Monthly Archives: August 2017

ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE FOR THE ROAD…

Who would have thought that drinking coffee can be a preventive medicine for prostate cancer? Drinking three cups of expresso coffee a day slashes the risk of developing prostate cancer, a study has found. Research on 7,000 men confirmed that drinking three strong coffees a day cuts the chance of disease by more than 50 per cent. The findings shed further light on the role of caffeine in fighting prostate cancer.

Researchers followed the lives of 7,000 in the Molise region of Italy over four years. Study leader George Pounis, of the Mediterranean Neurological Institute, said: ‘By analysing their coffee consumption habits and comparing them with prostate cancer cases occurring over time, we saw a net reduction of risk of 53 per cent in those who drank more than three cups a day.’

The team confirmed their findings by testing the action of coffee extracts on prostate cancer cells in laboratory studies. After testing both caffeinated and decaf. extracts, they found that only the caffeine significantly reduced cancer cells proliferation, as well as their ability to metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body. This effect largely disappeared with decaf.
‘The observations on cancer cells allow us to say that the beneficial effect observed is most likely to occur to caffeine, rather than to the many other substances contained in coffee,’ they wrote in the International Journal of Cancer. The researchers noted that Italians prepare coffee in a specific way using very high water temperature, high pressure and no filters. They said this method – different to that used in most other countries – could lead to a higher concentration of bioactive substances, adding: ‘It will be very interesting now to explore this aspect. Coffee is an integral part of Italian lifestyle, which, we must remember, is not made just by individual foods, but also by the specific way they are prepared.’

Mr Pounis added: ‘In recent years we have seen a number of international studies on this issue. But scientific evidence has been considered insufficient to draw conclusions. Moreover, in some cases results were contradictory. Our goal, therefore, was to increase knowledge in this field and to provide a clearer view.’

Interesting, but not conclusive. However, it seems there is no harm whatsoever in drinking coffee the way the Italians do. Whether it prevents the risk of prostate cancer is another matter worth pursuing.

A GERMAN FINANCIAL IDYLL

The staggering German economy is becoming the envy of the world and, at the same time, giving rise to a bout of criticism from other nations who believe that the German gigantic trading surplus is harming world economies. Deficit-ridden America has attacked such figures as indeed very bad, but Berlin says the US must look at itself and manage their own affairs more rigidly.

In Germany, the national concept is rather different. When 128,000 Deutsch Bahn staff were asked whether they would rather have a pay rise this year or extra days off, more than half of them left the money on the table. ‘I chose the extra holiday because it gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my two children and the family,’ Tobias Turkoglu, a train driver, told Die Welt. ‘Since I do shift work, I really appreciate the extra 6 days of leave a year.’

Even those railway workers who did want the pay rise were in no mood to use their newly bulging wallets to splash out on the good things in life. Their priority was retirement and the chance to boost their personal savings. All of them had one thing in common. They were symptomatic of Germany’s supposed domestic economic problem, of a work force happy to settle for modest annual pay rises in return for better working conditions and an improved work/life balance: and because they are not buying enough, while busily making stuff that the rest of the world really wants to buy. Hence, they are helping to build what is the largest national current account surplus on the planet!

International anger at such Teutonic parsimony is growing. While the German economy is one third the size of China, its trading surplus was larger than the People’s Republic, at almost $300 billion last year – a whopping 8.3% of GDP. In contrast, the United States had a global trading deficit of more than $500 billion, something viewed by President Trump to prove that America is losing the global economic game.

Worse still, the US deficit in goods trade with Germany was $65 billion in 2016 and as far as Mr Trump is concerned the German surplus is ‘very bad’. Peter Navarro, a Trump advisor, has said that Germany continues to exploit other countries in the EU, as well as the US, with an implicit Deutschmark that is grossly undervalued. It was left to Angela Merkel to point out that the European Central Bank sets monetary policy for the entire Eurozone and that Germany’s own Bundesbank has called repeatedly for a tighter policy to strengthen the currency.

German economists add that it is futile to blame the Euro. ‘Trump’s administration has attacked Germany for exporting too much and accused it of manipulating the Euro. In fact, Germany’s trade surplus has little to do with the Euro, which has become a convenient scapegoat,’ said Marcel Fratzscher, a former senior manager of the European Central Bank, head of the DIWBerlin think tank and a professor at Humboldt University, Berlin. ‘A second fallacy is the belief that politicians and central banks can set exchange rates. In most advanced economies the exchange rate cannot simply be decreed.’ If Professor Fratzscher pointed a figure, it was at protectionist policies in the non-tradeable services sector with heavily state-protected monopoly employers such as Deutsch Bahn.

Hans-Werner-Sinn, a member of the Economy Ministry’s Academic Advisory Body, said that: ‘the real culprits are an inflationary credit bubble in Southern Europe, the expansionary policy of the European Central Bank and the financial products US Banks sold to the world… Thanks to the Dollar status as the world’s main reserve currency, the US financial industry has managed in recent decades to offer international investors a potpourri of alluring products. This has driven up the Dollar’s value and chronically undermined export competitiveness… In lamenting the strong Dollar’s effect on manufacturing employment in the United States, Trump should look to Wall Street and not Germany.’

Professor Fratzcher looked to that German reluctance to spend. He said: ‘Germany has one of the lowest public investment rates in the industrial world. Its municipalities responsible for half of all public investments currently have unrealised investment projects worth Euro136 billion, or 45 per cent of GDP, while Germany’s school buildings alone need another Euro35 billion for repairs. Private investment in ageing capital stock has weakened by many companies desire to invest abroad.’

Indeed, it seems almost everyone in Germany has a view on the issue. Christoph Schmidt, 54, chairman of the German Council of Economic Experts, told Handelsblad, the business newspaper, that the German trading surplus mainly resulted from temporary forces, notably the ECB stimulus and the decline in oil prices. He added that corporate Germany was hoarding more cash because of EU demands for risk buffers after the financial crisis, while households were rebuilding their finances after the burst of the property bubble of the early 1990s. Most of these influences are bound to vanish over time, he said.

And behind it all stands the frugal German worker. Andreas Kluth, editor of Handelsblad Global said: ‘Germans will tell you they save because they want to retire at some point. Because Germany’s population is ageing, this means that for a few more years there will be huge aggregate savings. That – a voluntary and national decision by free individuals – is the primary reason for the high savings rate.’

This lesson is truly extraordinary. Self-imposed, yet it signals two things: prosperity for the nation and security for the individual. I must say, for this alone, if nothing else, the Germans have my admiration.

IS BLOOD PRESSURE ON THE VERGE OF BEING REGULATED?

High blood pressure is a health hazard which scientists the world over would like to banish somehow by finding a permanent cure, the result of which they hope will save many lives.

Well, it seems a breakthrough by British scientists could pave the way at least for more effective blood pressure drugs. Experts have discovered how the body regulates blood pressure – giving them a way to replicate it with medication. They found the condition is naturally reduced when nerves which surround the arteries release nitric oxide. Scientists said the discovery marks a ‘fundamental change’ in the way they view blood pressure. Previously, experts thought it was regulated by the blood vessel walls themselves, rather than the bundle of nerves surrounding them.

The breakthrough also offers a clue about the roles stress and emotion play with the condition, because these nerves have a direct link to the brain. High blood pressure – known as hypertension – affects one in three adults, more than 17 million of the British population. The condition vastly increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and vascular dementia, but because it has no symptoms until it is too late, only half of those with the condition know they are at risk.

Of those who have been diagnosed, hundreds of thousands take daily pills to control their blood pressure. However, the current treatment is only effective for about half of patients. The discovery, by scientists at King’s College, London, could allow doctors to mimic the body’s method of regulating blood pressure, by stimulating the nerves with enzymes so they produce more of the chemical.

The research team, whose work is published in the journal Hypertension, made the discovery through experiments on healthy men with normal blood pressure, in which they used a drug to stop the nerves producing nitric oxide and found blood pressure rocketed as a result. Professor Ajay Shah, head cardiologist at King’s College Hospital, said: ‘Our discovery will fundamentally change the way we view the regulation of blood pressure. Until now the majority of blood pressure drugs have focused on other pathways. Establishing that nerves releasing nitric oxide influence blood pressure, provides a new target for drugs and could eventually lead to more effective treatment for patients.’

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the research said: ‘Whilst there are already many treatments for high blood pressure, they are not always effective.’ He added: ‘These results provide hope of new treatments for people with poorly controlled high blood pressure which could prove crucial in preventing a heart attack or stroke.’

This is most welcome news. Research of this kind will enable us yet again to prove that with determination and resolve, nothing is beyond our reach.

PEER RECOGNITION

Vanessa Hannam is an accomplished novelist. Her books are always well-written; her themes are historically linked and always have great entertainment value. I honestly believe she deserves wider recognition, given she’s one of the very few who stick to classical subjects with a natural emphasis on maintaining literary excellence in all her writings.

Her last book, Summer’s Grace, published last year, is considered by many to be one of her best. The Church Times, in their current issue, has a review by Peggy Woodford, another prolific novelist. She suggests that anyone who enjoys the historical novels of the legendary Patrick O’Brien will like Summer’s Grace (it recounts the true story of a dangerous sea voyage from Britain’s tumultuous Georgian past).

Such an acknowledgement from a distinguished fellow novelist proves I believe that my own assessment of Vanessa’s gift as a storyteller is well placed and highly reliable.

The book is worth a flutter. It will make a good gift for the rest of the Summer and the impending Christmas season.

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DIVE-BOMBING SEAGULLS ARE BECOMING A MENACE

Last year, in the middle of Mayfair, I was attacked by two seagulls as I happened to be walking to the office. It was an experience I could hardly expect although luckily, after my initial shock, I seemed to have escaped without injury. But elsewhere, in Cornwall in particular, there has been a rise in patients being treated for injuries after attacks by dive-bombing seagulls.

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Aggressive gulls on Britain’s coastlines are no longer content to steal left-over chips, experts say and pharmacists in Cornwall have reported seeing at least one patient a week who has been left bloodied or cut as a result. Many more are likely to have treated their wounds at home. In some cases, young children have been left with cuts to their faces after birds attempted to steal food out of the mouths, the pharmacists said, whilst experts say that emboldened gulls have stepped up their attacks. The NHS Karnow Clinical Commissioning Group said some cases have left children and pensioners in hospital.

Earlier this year, MPs warned that many coastal towns were being terrorised by the birds, which appear to have become more aggressive – leaving some calling for a cull. Gull experts said the birds have worked out that they can get more food dive-bombing people than by scrabbling for scraps. Claire Field, a community pharmacist at Carbis Bay, close to St Ives, said: ‘We have seen adults and young children with cuts around and inside their mouths as well as their hands where sneaky seagulls have swooped down to take their food… As a minimum, any cuts should be cleaned with antiseptic,’ she concluded.

Despite my own experience, which left me unhurt, the mere swooping down by gulls gave me a moment of panic. Gull’s eggs in season are a must sought after delicacy, which to me makes up for my moment of panic. All I can say, a cull of the birds would be a step too far.

A MOST WORRYING THREAT

An olive oil crisis is looming. A bacterium which destroys olive trees has been discovered in mainland Spain, raising fears that it could devastate this year’s harvest in the country that produces half of the world’s olive oil from 320 million trees. Xylella Fastidiosa, which dries trees out, leaving their leaves looking scorched, was found in almond trees near Guadalest, a town in Valencia in Eastern Spain.

Elena Cebrian, head of the Valencian Regional Government’s Agricultural Department, said that all the Olive trees within a 100 metre radius of the infected area were being destroyed. It is also being treated against insects that spread the bacteria.

The disease was detected in Mallorca and Ibiza last year and where the authorities destroyed infected trees. Plant exports have been banned from the Balearic Islands to prevent the bacteria – which farming associations refer to as olive oil leprosy – from reaching other parts of Spain.

The pathogen emerged in Italy in 2013 and killed up to about half a million trees, ruining the harvest. Officials were forced to chainsaw trees in an effort to contain the disease. It has also been detected in France. Experts fear that if the bacteria spreads in Spain it could cause similar damage to the harvest. Farmers in Andalucía, the southern region where 60% of Spain’s olive oil is produced, called for emergency measures to prevent the disease spreading.

Luis Carlos Valero, head of the Farming Union ASAJA, said: ‘It has appeared in an almond farm but imagine what would happen in Andalucía with the olives where we have trees as far as the eye can see, for thousands of hectares between Jaen, Cordoba and Granada. This is without doubt the biggest threat to the future of farming here. We must do everything to stop this thing from getting here.’

Rafael Pico, director general of the Spanish Association of Exporters of Olive Oil, said: ‘We do not want to comment on this until we know the extent of the infection on the mainland and measures which are being taken to prevent it spreading. We do not want to create a panic among our members.’

What a calamity if the disease is allowed to spread, given that olive oil has now become a staple diet in most countries of the world! Let’s hope preventive measures will ensure from it becoming an acute tree leprosy, with devastating effects in Europe and beyond.

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DOWN MEMORY LANE SIXTEEN

In 1988, I spent a great deal of time travelling the country to promote the paperback edition of my book, Women. This experience reinforced my conviction that every city, town and village needs well-stocked bookshops. It was disagreeable to see the big bookselling chains jockeying for prime high-street sites in towns that were already adequately served by existing bookshops. (At the time there was a battle going between Dillon’s and Waterstone’s to see who would become the dominant retail chain.) Following on the previous year’s success with the Quartet Encounters list, I decided the time had come to stand the list firmly on its own imprint and issue a separate catalogue with point-of-sale material while orchestrating a major sales campaign in June.

Other highlights from the Quartet list in1988 were Julia Voznesenskaya’s Letters of Love, an anthology of messages smuggled out of prisons, asylums and institutions by women prisoners in the Soviet Union; On the Outside Looking In which told the harrowing but ultimately uplifting life story of Michael, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan; and Women & Fashion: A New Look by Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton, who had written a fascinating exploration of an intriguing subject that was an instant classic text for anyone with an interest in questions of style.

The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature that year to the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz created a buzz for Quartet as we had one of his novels in our backlist and suddenly there was a demand for copies. ‘Penguin,’ said ‘Grovel’ in Private Eye, ‘who had sniffily turned down the paperback rights some time ago were begging to be given a second chance. Attullah-Disgusting, whose feeling for the language is beyond question, gleefully told his staff that Penguin could “stick their bums up their fingers”.’

My greatest personal excitement, however, lay in presiding over the publication in English of the Mexican masterpiece Pulinuro of Mexico by Fernando del Paso. When it was originally published in 1977, it had won the Romulo Gallego Prize, which was awarded only once every five years for the best Spanish-language novel. The French translation won the Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1985. I was determined that when this epic Joycean tale was published in Britain, in a translation by Elisabeth Plaister, it would meet with a similar success.

In the Latin American canon it had been compared with the best work of Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was set in Mexico City, where a medical student, Palinuro, has loved his first cousin Estefania with a consuming passion since childhood. Together they gratify their rampant desire in a room in Plaza Santo Domingo. Palinuro comes from an eccentric, polygenetic family. His Uncle Estaban fled from Hungary during the First World War and travelled across the world to Mexico; his Uncle Austin is an ex-mariner from Britain; his grandfather, Francisco, was a freemason and companion of Pancho Villa. Added to this are his grandmothers and a host of aunts and other cousins.

The great labyrinth of the city in which they live their lives becomes like an additional living character in the novel, evoking a cultural cornucopia and drawing in themes from mythology, science, politics, pornography and the collective unconscious. In its French edition L’Express had called it ‘an immense book in scope, length and beauty [with] pages of romantic lyricism, heady erudition, unbridled eroticism’. ‘Read it:’ exhorted Madame Figaro, ‘it is a breath of fresh air; it has a universal voice rarely heard . . . it runs the gamut from laughter to tears, from the crude to the tender, with an incredible virtuosity.’ The English-language version soon gathered many similar tributes. The Los Angeles Times Book Review summed it up by calling it ‘an inspired rollercoaster of a book about life and love in Mexico City’.

Dreamlike and fantastic, filled with sensuous, poetic language, a positively orgiastic love of life, bubbling humor and a special brand of literary alchemy, this pulsating novel still carries the same explosive punch of its first appearance in Spanish nearly twenty years ago . . . What’s impressive about Palinuro of Mexico is that it transforms a potentially daunting literary experiment into something that’s enormous fun to read . . . Few other novels have so much color, so many metaphors, so much of the feel, smell, sight and sound of human experience, so much life.

‘This tour de force is the novel of modern Mexico and its sprawling capital . . . warm and very funny . . . Elisabeth Plaister’s translation is brilliant,’ said the Sunday Telegraph; and in the opinion of The Times Literary Supplement: ‘At its deepest level, the narrative of Palinuro of Mexico embodies a totalizing ambition, reminiscent of Joyce, to investigate the conditions of culture and knowledge, to explore the relationship between myth and history, and to demonstrate the potential of literary language to revolutionize our ways of seeing the world.’

For a publisher the book represented a rare privilege which dwarfed all other considerations.

A TRICK TO BOOST MEMORY?

One of the irritating aspects of old age is the inability to remember names of people we once met as easily as we used to do, without much effort. It also applies when we walk around the supermarket, and try to remember, with perfect ease, every item we need to buy. Or faced with a speech to make, we can’t remember every point we are supposed to emphasise.

A solution to these dilemmas is apparently no mere pipe dream – as scientists have found anyone can develop a memory of world-beating proportion in just six weeks, using a simple technique. Known as ‘LOCI Training’, it is done by learning the visualisation of a map or journey, and assigning things to be memorised by landmarks on your route. Experts have found astonishing results – in one study, ordinary people who learned this method could almost match the performance of world memory champions.

The research, published in the journal Neuron found trainees could recall 62 words from a list of 72 within twenty minutes of learning them. This is only nine words behind the top-ranking performance for memory in the world – known as ‘memory athletes – and thirty-five more than a normal person could expect to remember.
The researchers, based at Stanford University, California, and the Max Plank Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, found the LOCI tactic helped people to learn more than three times the number of additional words than other types of memory training. And brain scans showed that even four months later, the brain had changed to be more like the experts, and could still remember twenty-two more extra words than before. This change was seen in the medical prefrontal cortex, known to be active when individuals relate new facts to pre-existing knowledge, and the right dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, involved in efforts to learn strategically.

The LOCI method is thought to work as it uses the logical left side of the brain for navigation and the creative right side to visualise landmarks. Using the whole of the brain, rather than just one side, is linked to better memory. Lead author Martin Dresler, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said: ‘After training we massively increased performance on memory tests. Not only can you induce a behaviour change, the training also indicates similar brain connectivity patterns as those seen in memory athletes.’

He added: ‘Once you are familiar with these strategies and know how to apply them, you can keep your performance high without much further training. To have your memory LOCI training, you start by assigning items to be memorised to objects in your house – for example, the bookcase, the coffee table and the lamp. Then go through the house in one direction, avoiding doubling back on yourself. Use permanent items such as the TV as prompts, rather than clothes which have been left on a chair which could be moved. This technique can then be expanded to other locations such as your route to work or ways through the supermarket. So a route with 52 points would allow you to memorise the order of a deck of cards. Memory champions can use several thousand points as memory hooks.’

Scientists are not exactly clear whether this method can help the memory of older people, but the elderly themselves can at least find out if the LOCI training works in their case. If nothing else, their knowledge is enhanced if not their memory.

A Literary Giant to Reckon With

Brian Sewell contrary to public perception in certain quarters is a most edifying character one is unlikely to come across in the competitive art world.

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When Quartet became his publisher, we were warned by many of his detractors that he would prove to be hard to handle and will ultimately cause us no end of grief . The reverse as it happened turned out to be  untrue and without foundation.

Having been a publisher since 1976 and encountered many rather pompous and presumptuous authors, I can easily vow that Brian was a meticulous professional who invariably endeavoured to give his best in everything he touched and as a consequence was a joy to deal with.

What was remarkable about him, despite being the most accomplished art critic in the western hemisphere, was his total loyalty and devotion to his friends often to his detriment financially.

I can cite many examples of his generosity and grandiose spirit but feel deep inside that had he been alive today, he would have not wished me to do so.

His death two years ago marked the end of an era where men of his calibre are now rare to find. He was a one-off who defied the establishment and had the courage to call a spade a spade unperturbed by the circumstances that followed many of his pronouncements.

One of his books Naked Emperors, which we published in 2012, is a selection of Brian’s criticism during his tenure at the London Evening Standard and was the first collection to be published in over twenty years and was chosen from his art reviews of exhibitions by English contemporary artists. Most first appeared in the London newspaper for whom he first wrote for in 1984. They are gathered chronologically under artist or institution and discuss nearly every important contemporary English art exhibition for the past quarter of a century. Besides being a record of one man’s developing response to the explosion of blockbuster contemporary art shows and multi-millionaire artist escapades of the past two decades, the reviews’ sequence also reveal how much this often maligned critic did, at first, wish the new establishment well. How he came to see so much as dross or fiddle-faddle, is written with such knowledge, style and humour, readers will also come to understand why mugs with ‘Brian Sewell is fab!’ are on sale in gallery gift shops.

Brian Sewell became a devoted friend with whom I spent many a good time and learnt a great deal from him. As a consequence I miss him terribly.

It is time now, you buy a copy of this book for your library or to give away as a gift. This will give the receiver an insight about a great man who lived for his art in deciphering the good and the mediocre for the benefit of us readers.

May his legacy remain as bright as the full moon on a beautiful summer night.

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SIZE AND THE FAIRER SEX

Size does not always matter, except some claim that men’s willies make a difference when engaged in love-making, whereas bragging about it put some women off and is not considered good gentlemanly etiquette. However, it is a standing joke among the bravest of men that their other half’s have smaller brains. In fact, in this case, size is irrelevant since women perform better in memory tests despite the fact that men do actually have larger brains, experts say. That’s even though men have a higher IQ by nearly 4 points, a study found. The research from the Netherlands was based on MRI scans of almost 900 men and women and found male brains around 14% larger. But experts have previously suggested that women’s brains function more efficiently.

The latest research, led by Erasmus University, found women are less intelligent than men by approximately 3.75 IQ points and do significantly worse in tests of spatial ability. Lead author, Dr Dimitri Van der Linden, said: ‘We found that men’s brains are larger than women’s and our analysis suggests this is the reason for lower average general intelligence across a range of tests. We are aware of previous research suggesting women’s brains are better organised or process information more efficiently, but we did not look at this in our study.’
The study supports the controversial and now broadly forgotten claim by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century, that men’s brains were larger than those of women. (Darwin once reasoned that a wife was ‘better than a dog anyhow and women’s brains were halfway between that of a child and a man.’)

Today’s scientists have MRI scans to calculate brain volume and past studies have agreed that men’s brains are larger. The latest study took scans and cognitive tests from 896 people aged 22-37 as part of the Human Connectome project. Published in the journal Intelligence, the research says men had higher scores on most measures of intelligence, including spatial awareness. Women did better in memory tests including recalling a sequence of 18 pictures, but analysis found this made no difference to their general intelligence.

Brain size in the sexes is hotly debated in the scientific community. Dr Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at University College, London, said: ‘This is a well-researched study but the evidence is not strong enough to prove that larger male brains are more intelligent than smaller female brains, which makes it a leap of faith using a measure of general intelligence which has little basis. Men’s and women’s brains are different and we know spatial navigation is slightly better in men than women, while women tend to have a better vocabulary. But we should be sceptical of claims that men are smarter than women, especially when there is little to no evidence for that and lots of evidence to the contrary.’

Research at the University of California found women’s brains are smaller, but could perform more quickly because of better connection between brain cells. Having interviewed hundreds of women in my own case I believe that women have a higher degree of intelligence when it comes to analysing a question and formulating a response quicker than most men, and they are certainly more efficient when handling a crisis.

Perhaps the smaller size of their brains is more organised, which enables them to move faster. Could it be that it reinforces the view that small can be beautiful?