Monday, 8 October 2012

Automatic Living, Otherness and Death by Gantt charts

There are only two ways a professional can kill themselves: one is with whisky and the other is with Gantt charts. If a life of automatic living doesn’t particularly appeal, you can take a lesson by ignoring a writer you’ve probably never read. Ignoring Aristotle might just be the best thing you ever do.

In contrast to Aristotle I don’t think we need unity to tell a meaningful story. In contrast my prescription would be the 3 ‘Others’ – the otherness of place, the otherness of action, and the otherness of people.

Every journey begins with a place. For all my movements, and the eternal missing of that smoke-filled hive I used to call home I’ve learned one thing – I need to take more holidays. I’m down in Brighton right now and for the first time in years I’ve been somewhere I don’t know, on my own. For the first time in years I haven’t spoken to another person in several days. Sometimes taking a holiday from other people is the healthiest thing you can do. Blaise Pascal put it best when he said “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Pascal knew speaking to oneself self is the first sign of sanity.

We make a very weird habit of associating consistency with integrity. The Gantt charts mentality puts us into a psychological prison – we normalise and repeat what we do and who we are - and become slaves of routine. Art as a reflection of otherness is useless to a Gantt mindset. Freedom of action and a discovery of the unknown can only be achieved with an otherness of action.

Finally there is the otherness of people. After twelve years of debate I can testify that my only enemies are people who agree with me.

My first ever Dolansphere post spawned from a disagreement with someone called Ian. Ian is homosexual, is exploited with zero hour contracts to the benefit of heartless capitalists and consistently votes Conservative. Ian is misguided, arrogant and will verbally bitch-slap me every damn chance he gets.

I wouldn’t have him any other way for two reasons: He reminds that otherness gives me a sense of who I am. In knowing who Ian is, he reminds me of whom and what I am not. Ian also reminds me (perhaps too much) that I am not always right about everything. If I could make one recommendation: having a shouty, self-important man convinced you are wrong about everything in your life will definitely make you wiser.

Much of the emphasis on being functional in todays society is based around adopting and strictly adhering to the most demanding routines. The Business “Go get-em” manuals may proclaim “Consistency is king” but personal development requires attention and involvement in a diverse world. Without a commitment to an otherness of place, action and people the only option is death. Death by Gantt charts.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Handing in my Passport to Marlboro Country

In the post-election come-down a crashing normality began to resume in my everyday life. Without endless stress, unworkable hours and the constant need to do something the days began to seem emptier, the weeks longer. I’ve not even been back a month yet it already feels like years. As is the form with such moments, I began to look over past work. I quickly realised there were very visible patterns emerging. An inability to sit still, an obsession for work and so, so many references to smoking.

It became obvious I had been choreographing much of my life around my addictions.

Nicotine is such a curious choice in the world meat market of amphetamines, barbiturates and opiates. Given our culture has never been more anaesthetized on the currency of factory grade dopamine and serotonin, it would seem to most people an unadventurous choice. Seem by some as poor return on investment or by the more cynical as just a habit of the undeserving poor. 

On all of these accusations I would take issue. As a long term user I would contend Nicotine is an extremely clever drug. It calms the nerves when you are under stress, wakes you up when you are tired, and helps you relax when you’re tightly wound up. It’s great with food, drink and alcohol and all other forms of biological satiation. Marlboro country is the perfect vacation whatever the weather.

I’ve never understood why I started smoking. Maybe it’s a desire not to be like my teetotal father whose life, as you expect of a farm-boy of Irish catholic descent, is hardly one of spirited intellectualism. Maybe it’s a need to be more like my mother who by my age was married, divorced and flirting with a London metropolitan Buddhism. She was quickly co-opted into a meditate-there, smoke-this, get-the-Ashram lifestyle. She, of course, promptly found herself living in a temple in India. In case you were wondering - the marriage didn’t work out.

Whilst making a mental list of what, who and when to assign blame I had a more troubling thought. If these biological drivers which seem to encompass many of my compulsive needs and behaviors were melted away would there be much of me left? Isn’t that exactly what a hopeless addict would say? Of one thing I am sure – addiction will cut my life short. I am at peace with that.

Three Weeks have passed since I had written the previous two statements. No. I am not at peace with that at all. As I now write  this I am six days over my smoking addiction. Besides the aforementioned troubling me for sometime after I saw it written front of me, I woke up in my London Townhouse after a late night conversations over Johnny Walker and feeling shit. But not the kind of hangover shit I am far too accustomed. It was the kind of toxicity that makes it hard to get out of bed and face the world. Its when you begin realise your health is not an infinite resource. It was the kind of morning where you realise you may not be dying but you are definitely killing yourself. 

There’s a lot they don’t tell you about giving up smoking. I decided to read up on the road ahead. These sources concentrate on the good and great of ‘kicking the habit’. I can see the therapeutic websites have s poor understanding of their  target audience. I didn’t want the positive pep-talk - I wanted to know what Lovecraftian horrors lay beyond. As soon as I read ‘the worst of it will be over in two days’ I knew it was time to put on a crash helmet and pack my anti-depressants. So began the 48 hour jog across no mans land.

Among the side affects they don’t tell you about are – your veins will start hurting (this is apparently normal, as your blood pressure lowers suddenly) that your piss will smell like an ashtray, you will have night sweats and the accompanying night terrors (something to do with nicotine receptors dying in the brain) and before the increase of appetite you will feel so sick you won’t eat for 24 hours. This of course is on top of the ‘normal’ anger/depression emotions, the inability to concentrate and the tragically trudging country miles in order to find a shop that doesn’t have cigarettes behind the counter.

So addiction or at least the person willing to die to satisfy an addiction has been purged from my soul for now. The dance with addiction is anything but over – I sit here drinking some of the finest coffee money can buy, fresh from another evening chat with Johnny. But I do feel a little cleaner, a little happier and little bit more in charge of my own destiny. 

Addictions can still be good friends. They convinced me they are worth dying for. As with anything that good you’d be mad not try it. Make sure you give up some along the way. Because saying fuck you to Marlboro Country feels pretty good too.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Because I'd rather be ashes than dust. On work, elections and the power of values

The pleasures and sorrows of work have taken me on some notable adventures in the past year. I’ve schmoozed at Westminster receptions, dined with MPs and taken pictures as rioters took it upon themselves to destroy the streets of Tottenham. If anything typifies the existence of a political intern it’s faux glamour – worrying, on a fairly regular basis, if you have enough money on your card to get the bus home as you desperately try to get a room full of millionaires to remember your name.

Interning is now behind me and the self-imposed poverty that overshadowed that chapter of my life is now fading. The glitz is also fast disappearing – as I write this I am in an office at 10.30pm for the fifth time this week, I stink of cigarettes and the smell of takeaway hangs thickly in the air. I sit in silence with my fellow party apparatchiks - two glassy eyed men, tired, unwashed and kept half insane by the constant humming of the machines day in, day out.

Work, for now, consumes everything - and I’ve never been happier.

Selling one’s values to a largely disinterested electorate is both draining and disheartening. A personal intellectual commitment to a world view is met by a loud, discontented almost donkey-like sigh. They squawk “They’re all the same!” from a seat of moral authority exclusively reserved for those without the belief or desire to change anything. This unfortunately is an accusation almost entirely vindicated as all three main parties try sticking their variety of coloured flags in the Holyland of British Politics – the centre ground.

This wall of inactivity and disinterest is perhaps the biggest hurdle for everyone on the campaign trail. When apathy is king the creeping viziers behind the throne have to put in 100 hour weeks to cajole even the most miniscule percentage of people to remember that we have elected representatives worth voting for.

As the reality of 16 hour days set in and spouses get ignored, friends get forgotten and the outside world becomes a misty half remembered before-time, the human cost quickly becomes apparent. People cope with this isolation in a variety of ways. Me and another immediately went for the easy option - anxiety and depression. Some went with flat-out anger. Others simply regressed into various levels of delusion and paranoia.

An ironic bi-product of Parliamentary democracy seems to be the time when people are least connected with the world around them is during an election.

Elections are a deeply emotional business and even an emotarded android from the overly repressed Anglesphere isn’t immune to its effects. Certainty of winning and losing flipped so rapidly in the last days I failed to remember where we even were on this issue by polling day. The mood in the committee room changed almost by the hour. It was like being stuck at a party in the Hotel California where everybody suffers from severe bi-polar manic behaviors.

The power of values brings a special kind of unity to those under its spell. I have no doubt that despite the collective madness elections imposes on its victims I have made some friends that will last me for years to come. The bond that is formed when people come together to inflict imposed collective misery upon themselves for an objective greater than themselves is a far less common experience than you might think.

This is when the values you hold become something you can take pride in – because you worked hard to make them a reality.

I’ve been asked to draft a report on what I learned in Portsmouth. My unofficial take on this is as such -

In an age defined by its political apathy burning the candle at both ends becomes an election neccessity. Luckily for me, I'd rather be ashes than dust.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The tutti-frutti loins of Skeletor. On rhetoric, language and the digital landscape

Many, many moons ago when I first decided to take up the virtual pen I decided to blog about my first love - language. Linguistics is and will always be interesting because it is an extension of our identity. All emotions have a tone, every region a lilt, every single syllable indicates education, background, temperament and age. Being shot in the face with that much information just transports me to nerd heaven. The argument that followed was if language is going to be part of your identity you might as well have fun with it - break rules, be inappropriate and talk incongruously about the tutti-frutti loins of Skeletor. Convention is for conservatives and the aged. My frutti-loins are for everyone else. My initial endeavor didn't cover one aspect of the language landscape - we are changing the way we communicate. Since leaving London I have migrated onto Skype as much as possible simply because I find Facebook chat such an abysmal way to relate to other human beings. It's not so much conversation as it is reducing the rich tapestry of my soul to binary code then asking a data analyst to explain it using pie-charts. Telling jokes on messenger feels like self harming at the farmers market for the amount it amuses people. I am now fairly certain Facebook chat has lost me friends. As far as social media goes, that's pretty fucked up. If you are going to commit violent linguaphilia you should probably learn from the best: I personally recommend Cicero. The Roman PR maestro had 3 elements for a good speech: logos, pathos and ethos. Logos (logic) is the basic need for language to make sense. This is important but most communication isn't just about transferring information. We need to give information meaning, depth and personality. If language is part of a person then personality is an essential part of language. This includes all their gripes, needs, emotions and wobbly bits. Strip out the personality in language and we're just left with dead symbols - this invokes the vacant eyed take-me-on-a-cyanide-binge conversations that are getting fast becoming the norm on this text-based, no-frills, Tesco-value online conversation culture. That's where the rhetoric of ethos (character) and pathos (emotion) come in. When we talk to people, in the usual oral tradition, we express ourselves (our ethos) and try to make people laugh or empathise with us (our pathos). It's so natural it's only ever noticeable by its absence. Those conversations we loathe with THAT weird guy probably just lack ethos and pathos. If it feels like you’re talking to a walking excel spreadsheet he's probably just a pathophobe. He may also be a Quantum Leap fan. Or find Katie Melua moving. Maybe all three. Humans tend to do well at loving other humans. Similarly language must have human characteristics for us to love. Language needs humanity as much as humanity needs language. Without it we become as sterile as the black mirrors we type on. As social learning is little more than visual theft therefore the habits of the cybernetic age are beginning to dilute our pleasure of language. Whether it be t3xting, 3/\/\/-\1l or ROFL @ FB convo's - in the cybernetic landscape convenience is king. I may be a language libertarian but my frutti-loins still have standards. It’s just a little hard to see the logos sometimes. I’ve come a long way in three years but the message remains the same - value the pleasure and beauty of language. With one added sci-fi proviso: Don’t let the machines take your humanity.

Friday, 30 March 2012

On deprivation, natural law and the full-time forgotten of Occupy LSX

So after a terrible night's sleep that probably comes naturally from spending 8 hours in sub-zero windchill conditions I've discovered that cigerettes, tea and friendship doesn't cure mild hypothermia. Biblical prose relates a stark truth of modern life “The poor will always be with us” as child poverty rises, real incomes shrink and unemployment hits unprecedented highs such sentiments have never been truer. Today's autumn budget policy bombardment was a skilfully executed media exercise to hide the central plank of the news today- The situation going to get worse, much worse.

Yesterday I was having one of my off days emotionally, as anyone knows who has filled in a job applications ad verbatim a hundred times, it teaches you that insincerity is bad for the soul. I noticed Occupy LSX had a lecture on moral determinism and therein a vaccine for my soul sickness. The lecture itself was pretty flawed, but if there's one thing that typifies Occupy it's variation. Ages, motivations, backgrounds, blue collar, white collar and no collar are all here. So, in such disorder I did what came naturally. I socialised.

A chronic smoker and an avid chess player I made friends more easily than most, with the general plan to find people who have, since day one, have lived there. The media elusive "full-timers" of occupy. So began three friendships- The thief, the addict and the veteran. Divided in age and circumstance but united by the ugliest of human experiences - deprivation. All their stories of largely self-inflicted misery certainly won't light up the sympathy circuits of everyone but they were all, in a very Christian tradition, penitent figures.

They didn't blame corporations, or the government for where they were but accepted their personal part in the destiny they've realised. Why then, I asked them, did they decide to come to the camp in the first place? The answer was uniform and so blindingly obvious. They had no where else to go.

These individuals make a up significant majority of occupy's “full-timers”. They have no life to leave and compared to their usual grind of hostels, squats and streets occupy is a paradise for them.

So we played chess, drank tea, had dinner, went to lectures, watched movies and even read together. Then my eyes almost rattled out of my skull in disbelief. I was actually having fun. The paradise wasn't relative, it was real.

My interest in politics is guided by the simplest of principals- to reduce the physical and emotional deprivations that characterise human misery. At Occupy LSX the hungry get fed, the cold get clothed, the ignorant get access to education. Everyone gets a place to stay if they need it and most of all they get an accepting community to be part of. The great deprivations that were an everyday reality for the occupy full-timers have, at least for a time, been alleviated.

The sniping of the lack of aims, focus and strategy for the movement are insignificant criticisms when you realise at the heart of what they do is feed, clothe and educate the homeless. There are of course the political posers, the career campaigners and the various hangers-on civil disobedience tends to attract to its fold. They aren't the real beneficiaries of occupy. The full-timers are.

The people of occupy are dug in deeply already. Their microcosm of society is one few among them would like to relinquish. This means the crack down next year likely to be before the Olympics, will be swift, ruthless and brutal.

The reality of this means the full-timers who made their home here will go back to their squats, shelters and streets and resume their lives of criminality, addiction and loneliness. Among them will be people who steal food to eat, wear clothes until they fall off and whose destitution will become absolute.

The feeding of misery is contrary to the natural law of humanity. This will be an inevitable consequence of the eviction at St Pauls. I cannot support it.

To those who occupy and feed, clothe and shelter London's full-time forgotten will continue to have my support, respect and empathy. To those who denigrate the movement for political reasons I say this- suffering is bigger than left and right. Occupiers are, at this very moment, trying to address that.

Political consensus is cheap and humanity is golden - Try above all else to value its contributors.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Suffering a poverty of means, morality, and aspiration. A manifesto for a divided Britain

Following the worst nights of civil disorder seen in my lifetime I expected some big questions to be asked during the recall of Parliament. Something is clearly beyond damaged in our national psyche when chaos descends, not because of any one cause or factor, but the simple collective realisation that you can get away with it. Destroying your community for personal gain has, and always will be, morally bankrupt. Big questions on the state of the means, morality and aspiration and the lack thereof in Britain's young working class I thought would be the central theme of the debate in Parliament on Thursday.

Unfortunately what I heard was almost the complete denial of any problem. They were labelled 'opportunistic' 'Greedy' and 'mindless'. This sort of language is simply used to vindicate the political classes of any responsibility. These individuals may have been all of the above but these are learned behaviours from a society that successive governments have helped to create. It's time they owned up and it's time they took real and lasting action on social stagnation.

We live in a divided Britain. While I think we do a good job in providing great access to the means of social mobility, we keep the classes so vehemently separate it's no wonder they begin to demonise each other. I have always believed that it's a working class pragmatism and humility mixed with an upper class education, motivation and ambition that produces the kind of people that change our world. Yet we're all so scared of each other this paradigm is almost impossible to achieve in our society.

I say this needs to end now.

So in the spirit of blue-sky thinking that such endemic social problems demand, here are some of the ideas the government needs to issue to end the plague of seperateness, the denial of access to centres of excellence and the realisation our ideas of a punitive justice system does not recognise the value, and indeed the need for, the inclusion of the community it affects.

Private Schools: Centres for the rich and famous to keep their children away from the working classes. They provide a wonderful service to the tax payer by having parents who essentially 'pay twice' for their childrens education. They also enjoy tax-free status due to the special value they give to the community. I say they keep this- but only if each and every school that claims charitable status accepts 20% of their students to those with entitlement to free schools meals at no cost. Schools either become businesses and contribute in tax to the education of others, or become charities that make a difference and cease to exist in the current state where they do neither.

Bring back EMA but reform it: No free money for kids but give them everything they need to have a meaningful college experience. Free School meals, Free travel to college and book vouchers to cover the cost of any materials they need for their courses. Those who can pay do, those who can't get support they need. It means not a tax payer cent is ever spent on cigarettes, but college no longer becomes a financial burden on those who cannot afford it. Education should be for the capable- not the rich or the financially needy and policy should finally reflect this.

Restorative justice: One of the most depressing things to emerge post riot is the first e-petition to make it to the 100,000 mark was to revoke the benefits of the rioters. I won't go into the legal nightmare of a mum being made homeless because her thirteen year old son bricked a Dixons but what I will say is that our justice system needs to A) involve the community it affects and B) Rehabilitate those who believe their community is so worthless that it is worthy of destruction. You destroy a shop? You help rebuild it. You steal its stock? You help make it profitable again. You threaten them with violence? You become an assistant to a police officer and help prevent violence in the future. Justice has to be more than punitive- it has to show how everyone benefits from a society of tolerance, freedom and order. It also needs to show how people working together create a meaningful direction for the whole of the community. Inevitably people outside of this are the very people who turn on it in times of crisis.

National Citizen scheme: National service lite essentially. Potentially a great scheme for social mixing but A) it's only 6 weeks long and B) it's not compulsory. Many peoples first 'defining experience' is that of being away from home. Combine that with something that educates someone in the value of community service, gives them skills they can use, and bonds them with people of all backgrounds you create a platform that unifies people and gives all classes a degree of common experience. This would be at least be a nine month scheme that ends the endemic social separateness that affects people of all classes.

Role Models: Unfortunately there is no one policy that can fix this. We need a greater celebration among the wider world of those figureheads that foster peace, tolerance, innovation and imagination. I went through history class without ever being taught about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa. People like Richard Branson, Alan Sugar or Mark Zuckerberg never have their story told about how their one idea changed the world in business studies. Education should be about helping people to have a degree of self-actualisation that helps them realise that success doesn't come from an accident of birth but an understanding that as long as you're passionate about something you can lead by example and become the kind of person people talk about for decades.

This is not about wealth. It is about values, it is about creativity and a non-linear view of what success is. Part of the problem is too many people view wealth as a statement of success- People need to view social value in new and more complex ways and providing more role models in our education system is a great way to encourage people to think differently on the idea of what 'success' is.

You may argue that these ideas won't work, you may even argue that these ideas are crazy. You may believe that there is more that we the people, and the government can do. If so 'share' this article and contribute to the debate- Because the silence of our politicians is nothing short of jarring.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Why you must kill critics, attempt to fail and paint the world.

If there’s one thing that confuses me it’s how standardised the world has become. If this blog has any personal value it’s myself trying vainly to produce something that makes me distinctive. Graduates have to produce a thesis- a piece of work that is entirely theirs. It’s a right of passage, you’ve gone from being a consumer to producer. It’s seems like an apt finishing note that education has changed how you approach learning.

How we learn is probably the most important facet of being human. Learning made us the most powerful species on the planet because we do it best. Bizarrely in a world of increasing non-linearity how we learn has remained remarkably uniform. Sure we have the internet now, libraries are everywhere but everyone will read books, do exams and pass or fail.

Learning for me comes in two forms- understanding and experiencing. Universities do well on the understanding ‘didactic’ style learning but really fail on the experiential side, which really undermines the idea of being ‘learned’. Instructional or observational learning is only part of the story and for this humanities tend to have the greatest missed opportunities in experiential learning. John Dewey an American philospher and education reformer suggested the uniformity in education weeded out the originality and the individual nature of intellectual development it was suppose to create.

“Imposing an alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional. "

Say for instance, you observe a relationship between two people through a one-way looking glass. You might understand how a relationship operates; you may even begin to work out behaviours that foster good or bad relationships. You will never understand the emotional value of pursuing that relationship precisely because it’s not something you learn as an observer it’s something you feel as a participant. Experiencing is a fascinating aspect of knowledge because it is teaching you the unteachable, it filters through a personal and unique biological and psychological system to create an indefinable essence of knowing not just how but why, when and if through the prism of individual expectation and involvement.

This car crash realisation happened to me just over a year ago. I had just started work in a laboratory on my graduate thesis. I had known what science had involved before then but one thing that had never occurred to me is how lonely that job makes you. I had lots friends, a girlfriend, an active hobby in debating but from 9-5 I was occupying an otherwise empty space. Maths, measuring and materials became my only friends for the majority of my time. The sterility of my environment had become a metaphor for my working life.

By the end of the three months I had nearly lost my mind. I had every expectation of what science would involve but not how it would affect me.

Now I realise that science is not one of the careers that hardly markets itself for the socially marvellous, but one thing I learned is that I’m not mentally wired for a job that requires a lot of isolation. This was a psychological filibuster that effectively ended my career in science before it even begun. The kick in the teeth was that it took my entire university career before I could experience this.

Now I look at my CV and see that my degree takes up less space than my address and that alone suggests to me that education in this country isn’t working. Most of the people who talk of the formative experiences of education simply don’t talk about essays, tutorials or deadlines. They talk about time they wrote for the newspaper, went travelling with the debater or ran for student president. They were experiences that I created, chose and most importantly participated in.

It's easy to sideline experential learning when the environment becomes all about grades. Those who decide to do little but study at university probably degrade their employability and intellectual development for two core reasons- they become risk averse and lack initiative. Risk adverse behaviour is exactly what you would expect in an environment where you are forced into an observational role in education. The observer is set apart from those that create knowledge.

I've known many English literature graduates during my student travels all of which that can recite some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever known. Few, if in fact any, have even attempted to write poetry of their own. Whilst continually forced to be an observer and asked to critique the work of others over time it pushes them further and further away from participating in the very work they are celebrating. A builder can only be called a builder if he builds things. The first attempt might be somewhat crude but at least he can call himself a builder. At university everybody becomes what any builder hates. They become critics.

Being in an environment full of critics can kill the artist within many people. This is because critics, especially inexperienced ones, will almost always judge their peers (or in many cases their competition) very harshly. The first mistake the inexperienced critic makes is judging people by impossibly high standards, the second is attempting to make themselves feel good about doing so. The third mistake is assuming that people want to here about their tastes rather than their opinions. The final and most maddening of all is oft-committed crime of attempting to prove how knowledgeable they are instead of helping the reader or the artist appreciate or develop the piece. Thus we must kill the critic without trial. Creative genocide is the ugliest crime of them all.

Luckily for the critic there is a cure for this sickness- attempting to fail. The experience of attempting to produce any work of merit weather it be a poem, a book or an article teaches us something that didactic learning never could- that originality is hard, motivation is inconsistent and that writing about yourself makes you vulnerable and scared. Most critics never come from this point of view precisely because they are armchair generals in this regard. Viewing the tactical moves without the human reality of the experiences involved, and therefore ill-informed to make judgements on that which they do not know.

It seems that, at least formally, we are only taught one type of learning our entire lives. I think experiential learning needs to become a bigger facet of all our lives, precisely because requires us to be participant in what we love observing and that transition teaches us things we could never otherwise know about our discipline and our very personal relationship with it.

I say get out of the armchair and head for the front line and start experiencing what you learn, appreciate and love. Don’t be educated to be a critic, be educated about yourself. Maybe then you’ll paint the world. Maybe then I won’t kill you.