Why Masterchef might make you miserable

Man I smacked down my dinner tonight – Sometimes there’s just nothing like a good old plate of baked beans and eggs on toast – In fact a couple of times a week  it’s the perfect evening meal (given that I generally eat my fruit and crudities at work) – Nutritious (being a veggie I need the huge amount of protein it provides), extremely cheap (which is good, as I intend to pay off my mortgage as quickly as possible to make sure the bank earns as little as possible for basically doing nothing), and it’s quick and I think delicious – as I said, I smacked it down, with only one lone bean stain on my shirt too – go me!

It’s also reasonably easy to make this meal ethical in the environmental sense of the word – free range eggs, home-made bread from locally grown flour, ditto for the butter, with beans being the only thing that you have to ship in – but organic and fair trade varieties exist and they come by sea not air – so all in all, not quite hardcore localism, but not bad either.

Just recently, I’ve developed a penchant for eating such wonderful nutritious, cheap, delicious, practical and ethical meals (in varying combinations of these criteria) and laughing at what I now regard as the morons of Masterchef, in which the contestants invest an enormous amount of time and effort and subject themselves to an enormous amount of stress to construct a meal that is just marginally ‘better’ in terms of flavour balance and texture than their competitors’ – I cannot think of a better illustration of the concept of ‘diminishing marginal utility’ – My meal took me 10 minutes to prepare. The finalists’ meals tonight will, I think, take them 2 hours, can one honestly say that their meal is 12 times nicer than mine plus all the additional stress?

Seriously now, my  ‘Pan heated baked beans and d’huile olive fried eggs on crisped wholemeal bread, served with a cup of tea, bag still in’  really hit the spot – so I can’t imagine anything tasting 12 times nicer ; and I really can’t imagine anything tasting 48 times nicer – which is the amount of ‘utility’ that the chefs in last year’s professional Masterchef final would have had to have added to each of their individual courses when they spent eight hours each preparing one course for a Michelin starred restaurant.

Now I’m not suggesting that all of our meals consist of anything we can conveniently chuck together, I’m not suggesting that an ‘all in’ of bananas and Shepherd’s pie wouldn’t make me gag like the next man – there are clearly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food combinations – but the level of ‘Foodism’ displayed in Masterchef is, I believe, actually the antithesis of a balanced, healthy, practical and wise attitude towards food, which I believe would encourage the following three principles (broadly inspired by Buddhism)

  • Firstly, when we cook and eat, we should do so with awareness, focussing on what we are doing, thus cooking and eating are both quiet, simple, meditative acts which are part of the daily routine of meditative awareness. The end result is simply not especially that important, it is the process that matters.
  • Secondly, the Buddhist way encourages compassion – so where food is concerned this means considering how the whole process of sourcing and cooking food effects others – and there is a very strong case that locally sourced, in season, raw food, has the least environmental impact and is thus the most ethical. Also, when there are 900 million people malnourished in the world – a real act of compassion might be to eat more simply so that others might eat more. Finally, a good example of ‘compassionate cooking’ comes from the Sikh practise of feeding masses of people at religious centres – the food tastes good, yes, but there is not the extreme attention paid to nuanced ‘perfection’ – food is made cheaply, relatively simple, and served to all.
  • Thirdly, happiness in Buddhism involves renunciation and restraint – so we shouldn’t be too attached to things – Buddhist monks eat once a day and get what there are given – OK too extreme for most of us, but not a bad model to aspire to – think about it – so what if the shop doesn’t have cheese sandwiches, just have egg – it really isn’t that big a deal. We will be happier, ultimately, if we learn to be less fussy – because this will allow us to be happier in a wider range of contexts and while expending less effort on getting what ‘I’ want. If we can be free from attachments – we are truly free.

Masterchef is often (although not necessarily) the antithesis of the above wise and pragmatic approach to food –

  • Firstly, you might think that cooking on Masterchef, being so involved, is a truly ‘meditative act’ in which they go on a journey and discover themselves – and no doubt our chefs are really engrossed in what they are doing – but the context of why they cook reveals a darker reality – nearly all of these chefs are cooking ‘as an act of self-expression’ – they cook food for others to consume hoping for a positive reaction – their very identity, sometimes career aspirations are tied up with this act – they cook because they want to be known as ‘the best cook in town’ – typically their cooking is an act of self-construction rather than a meditative vehicle for self-awareness.
  • Secondly, Masterchef style cooking isn’t about Compassion for others – it’s about feeding your close friends so they praise you – and as a general rule, there is no attention paid to ethics of sourcing of food. Vegetarianism is strictly off the agenda, and if any Vegans dared brave the show I fear they may end up being the main course.


  • The third reason why Masterchef might breed long term human misery is because it’s very essence revolves around encouraging us to attach our very being to the ‘experience of food’, so that we ‘live to eat’ rather than ‘eating to live’ – it encourages us to be more fussy about what we eat, basing notions of superiority around slight nuances of taste and texture. The end result of us coming to expect exacting and high standards of food is that, over time, we come to be more disappointed with what we now regard as acceptable food.
  • Fourthly and finally, Masterchef does not encourage a ‘calm and meditative’ approach to cooking – it is fraught and desperate as the contestants strive for perfection – judged by panels looking to find fault.

So call me a philistine – but surely we should resist (as no doubt many do) the messages about food put out by Masterchef (and a whole host of other ‘Foodie’ programmes out there!) because we are encouraged to use cooking as an act of self-construction rather than self-awareness, we are called upon to push all thoughts of ethics and broad-compassion to one side, we are called upon to be more discerning, more judgemental, more fussy and particular, and we are then encouraged to stress ourselves out trying to please others in the process of perpetuating all of this.

Far better to give it all up and just settle for basic, simple food, so if you ever come round to mine, you can expect as much. On the plus side, you’ll find that there’s not that much washing up to do following a meal of  pan heated baked beans and d’huile olive fried eggs on crisped wholemeal bread, served with a cup of tea, bag still in’.

Some recent comments on Masterchef 2012 (The Professionals)



Differential Educational Achievement by Ethnicity – The Role of Cultural Factors

Teaching this topic this week – thought I’d share a web – based lesson I put together… For A level, and general interest…

Results statistics

Resources looking at Home Based/ Cultural Factors – Read/ Watch the items below and answer the questions in the boxes provided

Focussing on Chinese Achievement

  • Britain’s Tiger Mums – (college stream link) – watch this and note down all of the reasons why British Chinese children might do so well in school. If your outside of college this was part of More 4s ‘Wonderland’ series (2011 or 2012)
  • Read this article on Amy Chua – one of the world’s severest ‘Tiger Mums’ (She’s American) – ‘on the benefits of burning your child’s stuffed animals’ – Is her severe approach justified?
  • NB – If you think Amy Chua is severe – check out this style of ‘Eagle Dad’ parenting (NB – not UK based!)
  • Question – There are 300 000 Chinese families in the UK – how could you find out if the above case studies are generaliseable?

 Focussing on Gypsy and Roma Achievement

  • Watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (college stream link – the first 10 mins and then roughly 53 to the end) – note down all of the factors that might explain why only 8% of Gypsy/ Roma children achieve good GCSEs (if you’re outside of college I’m sure you can find a link to this now classic show Channel 4 show somewhere online!)
  • You may have seen this – horse outside videoQuestion – Is this racist?
  • There is some good research here – from the Gypsy Roma Traveller site (Leeds based) – see if you can find any reasons why this group might underachieve…

 Focussing on Black-Caribbean Achievement

  • Watch this video – discussing the UK riots of August 2011 – They don’t actually say it (in a shameless example of political correctness!) but they are really talking about ‘black parents’ – note down all of the things that might explain Caribbean underachievement
  • Read this article which reinforces that above and demonstrates that the issue of ‘absent black fathers ’ is on the political agenda – Do you think Cameron is right to be worried about ‘absent black fathers’?
  • Read this article by Tony Sewell – who argues that Caribbean boys underachieve because of out of school factors   – Summarise all of the factors he lists that explain Caribbean underachievement
  • The fatherhood institute is also concerned about the absent black fathers – read this item and note down some of the reasons why Cameron might be wrong to just blame ‘absent dads’ for Caribbean underachievement


Coffee really is bad for your health (and safety)

Two nice articles illustrating the madness of health and safety… both concerning coffee….

In Bournemouth, a bus driver ordered passengers off a bus after a woman spilled some coffee. One woman spilt a third of her cup of coffee while getting on the bus, and then a further ten people were told they couldn’t get on because specialist cleaners were needed to clear up the ‘dangerous liquid’. The bus was pulled to one side and a replacement vehicle ordered, leaving the ten passengers to wait in the rain.

Secondly, according to and item I found in The Week, “health and safety officials in Warwickshire have banned hot drinks at a mothers’ coffee morning. ‘Coffee and play’ sessions at the Children’s Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon have been renamed ‘baby play’ and parents now catch up over a (plastic) cup of squash or water. The council said its ‘hot drinks policy’ was to minimise the risk of scalding children. ”

These two cases together are a wonderful illustration of the far reaching effects of  ‘individualisation’ and ‘litigation culture’ working together to result in collective lunacy – Both cases involve local councils who are no doubt very aware of the potential of being sued for any ‘preventable accidents’ on their property – a situation which can only happen when the populace at large are highly individualised – feeling little sense of obligation to wider society, while feeling they have the right (in this goaded by claims lawyers) to cream as much out of society as they can when the opportunity arises.

Going a little deeper – I’d blame neoliberalism for this – a political economy that allows individuals the freedom to exploit and enrich themselves at the expense of others – this is the kind of logic that has lead to the emergence of ‘Fortress Cities’ – in which the rich defend themselves in gated communities and SUVs against the increasing numbers of urban poor.

I think its appropriate to view the above two cases as local councils adopting a ‘fortress city’ mentality – setting up rules that protect themselves against any selfish individual who might try to make money out of them by holding them responsible and suing them for those unfortunate accidents (slipping/ scalding) that are, in reality, just an unfortunate and it has to be said extremely rare part of modern life.

Although, the optimist in me sees an opportunity for collective action in this – On reflection I’m wondering if the first case isn’t part of a surreptitious ‘work to rule’ campaign on the part of a unionised bus driver, whose just had a pay freeze? – Maybe this raises the possibility of using health and safety as part of a campaign against public sector cuts….

So in the interests of health and safety I think all unionised teachers should cease doing all of the following – Any curricular activities involving physical activities, especially school trips; any teaching that involves teaching to tests, in fact we should drop all testing and examinations altogether, this causes way to much stress to our delicate children; and all marking and preparation outside of class – associated with numerous health problems such as RSI, eye strain, back pain and stress in general.

In fact, perhaps we could go further, in the interests of health and safety, maybe we should just stop doing anything, and just….. sit there, over coffee of course.

A Buddhist wouldn’t Criticise Fashion, but the thought might sometimes arise…

This is a not-so-brief post on why I think Fashion is pointless – from a Buddhist point of view. It starts off with an allotment analogy but ends up with 6 reasons why I don’t like Fashion. (NB this first draft is quite abstract, I’ll jazz it up with a few pop. Culture references laters….)

Here we go……

When I go to my allotment I don’t tend to think too much about what I wear, other than to ensure suitable functionality for the tasks in hand. I just chuck on a pair of old walking trousers or traccy bottoms, combined with an out of shape T shirt and sweater – and of course my wellies – and off I trot.

Dressing for the allotment should be a model for dressing in wider society – because on the allotment, what you wear simply doesn’t matter, no one is in the slightest bit interested in judging you by your attire, and your outward appearance is almost completely irrelevant to your engagement with the land, the veg. and other people.

In fact, if you take a moment to reflect on it, what you wear is actually largely irrelevant to realising true happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word, where happiness is defined as realising a stable peace, or equanimity of mind.  

Happiness in Buddhism requires one to walk the ‘Noble Eight Fold Path – and there is absolutely no reason why wearing basic, functional, even tatty, clothes, should prevent you from practising any of the following aspects of this path (narrowed down to 6 because of ease of analysis) –

  1. Reflecting, as you are now, on Buddhism and striving to know your ‘inner self’
  2. Acting with compassion towards other beings.
  3. Renouncing your attachment to particular things –
  4. Doing a worthwhile job – other than requiring certain clothes for functionality in some areas of work.
  5. Leading a routine life that avoids being too fussy and has too much emphasis on ‘picking and choosing’.
  6. Developing meditative awareness – other than requiring clothes of sufficient comfort and warmth.

No, there is no reason whatsoever, that you should be prevented from ‘walking the Buddhist path’ for lack of fancy clothes. In fact, where two aspects of the path are concerned – renunciation and trying to avoid being fussy through avoiding picking and choosing – giving up your desire for particular clothes and not worrying about what you wear would actually be positive steps towards their realisation.

Maybe it’s the fact that I love Buddhism so much that I enjoy the near total irrelevance of attire to human interaction on the allotment – there is definite synergy between the two; and maybe this also explains why I generally dislike most of society so much – because the allotment is actually the only ordinary day-to-day ‘public domain’ I can think of where what you wear simply doesn’t matter.

This is probably why, when I sometimes nip from my allotment into town in order to feed my coffee addiction (I’m not a perfect Buddhist), I feel slightly ill at ease when I’m standing in the coffee queue – I’m not dressed appropriately for playing the ‘expressing my middle class identity through spending £2.50 on some frothy milk and four shots of espresso to go’ game. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t exactly suffer anxiety attacks over this, and I’m not about to stop wearing my scruffy old allotment clothes, but I can feel the ‘you look too scruffy for this place vibe’ coming off some fellow coffee-expressers.

Now perhaps you think I’m being over-sensitive, but if you know me, you know I’m not exactly a sensitive person, so I think this vibe I feel is real – and it’s a result of the logic of ‘having to wear particular clothes in particular situations’ having penetrated so deeply into the average person’s psyche that they actually judge me – ME! – on the clothes I wear rather than ‘my deeper-self’ (which is f**king marvellous btw.)

I mean think about it – learning how to pick appropriate styles of clothes for particular situations is a basic part of our early socialisation – Work, weekends, weddings, for example, all require us to ‘know what to wear’, and in our fashion conscious age, we’re expected to select particular colours and cuts that suit our skin tone, body type, and age. Worse, we are called upon to periodically change our wardrobes to accommodate the latest season’s fashion – autumn/ winter – spring/summer – For all I know things now change more often and less predictably – frankly I couldn’t give a toss if they do.

Worse still – for some members of society, clothes aren’t just about fitting in – they are about standing out – and a considerable amount of money is spent on ‘shopping as leisure’ – many people going into debt in order to ‘look good’. And of course this whole process of adornment doesn’t stop at clothes – there’s also hair, nails and accessories. Obviously, at the time of writing, women have things a lot worse than men.

Worse still – many friendships and relationships are periodically colonised by clothes-shopping rituals – where you pair  or group-up and parade around the shops reflecting on how certain combinations of clothes suit or not. This is actually regarded as fun by millions of people in Britain.

You’ve probably got the impression that I don’t approve of the time, money and effort so many people put into picking and choosing their items of clothing – and the reason I don’t approve is because this ritual that is so precious to so many people in Britain, this leisure pursuit that is so embedded in our popular-culture, all of this time, money and effort will do absolutely nothing at all to make you truly happy, at least not if you want to achieve happiness in the Buddhist sense of the word.

If we go back to the Noble Eight Fold Path you’ll see what I mean – Considering six of the aspects that lead to happiness – we can now see how the ritual of clothes shopping in order to express yourself through outward appearance is actually the antithesis of what you should/ should not be doing-

  1. True happiness requires you to know your ‘inner self’- clothes shopping involves reflecting on what outward forms of dress you think are acceptable/ desirable, or what forms of clothes say a certain something about your ‘social personality’ and then buying or not buying.
  2. True happiness requires that you act with compassion towards other beings – assuming you are shopping alone – you are focussing entirely on how other people see you – purely selfish, the antithesis of compassion. If you are helping someone else select clothes, you may think you are being compassionate, but you are in fact lying to them by perpetuating the notion that outward appearance matters more than ‘inner self’
  3. True happiness requires renouncing your attachment to particular things – shopping involves, obviously, attaching your social self to particular clothes etc.
  4. True happiness requires doing a worthwhile job – Functionality aside – If you are competent in a certain field – you can do a good job whatever you are wearing – but today some professions now require a certain style – There is a possibility that those who can master this style may be deemed more suitable for the job than someone less stylish and yet more competent. Attachment to appearance makes this situation more likely
  5. True happiness requires one to leading a routine life that avoids being too fussy and has too much emphasis on ‘picking and choosing’ – as with no 3. It is obvious that clothes shopping – involving picking and choosing by its very nature – is the antithesis of this.
  6. True happiness requires one to developing meditative awareness – worrying about what you look like and how you appear to others can only work against this.


As a penultimate note I’ll just make one brief qualification – I do think one will generally be happier if clothes are functional to tasks at hand, clean, and fit appropriately. Besides these requirements, I fail to see how buying any new clothes in the next decade could possibly lead to my being any happier.

Finally, If the six reasons above aren’t enough to convince you that spending time, effort and money on fashion is a waste of time – try this for a closing thought – think about it logically – the only people who really care what you look like probably care what they look like – this means that they are probably walking around either worrying about how crap they think they look, or lauding over how good they think they look on any particular day. Either way, they probably aren’t paying you that much attention, so you may as well not bother trying to impress them.

Sweet 17s face a sour future….

Believe it or not, I actually remember being 17 quite well – In between the bits where I generally revelled in my own wonderfulness, it mainly involved a lot of ‘misplaced youthful aspiration’ about my potential for doing great and wonderful things such as ‘travelling the world, astrally visiting other planets, joining Ashrams in India,  sticking it to the man, smashing the system and generally ushering in utopia through the sheer force of youthful enthusiasm.

Having achieved precisely none of these goals – ten years down the line I ended up with a job – teaching Sociology – part of which (the tutor bit) involves assisting today’s 17 year olds to get a job once they’ve finished with their ‘educational transition’ period.

This is somewhat ironic – firstly because the Sociology bit of my job involves telling 17 year olds how crap work actually is and how little chance they’ve got of getting a decent one, secondly because when I was 17, getting a job wasn’t exactly high on my aspiration list, and thirdly, given today’s job market, I think the average 17-18 year old might actually have more of a chance of achieving all of my original teen-dreams than gaining employment – at least if we’re talking about  formal, secure, and worthwhile employment that actually pays you enough to achieve a decent standard of living.

Now I hate to be a kill-joy (actually I love it – the more miserable I can make people, the happier I am), but I’ve got some pretty bleak news for any 17 year old looking forwards to their life after college –

For starters, for any 17-18 year old keenly looking to transition from education to work- if you look at Statistics from the department of education you discover that being 18 years of age hardly signifies the end of your education. According to the latest stats, of all 18 year old in the UK –

  • 30% were in Higher Education
  • 22% were doing some form of course or training in Further Education (FE).
  • 33% were in paid employment, with one third in jobs with training and two thirds in jobs without training 22%. 6% of training positions take the form of ‘modern apprenticeships’ and the most common area of employment for both males and female 18 year olds was ‘Wholesale and Retail Trade; Repair of Motor Vehicles and Motorcycles’
  • 15% were NEET

This effectively means that 80% of 18 year olds are currently in a state of education or welfare dependency, and only 20% are in ‘straight-up jobs’. In fact, you’ve almost got as much chance of being NEET as you have of just getting a regular job without training.

Moreover, many of the 20% who are ‘independent earners’ earn so little that this wage-independence cannot effectively be translated into any other meaningful form of independence, with 2/3rds of workers aged 18 earning the £6.00 an hour or less. According to the Youth Cohort Study (2009) which looks at what young people were doing aged 18 –

‘A total of 56% of 18 year olds were earning a wage at the time of interview either through their main activity or through part-time work to accompany full-time studies’. Wages, however, are low, with 63% of 18 year olds in employment earning £6.00 an hour or less, rising to 77% for those on Apprenticeships’ – Suggesting that many employers take advantage of the opportunity to pay young people relatively lower wages where possible.

These figures are in line with government guidance – The Current minimum wage for someone aged between 16 -17 is just £3.68, unless you’re unfortunate enough to have ‘landed’ an apprenticeship, in which case you might be earning as little as £2.60 an hour. This compares to £4.98 – the 18-20 rate, or £6.08 for the over 21s)

To put it in stark terms – if you go straight to work from college – you can expect an immediate future of several years of low wages, with the prospect of yet more work-based training until you start earning anything like a decent salary.


Life at the bottom, is of course, generally worse – and the stats seem to suggest your chances of ending up NEET increase as you get older – At the end of 2010, only 2.3 per cent of 16-year-olds, were NEET, compared to 6.8 per cent of 17-year-olds and 12.4 per cent of 18-year-olds. For most young people, being NEET is a temporary outcome as they move between different education and training options – surveys estimate that only 1 per cent of young people are NEET at ages 16, 17 and 18.

However, as you get older and your ‘educational opportunities’ dry up, the NEET figures increase dramatically, with the latest ONS data revealing that a total of 22.2%, or 1.04 million 16 to 24-year-olds were out of work in the three months to December 2011.

This excellent blog post on the Stumbling and Mumbling blog outlines some of the long term costs of youth unemployment – the starkest of which is that those who have been unemployed for more than six months before the age of 23 earned an average of 7% less than others even at the age of 42; this controls for educational qualifications.

If you can stomach three further years of studying, relative poverty and £30 000 of debt – you are much better off going to university…. You stand to earn about £600 000 more over the course of a 45 year career compared to those who stick with just A levels, and have twice as much chance of being in employment by age 24 compared to those with just GCSEs – although don’t expect to get a job immediately after graduating, as the graduate unemployment rate in the months following graduation currently stands at 25%.

Incidentally, just to depress you further, it’s worth adding that many young people’s life chances are further reduced by high housing costs according to this research by Shelter – some of the main findings include

* At a time when young people are facing extreme difficulties in finding jobs, high housing costs are affecting the ability of one in four 18-34 year olds to move for work, hampering economic recovery.

* Twenty-two per cent of 18-34 year olds have been forced to move back in or continue living with their parents because they are unable to afford to rent or buy their own home.

*Twenty per cent of this age group are delaying having children until they can afford to buy or rent their own home.

* Almost a third (31 per cent) of 18-34 year olds have had to continue living with a partner because they could not afford to live apart, or know someone in the same situation

So to any 17 year olds out there anticipating dreams of independence and material success in the immediate future, dream on….. for most of you, that goal is years away yet.

Having said this, please note that your life-chances do vary considerably depending on your social class and ethnic background – but more of that later.