Category Archives: Life

Jessica’s Diaries Being Posted On Substack

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve begun transcribing and posting my younger-self diaries to substack.

I started writing a diary at age 10, and reading back on my diaries has been informative and often hilarious over the years. When I started transcribing my diary to turn it into a novel (that one is from around age 25), I realised that other people may enjoy reading the secret diary of someone, even if that someone is ordinary.

And so I began to transcribe my first ever diary, from age 10, with the intention of transcribing it weekly. I think I’ll continue through time for as long as I like. There are plenty of years to cover before I reach the time of the first novel!

To read the diary head on over to:

https://diariesofjessicajane.substack.com/

A Day In The Life Of Spiritual Jess

Update for posterity on Jess’ life in 2021.

On 4th January I moved to a hostel with cheap bedrooms and shared facilities. I wanted to do my own thing as independently of others as possible. This means leaving my friends from London, and I did.

I switched out my first room which was kinda small to a bigger one with a private bathroom and a door to access the fire escape. By far my favourite feature of the room.

At first, in January, I was reading some buddhist books that are recommended in another book that I have (https://www.mctb.org/) The book says to start with Metta, so with Metta I started. I was simply saying “May I be peaceful and at ease” and the other three phrases in a vaguely undisciplined way during quiet times. I would also get stoned and observe my closed-eye visions, and my energy body. Something I still do now. Most of that month though I was easing in to the rhythms of the house, the kitchen and trying to stay warm.

In February, in the new room, I eventually decided to move on to Insight meditation practice (also known as mindfulness). I’ve gone from occasional 30 minute sits to 2×45 minutes every day. I also did an online weekend retreat of Mahasi noting, which I crashed out of it when it got hard several times.

This leads us to a “day in the life of”

I get up between 10am-12noon, just in time for the sun to reach my stairs.

I eat breakfast in the sun, and sometimes take my rug out to read down there. I am always reading one book on Buddhism/meditation of some kind or other, and cycle through them.

Usually, pre-lunch, I do a 45 minute mindfulness meditation sit on the rug just inside my room.

I eat lunch, trying to avoid other people as I make it. At some point in daylight hours, after lunch, I do a second 45 minute sit. Sometimes I do a guided video instead, occasionally later than dusk, to switch it up.

Sometimes, at some point before curfew at 8pm, I go out and get food, do laundry or other chores. In the park on the way to the supermarket I take photos of the wildlife.

If I don’t have chores but do need a little walk, I go and hug trees on the main street of Lisbon.

Once it gets to dusk I do a variation on having a nap, having a “special” cigarette on my stairs, and having a dance. Mostly all three. All of these involve imaginal experiences, paying attention to behind-the-eyes visions, my energy body, my physical aches and pains, and dreaming.

Afternoon nap time

At dinner I sometimes see my friends at the hostel, and I’m not always avoiding them, which seems good, even though I want to devote more and more hours to spiritual stuff.

Almost every day I consider writing, but after the first mindful sit I feel very different. I don’t know what to write, or have any sense of feeling like writing. One day in every 10-20 or so days, like today, I write first and meditate later.

The desire to write is sometimes for its own sake, and sometimes because I would like to switch to that as a career, and I’m concerned with gradually building up enough words to one day make money with it.

During Jan and Feb I did in fact work most days on an ebook of my pre-existing blog posts (find it here: http://ssica3003.com/book.html) which was more mechanical than writing new things, and easier to do for short chunks per day.

At night I eat dinner and watch a film. Typically I have a late-night call with my partner, then fall into bed to sleep around 2-4am. I’m normally disturbed by early morning hostel noises between 7am-9am, then I dream weird dreams for an hour or three before it all begins again.

My world context is of Portugal in a strict lockdown (curfews, no movement, nothing open except for food, no delivery of goods that are not food) but I don’t think I’d live my life much differently if I could move around more. I’m starting to miss English friends though, would have flown home for a visit soon, and my birthday will be a corona-birthday once again.

There’s nothing to do except get awakened, which was true before I left London, so here I am, doing that, and sometimes it’s sunny 🙂

All Seats Are The One Seat

I recently, with encouragement from a deity, admitted to myself that I am a spiritual person, and on a spiritual path. I am finding it extremely hard to talk about.

We’ve already seen that my contemplative practice can be unusual, and I find it hard to say that something is explicitly a spirirtual practice, when patently all of life is.

To me, meditation is a sort of brute force method that should work for almost everyone, given enough time, and that’s why it is so strongly encouraged. It’s the “5 fruits and vegetables a day” of spiritual practice. However, I have none the less started doing what looks like “meditation” from the outside, and is absolutely a spiritual practice from the inside. The more spiritual contemplation I do, the more I crave what a monastery can provide: plain food, easily aquired. A narrow bed for a little sleep. And a safe place with plenty of time to reflect.

In his book A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield recounts a saying from his teacher, Achaan Chah: “Take the one seat in the center of the room… and see who comes to visit”. Jack reminds us in this chapter to commit to a practice, and to actually do it. “Take the one seat”. He tells us that the inner and outer aspects of the one seat unite on the meditation cushion.

Good advice, but I don’t use a cushion,. For my first month in Lisbon, I’ve been sitting on a concrete block, and I thought I’d share it with you.

A local square with construction works

The concrete block is in a local, tucked away square that seems to have been under construction/repair for some time. The trees seem dead and the fountain at the back is shuttered and dry. I like to put my back against that fence on the left hand side. The afternoon sun shines down from right.

A concrete block next to a fence

Here’s my one seat. It’s just high enough to cross my legs slightly lower than my hips, opening the pelvis just a little. Sometimes I lean on the fence, sometimes I don’t. One day the fence was moving back and forth strongly in the wind.

I sit here in the sun and meditate. As the earth moves, the shade from the building opposite travels slowly towards me, from the left in this picture, towards the block. (The shadow on the right here is a morning shadow that receeds as I meditate – this was taken before the start of my meditation).

When the shadow of the building touches my face, the meditation can end.

The conrete seat after the shadow has arrived

I chose this place because I can be warm and comfortable enough to sit for extended periods. The street is a quiet one, but it links two major roads, and noticing my social unease as people walk by is a part of sitting cross-legged here with my eyes closed. I like using the sun as a marker, which removes having undue awareness of my phone. I still sometimes peek at the shadow, noticing what part of me it is that wants me to get up and stop. And it illustrates for me that the one seat can be any seat, since this place is somewhat distant from even the comforts of an austere monastery.

This is just one seat. Every seat is The Seat. The bus seat. The lounge couch. The smoking balcony seat especially. You don’t even have to sit to be in the seat. Any delay in daily life of a few seconds or more is the seat. The bus queue, the supermarket queue, the gap between the receptionist welcoming you and your 10 o’clock collecting you from the lobby.

Recently, sitting on my bed, collecting myself before a phone call, I reflected that even 20 seconds in the presence of Buddha is a refreshing swim down the river. Just sit back, lift your legs off the bottom, and float.

All seats are the one seat, especially concrete blocks on broken down building sites.

How To Become A Tech Contractor

The end, myths and tips

Here’s my story of becoming a tech contractor in London, followed by myths/truths I found along the way. Your circumstances are different to mine, so your mileage may vary.

I want to put the end at the beginning. I only became a tech contractor because it was the first grift I found where the numbers finally added up.

All my life I’d been contemplating dream jobs based on a few factors, such as: how much I like it, how much I need to train to get a starting salary for it and how good I need to be to get a big salary for it. Until recently all the jobs I’d liked enough to care about failed on one of these factors. Either they were paid very poorly (writing/journalism), or if not require unlikely levels of excellence to be paid well (photography).

But at the age of 29, I contemplated front end web development. Front end web development was something that I liked well enough, was easy to train in, was well paid from the start and due to supply and demand, did not require any excellence to command top salaries. Contracting offered far better salaries than a traditional job, it was more flexible but it also (apparently) had higher risk. The risk/reward ratio was so favourable however that it was a no-brainer for me.

(One week of salary was equivalent to 3 month’s rent & bills)

With numbers like that, I was going to do whatever it took to become one. You should consider whether you feel this way.

Are you kidding yourself

Most people dream of being a contractor the way everyone thinks they want to write a book: it’s not something they’ll ever actually do.

They say that “if only” whatever obstacle wasn’t in their way, then they would be able to do it.

If they actually tried to write a book they would quickly realise they can’t write one. They never will try to write one, because that’s not the point of this dream. The point is to have a fantasy where their lives and themselves are different and better.

Such a fantasy needs some plausible excuses as to why the person isn’t acting to fulfil their dream right now, so the person makes some up. Not enough time, got to pay the mortgage and so on and so on. This excuse shields them from the reality that they could never write a book, because the reality is that being different and better takes a lot of hard work. Much easier to just fantasise.

So too with freelancing. I have heard every excuse under the sun for not yet being a freelancer: lack of experience, mortgage, kids, sick mother, everything. And I have also met successful freelancers with every single one of these burdens that other people use as an excuse. This tendency to make excuses is often a sign that being a freelancer is actually an escape fantasy.

Are you doing that?

If you think maybe you are, congratulations on your self-reflection! You can probably stop reading and maybe enhance your non-contracting life now that you know you’ll never really be one.

If you’re still reading… I’m sure you want to know the details of how to make a go of contracting life. Well I can only tell you what worked for me and it won’t translate to many other kinds of circumstance, but maybe I can help you think about it differently.

Everything you know is wrong

Let’s start big and abstract: everything you think you know about freelancing is wrong.

I’m sure you think your fears, which I have just labelled “excuses” are legitimate worries, but they are the product of a mindset that is ill-matched to the task at hand.

They are ill-matched because you’ve been trained by the “perm” (permanent) world to be fearful about what gets you jobs, because fearful employees are easier to keep in line. You’ve also been dazzled by meaningless rubbish to keep you in your current job, because it’s good to keep a healthy dose of carrot mixed in with the stick.

But that’s what all your knowledge about jobs is: it’s a never-quite-reachable carrot-on-a-stick that is an illusion to keep you under the thumb. None of it is relevant to finding your own work over and over again.

If everything you know about freelancing is wrong, then the details of your fears are wrong too. You should stop worrying about those. You should be way more worried about other things, things you don’t even know yet.

Myths

Let’s look at some things you’ve got wrong, and unseat them.

Myth: “I don’t have enough experience”

Most people think that technical skill level is the biggest factor in becoming a freelancer. Most people think you need lots of experience (coincidentally, it is often about a year more than the person currently has, no matter how long they’ve been a dev or what experience they have).

This is absolutely wrong. You don’t need any experience, and as a freelancer it is by far the smallest factor in becoming successful.

On my journey, I spent 2hrs/day for 1 week on codecademy learning CSS, with my friend answering my questions. Then I spent 4 hrs / day for a second week constructing a website from scratch. It was one that I found that I liked the look of. I built it with almost no peeking, and my friend was still there answering my questions.

On week 3, I was working on my first job as a developer. My friend took the work on and handed it to me so that I could get some experience. I did most of the work, and he checked it over. We split his fee 50/50. The client was Adidas.

I had two weeks of informal part time experience and then I worked for Adidas. Experience is not what matters.

Myth: “Permanent jobs have a lengthy interview process, contracting interviews must be even worse.”

This is wrong. The opposite is true. Hiring managers bizarrely just assume that the recruiter has done a thorough interview process and so they don’t need to. After all, that’s why they’re paying through the nose for a recruiter!

This seems strange at first, because recruiters do not carry out technical interviews with you – they can’t! But they have done something much better.

They have transmitted to you a sense of what all their clients want to see on the cvs of contractors, then you have brushed up and put that very particular thing on your CV, and then they have sent you out to do a quick interpersonal interview to a bunch of clients. Eventually, one of them likes you (often for no good reason) and you’ve been accepted at your first contract.

When your first placement is a week or two in, they sought feedback from the client. Obviously, the client won’t mind trashing a contractor they thought was shit. In fact, they’ll be very honest.

If you don’t get trashed, clearly you have the technical skills! They’ll also hear all about your “fit” in the team as well. Your social skills. So the recruiter listens to all this and sends you in to another client and repeats the process. If you keep getting ok reviews, they’ll keep sending you to places.

This method for placing people in jobs is actually far better than technical interviews, and subconsciously, everyone involved knows it.

Myth: “How much you charge relates to you technical skill level.”

This is wrong. How much you charge relates to how badly the market needs your skills. These are 50% technical and 50% social. Maybe even 40 / 60.

Myth: “The more you charge, the more you are screened in the interview process.”

This is wrong. The opposite is true. The more you charge, the more respect you get and the less they put you through humiliating coding tests and interviews. This is so laughable, but it’s true.

My friend who charges £800/day hasn’t done an interview for years. He also has a great story from back in the days when he was cheaper. He refused to do a coding interview unless they paid him for his time. At first they said that wasn’t possible, and sent him the code test. He never did the test and didn’t send them anything back. A week later they phoned him to offer him the job.

People assume you’re the real thing if you charge high because it’s actually not a bad heuristic. Fakers get found out quite fast and so in fact the people who charge more do send out a true signal that they take themselves seriously, and therefore so do their employers.

It’s perm people who are the chumps that can’t be trusted without interviewing them first.

Tips

Ok, enough myths. I think I made a few wrong turns in those early days, so I’m going to switch to “tips” to highlight what I think is important and what retrospectively I think worked.

The biggest factor in becoming a freelancer is not any of the myths above, it is having the balls to do what it takes.

Risk

You have to take risks. There are some ways to give yourself courage when dealing with risk. As I mentioned above, I simply did some math.  I worked out that for just one week of freelance work could pay my rent for 3 months, if I could keep my costs low enough.

With that kind of math, there was no way I would do anything else but whatever it took. Every time I wobbled and got worried I just remembered the math. I remembered that one hour of looking for freelance work was worth two weeks in a coffee shop job.

I think having a sense of bloody mindedness about the whole thing is important, and I’m not sure taking a frightened, softly softly approach will get you anywhere. At some point you have to go all for it. It’s an emotional commitment. You have to be happy to take the risk, and be able to deal with it.

See the world as it is

An important factor in my story is about noticing imbalances in supply and demand and cost of living versus wages. It’s costly to live in London, but if you win the income game, you can win big. So I pretty much blindly moved to London knowing that anything I did would have a good chance of advancing myself upwards economically.

I fairly quickly realised that basic web development skills can command a salary much higher than other basic skills (admin, coffee making etc) This is simply because the skill is in demand. It is not because the skill is difficult.

Noticing this requires seeing the world in a certain way, in particular understanding how market economics really work. Most people assume “harder” work is better paid, but if you’ve ever been in a caring profession you will know that is not the case.This is true in the reverse direction – well paid work isn’t necessarily hard.

Tech work also has a mystique of “rocket science” around it, implying that the skills are difficult. This is also not true, and I’m not sure how you’d know that was not true. I noticed that the job specifications did NOT always require a computer science degree, so that’s one way.

People often think that they need to be as good as other developers out in the market. This is not the way the world is, the truth is you have to be a better developer than an empty chair. Which is what the company looking to hire currently has available to get their web development work done.

Lie

I think you should lie.

Obviously, having no portfolio or CV in tech is a problem. So I lied. I said I knew javascript when I didn’t because everyone kept asking for it. I took a chance that people didn’t really need it, they just asked for it by rote.

I got a friend to give me a client and the way I presented it, it seemed like they were my client and I had done all the work for it. I knew I had done a significant portion of the work (with help) so I felt ok about it, and I banked on no-one checking too closely or caring that much, and it worked.

Get information

Get information and notice patterns. It’s important to find all the sources of jobs and test out which ones work well for contracting and which ones don’t. Recruitment fairs are bad for contract jobs. Meetups on technical subjects are also bad, although they are good for feeling part of the “scene”. Some websites like o-desk are bad. One website called Work In Startups was ok and I found my very first jobs there.

Ultimately, I found that recruiters are good for contract jobs. Recruiters are a valuable source of information when you are getting started and you are valuable income for them, so it’s mutual, but only if they can place you. Recruiters will ask you a bunch of questions about your experience, address, day rate etc. Don’t be intimidated, recruiters have to deal with people like me who have been in the game for years, we’re fussy and charge a lot. Then there’s newbies with no clue. They need to figure out what kind of person you are and believe me they are good at it. They don’t care which you are, they just need to know so that they can try to place you. So that’s the source of all their questions.

If you talk to enough recruiters they’ll end up asking you for the same things on your CV, and if you don’t have it, you should try to realise what it is they want that’s missing, and get it (or lie about it).

If you notice the patterns, and of course you can just outright ask them, recruiters can tell you how busy/empty the market is, the going rate for each tech skill, the job title the employers are asking for, the location of the jobs and the skills they expect to see on a CV or portfolio. I noticed that everyone was asking for HTML, CSS and JS. I hated JS, found it too hard, and couldn’t do it. But I realised that if I didn’t put it on my CV, no-one would hire me. So I lied and put it on there. I soon started getting interviews (and most of the time I didn’t need js anyway! It was just jargon).

This won’t be the same for other tech stacks. But the technique is the same. I noticed that when my friend who is a Swift developer was on the phone to recruiters they always asked him if he had an app on the App Store. He didn’t, so they were hesitant to offer out his CV to their clients. He needs to work somewhere that has an app on the app store, so he can put it on his CV (or make his own) (or lie).

Don’t Think Like a Perm

A word of warning: my friend above is in a perm job now. Originally it was to get experience on a live app in the app store, but six months in he began gunning for a Senior Developer title. Recently I asked him “why?” He gave me vague answers that involved the words “roadmap” and “experience managing people”. Is this what his contract recruiter kept asking him for? No!

Titles like “senior” are to keep permanent people enthralled, to keep them working in the company. It’s an illusion of advancement that is meaningless. Companies hint that these titles will get you a raise, but believe me it would be a far smaller raise than if you switched jobs to work elsewhere.

It’s far less common to see titles like “Senior” for contractor roles, because the day rate is the true indicator of someone’s skill level. Always be laser focussed on what recruiters/the market really want (or are saying they want).

Make People Love you

If you find people offering work, you have to be attractive to them. Find out what they like.

I get my work through contract recruiters. Recruiters love two things: LinkedIn and Being On The Phone.

They are sales people, they need to make quick deals (especially short term contract work) with reliable people. Always, always, always answer your phone. I hate talking on the phone, but I learned that I had to do what it takes, and using the phone is what gets me jobs.

They also need to “sell” you to their idiot clients. They need a flashy portfolio, a filled out LinkedIn and a buzz-word heavy CV to send to their clients. The hiring manager and the recruiter themselves are unlikely to be techy, so just fill in all the words and wait until the interview to see if the job really needs the skills they say it does.

At the interview, there is almost nothing you can do to make people love you. It will be pure chance at first. Since it is pure chance, you simply need volume. Be persistent. Keeping going to recruiters. Keep going to interviews.  I’m pretty sure I got my first ever contract that was through a recruiter because in the interview the lead designer saw I had hairy legs and felt I was a kindred spirit. You never know what’s going to finally crack the nut, so just keep hammering it.

One Last Story

One last story about figuring out what you really need to do, rather than what you assume you need to do:

My website was hand-coded (and designed) by me when I first started out. Years later, I looked through my bank statements one day and I noticed a trend. Lots of small amounts were going out, nothing going in. The occasional £500 for some pitiful two days of work at a shitty startup.

Then a small fee for “theme forest” went out (a website that sells pre-designed and coded website templates). I had bought an attractive theme for my website that I didn’t code myself.

The very next entries were a series of £1,500 being paid in. Loads of them. That theme helped me to get a long contract with a real company.

I call this “Chefs don’t cook at home” – you don’t have to code your own website. You DO have to look good to a non-technical person.

Everything’s Going To Be Ok

So stop whining and just do it.

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore

I am a huge fan of Alan Moore, and I am one of the few readers who eagerly purchased his magazine, Dodgem Logic, as the issues came out in 2010. One article in particular in Issue 3 had a profound effect on my thoughts at the time, and contains a couple of concepts that are so useful I want to be able to reference them in my own writing.

Two years ago, Dodgem Logic content was not available anywhere on the internet, and so I transcribed this piece for reference. I now see that some Dodgem Logic content is available on Scribd. I hope that Alan and the other authors are the ones controlling that account and are getting paid for it. If so, I hope this transcription inspires people to seek out the rest of the Dodgem Logic content on Scribd and drive revenue to the authors, but if the existence of this article is a copyright-infringement-too-far Alan is welcome to contact me on [myhandle] at [gmail] and I’ll take it down.

Until then, enjoy:

‘Magic, Running In The Gutters Like Lightning’ by Alan Moore in Dodgem Logic, Vol1 Issue 3, pp 2-9, April-May 2010

Here amongst the body-bags and melting icecaps of the modern world, magic is surely no more than a comfort-blanket for the dopey and the deluded, or perhaps a lucrative and proven movie-franchise means of separating miracle-starved children and nostalgic, disillusioned adults from their pocket-money. Alan Moore thinks otherwise.

Magic is something that should not be mentioned in mixed company or, come to think of it, in any company whatsoever. It will kill the conversation deader than Houdini and evoke a silence at once horror-stricken, pitying, and uncomfortable, like suddenly announcing you’re partial to incest or Morris-dancing, practices that might have all been perfectly acceptable when we were medieval, but which modern science and common sense assure us we are better off without.

This is particularly true at present, when the science and rationality that dragged our species up from a quagmire of ignorance and pestilence is fighting for its life against a horde of pulpit-pounding, reality-phobic fuckheads who think the planet was, in only seven days, assembled like IKEA furniture a mere six thousand years ago by some kind of talked-up local volcano deity who could apparently have used a course in anger-management and who then planted lots of several-million-year-old fossils just to test the faith of 19th century palaeontologists. It isn’t simply Darwin that’s endangered here: Reason itself is under threat, along with every last advance in human thinking back to Galileo and beyond. Given the stakes, it seems counter-productive to make any sort of case for magic, seems like muddying already bloody waters to dredge up an idea that is equally despised by those on both sides of this increasingly brutal and bare-knuckled argument.

And yet, what if inside the bottomless top hat of magical ideas were some means of conceptually resolving the dispute, some arcane and discarded worldview broad enough to readily accommodate two seemingly irreconcilable realities, the scientific and the spiritual? After all, magic is older than both science and religion and in many ways is parent to the pair of them, with religion being only tribal magical traditions and creation myths that have been organised on a more formal basis, while science is itself built on foundations of hermetic scholarship and alchemy. Who better to sort out a brawl between the kids than Mum and Dad?

So, you might reasonably ask, if magic’s so important historically and potentially, what is it? Although a straightforward enough question, this has a variety of answers which depend on who is being asked. A five year old will tell you with conviction that magic is something that a witch or wizard does to conjure up enchantments or to fly the moonlit skies of Halloween. A Christian fundamentalist will tell you much the same thing but with greater emphasis on satanic orgies and eternal hellfire, while a scientific rationalist would describe magic as a system of belief that has exploited human ignorance of how the world works to prop up or justify an endless system of scams, tyrannies and slaughters, almost since that world began. There may well be more than an element of truth in all of these opinions, and yet if we wish to understand the subject on its own terms before we dismiss it then we might be better off, rather than consulting outsiders on the issue, in asking how magic has defined itself.

This question will admittedly elicit just as many different responses if considered across a few thousand years of diverse magical philosophies, but a halfway-modern definition after the important 20th century magician and alleged Great Beast Aleister Crowley would see magic as the act of bringing about changes in reality according to one’s Will. Will is capitalised deliberately, to stand for the intentions and the actions of one’s highest self, the wisest and most noble part of us, the part that watches out for us and tells us that pissing in an electric outlet isn’t such a great idea. This carefully makes a distinction between our true Will and all our wants, desires and impulses. Running amok at our place of employment or school with a samurai sword or AK47 would certainly bring about change in reality, for both ourselves and for our victims, but these would be changes that only a self-obsessed emotional and psycho-social cripple could find interesting or satisfying. This would be contrary to the whole central concern of magic, which is to connect the individual to his or her highest self and thus transform them into someone much more balanced and empowered, more capable of managing the powerful currents of their life and circumstances that swirl all around them; someone for whom plans succeed and difficulties melt away as if by magic.

Wonderful as this might be, if all there is to magic is some sort of woolly, new-age self improvement program, then what’s all the fuss about? Where are all the demons conjured hissing into pentacles and all the supernatural powers, the flying through the night on broomsticks? Do these ‘changes in reality’ we’re talking about include changes to the laws of physics, such as those which pertain to gravity, for instance? Pretty obviously, the answer to that question would be ‘no’. Does that mean, then, that all the claims made on behalf of magic are no more than a collage of madness, fantasy, fraud and misunderstanding? Given that to say as much is to dismiss the basis for the biggest part of modern science and culture then, again, the answer must be in the negative. This leaves us with an apparent contradiction. Are we saying magic is real, or unreal? Or are we saying that it is somehow both these things at once? The resolution of this puzzle gives us the key to understanding magic, but before we can unpick it we must first sort out our terms of reference. Before we can decide of magic’s real, unreal or somewhere in between we must first make it clear what we mean by reality.

The first thing we can say about reality from a human perspective is that we cannot experience reality directly. We have photons bombarding retinas. We have vibrations in our inner ear, in our tympanums. The cilia in our nostrils and the buds upon our tongues transmit impressions of the chemicals comprising everything we smell or taste, while the minute electrical impulses racing through our nervous systems tell us whether we are touching silk or sandpaper. Moment by moment, we somehow compose these signals into a grand, shifting tapestry we call reality. It isn’t: It’s our sensory impressions of reality, with a direct experience of the thing itself being impossible. Effectively, to practical intents and purposes, reality is in our minds.

The second thing we can say about human reality is that we seem to be perpetually experiencing two very different kinds of this elusive quality or substance. Firstly, there is the material world with all its complex and unyielding laws of chemistry, biology or physics that our mortal bodies exist in and interact with. In trying to comprehend material reality, our human consciousness developed an exquisitely precise tool, science, whereby we could measure, study and perhaps eventually understand most of the cosmos that surrounds us. And then, secondly, we have the immaterial realm that our minds seem to be suspended in, the shifting and ungraspable reality of human consciousness itself… which, as observed above, is the only reality that we can ever truly know directly. This ‘inner’ reality is utterly impenetrable to the scrutiny of the scientific method, which requires empirical proof and phenomena that are repeatable under laboratory conditions, thus excluding thoughts, emotions and the rest of our internal landscape. It’s ironic, but the only blind-spot in our scientific understanding of the world is consciousness itself, the very thing that science emerged from.

Science’s inability to handle consciousness (or even prove that it exists) presents a problem in that if we want to know how our minds work in order, say, to stop them getting ill or maybe to improve them, in the same way that we know things about our bodies, then we have no one to turn to. Consciousness, of course, also presents a major stumbling block for science itself. Science can quite justifiably claim credit for the countless insights into our existence that is has delivered down across the centuries, but one suspects that with consciousness being very probably the most extraordinary, rare and precious item in the universe, the failure of science to provide an explanation for it must surely be irritating.

From science’s point of view, consciousness is what has been called ‘the ghost in the machine’, a vaporous and elusive spectre that is inexplicable and which thus messes up our otherwise detailed and comprehensive clockwork scheme of things. So vexing is this gap in scientific understanding that some areas of science have tried to paper over it by claiming that consciousness doesn’t really exist, that it’s some manner of hallucination caused by glands, by chemicals, by something science is capable of measuring, despite the fact that this flies in the face of all human experience. It also offers us a model of our inner workings that seems limited, impoverished, and functionally all but useless, most especially if we’re in any line of work that calls on us to be creative. How are we meant to aspire to the literary heights of Shakespeare or musical composition skills of J.S. Bach with all mental activity reduced to a mere fart of the pineal gland? A richer and more helpful model of awareness would seem to be called for, perhaps based upon more flexible ideas as to what constitutes reality.

For instance what if rather than denying the reality of consciousness simply because it happens to be outside the parameters of what science can discuss, we instead take the stance that both mental and physical phenomena are real, albeit real in different ways? If we accepted that all thinking creatures were amphibious, in the sense that they have a life in two worlds at once; if we accepted that the phantom world of consciousness was just as real in its own ways as the hard world we bruise our shin on, wouldn’t we at least potentially have a new way of looking at our own awareness, and perhaps a different means of interacting with our own minds that might turn out to be more productive, fruitful and, frankly, exciting?

The idea that we exist astride two worlds, both the material and immaterial, requires examination, though it should be said that this examination cannot be scientific because, as explained previously, consciousness and science go together like milk and uranium. Is there, then, any evidence for the reality of the two planes we are discussing?

Well it could be argued that the definite existence of two such realities is, as the saying goes, as obvious as Lady Gaga’s cock: There is the world in which physical things like, say, a chair exist, and there there is the different, immaterial world in which the idea of a chair exists. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the idea of a chair must come before a physical chair can exist. The same is true of the whole man-made world around us, with our clothes, our homes, our advertising jingles and the language that we sing them in all starting out as ideas in someone’s mind, in someone’s consciousness. Looked at in this way, the world of awareness, far from being unreal, is the solid bedrock upon which a major part of our material world is standing. Also, it bears pointing out that immaterial ideas are much more sturdy and enduring than their physical manifestations. If, for example, every solid material chair were suddenly to vanish from the world (and no, I don’t know how that would have come about, except perhaps in Dr. Who where there’d be some variety of mucous-dripping aliens for whom “our Earth chairs are a kind of drug”), then as long as we still had the idea of chairs, it really wouldn’t be that big a setback. Ideas are immortal, or at least as long-lived as the culture that comes up with them, whereas the objects, monuments and even empires those ideas inspire are transient by comparison. Considered from this angle, which of our two worlds seems the least flimsy and the most important, even the most real?

In this light, we perhaps begin to see how many of the more extraordinary claims made on behalf of magic may have a firm basis in reality, although not the hard, physical reality that we most usually mean when you use that term. We possibly begin to understand that saying magic only happens in the mind or the imagination is potentially a very different thing from saying that it isn’t real. Importantly, if we can accept that the insubstantial medium in which our consciousness exists is just as much a world as the more solid medium in which our bodies, furniture and scratch-cards are all situated, then we can at least try to explore that immaterial world and determine its properties, just our species has so rigorously and rewardingly explored the other realm that our amphibious human breed inhabits, that of matter. Even by simply considering awareness, metaphorically, as being somehow like a world or landscape, we are opening up a family-sized worm-can of fresh possibilities for interacting usefully and interestingly with our consciousness.

What might such a purely cerebral territory be like, compared with our familiar physical terrain, and governed by what different laws? The laws of space and distance, for example, would be different in a world made not from dirt and rocks but from ideas: Land’s End and John O’Groats, famously far apart in the material world, are often mentioned in the same breath and therefore are right next to each other in conceptual terms, are side by side in the peculiar geography of consciousness. The laws of time might well also be different, given that we seem able to travel effortlessly into the remembered past or the projected future in our memory or our imagination, in a way that we cannot accomplish in material reality.

Perhaps the most intriguing question with regard to this world of the mind that we’re hypothesising is whether we each have our own sealed and private mental world, or whether it might be more like the way things are in the physical reality, where each of us has our own private space… our house or room… while having the ability to venture out into the world beyond our door that’s mutually accessible by all, and where we can meet up and interact with other people. If the landscape of ideas were common ground to all of us, this might provide a way of understanding those occasionally reported instances of knowledge-at-a-distance or telepathy. It could also provide an answer to the question asked most often of creative people, which is ‘where do ideas come from?’

If consciousness was actually a mutual environment and if ideas were like physical features in that landscape… like pebbles or landmarks, say, depending on their size and their importance… then we’d have to suppose that since everyone has ideas good or bad, then everyone must be connected with this immaterial world of concepts all the time, whether they be aware of it or not. Some ideas, such as the idea to stick the kettle on and make a cup of tea, are commonplace and could be seen as the equivalent of sand-grains on a beach, in that they’re everywhere, are of such little value and so easily in reach that anyone could have ideas like that without the slightest mental effort. Genuinely original ideas are much, much rarer and will take more of a mental journey and a lot more work to track them down, being less like common sand-grains than like a newly discovered species or lost Aztec city. This is perhaps why new ideas are found most often by artists, philosophers or scientists; creative people who are struggling to establish a much deeper and more exploratory relationship with their own consciousness. It may seem strange to think about awareness as a landscape and ideas as landmarks in that space, distinctive rocky outcrops that we sometimes stumble over in our mental wanderings, but if this were indeed the case it would explain such otherwise improbable coincidences as James Watt’s invention of the steam engine at the exact same time that several other people were inventing the same thing, having had just the same idea.

Of course, so far we are considering our mental realm only in terms of its geography. However when we first set sail on explorations of our physical reality we learned that other areas of the material world were already inhabited by different kinds of people, unimagined animals and unfamiliar vegetation. It might be to our advantage, then to consider the potential biology of our proposed landscape of consciousness, its fauna and flora. Journeying into these further reaches of the mind, what other life-forms might we possibly encounter?

Well, if it’s a landscape that is mutually accessible, we could perhaps expect to make contact with other human minds that happen to be travelling in the same zone of consciousness, as we suggested earlier with regard to a potential basis for claims of telepathy. Furthermore, if it’s a landscape that is indeed timeless, then it might conceivably be possible to meet with human minds that are from our own point of view located in the past or future, which might offer us an explanation for phenomena as various as ghosts from bygone eras or prophetic glimpses of events yet to occur.

Then there’s the at first startling possibility of life forms that aren’t human, that are instead native to the immaterial meta-territory that we’re describing here, creatures made from the insubstantial stuff of thought in the same way that our physical forms are made from flesh and blood, ideas that have evolved to such a level of complexity that they can at least seem to be alive, to be intelligent and independent entities. Living ideas: surely there’s room in such a notion that’s sufficient to accommodate all of the demons, angels, gods, grey aliens, Smurfs or leprechauns, all the imaginary creatures that we humans have made claims for the existence of since the beginnings of our species, back before we had a rational, material worldview which informed us that the things which we experienced in our minds had no legitimate reality.

In our prehistory, before we even had the concept of a mind, we would presumably have taken our experience of the world to be a single, undivided whole, unable to make any separation between mind and body: between external and internal reality. It would seem natural then, in our stone-age attempts to understand a baffling and sometimes hostile universe, for us to vigorously investigate the farthest limits of our territory, both the world that was available outside us and the world that was available within. In these primitive attempts to engage with what we would come to call our consciousness, we have the origins of magic, and also, coincidentally, of science, art, philosophy and indeed almost all contemporary culture. The first Palaeolithic witch-doctors or shamans or magicians patiently developed a whole range of different techniques by which they hoped to interact more deeply and productively with the mysterious underworld that was somehow inside them. By studying these primordial practices, we can get a much clearer picture of the altered state of consciousness that they believed was necessary in order to practice magic, and perhaps also a deeper and more useful understanding of what magic really is.

In our comparisons of commonplace ideas with sand-grains and of rarer ideas with more distant items that would take more mental effort to locate, we seem to be suggesting that some people are prepared to engage much more energetically and deeply with the world of consciousness than others. It was this deeper engagement that our stone-age sorcerers were seeking, or at least this would appear to be the case given that most of their recorded magical techniques seem to be methods of inducing trance-like states in both themselves and their observers. Their otherworldly costumes, in which are the origins of all film and theatre, were designed to shock those watching into a new zone of consciousness. The chanting and the ritual drumming, from which all music commenced, are still still well-known as means of bringing on a state of self-hypnosis, with the same being true of dance, as any hold-outs from the Rave scene would most probably affirm.

And then, also in common with the Rave scene, there are all the psychedelic drugs that shamans are associated with, whether that be the preparations of Ayahuasca or Yage used by South American rainforest sorcerers, the spotted Fly Agaric mushroom favoured by both Lapland shamans and Viking berserkers, or the common “Liberty Cap’ so-called ‘magic” psilocybin mushroom which we may suppose was the most readily available source of a visionary stimulant for the witchdoctors of both ancient Europe and the British Isles. The point is that whether we speak of drumming, meditation. dance or drugs, we’re talking about methods that are only useful as a means of penetrating the internal landscape, which would seem to be a world that the magicians of antiquity thought just as real and important as the physical domain around them, if not more so.

The musings above hopefully present a way of understanding rationally how magic might be seen to work, at least by the practitioner: By using ritual or drugs or drumming or some other technique for inducing altered states, the shaman or magician travels further into our suggested realm of consciousness than would be possible in other circumstances. Moving through this realm they may encounter what seem to be immaterial entities with which they may communicate and from which they believe they can glean useful information. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the entities concerned are actually ethereal, independent life-forms or just facets of the human mind and personality that we cannot usually access by other methods. Whether we’re communicating with an actual god or with some previously inaccessible part of our own awareness, it would seem to be a thing as marvellous and of as much potential use in either instance.

As we trace the course of magic’s evolution from its Ice-Age origins, we are constantly reminded that what people think to be the literal truths of magic are in fact misunderstandings of what are in fact purely internal mental processes. The standard image of a witch astride her broomstick flying through the night air to the Witches’ Sabbat (or, for that matter, off HarryPotter playing Quidditch) provides us with a splendid example of this over-literal approach at work. From what we’ve come to understand of medieval witchcraft, two of the accoutrements often possessed by genuine practitioners were ‘flying ointment’ and a ‘flying harness’.

In the preparation of the former, a variety of common drugs were combined with fat to make an ointment. These included Henbane, Deadly Nightshade, Angel’s trumpet (all of which are psychedelic at some doses and horribly poisonous at others) along with soporific drugs like Mandrake root (from which comparatively modern sedatives like Mandrax are derived) to make the user sleep. Taken in combination, it might be supposed that this would not be any ordinary state of sleep.

This brings us to the so-called ‘flying harness’, a contraption made of ;eather straps in which the wearer could be comfortably suspended as though weightless from the ceiling of a hut or outbuilding warmed to a constant body-temperature and kept in total darkness, muffled to eliminate all outside noises. This would appear to be an early version of today’s sensory deprivation or flotation tank, with the would-be witch hanging weightless in the dark and silence, neither too warm nor too cool, feeling both disembodied and adrift in their own consciousness. It was at this point that the flying ointment was administered, smeared one of the body’s mucous membranes that would rapidly absorb its heady mix of psychedelic drugs and sleeping potions.

Though I’m loath to be indelicate and spell this out, the body’s most accessible and most absorbent mucous membranes would be those found in the anus or vagina. That’s how suppositories work, after all. In the case of the flying ointment, it would be applied to the suspended witch by means of a convenient applicator, such as, say, a broomstick. When the ointment took effect, the witch would be propelled upon a disembodied psychedelic flight through the landscape of the imagination, a flight only taking place within the mind of the practitioner (although as we have pointed out, that isn’t necessarily the same as saying that the flight’s unreal). It isn’t hard to see how the above could easily be misinterpreted and end up as our cliched ‘image of a hag swooping through darkness with a broom between her legs. Best not to think of Harry Potter in the changing rooms at Hogwarts, getting ready for a match.

As magic became more sophisticated in its practices and theory down across the centuries, we still see the same trance-inducing techniques being used and still see magic taking place almost entirely in the inner landscape of the mind. During the 16th century, Elizabeth the First’s official alchemist, adviser, scientist and astrologer was the astounding Dr. John Dee, a man whose abilities with mathematics, navigation and encryption were the basis of the British Empire (a concept that Dee himself invented) and yet who devoted himself to communications through the medium of a black mirror or a crystal ball with startling entities that he described as angels.

His angelic invocations, chanted in a channelled or invented language called Enochian, function in the way that chanting did for prehistoric sorcerers, allowing the practitioner to slip into a trance state where they’re liable to be receptive to imagined visions in the blurred depths of a crystal ball, used here as a blank screen upon which the observer’s inner visions are projected much like pictures seen within the dying embers of a fire. Despite the fact that all of these drug-induced broomstick flights or crystal ball angelic conversations can only be seen by science as worthless delusions, can we easily dismiss the ideas of a great mind such as the one possessed by Dr. Dee, a man without whose scientific work the later work of fellow alchemist Sir Isaac Newton would not have been possible?

Admittedly, great minds occasionally say or do things that are stupid or misguided, and even an open-minded sceptic who was willing to accept that there might possibly be some truth in our theories about mental space could reasonably ask if there was any practical or useful point to these imaginary exercises. After all, putting potential therapeutic value to one side, what is the point of talking to hallucinations? By their very definition they are mental things and thus cannot provide us with real information. This is a good point and, on the surface, a persuasive argument. However, it avoids the fact that science itself has no idea where a great deal of human knowledge comes from. The debate’s still open, for example, on how we arrived at the most fundamental concept in the whole of human thinking, which is language. As for mathematics, which turns out to be a perfect system that allows us to examine our mathematically-ordered universe, we as yet don’t have a convincing explanation for how we came up with it. This obviously doesn’t prove that immaterial spirits must have gifted us with language or mathematics, but it also doesn’t prove they didn’t.

Let’s consider the specific case of one small part of our vast arsenal of medical knowledge that of the vegetable drug curare, used routinely in the west because its paralysing properties are useful in those surgical procedures where it is important that the patient doesn’t move. Curare is one of the many drugs that we have borrowed from the herbal remedies and medicines used by the natives of the South American rainforests, and in his excellent book The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, ethnobotanist Jeremy Narby investigates its origins. Curare, used by the rainforest natives as a poisonous tip for their blowpipe darts, will paralyse a treetop monkey so that it cannot cling to its branch but will instead fall to the forest floor where it can be recovered. Better still the meat will not be tainted by the poison. Now, curare is a compound drug, and the rainforest natives have no concept of scientific method.

Even so, they somehow manage to select the right plants from amongst the estimated millions of separate species to be found within the rainforest, and they somehow know enough to boil the plants together and reduce them to a pulp without inhaling the sweet-smelling but instantly lethal vapours. Then, some-how, they know that the resultant mush will be inert unless it is injected in the subcutaneous tissue just beneath the surface of the skin, as is accomplished by a blowpipe dart, for instance.

Narby felt dissatisfied to all these somehows, and decided to ask the rainforest people natives where the’d got their complex information from. Their reply was that the knowledge was imparted by their snake-god through the medium of their local witchdoctors or wise men, the Ayahuasceros, or ‘the men who drink ayahuasca’.

Contacting these sorcerers and taking part in their hallucinatory rituals, Narby experienced a meeting with two large fluorescent talking serpents whom he understood to be the gods that he’d been told of by the natives. He went on to speculate that these ‘gods’ might be some sort of icon or avatar projected by the snaking double helix of our DNA, if DNA were actually a conscious entity. Whether this is the case or not the point is that a substance we are happy to use in our rational and scientific western world would seem to have its origins in processes that are beyond the limits of what science can usefully discuss. Without a magic worldview, even if that worldview is anathema to any scientific rationalist, both science and medicine would lack a number of incredibly important tools.

The notion that things of tremendous use or value can be gathered front the insubstantial entities that are encountered in the crystal ball, the psychedelic episode or simply in our wandering imagination hasn’t ever been in doubt for the innumerable practitioners of magic throughout history. During the nineteenth century, elaborate magic brotherhoods such as the Order of the Golden Dawn did much to organise some several thousand years of wildly diverse magic theory into a coherent system. Meanwhile, brilliant mavericks like infamous Aleister Crowley or the transcendentally unnerving Brixton artist and magician Austin Osman Spare were introducing the idea that the best magic systems were perhaps the ones that you’d discovered or invented for yourself.

In light of all of the above. where does that leave us? Here in 2010, beleaguered as we are by our increasingly invasive and controlling governments, with our material environment and our economies collapsing, should we even be discussing such a thing as magic? Won’t that just make God more angry?

On the other hand, if as a species we are circling the plughole of existence then it could be argued that we really don’t have anything to lose by just considering a different worldview, and indeed might have a lot to gain. One of the major benefits of the internal magic landscape is that it cannot be penetrated by police or government. In its environment of ideas, much more durable than our own physical environment, it maybe that solutions to our current eco-problems can be found… it’s fairly obvious that we need to get new ideas from somewhere, after all… and as for all our economic difficulties, as a resource magic is entirely free and doesn’t seem to have a carbon footprint.

But, even if we accept that magic might be beneficial, how are we to go about it? Well, we could do worse than looking to the ancient universal principles of magic, as described above, to find our answer. It would seem, for instance, that in order to engage more deeply with the magic landscape of our consciousness, some means of entering a trance-state is required. This could be repetitive and rhythmic drumming, chanting, meditation or a psychedelic drug, depending on the individual’s tastes. Before immersing ourselves in our preferred trance, however, we should have in place some method of controlling and directing our hoped-for experience. This is where magic ritual comes in.

A magic ritual, which might involve a lot of different elements, can be seen as a way of programming our minds towards the area of consciousness that we are hoping to achieve or contact. For example, if we wished to contact a symbolic entity like Mercury, the Roman god of magic and communication, we would decorate the space where we’ve decided to perform the ritual with things that are associated with that god. A good book of magical correspondences like Aleister Crowley’s 777 will provide complete and useful tables of associations for whatever entity you hope to get in touch with, but in the specific case of Mercury you’ll find that among those associations are the number eight, the colour orange, the perfume storax, the vegetable drug hashish, the precious stone fire-opal and a host of other things. So, when it comes to tarting up your ritual space for your Mercury ritual, you might want to have an orange cloth draping the tabletop or altar, with eight candles lighting the appointed space and some storax gum smouldering in an incense burner. You might want to have an image of the god in question in some central place, either a statue or an image clipped out of a magazine or, best of all, an image that you yourself have created. The combined effect of all these things is to create a mindset that’s conducive to the type of magical experience you wish to have.

Some unobtrusive music that adds to the atmosphere and seem appropriate might complement the ritual, and some sort of spoken invocation would provide a focus. You could probably find some already-written invocation to the Roman Mercury or similar Greek Hermes somewhere, but again it would be a lot better to write something of your own. Magic and the creative arts have much more than you’d think in common with each other, and with Mercury as god of writing and communication you might think that he’d appreciate all the creative effort that you’ve gone to. Write something that’s as lyrical and strong and as poetical as you can make it, something good enough to please a god, or at least your idea of a god (which is, after all, all we’re talking about here). When you have all this preparatory work in place, that would be a good time to induce your preferred trance-state by your chosen means, and then sit back and wait to see what happens.

This basic and simple methodology can obviously be adapted to whatever sort of magical experience one happens to be seeking, with a little use of the imagination. The above example deals with conjuring some being in to your awareness, but could just as well be used if you desired to travel mentally into the world associated with that entity, just as the witches travelled in their minds to their imaginary Sabbat. This technique for mental travel…basically a strenuous forum of imagining…could also be used to explore the zones mapped by some magic systems such as the Hebrew Kabbalah or John Dee’s Enochian realm, or with a bit of thought and ingenuity could be applied to whatever experimental magical procedure the practitioner might like to try importantly, at the commencement and conclusion of the ritual or experiment, it is a good idea to cam out what’s known as a banishing ritual, to symbolically seal off the experience and keep whatever forces may have been called up from having an unwanted effect upon your ordinary life. Banishing rituals are readily available in numerous books on magic, or once again you can invent your own.

The reason banishing rituals are necessary is that magic is a subject not without its dangers. Foremost amongst these is the very real possibility of going mad or losing yourself in this new and unfamiliar territory. If one’s reasons for approaching magic are for entertainment or for a secret advantage over others or just idle curiosity, then one is probably better off avoiding it, the risks being considerable. Practiced magicians speak of the importance of keeping your four ‘magical weapons’ with you constantly, at least symbolically. These four symbols… the wand, the cup, the sword or dagger and the coin… are the four suits seen in the Tarot deck.

The represent the four classical elements, fire, water, air and earth, and also represent the human qualities that those elements stand for. Coins or discs that stand for earth remind us that in our approach to magic we must make sure we are grounded and that our material circumstances are sufficient to our needs. Swords, standing for the element of air, are symbols of our intellectual faculties, the cutting edge of our intelligence that helps us to discriminate between a good idea and a bad one and which helps prevent us sliding into mere delusion or perhaps full blown insanity. Cups, representing water, stand in human terns for our emotions and above all our compassion, without which all of the magic power in the world won’t stop us turning into arseholes, brutes or monsters. Finally, wands stand for fire and represent our spirit or our soul, our highest self that should be in command of our emotional, our intellectual and our earthly circumstances if we wish to be balanced and fully realised individuals in control of our own lives.

It’s this harmonious and empowered state that is perhaps the most important goal in magic, turning yourself into someone capable of leading an enjoyable and useful life while having a benevolent effect upon the world, bringing about changes in accordance with your Will. This is the gold the alchemists were seeking, being much less interested in transforming metal than in their own personal transformation. There’s a lot of work entailed, admittedly, but the rewards are unimaginable and more likely to improve your life than winning several million on the Lottery. Of course, there are some people who were hoping that magic would be a way of getting what they wanted without working for it. There are still a lot of would-be magical practitioners who think of magic as a way of, for example, making someone fall in love with them, or conjuring up cash, or punishing somebody who’s offended them with a demonic curse. This, in the current author’s own opinion, is just lazy, cowardly, manipulative bullshit. If someone’s offended you then sort it out yourself, assuming that you can’t just, y’know, move on and get over it the way a grown-up would. If you want money, then why don’t you magically-get off your magic arse and do some magic work and see if money doesn’t magically arrive? And if you want someone to love you, do the necessary work upon yourself that makes you somebody-worth loving. Trying to coerce someone’s affections through the use of sorcery compares unfavourably with simple rape, where at least you’re not trying to involve eternal spirits in your wretched, verminous activities. Generally, the rule is that if there is something that can be accomplished by quite ordinary material means, don’t bother magic with it. On the other hand if there’s some immaterial demon messing up your life, like anger or depression or addiction, then magic maybe the very thing you need to give your problems both a name and face, to banish them or at least to negotiate with them and perhaps see them in a different and more useful light.

Magic isn’t there to turn us into gods, although that’s certainly what it has been mistaken for. Instead, magic is what can turn us into complete human beings, fulfilled in their lives and in control of their own destinies. Even if all the above is no more than misguided speculation and if there’s no more to magic than an over-active use of the imagination, think about the benefits that a better relationship with your imagination might allow you, maybe that job as a writer or an artist that you’ve always dreamed about, if only you could work out where such people get their ideas from. It may not be the bolts of fire from the fingertips that Gandalf led you to believe it was, but I’m reliably informed that it can still be a productive and incredibly enjoyable existence.

Science is a perfect tool to measure our material universe, but it is only consciousness, beyond the reach of science, that lends that universe its meaning. Without meaning, this is just a random, accidental world and all life is an ultimately unimportant fluke of chemistry and physics. If, however, you chose to see your existence as ablaze with meaning and significance, then magic is a worldview and a faculty that’s free to everyone, part of their birthright as a conscious human being. All that’s needed is a shift in how you see reality and you can change reality itself, at least as far as you’re concerned. With our environmental, financial and personal resources at an all time low, it might be that the most abundant human energy resource of all is right between our eyes, just waiting to be tapped and to transform the battered matter of our world with its endless new possibilities.

We could have magic, running in the gutters like lightning.

That time I became a man

NB: I am a cis woman, assigned female at birth, and I’m pretty happy about it. I have never felt a need/desire to transition, so this is not that kind of story. It’s a different kind of story.

Background

When a girl-child acts and dresses kind of like a boy-child she is called a tomboy, and that was me. I liked to climb trees, hang out with boys and play with gadgets. I favoured trousers and pockets and came home with grass stains on my jeans.

But, I also fancied boys and wore dresses and when Clueless the movie came out I fell in love with long socks and miniskirts, and I adored wearing shirts with a short skirt and heels. I played with dolls, kept a secret diary and devoured teen romance novels. I was obssessed with relationships and boyfriends.

For me, any behaviour that is normally gendered seemed to be theoretically on the table. I understood that people often divide down gender lines but I felt that you didn’t actually have to. Anyone can grow up to be anything, right? Such was the luxury of being a girl in the 80s/90s. So I happily sampled from both genders in terms of behaviours, clothes, thoughts & hobbies.

Context

The local context of this ‘when I became a man’ story is much the same in terms of gender. I was in my late 20’s, newly out of a long relationship, newly out as bi, and also quite newly polyamorous. I was a passionate feminist activist, and a menstrual activist. I talked to people about their periods, having completed my dissertation on it at university. My friends called me ‘the period lady’. I loved being female and was making more and more female friends.

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I was also deeply engaged with masculinity, what it means to be in the “active” role in a relationship with a woman, especially sexually, how to ‘get girls’ and so on. I was also curious more genereally since I’d always had such a strong masculine side throughout my life. I was reading radical feminist texts and hanging out with lesbians, while also trying to have sex with lesbians, and also feeling more kinship with men as my friends and lovers. Armed with awareness of how to deconstruct gender, I was exploring what being a man really means.

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I played around with lowering the pitch of my voice, I dressed in a masculine way, I already had short hair and a bit of swagger, I sometimes pencilled a moustache on my lip at parties. I was curious how much you could do without changing your body in any way. How much was masculinity a state of mind, and how much could you project that to others? How much does biology matter when it comes to being a man?

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Early mustache

I like to think I was quite successful. When feeling masc I was constantly ID’d for alcohol because I looked like an 18 year old boy. As soon as they looked closer they could see I was a nearly 30 year old woman, but the first glance had completely fooled them. I was also mistaken for a guy in shops or in bars, with people greeting me and my friends as “lads” and “fellas” until they realised I was clearly female.

I discovered how warmly men treat other men, when they think no women are around.

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Masc for a party

I sunbathed topless all summer that year with my guy friends, to see if I could trick people even when naked, by my posture and by being in a group of other guys. It worked. It would take people whole minutes to realise I was actually a woman with my tits out. I was never bothered about it or arrested, even though I was in public parks or in our front garden facing the street.

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I’m in the middle

 

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In the local park

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These pics are all on Facebook and have never been reported

I interanalised a lot of it too, fairly frequently commenting “come on, you can speak freely, we’re all guys here” or accidentally miscounting the number of men and women in a room because I’d counted myself as a guy.

I also had a friend where me and her joked that she was my “wife” and I was her “husband”. Here I am with a protective arm around her chatting away while she rolls me a smoke.

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Setting the stage: Makron

One of my best friends from this time was Makron (not his real name). Here’s us.

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Listening to drum ‘n’ bass in the local dive bar

Here’s me imitating him while we roll cigarettes.

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My t-shirt says “My Marxist feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard”

Makron (and our other male friend Feo) never questioned my desire to act like a guy and were completely on board with me relating to them as a guy would. It wasn’t hard, we were all into smoking and video games and talking about women. Makron got me into drum n bass and we would go moshing together. Feo patiently played Halo with me on the Xbox 360 while I got the hang of analog sticks on the controller. We would fuck around yelling at people on the street and trying to slap each other as hard as we could.

Makron loved women and dated various people on and off during our friendship. I slept with three of the men in the house we lived in, including Feo and Makron, and slept with several women in our friendship group. Makron and I talked openly about our escapades and once he mentioned that none of his girlfriends had ever let him do anal, because even if they were into it, his penis was too big.

Another time, I asked him when he lost his virginity, and questioned him when he said he lost it “properly” at age 18. I had to drag it out of him but it turns out that while he lost his ‘virginity’ to a woman at 18,  he actually lost his virginity to a boy at age 15, back when he lived in Portugal. Him and this boy were fucking for about a year, so it was not just ‘experimentation’ or an accident at school. This was a whole thing!

He once mentioned that he’s mostly into women, but for some reason he starts to find men attractive in spring time. How awesome is that? Bisexual men exist y’all.

Another thing about Makron was that he refused to wear condoms. Not only was this bad for me because of diseases and being poly, I also had stopped using hormonal contraception years before, because of its negative effects. Between that and him having monogamous girlfriends, our sexual interactions were limited.

The time I turned into a man

One day, at a party, Makron was really horny and so was I. We really wanted some kind of sex to happen. He wouldn’t budge on the condoms but I told him that I was into anal and willing to try.

Anal is always tricky but after a bit of fumbling we got his cock in me and he started gently thrusting. Anal is an extremely intense experience, almost overwhelming at times. But me and Makron were very close by this time, I trusted him and myself, I felt super secure and horny and we could read each other really well.

Suddenly I tuned in to what Makron was doing as he fucked me. He was touching my hair. Delicately, maybe even nervously. He was also not touching my boobs or butt, rather pulling on my hips and touching my neck. He was avoiding the parts of me that were female. At that moment a bunch of different realisations hit me from different conversations we’d had over many months. In one huge moment I realised that he was experiencing me as a man.

He had lost his viriginty to a guy and had tons of sex with him, but only slept with women after that. None of the women he’d slept with had ever done anal with him. And I spent all my time relating to him as a guy. Now here we were, doing something he had only ever done with guys.

He was touching my hair and penetrating my butt, remembering what it was like back when he was 15 with that boy in Portugal. He was a guy relating to me as a guy, and for all intents and purposes, I was a guy too.

My masc energy was more than willing to rise up and meet that, I’d been practicing with my mind, my body and my voice for months. Hell, I’d thrown off a shirt, waistcoat and tie and left my “wife” downstairs to come up and do this. I was overwhelmed by the physical sensations of the sex, and a little drunk too.

I ran with it.

In that moment, for just a fraction of a second, I feel and I like to believe I “became” a guy. My biology didn’t change, but I experienced myself as a guy while someone else was experiencing me as a guy, together in one of the most intimate ways two humans can experience and witness each other. It was and remains the most transcendant moment of my life.

Nothing changed after that. We’re still friends, though separated by time and distance. I’m convinced masculinity is largely in the body-mind system and deeply influenced by intention. The meaning of my experience is, as with all things, a complex interplay of many factors.  I don’t know if there is some “essence” in biology that is required in order to be a man, and of course I will never know, but I’m certainly suspicious that it is required.

I’m not sure how to adequately sum up this story, but we’re all guys here, so maybe I don’t have to.

How I Left The Cult

I was raised in the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I stopped attending meetings and ceremonies when I was 16.

TL;DR I didn’t actively leave, my mum broke some rules and the family sort of drifted out. But I spent a long time, from ages 16-27 “de-programming” myself. If you’re wondering whether to leave something, you probably should.

Who are Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a late 19th Century Christian sect, originally from the US.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are Millenarianist in that they think an end time is coming, and  Millenialist which is an interpretation of Christ being installed in a 1,000 year reign over Earth, before the final “end time” occurs.

They hold a fundamentalist view on the Bible, meaning they take the words of the bible literally, rather than as metaphor. Their interpretation differs from other sects, partly because of their founding leader Charles Russell, and partly because they use their own translation of the bible.

Famously they believe in the Old Testament doctrine prohibiting the imbibing of blood, so they refuse blood transfusions, however they do not practice kosher eating. They also do not participate in birthdays, Easter, Christmas or Hallowe’en celebrations, considering these to be pagan festivals with no basis in scripture.

They refuse military service, do not vote, and are famous for going door to door preaching their religion. They reject the notions of an eternal soul, the existence of hell and the “holy trinity” doctrine.

They have strict social and interpersonal rules, mostly inspired by the moral values in the late 19th century US.

See the wiki link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah%27s_Witnesses

My History With The J-Dubs

There is a family photo of me as a 5 week old baby, taken “at Twickenham”, a stadium which is famous for rugby but which Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes use for their annual “district assembly”, massive weekend-long gatherings for JWs that occur in sports stadiums. They are primarily outside, with folks sitting on the concrete in the summer sun (and rain!) for three days straight. While comfort provision is made for members at the event, it is nonetheless quite an undertaking to take a newborn along.

This canonical family photo illustrates to me that I really was raised for my entire childhood in the JW religion.

Some time before, the J-dubs had knocked on my parent’s door, as so many people around the world have an experience of, and my Dad was the kind of guy to say to them, without irony, “hmmm, sounds interesting, please come in”. He found the religion appealing, and for some reason my Mum agreed to join as well.

I assume this is because her own mother and older sister had converted some years previous, and for a short time as a teenager she went along to JW events with them. She had grown up and moved out before she married my Dad at age 20, so presumably she’d left it all behind for those years. However when her new husband became interested in what the JWs had to say, I guess she found it familiar. The JWs place great emphasis on a wife obeying a husband, so the two of them became Jehovah’s Witnesses together.

A few years later my parents’ marriage broke down (I was 3 and my sister 2). My mother divorced my father. My mother continued to raise me and my sister as Witnesses after the divorce. I think she partly used his faith, and conviction that we should be “saved” at Armageddon to ensure she got custody of us during the divorce (my father was expelled from the religion, so could not make sure we were saved himself). But to her credit she made good on her promise to make sure we were indeed raised as JWs until we were adults.

We ended up living with my gran, who had been a devout JW for decades. My gran was my caregiver because my Mum worked full time. It went without question that all four of us would be JWs and attend all the meetings without fail.

My father quickly remarried and subsequently raised his children from his second marriage as Jehovah’s Witnesses too. (He had been expelled for the first divorce but when the JWs came knocking again in his new town they let him back in.) So myself and my sister, plus my half siblings (a brother and sister) were all raised in this weird Christian fundamentalist religion.

Being raised a JW

It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to be raised a JW. I will give at best a patchy version of my experiences here.

One of the major things I remember is that, because of their “socially separate” policy and their beliefs in general, I was marked out as different to everyone else literally every single day at school.

I was not allowed to attend the 5 minutes of morning assembly that was “religious” (all they did was sing a hymn or something), but I was supposed to listen to the school announcements etc. So halfway through assembly I had to slip in through the door at the back of the school hall. Every day, their would be this weird pause between the hymn and the notices and the whole school would turn around to look as me and the Jewish kid filed in at the back. Every. Single. Day.

Then there was the No Christmas, No Birthdays, No Hallowe’en, No Easter thing. This comes up a lot at school when you’re younger. Almost every week is one of these holidays and the teacher is taking a break by just having everyone make cards or decorations, but I had to be given some non-religious ‘alternative’ task to do. Either that or sit in silence when people sang happy birthday, or leave the room altogether if Christmas carols were being sung.

Couple that with being a teacher’s pet (grades were the way to get love in my household) and you have a child who is so unutterably different that I was bullied by absence. I was tainted, and to even speak to me was to risk contamination. The social isolation was profound.

The witnesses have a perfect circular reasoning trick for this. Somewhere in the bible Jesus warns his followers that they will be hated for spreading his word. So the more JWs receive grief, the more it confirms that they are on the right track, and following Jesus correctly.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a lot to say about sex. No sex before marriage, obviously, but some kinds of sex are restricted during marriage (anal), no masturbation for anyone but especially teenagers and of course, it’s not ok to be gay.

These points were raised explicitly and regularly to make sure everyone “stays strong”. These teachings contributed to me feeling guilt, anxiety and repression about sex both in childhood and in adult life.

The witnesses take a similarly draconian view on drugs, smoking, tattoos, sex or violence in the media and bad language. They also ban members from watching movies with too much magic in it (Harry Potter), or something that may be influenced by ‘demons’ (Lord of the Rings). They believe ‘demons’ to be invisible, and mostly don’t believe in possession, but nonetheless think they are very real.

We weren’t allowed posters on our walls (idolatry), or pictures of magical animals (demons), to have friends outside of the witnesses (bad associations), or to listen to certain music (bad language/demonic) or to celebrate birthdays or Christmas (pagan). The Kingdom Hall itself (the church building), had no decorations at all, but it was kept spotlessly clean. Many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about how bland and lifeless the religion is.

The organisation itself acknowledges how hard it is to hold strictly to 19th century protestant moral values late in the 20th century and there’s a lot of talk of sacrifice and trials and the hard road and keeping on the straight and narrow, in order to stay true to God. I believe this created a strong anhedonia in me, whereby I restricted all of my thoughts and feelings by default, even for things that were “allowed”, because holding back, buttoning down and waiting were so valourised.

How I got out

Passive leaving

I didn’t, really. In the heady days of internet relay chat my mum met a man on the internet, then met him in real life and one day in the summer after I turned sixteen my mum told me the news that she was pregnant.

Having sex outside of wedlock is a pretty serious offence to the J-dubs and so my mum was temporarily suspended while they considered what to do.

Mum usually drove us to the meetings, but without her taking us, myself and my sister just by default didn’t go along either. Our gran’s faith was always a powerful force in terms of keeping us in the religion and attending meetings every week, but I’m not sure if she kept going during this period or not. 

Without any external drive to keep going along to the meetings, I remember clearly that it felt like a spell being broken. All my week nights and weekends were free. It felt like bliss coming from an absence, like the silence after an annoying noise finally stops. My life was empty and silent. Calm.

Later I would reflect that going to the meetings all the time, and it occupying so much of your life, is one way they keep members in thrall to the religion.

There was also an oppressive silence between all the family members,  like a held breath. It was very tense, but I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible and be with my boyfriend instead.

After about a month, I got back from a weekend at my boyfriend’s house to learn that mum had been in hospital because she’d had a miscarriage. Even though the weekend was dramatic and scary, it was obvious that this baby not existing was a huge relief to everyone. Not long later I learned that the elders had decided my mum could return to the Witnesses if she showed repentance, but we never went back. It was an entirely unspoken thing, as was always the case with my mum in those years.

At the time I barely mention these goings on in my diary, instead I’m mooning over the latest boy, but a bit later I repeat several times “I’m never going back to the meetings”.

So for my entire life I had been in a cult, which shaped my entire mental and emotional landscape from birth, attending three meetings a week, every week plus occasionally door knocking on Saturdays, and then suddenly I just… wasn’t. I got out of the cult passively, the spell was broken, and what remained was a void.

Active leaving

In my diaries a bit later I say “I’m never going back to the meetings” and I sound as though I’ve made an active decision. In my self-narrative nowadays, I normally tell people that I had my suspicions about the religion by the time my family left, but was sort of ignoring them, and waiting to be older to find out what it all really meant.

An ex-JW friend I met much later would describe it as the “after armageddon box” – a place where you put your doubtful thoughts about the religion and god ready to be asked later, when we might have access to god or Jesus after the end times have happened. Eventually his “after armageddon box” was so full that he began to doubt the religion a lot.

I normally say that if my family hadn’t drifted out when I was 16, it wouldn’t have been much longer before I left myself. My general goal with life at that time was just to hang on until age 18 and finish school, finally be an adult, and get out from living with my parents as soon as I could. Even though they practice famously severe shunning of any ex-member, I’m sure I would have left the religion behind too.

However, that’s not what happened. We left when I was 16; when I was 17 I moved in with my Dad (mum had been threatening to throw me out for months) and he and his family were all still very much in the faith. Since I had never been baptised as an adult, I was considered a “prodigal son” and should be gently cajoled to return to the religion rather than fully shunned, so they were allowed to talk to me.

Despite being encouraged to go to the meetings for the whole time I lived with them, I stood firm that I wasn’t going to go back. That much was very active on my part. I “ran away” from living with them when I was 18 (my stepmother read my diary and point blank refused to talk to me again), just after I’d finished my school exams. I lived with my Mum again for a short time, and as soon as I saved up a few paychecks, I moved out forever.

Deprogramming

Some problems

When we first drifted out of the religion, I decided to sleep with my boyfriend. The moment my mum told my 16-year-old self that she was pregnant I had the crystal-clear thought: “you don’t get to tell me what to do any more”. I lost all respect for her, because of everything that her pregnancy implied, both secular and religious. So yes I had sex with my boyfriend (but I was sure to get on contraception first!)

That year I also had my first experience of celebrating Christmas with him and his family. In the few scholarly texts that mention Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say that ex members are often socially awkward around the giving and receiving of gifts, which I empathise with.

However apart from those two things I didn’t immediately deprogramme from the thoughts that the religion had inculcated. My life was a tire fire from ages 16-19 and I had little time or stability to do any reflective thought.

But as soon as I moved out and had a stable boyfriend at around age 19, I began deprogramming in earnest. I realised I needed to systematically check all of my beliefs, not just the ones about God. My boyfriend of that time helped by walking me through the more obvious things like creation vs evolution. He also helped me try weed and later, other drugs.

Then the problem was sex. I had huge guilt around it, and weird thoughts like I must intend to marry my sexual partner, if not actually be married, in order for it to be ok to have sex. I had a very low sex drive, partly due to repressing pleasurable feelings.

I also had very low affect, my emotions were numbed out, though I think that had as much to do with my family life as the religion. Relatedly, I still have issues with finding enjoyment in things, which makes decision making surprisingly hard.

I now think I was also developmentally stunted. I was extremely smart, but condescending, arrogant and dismissive with other people. I had no empathy, even with friends. My boyfriend had to keep reminding me “you can’t treat people like that”. In the terms of the psychological theory that I mention on my philosophy blog, I was still in Kegan stage 2 – a non-empathetic stage normally traversed in early teens – at the age of 19-20.

I believe the move away to my dad’s house is a pertinent example. My dad’s home was around 200 miles away from my mum, and so there was no possibility of seeing my old friends when I moved there. I left without telling anyone I was going, it all happened during half term.

I eventually heard through my mum that my best friend was very upset. I was confused by this, because we always talked about how we would like to move out from our mums to live with our dads (she was from a single parent household too). I thought she would realise that I had made it out and gone to a better place and be happy for me. I just could not understand why she would be sad or angry. I remember being confused and then not really thinking about it afterwards. I was 17 at the time.

It was only years later, in my early 20s, at the earliest, that I realised that of course she would be upset. She might miss me, or be upset that everything was so sudden, that I didn’t care enough to give her a quick message of some kind, or that she might be jealous that I’d moved away or indeed have any number of strong emotions about what happened.

Some solutions

Living with dad helped a few things. He and his kids were naturally more touchy-feely than my family, which I appreciated. He forced me out of my tendency to go silent when I was upset or crying. It was a revelation to me that he actually wanted to hear what was wrong, and actually try to help. I had to deal with being a snotty mess in someone else’s presence. An almost unbearable form of being ‘seen’ at the time. Being in a totally different family held a mirror up to some of my assumptions, especially around the “fair” distribution of chocolate biscuits. He also answered all my questions about why he and my mum got divorced. A classic case of there being at least two sides to every story.

Once I’d moved out away from parents, I read some self help books to figure the emotional and sex stuff out, and Oliver James’ ‘They Fuck You Up’ book was particularly useful for this. I wrote pages of self reflection on an A3 notepad. I also kept writing in my diary. I was a prolific poetry writer too.

I ferreted out cached beliefs one by one. Sometimes I did things just because JWs ban them so I went and voted (JWs are instructed to be politically neutral).  I carried a lighter in case anyone who smoked asked me for one. I placed a bet on a boxing match (gambling also forbidden). I took a certain joy in doing things that would shock JWs, or my parents in general. I still have that joy. I also tried to detect much more subtle discriminations. I occasionally caught myself being judgey about people, and asked myself: why? One example I strongly remember is disliking people who had tattoos, only because the Jdubs sneer at them. I decided to throw those thoughts in the bin.

I read a lot of books, absorbing how other people feel about life, which helped me to figure out the range of things that people can feel. I read Sylvia Plath’s diaries, Anaïs Nin stories, Henry Miller novels, a psychology of self harm book, Kathy Acker’s punk feminism, Alan Moore’s ‘Lost Girls’ graphic novel. I would read anything, especially fiction and science fiction, but I was drawn to books about sex and books about or by depressed women.

I read pages and pages of books. I also watched hundreds of films, got stoned every day and got into music. I have an enduring love for art that is bleak or nihilistic.

My life at the time was a continuous struggle with poverty. I never had any spare money, although I felt great because I lived in my own place. I worked at a library and got all my books and films from there. Being poor takes a lot of time and energy, so the progress was quite slow. Eventually, at age 21, I went to university.

At university I discovered equal rights and feminism. I also got into philosophy by the sideways route of doing an art degree with no prior experience with art. The art library had lots of philosophy books, because art and life inform each other. I wasn’t that great at making art, so I would read instead. I became a Sunday manager at the nearby public library while I studied, so I still had access to public library books too.

I had a tiny bit of NHS therapy during uni, because at age 23, after feeling I’d done so much work to deprogramme myself, I developed an acute anxiety condition. It was triggered by thoughts of death, a concept I had until then not really thought about, because the JWs believe in immortal life on earth. I also had wind: trapped air in the digestive system. It’s easily cured but it makes you feel short of breath and in pain when you eat. It is funny now, but it contributed to me having several panic attacks. I spent my entire last year of uni in a haze, feeling like I was watching myself on a screen, and worried I would have more attacks. I started to feel better after about a year. Over a decade on, my fear of death and the anxiety I get from that thought still haunt my evening times, because it’s not easy to rationalise.

My work as a librarian helped me to develop empathy. I’ve always been hard on myself to be true to my principles, and I really believed in doing a good job and in intellectual honesty. I had to work with people who were homeless, very old, very young (and unsupervised) and / or relatively mentally ill. I wanted to truly help them ‘fairly’ which meant I had to really pay attention to what they said and how they thought. Trying to teach a paranoid schizophrenic 50 year old how to use a computer is a humbling experience.

I was with the same boyfriend all through this time, he helped me a lot. He constantly scolded me for not considering how other people felt. It must have been because of him that I finally figured out my friend’s feelings about me moving away.

But my relationship with him is also a story of lack of empathy. I believed we had a great relationship and were mostly happy through our 7 years together. But I found out after we broke up that he felt a lot of pain throughout those years because of things I did to him. I’m not sure of the details because I heard it through mutual friends.

He never seemed to tell me about problems at the time, but maybe I didn’t hear it. Probably I dismissed things that weren’t expressed clearly and forcefully. I still tend to do that. But even if we allow for the fact that someone who keeps too quiet in relationships often ends up with someone who pushes forward and is decisive, it was a shock to me that he was so unhappy but I didn’t know. So even though I was developing empathy I clearly wasn’t applying it well in my home life and now when I look back I still think it was a shallow empathy, with not much mastery.

Completing Deprogramming

In my mid to later twenties I had a number of life milestones. I came out as bi (after reading a book, of course). I joined an active feminist group and did many activities with them. I founded my own bi group. I became polyamorous, at first with my partner of all those years and then I continued after we broke up. We had moved to a new city by then and I was trying to make new friends. Friends who were lesbians, feminists and weed smokers. ‘Bad associations’ indeed! After the breakup I moved out into a sharehouse of strangers; I was finally living on my own.

Around the age of 27, after living in that sharehouse a while, I realised I felt like I had reached a point of being more “normal”, by which I mean normal levels of fucked-upness, rather an extraordinary and weird levels of fucked-upness.

I had made a point of being more independent. I had had lots of life experiences, from uni to management jobs to rolling my own joints to storming police lines.

I’d examined and binned so many ideas. First from the JWs, but then I’d also completely overshot and was examining and binning conventional ideas from “normal” society too.

Binning the ideas from the J-dubs was helping me heal, but binning “normal” society was also helping profoundly. For example, a strange side effect of trying polyamory was that it unlocked my ability to do social touch with friends. I’ve no idea why.

So by around this time, I felt normal.

And slightly to my annoyance, I was starting to see that my experiences, knowledge and confidence were having an effect on others. The unusual ways I lived my life were intriguing to people. When I spoke, everyone would fall silent and listen, which never used to happen.

Without me really wanting it, people were looking to me for advice on how to be, wheras previously I had always been the student of that. It was ever clearer that my project of ridding myself of indoctrination was over. The work of choosing how to live had begun.

Lasting effects

It’s been 7 or 8 years since I reached “normal” and then completely overshot. I now live a life that is in many ways extraordinary and probably to most people, very weird.

But, I still feel the effects of things from childhood.

I still feel that relationships with others is my biggest weakness.  I have an extremely spiky personality, a defence against always being the outsider, never being accepted. Although acceptance is something I obviously deeply crave.

I still have intermittent anxiety, I still worry about dying.

Despite appearances I still have very conventional sex and not lots of it, but I’m proud I can have sex at all, considering.

I have an abiding deep suspicion of “knowledge” or “truth”, of people in “authority”. The study of how we know what we know will always fascinate me.

It’s very hard to disentangle the effects of the religion from the effects of my general family life. It’s tempting to think that actually perhaps most of my problems, if that’s what they are, would have come from family dynamics no matter what religion we followed, if any. A child with essentially absent and emotionally distant parents was always going to have trouble with empathetic relationships. In a way this post is merely about “how I left my family”, rather than how I left a cult.

However it’s kind of a chicken and an egg. The religious flavour is important. My parents were exactly the kind of people to be drawn to this particular religion thanks to their own traumas. They are the kind of people who want to be wrapped up tight by strict rules and be soothed by being told exactly what to think, from people who know exactly what is happening and know exactly what to do to make everything ok. If they were not scooped up by this cult, it would have been another one, or some other paternalistic system. The details may have been slightly different but probably the neuroses in me would have ended up exactly the same.

I was raised by people who can’t handle the world as it is, and that makes me very sad for them. Strangely enough for me, after being raised believing that humans are evil and our civilisation has reached a nadir so bad that god is going to smite it all away, I’ve come to find a great joy in the fact that humans are actually just apathetic or greedy or damaged.  And also creative, generous and joyful. I trust myself and my decision making. I feel I do understand the way the world works, and find that comforting, even though the drive to understand came from pathological roots.

Advice for others

If you’re wondering whether to do something that will really shake your life up, especially if you have to leave something, I would encourage you to do it. You can’t un-see whatever it is you’ve seen. The worry you’re feeling now is probably not actually about whether leaving is a good or bad decision, because you already have one foot out of the door. It’s more about feelings of grief, grief that you used to feel tightly embedded in something, and now you don’t.

No-one likes changing, but change happens to us, whether we like it or not. It’s a bit of a slog, but learning how to change, and not being scared of it, is a massive life skill that eventually brings a ton of its own comfort, and success.

If you feel you’ve been kicked out of a plane and are falling backwards, arms flailing, watching the plane get smaller and smaller in your vision and feeling scared, picture this: you might as well roll over and face the ground. You can direct the fall, watch the view, even go sailing around like a bird in the wind. Feel the rush, try to enjoy it. The entire world is literally in front of you, you might as well direct where you land.

Once you’ve left, you’re going to need information. Religious cults in particular restrict information, so read books (or listen to podcasts), read the internet and figure out how you think things really are. Lots of people just substitute one belief system for another, try not to do that. Instead try to figure out why you don’t trust your own intuition about what to think.

Three things:

Fiction is just as important as non-fiction, especially for emotional work. Art of all kinds is very important, and comedy.

While approaching at your own pace and using caution, you should definitely, definitely take drugs. See which ones call to you, any will do. Then don’t overdo it.

Finally, enlist other people. Cults are deliberately isolationist, to remove any chance of “wrong” information reaching you. Other people are a mirror and a support. Try to meet and get to know a broad range of people. Their example can help you figure out how you want to be.

Finally:

Everything is going to be ok. I promise.

Just run the numbers

One thing I’ve learned from the LessWrong/CFAR/SlateStarCodex rationalist crowd is the power of sketching something out with rough numbers. Indeed, there is a whole blog called Put A Number On It! in this space.

I’ve recently felt a divide appear between myself and my friends relating to increased ability with strategic thinking and increased future timelines, and I think sketching out rough numbers when making decisions has helped to precipitate this.

An example is my partner wants to switch career. He achieved a temporary job in an office, doing something other than what he normally does in offices. This is providing him short-term relief from his crap old job. But his real short-to-medium term goal is to labour on building sites for slightly more money. The office job is full-time under the normal tax system, which means higher taxes and lower pay but paid holidays and sickness days. While the labouring job would be self-employed, meaning higher paid and lower taxes but unpaid sickness or holiday and potential gaps in work contracts.

One day he told me that the labouring job would pay less per day than we initially thought, but had the “potential” to increase to the amount that we assumed initially.

I immediately grabbed a scrap of paper and ran some numbers.

  • yearly salary in office job – minus nothing for 4 weeks holiday and 1 week sick. Calculate total.
  • potential yearly salary on labouring job minus 4 weeks holiday and 1 week sick. Calculate total.

The difference between taxes is harder to do in a simple way so I decided that any reduction in tax when labouring would probably be offset by the loss created by a gap between contracts, where you’re off work but don’t want to be.

I  did quick check of how many working days there are per year (220) to get the daily rate into a yearly one. I then decided to check on a local job website for the yearly salary of an inexperienced office worker vs. an office worker in the same job with more experience – because we needed to check the “potential” figures as well for that job and we already knew the “beginner” and “experienced” numbers for the labouring job.

I then ran the same calculations as above.

The whole process took precisely 4 minutes with a pen and paper and one internet search.

The numbers came out very strongly in favour of the office job, both now and in the “potential” future. Which was a surprise.

This little exploration of the options available quickly using easy numbers that were already known was an automatic reflex on my part, it showed a very stark difference between the two options, and covered a time span of 1-6 years. It was incredibly simple and incredible clarifying.

And did not occur to my partner in the slightest.

In the rationalisty space, there are of course more complex extensions of this method that can involve probabilities, ratios, or deducing an unknown number from known ones (e.g. how much would I have to earn/save to make this plan viable?) however just the basic write-it-all-down premise is extremely powerful on its own.

So, this is short post to remind / tell everyone: put a number on it!

Symbols of being poor

I’m notorious in my household for coming out with terrible comments about my childhood.

Famously, a friend asked the room: “did you guys have awkward silences and really bad communication about feelings with your family around the dinner table?”

And I replied “we didn’t have a dinner table”.

The dynamic that is actually playing out is simply that I live with middle class people, who had middle class problems, but I was raised in a working class socio-economic way and had entirely different problems. Those problems are possibly more tragic in some ways and are shocking to my middle class friends becuase it involves so much that they take as given.

Anyway, I sometimes speak in more detail about the long-term consequences of being poor. An example struck me today that is adjacent to the Vimes Boots Theory of Socio-economic Unfairness and it is about shoeboxes.

When I was a kid and watched Blue Peter (and only Blue Peter, because the walk home from school took so long that I only managed to watch the last show of the day in children’s programming) and they often had a segment on crafting.

The crafting would be “make a house for your hamster” or a “build a rocket outfit” or some such and always used the same household materials: cereal box, tinfoil, loo paper tube etc.

I would always be pumped to follow along and try to make one of the craft pieces and unleash my childish sticky tape creativity. However, each and every week I was deeply disappointed because the crafting involved using a shoebox.

We weren’t exactly too poor to have shoes but my family certainly only bought shoes when the others fell apart. Even cheap shoes have a cost. Many shoes could outlast more than one school year. I’m fairly certain my mum replaced her shoes even less often. And we also went to shops that didn’t even sell shoes in boxes, they were off-the-rack that you carried home in bag. I felt as a child that I had never had access to a shoebox in my whole life and yet Blue Peter acted as if these things were as common as toilet paper.

Now, in 2019, I have been buying good quality shoes for about a year. I didn’t really realise until today, when a new pair of good quality hiking boots arrived and I couldn’t fit the box into my usual space for shoe boxes, that I had been saving the shoe boxes as a rare and highly prized item and had a space especially for storing shoeboxes. I looked at the huge pile of shoeboxes and realised I don’t have a hamster, or a desire to pretend to be a rocket, and will almost certainly not use these shoeboxes for anything at all.

I don’t need them for anything, but I haven’t thrown them away yet. Not just yet.

Reflections 2018

I love doing reflections at New Year, but I still find it very weird to use a few days after Winter Solstice as the dividing line. None the less we must proceed:

This year has been so varied and so intense. I’ve experienced some new things, both good and bad. Have met heroes and achieved dreams but lost people, plans and projects such that I felt utterly crushed.

For the first time ever I experienced grief. A deep dark chasm of sadness that pulled my natural emotional average down by its weight for several months.

Much of it was the first half of the year and it’s been better since spring, but the sadness keeps orbiting back around with the loss, and the ramifications of that loss.

So what actually happened?

Winter

In Jan/Feb some longterm housemates who had been long term dissatisfied with living in the house had various degrees of blowup. We had round upon round of sharing circles, trying to be our best selves, but in the end people lash out. Both times at me, because I’m the most vocal when I think problems are happening. Maybe I could do it better, maybe I should shut up, I don’t know, but it hurt.

Coupled with trying to find work but suffering a few setbacks, such as a code test I just wasn’t up to, I felt beaten down personally and doubting my skills at work. I played video games for nearly two months solid to escape the emotions.

Eventually, I managed to get two weeks of work, and buy a new laptop. Thank god! The weather was grey and wet though, and the office time depressing.

I also discovered that one of my ex-lovers, a woman three years younger than me, had died. I’ve never had a friend die before. We were no longer close and she died of unknown causes, so it felt more surreal than anything else.

Spring

Then in March a sudden cold shock. We were all lined up for a Portugal trip that eventually we decided to cancel (too much rain) but I suddenly realised for myself why the team had been gradually drifting away. On a series of key decisions I was consulted, but not listened to, as if I was an advisor but not a team member. Our Land became His Land. Our House became His House. Cue another several rounds of sharing circles and meetings within which came a truth I’d been blind to for this whole project: it was no longer communal. Our investor was taking full control, despite my warning that I cannot be on a project that’s not built from a team. I was very explicit about that, about the ways it would need to be to be truly communal, and it was explicitly rejected. He just couldn’t get past needing to control.

So I lost Portugal, the Land, the plans for the next 3-5 years of my life, my hope for a new community home and worst of all, my best friend. I felt stupid for thinking it could be any other way.

Around this time it was my birthday. I had been lifting for 8 weeks to get in shape for the TopGun theme, and everyone who came said it was their favourite party so far. Indeed by the evening when I lead half the guests in a mini lifting routine on our home-made indoor beach volleyball court, I was laughing and enjoying the party. But I had started that morning crying my eyes out because nothing was going to plan, and I no longer had my best friend to help me.

Over this time I’d been having tiny moments of contact from the little “smarty pants” twitter community I inhabit, small rays of light in the dark spring. The beam of hope on my horizon was flying to SF to meet my blogging hero, and maybe some friends/lovers too.

That was due in April. I was pretty crushed to discover that my hero was having a hard time with life, and recommended I bring along friends when I visited because he would be too tired to really talk. At the same time the intended friend I was going to bring along also let me know that they were unavailable, meaning I could see neither of them.

I felt devastated, and I thought hard about why. I was really desperate for validation and encouragement in this area of my life (philosophy) that few friends can engage me on. I craved peers and importantly I craved elders.  I tried to resolve some of my needs for myself with some success. But this was when the grief started

And none the less I rallied, and resolved to meet other people in SF instead. I reached out a bit on Twitter and decided to swallow the financial cost of accommodation. I settled in to the plane, began to watch a movie and as the delays stretched from minutes to hours I listened in totally numbed disbelief that we should all get back off the plane into the terminal because the flight was cancelled.

This final twist was at least making my year so far laughable as well as simply deeply depressing. I just became numb. I stopped making any plans, stopped assuming I knew anything about what was going to happen next.

I reached out in small ways. Improved my house, offered my web dev skills to friends. It helped.

My friend’s funeral finally happened, and I found it to be affirming. I think funerals can be, but it also shows you the kind of time I’d been having up to then.

Summer

In May, my year pivoted around. I took intense driving lessons across just three days, with my test on the fourth. I cried every day of lessons and barely slept, but I passed with three minors. Thanks to assistance from one of my newer housemates, I had my own (shared) car by the very next week.

The rest of the unusually hot summer was spent in a mixture of short work contracts, driving around and outdoor swimming, a new and unexpected hobby.

I helped with Bi pride, where we had a float and went to BiCon which I enjoyed very much. I have volunteered for a small role organising next year!

In my final contract of the summer though I was fired without notice from a contract I’d been working. It was pretty obviously unfair and some sort of personal power play, but it knocked my confidence yet again.

Also, a beloved housemate moved out. I’d been toying with leaving my houseshare entirely and starting a new one, but her room was amazing, so I moved into it. I left behind my home-made cube room, and the ground floor previously shared so closely with my ex-friend.

I made a new plan to work, to save money, to get up early and to be my own investor in community projects, and leave these stupid boys behind.

At the same time, 3 housemates moved out and 3 new ones moved in, in quick succession. It has been a long road to integrate and help them, but also keep the house together/cohesive. This is probably what I did all September.

Autumn

Despite my enjoyment, the summer contracts had not nearly been enough. I wasn’t covering my expenses, let alone earning enough to save. I had a few bits and pieces in September but my luck changed in October and I landed a sweet deal that had me working all the way up to Xmas, and will continue in 2019 as well.

Around that time I had the great pleasure of meeting my blogging hero, who had finally managed to visit the UK, and so I met him in my very own kitchen. He was still extremely tired, but we hung out a few times and taking him along to our local London thinky meetup made me feel like I was escorting a rock star. Fuckin’ ey.

…and just to keep me from being too smug about my positive emotions my friend and housemate, the one who is funding the Portugal project, announced he would move out from our house to Portugal to live there on his own. It felt like he had chosen that place over our friendship all over again. We’ve been so close for so long I seriously feel lost in every aspect of my life without him. From coding work to business in general to running this entire shitshow we call a warehouse, to my hobbies, to talking about guns, politics, sociopaths and everything else no-one will talk to me about. It’s a big loss. It still makes me cry. And all because of doorknobs.

Gah.

Apart from that, I have almost no life news for the rest of the year. I simply worked, kept my head down, opened savings accounts and worked some more. My ability to think drained away, and I missed my Reading Challenge target.

I’m now dearly missing thinking, and reading, and investing in new relationships and getting up whenever the hell I want. But I did feel a huge lift of anxiety as the money started rolling in.

Relationships

One relationship ended this year and their feedback was vague but negative and so knocked my confidence. I slept with a few new people this year, but just as one-offs. Multiple people I fancy have turned monogamous or are work colleagues who ignore me romantically, while people who I fancy for something beyond superficial reasons seem few and far between indeed. I would like more romantic and sexual partners and feel that those avenues don’t exist or get closed off. It is a source of sadness for me this year.

My one long-standing partner is still going strong though and is a source of much needed comfort, though the balance of that seems increasingly like I’m the responsible one who dishes out help more than receives it.

Mental health

Despite the awful year I suffered those shocks quite well. I feel I’m at baseline now that money has been relatively stable. Baseline still means occasional death anxiety, maybe once a month disturbing my sleep. I still worry too much and plan too far ahead. Now that I have money I am considering therapy.

Work

This autumn contract has really powered my savings goals, and summer was ok too. I’m quite glad I got to have lots of summer fun (and work in air conditioning when it was simply too hot!) Looks like when I make a decision, lag time to achieving savings goals is only a few months. Could work on improving my day rate though.

Thinky Work

I’ve written just 6 blog posts this year. A friend made his own version of balcony philosophy and I enjoyed being part of that. I met some people from Twitter, including the Ribbon Farm founder – swanky! I’m also part of a Slack for fluidity-types, although it’s gone quiet now.

Now

Reflecting at this time of year seems weird, as I’ve said. I feel the first half of last year was one thing, and now I’m in the middle of something else. I’m looking up interest rates for savings and options for investment returns. It’s all very unusual but hopefully the direction I’m headed.

This post has already taken far too long, let’s publish now and get it out there.

The Future of Sexuality

Sexuality In The Past

Sexuality in the Anglo and European West for some recent previous generations was a simple affair. In the Victorian worldview, when categorising things was the preoccupation, the population was divided into two categories, men and women. If a person (a subject), founds themselves to be in the category “man”, then their sexual and romantic desires were felt towards someone from the other category: women (the object of desire). The same is true in the exact reverse for people in the category “women”. If the subject was a woman, their object of desire was a man. Simple.

sexuality past (5)

There was, however, a certain Victorian consciousness of male subjects who desired other men as their sexual objects. This phenomenon was considered ‘deviant’, the result of some sort of mistake. The specifics of who was at fault and what to do about the problem make an interesting study in themselves but are not relevant for our purposes.

sexuality past_man

I strongly suspect the Victorians found men desiring men upsetting. Part of this upset was to do with the notion that it violated categories. They believed their categories to be “natural”, part of a higher order. The order was ordained by Science, if not by God. When strange anomalies occured to upset the “natural order”, they found them threatening, not least because these anomalies could seriously bugger up their nice diagram.

This uneasiness over categories is very pertinent. It is an emotional reaction to the perceived threat to a structure which is supposed to be neat, perfect, correct and inviolable. Structures (or categorisations) are only emotionally reassuring, only comforting, if they can rely on claims of (near) absolute Truth, solidity, precision and certainty.

If there are persons or behaviours that call into question the completeness of a category structure, or even the entire structure itself, this is so emotionally unsettling that something must be done to shore up the primacy of the system. If such persons or behaviours are in a clear majority, then the structure needs to be recreated. However, if these anomalies are in a minority it is tempting and common to try to eliminate the inconsistency. In this way persons who are privately having sex with whomever they wish without really thinking about it can come to be perceived as a threat to an entire structure of categorisation and sometimes, because structures rely on other structures, a threat to an entire nation’s public behaviour code, civil liberties, laws and moral fibre.

Sexuality is one such category, and we are still struggling to categorise it correctly today.  We are required to continue wrestling with categories because we still live in a world based mostly on inviolable structures to which we turn on questions about  laws, public behaviour, civil rights and so on.

Sexuality In The Recent Past

The civil rights movement of the 1960s-80s sought to redraw the category diagrams.  In terms of sexuality, it is now a very well-known story of improving “gay rights” in the public realm, triggered by the Stonewall riots and onwards through many milestones. One of the milestones that shows us that the movement has been successful is the achievement of same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples can thus access an array of civil and social privileges that they were previously excluded from.

The new acceptable categories can now be described thus: a male subject usually desires a female object, but sometimes, less commonly, a male subject may desire another male as their object. The same is true in reverse. A female subject typically experiences desire for a male object, but sometimes, less commonly, a female object. There are two new categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual” that apply equally to men and women. The categories look quite nice again now, with a lovely symmetry down the middle.

sexuality recent past full crop

hetero-homo (1)

I couldn’t decide which diagram to include, so here are both.

Sexuality Now

In recent years the “homo” half of the diagram has begun to use the acronym LGBT(Q), standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and (Queer). This is an attempt to recognise that lesbians and gay men are not the only people who are “not straight”. Each time a movement arises to point out that there are more groups within in the “not straight” space, a new letter is added to the acronym. LGBT is currently an accepted basic standard.

At the moment there is a lot of activism and discontent around the lip-service adoption of the B and T letters because most organisations fail to actually provide meaningful services for, or inclusion of, bisexual and trans people. These categories have been very grudgingly added to the diagram.

This unease exists because these two groups “upset the diagram” once again. The bisexual movement currently suffers from erasure, while the trans movement is not actually about sexuality at all. None the less, I will argue that the (much younger) trans movement has been more successful than the bisexual movement to gain recognition.

Gender

The trans movement has recently come to prominence as a group of people who experience something unusual about their gender. Both feminists and trans people have come up with a language to speak about the difference between biological gender, known as sex, and the social construct of gender i.e. the way people are expected to behave or “perform” in social life which is based on their sex but not necessarily inherent in it.

The trans movement has pointed out that it is possible to have gender dysphoria, which means extreme anxiety relating to sex and gender. In the most clear-cut of cases some people are born strongly feeling that they are biologically one sex, but their body appears to have most or all of the characteristics of the other sex. This is detectable at a very young age, often pre-puberty. The feeling of mismatch is so strong that people with dysphoria are more likely to be depressed and some may take their own lives.

Recent campaigns for the rights of trans people have become quickly prominent and successful. Some Anglo-Euro nations have begun to sanction via state benefit the hormonal and surgical treatments for trans people to “transition” from one sex to the other, whereupon the symptoms of gender dysphoria can be eased.

Trans people still suffer from terrible social treatment (not least a very high chance of being murdered for appearing to be gender-nonconforming) however I think the success of the trans movement in civil/legal terms has been partly due to the fact that this revelation about trans-ness has not upset the category diagram too badly. Now we have a small minority who would like to switch from the known categories of “man” and “woman”.

sexuality now 2

Being trans is an issue to do with sex/gender, rather than sexuality. It is orthoganal to the goals of the diagram but, happily it does not disrupt it too much. Apart from the switch between categories, transmen and transwomen still have a subjective sex/gender and still identify their sexuality according to the sex of themselves in relation to the sex of their object of desire.

Background Bisexuals

The bisexual movement has existed for as long as the “gay” civil rights movement. Indeed in the early days there was little differentiation between gay and bisexual because the issue at hand was same-sex relationships and legal rights. However the bisexual worldview has been sidelined because it is hard to understand, hard to lobby for, appears to “muddy the water” of essentialist messages of what it is like to be gay and people who are willing to identify as bisexual keep going in and out of existence.

Therefore, the bisexual (and intersex, asexual and other “queer”) thoughtforms and practices have been dropped from the public gay agenda for being too confusing. These priorities and people have been erased from gay awareness.

So while organisations now label themselves LGBT, the B in particular is almost universally ignored. I believe this is because bisexuality upsets far too many assumptions about how to categorise people and sexualities.

Here is my attempt to include bisexuality on the diagram:

 

sexuality now with bi

I added the grid to make it more confusing

Bisexual people occupy both sides of the diagram, because they can be a man or a woman, and then they have all these extra labels because they can desire either a man or a woman, or a man and a woman! That pesky and/or causes quite a lot of confusion. This spread across the diagram even calls into question whether the genders of either the subject or the object matter at all, which is the very foundation of the diagram!

Bisexual people have no place to be, a third wheel in the hetero/homo binary, excluded from both groups depending on the gender of their current partner, but still not included even if their partner is a match. Bisexuals are treated with suspicion because they seem to violate the purity boundary between gay and straight. Bisexual people themselves flip-flop between “being” gay and straight because being “half” anything never worked.

Studies of sexuality exclude bisexual people for ‘throwing off’ the results. Many straight scientists call the sexuality “indeterminate” and gay and lesbian people call it “on the fence” and “halfway out”.

Bisexual people also tend to come out at a much older age than straight or gay people, partly because many people experience their sexuality as something that changes over time, rather than as something essential they were born with, or that happened to them growing up as a child that they can’t control. This notion has been the cornerstone of gay rights, and to think that one has any control over their sexuality, or that it can change, is taboo.

Most people who have bisexual feelings take care to not identify with this reviled label, thus creating the illusion that this sexuality is a tiny minority, which is good for everyone else because bisexuality is so upsetting to the diagram that it cannot be tolerated.

(NB: if you unscientifically read between the lines of other data sets and hang out in bisexual activism circles, it seems clear that at least 40% of the population have behaved in a bisexual way in their lifetimes).

Straight and Queer

It has become increasingly common recently for the LGBTQI+ community to ditch all the letters, because they are becoming quite a mess, and adopt a former slur “queer” as an umbrella term to easily point to “not straight”. This umbrella has the advantage of pointing to a fairly large group (up to 20%) of the population while being non-specific about what it means, other than it’s in the gender & sexuality mess space. In this way it can encompass all the pesky extra weirdos with just one term, and reinstate the precious binary.

This is an opportunity for another way to organise the diagram.

The “queer” side is still just lesbian and gay, with its perfect symmetry of straight, but we’ve added the other weirdos (trans and bi) on the side. While these people apparently make up a minority, it still makes the categorisations looks awkward.

straight-queer (1)

Intersex, Questioning and Asexual need to go on the right but I ran out of space

This straight/queer grouping is supposed to be reassuring and it has worked for a while (for straight/gay people) but it seems like an unsatisfactory way to “contain” all the “mess” of people who are not-straight.

On the other hand, bi people flock to the word “queer” if not the community. More on that below.

However, this is not the only possible taxonomy.

Bisexual and Monosexual

I’m going to let you into a secret of the bisexual community, when those communities have enough structural momentum to temporarily coagulate. Bisexual people sometimes use an alternative binary to describe the world. It consists of Monosexuals (60%): those who are attracted to only one gender and Bisexuals (40%): those who are attracted to more than one gender. When bisexuals are prominent as a category, rather than treated as an enormous “anomaly”, a very different diagram appears.

bisexual-monosexual (1)

This representation gets closer to the world from a bisexual point of view. The gender of the subject is completely dropped from bisexuals in this worldview, because the label would say “man or woman” attracted to “man and woman”, which is pretty pointless. In the bisexual world, the diagram is not based on the gender of subject and object. So it also doesn’t matter if you are trans, or if your object of desire is trans.

“Monosexual” is the label for those strange people who insist on gender being the ultimate factor for sexual subjects and objects, and “Bisexual” is for those who do not. Monosexual people can still be trans, and I am remiss for not including it back on the diagram. At any rate they fit ok in the monosexual categories too.

How successful is this model? In my experience, people who are not bisexual, and even those who disagree strongly with bisexuals, tend to congregate in bisexual spaces. These include trans, intersex, agender, asexual and neuro-atypical people, as well as straight and gay of course. The true “umbrella” queer world, in my view, is the bisexual space, because everyone can fit there, with no dogma on gender or sexuality that fundamentally rejects what they feel inside.

Breakdown

At this point the actual word “bisexual” is simply meaningless. It originally meant “two” sexes and now the bisexual community defines it as “more than one”, in opposition to monosexuals, who only like one. But if gender is not really in the picture any more, why are we using these terms to define sexuality? Some activists have tendered the word “multisexual” as the opposite of monosexual, however this has largely failed. It has failed because using the idea of gender to define sexuality is pointless to bisexual people. This binary of bisexual/monosexual is unstable, and contains the seeds of its own destruction.

If not bisexual, then what? While ‘monosexual’ still seems somewhat descriptive for those with single-gender tastes, we have no good name for everyone else. The diagram is not based on gender, so the meaning of the words is dissovling before our eyes. The bisexual label has disappeared, with just a gap in its place. This is why so many bi people say “I’m just me” when asked to identify their sexuality. The question of their sexuality is mu. The true answer is outside of the frame of the question.

(I will, however, continue using “bisexual” for this article for lack of any other good word.)

I believe if we take the implications of the bi/mono model to their logical conclusion, if we run headlong into the black hole, we can finally dissolve or explode our categories of sexuality altogether. We can find new ways of making meaning about this attribute: sexuality.

Let’s explode

The danger of spectrums

When seeking new ways to define sexuality, it will be tempting to describe attributes as “spectrums”. Let’s take gender as an example. We have already said that bisexuality removes gender from the concerns of sexuality.  However, most people do have some preferences when it comes to gender.

Two scientists have so far tried to classify bisexual preferences. Kinsey designed a spectrum (with numbers 1-6). Number 1 means those who are exclusively heterosexual and number 6 means those who are exclusively homosexual, with number three meaning you are equally attracted to men and women. This spectrum is sort of useful but has many problems.

One problem is that this Kinsey number changes as soon as you modify any part of the question. The dimensions of time (past, present and future), fantasy, sex drive and levels of opportunity all play a huge role in how one’s attractions can be rated on the scale.

In comes the Klein grid, attempting to make sense of these different desires, where you rate your Kinsey number for fantasy, the past, the present etc. and end up with a grid of different numbers. This is quite fun at first,  however as their own website shows, this taxonomy soon dissolves into nonsense. As I’ve written before, these are well-intentioned attempts at eternalising an inherently nebulous thing.

The truth is, sexuality is nebulous and refuses to be pinned down by number scales. Level of attraction to one gender does not really relate to attraction to another gender along a sliding scale. They are not even on the same scale! Placing an apparent binary at opposite ends of a single scale is a mistake. It is still within the old gender binary way of thinking.

Factors, influences, preferences

It is easier to say that gender is a factor, but one with as variable importance as any other number of attractiveness factors, such as: body shape, eye colour and social status. It is perfectly possible to find both blue eyes and brown eyes attractive and to prefer blue eyes does not say anything at all about how much one likes brown eyes. These are all just factors of attraction.

Now that we are looking for factors of attraction, the landscape becomes clearer. Factors of attraction in the object of desire can be physical attributes, mental attributes and social attributes. There are also a number of factors relating to the subject experiencing attraction too. One’s age, sex drive, hormone balance, sexual practices and turn-ons are all big factors in attraction.

Cruicially, one lesson from the bisexual world is that preferences can change. It is not threatening to think that one used to prefer blondes but now like brunettes, but it is currently taboo to say that one used to prefer women and now finds men attractive too. The essentialist argument was important for gay rights, but now it is damaging all of us by impying that sexuality can never change. When we acknowledge change, our various identity labels can change too, with much less harm than is caused now.

When thinking about all of these preferences and factors, common configurations emerge. The queer world has been making headway inventing names to refer to these clusters of attributes, such as: femme, boi, bear, butch, cub, twink, unicorn. The straight world has far fewer words, but they exist, such as ‘cougar’, even if they do get ruined  (‘sapiosexual’ anyone?) However there could be much greater mileage in identifying and naming these common configurations.

Gender will very much still be in there, since not-trans straight people are still the most common. These days one ticks some boxes on dating sites e.g ‘male’ looking for ‘female’ and this new model would be just as simple. Non-transgender people are known as cisgender and most people are straight, or heterosexual. ‘Cishet’ is the word for the common configuration of “cisgender” and “heterosexual”. It is already commonly used in the queer world. So now you might tick the box ‘cishet’ looking for ‘femme’. Simple.

None of this is new. Dating sites have been trying to capture these preferences with more or less success for decades. I simply believe that our conceptual models, which are exclusively based on gender, are holding us back from realising the broad potential of sexuality.

Sexuality In The Future

Given the avenues of thought provided by Bisexuality, the future of sexuality could be very different. Rather than see sexuality as a biological binary because it depends on the biological “binary” of gender, sexuality can be seen as a personal attribute with both biological and cultural components that is affected by many factors.

Like other human attributes a person’s sexuality is both enduring and also evolves over time. It features many strands of influence, some biological, some social. Most of these strands are context-specific, some occur all the time. Some strands of attraction relate to the subject of desire and some strands relate to the object of desire. Some refer to social context, some are factors totally outside of our control, while some strands can be readily changed by new interactions or even conscious effort.

Many of these strands commonly appear together and so colloquial labels will continue to grow up around these clusters to make it easier to describe oneself and who one desires, but these labels should be seen as flexible, incomplete and eventually, obviously, they will go out of date.

In this model, changing one’s own gender, or changing which genders one is attracted to is unproblematic, just as liking blondes or brunettes is unproblematic now.

Some scales apart from gender seem obviously very useful, such as sex drive. Some people have no sexual desire at all, and some people prefer to have sex every day. Surely matching with a person on sex drive is just as important as on gender (if you’re monogamous). The ways that age can interact with sex drive seems very interesting. Should we be encouraging more sex between older women and younger men, for example?

What other scales and dimensions come into play with sexuality?

New Diagrams

I think some of the current ways of thinking about sexuality are still useful when providing a simple model for people who need that. Much like high school physics, we could present a simpler model to high schoolers that is oversimplified. Then, just as with physics undergrads, the more complex model can be revealed when the person is cognitively ready for it. Perhaps in high school we will still use this diagram:

teenagers

and for those who are cognitively ready it will look more like this, a many-stranded colourful cluster of changeable attributes and preferences:

sexuality future

I imagine this to be like colourful strings of yarn, and there would be hundreds of strands all dangling before us. Each person can grab lots of strings, and grab different ones on different days. A certain group of strings might have a label that describes it, and one’s own fistful might be quite similar to the label, but each person’s fistful o’ yarn will also be unique. This diagram does not have hundreds of strings, but you get the idea.

I think that if we adopt this way of approaching sexuality, our conceptions of it can go from this:

sexuality now 2

to this:

rainbow harp

Rainbow Harp! Image by Sheppard Arts

…without too much hardship. Looks like fun!

Conclusion

Sexuality and gender don’t belong in boxes forever, and it’s not too hard to think outside them. We can conceptualise sexuality as a personal attribute that depends on many factors and evolves over time. We may simplify this for those who need it, but the complex model should underpin adult life.

Also:

  • Diagrams are harder to make than they look.
  • Bi people are fun! You should hang out at their parties.
  • I got the inspiration for this blog post from a strangely coherent dream.

Post Script

I did not realise when I started this post that I am proposing the end as we know it of sexuality labels and ditching LGBT. By the end of this post I realised that’s exactly what I’m doing. While this is scary, I think it may actually be the right time. The straight /L / G project has been pretty successful. There’s very little left to do. In order to achieve the goals of B, a turning-inside-out of assumptions has to happen. As a bi activist, I started to realise that, rather than berate people for not identifying as bi (which causes sooo many organisational problems), or berate others for being so prejudiced towards “b” that no-one will identify as it, I decided I should accept how others feel and behave, understand why, and work with it. Work to push it further in its own direction, rather than force it into boxes. This might be one way of doing that? I’m not certain. As I said, I woke up from a dream with this all in my head, you can let me know if it makes any sense.

 

Reflections 2017

Reflections on the past year. I feel proud of how long this calendar year has felt. It’s nice to balance the feeling of vertigo I get when I reflect on how old I am vs hold I feel with the sensation that I have crammed a lot into a single year.

The start of the year was all trips to Portugal, to our new land. I luckily found some work too, overseas no less. Early summer was stressful looking for more work, but I had some good weekend holidays and BiCon too. Then work, endless work until October. But that month is a traditional time for new beginnings, it seems. More Portugal, then a final push of other travelling and events. I visited the Isle of Bute in Scotland and I’m taking my driving theory test today, for the second time in my life.

All this on the backdrop of communal warehouse life, and something else. The background of thinking, always thinking.

Relationships

So, judging by my diaries from last year autumn is a time for change, and boning! Same thing this year too, happy days. I am now edging, very slowly, towards my own personal ideal minimum number of boys (three). And my, oh my, the latest escapade was gooooooood. Had some female-flavoured sexy interaction too, which as usual has left me extremely thoughtful about roles and gender.

My family and friend relationships have really been improving this year. My nephew is now nearly two, and alongside seeing much more of that sister, I’ve also been seeing more of my cousins and other sister. I am finding these relationships really satisfying. Despite the sadness of two grandparents passing away, the cousins on that side of the family are now genuinely warm with each other and aware of each other’s lives. It felt so good to great each other warmly, while the older generation are distant.

My longer term partner and my best friend provide relationships that feel like very solid foundations upon which I build my life, and I feel privileged to experience such security and affection.

I’m starting to meet the people of the Philosophy Twitterverse in meat space, which is very exciting. This techincally started last year, just a few months after I first found Meaningness but one friendship in particular blossomed this year, while another has just begun. I hope to meet up with the same people more next year, and meet others too. Chuffed about this.

Made friends with a new housemate and it’s been excellent.

Philosophy

Was it really this year that I separated this blog from the philosophy one? I guess it was, all the way back in January. Well, Theory Engine was born and I feel very smug about the name. It also inspired me to move back to more personal topics on this blog, which was great.

I also founded my fortnightly meet called Balcony Philosophy that has yielded excellent conversation and reading lists.

As I said, I met some people in meat space, which has brought me (digitally) closer to some of the others, woo-hoo! Finding these peers and elders feels really good, and when lots of them are in the Bay Area kinda-rationalisty space it feels really cool in a Bloomsbury type way. I want more!

(I think last year’s missing Philosophy section, that I was going to write in the reflections post, would have described reading Meaningness, then spontaneously starting to write my own stuff. I thought I’d need discipline and tricks to get me writing and keep me doing so, but as it turned out I couldn’t help but snatch as much time as I could to write posts in between all my summer travels. I commented on meaningness and slatestarcodex to get their attention, while following up on Twitter. It worked and occasionally I got mentioned in tweets or roundups. It was very satisfying to participate in the online bloggy philosophy world. Now that it’s extending into real life I am super stoked!)

Work

This year I worked over the summer, though the contract started a bit later than I would have liked. I failed to earn a whole year of salary, but was as near as dammit. It’s been two months since I finished and only slowly getting back the philosophy mojo. Three months in one go was hard, but I learned some things, both code-wise and about getting on in offices. I loved working in the City. My London love continues without letup.

Earlier in spring, when I was just about out of cash from last year, I had a contract in the states for a couple of weeks. I got to see San Fran for one day and made some lasting freelance friends.

Bi Stuff

I went back to BiCon this year, after a gap of three. It was excellent and affirming to see old friends there. BiCon is important in a way that’s hard to describe but “Bisexual Christmas” is pretty close. I feel more secure and happy than previous years, and truly not expecting too much this time, so I had some meaningful interactions. I also broke my toe.

Represented Bis at Pride, went well. I love the Pride parade. Also had a Bivisibility Day cake party in September, because I’ve been realising that there is a bi culture, and it’s pretty cool and super important. It’s a full way to be, and everyone should be able to know about it. One of my favourite parts of bi culture is the term “monosexual” as the opposite of “bisexual”. We don’t say it infront of them though.

This bi activism thing has simply not gone away, even in the midst of my “I don’t believe my politics any more” phase. It’s clearly fun & meaningful to me so I guess I’ll keep doing it.

Time

I have been so proud of how long this year has felt. I have been on seven international trips: three for work (San Fran and Munich twice) and four to Portugal. I also finished up the year visiting Scotland.

We began clearing work on The Land in January, have had architects plans drawn up and now we are canvassing quotes for the house to be built. I cannot wait.

Portgual trips seem to warp time, where it’s hard to remember what came before one’s life of getting up with the sun, hard work under the bright sky, peeing anywhere you want and cutting logs for the fire. It seems like that life has gone on forever and London is a distant memory. At the same time, when I get back to London, it is as if the last events that happened to me there occurred just yesterday, which can’t be right. I get this strong feeling of not knowing how long I’ve been gone.

Anyway, I’ve deliberately disrupted my routines / not gotten into any outside of work and this year has been a subjectively long one, which is great!

Mental Health

Have been feeling mostly fine. It’s like a sleeping monster. I still get that panic about dying at night sometimes, but with big gaps between occurences. I feel like I have a few different ways to calm it down.

Something happened to me in Portugal in November. Some kind of unlocking to do with enjoying pleasure in the moment. I can feel it in the background all the time now. It’s making life better, this quiet focus on the pleasurable body. It has inspired one swimming session, and I hope it leads to more exercise, exercise with a more consistent motivation. I’m certainly suddenly interested in yoga, including the sprititual practice, which is a change from before.

Other

I’ve come to feel that Heathrow Terminal 2 is the best airport terminal in the world. I love London so much. I love my living situation less. Hard to not post projections for the future, maybe I’ll write those down separately.

 

Time changes

My sense of time has changed. I’ve come to notice this by being around people who are still in their twenties (I’m 33 now).

My friend Jo is 23 and to them, 6 months is an absolute age.

I’ve recently connected with a new partner who is 26. He is going away for four months, and hopes to stay away longer. He has more anxiety than me about the future of our relationship.

I recall being about 28 or 29 and realising, through polyamory, that my relationships will probably no longer follow the meet-date-acrimoniousbreakup pattern that was an unquestioned way of things in my “20s monogamy” phase. Rather, relationships can have ups and downs, recesses, corners, timeouts and timeins. The older I get, the longer relationships can be and the more they’ll morph.

Around this time I started saying “the future is long”, meaning that whatever stage a relationship is in now (normally just broken up), it will change over time and the change will happen quicker than you think. There is always the possibility of: -getting back together -becoming friends again -being thrown back into a life situation together -actually not really caring about them anymore.

Some of my longer-term relationships, like family and early boyfriends have followed so many twists and turns it’s now not very easy to describe them all. The swings from love to hatred to indifference to betrayal to empathy to love again have been numerous.

I’ve had a monogamous friend with whom I could have sex only when he didn’t have another partner. I saw several girlfriends come and go, and didn’t really feel particularly deprived when I wasn’t allowed to have sex with him for a while. The friendship was clearly going to endure much longer than these partners.

There is security in patience.

(Post-script: I am aware that one day, the longer I live the more likely it will be that my relationships with others will end. Time will speed up again. Relationship needs will be more urgent. I’m sure it will feel like a blink of an eye since I was here, now, saying these young things at this young age.)

 

 

Not A Meritocracy

Social Justice

So, I’m done with the social justice world.

I always had more time for the really complex and nuanced arguments of the heavyweight writers anyway and I had the privilege of working with smart and level-headed activists when it came to actions.

But, in the last few years I lost my certainty about every cause I was involved with and now I feel much more interested in studying all sides, watching how things play out and to a certain extent having a go at predicting outcomes, without feeling particular alleigence to any “side” in a debate because almost everything has merit and almost no-one is interested in measuring actual outcomes. When outcomes are played out, things are normally good for some people and bad for others, appropriate in some circumstances and irrelevant in others.

Im interested in that fact, but openly sympathising with the problems faced by men’s rights activists gets you pushed out of the feminist activist club fairly quickly, and rightly so, because passionate outrage is the fuel needed to act there.

Anyway, excellent activism is more drowned out these days by tribe-signalling meme warfare and I generally ignore it.

But I still have thoughts and critiques when particular examples float my way and here is one of them.

Intro

A friend invited me to a talk by a woman of color about the difficulties she has experienced in the media industry. It set me to thinking about the media industry and how this is a known industry for being extremely difficult to get into. It also strikes me that the media industry is one of those industries that is most obviously based on nepotism (powerful people promoting their friends) than based on merit (fair interview processes for all job openings).

In this talk I wonder if the person will be calling for less racism in a meritocratic sense or in a personal relations sense.

Systematic lies

I certainly used to be a highly systematic and individual person who believed in rules and fairness. My understanding of feminism moved through the following cycle:

Believing that the world was fair to the genders -> angrily realising it was not -> advocating for more fairness ->seriously thinking about how to educate others to be fair -> realising you partly have to tell the next generation to behave better than you do ->telling kids that the world already allows boys in pink skirts ->those kids believe the world is fair ->angry realisation that it’s not…. etc.

In this way we are iterating over the generations since the 60s telling little lies that everything is fair.

Relationships

I recently spent some time working on my skills when it comes to relationships, being dissolved in a web of humans, forgetting the rules and so on.

A pertinent example of this is moving to London. I had always been too scared to move to London since the barriers to entry are so formidable. When I decided to make the move, I had no money, no previous address and no (current) skills. I knew that the “correct” way to move to London, use an agency to rent a property at market rates, would be impossible for me. I knew it was impossible for others too, and yet people managed to get there. It seemed obvious that it was important to meet some people who had found some sweet deal, some cheaper niche of their own, by luck and rule-bending and circumstance. It was important to personally meet these people because any spare rooms would be a closely guarded secret that would never leak out onto “official” channels, reserved only for friends by word of mouth. This strategy would take time and luck, but was my only way in.

It worked, and that is exactly how I moved to London.

This is nepotism, the epitome of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The catch-22 of “networking” is that human networks is one of the only ways things get done but articifially trying to build those networks at networking sessions is exactly the wrong way to forge those connections. It must be done in a way that feels natural and inspires trust.

More Lies

Back to lies we tell our kids. Adults claim that their institutions are based on a meritocracy, which is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of truth to that claim, with most universities and boring companies on the meritocratic end and Oxbridge, government and the arts industries on the nepotism end.

When I was a feminist activist, I took fair, meritocratic systems as a given and was trying to eliminate unfair practices between genders in what I perceived should be a fair system.

I wonder if this woman of color is making the same assumption: that unfair racist practices are occuring in what should be a fair, meritocratic system. If so, I don’t think she will get very far. Not because of the resistence to equal treatment of race and gender (though that is likely present), but because protecting the facade of merit over the reality of nepotism is something people will fiercely defend and lie about (and do it well, this is the media we are talking about).

My advice to this woman would be to use race and gender as a tool in this nepotistic setup. Go find the people of color who are already there and if they won’t help you (likely) they might indicate who in power likes having black friends. Gender is an even more unpalatable option, since other women may not help (they might, find that one feminist who works in TV), so one might have to resort to feminine attractiveness or, more likely if its TV and theatre, one could do well by butching up for all the gay guys that find women a bit scary.

This all sounds like a social justice nightmare, but if you’re not willing to be realistic about these strategies a career in the media may not be for you. It also does not preclude activism. Someone’s personal climb through the nepotisitc ranks may lead those friends on the way up to regard a person of a colour as a good bet in the relations stakes, whereas before they were prejudiced/ blind to it. I genuinely believe that that outcome would be a big win that does a lot of good.

Support

I won’t be going to the talk. I’m bored with all that. My advice above would not be taken well, and I can see why. But my friend is definitely showing signs that she takes my lack of support for her talks as a rejection of her friendship. Is it possible to show support for someone in this part of their life without resorting to totally faking it?

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

Emotionally Dealing With Cheaters

It’s time for some emotional maturity when it comes to agents engaged in systems.

Hawks and Doves

A few decades ago, a couple of scientists applied game theory to evolutionary development. The result was evolutionary game theory and it gave us some neat new ways to understand evolution.

The most famous example of this work is known as “hawks and doves”. The premise is that given a certain set of circumstances, individuals within the same species competing for finite resources may have more than one strategy for obtaining those resources. Divided simplistically, an individual may behave in a “dove”-like fashion ie standing down from conflict (after an initial bluff of force) and sharing resources with other doves it discovers, both of whom are non-violent or a “hawk”-like fashion ie following through on threats of violence and not sharing resources with others. The dove strategy has low costs but also low rewards while the other has high cost but also higher potential reward.

The theorists produced a graph that showed which strategy might be optimal under which conditions. There is an awful lot more to evolutionary game theory however I mention this as an illustrative example.

Depending on the conditions, you have a certain percentage of hawks and doves. The more hawks you have, the more costly it is to be one as you might starve or be killed. The more doves you have, the higher the reward for being a hawk (violent and not sharing) since almost everyone you meet is a dove and will back down. In the high dove scenario, it makes sense for more individuals to become hawks since the rewards are high and the risks very low. Once you have several hawks though, the chances of meeting another hawk are higher and it once again becomes too costly to be one compared to the expected reward. There is a certain balance that appears between the types of strategy. The exact ratios depend on the situation, but what I want to point out is that you always have some hawks.

Social Strategies/Cheaters

Evolutionary game theory goes on to analyse circumstances where individuals within a species co-operate to a certain extent, rather than compete.

Humans often co-operate, and this behaviour is said to be ‘social’. Humans are one of the most socially sophisticated animals on the planet.

In a highly social society there are systems of rules in place and a few different strategies for success. Social systems are typically based on varying degrees of trust, you need to trust that other people will follow the rules and humans have evolved extremely complex skills and heuristics to assess trustworthiness in others.

One strategy in trust based systems is to fake trustworthiness, not abide by the rules, screw people over and reap the benefits. This strategy risks being caught and completely shunned, which may even lead to death. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy that is the social equivalent to a hawk.

It seems to be that any social system that has rules based on trust is also open to the possibility of cheating being a viable strategy. In any social game you always have some cheaters.

Stopping Cheaters

Our social evolution has given humans pretty powerful tools to spot a cheater, helping groups to keep cheaters to a minimum. Many of our formal systems also have safeguards to attempt to weed out cheaters.

However, I frequently come across the assumption that it would be ideal to completely eliminate cheaters. This is wrong.

Eliminating cheaters is not possible. All games of any complexity have rules and therefore can be cheated. The more dove-like rule-followers a game has, the greater the rewards are for cheating and so the likelihood of having cheaters in the game increases. I believe that past a certain point you have a power-law situation with cheaters, where the energy expended to detect and remove cheaters grows exponentially the lower the number of cheaters becomes. Eventually, the measures taken to eliminate the cheaters become more injurious for everyone than the harm the cheaters are causing.

A recent example from my life: at a Pride parade of tens of thousands of people a political group of a dozen participants was denied entry, but unofficially they ‘broke in’ at the end of the column and marched anyway. Despite the fact that the organisers had made reasonable efforts to prevent the group from marching that year the outrage was huge, so the following year the organisers implemented a security system requiring all 10,000 people to acquire official wristbands, the parade needed extra staff, security barriers and to change the assembly point and shorten the parade route. The measures far exceeded the harm.

Eliminating cheaters is not necessarily desirable. Cheaters have to develop great skill to cheat, skills that are often prized in general, from thorough attention to detail to ingenuity, innovation and improvisation. In David Chapman’s essay ‘Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths’ the sociopaths – the cheaters – have an important function. They use their skills to market the New Thing made by the Geeks, making money and enriching culture, even if they reap an unfair share of the rewards. Sociopaths in general are quite likely to be cheaters but also quite likely to be very useful, like surgeons.

Emotional maturity

The extreme measures taken to eliminate cheaters seem to be often caused by the emotional pain of being a rule-follower and seeing or knowing that there are cheaters. Cheaters seem to reap great rewards, while the costs of the strategy are less visible. The emotional reaction can blind people to other causes for cheating, such as injustice (which I think may have played a part in the Pride parade example).

This emotional overreaction goes for double when money is involved – the obvious example is rabidity over benefit/welfare cheaters. I think the extra effort expended on trying to prevent cheaters is one of the key reasons that universal benefit works out cheaper.

People also seem to overestimate how many cheaters there are. I would expect any system to be capable of supporting around 10% hawks/cheaters. However from internet reading I’ve done about crimes, false claims about crimes (eg false insurance claims, false rape claims) are around 2%. This seems absurdly low.

The emotional desire to eliminate cheaters is prioritised over the rational knowledge that cheaters are inevitable, exist in low numbers and are even desirable. We need to sort that out because so often the measures to prevent cheaters are worse than the cheaters themselves.

 

 

Eternalist problems with bisexuality

Preamble

My thoughts in this blog post rely on other frameworks to better understand bisexuality.

The first set of frameworks are eternalism/nihilism and  monism/dualism as outlined by David Chapman on his project called meaningness. Very briefly,

  • Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
  • Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.

I will be focussing on eternalism. Eternalism resolves the ambiguity of life by saying that, even if we can’t fully see or understand it, there is an ordering principle to everything. This ordering principle can explain everything, providing comfort and a sense of control. The most obvious examples are God, or the non-theistic Fate. However many things can be eternalist, such as staunch belief in Science (scientism) or political ideologies.

There are two common ways to futher enact eternalism, called monism and dualism by Chapman. Very briefly,

  • Monism is the idea that “All is One.”
  • Dualism is the idea that the world consists of clearly separate objects.

To take a religious example, Monist Eternalist thought appears in New Age religions that state “you and the universe are One”, meaning you will be saved because you are God. Dualist Eternalist religions say God is a thing, separate from you and he will save you.

I will also be looking at several of Chapman’s ‘Eternalist ploys’ and linking to them as I go along. I really do recommend an extremely long click-around the book linked here before reading my thoughts to come.

Problems of bisexuality

In the bisexual activist community, it is commonly known that advocating for bisexuality is extremely difficult because of a number of problems.

To begin, almost nobody actually identifies as bisexual because the label, or stereotypes of the label, do not fit their experience.

Most people believe they are ‘not bisexual enough’ because they don’t have equal and unbiased sexual attraction to all genders, all of the time. Many people disagree that “both homo- and hetero- sexual” is an adequate term for their feelings.

Many bisexually-behaving people either swing between identifying as ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ depending on their current partner or refuse labels entirely and state “I am just me”. Some find their way to the queer community, which is more of an umbrella term but some of their bisexual behaviour must be sublimated to fit into queer spaces (eg opposite-sex attractions), just as those who remain in a hetero society sublimate their same-sex attractions.

Tragically, despite feelings they are not a ‘true’ bisexual, most bisexual people’s experiences are very similar to each other and distinct from other people’s. This means that services of any kind which are tailored to straight, gay, lesbian or trans people are inadequate and unhelpful for bisexual people, whereas bisexually-tailored help would work, if it were available, or if anyone accessed it, which they don’t, which means funding for new services is hard to get, because no-one identifies as bisexual.

This leads to depressing statistics about mental and physical health amongst bisexually behaving people, with outcomes being far worse than any of the aforementioned groups.

When bisexual people come together in an understanding environment, the effects can be profoundly positive, but finding a way to reach bisexual people is notoriously difficult. The positive effects can also fade quickly over time as normal life once again denies bisexual experience.

Understanding bisexuality through frameworks

Having read Chapman’s ways of slicing reality into stances, I became very interested in how or why this might apply to bisexuality.

I believe bisexuality is inherently nebulous, complex, changing over time, with multiple things going on. It explodes neat binaries and refuses to be its own, easily understandable thing.

At the same time there are strong patterns of commonality between people who feel or behave in a bisexual way, grouped into clumps of common experience. Most bisexual people share some but not all of these groups of experiences, some but not all of the time. This makes the label bisexual more of a marker for a rough direction than any kind of explanation, leading to everyone’s frustration with it, and labels in general.

Common objections to bisexuality from the stances

The eternalist stance has a problem with any sexuality that is not fixed over a long time, while some gay activism has focussed strongly on eternalist principles to fight their cause, such as having no choice about sexuality, whether from a genetic or environmental standpoint – ‘born this way’.

However, bisexual people experience attractions to other genders fading in and out over time. Some bisexual people “decided” to become bisexual or first experienced another-gender attraction quite late in life.

This leads to many people denying that bisexuality can exist. It is dismissed as “just a phase”, as if sexualities must eventually become ‘stable’. Or dismissed as treacherous or dangerous,  as ‘watering down the message’. Sexuality studies exclude bisexual people because they ‘muddy the water’.

The monist view that we are all one comes into play when bisexuality is denied by appealing to similarities. People either say “well, we are all human, that’s what matters” or the extremely pernicious statement “well, we are all bisexual really”. While it is true that most people could conceive of the idea that someone’s attractions may vary across gender boundaries, it is certainly not true that everyone behaves in a bisexual way. Otherwise everyone would be bisexual, really.

I believe this monist inability to see categories also leads people to entirely reject labels. The monist view says ‘I don’t see why we need labels anyway, it only serves to divide people unneccessarily’. However as we have seen, when bisexual people cannot rally around some words or identities, their health and wellbeing suffer tremendously.

When it comes to being gay, almost no-one  gives the following advice: “well, you are just you, you are unique, you should only take up labels that suit you” but this is almost always given as advice to someone questioning whether they are bisexual.

Similarly, the dualist view ends up rejecting labels. Dualism insists on concrete categories, particularly gender of self and gender of the people to whom one is attracted. A bisexual person suspects that they do not fit neartly into the category of hetero or homo, so the dualist creates anthoer category called “both”. This category is entirely unacceptable to a bisexual person as briefly described above.

It’s also very hard to undestand as a dualist, since liking two “opposites” at once sounds suspiciously like categories shouldn’t exist at all. The dualist then wants a bisexual to ‘decide’. Parents constantly state “so you’re straight now”, “so you’re gay now” to a bisexual person when they have a new partner and bi people themselves swing between “gay” and “straight”. Other dualist biphobc statements include “pick a side”, “choose a team”, “stop being on the fence”.

Many valiant attempts to create categories that do seem to fit bisexual people have occured to better describe bisexual experience. These include:

  • bi-romantic, to capture the relationship aspect of attraction only
  • hetereo- and homo- flexible, to express a ‘mostly, but not always’ fit into dualist boxes
  • pansexual, to describe attraction based less on gender than on other attriubutes
  • queer, to express ‘not straight, but check the details’
  • fluid, to desribe lack of fixity over time

And many others.

However, each label only decribes an aspect of bisexuality. The process of choosing and applying many labels which may change over time or not be an exact fit soon becomes absurd, and many people give up the idea of labels all together as unworkable.

As we have seen, the monist view dismisses labels as divisive, while simple dualist labels are not nebulous enough for real people to fit into, but at the same time applying mutliple, more fuzzy categories becomes absurd.

Eternalist ploys

A couple of the eternalist ploys mentioned by Chapman struck home as being relevant to bisexuality.

Continuum Gambit

The ‘continuum gambit’ is a ploy by eternalist thinking to regain control of, and create boundaries on, nebulous things.

When it becomes obvious that things are not either this or that, but somewhat both and neither—a typical manifestation of nebulosity—the continuum gambit suggests that reality is a matter of shades of gray, corresponding to numbers on a continuous scale.

This describes the Kinsey scale perfectly. Kinsey was radical and needed in his time and set us on a new course of thinking about sexuality forever. However, the Kinsey scale is misleading and useless about 10 minutes after it is first discovered.

A person will yield as many different numbers on the scale as there axes of experience around sexuality. The same person will have wildy different numbers depending on the history of their relationships, compared to feelings now, compared to the future, let alone actual behaviour vs desired behaviour in an ideal world vs fantasy life (which normally has no correlation with actual acts).

The Klein grid is an attempt to take into account these considerations, and involves some interesting thoughts, but the results seem to me to become immediately meaningless. A bisexual person will not be indentifiable from the general population when taking this test, and interpretation of the results is apparently complex. This is normally a sign that it is useless for ordinary people and indeed the website itself suggests it’s better to find a therapist.

(Lack of) wistful certainty & others

Wistful certainty is the idea that there definitely is a right system to do things that will solve all our problems, if only we can discover it. For example, the certainty that once we discover the correct laws of physics, they will explain the entire universe. Or the certaintiy that if we develop just the right combination of policies, there wil be a political system that works well enough for everyone.

The fact that this is not true is not immediately obvious (in my view), with the above examples. I believe many people are supported by wistful certainty surrounding many assumptions in their lives, making them more comfortable than they might be otherwise.

However, the lack of wistful certainty is immiediately apparent with bisexuality. There is no hope that someone is working on this stuff and it will all be figured out eventually. Rather, the bisexual person is simply weird,wrong and does not fit any systems.

No-one is examining the puzzle of bisexuality to give them hope. Rather they are excluded from studies as anomalies There are no meanings to bisexuality, fixed or otherwise.

This lack of eternalist bolstering leads to the opposite stance to eternalism, nihilism. Nihilism is not sustainable for very long and is very depressing. Bisexual people either switch back to dualist eternalist (“straight now, gay now”), monist eternalist (“I’m just me, I don’t need labels”) or tragically, commit suicide.

Stages of development

There is another way, however and hopefully many bisexuals reach this stage, at least eventually.

Chapman calls the answer to the eternalist/nihilist stances the complete stance, which sady he has yet to talk about in any great detail (but there are smaller sections on many of the other pages, take a look).

However, the next key framework I am looking at is Kegan’s framework for social and cognitive development, a summary of which can be found here. This is Chapman’s summary and I found it through the meaningness blog. I have yet to read the book, I have only read the summary but it seemed like a good summary that extracts and explains key points.You must read this first before anything I say next makes sense (and we’re at the end so you can stop here if you like).

The first 4 stages do not really relate to the stances, but the 5th one, fluid mode, seems relevant.

There is much discussion on the meta-blog about how few people reach stage 5, about how society operates largely in stage 4, providing no structures to support the transition from stage 4 to stage 5, leaving many stage 4.5ers adrift in nihilisitc depression.

Stage 5 is the moment when the system that a person has been using to have beliefs, achieve projects and relate to others has been replaced by the idea that there are many systems, none of which is objectively the ‘right’ system, because any system is founded on fallable axioms. Rather systems are simply a better or worse fit for situations. Where previously a person was adept at defining their role within a system, a person can now use and even define entire systems dependent on context. In this mode, conflict between systems seems less problematic, as do internal inconsistencies.

A bisexual person will hopefully come to realise that the system we currently have for gender and sexuality is flawed. Labels are both useful sometimes, but not descriptive other times. Categories like gender don’t really exist, but are still handy shorthand for a cluster of attributes. Bisexuality is something outside of gay/straight, it is not simply “both” but it is also not “neither”. That each bi person is different, yet there are commonalities of experience.

I will make a blog post soon talking about how lessons learned from bisexuality can help individuals and societies progress to Stage 5 / fluid mode / complete stance with more understanding and emotional support.

Money

From the title, this post seems to me to have too broad a remit but I wanted to document the changes in my relationship to money.

This blog was started at the outset of a journey in which I refused to engage with money. Money was being used as a weapon of power, particularly in the political landscape, and I wanted to disempower the people I did not agree with. When it comes to affairs in the humaniverse (a term I coined to describe what many people call ‘the real world’ or ‘life’ of the ‘universe’ when actually the thing they are describing is entirely dependent on humans to exist and so I call it the humaniverse), people only have power if everyone else collectively believes that they do. It’s possible to shift power if this act of believing is changed or halted. Since it was mainly the Chancellor of the Exchequer that I had problems with, and their domain is money, I decided to stop believing in it.  Now, some might say that money has non-human power of its own, or humaniverse power of its own, however I decided to see whether it merely had advantages, ones which it was possible to do without.

And I found that it was possible. It is only possible through many other aspects of the humaniverse supporting the journey of course. At first I might have said I was using a different system to live, but I don’t think that’s true, I was still part of the same mechanisms, just squeezing into an extremely unusual choice within that system.

Money is a key step in a short chain that humans have set up. You start with needing shelter, food and luxuries, you exchange your labour for a currency and you use the currency to fill the need. For most of us, money is that currency. By ignoring money I substituted other kinds of currency, such as time or domestic labour. My feminist sisters have done some excellent work in pointing out that vast amounts of female domestic and emotional labour support the lop-sided system of capitalism that rewards some labour with money but relies on lots of other labour that is given very little reward, an extremely disproportionate amount of which is done by women.

So in a straightforward sense I exchanged domestic labour for being able to stay overnight with friends and family and this depended on them still having jobs and paying rent, so was not really ‘outside the system’. In a slightly more subversive way, I removed unwanted food from the bins of supermarkets. This too is only possible if only some people do it, and thoroughly depends on the system.  It also demanded quite a lot of my time and physical energy, so that was the unit of exchange for ‘free’ food.

The biggest thing to try to do without money is try to find shelter. This endeavour brings one into the same category as the homeless, tramps, Travellers (Roma, gypsies) and squatters. All of these people are trying to derive shelter without traditional income streams and all of them have to move on frequently. This way of living requires time, travelling resources and a very large amount of emotional and physical energy. These strategies seem to be the most ‘outside the system’ strategies I encountered because they require almost total disconnection from every other service our society provides and can have a profound toll on physical health.

It is in this area that I had the most insight about the way we order our culture and how profoundly insecure and intolerant we are. Read more here.

However, the benefits of living without money were many.

Time

Not having to work gave me a lot of free time. After sorting out some food and housing for the day, I had many hours left over and I was almost stumped with how to fill them. I read lots of books and talked to people, but I could have learned whole languages or retrained in anything I wanted. I taught myself to juggle and practised for many hours. I read the whole of HPMOR and a good chunk of the LessWrong material. I had lots of time for reflection.

Mental freedom

The mentral freedom I experienced was likely only possible due to actively trying to turn away from money and earning money. This seemed a little like staring into a campfire for a lifetime, then suddenly turning around and viewing a dark, unkown vista that is the whole rest of the world. Entire landscapes of possibility seemed now open. With so much time to fill, something that requires time now seemed exciting, such as learning a language. The world actually felt like my oyster, instead of that being a thing people say.

This revelation was so strong because I’ve always had a life of desperately trying to earn enough money to survive, ie a poor/working class kind of a life.

With money out of the picture, my efforts were all focussed towards things like leisure, learning, helping others, creating art, making plans and basically everthing most humans wish they had more time to do. I found that not tying my decisions to whether it might help my career in some way enabled me to make surprising choices. It was possibly only then did I truly engage in or appreciate activities that you do for their own sake. This last is meant to be a corner stone of good mental health.

It is from these experiences that lead to my current views about the sheer unapprecaited scale of output from all humans we as a species could receive by instituting Universal Benefit schemes.

Novelty

Because of having to move on a lot, and exploring new mental space, something novel happened to me almost every day. According to research I’ve read but not checked, novelty (or absence of routine) makes subjective experience of time seem to lengthen. If things are constantly new, it is as if time is moving more slowly. Perhaps because we generate a baseline expecation of how many things can happen in, for example, one day.

As a result, the year I spent homeless and engaged in almost constant novelty subjectively feels about the same as three years of a normal life. This is one of the reasons ‘travelling’ feels like such a transformative experience since the traveller has experienced (and changed as a result) at seemingly three times of the speed of normal life.

People make their reality narrow

After seeing a city in terms of only its abandoned buildings, rather than its desirable ones or after seeing a pedestrian railing as a playground instead of a crash barrier it is easy to see how many different realities exist for humans in the same physical space. You only see what you need to and human contexts are really narrow.

I sometimes experienced the opposite of what most people experience in certain places. For example, I perceive Birmingham to be very friendly because I was homeless and I locked eyes with homeless people. Homeless people smile a lot at the people that see them, so I experienced Birmingham as very friendly, the opposite of what most people find there.

Realising how context-specific humans can be, to the point of being entirely blind to physical objects was very useful. I now practice context-switching, particularly for city streets. I imagine how a lover of architecture would see a street, then a person looking for free food, then a parkour practitioner, then a squatter, then a property developer, archaeologist and so on and in that way attempt to see my environment in its intricate entirety.

Poor Person Pain

One of the things I learned was that as a poor person, I had developed antagonistic defences against things that I could never have, due to being a poor person. Instead of being in pain over the things I could never have, I created elaborate reasons for why I actually didn’t want them anyway, probably to alleviate that pain. I said and believed that a poor person’s life was more virtuous, due to reusing, recycling and sharing, that I didn’t want things like nice clothes because it was empty signalling, that following fashion was pointless, unethical or deceitful.

It was only through the subject of technology did I notice this behaviour by experiencing cognitive dissonance. I had developed a dismissive and curmudgeonly attitude to technology during travelling. It was indeed partly because I believed non-technological skills like reading maps and surviving when you don’t know where you were are important skills to develop and not lose. However that was not the whole story and in other ways I would describe myself as a person who welcomes technological advances and was not curmudgeonly about technology in general. I realised I had set myself up to hate the things I couldn’t have, because technology is rarely available for free.

Returning To Money

Returning to money, however, was no easy feat.

Thoughts on dopamine

I recently read a post about some science behind introverts and extroverts. The way the article is written is all over the place when it comes to the ‘science’ and relies on tertiary sources. I have not checked the tertiary sources for their secondary and primary source reliability.

With that caveat, the things briefly and confusedly mentioned in the article got my attention. The article mentions dopamine as a mechanism in the brain to which introverts and extroverts react differently, thus explaining their behaviour.

Dopamine is described by the NIH in the US as “a neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, learning, and the brain’s pleasure and reward system” and I have found it interesting ever since someone told me about the proposal that nicotine is actually the ‘gateway drug’ to other drugs because it is a dopamine antagonist and re-uptake inhibiter which is not only pleasing in and of itself but also serves to enhance other drugs when taken in combination eg: alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, natural dopamine released from social interaction, sexual activity etc. All of these ‘drugs’ are enhanced by also having a cigarette, and form a large part of the habit- or social-based addiction to cigarettes. Nicotine can be seen as the ‘gateway drug’ because it enhances all other drugs beyond their actual effects.

And now the article above from ‘Introvert, Dear’ links dopamine responses to introverted and extroverted behaviour. I think the point made in the article is that everyone has similar levels of dopamine, but while extroverts are keen to keeping getting more and more hits of dopamine, so therefore love parties, introverts are easily overwhelmed by levels of dopamine rising higher, and for them a party might raise the levels too high, and they will retreat to a quieter environment.

(The author describes this by saying “extroverts have a more active dopamine reward system”, which I think is actually not a good way to describe it. It depends upon which part of the mechanism one is describing. In my view, one can easily say that extroverts are somehow not absorbing/feeling the effects of dopamine enough, therefore seeking out more “hits”, meaning their system is underperforming on the experiencing end. On the flip side it is introverts whose system is more “active”, indeed maybe overactive, because it experiences dopamine effects to a strong degree, to the point of needing to hide from too many sources of stimulation. I personally don’t think you’d choose to describe a long term heroin addict as having “a more active opiate system”.)

The article mentions extroverts thriving when using the “fight, fright or flight” response, or sympathetic nervous system to fuel their social engine, giving them high blood sugar but reduced decision making/critical thinking while introverts use the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body at rest, digesting food, lowering blood sugar and with thinking systems more on full.

The article also talks about some other things:

Even moving the limbs of the body takes more conscious thought for introverts. Introverts also have a tendency toward low blood sugar, low blood pressure, shallow breathing, sleep difficulties, tension headaches, and occasionally feeling drained and discombobulated.

In the article this is not explicitly linked with dopamine but given the description of it up there from the NIH, it seems to me that rather than being “made for hibernation” it could be that being too sensitive to dopamine means a deficiency in other ways, such as lack of ability to move limbs, low blood pressure etc.

How this relates to me: I would describe myself as an introvert. I get energy from being alone, I have low blood pressure, a slow heartbeat and I like thinking. I have consciously stopped smoking (regulated and non-regulated things) due to mental health problems. The effects of smoking are: raised heart rate, uncomfortable digestive sensations, dizziness and panic attacks. Coupled with the effects of smoking two substances at once I also get: sugar cravings, desire to sleep, more introspective thoughts. It now seems more obvious why all these things happen. Some are a function of nicotine & dopamine and some are a function of that other thing. The effects could “cancel each other out” or they could create a confusing array of bodily sensations which is probably why panic is so easily triggered.

I recently smoked again for the first time in a while and had the chance to observe other effects of doing so. I suddenly became more keen to talk at the party I was attending, more excited by interactions with other people and stayed awake longer than I would have. My heart beat much faster than usual, especially while talking with people. Later on that night I felt more active and dominant when having sex.

It seems very helpful to reflect that, rather than being scared of my fight or flight response, I could actively use it to be an extrovert for a day and that it is not a sign of something harmful, it’s just something that nicotine does, and extroverts. Indeed being an extrovert for a while could lead to other benefits like raised blood pressure and easier limb movement. Also that I should definitely replenish my blood sugars since they are either being actively used up or are a little bit too low during baseline because I’m more prone to introversion. It might be a good idea to smoke in more high energy situations, such as parties, rather than alone when sitting still.

I will be watching dopamine effects and research with great interest from now on.