Art and competence

Silence here has gone on longer than I expected. Curiously, a long silence is harder to break than a short one (I find this in personal correspondence, too). It seems as though you have to write something important, not just the usual trivia.

So, a few days ago when out for a walk in the sun at midday (trying hard not to be SAD this year) I was very pleased when a really good idea for a profound and fascinating posting popped into my head. And of course the predicable then happened.

I can still remember what was going to be the second half of it, which was (I do distinctly recall) the less interesting bit. This was about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain world-class competence at anything. The question that occurs first in reaction to this is: why only 10,000 hours and not even more? The answer seems to be: because nobody ever has more than 10,000 hours to spend. So in fact, if you turn his statement around, you get the answer to a more interesting question, which is: how do we decide what world-class competence is, or what it should be? And it seems that our definition of world-class competence is: “That degree of competence that can be attained by the most able individual after spending as much time practising as anyone can ever find the time for”.

The corollary is that our concept of world-class competence is not an absolute – if the world changes in such a way (for example by the invention of new technology) that an able individual can attain a higher degree of skill in less than 10,000 hours, then we will cease to value competence at the level that we previously judged to be world-class.

Ah, now I remember what the first half was about! There’s nothing like starting to write for unblocking the memory, after all. It was about realistic visual art and its relationship with graphic-arts technology.

Think about Vermeer. He put in his 10,000 hours, for sure. Achieving the effects that he achieved in paint on canvas is slow. But what would a modern-day Vermeer be doing now? I’m certain that he’d start with a camera in his hand, and use Photoshop and a graphics tablet. And that means that he’d be able to produce his results so much quicker. Anybody with a reasonably good eye for composition and colour, and a taste for arranging objects and lighting, can get halfway to producing something like a Vermeer these days by using those tools. The competence that he worked so hard to attain is now pretty easy to come by. Perhaps he could have got it in 1,000 hours of practice. What would he have done in the following 9,000 hours? What would our understanding of the possibilities of art now be?

I will go hundreds of miles just to look at an original Vermeer. I don’t quite know why, when I can look at a reproduction any time. This is another piece of the puzzle, though.

The uses of travel

The Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi explains (in yesterday’s Guardian) whom it is trying to attract:

They are people who use travel to enrich themselves, always seeking new experiences in new countries … They want unique experiences that feed their sense of discovery. They reject the sameness that increasingly dominates their lives … they crave authenticity, exclusivity, quality.

I feel … targetted. Though I’m not planning a trip to Abu Dhabi any time soon (it would involve flying, for one thing, and generally speaking we don’t). But is that why I travel? It seems so shallow, when you put it like that.

On Tuesday afternoon, on the way to the Albert Hall for Prom 64
(on the final leg of our journey home from Rosenheim via Brussels, trains all the way) after an hour or so browsing the treasures displayed at the British Library (Jane Austen’s own writing-desk, on which the cancelled chapters of Persuasion are displayed—the actual writing-desk! the very pages on which she wrote, with all the crossings-out and second thoughts right there!), I was trying to explain to Andrew why I choose to take the laptop with me on trips these days and to keep up with my email, rather than getting away from it all as he does.

My reasoning is that if I make myself available to my correspondents, especially my customers, as I go, then I can travel far more than I otherwise would (at the cost of a small sacrifice of time while going along). But why do I want to travel more? My home is nice enough, modulo the climate—it’s not a mystery, of course, why anyone would want to get away from the English winter, damp and grey as it is, but why travel at this time of year? The reasons that occurred to me at the time had to do with foreign languages, with being somewhere different (whatever that means), and with feeling the sun on my skin (it’s been a wet summer here).

Hazards of thoughtless editing

Editing is not rewriting. The edited text is not (should not be) the text the editor would have written, if the editor had been commissioned to write the copy instead of the author. It is the text the author would have written, if the author had been perfectly well informed and perfectly skilled. In some ways, therefore, editing is harder than writing.

If you don’t mind bad language, you will be amused by Giles Coren’s tirade on this subject.

The rider as Alexander teacher

Now that I can usually keep my balance without having to grab hold of the horse’s mane, we are getting on to the finer points in these riding lessons. For example, when cantering on a circle, I am instructed to raise my inside hand a bit. Why? Because its presence near the horses shoulder is discouraging him from bending.

This puts me in mind of Alexander lessons (which I had, several years ago). The Alexander teacher rearranges your body by means of the lightest of touches. It seems like magic. It appears that this works on horses, too.

Art, speech and planning

One of our neighbours is Michael Gillespie, the sculptor. We went to his open studio recently, and Andrew asked him to what extent he plans in advance the way his abstract sculptures will develop. He replied that it’s like speech: do you plan exactly what you’re going to say before you start talking?

A while ago I was talking with Alan about what it’s like to do your job in a foreign language (he uses German every day and even chairs meetings in it). He said that he thinks German-speakers plan their speeches more carefully than we do. Before you launch into one of those long sentences with the verb at the end you have to know where you’re going!

Maybe it’s the same with sculpture: perhaps you would plan it more, or less, depending on the medium you were using. As with spoken languages, some materials might lend themselves to spontaneity while others would reward a more premeditated approach.

Trail-riding in South Wales

Two days’ trail-riding at the Cwmfforest centre (“Trans-Wales Trails”) earlier this month. This is my delayed trip report. Executive summary: it was great, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I recommend this place for all levels of rider (you choose which ride to join depending on your competence, and they provide what sound like really exciting challenges for the very experienced – of whom I am not one).

The horses are lovely, and obviously a well-cared-for and happy herd. Their friendships are respected and their individual quirks known and understood. Care is taken in matching riders with horses. My partner was Tristan, 27 years old, about 14.2 hh and with perfectly working brakes. Brakes had been my main worry (it’s a long time since I last went out hacking), so he was definitely the right choice for me. Accelerator a little dodgy, maybe – but its improvement was dramatic after the first morning, once I’d started carrying a stick. He was safe and sure-footed on the slippery ground, and quite friendly too. His conversation was a bit limited – he tends to the taciturn, unlike his owners – but he did communicate a few interesting observations to me along the way (e.g. “Look, there’s a llama in that field! It’s weird!!” and, several times, “Here’s where we canter! Isn’t cantering fun!” followed shortly afterwards – usually after about a hundred metres – by “On the other hand, maybe at our age trotting would get us there just as well, don’t you think? The others are bound to wait for us at the top.”)

It rained a lot. Well, it is Wales! They lent me a long waxed-cotton riding coat, explaining that my Rohan coat and waterproof chaps would be fine to protect me, but the riding coat would protect the saddle too. I’ll buy one for myself before I do this again (which I’m going to). Hard to believe that it was July when I surveyed myself fully equipped for riding out on the first morning: rugby shirt, fleece, body-protector, waxed cotton coat; my thickest jodhpurs, boots, suede half-chaps and full chaps on top; and my fleece-lined waterproof winter riding gloves. I was worried about getting too warm, but it didn’t happen. On return I started stripping off wet and muddy things ready to have tea, and got all the way down to my underwear before I found a dry layer. At the end of the second day my boots collapsed. (Good! I’d been wanting to replace those anyway, so now I can do it without guilt.)

I like the way you are given responsibility for your own horse. (Of course, they check the safety-critical bits to make sure you have done them right.) You take a headcollar and catch your own horse, groom it, and tack it up. At the end of my second day I was asked to take Tristan up to the indoor school (part of the herd was being kept in that night because of the weather forecast) and put him in with the others, all by myself. This involved persuading several of the keener youngsters to stay inside the gate while I opened it, led him in, and then opened it again to let myself out. An interesting challenge.

The Turner family have attitude – I’m sure they wouldn’t be unhappy with that verdict (though they might dispute my choice of word as being too trendy). I have the impression that entertaining themselves by making their guests talk is part of what they find rewarding about their job – besides their obvious love for their horses and the place where they live, of course. After three days in their company I already have the feeling that we are old friends and that I know a lot about them, and vice versa. Meals at Cwmfforest are taken around the family dining table, which seats ten, and guests are challenged with direct questions and provocative statements of opinion, designed to elicit a response. A robust defence of one’s own views in turn is met with approval. Guests are expected to sing for their supper! I like the Turners, though in theory I shouldn’t (their line tends towards the countryside-alliance, health-and-safety-is-ruining-everything, why-should-we-be-in-the-EU, representative-democracy-is-not-the-answer, vegetarianism-is-unnatural end of the spectrum).

It’s an interestingly cosmopolitan place. Nobody at Cwmfforest is Welsh, as far as I can tell. The patriarch and matriarch, Mike and Maria, who built the business from scratch and have been there since 1970, are South African and Bavarian respectively (she does the cooking – Bavarian food, yummy! – just what you need after all day in the saddle). Paul, the son who now runs the riding business, sounds English-posh (I asked him how come, as he’s lived here his whole life, and he explained that he’d been to a boarding school). The extended family includes two Swedish women, one of whom works for them during the summer season and was my riding escort on both days (an impressively competent rider). Other guests while I was there included three Germans, so the conversation around the table had a tendency to switch languages as it went along. I was amused to hear overtones of Welshness creeping into the (very fluent, but accented) English of the non-native residents. I love the way Maria ends sentences with “isn’t it?”, for example. And some of the vowel sounds that Emilie uses are neither English nor Swedish.

I took a few photos.

Things I noticed when I became lighter

I was looking for this posting this morning in order to show it to a friend, when I discovered that it didn’t exist. I thought I’d posted it ages ago. The material here comes from a notebook entry that I wrote in August 2007, to record some observations before their novelty wore off.

  • I can submerge myself in the bath. No longer must I decide which bits to leave sticking out of the water.
  • My flexibility has increased (despite not having done any exercises to improve it): I can curl my legs up underneath me on the sofa, for example, and it is much easier to wriggle on and off the bed in the boat.
  • My ability to deal with heights – to balance on ladders, etc – has improved (though it’ll never be great in comparison with that of the rest of the population). I noticed this first when going up the ladder to the loft to try and find some old clothes that would fit me. It’s also very noticeable when boating, and helps a lot.
  • My bone-structure has come into focus. Running my hand over my face is interesting – the jawline, in particular. I have quite a nice facial bone-structure, it turns out. It seems to be quite delicate: the kind of face that looks best with light, delicate jewellery.
  • Wearing jewellery, especially necklaces, is fun again! Some of them simply didn’t fit at all before, and some didn’t look right. Some of the chains now need shortening, in fact.
  • My thighs no longer brush against each other when I walk (this was a new and exciting observation in the third week of August). It felt odd at first, rather as if I were walking with my legs held wide apart.
  • My wedding and engagement rings, once so tight that removing them was only possible with the help of cold water, had become so loose that they were in danger of falling off. I was able to remove them by shaking my hand a bit. I spent that month wearing an elastic band around my finger to keep my rings safe, and took them to the jeweller in September to have them made four sizes smaller.

What I know now about weight loss and weight management

Last summer, after having been fat for my entire adult life, I went on a radical weight-loss programme and reduced my body mass by 30 kg (66 lb, or about 4.5 stone). I reached a new equilibrium at that point, and have since maintained a constant weight. I’ve now been about 53 kg (117 lb, or a little under 8.5 stone—BMI just over 20) for more than six months, with very minor fluctuations. (Yes, I know I’m now below the middle of the recommended BMI range, and I was surprised at this result initially, but now that I’ve got used to it I think it’s right for me because I have a fairly light bone structure—thin wrists and ankles, for example.)

After an initial period of anxiety and disorientation I’ve gradually become adjusted to the new reality, and am now able to enjoy eating and drinking—alone and in company—without (so far) putting on weight. So now I think I am qualified to write something about the process and what worked for me. I hope other people with the same problem might find something useful here. Bear in mind that it’s only been six months, though. I don’t yet have any proof that the system works in the long term.

The programme that I used is Lighter Life, and not surprisingly I am very enthusiastic about it. These are the reasons I think it worked so well for me:

  • During the weight-loss phase you don’t eat normal food at all. There’s no wiggle-room, no ‘just a little bit won’t hurt’. This appeals to my nature. I like to start a project and just do it until it’s done. Gradual methods don’t attract me.
  • It’s medically supervised (they insist on this) and my GP was supportive—to my great surprise—when I consulted him before I started. This made me feel safe and relaxed about the process. Yes, there are health risks with rapid weight loss, but (as a doctor acquaintance of mine pointed out) you have to balance these against the considerable health risks you take by staying obese.
  • There’s a psychotherapeutic element to it. You have weekly group sessions and the approach is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, which makes a lot of sense to me.
  • You can’t fail to lose weight if you follow the programme, and this fact has a beneficial effect on your mind. I had talked myself into a mindset in which I basically believed that it was impossible for me to lose weight, so there was no point in even trying. Now I had the experience of standing on the scales each week and seeing proof that this belief wasn’t true, and the CBT sessions allowed me to extrapolate from that realisation. As a result of this I understand a bit more about false beliefs in general, how the mind clings onto them, and how to dispel them. This basic insight has been very helpful to me during the weight-maintenance phase (see below) as it’s enabled me to re-examine quite a lot of other false beliefs that I had about food and eating habits—and in particular, the one that says that even if you do manage to lose weight, you’re bound to put it all back on again because ‘everybody always does’.

OK, so that was the weight-loss phase, and my advice to anyone else who wants to lose weight as I did basically comes down to: ‘go to the Lighter Life people, trust them, and do what they tell you’. All well and good, but then what happens next? There is absolutely no point (in my opinion) in losing weight if you’re not going to stay light afterwards.

Well, first, I’d recommend anyone who’s done Lighter Life to use the follow-up programmes that they provide. Don’t just strike off on your own as soon as you reach your target weight. Their gradual process of food reintroduction—it’s like being a baby being weaned all over again, but better this time!—is tremendously useful, and the ongoing support from the counsellor and group is really great.

Next, you really have to learn about food and how to choose what to eat. You think you know, but actually you don’t. It’s an active area of research and you need to inform yourself about what the science now says, as well as learning what works for you psychologically.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Carbohydrates give you a sensation of fullness, but fats don’t—they just slip down. This is one reason why you have to treat fats with such caution. You need some, but you need to learn that a little goes a long way. Weighing portions helps a lot with learning how much to have.
  • Fibre is essential for digestive health but you don’t have to load yourself down with tons of calories to get it. You can take soluble fibre supplements. I use Fibresure, which is basically inulin, twice a day. I also have porridge for breakfast with a few dried apricots, and I have a vast quantity of green vegetables at lunch and dinner. I have a little wholemeal bread as well. That adds up to enough fibre to keep my digestion working well.
  • Women need less food than men do, generally, because women have a smaller frame (especially true for me, because my husband is a lot bigger than I am). Older people need less food than younger ones do. Standard portions have to be enough for those who need more food than you do, so you have to get used to leaving food on your plate when you are eating out—especially if you eat out a lot, as we do. Abandon notions of ‘getting your fair share’. I now routinely divide my portion of rice in half at the start of a meal. Half a standard portion of rice is plenty for a woman of nearly 50.
  • Counting calories really works for weight maintenance. People have told me not to do it—‘it’s soul-destroying’. Well, it depends what kind of soul you have. For me, it’s fascinating and exciting because it means I now understand the process of eating and using food. It gives me precise control and it gives me the freedom to make an informed choice—50 g of this is the same as 25 g of that, so which will I have today? And, most importantly, as I am already at the right weight, I am not trying to minimise calorie consumption. If I haven’t had enough, I must eat some more. It’s bed-time and I need to consume another 100 calories to reach today’s ideal total. I’ll have a cup of cocoa. There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. Depriving myself of the food that I need will not do me any good. (This is why I think that counting calories for weight loss would be a bad idea, though I can’t speak from personal experience about that—it seems to me that you’d always be trying to minimise consumption, and never be satisfied that you’d had the right amount.) Calorie counting is also beneficial because it’s an incentive to take health-giving exercise: a 30-minute brisk walk, or 20 minutes on the rowing machine, means that I can add more than 5% to my basic calorie allowance for the day. A second chocolate after dinner, maybe? A piece of cheese? A glass of wine?
  • However, exercising in an attempt to burn fat is not an efficient way to lose weight. Exercise is good for you—one of the many benefits of being lighter is that exercise is now easier and more fun, so I do (somewhat) more of it now—but exercising while fat in order to reduce is not useful. You have to do such a lot of exercise for such a small loss of weight. And it increases your appetite. You get fitter, which is good, but you don’t get thinner.
  • The body doesn’t like to mess about with its fat reserves, either burning them up or laying them down. It will try to maintain an equilibrium instead (reducing or increasing energy used in order to compensate for reductions or increases in input). This is why temporary starvation or feasting has no effect on fat, and it also explains the discouraging plateaux and sudden exciting shifts that most people experience when losing weight (you get these on Lighter Life too, though of course they are quicker than those you get on a conventional diet). Changes in eating habits, either up or down, have to persist for quite a while before they persuade the body to push past a particular equilibrium state and into the next one.
  • Good things can be saved for later. This takes away the pressure to have them right now just to avoid their being wasted. I was cautioned against this in case it led to snacking, but for me it doesn’t: it just works beautifully. I save tiny portions of leftovers in the fridge and the freezer, in little boxes neatly labelled. I bring them out again next time I’m choosing a meal for myself (my husband and I eat dinner together, but normally, although we often sit at the table together at lunch-time, we each choose our lunch food independently—so there are plenty of opportunities for this), and I savour them instead of opening something new. Often the new thing would have been higher in calories than the leftover portion anyway, so I win both ways.
  • Most of the pleasure of most foods comes in the first couple of mouthfuls, so why have a huge plate-full? Pleasure in eating is maximised by having lots of different, but small, taste sensations (this is one of the messages of the most excellent French Women Don’t Get Fat). Normally these days I have two to four micro-courses at each meal. And quite often I end a meal with a chocolate. Just the one. Exquisite!
  • Choosing and wearing nice clothes can be just as much fun as eating is, once you get used to it. I’ve rediscovered the joy I used to take in getting dressed.

There’s more to say, of course, but that’ll do for now.