show with one of the best laugh-per-minute ratios I've ever seen. It's classic, old-school laughs and surely can't go wrong. I'm also off to see Playboy of the Western World at the same venue. Not to forget the Boom Boom Club at Old Vic Tunnels - can't wait!

Lundahl & Seitel wowed me with their immersive piece Rotating in a room of images at the 2009 One on one Festival at BAC. Their site-specific work In memory of W T Stead, performed at the offices of Steinway in 2009, returns in February. By all accounts it's similar to Rotating... insofar as there are headphones involved and it's a bit of a spatial exploration. There, however, the similarity ends: it's a live performance of a Bach fugue set to a sort of promenade performance in conjunction with Nomad, if that makes sense (it doesn't to me). Anyhow watch this space, it sounds very promising.

The National has Mike Leigh's Grief, a stage version of my childhood obsession Swallows & Amazons, and some Bible readings to celebrate the King James version's 400th anniversary; although the Bush Theatre have trumped them with a 24 hour epic, entitled Sixty six books. If you've got little ones, or if you can free your mind to being a toddler yourself, then take yourself off to a wonderful show all about innocence and a whole lot more. White - also at the Southbank - is one of the sweetest shows you'll see anywhere. As fascinating as the show itself is watching the expressions of pure wonder on your fellow audience members' two year old faces.

In chronological order:
Richard III - Old Vic - run finished - sold out
The Playboy of the Western World - Old Vic - until 26 November - £10-£49.50
Grief - National Theatre - until 28 February - £12-£32
The Tempest - St Giles's Cripplegate - 21 September-22 October - £21
Boom Boom Club - Old Vic Tunnels - 29 September-1 October - £19.50
Sixty six books - Bush Theatre - 10-29 October - various prices or £80 for 24 hour epic!
Castor and Pollux - ENO - 24 October-1 December - £19-£97.50
Roadkill - Theatre Royal Stratford East - 28 October-20 November - sold out (£18)
Hamlet - Young Vic - 28 October-21 January - £10-£29.50
Hamlet - Barbican - 30 November-4 December - £16-£42
Orpheus in the Underworld - Young Vic - 30 November-10 December - £22.50
Noises Off - Old Vic - 3 December-25 February - tickets tbc
Audience - Soho Theatre - 6 December-7 January - £10-£20
Swallows & Amazons - National Theatre - 15 December-14 January - £12-£42.50
White - Southbank - 17-31 December - £12
Lovesong - Lyric - 11-28 January - £12.50-£30
In memory of W T Stead - Steinway & Sons - February dates and tickets tbc
A Midsummer Night's Dream - Lyric - 9 February-17 March - £12.50-£30
The Death of Klinghoffer - ENO - 25 February-9 March - £19-£97.50
The Rest Is Silence - Brighton, Riverside Studios, Gateshead - May & June - tickets tbc

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Montane Man

I've found myself buying quite a few bits of Montane gear in recent months, mainly thanks to some great deals from the excellent Climbers Shop (no, I don't work there!). They must have some sort of tie-in with Montane as they regularly have ex-demo stock, plus some exclusive non-standard models. It's mainly these exclusives that I've snaffled up recently.

They've all had some use now, including on the Three Peaks I did a couple of weeks ago with some work colleagues. All the Montane bits have done me proud.

I picked up the Evolution jacket (now re-renamed the Superfly once again, I believe). My trusty North Face Paclite, which had done a great job for several years, was starting to pack in so it's being retired for city use only, and I wanted something a bit more technical. The evolution was my first experience of eVent fabric. In terms of breathability it's OK, although not as amazing as everyone says: that said if it's raining it's going to be damp and sweaty anyway at the best of times. It has a mid-length cut although has a tendency to ride up at the bottom which is slightly irritating. It's also completely shapeless - pretty much straight-up-and-down which, aside from being unstylish, doesn't feel the most efficient or comfortable.

Functionality is excellent. It feels tough, and kept the very worst of the weather out - prolonged heavy rain didn't manage to penetrate anywhere. The hood is well designed with a good, stiff-but-easily-adjustable peak and the front of the jacket protects the face well when fully zipped up. I'm not so sure about the elastic adjusters but the hood feels snug and comfortable overall. Pockets are high up - climbing style - and without storm flaps, felt slightly vulnerable in heavy rain.

I picked it up for £120 which was a nice price, although RRP is double that. Plenty of outlets have it for less than £150 which seems a good bet to me. Advertised weight is 420g which is on the light side of average in its class.

Montane do make some stupidly light kit and none lighter than their windshirts. I'd never worn one before and took a punt on the special edition Featherlite-Slipstream hybrid at the Climbers Shop. Quite what the difference is between this, the Featherlite and the Slipstream I don't know - it seems to be the design of the Featherlite made with the lighter Pertex Quantum used in the Slipstream, as far as I can make out. What's a few grams between friends anyway? As expected, it's ridiculously light and packable, although it does feel rather flimsy. It got extensive use on the Three Peaks where I wore it both over a fleece (see below) and also just over a base layer.

Whilst expecting the windshirt to be more breathable than a waterproof, I was slightly worried that with only a short sleeve base layer on, having the Featherlite against my skin would be sweaty. I was even more worried that I'd be irritated by the very artificial feel of the fabric against my skin - it is nasty rustly stuff. My fears were unfounded. We made a pretty brisk ascent up the Snowdon Miners' Track; I mainly just wore the base layer and just put the windshirt on when we hit the summit ridge which was, as expected, pretty blustery. It turned out to be very comfortable and I wasn't annoyed at all by the fabric against my bare skin. I think for three-season fast-paced walking my "default" will be this over a base layer, with a fleece added in colder weather. It did a reasonable job of keeping the drizzle off, as well.

The full-blown Slipstream retails for £80ish so £23 is a steal. It'll be ideal for cycling as well, hence my choice of orange (I couldn't bring myself to get a high-vis yellow one, though; that would just be too hideous in the hills).

I've never believed in spending money on fleeces. In general they're a simple, non-technical bit of kit - all you need is for it to add some warmth. OK, if I had a spare £130 I'd snap up a Patagonia R2, but in all honesty there are better things to spend £130 on. My standard midlayer had always been a 320-weight Icebreaker and there's an old cheap Tiso fleece top in the wardrobe as well. But I'd always had half an eye on Montane's Chukchi top simply because of its advertised weight - 230g, which is far lighter than competitors. There was a special edition burgundy going for £23, so I grabbed that as well.

It's...exactly what you'd expect a basic fleece to be. It's just a lightweight fleece top. t's completely featureless, but that's what leads to the low weight which is exactly why I bought it. It's comfy 100-weight Polartec Micro, and that's it. I'm struggling to find anything else to say...the colour is nice. Overall verdict: I certainly wouldn't have bothered paying full price for this. Now that I've got it, I'm pleased with it and it'll start to get used more than the Icebreaker which weighs quite a bit more, but other than weight there's nothing to recommend it over a budget £15 fleece from Tiso or Field & Trek.

Another thing I've resisted paying money for is expensive walking trousers - I've had a couple of pairs of budget-label convertible walking trousers which have done me fine for years. Legs don't tend to get cold and trousers aren't heavy...what's the point in paying a hefty amount for some sort of fancy soft-shell nonsense?

I was proved very wrong by the Terra trousers (or "pants", as Montane insist on calling them...aren't they supposed to be a British company?!) Once again I picked them up for around half the retail price, and I'd have to go with the same verdict as the Chukchi, that it's just not worth paying full price when you can get a perfectly functional piece of kit for a fraction of the price.

That's where the similarity with the Chukchi ends: the Terra trousers are a very technical bit of kit. They have quite a snug cut and a syntheticy feel on the inside. At home I could feel a bit of static from them which was worrying, but this turned out not to be a problem on the hills at all. They are light, once again - advertised at 330g, and this was noticeable. I might have preferred a few extra grams for some extra pocket space, but that's a minor quibble.

The snug cut turned out not to be a hindrance at all: the Terras were very comfortable. But the performance was excellent. The weather on Ben Nevis was frustrating: the cloud base was very low, meaning that we had swirling fog and drizzle which regularly flared up into a squally shower for a few seconds before dying down again to drizzle. Time and time again I pondered waterproof trousers. Time and time again the Terra trousers showed they were meant for this very British weather. They kept the wind off brilliantly, drizzle was completely repelled and on the one occasion where a strong wind drove the rain through, the trousers dried out in minutes. Personal preference of course, but it's arguable that the waterproof trousers can stay in the pack most of the time - perhaps even in the car unless bad conditions are forecast. They're not desribed as true soft shell, although not being a soft shell advocate/expert I don't really know what constitutes soft shell these days.

It wasn't just Montane kit that was getting early use on the Three Peaks. My new Inov8 Roclite 315s got their first serious outing. Given that my regular boots (Raichle Mountain Peaks from about 2005) weigh a ton, this was pure luxury. Feet stayed secure and blister-free throughout, grip on the wet rock was adequate and after splashing through a stream they dried out impressively quickly.

Meanwhile the Osprey Hornet 32 is extremely light, but still manages to pack in an impressive amount of features. In fact, like most Osprey packs you wonder just how light they could get their packs if they shedded all the crap hanging off them. The 32 litre pack is generously sized, in fact too big for a daysack outside winter; in its favour, however, it sits nicely against the back with almost no lateral movement. As I mentioned, there are bells and whistles aplenty: two lid pockets, side pockets (although these are not a useful shape) and hip belt pockets; compression straps, hydration compatible; plenty of adjustments; even a tiny whistle. The downside is durability. The top of the lid is a flimsy mesh which has already started to give way and the overall package doesn't feel as if it'll take a thrashing.

Random post I know, and it might sound as if it was sponsored by Montane and/or the Climbers Shop (it wasn't) but it's all been money well spent. I need to start getting busy with a camera on my next outdoor trip, although that's going to be a bivvying session in the Brecon Beacons. Catching Pneumonia pretty much guaranteed...

Ireland make four changes vs Australia - will it be enough?

While Ireland produced a creativity-free performance to struggle past the USA 22-10, Australia sparkled in the second half against Italy and, Wales apart, look the most impressive side so far at the World Cup after the first round of matches. So is Ireland's task impossible?

Declan Kidney has one selection dilemma solved, at least: Jerry Flannery's calf gave way in training and his Cup is over. There are four changes to the starting XV, with Healy, O'Brien, Reddan and Kearney replacing Court, Jennings, Murray and Murphy.

All those changes make sense. Healy is the best of a weak forward line, although the Irish scrum looked sturdy against the USA while the Australian forwards were minced by Italy. Kidney's men could dominate in the scrum while there's be some furious battles at the breakdown. Shane Jennings was ineffective against the USA so O'Brien's return is welcome. Conor Murray did nothing wrong on his World Cup debut, it would be cruel to ask him to start against the Wallabies. Eoin Reddan, whilst hardly world class, is the safest bet.

Rob Kearney has never hit the heights of his Six Nations exploits a couple of years ago but he remains one of the most exciting Irish backs and rock solid under the high ball, attacking from deep. If he can keep a cool kicking head, he's the right choice. On the other hand, while Keith Earls had a quiet match against the USA, I'm still glad he's been preferred to Andrew Trimble.

If the Australian backs get into their stride, then they'll be unstoppable. Much depends on the Irish back row dominating David Pocock; if Heaslip and O'Brien can make more progress with ball in hand and at the breakdown than Pocock, and force the penalties, and if Sexton can do a better job at kicking them than he did against the Americans...

There are a lot of ifs, actually. Sexton will need to kick well, because the Wallabies will definitely score tries. Digby Ioane is injured but Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale lived up to the hype against Italy and it'll be impossible to keep them out for 80 minutes. Ireland wil need to hope that they completely dominate the scrum, hold their own in the lineout and the breakdown, and that O'Driscoll, Kearney and Bowe are at their very best. There are still obvious weaknesses in the Irish XV (the whole front row, O'Callaghan and D'Arcy are glaring soft spots) but it's still a decent side if they can get fired up and play to their best. Which, unfortunately, they haven't done for months.

Tuesday 13 September 2011


In the deepest mists of early memories sit the bright lights of the songs which lulled me to sleep. Until the day I die these tunes will hold fierce nostalgic imagery for me:

Fanny Power
Drink to me only with thine eyes
Pokarekare ana

My earliest memories involve my dad tramping up and down in the small hours of the night with me slung over his shoulder. He always maintains that he can't sing (and isn't musical in the traditional sense) but would hum the Carolan tune Fanny Power for all it was worth; Carolan's Concerto is another old favourite of mine which holds special memories. Meanwhile Drink to me only with thine eyes  always struck me as an odd favourite of his, but there you go. My mother meanwhile would never sling me over her shoulder; rather, she would softly sing the Maori Pokarekare ana by my bedside if I had trouble sleeping. As an Australian perhaps that, too, was a slightly unusual choice.

A few years ago I was given a ticket by a friend of mine to go and see Jose Carreras at the Albert Hall. Carreras belted out Christmas carols (why he was miked up, I have no idea) and then showed up special guest Hayley Westenra for the appalling singer that she is. But when she performed Pokarekare ana I nearly dissolved on the spot. It's an incredibly beautiful song. One that I hope I can pass on one day.