Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Vehicle Control Services Ltd

Last July, I wrote an article entitled Smells Like Double Dip, outlining the depths that unscrupulous businesses will plumb in order to snare the unsuspecting. It was well received, and I had emails from others with similar stories. That particular scam was derived from the premise that the prospect of financial gain often suspends common sense.

This piece concerns a somewhat different human Achilles’ heel: ignorance of the law.

Five weeks ago, I spent a relaxing evening with a large group of friends at a smart riverside restaurant in central England. A popular place, car parking can be difficult. My car ended up in a solitary remaining space on a short approach road. Yesterday, I received a rather nasty, bullying letter from some outfit called Vehicle Control Services Ltd. It bore my name, address, car registration number, along with a demand for £100 (€126 or US$157) (Figure 79.1). I had – apparently – breached the ‘terms and conditions in the Privately Operated Car Park at Private Road (my italics)’. There was no mention of the main road, postcode or even the city itself. Also absent were the ‘terms and conditions’, any documentary evidence and the consequences of refusal to pay.

Figure 79.1: At first glance, this resembles a legitimate penalty notice. It is nothing of the kind, and hence fit only for the compost bin.

Copyright unknown

I was puzzled momentarily. Since when, I wondered, did parking on a public road with no yellow lines constitute an infringement on private property? I spent a few minutes reading the remainder of the communication. Aside from the spelling and grammatical errors, and clumsy ruses seemingly designed to mislead, it was clear that the company had no lawful right to demand payment. In England, it must be remembered, only a Court of Law, police enforcement unit or local government authority has any such power.

So, why are such notices legal? I suppose the company could, if pressed, argue that the notice is in fact an invoice – not an actual demand – for a charge emanating from a breach of contract on the driver’s part. Had the vehicle been intentionally parked on clearly-marked private property, and, in so doing, caused the landowner significant impediment or financial loss, then civil action for damages might conceivably result. It would not, however, warrant criminal proceedings, despite the company’s use of the words ‘Parking Charge Notice’ being a blatant imitation of the phrase ‘Penalty Charge Notice’ which is used by local councils. Furthermore, no contract was made between driver and company.

A minor point of amusement was the creeping request to know who had been driving my car. Well, even if I know full well, I am under no legal obligation to disclose the individual’s identity.

Of course, if the matter did, incredibly, go to trial, then I expect the judge would split his sides laughing at the plantiff’s ineptitude.

Most people, I think, would understand that this is just another tedious variation of the hit-and-hope business model. There were numerous cars parked along that approach road. The cost of posting a letter is but a small fraction of a £100 ‘fine’, so if only a tiny proportion of recipients were sufficiently frightened into paying up, the company would still profit.

I hereby urge the British public to be aware of this type of insidious, money-grubbing scheme, which, for whatever reason, is not technically illegal. I shall, sensibly, ignore this and any subsequent threat-o-grams and would recommend all readers, if similarly affected, to act likewise, in the safe knowledge that there could be no justifiable grounds for litigation. Doubtless, though, I shall receive a stark ‘letter before action’ in due course, followed by heaven-knows-what-else.

My advice to – remember the name – Vehicle Control Services Ltd: go ahead, punks, and sue me. Let me enjoy my day in Court. I would wipe the floor with you – and counterclaim for costs.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

To Meet The Gene Genius

I have often been asked what I consider to be the most impressive scientific discovery of my own lifetime. It is a good question, capable of invoking endless fascinating debate. In my view, though, one stroke of post-1966 genius stands head and shoulders above all else. If I could – in my dreams – have been responsible for just one piece of research, this would undoubtedly be it.

The story began in Alameda County, California in 1983. A young post-doctoral biochemist was driving late one night with his girlfriend (also a scientist) when a promising idea occurred to him. His hypothesis, if proven, would bring about the exact replication of a short strand of DNA, with all base-pairs (genetic building blocks) in their correct sequence. Each replicate could then itself be replicated, over and over, until the tiniest trace of DNA had, by simple addition of raw materials at optimum temperatures, been amplified, with total fidelity, to create a significant mass. This process, called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), has since revolutionized not only biochemistry, but also genetics, forensic science and modern medicine.

The name of this brilliant American is Dr Kary B. Mullis (Figure 78.1). He was rewarded in 1993 with, inevitably, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and has since been inducted into the (US) National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Figure 78.1: An early picture of Dr Kary Mullis (1944-). In his 1996 book entitled Making PCR, anthropologist Paul Rabinow echoed my own feelings: ‘Committees and science journalists like the idea of associating a unique idea with a unique person, the lone genius. PCR is thought by some to be an example of teamwork, but by others as the genius of one who was smart enough to put things together which were present to all, but overlooked. For Mullis, the light bulb went off, but for others it did not. This is consistent with the idea, that the prepared (educated) mind who is careful to observe and not overlook, is what separates the genius scientist from his many also smart scientists. The proof is in the fact that the person who has the light bulb go off never forgets the “Ah” experience, while the others never had this photochemical reaction go off in their brains.’

Copyright © 2012 Datos Freak

I have used Dr Mullis’s PCR technique in a university forensics laboratory (Figure 78.2). Extracting DNA from a single colony of bacteria, then copying it to perfection millions of times over, was utterly compelling. When I discovered that my theory was workable, I was spellbound, not to mention completely in awe of Mullis’s logic. Without PCR, my project would have been impossible, and DNA science in general would still be in its dark ages.

Figure 78.2: A treasured photograph taken after a crime scene analysis. My PCR-inspired forensics dissertation can be viewed at http://biohorizons.oxfordjournals.org/content/3/2/166.full.pdf and I like to think the broad thrust of it can be understood by anyone prepared to make the effort.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Spradbery

Imagine, then, how I felt when, earlier this week, I received a personal invitation (Figure 78.3) to the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Figures 78.4 & 78.5), in London, in order to meet the Nobel Laureate himself and hear the story of his far-reaching innovation on the thirtieth anniversary of its publication. The event, sponsored by drug development company Altermune Technologies, takes place on Monday (October 6th), and promises to be uniquely memorable.

Figure 78.3: A welcome invitation, sent to biotechnology academics, entrepreneurs, investors, journalists ... and yours truly

Copyright © 2014 Altermune Technologies

Figure 78.4: The Royal Institution of Great Britain, on Albemarle Street, London, has, for more than two hundred years, brought science to the British public and to the rest of the scientific world.

Copyright © 2013 Astellas Pharma Europe Ltd

Figure 78.5: British inventor and electrical pioneer Michael Faraday (1791-1867) presented the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution. His world-changing discoveries were made in its basement.

Copyright expired

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The King Of Kansas City

During late August, there is, to my mind, only one place to be. That special somewhere is the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. What makes it so is the annual Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts extravaganza, to where all manner of manic and madcap performers naturally gravitate to entertain those of us on the lookout for ‘left-field’ entertainment in a world of stifling conformity.

My first taste of it was back in 1988 (Figure 77.1). I suppose I was lucky: my girlfriend lived in a third-floor bedsit opposite Haymarket station in the city’s West End. As well as being conveniently situated to experience all the Fringe madness, when it was time to go home I was able to see from her (one and only) window my return train as it approached the station ... then put on my shoes, kiss her goodbye, bolt down three flights of stairs, dodge the traffic on Haymarket Terrace and reach the platform, bounding spectacularly through the train doors without breaking my stride. As I said, madness was all around.

Figure 77.1: For reasons that I will explain, and which might not be coincidental, the 1988 Fringe postcard appears to show a slightly unhinged street performer, juggling outside the National Gallery.

Copyright © 1988 EFFS

One Saturday morning that summer was memorably mad. We were wandering though Princes Street Gardens, when I heard a man, with what sounded like an American accent, scream:

‘I’m going to set fire to my hair!’

There was a small crowd gathered outside the Scottish National Gallery. (This is a huge neoclassical building on the Mound, underneath which run the railway lines to Haymarket and beyond.)

Startled, we followed the commotion and heard him repeat his threat. We should have known better. Rather than discovering a suicidal case preparing to end his days in style, we were confronted by a young, hyperactive street performer, reeling in a crowd before letting rip with his repertoire. First, he propelled himself up between two of the building’s Ionic columns, legs splayed, arms waving and presumably with decent treads on his shoes (Figure 77.2). He then began to juggle several flaming torches, tossing them in the air, between his legs and behind his back (Figure 77.3). As a feat of balance alone, it was impressive; not setting fire to his hair – or anything else – even more so.

Figure 77.2: Live at (or rather outside) the National Gallery

Copyright © 1988 Paul Spradbery

His crazy act lasted about twenty minutes and was well worth the five-pound note I could not afford to throw into his hat but did anyway. We spoke to him afterwards. He introduced himself as Rex Boyd from Kansas City, USA, and was the same age as us. We spent the rest of the day roaming the packed streets, stopping to watch any other ludicrous exhibitionists whose paths we happened to cross. On our way back to bedsit-land, we passed the gallery and our new favourite Yank was still wedged between the stone pillars, twenty feet in the air, going hard at it for the benefit of anyone too nervous to look away. Ever since, on my numerous visits to the city, I have never been able to wander past the National Gallery building and not think of Rex Boyd.

Figure 77.3: The manic torch-juggler in action

Copyright © 1988 Paul Spradbery

Old habits die hard – this year’s Fringe (Figure 77.4) ended just a few days ago – and this is undoubtedly true in Rex’s case. Twenty-six summers later, he remains a thoroughly original performer. Some of his recorded antics are available online, as are details of his live stand-up shows. He must, also, still be competent with the torches: his hair is still intact (Figure 77.5).

Figure 77.4: This year’s postcard. The 2015 Fringe is scheduled for August 7th to 31st.

Copyright © 2014 EFFS

Figure 77.5: After years of shinning up stone columns, Rex’s feet now point in entirely different directions. His comedy c.v. is available at http://comedycv.co.uk/rexboyd/index.htm; he has a web site dedicated to motion graphics, video and design at www.rexboyd.co.uk; and there is live material on YouTube.

Copyright © 2007 comedycv

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Folly Followers

Being able to see for miles is, I think, one of life’s (frequently unsung) blessings. Is this a subconscious reason why, for more than a century, holidaymakers and daytrippers have tended to make for the coast? Perhaps it is. For there, in one direction at least, there is no sense of visual constraint.

I remember, as a small boy, sitting on a swing at the top of a sloping field overlooking one of my childhood homes, fascinated by the stupendous south-facing view across the cornfields. The horizon was about six miles away, but to such young eyes those fields seemed to stretch halfway across the world. Perched there, swinging to and fro, I would often gaze upon a dark, tower-like building, seated on a ridge and surrounded by a small area of woodland. I would wonder what it was, who lived there, and when and why it had been built. My young imagination tried in vain to provide answers that were not apparent.

I happened to mention it at school. ‘It is a folly,’ said one of my teachers. That left me none the wiser. When prompted to explain, she floundered for a moment, before defining such a construction as ‘something built for no good reason’, which struck me as absurd. Surely there had to be a point? Forty years on, and I have belated sympathy with her inability to nail down a clear definition. Even architectural experts cannot agree fully. It is generally accepted that a folly is, principally, decorative. Some are intentional monuments to extravagance, opulence or family prominence – if you like, ‘we built it because we could’. Others, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were born of benevolence, commissioned to provide stopgap work for unemployed artisans and the local poor.

Recently, I told my young children of the mysterious building hiding among the trees which had enchanted me when I was their age. ‘What’s inside it?’ one of them asked. When I admitted I had no idea, because I had never paid it a visit, the response, inevitably, was: ‘I want to go there, Dad. I want to see it.’ It was the perfect excuse finally to see it for myself.

We set out early this morning. Access was not that easy. After taking them to lunch at a nearby, nineteenth-century, ivy-clad – in other words, wonderfully English – pub, we navigated a winding, single-track country lane and parked on a gravel layby. The tiny signpost for the monument could hardly have been less conspicuous. It was as if the place were not meant to be visited, especially as the thirty-metre-high structure itself was sufficiently obscured by the trees as to render it invisible from the roadside.

The kids were captivated at first sight. Its stone base is triangular, and, when viewed from below at certain angles, it appears to lean, as if frozen in the act of toppling over (Figure 76.1), rather like an Italian campanile, such as that on the Venetian island of Burano. It was built to commemorate the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 – I suppose, an eighteenth-century ‘up yours’ to the rebellious Scots (Figure 76.2).

Figure 76.1: The ‘leaning’ folly was completed in 1748, costing £3,000.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Figure 76.2: I took this photograph of the inscription set in stone above the doorway.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

It is still possible to reach the viewing platform (Figure 76.3), by means of an interior spiral staircase. Thanks to sterling efforts from a follies preservation society (Figure 76.4), it remains open to the public, but only on Sundays. So, another time, I hope, preferably on a clear day.

Figure 76.3: This is the view from the top, looking northward towards my childhood home. Despite the high-res picture, I cannot quite make out the sloping field.

Copyright © 2007 Joe Havard

Figure 76.4: According to its web site, www.follies.org.uk: ‘The Folly Fellowship was founded in 1988 as a pressure group to protect, preserve, and promote follies, grottoes and garden buildings. Initially a group of enthusiasts keen to record what was at first seen as a peculiarly British aspect of architecture.’

Copyright © 2013 The Folly Fellowship

By the way, from that same sloping field, it is still possible to see its domed roof on the horizon – but only just. In forty years, of course, the trees have grown (Figure 76.5).

Figure 76.5: The landscape has altered since the early 1970s, but if you enlarge this picture, and follow the central tree trunk directly upward, the dome can be seen to protrude above the distant – and ever-growing – woodland.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Folly or not, it is a treasure – if you can find it.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Monday, June 30, 2014

Unscripted Remembrance

A few miles from my home, there is a 0.7-mile (approx. 1 km) rural lane which is as straight as anything the Romans ever built. I drive along it, in both directions, practically every day of the week. It is bordered on each side by broad grass verges, along each of which is a row of mature trees, planted about a century ago (Figure 75.1). Whatever the season, or time of day, it is impossible to drive from one end to the other without contemplating on its semi-natural beauty.

Figure 75.1: This quiet, peaceful lane, with its parallel avenues of mature trees, fuels contemplative silence. It is, therefore, a fitting site for what has occurred.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Its main ‘design fault’ was its absence of pavements (sidewalks). Ramblers and dog-walkers have always been compelled to trek beneath the trees, and cyclists have had to take their chances alongside two-way motor traffic. Last year, these long-standing problems were finally addressed by local government. The plan was to construct a tarmac pathway, two metres wide, beyond the tree line on the west side of the lane. The rationale was to improve conditions, particularly those of safety, for cyclists, pedestrians and horse-riders.

Naturally, there were objections. Most were predicated on the belief that there would be insufficient space – for walkers, bicycles and horses alike. Horses bolt, cyclists wobble (and frequently manoeuvre like morons) and those on foot tend to wander, or stop and start without warning, sometimes in an iPod-induced parallel universe. The other main concern was that there might be an unforeseen effect on wildlife. How true that has proved to be.

Construction work began in January. A shallow, two-metre-wide trench was dug, bordered by a continuous timber frame, lined with hardcore and finished with steaming tarmac. The project took two months and I glimpsed its progress on a daily basis. Within days of completion, non-motor traffic had increased significantly. It looked to me like money well spent. The only unfortunate consequence was that the whole grass verge had been churned up by backhoes and dumper trucks. Throughout the Spring months, I would drive by, wondering when a team of landscapers might arrive to level the ground and tidy the mess. However, maybe for economic reasons, there has been no further activity. Grass has grown where it still can, as have nettles and weeds, and both the west and east verges have been left untended.

The lane has never looked more attractive. On this, the last day of June, the entire west verge, from kerb to footpath, is adorned with thousands of brilliant red poppies (Figure 75.2), petals fluttering in the breeze and intermittently catching the sunlight through the long canopy of trees.

 Figure 75.2: The poppies grow. I did initially wonder whether their mass germination was intentional on the part of local politicians as the pathway was being planned. Frankly, though, it would be hard to credit them with such intelligence and foresight. Nevertheless, this fortuitous display should be welcomed and enjoyed by all.

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Of course, on the east verge there is not a single speck of red – not this summer, at least. The reason for this unscripted, gorgeous colour explosion is simple and uniquely poignant. During World War I, vast fields in Belgium and France were disturbed by intense warfare, machinery transportation and mass grave-digging. Thereafter, in the trench lines and no-man’s lands, poppies bloomed; and this species has symbolized fallen soldiers ever since. The poppy – Papaver rhoeas – grows freely on roadsides, wasteland and, not surprisingly, ploughed agricultural fields. According to experts at London’s Kew Gardens, its seeds can lie dormant for up to eighty years. Disturbance of the soil brings them to life.

Perhaps, in the coming weeks, I should collect a few handfuls of seed pods and scatter their contents on the east verge across the lane. This year is, after all, the centenary of the beginning of World War I (Figure 75.3), which led to the deaths of sixteen million souls throughout Europe – in just four years.

Lest we forget.

Figure 75.3: Information about the global commemoration of the WWI centenary can be found at http://www.1914.org

Copyright © 2014 Royal British Legion

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Lonely Walk


Last Saturday was, to date, the hottest day of the year. My nine-year-old son and I ventured out after breakfast to a sprawling local park, where the annual end-of-season junior football tournament was about to take place. Stretching across the vast green expanse were a dozen half-size pitches, alongside which stood marquees, gazebos and ad hoc food outlets. Excitable youngsters of all ages, and wearing every colour of kit imaginable, warmed themselves up in preparation for their festival in the sun.

My son and his six teammates, decked out in their usual bright yellow and blue – they have been together for three years now – accumulated in the goalmouth of Pitch 1, in readiness for their first match, scheduled for 10 a.m. The format was simple: each team had been placed in a group of six. The best placed, after completing five short matches, would qualify for the knockout stages (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final) in the afternoon.

They began brightly (Figure 74.1), and played with the fluency and relentless work-rate by which they had secured the local league and cup double during the previous fortnight. When the final whistle blew, we (parents) instructed them to come straight out of the sun, relax and drink cold juice in the shade of a thick tree canopy, underneath which we had set up camp. Unlike most of the other teams, we – owing to holidays – did not have the luxury of substitutes. Each boy would have to play every minute of every match, in 20-25°C temperatures, and try to ignore any cuts and pains that happened along the way.

Figure 74.1: The day’s tournament kicks off ...

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Undefeated in the five group matches, they collapsed in the shade, ate lunch, and enjoyed the usual banter with their ever-loyal ‘old men’ and a relaxing break before the knockout rounds.

The quarter-final, beginning at 2:30 p.m., went to extra time. Legs and lungs were visibly tiring, before one sweet strike from distance won them a semi-final place. Without needing any encouragement, the boys returned straight to camp. Legs were massaged, cold water was poured over heads, and litres of fluid were hastily guzzled by seven small warriors who were never going to give up.

At 3:30, back out they went, for the semi-final. The first half was goalless, partly the fault of my own son who missed a relatively easy chance, the likes of which he would usually convert without stopping to think. He made up for his miss, though, scoring two late goals and giving his mates a boost in readiness for the final.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. At 4:30, much of the park had emptied, all the other matches having already been settled and presentations made. Seven young boys, the same seven who had been undefeated in seven previous matches, returned to Pitch 1. The other finalists, it must be said, had five substitutes, which were rotated at will to conserve energy. By half-time, their advantage was beginning to tell. Our boys no longer possessed their characteristic capacity to dominate their opponents. It was as if the pitch had slowly tilted and they were playing uphill.

It was goalless at the final whistle. I could see that my son ached to sit down – or lie down. He remained on his feet. I splashed cold water onto his face and neck. His mouth-breathing was heavy. There was a nasty six-inch stud-mark down his left leg. His hair was oozing with sweat. Every part of him looked spent – except for his eyes.

Extra time was almost an exercise in cruelty. When all else had been used up, all that remained was a bloody-minded refusal to submit. The boys held out to the end. The final, and the whole tournament, would be decided by a penalty shootout (Figure 74.2).

Figure 74.2: In one of the most (in)famous penalty shootouts ever, Italy’s Roberto Baggio misses the target in the 1994 World Cup Final, thereby handing the cup to Brazil.

Copyright © 2012 International New York Times

Five players were selected to take penalties. Only my son and the goalkeeper would sit it out – unless the shootout ended all-square. Two of our first three kicks were unsuccessful. There were tears, inevitably. Somehow, our goalkeeper made two saves to level matters at 3-3. It was now ‘sudden death’: the first to miss would lose. What followed I can describe only as being akin to a public trial. In 1996, British broadsheet journalist Richard Williams compared ‘sudden death’ to a flogging in the market square. This is not mere lazy hyperbole.

Pitch 1 was, by now, surrounded by parents, grandparents and players from teams already eliminated. The referee stood in the penalty area and called ominously to the two sets of exhausted players, huddled in the centre circle: ‘OK, it’s sudden death.’ My nine-year-old boy knew that it was down to him. He raised his head and took a sharp breath. I, along with every other helpless spectator, watched him make the lonely walk all the way to the penalty spot. He picked up the ball in both hands and placed it deliberately on the spot. ‘Just imagine you are in the back garden, son,’ I thought to myself. The whistle blew. He steadied himself, then paused to stare for a moment at the goalkeeper. Almost without warning, he bolted forward and dispatched the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal. I breathed again.

It was 5:15 when we finally packed up and left. Each of the boys limped away carrying a large trophy and an even bigger ice-cream. The huge car park was all but deserted. My son struggled to remove his boots and shin pads, then rolled down his wet socks and climbed into the car. As I started the engine, he switched on the radio. The FA Cup Final had just begun. The unfancied Hull City had scored twice against Arsenal in the first ten minutes, thus ensuring that the rest of the match could not be anything other than thrilling. On exiting the car park, I glanced back at the field, with its magnificent avenues of mature trees, endless grassy carpet, and, to complete the tableau, a small church spire in the background. ‘You see all this, son?’ I said with mock seriousness. ‘It belongs to us.’ He smiled, then looked at me and laughed aloud.

We freewheeled down a broad, winding lane. Left and right were hedgerows filled with fresh, light-green foliage, masses of cow parsley and spent dandelion clocks. The Cup Final commentary filled the late Spring air. I looked across at my weary but contented companion. He had wound the passenger’s window right down, his arm resting along the top of the door, eyes half-closed as the cool afternoon breeze swept obligingly across his sun-tanned, ice-cream-splashed face.

‘Dad, this has been one of the best days ever.’

So it had. One of the most precious gifts a father can give to a son is to fill his young head with memories – glorious, fade-resistant memories which have the illusion of being free from contrivance. In other words, life is good simply because it is. All fathers must harbour dreams of a day exactly like this. Tragically, modern life dictates that many can never come true. Yet ours just did (Figure 74.3).

Figure 74.3: If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

(Photograph) Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why 36-24-34?


It is evident that sexual dimorphism (differences in physical appearance) exists between human males and females. Such differences are attributable mainly to the effects of sex hormones, beginning at puberty (Wells, 2007). Respective morphological characteristics are distinct, although there is overlap between the sexes in individual cases. Such dimorphism is not confined to humans; it is exhibited by many other species, and to a varying degree. For example, it is barely detectable in snakes, and yet extraordinary in peacocks (Ridley, 2004). It is a long-held view that the effect is greater among polygamous species, in which paternal investment in parenting is relatively low (Darwin, 1871, as cited by Desmond & Moore, 2004, p. 254).


One marked anthropological difference is body shape. Conspicuous in females only is the so-called hourglass figure. This is a combination of large breasts and broad hips contrasting with a relatively narrow waist (Dindia & Canary, 2006, p. 127). In silhouette, this shape resembles an hourglass, hence the metaphor. The existence of such a fundamental distinction invites a number of questions: What are the exact physical characteristics? Can they be explained satisfactorily with reference to Darwinian natural selection? Has sexual selection played a rôle? Are there biochemical or pathological associations? Does interracial variation exist? Is the ageing process relevant?


Overall body shape is determined by a combination of skeletal bone, fat distribution pattern and, to a lesser extent, musculature (Bloomfield & Fitch, 1995, p. 5). Each component is sexually dimorphic.

The relative broadness of the female hips is, largely, a manifestation of pelvic morphology. Several characteristics distinguish the gynoid version from the android: both the inlet and outlet are larger; the sacrum is shorter and broader; and the pubic arch exceeds 90° (Tortora & Anagnostakos, 1987, p. 172). Consequently, the complete frame has a more rounded appearance. Fat distribution augments this distinction. Females have a greater tendency to deposit adipose tissue around the hips and buttocks, as opposed to the torso and limbs, and such a mechanism is purported to be of genetic origin (Jamison, 2001, p. 329).


WHR is determined anthropometrically by circumferential measurement of the smallest part of the waist and the broadest part of the hips. However, clinical studies are frequently conducted using photographs of subjects with reference to pre-recorded WHR data (Tovée & Cornelissen, 2001; Schützwohl, 2005). The principal reason for such interest in this simple quotient is that, among females, it is considered to have adaptive significance (Singh, 1993).

Evidence suggests that it reflects general health and male desirability (Singh & Young, 1995). If so, then it follows that, in the eyes of males, one or more optimum values could exist. Sanderson (2001, p. 180) reported data from several studies which suggested a universal ideal WHR of 0.7, and this was confirmed by current evidence from Hong, Park, Lee and Suh (2008). Hence, a waist circumference of 24 inches would predicate an aesthetically-ideal hip measurement of approximately 34 inches. This WHR preference was seen to be independent of either breast size or total body weight.

In the light of these findings, the following question is raised: Does the most sexually-attractive WHR confer any other advantages on the female?

Firstly, given that the female pelvis is instrumental in childbirth, and the breasts in neonatal feeding, it would seem reasonable to suppose that WHR has particular significance with regard to the child-bearing years. Anthropological data show that gynoid fat distribution is normally present only between the approximate ages of 15 and 45 years (Ridley, 1994, pp. 154-156) which coincides with the fertile period. Moreover, it is absent in males and prepubertal females.

Garaulet et al. (2002) assessed fat distribution in both pre- and post-menopausal females and concluded that the gynoid pattern yielded to a more android type as menopause progressed. This confirmed conclusions drawn by Ley, Lees and Stevenson (1992) who studied post-menopausal women, some of whom were undergoing hormone-replacement therapy (HRT). These subjects exhibited a more persistent gynoid fat pattern than those of the non-medicated control group.

Although the basic hourglass shape is of comparable geographic distribution among young females, there exists some racial variation. Novotny et al. (2007) compared fat distribution among 11-to-12-year-old girls of Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian descent throughout the United States of America. Whites were found to have proportionally more gynoid fat than either Asians or Hispanics, despite Asians having the lowest mean waist circumference.


Clinical investigations have been undertaken to assess whether or not fat distribution type affects pregnancy rate. Zaadstra et al. (1993) studied 500 women who were undergoing (their first programme of) artificial insemination. The number of required insemination cycles was recorded and conception probability calculated for each subject. After making adjustments for age, weight and smoking, it was found that a WHR increase of 0.1 (above 0.7) produced a 30% reduction in conception probability. That is, android fat distribution was negatively associated with successful treatment, and more so than either increasing age or obesity.

Data from subsequent in vitro fertilization assessments were published by Waas, Waldenström, Rössner and Hellberg (1997). Results showed that women whose WHR was between 0.70 and 0.79 had twice the pregnancy rate of those with a WHR of more than 0.80. No correlation was implicated between pregnancy rate and body mass index (BMI), which is defined as the ratio of body weight to the square of the height (kgm-2) (Eknoyan, 2008).

Endocrinological reasons underpinning increased reproductive potential were sought by Jasieńska, Ziomkiewicz, Ellison, Lipson and Thune (2004). Salivary concentrations of progesterone and the oestrogenic hormone 17β-oestradiol (E2) were quantified daily, throughout a single menstrual cycle, in more than 100 women. Those with narrow waists, relative to breast size, had significantly higher mean and mid-cycle E2 concentrations than any other groups. Hence, a causal link between hormone concentrations and WHR was postulated. Girls with low WHRs are known, also, to show earlier pubertal hormonal activity (Sanderson, 2001, p. 180).

Conversely, increased androgen concentration is believed to have the opposite effect: fat is deposited in the abdominal region (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006, p. 66), a characteristic associated more closely with males.


WHR has been linked with several clinical disorders within the last twenty years. Arguably the most significant is heart disease, the incidence of which is universally lower in females than in males (Holtzman, 2008, p. 80). Angiographic evidence has suggested that coronary artery disease increases with android fat distribution, more so in women over 60 years of age (Hartz et al., 1990). However, Rexrode et al. (1998) were unable to show that regional fat distribution was a greater risk factor than general obesity.

Relationships between WHR and plasma lipoprotein concentrations have been established. High-density lipoprotein 2 (HDL2) was found to be positively associated with android fat distribution (Ostlund, Staten, Kohrt, Schultz & Malley, 1990). More recent cardiovascular research carried out by Smith, Al-Amri, Sniderman and Cianflone (2006) involved analysis of plasma adiponectin concentration. A strong positive relationship with WHR was demonstrated. The general conclusion is that women with gynoid fat patterns are less prone to cardiac disease.

High WHR has also been implicated in the development of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) (Schmidt, Duncan, Canani, Karohl & Chambless, 1992). Similar findings were published by Carey et al. (1997), who studied more than 40,000 American women over an eight-year period. It was claimed that BMI and waist circumference were additional independent predictors of NIDDM risk. Interracial variation of NIDDM incidence with respect to WHR was assessed by Lovejoy, de la Bretonne, Klemperer and Tulley (1996). Results demonstrated a different degree of risk between Caucasians and African-Americans.

Given that serum oestrogen concentration is, firstly, inversely proportional to WHR (Jasieńska et al., 2004) and, secondly, directly proportional to breast cancer risk (Hulka & Moorman, 2001), it follows that gynoid fat distribution predisposes women to this type of malignancy. This hypothesis is supported by data from both pre-menopausal (Kumar, Riccardi, Cantor, Dalton & Allen, 2005) and post-menopausal women (Friedenreich, Courneya & Bryant, 2002). Therefore, other factors being equal, increased risk of cardiac disease correlates to reduced risk of breast cancer and vice versa.

High WHR has been associated, also, with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Kirchengast and Huber (2001) compared PCOS sufferers with healthy women of equivalent BMI and found that a significantly low proportion of the test group presented with a gynoid fat pattern. This is, perhaps, unsurprising: PCOS is a hyperandrogenic condition (Marshall & Bangert, 2008, p. 199). Other high-WHR-associated disorders include hypertension, stroke, menstrual irregularity and ovarian malignancy (Sanderson, 2001, p. 180).


The racial and geographic ubiquity of the hourglass figure (Diamond, 1998, p. 182) implies that this anthropological feature has an evolutionary basis. Several theories offer potentially valid reasons as to why this body shape might provide a selective advantage for the genes responsible.

Most recently, Lasseka and Gaulin (2008) contended that WHR affected cognitive ability in a womans offspring. It was thought that gluteofemoral fat deposits might provide valuable nutritional reserves in the form of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are believed to contribute positively to neurodevelopment in utero (Agostini, Trojan, Bellù, Riva & Giovannini, 1995).

These same areas of fat storage are thought, also, to facilitate easier locomotion. By lowering an expectant mothers centre of gravity, it is believed that balance, and hence stability, is enhanced (Pawlowski, 2001). This would render bipedal movement less dangerous. However, another change during pregnancy is breast enlargement. On average, breast mass increases nine-fold (Orshan, 2006, p. 448). This would counteract any gravitational benefit induced by increased fat storage around the buttocks and thighs. The importance of differential weight gain is, therefore, questionable.

A further point of interest is that many women habitually carry nursing infants on their hips (Leakey, 1981, p. 105). This places the infant in a convenient position to suckle, while the mother retains one free hand to carry out daily activities. Fitzgerald (1922) documented observations of Indian women simultaneously carrying babies on their hips and water pots on their heads. In Peru, Hern (2003) described the indigenous Shipibo women as being naked above the waist, apart from a looped shawl employed as a hip-carry.

A smaller WHR, and thereby greater waist concavity, would make infant transport less cumbersome. An extreme example is found among the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. Khoi women exhibit massively increased fat deposition in and around the buttocks, a condition known as steatopygia (Lyons, 2004, p. 31). This protrusion provides a natural seat for their babies (Human Behavior and Evolution Society, 2008, p. 327). However, excessive adiposity might hinder movement or the ability to gather food, or even precipitate diabetes. Therefore, a trade-off could exist.

The evolutionary significance of this ‘pseudo-marsupial’ infant-carrying arrangement could be an associated reduction in environmental risk. That is, in a typical hunter-gatherer society, if a mother’s body shape were insufficiently curvaceous to carry her infant effectively and comfortably, the only other option might be to venture out alone, leaving the infant vulnerable to either nutritional neglect or predation. Ergo, the mortality rate of infants born to high-WHR females might, historically, have been relatively high. This is, however, conjecture.

Congenital breast cancer or heart disease, related to female body shape, could create selection pressure if incident before or during reproductive age. However, in most cases, both pathologies manifest themselves post-menopause (Andolina, Lillé & Willison, 2001, pp. 16-17; Nathan & Judd, 2006, p. 965). Consequently, as with Huntington’s disease, for instance (Winter, Hickey & Fletcher, 2002, p. 300), the associated genes are passed to the next generation before the onset of symptoms (and, eventually, death). This would imply little effect on gene frequencies.


The hourglass figure may be considered a sexual signal of reproductive potential. From a male viewpoint, large breasts suggest a plentiful supply of milk for his offspring. Small breasts imply a risk of inadequate lactation which might prove fatal. Broad hips symbolize a capacity for safe and uncomplicated childbirth (Low, Alexander & Noonan, 1987). However, milk is stored in glandular, as opposed to adipose, tissue; and birth canal size is not proportional to hip broadness (Diamond, 1998, p. 183). Therefore, the signal could be construed as deceptive (Dawkins & Guilford, 1991), although this would be immaterial to the female.

The accompanying waist slimness could be equally desirable. Ridley (1994, pp. 154-156) suggested that substantial abdominal fat might hinder foetal growth. However, women with copious android fat are quite able to conceive and reach full term. A different hypothesis is that a slim waist implies that a female is not already pregnant and, therefore, a prospective suitor would not be risking investment in the propagation of another males genes. This is, arguably, more logical, as a heavily expectant female would be incapable of deceptively signalling that she is chaste.

Therefore, males attracted to hourglass-figured females could increase the differential survival of their own genes.


There can be little doubt that evolutionary mechanisms account for the distinctive body shape of the human female. As cited by King (2000, p. 160), the late Marilyn Monroe (Figure 73.1) — vital statistics 36-24-34, WHR 0.7 (Guerrero & Floyd, 2006, p. 66) once said:

Big breasts, big ass, big deal.

It would appear so.

Figure 73.1: This iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe, taken in 1955, shows clearly her narrow waist (w) contrasting with broad hips (h) and large breasts. The waist-hip ratio, r = w/h. An r value of approximately 0.7 is universally considered to be the optimum value with respect to both male preference and female health. Coincidence? I think not: males are genetically programmed to prefer healthy females.

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Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery


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