Monday, 30 May 2016

Chasing The Scream - The Opposite of Addiction

For a (very) short while way back in the day I dated a girl who did heroin: I’d watched her chopping lines upstairs at a party. A week or so later, we were fooling around (no sex) in my rented flat in Putney, and when we stopped and were lying there kinda peacefully, she said “This is how heroin makes me feel”. She was taking heroin just so she could feel like she’d been fooling around for a while? How freaking bad were the rest of her hours? It turned out, as I slid into alcoholism, that some of my hours may have been as bad as some of hers.

Addicts and drunks are made, partly by genetics and partly by upbringing. Psychologists are learning that harsh emotions are real, chemical storms and floods that destroy one set of synapse links in the brain and make others, and affect the autonomic nervous system as well, so that stress hormones are released at the slightest provocation, because when the addict was small and helpless, the provocations were always serious. I’m sure we will learn that good experiences also create permanent changes in the brain and autonomic nervous system that lead to increased an attraction to, and pleasure from, social events and the company of people. Those without the good experiences or with too many bad ones can learn to behave like an emotionally-balanced person, but they will never feel like one.

In his insightful book about the War on Drugs, Chasing The Scream, Johann Hart suggests that isolation keeps addicts addicted, and connection with people and society helps them get off the drugs. Addicts do improve when they have a job, a medical-grade supply of their drug, someone to listen to their stories, a partner and a place to live. The people who run those programs are decent, caring and practical and the world needs more of those programs and less bullying by politicians. Normal people who find themselves using drugs to cope with extreme situations - the Vets who came back from Vietnam and the patients who come off heavy post-op opiates - don’t live without the drugs because they have “human connections”, they live without the drugs because they are normal people and they don’t need to cope with an extreme envirnoment anymore. The addicts who don’t stop are people whose intolerable environment is internal, not external: that’s why “geographicals” - moving or travelling for months on end to try to make things better - don’t work.

“Connection” is either an euphemism for sex, and that’s just drugs, or it’s about doing stuff together or sitting around talking, and that’s like watching British TV: it seems okay at the time, but when you’re on your own again, you feel cheated. There are a handful of people I can spend time with and feel that time is well-spent, but most hanging-out time is not, minute-for-minute, worth an episode of Elementary or Angel.

There’s a reason people in the 12-Step programs call themselves “recovering alcoholics” or “recovering addicts”. They understand that no-one stops being an addict, and alcoholic or any other kind of dysfunction. What they can stop is acting out on their addiction. The opposite of (acting out on) addiction is living a routine life without excitement or drama, and it’s the vanity and obsession to attend a day job, keep orderly digs, exercise, eat right and read challenging books so that you don’t turn into a tub of lard. It’s getting out of bed and go about your day because you woke up alive again. Most of all, it’s taking chronic low-level emotional un-rest, dis-ease and emptiness, and handling the occasional flare-ups into real emotional pain. It’s those flare-ups that send so many addicts back out again, and what attending 12-Step meetings is can help manage.

Some addicts reach a moment in their sobriety when they finally accept that nothing and nobody can make them feel better. It can be an awful few weeks while they deal with the idea that they never will know peace and rest and love. They really are on their own, and they learn that the reason for telling the truth is the same as the reason for having a day job is the same as the reason for being honest and thoughtful is the same as the reason for being healthy and organised is the same as the reason for keeping people at a polite distance: it’s less effort, it keeps their lives simple, and you don’t have to remember what lies you told to whom.

But in this realisation lies freedom. The sober addict, in their emotional emptiness, can live for any reason they choose, except the search for an impossible emotional rest and ease. It’s the people who can make “human connection” who wind up as slaves to marriage and fatherhood and all the games that women and children play, and all the threats that wives and employers can make. The sober addict, knowing that “connection” is for them ultimately unsatisfying, can reject the idea that “the real meaning of life is other people” and find a meaning for themselves. Even if that meaning is simply a simple defiance of their condition: showing up and living sober despite. This isn’t easy, but that’s a whole other story.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Polarisation: or When You Get Better, Others Get Worse

For thousands of years, the distribution of just about any human quality, from height to charm through spear-throwing prowess, was distributed on a Bell-curve. Since about the 1970’s, technology and social change has created a phenomenon called “polarisation”.

Whenever a new piece of kit, knowledge, skill or social practice appears, standard consumer behaviour theory says that some people will jump right on it, others will wait a while, others will wait a longer while, and the rest will be hold-outs who don’t adopt or do so with very little engagement. This is the “early adopter / late adopter” model.

Polarisation isn’t anything to do with that, but might be confused with it.

Some bits of kit, knowledge, skill or social practice are only consumer goods and fashions. A few have the capability to change the quality of someone’s performance at a specific activity (think of the Wilson metal-head tennis racquet)

 (If you were an okay player, this made you even better)

or even the quality of their health and life

(It is not the only exercise you need to do, but you should be able to do it)

Consider the difference in productivity between a programmer using a modern IDE with some hold-out insisting that Notepad and a good memory is all the development environment anyone needs; or consider the difference between you and the people at work who still haven’t go the message about weight-training and eating right.

When a change like that comes along, some people jump on it to take advantage of the improved performance or productivity it gives them: they want to do whatever it is better, they are prepared to put in the work to learn the new tech and acquire the habits needed to use it. Most other people look at the cost, either financial or of learning, time and work, and decide that they don’t care about whatever it is enough. So they don’t bother.

It’s what happens next that is the kicker: the people who want to improve, improve a lot, and the people who decide they don’t really care that much actually put less effort in and get worse. If, for the sake of an illustration, everyone starts off distributed along a Bell curve (the blue curve below), they wind up along a very different curve (the red one). Depending on the driving change it can happen in a year (high tech) or a decade (social change requiring new habits).

Polarisation is what happens when some people decide to exploit a technological or social change to improve at doing something, and others decide not to, or actually to ease off on doing whatever it is. If it’s a new bidding convention at Bridge, that’s not a problem: but someone who backs down from what little exercise they are doing because they can’t keep up with me or you, is deciding to give up. Polarisation isn’t about genetic or native advantages. Those follow the Bell Curve. Not only do you have to be born looking like Mica Arganaraz, you have to work at staying like that as well: there are a million ways to ruin that look and only a few to keep it.

(Any excuse for a picture of Mica.)

It’s not enough to buy the gear (hence “all the gear and no idea”), it’s about acquiring new habits and knowledge. Polarisation is about self-discipline, a desire for improvement and/or excellence, combined of course with vanity and a mild obsessive-complusive thing. That’s what makes polarisation brutal: it’s often about moral character.

Notice that the red curve has a lot more people at the right-hand side of the distribution than the Bell curve does: after polarisation there are actually more smart (hot, fit, healthy, well-travelled, whatever) people than before, but everyone else slips to the left. That’s why companies are staffed mostly by novices and advanced beginners, who know enough to do the business-as-usual parts of their job, but not enough to innovate or troubleshoot. They and the company get bailed out by the people in that bump on the right. And they get dragged down by the people in that bump on the left: because there are also more really dumb (lazy, fat, stupid, whatever) people than there used to be as well.

Under polarisation, the smart get smarter and everyone else gets dumber; the fit get fitter and everyone else winds up on statins; the hot get hotter and everyone else puts on a bitch face and wears vanity sizes ; the cultured watch Eva Yerbabuana and everyone else watches Strictly Come Dancing; the travel bugs go to Malaysia one year and Uruguay the next while the rest barely leave the house except to go to work (that’s me); the healthy eat steak and broccoli while everyone else eats Mac and Cheese. And so it goes on. (This is not the same as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. That’s been happening since the start of time and has to do with the fact that wealth is a zero-sum game: for you to get rich, you have to take wealth from me. But I don’t get fit at your expense, since you can use the weights after I do. Those sorts of things aren’t zero-sum games.) The others are not worse off because of some conspiracy by the better-off, but because they have chosen to bother less. Some people are content to accept out loud that they have made this trade-off, but others don’t want to accept responsibility, and invent any number of conspiracy theories ("The Patriarchy”, “Colonial Oppression”) to explain why it is someone else’s fault.

It so happens that in the last few decades we have seen changes in the nature of work, entertainment, learning, food and exercise, that have produced a lot of polarisation. Hot women are hotter than they ever used to be, but the rest are barely even attractive. People who exercise are, by the standards of the 1960’s, absurdly fit and healthy, but the rest are physical basket-cases. The Internet has made it possible to wallow in junk culture, or to read books that even in the 1980’s could not be found outside an academic library or Foyles: but most people watch dumbed-down TV documentaries, if they even do that. Smart people have laptops and software that let them express and expand those smarts way beyond anything they could have done in the 1960’s. People with good taste have an incredibly wide range of culture in which to apply that taste, while people with no taste have endless opportunities to demonstrate their cultural klutz.

Although there are more smart people, they tend to congregate in the industries where their smarts are appreciated and rewarded: so they actively avoid the public sector, whereas in the mid-20th century, public service attracted smart people. There are more hot girls, and the contrast between them and regular women gets harsher, with the obvious effect on men’s enthusiasm for all things provisioning and commitment. There are more men who are in shape, and therefore less willing to settle for regular girls who can’t be bothered even with Pilates. The only people who notice the ill effects of polarisation are the people on the right-hand side of the curve: regular people don’t notice a thing, and the ones on the left-hand bump have a feeling that somehow they are utterly superfluous to the functioning of, well, anything, and that nobody would miss them if they vanished overnight. (That’s where third-wave feminism comes from: it’s a screeching demand that the world change to make them relevant so they don’t have to do any work themselves.)

Regular people will carry on leading mainstream lives: but they will be less healthy, less fit, less smart, less cultured, less everything, than before. They won’t notice that because they have no point of comparison except the unattainable standards of the people who put the work in. (This is one reason why governments publish health and dietary advice that is worthless at best and actually harmful at worst. They are trying to say something that will be useful to people who didn’t put the work in and are not going to start now.)

That has repercussions for the health service, the quality of your local government, the quality of the teaching your children get, the quality of customer service you get, and a ton of other stuff. Supported by good systems, even novices and advanced beginners can deliver a reasonable service. The problems start when the organisations need to change those systems to adapt to changing legislation, customer needs and suppliers. They have no internal problem-solving expertise to draw on, and some organisations don’t even have people good enough to spot bad advice from expensive consultants. Take one look at the NHS to see where that goes.

Polarisation matters, and as long as you stay on the right side of it, you're okay. You don't have to be good at everything, but you do have to resist the temptation to slide from acceptable, and so be a little better at a lot of things than most. It's not that hard.

You'll just have to stop flicking through Facebook and read a proper book instead.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The Routemaster, 1950’s Manliness and Being Out of the EU - You Can’t Go Back to Any of Them

Every decade there’s a year or so when someone decides to revive the styles of a couple of decade earlier. They did it for the Seventies – the decade that style forgot. Nobody actually revives the exact clothes and music: what they do is update some of the iconic styles and designs so that it contrasts with the current-decade stuff but doesn’t look anachronistic. It takes a lot of talent to do it, and nobody got it right for the Seventies revival.

We can’t go back. Not even to the Routemaster bus: why would we give up forty years of improvement in manufacturing and engine technology? The old ones broke down all the time, chucked out diesel fumes and needed big burly men to turn the non-power-assisted steering wheel and stomp on the non-power-assisted brakes. So we get updated Routemasters that are a darn sight more comfortable and can be driven by women (if you care about that sort of thing).

Same with social policy and roles. We can’t go back because the context, the rest of the world, isn’t going to go back with us. Marriage 1.0 was horrible, which is why as soon as they could get out of it (1st January 1971 in the UK when the Divorce Reform Act 1969 came into force), women ran for the legal door and haven’t stopped since. The alternative to easy divorce is not happy “we worked it out” marriages, but a lifetime of indifference, emotional and physical violence, and a long slow death of the soul. Anglosphere institutions support Marriage 2.0 and are not reversible.

Old-fashioned masculinity was not what contemporary writers think it was and whatever conception of being-a-man we make in and for the Anglosphere (as opposed to in and for, say, Nigeria) needs to be made in the context of post-modern Capitalism. Whatever it means in that context (and I’ve said my piece on that), “masculinity” can’t mean that fantasy of post WW2 Golden Age male behaviour promulgated in sites like The Art of Manliness.

It’s the same with the EU. We can’t go back to being Britain-Before-Joining-Europe because the rest of the world has changed and won’t support that anymore. We would be better-off staying in and working to change the EU, especially removing the ability of the Strasbourg Court to over-rule national governments. Europe is never going to be a Federal State, and its bureaucrats have to accept that. Only Britain is big enough to make them see that: the French and Germans still think that Federal Europe will be France (or Germany).

Papa Hegel’s crucial insight was that Nature, mankind and all its works, was a process in development, not a static, unchanging, cyclical bunch of events (though that was a good description of the mediaeval world). Thesis-antithesis-synthesis: Marriage, masculinity and femininity 1.0; Marriage, masculinity and femininity 2.0; Marriage, masculinity and femininity 3.0; and ever onwards. Same with the EU. EU 1.0 was a trade zone; EU 2.0 was an attempt at making a Federal State; EU 3.0 will be an association of co-ordinated national governments; and as the rest of the world changes, we will need EU 4.0.

This line of argument doesn’t apply to everything. Some things are part of the environment and other things just live there. The Internet started as an academic toy and became part of the environment, but Twitter is a loss-making parasite in it. Look carefully at the stuff that seems to survive environmental change and you’ll see that it’s not what exactly what it was, but has been tweaked to fit in with the new world.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Phenomenology to the Rescue

I ran across this browsing in some odd reddit...
My body is the container from which I experience my life. We all make these kind of statements in our daily speeches and writings, but I don't think many people really take the time to think about, and try to understand what these statements tell us about the composition of a human being. If you say, ''my x'', or ''I have y'', or ''I possess z'', what you are trying to communicate(whether you realize this or not), is that you are a separate entity from the object you claim to possess. You cannot be a part of an entity you have, or possess. My body... My mind... My emotions... My feelings... My intellect... etc.. Think about this. Who is this man called Me, who has a body, a mind, emotions, feelings, and intellect, and can boldly say MY body, mind, etc. After thinking about these things(and many other theories) for a long time, I have come to the same conclusion that most religions believe in, that: Man is a spirit, who lives in a body. I have a body and I can control it and make decisions for it. But who am I? Or Who is me? Somebody help!
Help is at hand. The Mind-Body duality thing has plagued philosophy and psychology since man first thought about it, and still continues to fool brain-studies academics. It wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century that Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty got their phenomenological groove on and provided the basis of an answer. To save you wading through Being and Time (Heidegger) and The Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty), I’ll summarise.

You are your body. Your body includes your brain, and your brain is a self-conscious organ - unlike your spine, where large chunks of autonomic functions happen without anyone being any the wiser. The brain can be self-conscious because it isn’t doing one huge task, but a whole bunch of independent tasks that can inter-communicate. Many of those tasks (facial recognition, throwing balls, recognising bad smells) are built right into the firmware. Some of those tasks involve monitoring and modifying other tasks (hence the phrase “think, you idiot!”) and that’s where the self-cosciouness of the brain arises. What’s that you say? That’s what a multi-tasking operating system does? Am I saying that OS X is self-aware? Well, which do you want? Accepting the idea that a modern computer has formal self-awareness, or more obfuscation and mysticism about souls, spirits and non-material consciousness? (I rate OS X somewhere about the level of a cat.)

The “Me” in “Who is me” is probably the dominant voice that’s chattering in your head at any given time, along with the dominant physical urge you’re experiencing (your head says No No No and your dick says Yes Yes Yes). That’s why we sometimes wonder what the hell’s going on with us: occasionally a brain task that doesn’t usually get much air time, gets on the phone and rants away. Where did that come from? Who am I?

Your body, your self. (I could write a book with that title… oh, wait…).

Monday, 2 May 2016

Love Is A Drug, Not a Therapy

I've been going through the “Chastity Blues”. This is a few days when, in the hectic pace of my life, for some strange reason, I mind that I’m not enjoying intimacy with another human being getting laid. I’d be lying if I said “it doesn’t bother me”, but most of the time I don’t notice it. This is because I’m a bachelor and I live alone. No woman has ever cluttered my wardrobe.

So I did what I do when this sort of thing strikes, and after that, I went looking for kindred spirits on the Internet. And came across this old post on Average Married Dad

The post begins by referencing M3’s famous Confessions of a Reformed Incel post, and summarised...
For most men this is what it boils down to from his post: It’s not just about ‘sex’. (well, for me anyways) It’s about the connection sex implies. Of being wanted, desired, to be loved both mentally and physically, to be validated, to share, to connect, feel alive, be human. His post breaks this down to the point that the lack of this basic need led him to be suicidal. He’s a single guy, but the need for affection and, yes, sex is something that is born in our very DNA. Single, gay, married, straight… we need this bond, especially with someone who we love, to feel like a man. When it doesn’t occur, or occurs only enough to keep the marital hounds at bay, it haunts us and becomes a depressing focal point for a depressing life. For men, there’s sometimes only a pencil thin line separating love and sex. Sex is both a biological need and a way for us to express our love. If we don’t have sex with our lives, the love we feel starts to erode. Sometimes men can deal with the scraps they’re given, but even if they do, resentment can build and eat away like a cancer.

Okay. Stand back, but...

It's not the lack of sex that makes his love erode, it's being in a relationship with a woman who desires him so little she doesn't want to have sex with him, and gives so little of a shit about him, she can't be bothered to fake it. The resentment he's feeling is towards himself, for not leaving and changing the locks on his way out the door.

I admire M3’s post as much as anyone. I found it liberating to read someone being honest about the pain, anger and resentment bred by long-term chastity in one’s twenties. But. The problem isn’t that M3 and I didn’t get much sex: it was that we thought sex would give us some relief from the empty, corrosive feelings we had about ourselves and life. Sex is the wrong drug for the problem.

In the same way that a child can grow up physically diminished by too little food (or for that matter, overweight and flabby from too much junk food) they can grow up emotionally diminished and needy because they didn’t get the support, hugs, guidance, discipline and affection they needed when they needed it. If that happens, just as no adult diet can add the three inches a kid missed because they didn’t get enough calcium to grow bones (or whatever), no amount of affection, sex, cuddles and assurances at age thirty can make up for what was missed at age ten.

That’s what happened to me, and I guess to M3 as well. Anyone walking around with that big empty space inside them (if you have to ask, you don’t have it) will look for ways to fill it up, but nothing can, and certainly not sex. Sex does what it does, and what it does is drugs. Sex doesn’t bond anybody: the oxytocin it sometimes releases in some people make them feel as if they have bonded. It has no effect on the other person, who may just be glad that all that uckiness is over.

You want bonding, get some Superglue. Sex has nothing to do with connections, being desired, validation, sharing, feeling alive, being human or any other damn thing. That’s the Protestant work ethic talking through pop-therapy books, telling you why sex is productive and has a proper place in a good worker’s life. If you want or need any of those things, someone didn’t feed you right when you were growing up, and you’re still feeling the resulting emotional starvation.

You want to feel human? Well, are you feeling sad, frustrated, angry, depressed, bored, pissed off or disappointed? Welcome to the human condition.
You want to feel alive? Take a day off and go to the coast.
You want to connect? What are you? A plug?
You want to share? Share some of your money with the next waiter who gives you good service.
You want to be validated? What are you? A parking ticket? What does it even mean?
You want to be wanted? Heck, these days you couldn’t be wanted if you committed a crime. The police would have to give a damn, and they don’t.
You want to be desired? Lose that flab and gain some muscle. Also take a shower. And get a job. Lose the tracksuit and wear proper clothes.

A man who needs to have sex to feel like a man is, well, how can I put this kindly? What would you think of someone who said “'Cause it makes me feel like I'm a man / When I put a spike into my vein”?(*) Thought so.

It’s not a good idea for a man to explain how sex makes him feel, and how its lack makes him feel. For one thing, she already knows or she wouldn’t be withholding it. For another, if she really doesn’t, she just won’t understand the words he is using, because clearly she has no experience of sexual desire to relate to. But mostly it’s a bad idea because it makes her responsible for how he feels, and that’s deeply unattractive to her: she needs to know she can emote all over the place and it will not affect him, and he will provide the grown-up stability she needs. Those relaxed cocky guys are getting laid because they are cocky and relaxed, not vice versa. Also, if wifey turns off the tap, they have no compunction about getting their needs met somewhere else, which is why wifey never turns off the tap. This is basic stuff.

Sex can be as good a way to pass an afternoon as anything else, but that’s what it is: it’s entertainment. It’s not therapy and it’s not relationship management and it’s not a trade-off for getting the rent paid. All those other feelings you have are caused by drugs and are yours alone. Just because the drugs are natural doesn’t make them any less drugs. Treat oxytocin like any other drug: enjoy the high, but recognise that it’s not telling you anything about you, her, the both of you together, or the real world.

(*) Lyrics courtesy of The Velvet Underground’s Heroin