Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Kickboxing: My Story

In 2003 I was diagnosed as suffering from depression. I tackled my recovery from this in the usual way I tackle difficult tasks – by making a list of things to do.

As I compiled my list, very little of it was appealing. I knew, though, that it was all essential. One thing that did hold some appeal, however, was exercise.

The benefits of exercise in managing depression are well documented. It increases energy levels, self-esteem, gives you a sense of control over your life, a distraction from your thoughts, improves your health and body, which can lift your mood, helps you sleep better and, probably most importantly, provides an outlet for stress and frustration.

The gym held no appeal; running neither. I’d tried them in the past and found them, you know, really fucking boring. Instead, this was the perfect opportunity for me to act on a desire to explore martial arts. It seemed the best option to me – not only would I get exercise, I would learn something. It was intricate, disciplined, and looked really fucking cool.

My interest wasn’t new – I’d tried tae kwon do at university. I’d gone along for one session and was pushed so hard physically throughout that I tasted blood in the back of my throat for the last half an hour. I didn’t go back. To me, that experience confirmed a long-held belief - pummelled into me at school - that I wasn’t cut out for sport. I wasn’t someone who could push himself physically; I was too weak, too uncoordinated.

I still felt that when I signed up for my first session with KB Kickboxing. But I’d picked the school carefully. The last thing I needed, given my fragile state of mind, was another batch of macho fuckheads highlighting my limitations, failing to encourage me beyond them. Doing something like kickboxing was wildly out of my comfort zone and, if I was to make it work, I needed to be in the right environment.

There was something in the rhetoric on the KB website that reached out to me, made me smile even. They took on all comers; I was guaranteed the always calming presence of women; it was even, astonishingly, gay friendly. It seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t.

Nor was it an easy ride. Sure, the school takes on all sexes, all abilities, all weights, all comers. But it pushes you hard. It forces you to face your limitations, reach beyond them, and achieve more than you thought you could. And then achieve some more.

I started at the school intending just to get some exercise. The belts system held no appeal. But before I knew it I was doing my first grading. It was one thing being in class, doing techniques, knowing if you make a mistake it doesn’t matter so much, get it right next time. In the grading hall there is pressure. You are being watched, assessed, judged. And the result of that judgement is whether or not you win the prize, whether you pass the exam, whether you raise the trophy above your head.

So you’re there in this strange, intimidating gym hall; Kelly Bunyan, the lead instructor at KB, has changed from encouraging and fun to no-nonsense and fearsome; the air is thick with tension and nerves; the smooth, plasticky floor rips your feet to shreds as you move around.

And then in my head I have an unstoppable, unrelenting voice telling me after every mistake I make – and even when I’m getting it right – that I’ve failed, or that other people do that technique better than that. It tells me I’m going to be the first member of the school to fail at getting a blue belt. It points out the door over there and wonders if maybe I should just walk out, never come back. I’d never have to see any of these people again. I fought that voice. I fought it hard with every punch and kick I could muster. When the voice was wondering how I was going to make it through an hour – a whole hour! – of physical activity like this, I just carried on, trying to focus on what I was doing; trying to get it right.

I got that blue belt. Then I got a green one; then an orange and a purple. Kickboxing changed me. It took the strength in me and capitalised on it, forcing the retreat of the black cloud that had been threatening to engulf me.

The introduction of kung fu added another element of appeal to the school. Intricate and beautiful, it complements the direct and snappy moves of kickboxing. It provides as many mental challenges as physical. It’s sensual. It’s powerful. It’s a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to do. It teaches you how to protect yourself. It empowers you. I felt honoured and thrilled to take it up, and still do.

I took a break from KB and went hotfooting it around the world. In Thailand I tried Thai boxing, something that five years previously I would never have been able – mentally and as such physically - to attempt. In those Bangkok gyms I came face-to-face with the very machismo that had sent me scuttling off at school, that left me the last person picked for the team. I faced it and showed it what I was capable of, and what I was capable of learning. Very few things in my life have been as satisfying as impressing seasoned Thai boxers with my kicks, making them want to show me more.

I tried kickboxing in Sydney. They told me to slow down, ease up. I was used to a faster pace than they could provide. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get the cardio I had become accustomed to. It was disappointing, and made me realise how good I’d had it in London.

When I returned to the UK, I didn’t even think twice about returning to KB. I’d missed the challenges it gave me. I’d missed the endorphin rush I’d got so used to. I’d missed the people. I’d missed the distraction it provided. I’d missed doing hook kicks.

It’s not been an easy return. I had to undergo a major operation just a couple of months after re-joining the school, and I was unable to attend for two and a half months while I underwent further treatment. This physical hurdle was far easier to deal with personally than the head stuff, yet I received far more support from those around me. Ironic. But I accepted the support and focused on getting through it so I could get back to training.

Because that was the frustrating thing – I’d had a taste of what I’d been missing then had to stop it. I realised that KB had made me someone who was used to doing physical activity – the polar opposite of my younger self – and now that I couldn’t, it made me frustrated. Angry, even. But I used that to focus my recovery, get better as soon as I could, move on from it and get back to normality.

Even when I returned, it was difficult. My recovery took longer than expected and I was easily fatigued. Plus I had to rebuild my core strength, almost from scratch. But I got there, slowly.

2011 was going to be my brown belt year. Come December I thought I would join the ranks of Kelly’s continually swelling higher grades. That was my aim. But life, as they say with some understatement, got in the way. For a while I let outside pressures and events get on top of me. I was too fatigued to fight – literally and metaphorically. I’d lost sight of what a useful tool kickboxing was in coping with the slings and arrows.

Then I remembered. The last months of the year saw me reconnecting with an element of my life I’d put to the side for too long – and the rewards have been huge. The sudden arrival of a kung fu grading focused me. It gave me something to strive for, something to think about other than the daily grind. I worked hard at it; studied the syllabus; provided entertainment for people in Hyde Park as we practiced our techniques in the summer sun. Getting my blue sash reminded me of the joy of that achievement, and the genuine and warranted pride you can feel in yourself.

I’ve entered 2012 with a renewed sense of focus. I’ve got my mojo back (I won’t rhyme it with dojo). Kickboxing is still wildly out of my comfort zone. I still have that insistent voice that tells me I’m not cut out for this. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. It doesn’t mean I can’t push myself physically, get stronger, and become more co-ordinated. I’ve got too many things I want (need) to achieve to worry about that. There’s an orange sash to work for, a brown belt, burning feet to ignore, points to score, and lovely, lovely people to kick in the head.

And that’s the final, brilliant thing about this kickboxing school – the people it draws to it. I’ve never met such a diverse, caring, funny, sensitive, powerful, knowing, emotional (in a good way), supportive and hard to hit bunch of people in my life. My experience of sports halls, football fields, and the like has always been a lonely one – until I came to KB. You’re not on your own in this school. We may not know each other very well – the odd chat during stretch, drinks every few months – but it’s hard to think of any of my closest friends with whom I’ve been on such an epic and fulfilling journey. It’s pure comradeship and I feel lucky to be part of it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Future of the Social Network

(Written for MSN's New Thinker's Index with Hyundai website, originally published here.) 

How will social networking continue to change people’s lives?

Social media will become such an integral part of every element of our lives that the term itself will disappear. It will become part of a whole range of technologies – desktop software, internet banking, even the thermostat in our hotel room. Every decision we make and activity we do could become social – we already see it with playing music on Spotify on Facebook or going for a run and sharing our progress online. 

We’ll start to look at what our friends have done before we do a whole range of activities, from ordering in a restaurant to watching a TV programme. As Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare, puts it: “Just about everything is more interesting when you realise how your friends are connected to it.”

Commenting online while watching a TV show has already become an important part of some people’s TV experience. The relationship between television and social media is only set to grow further. TV news programmes already use social media to alert people to breaking news and then gauge reaction. TV shows are also experimenting with live chats as they interview people on screen. 

“It creates a social experience in which both the host and the viewers were able to chat with one another during the segment,” explains Karina Alvela of PRForSmallBusinesses.com. With YouTube looking at how to better present itself on TV screens, and Apple TV making its mark, we’ll soon reach a point where we turn on a TV show and see that “20 of your friends are watching now”.

The phenomenon of commenting on and reviewing products and services online is already very influential when people buy on the internet. Companies will soon start to use social media to enable you to see what your friends have said about their products or services, building customer loyalty and trust in the process. 

“Brands will learn how to put the personal before the profit, and in turn will actually generate a profit via social media,” explains Heather Lopez, owner of The Mom Entrepreneur. The shopping experience could become entirely social – from researching a product to the customer posting photos or video using the product. 

Companies will also use information gathered from social media to present certain products to you in a certain way. You’ll even be able to buy stuff within social sites – with no need to head to an external website.

Social media will become increasingly clever at getting to know everything we wish to search for on the internet. Whether its news, recipes or beauty tips you’re looking for, as your networks and interactions grow social media will be able to present it to you before you even look for it. 

While this may give some people concern about privacy, it does allow the individual to control what information is presented to them. Demand for streamlined and tailored information will increase as the internet suffers from information overload. 

“Discoverability and the import of editorial curation will not be lost, but rather incorporated for richer and more customized experiences," says Dae Mellencamp, CEO of Vimeo

The opportunities to earn money via social media will become more varied as it grows in use. Small businesses already use social sites to reach out to local communities and generate business, while individuals are also benefiting – YouTube is now sharing revenue with prolific users. 

We’re also already seeing companies forgo a website completely in favour of a Facebook page. New social platform Chime.in, meanwhile, is promising to share advertising revenue with its users. “I think there will be more pressure from social media users to ask for a share of the revenue,” says Manny Otiko, VP, social and new media at Desmond & Louis.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Controversial Films for 2012

(Written for MSN's New Thinker's Index with Hyundai website, originally published here.) 

With awards season upon us, we look at the films that could be raising controversy over the year ahead.


Madonna and film have had an up and down relationship over the years. Whether this look at the relationship between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII, her second outing as a director, is an up or a down is hard to fathom. Many of the reviews have been scathing, while others have been talking about it in terms of awards. But what will the movie-going public think?


Shame is already one of the most talked about films of the year, both in terms of awards and its bold subject matter: man-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender plays a 30-something New Yorker unable to manage his sex life and urges. Such is the studio’s faith in the quality of the film, they were unfazed by the normally damaging NC-17 rating it was given in the US.

Girl Model

It’s all glamour and gloss seen from the outside, but this documentary sheds a different light on the world of modeling. We meet model scout Ashley, who searches the countryside in Siberia for new talent, as well as one of her finds, 13-year-old Nadya, as she starts out on the journey to catwalk success. Debate about exploitation of children is sure to ensue.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Another documentary guaranteed to kickstart debate – this time about the continually contentious issue of capital punishment. German film auteur Werner Herzog introduces us to two men convicted of triple homicide, as well as a host of people whose lives have been affected by the crime. It’s already winning plaudits from critics and film festivals alike.

The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen returns to “tell the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed”. Supposedly based on the novel Zabibah and the King and by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Cohen has undoubtedly made another film that will thrill and shock in equal measure.

Magic Mike

Based on Channing Tatum’s brief experience as a stripper before he was famous, Erin Brockovich director Steven Soderbergh’s latest film sees the actor playing an ‘exotic male dancer’ who teaches new recruit Alex Pettyfer how to hustle, both on and off the stage. The mix of naked men and supposedly seedy lifestyle will certainly raise eyebrows and make headlines.

The Bourne Legacy

A blockbuster Hollywood franchise doesn’t normally court controversy, but the latest Bourne film has had fans frothing at the mouth. There’s no Matt Damon, no Jason Bourne even. Though Bourne regulars Joan Allen and Albert Finney return, new leading man Jeremy Renner plays another assassin called Aaron Cross. Fans say it’s not Bourne without Bourne.


With his period of embarrassing movie flops now long behind him, Ben Affleck takes on the minefield issue of the relationship between Iran and the west in his latest directorial effort Argo. Affleck plays a CIA agent who rescues six US diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by claiming they were scouting for locations for a sci-fi film.

Red Dawn

A remake of the 1984 classic war film in which a bunch of American teenagers fight back against an invading Russian army starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. The new version – starring Thor’s Chris Hemsworth – originally had China invading the US, but concerns from distributors forced the production company to change to the even more unlikely North Korea.

The Master

Scientology has long been a controversial subject and, although upcoming film The Master is not explicitly about the much-discussed belief system, comparisons have already been drawn. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic intellectual who launches a faith-based system, only to have it questioned by his right-hand man Joaquin Phoenix.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Everyday Objects in Art

(Written for MSN's New Thinker's Index with Hyundai website, originally published here.)

How artists have brought new thinking to everyday objects. 

Jennifer Maestre

Maestre is a South African-born artist based in Massachusetts who creates eye-catching sculptures made predominantly from pencils. Taking her initial inspiration from sea urchins, Maestre creates her collection of fearsome-looking yet beautiful organic sculptures by cutting up the pencils and stitching and nailing them together.

Mark Khaisman

Ukrainian artist Khaisman is also a fan of using an everyday object as his material. He chooses packing tape, taking it away from its usual home on parcels. He sets it on backlit Plexiglas panels to create surprisingly detailed pictures. Film scenes, actors and the artist’s family and friends have all been reproduced using the familiar brown stuff.

Eric Daigh

Daigh is an American artist who uses push pins to create startlingly accurate portraits of people. He achieves this impressive task by first taking pictures of his subjects, which he manipulates into more pixelated versions. He then transforms the picture into five colours and then maps out the image to recreate it in pins.

Steven J. Backman

Another American artist, Backman uses toothpicks as his chosen material. He makes headlines with his art by reproducing portraits of famous people, such as Prince William and Kate (above). His work originates from a university art assignment for which Backman had to design a cable car from toothpicks and glue.

Jeff Koons

A new wave of artists in the 1980s began creating ‘commodity sculpture’ – art from commercially mass-produced items. One of these was American artist Koons, who made his name reproducing everyday objects in high concept manners. His first venture was a series of sculptures that celebrated the vacuum cleaner, such as this 1986 piece (above).

Trash Art

Due to the ease with which materials can be found for this type of art, a sub-genre developed known as trash art, using items people had thrown away. German artist H. A. Schult, a student of Beuys, is known for his work in this genre. His installation ‘Trash People’ (above) - a thousand life-size human figures made from rubbish – has travelled the world since 1996.

Damien Hirst

British artist Hirst took the idea of found ‘objects’ to a controversial extreme, using dead animals to create some of his signature works, most notably a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. His piece ‘Hymn’ (above) is only a little less gruesome, turning his son Connor’s 14-inch toy anatomy set into a 20-foot, six-ton sculpture.

Tracey Emin

Also making headlines in the 1990s was fellow Brit Emin with her work entitled ‘My Bed’ – an installation of her actual bed, including sweat-stained sheets, her underwear and empty bottles. It failed to win the Turner Prize, but became the most notorious nominee for making people question whether it was art and what art actually is.

Sarah Lucas

Lucas is another controversial British artist to have emerged in the 1990s. She started out using furniture to represent the human body, creating pieces that were humorous and often lewd. Later, cigarettes became her chosen material, using them to create pieces such as her reproduction of Christ on the cross and 2004’s ‘Pigs Elation’ (above).

Kevin Van Aelst

New York-born Van Aelst uses a wide variety of objects we find around us to create a diverse collection of artwork. From his transformation of a roll of tape into an angry, shark-infested sea to his map of the world carved in an apple, Van Aelst’s art shows “that the minutiae all around us are capable of communicating much larger ideas.”

Jerry Ross Barrish

San Francisco sculptor Barrish gets his materials from the beach outside his house, or any place he finds plastic junk lying around. Previously a filmmaker, he began sculpting from junk after deciding to make a Christmas tree out of rubbish on the beach. He’s now a well-renowned artist with works in a number of art museums around the world.

Brian Dettmer

American artists Dettmer has literally carved out a name for himself by taking existing media – books, maps, record albums, cassettes and more – and creating intricate and detailed sculptures from them. Most famous for his work with books, he starts cutting into them without any pre-planning, stabilising the remaining paper with varnish.

Shalene Valenzuela

Using a method called slip-casting, Californian artist Valenzuela recreates ordinary objects in ceramics, rather than using the object itself. She then paints mid-century retro imagery on her unusal canvas, creating striking, whimsical pieces of work. “I’m inspired by the potential of everyday common objects,” she says.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Saving Endangered Species

(Written for MSN's New Thinker's Index with Hyundai website, originally published here.)

The new thinking behind saving the world's most endangered animals and plants.


A number of projects around the world are working on increasing the number of the world’s tigers (currently estimated at 3,500). Project Tiger in India for example establishes tiger reserves and combats poachers. But the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) leads the pack. In late 2010 they formed part of a forum - which included many world leaders - that committed millions of dollars to tiger conservation.

Black Rhino

The western African black rhino was declared extinct in 2011, but efforts continue to preserve the species elsewhere. The focus is on preventing poaching – the rhino’s horn is a highly valuable commodity in traditional medicine – by establishing and expanding protected areas and improving law enforcement activity to counter poacher’s efforts.

Beluga Sturgeon

Sturgeon may be one of the oldest fish families in existence, but they’re struggling to survive in the 21st century, having been declared the most critically endangered group of species in 2010. Beluga Sturgeon is coveted for its unfertilised eggs – considered the finest caviar in the world. Both WWF and the Bern Convention work on preserving migration routes and promoting sustainable management of the fish, while the US has banned importation of beluga caviar since 2006.

Alligator Snapping Turtle

Dwindling numbers have been caused by habitat loss and hunting, but listing as a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) species has enforced limitations on international trade and exportation from the US. At the same time, projects such as that by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are seeking to reintroduce the turtle to protected river habitats.

Hawksbill Turtle

Also protected by CITES, the Hawksbill is nonetheless seeing its numbers decline thanks to the effects of climate change and continued poaching for its meat and eggs. Organisations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and WWF are addressing the issues causing the deterioration of the turtles’ habitats, developing alternative livelihoods to prevent poaching and supporting trade controls.

Green-cheeked Parrot

Popular as pets due to their bright colours and ability to mimic the human voice, these Mexican birds have been afforded some protection since selling them in the US was prohibited. Also protected by CITES, measures are underway to monitor population decline, protect nesting areas, and use ranchers to prevent trapping and regenerate the birds’ habitats. But the illegal parrot trade remains a problem.

Mako Shark

This fearsome shark is vulnerable due to overfishing and being caught accidentally (bycatch) in fisheries for tuna and swordfish. Longfin mako sharks are also sometimes de-finned for use in shark fin soup and thrown back into the sea to die. To help improve numbers, WWF promotes smart fishing to prevent bycatch and encourages shark ecotourism, which has greater economic value than selling shark meat.


This much sought-after herb is used in the treatment of infections, wounds and colds and flu. Found in Canada and the US, overharvesting and loss of habitat due to mining has seen the plant placed under the protection of CITES. WWF promotes sustainable and ethical harvest of the plant as well as increasing the supply of cultivated specimens. People buying the product can also demand to see proof it was collected sustainably or from cultivated specimens.

Big Leaf Mahogany

Deforestation in Latin America has seen a stark drop in the population of these slow-growing and highly valued trees. The big leaf subspecies was added to CITES in 2002 and campaigns by organisations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and WWF have seen reductions in illegal logging activity. There’s also been investment in reforestation (above) and forest certification initiatives, as well as more focus on improvements in forest management and trade practices.

Giant Panda

Despite having become a symbol of conservation and protecting endangered species over the past three decades, work is still needed to protect the panda from extinction. Panda emblem bearers WWF are committed to improving, protecting and increasing habitat for pandas, as well as preventing poaching and continuing research and monitoring. In 2010 in China four pregnant pandas were reintroduced into the wild under strict supervision – work like this continues.

The Earth from the Sky

(Written for MSN's New Thinker's Index with Hyundai website, originally published here.)

Beautiful images that offer a new way of looking at the world from Bing Maps.

Bullfrog Bay Marina, Lake Powell, Utah 

Bullfrog Bay is a popular spot for boaters who want to park up their houseboats in beautiful surroundings. From 17,000 feet above, however, the view becomes one of marshmallow clouds drifting across an ominous dark blue sky.

Cabinet Gorge Dam, Idaho

Thrown up in record time in the early 1950s to combat flooding, this arch dam remains a striking presence not far from the Idaho Highway in the US. Seen from above, it’s power over, and control of, the forces of nature are even more apparent as it keeps a tight grip on the natural flow of the river.

Carved animals in a field, Ghent

Not all farm fields have to be etched with the straight lines created by tractors going about their work. One imaginative farmer near Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium, has been doodling in one field. How many animals can you see?

Coastline of Cap d'Artrutx, Menorca, Spain

This tiny little village on the south west corner of the Spanish island of Menorca is an unassuming tourist spot with an array of hotels and villas. From above it’s a clash of patterned colour – swirls of different shades of brown mix with dull green, both lifted by the sparkling blue of the water – of both the pools and the sea.

Container ship on the River Lys, France

The River Lys is better known for being polluted due to the large amounts of industrial activity along its banks in Northern France and Belgium than it is for being a beauty spot. Yet seen from above, it regains its natural beauty, the presence of a container ship only adding a pleasing splash of colour.

Crazy Mountains, Montana

Home to a large array of fauna, including many a mountain goat and the occasional elusive wolverine, the Crazy Mountains are also a popular spot for hiking and mountaineering. Seen from above, however, they take on a menacing air – throbbing and undulating as if a bubbling hot tar pit.

Everglades National Park, Florida

One of the largest national parks in the US, the Everglades protects a fragile ecosystem and a number of endangered animals, such as the Florida panther and the American crocodile. From above it is representative of how we incorporate nature’s look into our own lives, the water creating beautiful patterns that wouldn’t look amiss on curtains or wallpaper.

East of Widnes, England

Widnes is a thriving industrial town in the north-west of England, a major centre of the chemical industry since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-19th century. From above it is a clash of industry and nature, the circuit board of buildings nestling uncomfortably amongst the greenery.

Farm fields, Washington

The undulating landscape of Washington State in the US contributes to the unusual shapes formed in these farm fields, north of the small town of La Crosse. Looking down on these well-cultivated fields, you can imagine beautiful ancient carvings cut deep into sandstone, creating beautiful intricate patterns.

Farm fields, New Mexico

These circular markings look slightly odd seen from above – more like mysterious crop circles than the innocent farm fields in New Mexico, US that they are. The circular shape is becoming increasingly common due to the growing popularity of ‘central pivot irrigation’ – often used on more difficult undulating landscapes.

Farm fields, Ghent

These more typical farm fields in Ghent in Belgium have a stark uniformity to them when seen from above that takes away any natural feel you may have walking amongst them on the ground. Such is their precise tidiness, they are reminiscent of the chips and other components of a computer motherboard.

Farm fields, north of La Solana

From the air this dry and arid-looking land in central Spain doesn’t look capable of producing much in the way of fruit and vegetables. And yet the neatly arranged dots – well-organised amongst the random shapes of the fields themselves - are abundant olive trees, thriving in the hot Spanish climate.

Great Divide Basin, US

The Great Divide Basin is a huge area of land in the US – some 4,000 square miles – that serves as a catchment area for surface water, taking it through the land and out to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The water has a striking effect on the land as it travels through, shaping it into patterned cuts and grooves seen in beautiful clarity from above.

Navy bombing target area, Nevada

Nevada – the driest state in the US – has still managed to make use of its large desert and semi-arid areas – as a bombing test site. The state has a long history of nuclear testing, but these buildings (looking like some sort of code, according to some conspiracy theorists) are used as navy bombing targets.

Tulip fields, near Amsterdam, Netherlands

Tulip season in spring in the Netherlands sees acre after acre of brightly coloured fields form a myriad of rainbows across the land. Tourists flock to the Dutch countryside to see the flowers in full bloom before they are harvested for sale, but few get to see them from above, still retaining their brightness and eye-catching power.