The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'alcohol'
Recently, I was in Sweden and Finland, catching up with some friends and seeing Loney Dear playing with the Norrbotens Kammarorkester in Lapland (which was amazingly good). At one point, I got invited to a party in the north of Sweden, with the advice that I may want to bring my own beer. Which is what found me in the aisles of the Systembolaget in Luleå.
The Systembolaget, for those unfamiliar with this word, is the state-run liquor shop chain in Sweden. The government there has a monopoly on the sale of strong beer and all kinds of spirits, and does so through a chain of shops throughout the country. Only those shops may sell any beer stronger than about
2.5% 3.5% or spirits. This is a cast-in-iron law, with no exceptions, which has some peculiar consequences; for example, air passengers flying from Sweden to anywhere in the EU are unable to buy spirits at the airport shops because tax must be levied on spirits not being exported from the EU, and only the state can do that.
Anyway, when I went to buy some beer, I was expecting the experience to have a sort of bland paternalism to it, deliberately avoiding any attempt to encourage people to actually drink. Having read about changes in Sweden between the 1970s and now in Andrew Brown's Fishing In Utopia, I understood that the Systembolaget used to look somewhere between a bookmaker's shop and the waiting room of a methadone clinic, being essentially a paternalistic harm-minimisation programme for those who, for whatever reason, insist on drinking, allowing—but never encouraging—them to do so, but had evolved into more of a standard consumer experience. Nonetheless, I was expecting it to look a bit more minimal and, well, institutional; perhaps like a Lidl or Costco for alcohol, with dim fluorescent lighting and pallets of bottles labelled with only their name and alcohol content in a monospaced laser-printed typeface. Instead, I found something that would put a North London Waitrose to shame; a brightly lit space with huge selection of beers, ales, craft beers and microbrews; each one had, on its shelf, a label enumerating food combinations it goes well with. (The only section where it lagged behind was the gin section, which was somewhat small and mostly limited to mainstream British gins; I suspect Sweden isn't really a gin-drinking country.)
Later, when I recounted my Systembolaget experience, and the way it differed from my expectations, to a friend, they mentioned that the staff are also experts in beer and spirits, and able to make knowledgeable recommendations. The implication of this was that, if you live in Sweden and know your way around beer, the government will want to employ you to recommend ales and pilsners to consumers. Now I'm far from a hard Thatcherite or a believer in the Libertarian ideal of the minimal “nightwatchman state”, though, having grown up in an English-speaking world, in which the free-market principles articulated by Milton Friedman are as accepted as Copernican astronomy (even by those who regard themselves as being on The Left; while there, for example, are calls for the renationalisation of Britain's railways, for example, few would call for the Upper Crust franchises to be kicked out of stations and replaced with the return of the much-maligned British Rail sandwich), this strikes me as rather exotic and a little weird. Beer-recommending civil servants? A state liquor monopoly simultaneously discouraging and encouraging drinking? The State not as Orwellian Big Brother but as the older brother you go to to ask about how to enjoy vodka? We truly are no longer in the neoliberal Anglosphere.
Almost all the Nordic countries have state liquor monopolies. The exception is Denmark, but the other Scandinavians regard the Danes, with one foot on the mainland, to be halfway towards being the wild, laissez-faire Germans (and yes, that is a stereotype in Scandinavia; while in the English-speaking world, the Germans may be stereotyped (at best) as precise, humorless BMW engineers and/or Kraftwerkian Mensch-Maschinen, in Scandinavia, they're an unruly people who drink in the street and don't tax their beer.) In Iceland, the equivalent monopoly chain is known as Vinbuð, though there was talk a while ago about rolling back or eliminating its monopoly. The Finns are slightly more liberal, in that one can buy beer from ordinary supermarkets, where (as in Australia) it's stored in a segregated section which (as I discovered shortly after disembarking from a Helsinki-bound train at 8:30) is physically closed off at 9pm. For stronger spirits, one has to go to the state liquor shop, which is called, with characteristic Finnish lack of euphemism, Alko. And it's not only the quasi-socialist Jante Law societies of the Nordic world that do this; in the US, the conservatively Mormon, and staunchly Republican, state of Utah also has a state liquor monopoly. I imagine that their shop shelves probably look less enticing than those at the Systembolaget.
The Quietus' John “Menk” Doran, possibly British music geekery's closest thing to a Charles Bukowski, started writing a review of the new L. Pierre album and ended up with a piece on transcendence through alcoholism:
One of the things I didn't know I'd hear about though was the quest for beauty, a struggle to achieve aesthetic perfection in an imperfect world. For me, every morning I woke up, the world was too ugly to face. There was dirt, horror and disfigurement everywhere I looked. But after one stiff drink I could leave the house; after two drinks the fear started lifting and then after the third drink I'd feel like an artist. Or to be more precise, I would see the world through the eyes of an artist. And after five drinks, well, take your pick. On a good day I felt like Picasso. But there were all kinds of days. Imagine being Gustav Klimt in Hull, the golden light of the low winter sun at 3pm in the afternoon radiating along the avenues. Imagine being Walter Sickert in Manchester, the violent brown and black smudges radiating from your feet and along canal tow paths. Imagine being Vincent Van Goch in St Helens. That is something close to victory, something close to beating death.
There was a fantastic advert in the 1980s that opened with a camera panning across a tropical lagoon while a narrator said: "Peckham, on a wet Saturday afternoon." Then the film cut to a brightly coloured parrot: "Next door's budgie." The next bit was pretty weird – pretty fucked up. It showed a sultry young woman looking sexually provocative on the beach as the voice over continued: "Auntie Beryl." The next shot was of sophisticated looking rich people in white linen clothes sipping cocktails before running down a jetty to get into a speedboat lit by an unnaturally swollen full moon: "The Dog & Duck, down the high street… Catching the last bus home…" All of which was the set up to the emphatically delivered punch line: "If you're drinking Bacardi." ... You'd never be able to screen an alcohol advert like this now… which is wrong because it's the only truthful drink commercial that's ever been made.
Fact of the day: while both Britain and Australia have drinking cultures, Britons drink about 25% more alcohol than Australians. I wonder how much of that is a function of the function of a drink as a social prop and British pint glasses being larger than the ½- and ¾-pint glasses commonly used in Australia.
Hospitals and prisons in the UK are removing alcohol-based hand sanitiser dispensers introduced during the swine flu pandemic because people are drinking the gel.
Recently, the media (and not only the tabloids, but the Guardian, the BBC and Reuters, to name a few) was full of headlines suggesting that consuming even small amounts of alcohol would significantly increase one's risk of cancer. Now, Charlie Stross tears that report apart, revealing that the paper in question actually said the opposite, even if its abstract, for some unfathomable reason, didn't:
... there was no dose response between the number of drinks the women consumed and their risk for all cancers. Women drinking no alcohol at all had higher incidences for all cancers than 95% of the drinking women.
The actual incidents of all cancers was 5.7% among the nondrinkers. The cancer incidents were lower among the women drinking up to 15 drinks a week: 5.2% among those consuming ≤2 drinks/week; 5.2% of those drinking 3-6 drinks/week; and 5.3% among those drinking 7-14 drinks a week. [Table 1.]Of course, this leads to the question arises of why the abstract of the report contradicted its actual content, instead presenting a message at odds with it. Charlie suggests that it's not a mistake, but rather the result of Bush-era ideology, in which science receiving federal funding had to echo the official ideological line:
"Alcohol is evil. We know this because it is True. And it's especially bad for women because, well, women shouldn't drink. If you run a study to confirm this belief and the facts don't back you up, the facts are wrong. So tell the public the Truth (alcohol is always evil) and bury the facts; the press won't be able to tell the difference because they're (a) lazy (or overworked, take your pick) and (b) statistically innumerate."
This is pernicious fallout from the way the 2000-2008 Bush administration did business. Their contempt for science was so manifest that distortion and suppression of results that undermined a desired political objective became a routine reflex. If the science doesn't back you up, lie about it or suppress it. That administration may have been shown the door (and replaced by one that so far seems to have a pragmatic respect for facts), but the disease has spread internationally, becoming endemic wherever ideologically motivated politicians who hold their electorate in contempt find themselves seeking a stick to beat the public with.
Members of the New South Wales parliament could soon face breath tests before voting on legislation. The move was prompted after a number of reports of bad behaviour by apparently inebriated parliamentarians, including a frontbencher shoving a female MP after a Christmas party and the police minister having to resign after dancing in his underpants at a drunken party in his office.
The move is supported by the state's transport workers' union, on the grounds that if rail workers have to suffer the indignity of random alcohol tests, so should politicians.
Momus observes that, far from being centres of culture or creativity, districts which attract "funky" bars are merely centres of drunkenness:
I thought that being in the midst of a district dominated by theatre and retail I'd be living in a refined environment. Instead, I found I was living in a sewer. Brydges Place, of an evening, became an open toilet, used as a slash-wall of last resort by many of the thousands of people who descended on central London every evening to drink... heavily. My friend Thomi, who had a studio above John Calder's publishing house on Green's Court in Soho, had it even worse: people would stand on his step and pee right through the letterbox. Later I moved to the Chinese end of the Lower East Side just in time to see it teeter between a quietly industrious Asian district by day and a burgeoning, boisterous white people's drinking district by night.Momus lays the blame squarely at the feet of white people:
White people -- if you'll forgive the generalisation -- drink, and the further north you go the more immoderately and self-destructively they tend to drink. Or, to put that a little differently, the whiter your district gets, the more bars are going to pop up, and the more your Friday and Saturday nights will fill up with piss, shouting, boom-boom -boom, swagger and bravado.Momus' solution to avoiding being surrounded by vomiting revellers is simple: choose an area with a large Islamic population.
In 2004, an artist in the Netherlands created a room filled with aerosolised gin and tonic, as an art installation and/or party. Apparently inhaling aerosolised alcohol is a good way to experience the intoxicating effects very quickly. Whether or not it is safe, I don't know (though passing out in such a room would probably be a bad idea), though I suspect that aerosolised tonic can't be good for one's clothes.
The US has the world's highest minimum drinking age, at 21*. This is a fairly recent policy; it was pushed through in the 1980s, when the federal government seized control of state drinking-age laws by threatening to withhold highway funds. Now there are growing calls for the drinking age to be lowered to 18:
Supporters of the federal minimum argue that the human brain continues developing until at least the age of 21. Alcohol expert Dr. David Hanson of the State University of New York at Potsdam argues such assertions reek of junk science. They're extrapolated from a study on lab mice, he explains, as well as from a small sample of actual humans already dependent on alcohol or drugs. Neither is enough to make broad proclamations about the entire population.
Oddly enough, high school students in much of the rest of the developed world -- where lower drinking ages and laxer enforcement reign -- do considerably better than U.S. students on standardized tests.Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, there are proposals to raise the drinking age to 21 to tackle the binge-drinking epidemic.
* This is not counting some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where the drinking age is infinity.
New research from Cardiff University has found a correlation between violence and the price of beer; namely, the cheaper beer is, the more violence there is:
The researchers examined admissions to 58 hospital accident and emergency departments over a five year period and found that as the price of beer increased, violence-related injuries decreased.The study also looked at other factors, finding that increases in poverty, youth unemployment, diversity of ethnic population, major sporting events and it being summer also independently predicted an increase in violence.
I wonder how much of the study (which was carried out in England and Wales) is specific to Anglo-Saxon or British cultural factors, and how much of it would translate to other societies.
Recently, an article in the press quoted a British doctor who was proposing raising the drinking age in Britain from 18 to 21. His rationale seemed to be that Blairite attempts at introducing a "Continental drinking culture" were doomed to fail because Anglo-Saxons were incapable of handling alcohol as responsibly as the French and Italians, and hence Britain should learn from that other great Anglo-Saxon state across the Atlantic. This was duly lambasted by commentators aghast at yet another proposal to import more crude American ideas whilst ignoring the more sophisticated and humane ones across the Channel.
(via Mind Hacks)
Politicians in France are alarmed at French teenagers adopting another unwelcome English habit, this time it's le binge-drinking. A committee of MPs, representing the constituencies of Burgundy and Champagne, no less, has proposed a solution: encouraging French teenagers to drink good French wine, and not those horrible Anglo-Saxon alcopops:
The report for the Parliamentary Economics Committee, drafted by Philippe Martin and Gérard Voisin, members of President Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), said that the young were forgoing wine's "health benefits and tasting pleasure" with a desire for higher alcohol content. "To be French is to know wine," said the report. "Learning about healthy living starts from childhood and primary school."
"It is a sign of changing times, that families no longer fill the wine-glasses of 15-year-olds at Sunday lunch, but the teenager is far more likely to go out and get smashed," said an expert.
Between the time absinthe was banned in the early 20th century and when it was (accidentally) legalised in the EU in 1988, the details of how to make it were lost. That is, until a microbiologists from New Orleans reverse-engineered it, using samples from old bottles and a mass spectrometer::
Breaux explains how the testing works. He takes a bottle of the liqueur, inserts a syringe through the cork (absinthe oxidizes like wine once the bottle is open), and extracts a few milliliters. He transfers the sample into a vial, which is lifted by a robotic arm into the gas chromatography tower. There it is separated into its components. Then the mass spectrometer identifies them and measures their relative quantities.
Breaux wasn't the only one rediscovering the long-banned beverage. In Europe, food regulations adopted by the EU in 1988 had neglected to mention absinthe, and when they superseded national laws, the drink was effectively re-legalized. New distilleries were popping up all over Europe, selling what Breaux dismisses as "mouthwash and vodka in a bottle, with some aromatherapy oil." Absinthe had disappeared so completely for so long that no one knew how to make it anymore.
At the EASI lab, Breaux ran tests on the pre-ban absinthe samples, as well as on samples spiked with thujone (from the very bottle I had sniffed). This allowed him to isolate the toxic compound. He spent his free time studying the test results, and late one night in June 2000 he had his answer. "I was stunned. Everything that I had been told was complete nonsense." In the antique absinthes he had collected, the thujone content was an order of magnitude smaller than Arnold's predictions. In many instances, it was a homeopathically minuscule 5 parts per million.After debunking the widespread belief about thujone being the key ingredient differentiating absinthe from ordinary alcoholic beverages, Ted Breaux went on to use his knowledge to create a variety of absinthe named Nouvelle-Orléans, which went on to win awards. Despite its name, Nouvelle-Orléans is made in France, as absinthe is still illegal in the US (and, by the sound of it, as difficult to get hold of as marihuana).
"It's like an herbal speedball," he says. "Some of the compounds are excitatory, some are sedative. That's the real reason artists liked it. Drink two or three glasses and you can feel the effects of the alcohol, but your mind stays clear - you can still work."
(via bOING bOING)
This article debunks some myths about absinthe, the fabled madness-inducing demon drink. If is to be believed, there is no such thing as "real absinthe". Oh, and what you heard about modern legal absinthe being so lacking in thujone as to be nothing more than overpriced yuppie liqueur is only half-true. It is true that thujone is limited, but apparently vintage absinthe contained much less than the myths would suggest, and thujone's psychoactive properties were largely mythical; then, as well as now, the absinthe mystique was born mostly of self-delusion and pretentiousness:
Drinkers of today's absinthe who expect a unique mind-altering experience usually are disappointed. Yet recent tests indicate that absinthe contains at least as much thujone today as it did during La Belle Époque: Turn-of-the-century Pernod Fils absinthe had six milligrams of thujone per liter, substantially less than the 10 milligrams permitted by current European Union rules in countries where absinthe is legal.
King of Spirits Absinth boasts "100mg of psychoactive thujone," the sort of claim that is mocked on La Fée Verte, which dismisses the "glorious descriptions of absinthe highs in 19th century literature" as "so much flowery hot air." Although "thujone is assumed by modern-day druggies to lend some sort of buzz," says the site, "it does not."The absinthe-connoisseurs' site in question is here, and contains detailed reviews of available absinthes and information on the substance in general. Some of the things revealed are that absinthe isn't necessarily meant to be bitter, and most of the trendy Czech absinthes (and, indeed, anything whose name is spelled "absinth") are of dubious quality at best.
A (possibly somewhat biased) social history of drinking in England reveals that talk of a pathology of "binge drinking" is more the product of Victorian squeamishness and snobbery than anything else:
In fact we are rather poor drinkers compared with our ancestors. Queen Elizabeth I was renowned for drinking ale stronger than any of her courtiers could take. During her reign, British beers were so popular abroad that exports were only permitted if sufficient quantities of wood to replace the casks used was imported. Elizabethan brewers were often urged to reduce the formidable strengths of their beers, one of which, Pharaoh, was so named because it "would not let the people go". James took a similar line, only to be told that the brewers would be more minded to follow his advice were he rather more prompt in settling his bills.
Expressions like "binge drinking" tell us less about our present drinking habits than they do about the neo-Puritan climate we live in. In truth the drinking habits of many have not changed greatly, but they are seen from the standpoint of a society that does not recognise that the values and attitudes of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were the exception rather than the rule.
Meanwhile, England's drinking problems come not from an excess love for beer, but ultimately from its displacement by things such as gin.
Gin forced people to realise for the first time that it was possible to make intoxicating beverages that were not sustaining and wholesome, and from then it was but a short step to demonising alcohol in all its guises, to separate the middle and upper classes from their previous habits and haunts, and to allow them to convince themselves that their domestic consumption of wine and gin was somehow superior. This attitude prevails today, principally perpetuated by newspapers.
The author, former secretary general of the Society of Independent Brewers, concludes to say that getting smashed on good English ale can be a fine thing indeed:
If journalists would stop writing hysterical leaders about "24-hour drinking" and turn their hands instead to thoughtful drinks page features about the merits of our national drink, that would be useful in improving debate and reconnecting us with our forgotten history. Drunkenness is an attribute of those who do not appreciate what they are consuming, not of those who do.
For the freakazoid who has everything: a squirrel-shaped drinks flask, made from a real squirrel; nothing says coolness like pulling a real, formerly-live rodent out of your pocket, twisting the head off and taking a swig from its neck, without missing a beat:
(via bOING bOING)
It has been well known that alcohol causes many men to find women more attractive than they otherwise would (the effect is colloquially known as "beer goggles"). Now, researchers have found that actual alcohol isn't even required; exposure to alcohol-related words is enough; at least among men who expect that alcohol has that effect.
First, the subjects answered questionnaires that asked whether they thought alcohol affected their sex drive. Afterward, the men were divided into two groups and placed next to computers. One group was shown words that described alcohol, such as liquor, beer and keg. The other group saw words like water, soda and coffee.
The researchers found that the group of men who expected alcohol to enhance their sex drive found the women in the photos more attractive after viewing the alcohol cue words. The group that expected alcohol to reduce their sex drive found the women to be less attractive.
This echoes another priming experiment (reported in both Mind Hacks and Malcolm Gladwell's Blink), in which students surreptitiously exposed to old-age-related words like "wrinkled", "senior" and "Florida" were found to walk more slowly down a corridor than those not primed in this way.
The Russian scientists behind RU-21, a pill originally developed to allow KGB agents to drink and remain sober, have now developed a pill which keeps you drunk for longer.
My only question is: why? Would having another drink be too enjoyable or something?
From a Graun article on drinking culture in Britain, the following tidbits:
The timelessness of our desire to get drunk has led anthropologists such as Kate Fox, director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, to speculate about the British character. She concluded that we are all suffering from a "congenital sociability disorder", a disease whose symptoms are akin to a kind of autism combined with agoraphobia. In plain talk, the British are uniquely buttoned up and starched stiff. Animal watcher Desmond Morris says that if we were monkeys we would be picking imaginary fleas out of each other's fur, in an act of "social grooming", a pretext for prolonging social encounters. Instead we have for centuries propped up the bar.
A national characteristic has been identified in numerous scientific trials. In one, British volunteers were plied with drinks, all purporting to be alcohol, half of which were placebos. Everyone became equally loud, crude and garrulous, the technically sober behaving identically to the genuinely drunk. Similar tests carried out on volunteers from Mediterranean countries found no such associations. Scientists concluded that British people invested alcohol with "magical disinhibiting powers".
I wonder how this experiment would have run in Australia.
The latest pharmaceutical hit with the Beautiful People of Hollywood is a KGB-designed anti-hangover drug. Originally designed to allow agents to drink opponents under the table whilst remaining clear-headed and unimpaired, the drug is being marketed as RU-21 by a US company. They are reportedly doing a roaring trade.
"Russians can out-drink anybody in the world anyway," said Emil Chiaberi, head of Spirit Sciences, which sells the pill in the US. "I don't know why they needed a pill."
Researchers at Victoria University in New Zealand have found that being drunk is partly in the mind. A group of students were given water to drink in a pub-like environment; half were told it was vodka, and the other half were told the truth. The candidates were then shown slides of a crime and asked to assess a story full of misleading information. The students who thought they were drinking vodka had poorer memory and were more suggestible and less reliable as witnesses.
(Which shows that if you believe (from external evidence) that you should be drunk or perceptually impaired, your brain will go out of its way to induce this state, to the point of subconsciously degrading your perception appropriately. Which makes one wonder: what proportion of people's inabilities to achieve various things is the result of suggestion or conditioning, with no physical basis?)
Life imitates A Clockwork Orange? A Victorian company wants to sell alcoholic milk. Named Moo Joose, the knifey moloko will have a 5.3% alcohol content, higher than that of most beer; if they get permission to sell it, that is.
A psychology study has found proof that alcohol makes you more attractive -- at least when someone else is drinking it. In a study of 120 male and female students, researchers found that two pints of beer increased the perceived attractiveness of the opposite sex by about 25%. This is hypothesised to be a result of alcohol stimulating the nucleus accumbens, which is responsible for judging facial attractiveness.
An interesting page on the history and chemistry of absinthe. Apparently many of the so-called absinthes which are now legally obtainable contain little or no thujone (the active ingredient), and are basically nothing more than extremely expensive alcohol containing green food dye. (via bOING bOING)
Some 80 years after being outlawed, some say as the result of a conspiracy of winemakers, absinthe is once again legal in France. And this is the real thing, so beloved of the likes of Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec and Alfred Jarry, and not the allegedly inferior Czech variant. The first bottles are expected to appear on shelves by Christmas.
The memory of absinthe is remarkably green. People still tell the story of the day in 1901 when one of the biggest distilleries in town caught fire. Fearing an explosion, a quick-witted worker opened the vats. The river Doubs ran green for hours and the soldiers from the garrison rushed to the water's edge to lower their helmets and drink their fill.
I wonder whether they'll sell it over the Internet. (via Lev)