Brain Training: Micro Flash

Writing flash fiction, generally tales of under 1000 words, is a great exercise to force yourself to be succinct and make every word count in storytelling.  There are also plenty of opportunities out there to hone these skills further with micro flash writing.  Whether you do it to develop writing dexterity or just to keep your brain in tune, it’s a fun exercise and my personal favourite is the New Zealand Book Council‘s (@nzbookcouncil) Rāmere Shorts (#Rāmereshorts). Every Friday, on Twitter, the challenge is laid: six randomly chosen words which must be included in a short tale within the 140-chararacter limit of a tweet. That generally amounts to around 15 to 20 words, with flexibility granted around word form, grammatical accuracy and punctuation.  The challenge is also given a competitive edge with a winner selected at the end of the working day, the prize being purely the honour. Each week, working within such tight boundaries, a surprisingly varied ranges of entrants surface, including the topical, lyrical, comical and emotional.

Give it a go with some past Rāmere Shorts challenges:

bully, robotic, glitter, pandemic, wax, dizzy.

mask, winter, careless, prayer, insane, homewards.

blender, mask, moonwalk, gobsmacked, duck, blink.

Here are some of my own efforts.

And my own personal favourite:


3rd April 2017



Winter Zest: Japanese Yuzu


It is tōji; the shortest day of the year. The sun, which has brought a comforting warmth to the day, sinks below the horizon heralding crisp, biting air and hasty darkness. Steam rises from a cyprus-wood tub, and with it a comforting, citrus scent. Bobbing in the soothingly warm water are dimpled golden fruits, a visual hybrid of an orange and a grapefruit. These zesty orbs, with high concentrations of vitamin C and an oily component consisting of nomilin, are there to guard against colds in the long winter ahead, to treat irritated skin, and to aid circulation while promoting comfort and relaxation. Since the 18th century, the solstice yuzuburo, a bath with the winter citrus fruit yuzu, has been a favourite tradition with Japanese families.


Yuzu is a rare citrus which can grow in regions with winter temperatures as low as -9C, and it fruits in Japan at the beginning of winter. Introduced to the country from China in the 8th century, its seeds have traditionally been used in medicines to treat skin irritations. In culinary terms, lacking in juice and pulp, it is its zest which is employed most. It has a strong, aromatic flavour which is instantly recognisable, and not always popular amongst Japanese children, becoming an acquired taste in later years. It is combined with mirin (rice wine), vinegar, katsuobushi (fish flakes) and kombu (seaweed) to make the dipping sauce ponzu, or with chilli peppers and salt to produce the condiment yuzu kosho. It is added to honey as a sweetener for tea, distilled into vinegar or the liquor yuzukomachi, and used to add a spark to drinks such as non-alcoholic cider. A single shaving of zest atop a piece of sashimi can add a pleasant zing. Chefs in Japan today use it playfully, drawing on its seasonal associations with winter.

In the last 10 years or so, the west have grown familiar with this east Asian taste explosion, although it can be difficult to obtain the fresh fruit and users often make do with bottled yuzu juice. Chefs have employed its powerful citrus bite, adding it to seafood dressings, mayonnaise, fish marinades, custards, jellies, panna cotta and pavlovas. There are several examples of celebrity chefs experimenting with the fruit in their recipes, from Jamie Oliver’s Asian seafood salad with yuzu and sesame dressing and Heston Blumenthal’s yuzu remoulade with barbecued pork chops to James Martin’s deep fried squid with yuzu mayonnaise.  Meanwhile, mixologists use it to give a flavour kick to their cocktails and several craft breweries, including Iki in the Netherlands and Garage Project in New Zealand, have added it as a citrus element in their beers.
March 2nd 2017

Devonshire Cream Tea: Red Fox Vintage, Launceston Tasmania



1000 years ago, in Tavistock, Devon, the monks of the Benedictine abbey fed labourers working there with bread, clotted cream and fruit preserves. Hundreds of years later, a variation of the dish, with scones replacing bread, was being served to the early tourists of the day who flocked to the region for its beaches and stunning coastline, and the tradition remains strong to this day. The popular dish causes extreme regional rivalry between neighbouring counties. Cornwall gained a PDO (protected designation of origin) for one of the central ingredients, their treasured clotted cream, while the dish itself is firmly established as the ‘Devonshire’ cream tea. The regional disharmony extends to how the dish should be eaten; in Cornwall the halved scone should be spread with jam (always strawberry) first and topped with cream, in Devon this order is reversed. Cream tea etiquette extends to the essential nature of clotted cream, not whipped, the type of scones, the flavour of preserve and whether the tea or the milk should be added to the cup first. In spite of these strictures, the dish spread internationally and can be commonly found in ex-colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, often with variations which would undoubtedly appal the Cornish and Devonians.


Launceston in Tasmania was named by the British authorities in the early 19th century in honour of the Governor of New South Wales of the time, who had been born in Launceston, Cornwall. With such a namesake, it would seem natural that Launceston, sitting upon the Tamar River, should be a provider of a quality cream tea. Several venues offer the dish but the place to go is Red Fox Vintage. An unassuming shop with a view of City Park, Red Fox is delightfully crammed with antique furniture, lamps, crockery & cutlery, tableware & kitchenware, clothing, accessories, and secondhand books. Chairs have been placed around the only four available horizontal surfaces and, amidst the sounds of cool jazz and lounge music, the proprietors, Sonja and Tanya, serve delicious homemade cakes and soup, teas, coffees and soft drinks. Their cream tea is a generous serving of two scones with plenty of jam and sumptuous cream, with a hot drink of your choice, all for $10. Even if you choose to replace the tea with coffee or hot chocolate, and regardless of whether it’s your cream or jam sitting atop your scone, you can sit back and relax in the surroundings of yesteryear and savour a long-enjoyed tradition.


7th February 2017

Red Fox Vintage, 66 Tamar Street, Launceston, Tasmania
Open Wed to Fri 10am-3pm, Sat 10am-2pm

Science and the Sellers of Snake Oil


The painted cart rolls into town, pulled by a couple of weary horses. Men in brightly-coloured clothing emerge and the curious townsfolk gather around them. There is music and magic, juggling, flame throwing, a ventriloquist. And there is a storyteller, drawing in the listeners with his frightening tales of deadly plagues. But fear not, he also brings tidings of wondrous protections and miraculous cures. Someone amongst the crowd testifies that, yes indeed he returned from the very doors of death due to this man’s marvellous medicine. The crowd clamours for this extraordinary elixir. Those not yet convinced are pointed out; “Won’t you be the foolish one when everyone is protected bar you?” They too succumb and part with their hard-earned coins. And as quickly and suddenly as the travelling show arrived, it is gone.


Such travelling medicine shows date back as far as the Dark Ages in Europe, back to an era when other forms of entertainment such as circuses and theatres were banned. In some areas these hawkers of miracle cures were called mountebanks, in France they were known as charlatans. The tradition was transported to the colonies, including the US where it continued on through the 19th century. These sellers of ‘snake oil’ would roll into town, provide entertainment to rural communities where there was little else available, tell tales that instilled a sense of fear or need into their rapt audience before making grandiose claims about the curative properties of their product. These potions generally had no medicinal attributes whatsoever but often contained stimulants such as alcohol, opium or cocaine, which at least made the purchasers happy with their transaction in the short term. By the time buyers’ remorse had set in, the show had already left town. It was a classic ‘bait and switch’.

What finally brought these schemes to an end in the US in the early 20th century were the advent of other entertainment forms, most notably the cinema, and the government regulation of medicine through departments including the FDA and AMA. What may also have contributed was the population’s increasing awareness of the use of ‘pseudoscience’ as a marketing technique. Pre-Enlightenment populations could be forgiven for falling for the salesman’s spiel, not having our luxury of access to scientifically proven data. However, we are all still familiar with the marketing techniques employed by the travelling medicine shows, broadcast 24 hours a day on our shopping channels and with figures like Dr Oz given a platform by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Why, in spite of the progress made in science and the scientific consensus that now exists in so many aspects of our lives, are we still susceptible to pseudoscience and quackery?


In spite of the many advances of science which have improved our everyday lives, many people still remain sceptical. Undoubtedly scientific developments have not always had positive outcomes (the nuclear bomb and other weapons of mass destruction would be one obvious example) but scientific evidence can also present a challenge to people’s strongly-held beliefs and ideologies. To those for whom free-market ideals are essential, science can pose a threat as it can lead to regulation. Libertarians may resist scientific evidence which supports the imposition of mandatory behaviour (such as vaccinating children). Science can be seen as a challenge to religious doctrine, as in the case of evolution and creationism. People with a distrust of big industries, such as ‘Big Pharma’, may challenge the science along with the business ethics of such corporations. Added to these ideological barriers, there is also the fact that scientific findings can often be very counterintuitive. We tend to find randomness very difficult to process and this can lead us to seeing causation where it doesn’t exist. We are more easily influenced by personal anecdotes than statistics and the results of years of peer-reviewed research. On top of these factors, there is also the issue of industries and companies funding scientific research for those willing to cast doubt on any scientific consensus seen as detrimental to that industry. Many of the same scientists who were bankrolled by tobacco firms to cast doubt on the links between smoking and cancer are now being funded by fossil fuel giants to lead the cry in climate change denial. These ‘findings’ are then grasped upon by the media and disseminated on the internet, which results in the magnifying of their significance and validity (For more on this topic, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is essential reading). Even when such ‘bad’ science is debunked, it is very difficult to make people change their minds.

Whatever a person’s reason for doubting science, it is important to remember that science denial can be deadly. Even now, 18 years after the report linking the measles vaccination to autism was debunked and retracted, there is still a vocal and powerful anti-vac movement. Vaccination rates in the US are the lowest they’ve been since they first became available. Who will take responsibility when an outbreak of measles occurs and claims children’s lives? How many smoking-related deaths were there before the tobacco industry admitted that they knew about the health dangers? What will the global consequences be of delayed action to combat climate change?


The way to overcome the misinterpretations, misunderstandings and mistrust of science is through education. The teaching of scientific thought and processes, not just science itself, is essential. People need to understand the scientific method and consensus gained through peer reviewing and result reproduction, to know how to recognise and debunk pseudoscience, how to separate statistical evidence from anecdotal. People need to be taught how to identify the truth amidst the lies and misinformation. Otherwise, we are all vulnerable to a colourful, flamboyant, entertaining man who comes to town spreading tales of threats and dangers; a charlatan who bombastically claims that only he has the cure.

22nd November 2016
Dead Media Archive Traveling Medicine Show

National Geographic Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?

Celebrity Survivor: Trump Edition


Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the USA. While many people struggle to get their heads around the reality of this, the postmortem of the election campaign season is well underway, and there are many possible explanations for Trump’s victory:

  • a genuine feeling amongst many of the population that the political system, and those with power within in it, have left them behind economically and are not heeding their concerns. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign harnessed a desire for the ‘good ol’ days’, offered a non-politician to ‘sweep clean’ Washington and pitted ‘urban elites’ against an ‘underclass’ abandoned by globalisation whilst promising renewed prosperity;
  • a breakdown in left-wing politics which have become more centrist, leaving many to feel abandoned and unrepresented by the political process and the dominance of the two main parties;
  • a failure within the mainstream media to counter lies and unacceptable behaviour from the very beginning of the campaign, creating a false equivalency between the two candidates, while social media circulated fake news to a huge number of people unchallenged;
  • the eleventh-hour intervention by James Comey which only helped bolster the perception of Hilllary Clinton as “crooked”;
  • the general backlash that almost always occurs following a two-term presidency, with people seeing wholesale change as the solution to dissatisfaction;
  • the additional aspect of a ‘whitelash’ in response to eight years of the first African-American president;
  • a last-gasp attempt to retain control by white members of the population who feel threatened by immigration and the global, multi-cultural nature of the world today, with the growing voices of ethnic minorities;
  • a deep-seated rejection of a female president by a society conditioned to believe that women are not suited to positions of power;
  • a resistance to ‘identity politics’ and a fear that any gains made in society by women, people of colour, non-Christians, indigenous peoples and members of the LGBTQ community result in an equivalent loss of influence to those who see themselves as the core of America’s ‘European” (WASPish) culture.

Trump’s success is probably due to a heady cocktail of all of these influences, with individual’s choices to vote, and who to vote for, driven by a combination of factors within their own lives. But perhaps there is another component which should be added to the list: Trump’s election could be seen as an oblivious conclusion for the nation which leads all others in its elevation of celebrity to the highest possible level of ambition and achievement.

Recognition is essential in gaining the votes of the population and optics are vital in presidential campaigns, with the televised debates dating back to 1960. There is no shortage of examples of successful political candidates with whom the voting public were already familiar before they ventured into public office, including Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and of course President Ronald Reagan. Trump and Clinton were possibly two of the most recognisable candidates ever to run for the presidency, but while Clinton’s life had been in the stuffy world of policy and public service, best known to many for her husband’s libido, Trump was a ‘real’ celebrity with 14 seasons of a reality television show behind him. The requirements of public office were once intelligence, hard work and experience, in the form of years of public service. However, celebrity often seems to be valued above all other qualities in the US today, with people regularly achieving a degree of fame and riches for no other discernible achievement or talent than appearing on television. Trump is media savvy and, with his background in reality tv, understood the system, fully aware that his outrageous rhetoric and behaviour would be grasped upon by the media, garnering him hours of free attention. For Trump, all publicity is good publicity.


Meanwhile, Michelle Obama gave what were undoubtedly the best speeches of the election season but her description of Hillary Clinton perhaps betrayed a failure to understand what the qualities are that many in the population really value today:

The fact is that Hillary embodies so many of the values that we try so hard to teach our young people. We tell our young people “Work hard in school, get a good education.” We encourage them to use that education to help others — which is exactly what Hillary did with her college and law degrees, advocating for kids with disabilities, fighting for children’s health care as First Lady, affordable child care in the Senate.”
Michelle Obama cites the value of education while much of the Trump campaign involved sneering at ‘elites’, a term used disparagingly as a poorly-cloaked attack on ‘experts’ and those from the ‘liberal’ colleges. Post-truth politics as it has been called doesn’t care about facts and critical thinking, and indeed prefers that people employ neither. Just like reality television, the preference is for highly-fabricated and orchestrated interactions masquerading as truth.

We teach our kids the value of being a team player, which is what Hillary exemplified when she lost the 2008 election and actually agreed to work for her opponent as our Secretary of State — earning sky-high approval ratings serving her country once again.”
Next, Hillary is lauded as a team player but the whole basis of much of reality television is that of a fight for individual survival, with The Apprentice being a perfect example with its dog-eat-dog, backstabbing nature. The show, in emulating Trump’s approach to business, tells us there can be only one winner and any means needed to take down your rivals are acceptable.

We also teach our kids that you don’t take shortcuts in life, and you strive for meaningful success in whatever job you do. Well, Hillary has been a lawyer, a law professor, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, a U.S. senator, Secretary of State. And she has been successful in every role, gaining more experience and exposure to the presidency than any candidate in our lifetime — more than Barack, more than Bill. And, yes, she happens to be a woman.”
Finally, the First Lady praises the rejection of short cuts in attaining success while the media and entertainment today teach us that education, training and the thousands of hours of practice required to hone a skill or talent can be bypassed if you are willing to behave outrageously on television or the Internet. In spite of Trump’s total political inexperience and highly questionable knowledge of how government and the international community operate, he has skipped the whole process of learning by gaining attention and support through bad behaviour, soundbites and rhetoric capitalising on fear.


When twelve women came forward with allegations of sexual assault against Trump following his open admission that he uses his position of power to press unwanted advances upon women, his campaign dismissed them all as liars. When pushed in interviews to explain why the women might lie about such traumatic ordeals, Trump’s surrogate Katrina Pierson suggested it could be for their 15 minutes of fame. Trump himself gave the same reasoning at one of his rallies.  For many this is a horrifying explanation, being inconceivable that someone would voluntarily subject themselves to the scrutiny, scepticism and vilification that people face when they go public with allegations of abuse and rape. But to Trump and many others, to whom fame, regardless of the route taken to it, is the pinnacle of success, it may seem a logical conclusion to make.

Trump capitalised on his fame, raising it to such a level that his serious shortcomings and offences (failed businesses, tax avoidance, fraud cases, sexual assault, racist policies, misogyny, unsteady temperament, lack of experience, absence of knowledge) were either ignored or deemed irrelevant by many. Meanwhile, any one of Trump’s failings would have been disqualifying for a ‘regular’ political candidate. However, Trump’s obvious narcissism is a positive quality in the world of celebrity and he succeeded in turning the election campaign, from the primaries on through the presidential competition, into the ultimate reality television show. One by one he eliminated his GOP rivals, employing name calling and insults in his bullying strongman act. In his final showdown with Clinton he continued his use of intimidation and smear tactics to gain the upper hand. At the debates, while Clinton presented policies and was knowledgable and prepared, Trump genuinely believed he had won with his yelling, name calling, stalking and by threatening his opponent. These are all elements that are instantly recognisable to today’s television audiences as the qualities required by an ultimate ‘survivor’.  It now appears that from the very beginning the Immunity Idol had been Trump’s and ultimately he has defeated all opposition and been voted victor.

16th November 2016

Man in a Suit: The Hypocrisy of Clothing Bans


No woman in a burqa (or a hijab or a burkini) has ever done me any harm. But I was sacked (without explanation) by a man in a suit. Men in suits missold me pensions and endowments, costing me thousands of pounds. A man in a suit led us on a disastrous and illegal war. Men in suits led the banks and crashed the world economy. Other men in suits then increased the misery to millions through austerity. If we are to start telling people what to wear, maybe we should ban suits (Reader’s letter to Guardian UK)

This London-based reader’s letter to The Guardian newspaper last week about France’s recent burkini ban attracted quite a bit of attention and was widely shared on social media. Perhaps the reason it resonated with so many people is that it succinctly highlighted the main issues surrounding the controversial ban.

Firstly, it drew attention to the fact that, not only historically but still today, there is an acceptance of telling a woman what to wear that suddenly seems ridiculous when you suggest it be applied to male clothing. A law introduced in 2004 in secular France calls for the banning of religious symbols in schools but it has been almost solely applied to the hijab, and a 2011 law against face coverings is seen to be mainly targeting the burqa in wider society where it is claimed to be a threat to security. It has not been widely suggested that men in public should be prohibited from having beards or wearing a keffiyeh, turban or yarmulke. In fact France recently assured a concerned India that there would be no ban of men wearing turbans in public. It is women who are being scapegoated to mitigate the actions of men. Just as in some countries Islamic fundamentalists dictate the dress of women in order to temper the desires of men and their ‘uncontrollable urges’, so too France are punishing women in order to maintain “social order” (ie preventing xenophobic fights and arguments). Not only are the secular laws being applied most strictly to women, but specifically to Muslim women, with many people pointing out the hypocrisy that it would be unthinkable to confront a Christian nun on a beach and demand she remove her habit.


And this leads to the second aspect of the letter; the ridiculous suspicion and demonisation of all members of a group numbering well over a billion people. The obviously facetious suggestion that suits be banned because of the dire consequences of the actions of some in the professional and political world highlights the ridiculousness of associating clothing with damaging behaviour. It’s worrying that we need to be reminded that the actions perpetrated by one person wearing an item of clothing cannot be applied to all. The letter also highlights the distinction made between the perception of damage caused by Islamic ideology versus the harm caused by the actions of those in the banking and economic sectors. Undoubtedly more people in the US and Europe have been directly impacted by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and austerity than by acts perpetrated by fundamentalists in the name of Islam. And yet there it is a climate of fear around Muslims that has been nurtured by politicians and the media, while those responsible for the economic meltdown have widely gone unpunished.


Finally, the example of the suit reminds us that we are all under societal pressures to present ourselves in a certain way for particular purposes. It is from an early age, with school uniforms, that ideas of uniformity are instilled within us. Many of us work in environments that require formal wear and there are cultural expectations surrounding our attire when we attend a wedding or a funeral. Most of us adhere to these social ‘dress codes’ so as to avoid offending people or causing friction with family and friends. Many voice the battle against the burqa as a crusade for the rights of women, forced to cover themselves up, but we should remember, we are not so liberal ourselves. We claim we have the choice but there are many examples in schools, such as the case this week at Hartsdown Academy in the UK, and in the workplace where not abiding by the dress code has consequences surrounding success and opportunity. Many women experience the discomfort of high heels, not to mention the physical consequences of wearing them, but there are still cases of their wear being enforced, such as the case earlier this year of the PWC office temp sent home for wearing flats and the Cannes Film Festival red carpet incident of the barring of guests not wearing heels.

Many people say they are happy to put on a suit every day, feeling comfortable with the image of respectability and efficiency it generally projects. Many women choose to wear high heeled shoes, making them feel elegant and sexy. And that is fine, but the key point in all of this is the element of choice. We are all subject to societal pressures around what we wear but we can choose to conform or not. In France, most women who wear a burqa, hijab or burkini do it because they choose to, with as much agency as any of us do while aware of social expectation and propriety. We can criticise cultures which enforce dress codes but should remember that we too are under societal pressure. The problem comes when this pressure and expectation is written into law and enforced by police and all elements of choice are removed. It should be obvious that a police officer telling a women to remove a full-body swimsuit is no better than a morality police member telling a woman to cover her head, and that is why France’s latest actions are so hypocritical and have caused so much justified outrage.


9th September 2016