Whitest Dreams?

I’ll start this off by saying that I like Taylor Swift. Love Story is a karaoke classic, and I apologise to my neighbours for my shower renditions of Blank Space. More importantly, I admire the way that she’s evolved through her career, managed to shake off (see what I did there?) all the misogynist criticism of her love life, and has written great music. Wildest Dreams seemed like more of the same: fun tune, about an ex. I had some good car sing-alongs. Then the video came out.

For those of you who haven’t watched it, here’s a quick summary. It starts off with a slow montage of African animals, merging together with Swift’s face and a setting sun. It quickly becomes clear that the scene is in fact the set of a film, with Swift as the lead actress. Together with a handsome leading man, they are starring in a film set in colonial Africa. Think ‘Out of Africa’, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. It transpires that it this is in fact a Romance, with a capital R, set against a backdrop of majestic African landscapes and big game. There’s some kissing, and at one point Swift flies a plane, with a fabulous headscarf and glasses combination. When the shooting finishes, Swift and Handsome Man part, seeing each other one last time at the film premier, and though they both have feelings, fate intervenes, they miss each other and are kept apart.

As soon as the video was released, the predictable debate appeared: was it racist? A lot of the argument has hinged on whether there are African people represented in the video (apparently there are, but only in one shot and you’d practically have to go frame-by-frame to notice it). However, if you added in local people where they would historically most often have appeared in a colonial household (holding trays, in the edges of the frame), I don’t think it would make the video much better. When you have a film that revels in nostalgic colonial imagery, adding one African servant will never make it progressive.

Criticism of the video has generally levelled the accusation that it is “colonialist”, without saying how, or why that is bad. It is because all we see in the video is a sanitised version of British colonialism in Africa: elegant safari outfits, rustic tent beds framed by mosquito nets, plentiful big game, and soaring in a two winged plane over the veldt. What we don’t see is the violence and exploitation that British Africa was built on, the impacts of which African nations still live with today. That the European powers seized East African between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, ruthlessly crushing any military resistance by the region’s inhabitants. That white settlers rapidly took over much of the prime land and natural resources, breaking down traditional power structures and changing communities, setting in motion many of the current socio-economic difficulties that plague the area.

When we glamourise the colonial aesthetic, we sweep beneath the carpet the brutality, economic coercion, white supremacy, political repression and sexual abuse that were as much part of the daily life of colonial Africa as were loose white shirts and khaki trousers.

Director Joseph Kahn defended Swift’s video, commenting that “this is not a video about colonialism but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa, 1950.” However, the East African (in particular Kenyan) colonial romance has a long history in creating a rose-tinted view of the British occupation of Africa. By the 1920s, the exotic empire had become a favourite setting for British Romance novels, with no place more favoured than the Kenyan Highlands. Tales of love in the rugged farmland of Kenya, told in purplest of prose, soon occupied the bookshelves of women in Britain. Although some settlers in Kenya were scandalised, the so-called Kenya Novels of the 1920s romanticised the colonial experience, subtly making the empire more palatable and so supporting the British presence in Africa. Karen Blixen’s famous 1937 memoir Out of Africa only cemented the image of East Africa as a place of beauty, European romance and a nostalgic colonial order. Swift’s video is part of this long trend of romances that, while nominally politically neutral (because after all, it’s just a romance), nevertheless embed an image of colonial Africa that is only positive. Even though we are half a century on from political decolonisation in the region, these images still linger.

To some degree, Swift’s video acknowledges the artificial nature of such idealised colonial fantasies. After all, the scene is a film set rather than reality. However, it still glorifies such imagery, painting colonial African life as a place of beauty, excitement and romance, the stuff of motion pictures and old Hollywood glamour. If the viewer is familiar with the history of the images Swift utilises, then they can recognise them for what they are: a fantasy, perpetuated in novels and historical films (like the one that Wildest Dreams centres around) rather than real life.

But it they are not, then that distinction will probably not be conveyed and what is left is pure, romantic colonial nostalgia. Almost no African history is taught in New Zealand secondary schools and very little in universities. Far more people will watch Wildest Dreams than will read a book or article on colonialism in East Africa, and that worries me.

So, enjoy the song and even watch the video, but do so with awareness of where these images come from and the power that they have.

References:

Chloe Campbell, Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya (Manchester:Manchester University Press, 2007).

C. J. D. Duder, ‘Love and the Lions: The Image of White Settlement in Kenya in Popular Fiction, 1919-1939’, African Affairs, vol.90, no.360 (July 1991),

Dane Kennedy, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).

Choose Your Words

In the exciting times of your early career, be it a first job, a major new challenge, or navigating your way from high school to University, making the right impression in front of your professional peers seems to be constantly front of mind.

So when you see an article doing the rounds from Ellen Petry Leanse, a former Google executive who says we’re all doing ourselves a disservice by using a certain word in the workplace, it sure makes you sit up and think twice.

Leanse argues that women have a tendency to use what she describes as “permissive language” more than men, and this is one of the many things that sets us back in the workplace. The prime example of this language is overuse of the word “just.” Everything from “I’m just checking in” to “If you can just give me an answer, then …” to “I just noticed this issue…” The problem, she argues, is that females use this in many more situations than males. Where a female might say “Hey Steve, I just noticed there seems to be some kind of issue with the campaign and it isn’t really doing what we wanted and can we maybe just have a quick chat about what can be done,” a male might be more direct and say “Steve – this campaign isn’t driving results, what’s going on and what are you going to do to fix it.”

In those two statements, the same point is being made, but the difference in effect between the two is pretty strong. Or to put it more metaphorically, the author, said:

“It hit me that there was something about the word I didn’t like. It was a “permission” word, in a way — a warm-up to a request, an apology for interrupting, a shy knock on a door before asking “Can I get something I need from you?”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a “child” word, to riff Transactional Analysis. As such it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. And that “just” didn’t make sense.”

The difference between men and women in the workplace, and more specifically the gap in their pay rates is no new issue, but lately, much of the discourse has been around what we as women can do to stay on a level with men, to ensure we compete in worlds they dominate and to make sure we aren’t doing anything to hinder our own possibility of success. At least, this is the thinking behind Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement. So a discussion on whether our language might be holding us back certainly is pertinent.

After reading that article, it really made me think about the way I use language at the office and whether I could make more assertive and effective statements. What really jumped out to me when reading the article was the idea that using such submissive statement goes entirely against what we’re often trying to do: come across as strong, credible, trusted advisors. In my line of work, I manage a range of clients that look to my company for work advice they can’t source within their own, and they pay a premium for it. I’m their sole point of contact, so there are very few situations where I wouldn’t want to sound like I am confident, that I know what I am doing, that my team is full of experts and that my clients should look to us for reliable advice.

But it isn’t just my particular corner of the world where one looks to give that sort of impression.
Whether you are the captain of a sports team, you are working on a group project and want to make sure your ideas get across, you are applying for a job or giving a presentation in front of colleagues or classmates, there are all kinds of situations where you want to come across as smart, confident and trustworthy. And the last thing any of us want is to accidentally undermine ourselves with simple linguistic errors.

So, like the author, I shared the article with my team and started a discussion on whether we should be avoiding the use of “just” and being more careful with language. Interestingly, it was one of the males on the team that came back with a definitive “Oh man, I definitely overuse the J word. I’m going to be more conscious of it in future.”

Since reading the article, I have found myself consciously rewriting emails and reminding myself not to be scared to be direct and to the point with messages. It reminded me to think carefully about whether being more concise would actually improve a situation, rather than trying to smooth it over with gentle language. However, I also found a few situations where I deliberately did want to include a more gentle version of a statement. Be it trying to calm down a situation, managing clients who liked to be right all the time, or working with interns who were navigating new situations, so I didn’t want to be overly harsh or direct when they were perfectly entitled to make a few mistakes along the way.

By this stage, I was entirely confused. From a starting point of nodding along as the internet declared “just” to be “the J word” that we were no longer allowed to say, to realising it was actually a pretty useful tool in certain situations, I knew there was only one person to turn to: someone that knew a whole lot more about this stuff than I did.

Gaining a realistic perspective of action heroes

I went to the premiere of Mockingjay Part I a while ago. Even though I had read the books (and fangirled over them for years), something struck me as I sat in the theatre. The film depicts Katniss through her trails and tribulations with losing someone she had come to love so dearly. We were also able to see the psychological damage that Katniss was going through.

It’s so uncommon in action films to see a character experience psychological problems due to what they experienced. It was an amazing thing to see such realism in characters. Think about it: would anyone come out unscathed through the trauma that these characters experienced?

Katniss had to change who she was as a person to survive. She became a murderer – not by choice, that’s for sure. The audience could see the impact that the death of killing someone had on her. In Catching Fire, we see Katniss plagued by nightmares of her first kill.

I teach, and in the playground I see kids pretending to blow each other up with imaginary guns. It’s all fun and games. They’re all pretending to be the good guys, battling and killing the baddies – and there’s nothing wrong with that because “we’re fighting evil, miss!”.

But what if, instead of having a comical view of our heroes, we had a realistic view. What if we saw the impact and damage that violence causes? To show that as humans we aren’t indestructible, and it’s ok to not be.

What if, instead of showing mental illness through our villains, we show that heroes can also be affected.

It was refreshing to see Tony Stark, in Iron Man 3, go through signs of anxiety and panic attacks. It’s good to see writers letting heroes be human. They’re looking into the realistic factors that occur whilst going through destructive events.

Mental illness should not be looked at as a weakness. It should be visible in our heroes — seen as something that could happen to anyone, even the best of us.

Through having the strongest characters in action films show what is impacting them and that they are not invincible, we will see more people relating and accepting people that have mental illness.

Maybe in future, there can be a possible shift in perception of mental illness. Instead of the usual “harden up” attitude people may give to one struggling, there can be an understanding and acceptance. All in all, wouldn’t relating to one another and supporting each other be better? It is something to think about.▼

The Science of Cookies

I studied food science. No, that’s not nutrition. Food science, as in the chemistry, physics and microbiology behind making the food that you and I buy from the supermarket.

People forget that the majority of the food on our shelves including the fruit and vege is all one big science experiment. I am not meaning genetically modified; I mean how it gets to you in the condition that is does. Don’t believe me? How on earth do bananas travel all the way from the Philippines still green yet as soon as you take them home they turn black within the week? I could tell you that. Why do we need light proof bottles for our milk? I can answer that one too.

Behind the façade of pretty packaging (that’s food science in itself too) there are teams and teams of brilliant minds making breakthrough discoveries and developments that get food to you that’s fresher, faster, tastier, cheaper and better for you (ok, sometimes not). There is a lot more to food than what meets the eye. Let me demonstrate to you using some simple (kitchen) bench chemistry.

Take the beloved cookie. How do you like yours? Soft? Chewy? Crisp? Thick? Thin? The final sensory characteristics of your cookie depend on a multitude of factors. These include emulsifiers, egg proteins, raising agents, water content of the sugar used, amount of flour used, fat type and the state of the fat when incorporated.

Let me explain how to make the perfect cookie. Of course there is no perfect cookie, that is totally subjective, but here are some things to keep in mind when next making your ideal cookie creation.

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Butter

You will find butter in almost every cookie recipe. Butter has a reasonably sharp melting point as it consists mainly pure saturated dairy fats so the range is narrow. If you use melted butter you release the water from the matrix which is then absorbed by the gluten in the flour. The moisture is locked in and so makes a moist and chewy cookie. As the butter has also already been melted the batter will spread thinly before the batter sets creating a thin and chewy cookie. If you start off with chilled or room temperature butter it will melt less therefore making a taller, thicker cookie. If you use more butter the batter will be runnier once warmed in the oven also spreading the cookie thinner. By creaming the butter with the sugar it helps to not only dissolve the sugar but the sharp edges of the sugar crystals cut into the fat matrix which creates air bubbles. The more air bubbles the more easily other ingredients can be blended in, making a lighter, fluffier cookie.

You can choose to chill your cookie dough before spooning out and baking it. By cooling the fat you give your dough a head start in the rising and setting process. By the time the butter melts the set temperature will almost have been reached, also producing a thicker cookie.

Sugar

Sugar choice also makes a significant impact. Brown sugar gets its colour from residual molasses remaining on the crystals. The molasses is what is responsible for the deeper and richer colour as well. Molasses is highly hydroscopic, which means it attracts water. By increasing the brown sugar to white sugar ratio in your cookie you will get a more moist and chewy result. The more white sugar you use, the crisper the final product will be. Why do cookies firm up once they are removed from the oven? Well, the sugar crystals melt in the hot oven to form a liquid. This makes the cookies very fragile and fluid whilst still hot. As they cool the sugars regain their rigid crystalline structure giving back the cookies a little more of their familiar firmness.

Rising agents

Some cookie recipes call for a raising agent. There are two types: baking soda and baking powder. Baking soda is a base and will reduce the overall acidity of the batter. Less acid in the mix means that the setting temperature will be higher, this gives the cookie more time to spread out and therefore a thinner cookie is produced.

Baking powder consists of both a base (in the form of a carbonate) and two acids usually. When baking powder comes into water an acid base reaction occurs and carbon dioxide is released. The gas production forces the batter upwards making it rise. As the batter will have a greater acidity than when baking soda is used, the setting temperature will be lower giving the cookies less time to spread.

Flour

The type of flour you use will also have an impact. Strong flours, or bread flours that are high in gluten will give you a more moist and chewy result in comparison with using cake or plain flour. Gluten, the main protein found in flour, loves to absorb water. The more gluten in your cookie the more water that will be bound inside, making it moist. Since gluten is a stretchy protein when hydrated, cookies with more gluten will also be chewier than their less glutinous counterparts. Cookies made with cake flour will be slightly crispier.

Eggs

Eggs play a number of roles in the cookie making process. Firstly, the yolk contains lecithin, a natural emulsifier. An emulsifier is something that helps to stabilise two phases that would otherwise repel each other, like fats in a watery environment. The egg yolk helps to combine the fats, sugars, proteins and water and keep them stabilised. Eggs also expand when cooked (remember those scrambled eggs you last made) so a cookie that has more egg in it will be more likely to be fluffier. If you want a thinner cookie, substitute a proportion of the egg with milk and less expansion will occur. The protein in an egg also offers structural integrity when it denatures. Denaturation occurs at a defined temperature, at this point the protein become irreversibly deformed and rigid. This denaturation will add to the rigid matrix so that your cookie doesn’t turn out to be a sloppy mess.

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Everyday cooking and baking can be quite the adventure when even just a little background knowledge is acquired. I always say, cooking is an art but baking is a science. It is all about the ratios and balance between acids, bases, fats, sugars, emulsifiers, proteins and drying agents. Once you have the basic understanding of the functional properties of everyday ingredients you can soon learn to overcome your baking disasters with a little bit of kitchen bench top chemistry.

If you have any questions whether it be food science, baking, cooking or even simply food related just give me a yell! I love answering your questions!▼

What Employers Wish You Knew When Applying for Jobs

When it comes to applying for jobs, there is a hell of a lot of anxiety. Having recently graduated with my Masters and moved countries, I’ve had a pretty frantic time searching for graduate to intermediate level jobs to get my feet on the ground as fast as possible. However, I’m also in the lucky position of having also been on the other side of the table. From working for a small non-profit during my undergrad, to starting my own small business, I’ve been able to see what it’s like to hire people, and to better understand the challenges employers face. Typically, employers have been managers for a while, and it’s easy to think they have forgotten what it’s like to be in the job hunter’s shoes (especially as a graduate). Many think that employers give job hunters a pretty rough ride, and that for graduates especially, it is unnecessarily hard.

Having fairly recently been in both those situations I can say with confidence that there are a tonne of things that we employers desperately wish job seekers knew and understood. The first of which is that recruiting is a tough situation on our side of the table too. We would LOVE for job seekers to have a better understanding of what we go through, how we operate and why, so that they can make it as easy as possible for us to see that they are the best person to hire.

Knowing the employer perspective

The first thing is to walk a mile in an employer’s shoes. In most countries, the vast majority of businesses are small business. This means that every new hire is a big step and is crucially important to the employer. In a small business or non-profit in particular, it can be a huge decision to hire a new person as each new employee means a significant jump in costs. The demand for an extra person to help with workload often comes far before there is enough money in the bank to guarantee someone a salary.

When hiring, our number one fear is that we’re going to hire a bad employee. Someone that mislead us about their skills, doesn’t do their work, misuses company time or costs us money instead of contributing to our goals and strategies. To get around that, many countries now have legislation that requires a trial period – from 90 days to 6 months or even a year. There is a lot of fear around that – employees are worried that they won’t have a secure job or could be easily dismissed. However, employers don’t take dismissing an employee even close to that lightly. Typically it will take weeks, if not months before a new employee is fully trained up and contributing to the business. Not to mention the huge costs and time involved in hiring in the first place. If you’re replacing someone, they might have given 4 weeks notice, but it can often be more like 8 weeks before you’ve found the right person, another 2-4 weeks to have them fully trained, and if they leave soon after that because they aren’t the right fit or don’t enjoy the work, you’re back to square one. If you have to recruit again straight away, it could effectively be 6 months before you’re actually getting that all-important work done. Trust me, employers don’t want to get rid of you if they can avoid it, even if they are a much larger corporate. Which leads into the first thing employers wish you knew.

  • We want to find the person that’s going to stay

Our number one objective is to find a good, reliable person who is going to stay for a decent amount of time. If we think you’re going to treat this as a stepping stone to get to your next job, we’ll think twice. The trouble is that recruiting is a pretty flawed process to find that person – finding a diamond in the rough based on a 2 page CV, two one hour meetings, and a test is hard work. But we just don’t have the time to meet with hundreds of applicants face to face. The more you know about our perspective and what we look for, the better your chances of us deciding you’re that diamond in the rough.

  • We’re terrified of getting duped

With such limited face-to-face contact, it can seem pretty crazy to hire someone based on a couple of meetings. We’re as worried that you’re lying to us about your experience and skills as you are that the promotion opportunities we’re telling you about are a load of BS. It is becoming increasingly common in all companies big and small to have some kind of ‘test’ built into a recruitment process. For a developer, you might be asked to solve some code problems to ascertain your skills. Writing heavy jobs may ask you to submit a written test assignment, jobs requiring client interactions might ask you to present a hypothetical strategy or solution to the interviewers as though they are clients.

  • We’re most concerned about what can’t be taught

When evaluating a potential employee, often we will come across someone with a great attitude who is super motivated. Maybe they are a young graduate, but they have demonstrated pretty clearly that they can learn quickly and go the extra mile. This might be some past volunteer experience, or a great project example from university. If you can demonstrate you’re a positive, hard working go-getter that’s going to learn fast, that’s far more important than whether you’ve used the right software or worked with in the same industry. The job skills that can be taught, like how to use that software or the specifics of that industry are less important if we are confident you can learn them quickly.

  • Enthusiasm outranks many things

So what is the most important thing we’re looking for? Enthusiasm. If you are excited about the job, willing to learn and have a great attitude, chances are we can teach you the rest! That’s the number one thing an employer wants to see, so long as you don’t oversell it (a big personality can be hard to work with sometimes), it will go a really long way.

Introducing: Fazerdaze

A band that I have had on repeat in my room, Fazerdaze has recently released a self titled E.P.

Amelia Murray a 22 year old musician hailing from Wellington originally, relocated to Auckland to study music.

Amelia first started playing piano at five years old but lost interest not long after. It was when she picked up her father’s guitar at age 13 that she suddenly gained a passion for playing music.

At age 16, Amelia studied at Onslow College, a high school known for its strong music scene. Watching bands at her local high school inspired and influenced Murray to form her own band so she got a few of her friends together and formed a girl band named The Tangle.

“We had this song called the crimson blues and it was about being a girl. All the songs were really silly, yet quite feminine so it was cool”

As high school ended, the band split. Amelia, considering her options for future studies, decided to pursue music stating that although she had many other options she just “couldn’t put my heart into something that I just wasn’t into”.

Amelia writes her own music, and records most of it in her bedroom. Using layers of guitars and vocals to create a dreamy sort of lo-fi sound that’ll get you swaying and dancing like a dork.

Fazerdaze is one to listen to with the car windows rolled down and the wind rushing through. It’s personal, yet not to the extent of needing to weep alone in a puddle of your own tears.

As a live band, Murray performs as a three piece with Gareth Thomas on bass and Andrea Holmes on drums.

“I write the songs and then I often demo them up, and then they listen to it. I’ve picked them because they play the the way I want them to play. I don’t have to tell them to play anything they just naturally play the way I like”

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Fazerdaze, Murray states “doesn’t really mean anything, it’s more of a feeling”

As a first E.P it’s so exciting to see what the future has in store for Fazerdaze. It’s great to see this band, who have been so consistently charming from the off, push themselves out into the open – they’ve got a lot of heart to share and I can’t wait to see where they end up! If you manage to get an opportunity to see them live take it!

Murray has since graduated from university and recently played three shows in Australia, even performing in The Fancy New Band Showcase at the Kings Arms in May, alongside bands New Gum Sarn and sere.

She has also been writing new music and states that compared to the E.P, her newer music feels like a “step up”.

If this is the case I can’t wait to hear it. If you wish to find out more about Fazerdaze, check out the links below – If you want to catch Fazerdaze live be sure to like their Facebook page to keep up to date on upcoming events as they are a band that need not be missed!

Fazerdaze EP by Fazerdaze

for more Fazerdaze check out:

Facebook

Twitter

Bandcamp

Soundcloud

Instagram

If you would like to buy Fazerdaze’s EP, please go to:

www.fazerdaze.bandcamp.com (for digital)

OR

http://flyingout.co.nz/collections/newest-releases-march-2014/products/fazerdaze-fazerdaze-ep (for physical CD)

Review: Yes Please

If you’ve spend even a little time around the internet, you’ve probably encountered Amy Poehler. Hosting the 2013 Golden Globes with Tina Fey; appearing as Regina George’s mother in Mean Girls; working for years on Saturday Night Live; notorious for her Hillary Clinton impersonations. Since 2009, however, she has become best known as Leslie Knope, star of the comedy series Parks and Recreation. A small town bureaucrat with large ambitions, Knope presents a rare example of a female character with depth and complexity, who isn’t afraid to be confident and follow her beliefs. When Amy Poehler published her first book, Yes Please, in October, I was both excited and vaguely nervous. Reading about the person behind a character you love is not always a rewarding experience. Leslie Knope has big shoes to fill, and I was concerned that Poehler would pale in comparison or end up disappointing, simply by not being Leslie.

I didn’t have to worry. Yes Please captures the spirit of everything you liked in Parks and Rec: it is funny, feminist and honest. Poehler is at her best when writing about issues she cares about. She tackles subjects like motherhood, sleep, drugs, sex, technology, time travel, plastic surgery (told via haiku), and sexual harassment. Most of it is pretty great. Her ideas for divorce self-help books made me giggle out loud and her section on body-positivity should be handed out to every teenager. Readers will probably find parts they disagree with,; however, it would be hard not to love the way Poehler confidently wades in to very polarising debates and offers her opinion. It takes courage to call the debate between working and stay-at-home mums “women-on-women crime”, but Poehler does it, and argues her case well. And for Parks and Rec fans, Yes Please includes a few chapters about the show. You’ll be pleased that know that Poehler and Rashida Jones (Ann Perkins) are actual friends in real life, that Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson) has two pet poodles, that Aubrey Plaza (April Ludgate) loves Judy Garland, and that Retta Sirleaff’s (Donna Meagle’s) aunt is president of Liberia.

My favourite part of Yes Please is the essay “sorry, sorry, sorry”. In it, Poehler writes about apologising: how women do it too often, how to enjoy righteous anger, but how to apologise for everything you should apologise for. With commendable honesty, she shares one apology that haunted her for years until she finally offered it. During a Saturday Night Live show, Poehler did a skit that involved a disabled doll. Although Poehler didn’t know it at the time, the doll was based on two real twin sisters with cerebral palsy and their struggle to live a life of equal opportunities. Sisters who were watching Saturday Night Live that night.

Apologising is hard – it takes a lot of courage to admit when you stuff up. Reading Poehler’s essay made me think about how, with the rise of the internet, situations like this will just become more common. Being intersectional can be really difficult, and it is easy to find that a joke you saw as innocuous is actually offensive. The internet allows people to encounter different perspectives and communities in a way that has never happened in the past, which means you are far more likely to be challenged, and told that something you did or said was hurtful.

The way in which Poehler eventually dealt with her mistake during Saturday Night Live, and the apology letter she sent to those concerned, I see as being a model for anyone who might find themselves in the same situation. Very importantly, she didn’t try to dodge blame. She noted that although she hadn’t known she was mocking a real person, that didn’t really matter, as the sentiment was still the same, and it was her job to understand the context of what she was saying. She then wrote an apology, admitting she was at fault and was sorry. I hope that if I ever make a similar mistake, I’ll have the courage to handle it like she did.

Although Yes Please is not perfect: there were aspects of the book design I didn’t like, and some chapters were more interesting than others. Nevertheless, it is a delightful book. Yes Please captures the enthusiasm and energy that most of Poehler’s characters project, and is funny, insightful and genuinely heartwarming. Several times through the book Poehler talks about writing another one. I can only say that I hope she does.

Why must I be so ladylike?

“You can wear whatever you want as long as you keep warm because you will always be the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Such kind affirming words from my parents, but they neglected to add what they really meant: “not without context.” When it comes to societal standards of behaviour and dress, there’s a big movement toward affirming statements like that, but in reality they come with a lot of caveats. And those caveats tend to apply to women far more than they do to men.

I’m in Italy at the moment – famously known to be an extremely religious roman catholic country. More specifically, I’m on the Island of Salina, which I have dubbed the hottest place on Earth. Churches adorn every street of this small Island. Beautiful old colourful churches.

I try to be as graceful as possible, and respectful. This is not my land , it doesn’t belong to me. So, I smile politely, I keep my shoulders covered, and I try, when the blistering heat simmers, not to wear short shorts.

Other women holidaying here also respect the local code. The big butterfly sunglasses, wide brimmed hat, but with shoulders protected from the watchful eye of the old Roman Catholic devotee. Yet, there are no scowls and scorns for the men who freely walk around topless with their bellies hanging out over top. They are not objectified in the way women are, no “Ciao Bello, Beautiful Bello!” thrown their way.

From an early age women are pruned to be ladies. Men are pruned too, but in my opinion to a different extent. Here, women lay ladylike across the beaches, legs together and lying in a pose that’s part sensuous, part graceful, all feminine, while the men sit drinking their beer. Girls are taught to sit with their legs crossed, while men let it all hang out. If a girl would do the same, even for comfort reasons, people sure would notice.

If I walk down the street in his beautiful stone paved Italian city dressed how I should – shoulders covered, upper legs covered, I wonder how many times I will hear “ Ciao Bella!” from leering men, yet it will be me being judged and watched carefully by the statue of the Virgin Mary, who casts her eye over the island.

I certainly wasn’t being what Mary wanted all girls to be like when the Hades of the sea, the Medusa, (what we playfully call Jellyfish) latched onto me. Like Jesus, I did practically run on water back to land, but in a very ungodly manner I let the profanities loose out of my mouth. How unladylike.

I know this is a cultural difference, and believe me I love Italy, especially this carved out old Greek mythological Island of Salina. Sadly, whether it is the boardroom in New York, the classroom in New Zealand or the beaches of the mediterranean, the standards of dress and behaviour women are held to vary considerably. It isn’t just from the perspective of travel and religion, there are countless stories of the same behaviour in the workplace deemed to be ‘confident’ and ‘assertive’ when it comes from men, and ‘bossy’ or ‘domineering’ when it comes from women. Movements like #banbossy and #everydaysexism are a great start to make a change. A religious culture of which I do not own may not be the place for me to start, but from now on I’ll be making an effort to challenge the double standards that I can.

When I’m a millionaire, and women and men earn an equal pay, I would like to buy a place here. And perhaps by then men and women will be held to equal standards of dress and behaviour, too.▼

Other People Exist

Okay, life lesson time.

It’s too easy to go through life acting as if you are the only person that’s important. It’s particularly easy when you’re a bit younger, but it’s not something people shake off as they grow up. I’ve had too many conversations with twenty-somethings when they make all the right noises to sound like they’re listening to other people’s needs but still act like they’re the only person that matters.

It probably shouldn’t come as a shock to you that other people exist. They are real, they are there, and if you think they’re not then feel free to go do a philosophy degree somewhere because that’s not a conversation I’m getting into (okay, but only briefly: even if they’re not real it’s best for you to act as though they are). But strangers… they aren’t like, important, right? Only your family and friends really matter, right?

You know all your hopes and dreams? You know how you feel about things, how you can really love some things and really hate other stuff? That awful cringing feeling you get when someone dismisses you. That buzz when a stranger compliments you. How much it means when someone tries to make a terrible day even a little bit better. How awful it feels when someone does a better than you at a thing when you’ve worked really hard and they coasted through.

Everyone around you gets these feelings too. Your friends, people in the street, people on the other side of the world from you. That similar way of existing is what makes some text posts on tumblr so popular (also bad puns, bad puns are the bread and cheese of tumblr text posts).

When you live your life, treating other people with kindness and gentleness is A Good Thing. Last week I purchased a chocolate bar and gave it to a stranger because she was crying. I really hope she liked chocolate, but even if she didn’t I think she would have felt better from the idea that someone cared a little bit, because I would have felt better. One day someone might do a similar thing for me. I’m a firm believer in karma, because that makes me feel more settled with putting all my goodness out into the world. It can get a bit disheartening, but then yesterday a complete stranger walked me three blocks with an umbrella because it was raining really hard.

Similarly, the other side of the coin is if someone is kind of a jerk to you, it’s not necessarily because they’re a jerk, it might be all sorts of other things, generally either:

1. Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

2. They’re having a really shitty day.

I worked in retail for three years, and it taught me many things, the second most important of which was when a customer is a jerk it’s not because they hate you, it’s because their day has sucked and you should try make their day a bit better. The most important was that when you are a customer, be nice and gentle as well as being assertive of what you want, because working can be exhausting, and working in retail can wear you thin some days.

So my advice to you is this: if you see someone struggling, try to help them. Tell a stranger that they have fierce eyeliner wings. Don’t dismiss anyone – your friends, your classmates, a colleague – because you probably know how awful it feels to be cast aside like that. Don’t crow about not studying for good marks unless you know that the people around you will take that okay.

Be a cool customer at shops and don’t make a mess because one day you might understand how truly frustrating it is. Try not to get super angry when someone is a jerk because maybe they’re just dumb as hell. And do your best to be happy, but that’s another #lifelesson to chat about.

Other people exist, and if you treat them with as much importance as you treat your needs, the world will become a better place for your kindness. ▼

How to train your universe

Imagine you set off a Big Bang. Imagine you set off many Big Bangs. Newborn universes are all small, grubby and just a little disorganised. But you love them, and want each of them to grow into a well-balanced cosmos with an even spread of stars and galaxies, and an almost (but not quite!) smooth microwave background. What should you do?

Most cosmologists would suggest a dose of inflation, delivered at an early age. During inflation, your baby universe grows very rapidly, making sure that the grown-up universe is smooth and flat. It’s like stretching out a wrinkly cloth – the more you stretch, the flatter it gets. This dramatic expansion not only smoothes away any irregular leftovers of the Big Bang, it also generates the starting ripples that eventually grow into galaxies. Places that were once almost touching now find themselves on opposite sides of the sky. The microwave background (the echo from the Big Bang we can still see today) is almost identical in every direction.

inflation

During inflation, the universe expands dramatically, diluting any leftovers of the Big Bang itself.

Cosmologists don’t give tips to newbie universe-builders, but we do ask how our universe evolved. It was quickly discovered that a simple Big Bang needed very special starting conditions to grow into the universe we live in now. This is a problem for cosmology, because you then need to ask why the early universe found itself in the very special configuration that let it grow up to look the way it does today. But In 1980, physicist Alan Guth realised that a thing he called inflation made these “initial conditions problems” manageable, even if it didn’t solve them completely. Inflation rapidly became part of the theorists’ tool kit to make these problems easier.

What does inflation look like? In a smooth, expanding universe the distance between any two places gets bigger. But inflation makes sure that the speed at which they fly apart keeps going up. It is the empty space between galaxies that expands; “bound” objects, like atoms, solar systems, galaxies, people, kittens, etc, don’t expand.

The key ingredient of inflation turns out to be negative pressure, which might sound weird, but it’s not. You know what positive pressure looks like: stuff that expands, releasing energy that can be turned into motion. Like a shaken up bottle of ginger beer, or this bike pump powered water rocket:

Just as stuff with positive pressure wants to expand, stuff with negative pressure wants to contract — like a stretched rubber band that goes “ping”. See, you knew what negative pressure was all along.

So negative pressure may not be mysterious, but is it something that makes a universe expand? Surely you’d want positive pressure for that?

Um. Yes. Well, sort of. If the universe is pushed apart by the stuff inside it, the pressure drops as space expands. And if pressure helps universe expand, expansion slows as the universe gets bigger and the pressure gets smaller. But inflation is accelerated expansion, so paradoxically needs negative pressure. Bear with me here.

The next apparent paradox is the density of the universe during inflation. The density of a box of rocks goes down if the box gets bigger (and nothing enters or leaves the box). Double the size of the box and the density drops by a half. But wait! Stretching something with negative pressure stores energy within it, and thanks to E=em-cee-squared, this extra energy has mass. In an inflating universe, energy thins out as the universe gets bigger, but the negative pressure adds extra mass. For realistic models of inflation the density is almost constant — the stretching of space adds energy almost as fast as the expansion dilutes it. The universe can grow a trillion, trillion, trillion times bigger during inflation but the density only falls by a factor of 1000 or so.

(You might worry that inflation somehow undercuts the conservation of energy, but when you get down to brass tacks, it’s actually conservation of energy that makes it work this way.)

So what has negative pressure? In the world of particle physics, a “scalar field” is the easiest answer. It’s something related to a fundamental particle (like an electron) with no spin. Right now, we have only seen one scalar particle — the Higgs, discovered at the LHC in 2012. However, not all spinless particles can cause inflation, and the Higgs does not seem to be able to do the job, so whatever is responsible for inflation has not yet been discovered.

Indeed, Guth discovered inflation by thinking about scalar fields, not the other way round.

So which scalar field made inflation happen? We don’t know. Haven’t a clue. The Higgs-boson (discovered in 2012) is a scalar, and so far, it’s the only one we know about. But not all scalar fields lead to inflation, and the Higgs is the kind that doesn’t. This is where cosmology doubles down — we’re not just looking at the beginning of the universe, we are exploring undiscovered vistas in particle physics.

In fact, inflation could have happened a trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, at energies a trillion times beyond the reach of the Large Hadron Collider. This makes it very difficult to replicate experimentally! But there’s still ways we can gaze into the microwave background to find evidence of inflation. And if we do, we will know that inflation is a compelling answer to cosmology’s initial-conditions problems, and humankind will have looked directly into the cosmic dawn.

No pressure. No pressure at all. Negative pressure, in fact.▼

Richard Easther is a physicist at the University of Auckland.  Richard is @reasther on Twitter; this article is republished from his blog at excursionset.com  You can send him questions on cosmology, physics, or studying science at r.easther@auckland.ac.nz