Shannon Rupp

Wait, Privacy Is Cool Again?

A widely circulated story about some nameless Austrian teenager’s lawsuit against her parents for posting 18 years' worth of embarrassing photos on social media captured the attention of dozens of news outlets last month, because it told us what the young web editors on these papers want to hear — that the Age of Narcissism is coming to a close.

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The Spread of Torture Porn on TV: A Diversion for Our Messed Up World

As the TV season winds down, capped off with the Game of Thrones finale on Sunday, there is one inescapable conclusion: torture porn has moved to the small screen.

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'It's the Hamster's Ass': How Slang Reflects the Way We Live Now

"Well isn't that just the hamster's ass," I said of the cute little evening bag my acquaintance was brandishing.

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Engagement Rings Are Hardly Romantic -- Sparkly Rocks Are a Reminder of a Time When Women Were Property

After Vancouver's most famous jilted paramour got his 15 minutes of international attention recently, I was left wondering how we came to be living in a culture manufactured almost entirely by marketers.

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Could We Blame the Financial Crisis on Too Much Testosterone? Harvard Researchers Say Yes

When it comes to determining how much of a financial risk-taker a man is, don't look him in the eye, look him in the jaw. Is your financial planner a ringer for Arnold? Does he have a jaw like Viggo?

On further examination, does he have a heavy or "low" brow like Moe, on the Simpsons? Throw in thin lips a la Bruce Willis and as the relatively full-lipped Robert Preston sang, "Ya got Trouble."

Ignore those innocent baby blues: a man's attitude to risk is bred in the bone, which reflects how much testosterone courses through his body. The more he has, the more likely he is to take risks with his money. Or yours.

Or so Harvard researchers report in the science journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

Economist Anna Dreber and anthropologist Coren Apicella theorize that Wall Street's red-suspendered boys -- or as I think of them, the greedy architects of the new recession -- can't help themselves because they have more testosterone than average, which makes them take big risks to earn big prizes. That's an advantage when chasing woolly mammoths with wooden spears, but it's likely to cause problems in money management.

The scientific findings

Apparently, the rules for rational investing can't counter that evolutionary urge to risk it all on a death-defying feat (with your RRSP). To determine this, the study tested the hormone levels of 100 young men and then gave them $250 and told them they could keep it, invest part of it, or invest it all -- on a coin toss.

Those with testosterone poisoning (not the technical term) invested 12 per cent more than men with average hormone levels. And a man's testosterone levels are written on his face.

The influence of testosterone on facial features is linked to high hormone levels in adolescence, the same point at which men develop their attitudes to risk. Those with exaggerated masculine features -- commonly called "strong" faces -- are inclined to take long shots, which is likely to pay-off in some careers such as sports, movie or rock star. But That Guy is not who you want brokering international peace treaties or running your bank.

With these new findings I'm happy to reconsider my observation that too many men do too much of their thinking with the little head. Turns out that, for some men, the boys are also involved in an unholy trinity replacing rational thought.

Considering the implications

Of course, I'm itching to extrapolate on these findings. But before speculating on how soon corporate criminals will be using the testosterone defence -- maybe the heavy-browed, thin-lipped Conrad Black could appeal? -- let's consider the implications for modern life.

In evolutionary terms, the risk-takers were selected because their actions gave them some success at dipping in the gene pool and keeping their progeny alive. Although, with mammoth-tackling being what it is, it's fair to say that those ancient daredevils probably did more to ensure the survival of their slightly savvier tribe-mates who hung back, took calculated risks, and passed on what is now the average testosterone level. Let's face it, taking point against a one-ton quarry isn't conducive to long life and big families.

So our successful evolution as a species is probably the result of just enough practitioners of hormone-driven irrational acts to provide us with some regular protein. Which makes sense. Until recently, it was obvious that the daring of the few could benefit the majority.

Think about the origins of Canada. Only some sort of madness could explain why men ventured across the Atlantic in tiny boats and settled in inhospitable places like Quebec and Ontario. Imagine what that -40 (with the wind chill) would have felt like sans central heating, Gore-Tex, and Sorrels. Spend one winter in Montreal (contemplating who in his right mind would have settled here in the 17th century) and the community benefits of having had ancestors with a crazy disregard for the downside of risk is obvious.

Today's big-jawed elite

But what happens to the guys with (let's call it Excess Testosterone Effect) in the 21st century, where there's very little call for suicidal risk-taking? Extreme sports and drunk driving will only take out so many of these adventurers. The rest will be hanging around well into their 50s, pushing the limits and loosening regulations on hazardous behaviour in the places like corporate business and politics, where the rewards are mammoth-sized.

Ironically, the relative safety of the modern world has up-ended natural selection turning characteristics that, until recently, were benefiting the species into ones likely to threaten our survival.

The Harvard researchers drew a parallel with Wall Street risk-takers -- a little too late, I'd say, given the credit crisis, failing banks and collapsing markets.

Just think of the impact these heavy-jawed types have on every aspect of our lives.

For example, would anyone who knew about the Excess Testosterone Effect have voted Stephen Harper back in charge of the country?

He may be talking about the steady hand on the economy, but just look at that thick, square jaw (albeit disguised in jowls). His brow is heavy, and the lips are so thin they disappear when he smiles -- on the face of it, he's one of the guys who has out-lived his date with a mammoth.

We got a glimpse of those risk-taking tendencies when he suggested that Canadians stop whining about the stock market crash and start picking up the good buys. His infamous "Let them buy stock," line earned him a rep as Canada's answer to Marie Antoinette, but apparently the people who can spot a PM with a gambling habit don't vote.

The weak-chinned socially responsible

Call me, er, jaw-ndiced, but I can't help but recall Harper's position on healthcare, re-criminalizing abortion and keeping the troops in Afghanistan -- his choices are all risky and life-threatening although, sadly, not for him.

Harper's environmental policies, or lack thereof, take a chance that more than 90 per cent of scientists are wrong and the oil-patch-funding Conservative campaigns won't put the whole species at risk. Of course, Conservatives aren't good at separating scientific theories from myths -- never forget these people think humans and dinosaurs capered together in a Fred Flintstone version of Eden only 6,000 years ago and that vision colours every idea they have about science. Even so, Harper's willingness to take an outrageous risk with everyone's life because it gives him a big reward, seems extreme.

Feel free to apply the Excess Testosterone Effect theory to assessing the man of your choice. Alas, there is no comparable test for female candidates, as women's more complex biology doesn't allow for as delightfully obvious an equation as "extreme masculinity = irrationality."

Besides, voters looking to make snap judgments about women candidates already have the "Is she hot?" test, although its merits have come into question since Sarah Palin's embarrassing rise to prominence.

This new-found connection between excess testosterone and risk-taking has left me wary of all men who appear "strong," but I think it's especially relevant for picking politicians. Now I recall that old Red Tory Joe Clark's weak chin as fondly as his sense of social responsibility. I feel nostalgia for that time when a politician's intellectual brilliance inspired Trudeau-mania, not contempt.

But most of all I wonder how long it will take this science to reach voters and show them that male politicians trading on an appearance of strength are actually the guys who, in evolutionary terms, have outlived their usefulness.

Even Progressives Need to Decorate

The first hint I had that we do-it-yourself decorators are viewed as something of a joke came when I was in my 20s, and listening to a friend describe her latest break-up. "He told me that he thought the three deadliest words in the English language are, 'I love you,'" she told a group of friends at a brunch party.

"Hmmph, he's got that wrong," snorted my boyfriend at the time. "The three deadliest words in the English language are: 'It has potential.'"

He got a good laugh because, at one time or another, everyone at that table had been with me as I combed thrift stores and garage sales, haunted flea markets and even claimed an occasional curb-side reject, always justifying my finds with: "It has potential."

My belief in hidden potential became the trait that defined me. One friend joked that I had to stop choosing men the way I chose furniture and apartments. "For character?" I asked, hopefully.

"Fixer-uppers," she replied, firmly.

'Martha porn'

It's well known that, in times of stress, some women buy shoes. I buy sheets. No, I don't know why. I find it soothing. I also like to paint furniture and walls. Ooh, and I just silver-leafed a vintage lamp! My dirty little secret -- that I'm a feminist plagued with a politically incorrect home decorating fetish -- is a running joke among my friends.

But lately I've noticed that those of us who pay attention to this kind of domestic comfort aren't just getting the most pleasant homes, we're getting kudos from environmentalists, money experts and the decorating world itself. Not only are we frugal, resourceful and noble recyclers, we have a distinctive style.

So suddenly I've become the go-to girl for every friend flummoxed over where to put the sofa, how to set up a home office or spruce up an eccentric apartment. Even the guy who christened my TV-watching habits "Martha porn" has started asking for advice.

I've considered mentioning that it's wrong to mock my proclivities and then make use of them, but I'm a junkie. Reworking a room is my version of a crossword puzzle, and I get a kick out of doing it on a budget that would make one of those shabby-chic advocates titter. I see home design as less about flashy accessories and more about problem solving.

Which is why my editor says it's time for me to come out of my (neatly organized) closet and fess up to, er, fluffing.

"Someone has to talk about the alternative to Ikea and Pottery Burn," she muttered. (Poor thing has been couch hunting and the stress is getting to her.)

Decorators anonymous

So here goes: my name is Shannon, and my hobby is decorating.

Now, I'm not talking the Cordon Bleu of décor -- for that you have to hire Sarah Richardson or Candice Olson, two of TV's designing women who deliver brilliant results on big budgets. I'm talking about the design equivalent of what my aunt calls "a good plain cook."

Despite what shelter mags would have us believe, most of us want homes that are decorated for comfort. That means having lamps well placed for reading in bed and everywhere else; couches and chairs placed close together to encourage conversation; and side tables that are just the right height to hold your coffee (within two inches of the height of the chair's arm). Of course, it needs to appeal to your sense of aesthetics and not the taste of some designer with a penchant for neon orange.

None of this has anything to do with money; it's all about know-how. While mine was all gleaned the hard way, including countless hours spent stripping woods of dubious origin, how-to is now painless to come by. The dawn of HGTV, coupled with an explosion of decorating books and websites, has made it easy to become a self-taught decorator.

Well, actually, it's made it overwhelming. And a little confusing, with all those choices. So here are some of the best resources I've found in almost 20 years of being, as one long-time pal so elegantly phrases it, "Martha-manque." (Oddly enough, he thinks I'll be charmed by him calling me a "Defective Martha," as long as he does it in French. And yet he wonders why no one polishes his wood.)

Style, not trend

Books with pretty pictures are tempting, but they're a waste of money -- they date too fast -- and they'll only require more bookcases. Invest in the handful of books on design philosophy and technique.

When faced with a sea of choices, it's helpful to recall the view of William Morris, founder of England's arts and crafts movement: "Have nothing in your home that you don't know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." That should prevent you scooping up a clock-belly Buddha because some the designer du jour has dubbed kitsch cool.

Perhaps the single most useful book for getting great results on any budget is Lauri Ward's Use What You Have Decorating (Berkley Publishing, 1998) or her more recent books that incorporate her "10 mistakes to avoid" theory.

She shows you how a room's look has more to do with where you place the furniture, hang the art, and display -- or edit -- the bric-a-brac, than the style of the stuff. Pricey objects, it turns out, are no substitute for understanding how to create balance and flow in a room. At under $25, her books are great bang for your decorating buck.

From Alexandra Stoddard's Creating a Beautiful Home I learned the mantra of simplicity, appropriateness and beauty -- but not before I made some spectacular mistakes, like an Art Deco studio suite. Don't ask. Just remember that before embarking on one of those dreaded theme rooms you should ask yourself if it is appropriate to turn a boxy downtown condo into a Tuscan villa. Would it be simple?

Now back away from that cherub garden statue.

Theme room alarm bells

Actually, you should just back away from the dreaded theme room, no matter what they said on Trading Spaces. Chant it with me now: simplicity, appropriateness and beauty...

Speaking of television shows, many are a goldmine of info and techniques if you can only get past the roster of obnoxious hosts mugging for the camera. I've long wondered if there's some sort of bylaw in TV-land that requires designers to adopt either weird speech patterns or invent weird plots to justify decorating.

The terminally bossy Debbie Travis is so much easier to take via website where projects from her Painted House show are listed, along with the tools and techniques for getting the same effect. Yes, she does many, many bad things with paint. But that's her taste. She'll show you how to prep and paint that dresser you snagged from Craigslist to your taste.

The American version of Home and Garden Television also has lots of practical info. Need to estimate how much paint you need for your walls? This site can show you how.

12-step Ikea recovery

Design junkies will get an almost erotic thrill from Apartment Therapy (Thom Wong wrote a bLink about it here.) The addictive site is the brainchild of designer Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, who is a small-space-living guru. He has lived in a 250-square-foot apartment in Manhattan for more than a decade, including the last four years with his wife. And they both work from home. They're renovating it to make room for their first baby, and posters are predicting disaster.

The site is full of good tips, tricks and solutions for strange spaces. The addictive part is the dozens of slide shows featuring real people's homes. The annual Best Small Space contest has all the finalists online and is good for sucking up a couple of hours on your first visit. (You've been warned.)

Now I need to help that over-stressed editor find a couch. A friend of mine's parents are part of the wave of downsizing baby-boomers and I seem to recall they have a vintage Danish modern couch in their basement. New cushions and a little teak oil and it will be the showpiece in a mid-century modern room...

Ikea?!? No wonder she's stressed: the instant gratification of tacking particleboard together pales in comparison to the joy of giving Duncan Phyfe a makeover.

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