Ask Your Body

My colleague, a hard core carnivore from Brazil, felt the need to reassure me that he had not become a vegan in spite of surviving for several days, against all the odds, on gallons of luminous green juice, meat free salads and other chlorophyl rich meals. Forensic testing failed to reveal any traces of animal protein in his diet, authenticating his remarkable display of self control. What had motivated my colleague? It transpired that he had been influenced by a documentary about the horrors of the meat production industry.

In contrast to earlier times, when apparently nobody cared about the health or ethical consequences of what they ate, the media bombard us with advice from so-called experts about what we should eat, delivered in the form of books, television programmes and commercials, websites and newspaper articles. Nutrition has become a behemoth of an industry, driven far more by commercial forces than sound science. It continues to be one of the most popular topics of conversation in the workplace, the pub and at home.

Those who express guilty pleasure when shovelling down sugar rich cakes covered in deadly icing or filled with choux creme apparently embrace the new “principles” of nutrition. At the same time they often struggle to apply them, complaining that healthy eating is virtuous but boring and lies beyond the formidable barrier of temptation. “I’m so bad” they say, half believing it.

Having been fascinated with human anatomy and physiology from the age of eight and taking a keen interest in nutrition in later years, I find that I am shifting emphasis from the science of nutrition to the experience of eating. This has come about not through any rejection of the validity of scientific method, which I wholeheartedly support, but from realising that the physiology of nutrition is a field of infinite complexity, especially when viewed in the context of the diversity of individuals. Instead of trying to maintain a complicated system of nutrition, prone to change with every new research study, I have simplified my approach to a set of four basic guiding principles grouped around a single philosophical tenet.

Here are my gastronomic guidelines. Eat high quality, natural food that has undergone the least processing and contains the fewest additives. Include small amounts of organically raised meat and fish on special occasions, having given earnest consideration to animal welfare and the sustainability of marine life. Consume plenty of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, with a fair proportion eaten raw. Supplement your food with moderate amounts of natural fats like butter, organic coconut oil, and cold pressed virgin olive and rapeseed oils. As a central principle, take your time over the preparation and consumption of meals, sharing the occasion with family and friends.

When deciding what to eat and in what quantity, throw the calorie calculator in the bin, ignore the self-professed experts and listen, very carefully, to your body. The Knot Garden tells us that eating should always be a guilt-free pleasure and that meals are best enjoyed with others as a celebration of life. Approach your dinner with a feeling of gratitude. And, above all, ask your body about the type of food you should eat. It is the only true expert on nutrition.

High Quality Income

Looking back over the decades, which have slipped by as inexorably as grains of sand obeying the call of gravity, I am dismayed that I have neglected for so long the importance of earning a high quality income. I believe that working in a job often falls well short of the mark in this respect. The security of so-called permanent employment has become a myth in the modern age.

In recent years I have directed more focus onto this critical theme and do so now with a far greater sense of urgency. As our perception of the diminishing supply of time intensifies, we value it ever more highly, as we would any precious commodity.

How can we assess the quality of an income that we are earning? Given the special significance of the number to The Knot Garden, it is not by coincidence that I have selected four criteria for this purpose. These are cost, reliability, scalability and self-fulfilment. As with any activity, we can also apply The Knot Garden’s fundamental framework in order to determine its relevance to the four universal values.

If you work for someone else, whether directly or as a contractor, you may be incurring a high cost in exchange for the remuneration you receive. This cost is exacted as a time commitment that is typically both large and inflexible, giving some credence to the term “wage slave”. Security, which along with money is meant to be a reward for one’s sacrifice, is often illusory. When the Credit Meltdown reached its crisis point in 2008, I was working for a major bank in New York. Ironically, after rescuing one its newly bankrupted competitors, the bank was obliged to lay off thousands of its own staff as those of the stricken entity were welcomed, cuckoo-like, into the nest.

When we compute the time cost of being an employee, we need to include travelling time, overtime and the need to provide out-of-hours support that can, at least in the IT world, result in rude sleep interruptions. I have attended my fair share of emergency conference calls at two-thirty in the morning following the failure of some “critical” system. It is hardly surprising that people sometimes look upon paid employment as a sort of prison sentence.

Job security is not something that an employer offers but rather it is a function of the skills and experience that we have acquired. These alone determine our value in the marketplace. This has nothing to do with employment status. We do not look down our noses at cleaners and roadsweepers, whose personal qualities may make them better human beings than many so-called “successful” individuals. But it is beyond dispute that their value in the marketplace is lower than that of a brain surgeon, a top corporate lawyer or the conductor of a famous orchestra. The latter are able to earn a more secure income.

Scalability is usually more viable when we work in our own business, although this depends on the nature of the services that we provide. It is not so important for the few people whose actual income is already high compared with their target income. For the rest of us it is a significant factor.

Finally comes self-fulfilment, which is also related to time – or opportunity – cost. This is where we need to apply The Knot Garden’s framework so that we can determine the extent to which our income generating activities are moving us towards the balance we seek between health, wealth, relationships and creativity.


The Number Four

The number four is avoided by Far Eastern tetraphobes because it sounds like the word for death in the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages. If I were superstitious, I would more likely consider this number to be lucky, invoking the one-in-ten-thousand four leafed clover as a symbol of good fortune.

The Knot Garden, which embodies a foursquare view of the world that is reflected in its physical manifestation, believes that all worthwhile human activities can be categorised using a four cornered construct representing health, wealth, relationships and creativity. This device helps us to achieve purpose and balance in our lives.

The number four plays a unique role in the man-made world, finding universal expression in the design of buildings and many important types of artefact found in our domestic and business lives, from furniture to books and works of art. The geometry of our lives is dominated by the rectangle – a fascinating phenomenon that we will explore on another occasion.

In architecture we find that rectangles offer stability and structural strength, especially in the vertical plane where gravity is a force to be reckoned with. Rectangles are also practical for arranging rooms in groups and are aesthetically pleasing, especially (some would say) where they incorporate the Golden Ratio phi, approximating to 1.618, often associated with Fibonacci’s intriguing numerical series.

The effectiveness of structures containing four right angles that enhance our viewing experience in the physical world – in the form of windows, picture frames and electronic screens – can be extended to more abstract domains. I tend to adopt a four cornered framework for organising my ideas and representing conceptual models, sometimes building in extra levels to form a hierarchy.

This application of the number four to cognitive exercises is far from accidental. Firstly, it is easy for us to visualise a geometric form that has such ubiquitous and powerful expression in our daily lives. Secondly, squares convey a sense of stability and order, facilitating well organised thought processes. And thirdly there are practical reasons, including inherent limitations on the working memory when handling multiple thoughts, ideas or pieces of information. I feel comfortable working in my head with four items at a time, whereas a limit of three is not enough and five is too many.

Once established, the fundamental importance of the number four in our thought processes becomes self-fulfilling. It is convenient to always use the same number – and hence geometric shape – for composing our mental view of the world. This has now become habitual for me to the point where I always look, at least as a starting point, for four methods, categories, measures or concepts.

The Knot Garden believes that the number four has a special place in human life because it represents solidity, integrity, durability and balance. After all, it is the number on which the alpha double helix of DNA, the foundation of life itself, is based.

The Worst Thing Since Sliced Bread

Everyone is familiar with the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”, used to convey the idea that something or someone is excellent. Generally it indicates approval, although when used to describe an individual’s view of themselves it expresses a sense of arrogance and narcissism. The phrase apparently originated after the electric slicing machine, invented by Otto Frederic Rohwedder in Iowa in 1928, was used to produce pre-sliced loaves such as Wonder Bread.

Apart from finding the form of words unattractive, I have a bit of a problem with this somewhat over-used colloquialism. While I am in favour of convenience when it saves us valuable time, I do not feel the same way if it results in reduced quality. The Internet, that greatest of modern technical inventions, delivers convenience without necessarily sacrificing quality. By contrast, pre-sliced bread – at least in its most common ready packaged form – seems always to be a poor product.

I have tried buying sliced bread from supermarkets and corner shops from time to time but have always been disappointed. Apart from the preservatives and other chemicals used during its production, the texture of the bread is unappealing. And, for a food product that has little flavour, texture is everything. Pre-sliced white bread often resembles blotting paper and is better suited to loft insulation than gastronomy. Wholemeal loaves, promoted as healthier, are little better. Even the addition of whole seeds and grains fails to redeem them.

The other day I bought a white loaf from the dairy shop across the road. They always put aside the one with the darkest crust for us. It comes from the only baker in the area that makes this simple food product to the standard we seek. The girl made a little mistake by offering me a ready sliced version of the loaf, which I politely declined.

The ritual of slicing a good loaf is an important part of the communal activity of eating with family and friends. It emphasises the idea that the bread has been made with care so that its journey to the plate must not be rushed. Time should be taken for appreciation of the bread and for our good fortune in having it. I use a beautifully made Shun bread knife. With its Damascus steel blade, Pakka Wood handle and nicely scalloped edge, it is a pleasure to use.

Having paid almost two pounds for my freshly baked loaf, I was surprised to discover that one can buy a loaf of mass-produced sliced white bread from a well known supermarket for just thirty six pence – a saving of more than eighty percent! It contains more ingredients and saves a few minutes of our time. But I would never buy one in spite of its superior convenience, shelf-life and cost saving. I just cannot get any enjoyment from eating such a poor excuse for bread. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The Knot Garden believes that “the best thing since sliced bread” idiom is best used ironically. Perhaps we should, when pondering the erosion of valuable domestic traditions in the modern world, employ instead the expression “the worst thing since sliced bread”.

The Integrity of Money

It was perhaps not by coincidence that the United Kingdom launched its new pound coin, heralded as the most secure in the world, one day before the prime minister set in motion the wheels for withdrawing Britain from the European Community. Although I have yet to handle a real one, the coin looks good aesthetically, bringing to mind the old threepenny bits that were substituted for silver coins in the Christmas pudding when I was young. And the technological innovation should be applauded for combatting counterfeiting.

Flawed examples of the new coin are allegedly changing hands for between £200 and £250, which would be a similar value to the one pound in weight of silver coins from which the pound coin’s name was derived more than twelve hundred years ago. For the same price you can buy a pure gold sovereign from the Royal Mint, a coin that – unlike the (unintentionally) fake new pound coins – is classified as legal tender.

The timing of the introduction of the new coin seems ironic given the calamitous road that the governments and central banks of the “developed” countries have chosen to navigate, paved with debt, minuscule interest rates and excessive money printing. After all, of what use will the coin’s impressive security features be if severe currency debasement causes world financial systems to collapse and sterling to lose most of its value?

It is not hard to see the attraction of fiat money, in both its electronic form and as circulating notes and coinage. The very properties that make gold and silver so effective as a stable store of value make them much less well suited to making transactions. Fiat money has convenience, both for individuals and (as we saw last week) for central bankers and politicians. But ultimately it is the integrity of money that matters. And, impressed as I am by the design of the new coin, its distinctive shape and technical innovations will not help to prevent a loss of integrity in the currency.

At times of economic and financial risk, such as we are facing at present, I prefer to put my faith in gold and silver rather than becoming over-reliant on bank money. The precious metals possess a unique combination of qualities that promote integrity when they are used as the basis of currencies. They are relatively scarce and their supply can only be expanded at a slow rate, reducing the likelihood of inflation. They are among the most inert elements and this gives them impressive stability, adding to their sense of timelessness. And of course they are lustrous, malleable and beguiling to almost all who behold them – including, no doubt, the wives and daughters of the central bankers and politicians.

Gold and silver, in common with many of the other chemical elements, are thought to have been formed by nucleosynthesis and thus pre-date the creation of the Solar System. Paper and electronic forms of money are inventions of the modern world, designed to facilitate manipulation. The Knot Garden believes that whatever form money takes, it will only truly have integrity if it is fully backed by precious metals. Apparently J P Morgan agreed with this view, having pronounced in 1912 that “Money is gold, and nothing else”. He added “I think manipulation is always bad”. So it is.