The voice inside your head

On Saturday I learned something that blew my tiny mind, so much so that I was all out of wonder and awe by the time Eurovision came on. Apparently, some people don’t have an inner monologue – an “audible” voice inside their heads which narrates them ceaselessly and sometimes in complete sentences through their thoughts and activities. Actually, the mind-blowing thing to me wasn’t that some people don’t have a voice in their heads at all – it was that some (or most?) people do.

I don’t. I have never had one. I always thought “inner voice” was a metaphor (it makes me wonder what other things I’ve been taking as metaphorical that are in fact real. It also makes me wonder whether I have a barkingly different understanding of bicameralism to most people). It explains why I’ve never understood at gut level all that stuff about “silencing the critic in your head”. Again, to me, metaphorical. As a general rule I do not think in words, let alone sentences. As far as I can tell, the ideas I wish to express are sitting there conceptually fully formed in my brain, and somehow my speech facility selects the correct words from wherever they are stored and parses them into a sentence without any interim stage, at least not at conscious level.

This is, I hope, the only thing I have in common with Ricky Gervais:

Reading from Karl’s diary: “While I sat listening to The Kinks on my iPod, I wondered if everybody thinks in their accent. I know I do.”

Stephen: What’s this? What are you talking about?

Ricky: How do you know you think in your accent? Tell me a typical thought

Karl: I thought “that’s weird innit?” not “that’s weird isn’t it?” and I thought “I actually think in my accent”

Ricky: No, but, when I think I don’t think the sentence as like I’m saying it, it’s just a thought, the thought appears, it’s conceptual and it’s already there. It’s not like I go, “Rick?” “What?” “Just err… looking at that fella over there were you?” “Yeah, I was yeah. Erm, I was think he looked a bit weird” “Oh, so was I”, I don’t think out whole sentences…

What’s strange is that my verbal abilities in general seem above average. I’m eloquent in person, I’ve been a professional writer, so clearly my linguistic mode as a whole works fine. So what is going on? How am I able to get by? @Jackart wondered how I was able to do executive decision-making, for instance deciding to write someone a strongly-worded letter as an evolved alternative to stabbing them, and after I had hurriedly pushed all my stabby knives into a drawer I conceded he had a point. I’m not sure how I make decisions – they seem to happen, but it isn’t through an inner monologue. When I think about concrete things, like wanting toast (thanks to the ever excellent @CharlotteGore for this illustration), I don’t think “I want toast!”, I visualise a piece of toast sitting on a plate. (It’s always Platonic ideal toast too, white and fluffy, just the right amount of butter. Ahh.) Then something clicks into place, and there is a sense of “decision made”, without any verbalising. So I probably have the same ability to execute a decision to make toast as someone with an internal monologue.

Feature or bug?

But that’s concrete stuff, and given a toaster and enough training, a monkey can make toast. Thinking in terms of the human brain’s more evolutionarily recent capabilities, there are two ways I can suggest in which a lack of inner voice might be more feature than bug.

  1. It might free up capacity for more and faster conceptual problem-solving. Concepts do not translate as well as toast into imagery. But something visual is still going on when I think about ideas. The ideas or “thought units” I am interested in analysing sit in my mind’s eye (now THAT I have never thought of as a metaphor), often in the form of the page on which I read them, or the person who told them to me speaking, or the place I was when I learnt them. And I move these visual thought units around a blank space in relation to each other until I get a new insight (when there is a sort of internal “PING!”), which I am then able to “download” into words – and at that point if I am writing I DO hear the inner voice, I am hearing it right now as I type. At all times I believe I retain a full and rich sense of what each concept means; I am just not accessing it verbally when I’m moving it around. Something totally magical and synaptic is going on there that I have no conscious access to. Aren’t brains squidgy and fun? Now, by contrast, if I thought in sentences and had to think, or read, at the pace at which I can talk, I would find it unbearably slow and probably get less thinking done.
  2. No inner voice means no inner critic. Sarah Fox, the neuroscientist who provides the Ricky Gervais quote above, makes this point. A negative inner voice is correlated with depression, especially in people who are otherwise isolated and lack social inputs. In truth I wonder if this is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have an inner voice, you can’t use CBT to retrain it. And however I construct my thoughts I am still as prone to the nudges of my emotional neural network as anyone else, and I have indeed suffered from depression when younger – so clearly the causal mechanism of depression is something different. But it’s surely a structural advantage that I don’t have an inbuilt talking saboteur, perhaps akin to having better eyesight than most people or something. And it explains why my default mode on my own is to be a cheery soul. Sometimes, something verbal will break through, and it’s usually short and nice (and embarrassingly, it’s out loud for some reason, as if I can’t do it in my head at all). I will find myself saying “That’s good!” or even “You’re nice.” A decisive and galvanising “Right!” pops up fairly frequently. If this is my inner critic I should really take her out for a beer, she seems ace.

But features bring new bugs too – I wonder if, when you put the above two advantages together,  that is (a) thinking more and faster about more problems and (b) lacking an out-loud inner regulator (which is what a critic is when it’s operating healthily), what you have is a systemic explanation for something that definitely correlates with depressive tendencies: over-thinking. And indeed it is not in my nature to be satisfied with any of my own solutions. I tend to return to a problem and pick at it, in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if I were verbalising my solutions as I went along and bringing them into the world of the logical right hemisphere.

There really isn’t that much on the internet about this, intriguingly. The Brainbank article linked twice above is the only direct and substantial thing I could easily find. I wonder what would happen if I taught myself to have an inner voice? And how might I make a start on this without disturbing everybody at bus stops?

Polymaths at war

This is a little potted biography of Moshe Feldenkrais from the introduction to The Potent Self (disclaimer, this book gets rave reviews across The Internet but I’ve only read his preface so far and he spends the greater part of it defensively explaining why most of the book is about sex, so I am reserving judgement)

blog post

Isn’t the biography itself fascinating though? I have a subjective impression, which I would be delighted to see reinforced by evidence that other people provide without me having to do anything, that it has been easier, at certain points in the twentieth century, to be a high-achieving polymath than it is now.

The practical framework of modern capitalism, it seems to me, tells against polymaths in two ways: (a) credentialism in the job market and (b) the hedonic treadmill. By credentialism, I don’t simply mean that one has to have certain bits of paper or experiences in order to be considered for a job – that is the least of it. One actually has to have an entire coherent narrative of events and self-improvement leading towards the particular job one seeks. I know this because where I work in HE it’s what we teach the students. If you’ve ever hired anyone you’ll know that, no matter what your best intentions, you’ll pretty quickly default to pattern-matching to pick out the applications you want to take forward – the ones that are the most obvious match, the ones that give the more coherent story about who these people are and why their names are in front of you. The ones who make it easy for you, because you have limited time and you need to cover your arse – and that’s capitalism, folks!

And the hedonic treadmill tends to keep us doing the same things, at an increasingly senior level, to maintain a certain lifestyle rather than start all over again doing things we might actually want to do, things that might expand our minds or make use of talents we haven’t developed properly. The hedonic treadmill is really just the driving engine of the narrative point above – newspapers may whiffle about the new millennial jobseeker and their “portfolio” (i.e. unsupported) career, but the whole point is that those people aren’t on the treadmill yet. I would guess that in most British work contexts it’s bloody hard to get in as a “new starter” at a senior age, even if you decide you want to. The decision itself looks suspect; the system is not set up for you. You’re not on the treadmill! Why would you want that?

What mechanisms might disrupt the operation of these two polymath-favouring factors? Well, some of them are associated with wartime conditions, at least in 20th century British history. For a start in wartime there’s a lot of work to be done, and someone has to do it – literally has to do it in the case of antisubmarine research for the Admiralty, or all our boats will be blown up. And in any technical field where there is a shortage of expertise (which right up to the present day is most of them) this will tell against credentialism. Wartime conditions also create movement, disrupt lives, and overrule personal narratives. Nobody expects someone who has just fled from genocide to have a totally coherent personal and intellectual narrative, unless of course you are the modern-day Tory front bench. Lastly, wartime conditions reduce opportunities for consumption. Not only is the hedonic treadmill transparently no longer the main business of life for people who are now fighting or working in munitions factories; its outwardly measurable consumables are not even available.

As such, war-torn Europe perhaps produced opportunities for polymathic activity which postwar Europe has, in the most well-meaning possible way, been stifling with increasing success ever since.

H/t @Andrew_Wyld for the convo

The Crisis Info Hub

I am always the last in line of the early adopters, or first in line of the mainstream, as you care to take it (I’m not sure which is worse) so when I have a good idea about something, I can reasonably assume everybody else has had it, long enough ago to have got it to an executable stage. So it proves with this Google initiative to provide  “hyperlocal” (I think that just means local yes?) information to assist refugees with smartphones (which they have – apparently people traffickers’ business is suffering because their trade relies on their consumer base being unable to access maps or look up addresses or translate things. I can’t remember where I read this but it’s a cheering thought).

And this is interesting because my fear, when I first thought about this a couple of months ago, was that a sudden proliferation of this kind of initiative might attract the wrong sort of attention. I assumed we’d be talking about any number of start-ups, individuals and community projects and what-have-yous all squeaking at once about the marvellous apps they were building, and collectively this would make enough noise to attract admiring notices in the Guardian. The tabloids, having had long enough to get over pictures of drowned children on beaches, would thereby get wind of the activities of people who would be, in their limited collective conception, a weird mashup of liberal do-gooder and computer geek (both equally suspect types) and mount a campaign to stop them “encouraging” immigration in the process of assisting refugees.

And that might result in anything from harassment of the individuals concerned, stern comments by one or more Tory tossers, to the worst of all, legislation. The Tories do not quite have the reflexive mania to legislate that Labour did, but on this touchstone subject they probably do have that potential. I’m not joking, we may actually get there. The government may not wish to be seen to openly push refugees back into the sea, but it is certainly not impossible, to my mind, that they might criminalise providing assistance to immigrants in general.

But this news throws all that into an interesting light. I had assumed the drive for such projects would come from one-man-hipster-bands who work in Shoreditch for their day job – certainly privileged, intelligent and well-to-do, but whose powers would be puny in the face of the right-wing political establishment on a witch hunt. I never calculated on the likes of Google doing this. Google probably occupies a sort of adjacent space to the right wing tabloids – I’m sure they don’t like Google, I’m sure they’d rather Google didn’t exist because it represents so many things that reactionaries fear. But it also – this is critical – represents a hell of a lot of perhaps more fundamental things that progressives fear, and those are the things that it mainly gets attacked over. The right wing press seems to leave big corporations alone, except for the occasional half-hearted swipe at tax evasion, because by and large their very existence doesn’t offend their world view, and these beasts are too big to attack frivolously.

So we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, my next trick which lots of clever people will have already thought of, and which I’m absolutely not in a position to action anyway, is a project to assess how refugees currently manage to charge their phones on the move and whether there is anything cheap, simple and replicable that could be distributed either physically or virtually to make this easier.

Five things the Lib Dems should do now that nobody else has suggested

There are lots of great posts floating round the Lib Dem blogosphere right now and being attentively read by Tim Farron about things the party needs to do to recover from the recent great disaster, henceforth to be known as Cockroach Thursday.

[This post will be updated as I reread and link to them:

Jennie Rigg]

There are many fantastic points in them that I agree with, sometimes vociferously. But I’ve been out of the whole commenting-on-our-navel game for a while now, and while there is definitely a real need for soul-searching, internal reform, reworking of the narrative, maybe thinking about a total rebrand and all that jazz, I think my position gives me a wider, and frankly sillier, perspective. But we’re all out of options, and probably out of cash and possibly even the basis for a viable national party machine, so I’m going with silly. Any better ideas?

First up, we should think about whether anyone needs to get sacked.

Mark Littlewood is a weapons-grade twat. It is known. But nonetheless he is the twatty author of a typically twatty tweet at Sal Brinton yesterday that made me think:

@SalBrinton Sal, the party has just been eviscerated. You’re the President. Fire some NAMED people. Don’t just do yet another group hug.

— Mark Littlewood(@MarkJLittlewood) May 8, 2015

Hm, yeah, maybe. I mean, this is a question for the high-ups. I genuinely have no idea whether there’s a case for it or whether he’s just mischief-making. It may be that we ran a flawless campaign in the air and on the ground and were wrong-footed by circumstance. But we should at least consider the possibility that someone’s ass in the officially-employed bit of the party organisation needs to get fired, or a whole group of asses need to get busted from some committee or something, for this mammoth failure. Ever been on a project with a high-up in your workplace who everybody on the inside knows is a fucking liability making all the wrong decisions, but who never gets called out because, the status quo, and they’ve got all the right mates, and it’s too hard, and they are too entrenched? Me too. But the status quo is now a festering heap of horseshit so it’s not like there’s anything to conserve, and potentially it’s time to do some calling out. This may be the asses of people I know and like, mind you, but I’m not in a mood to be nice if it comes at the cost of the death of liberalism in this country and you shouldn’t be either.

The eight nice middle class white dudes on whom all our hopes now rest should get themselves well-tailored black suits and skinny ties and swan around Westminster like the fucking X-Men.

I am only partly joking about this, and it’s a point about both style and substance. You are all we’ve got. You can afford an attitude of “we’re fucked” defiance. There will be a window in which the press will take a vulture-like interest in you, so do a bit of bloody swaggering. You’ve got unwanted outsider status again, embrace it. As a mystery interlocutor emailed to David Boyle, nobody joined the Lib Dems to keep things nice. Stability, decency, unity? Please. Those were the words Paddy emailed out to us on Thursday when we were in the darkest pit of failure, and while decency is a nice-to-have, and unity all very well where it’s unforced, neither are necessary in liberal politics, and frankly I think 70s Paddy would have gobbed in the face of stability. You’ve got nothing to lose by showy politics now, whether that comes in the form of how you tackle significant votes, PR stunts, eye-catching radical policies (imagine!) or wildly improbable private members bills. Whatever it is, do it. Eat insects in the jungle crying if you have to (not cockroaches though, please). Come the equivalent day to this one in 2020 and we might be dreaming about the chance to do showy politics. Don’t fuck up this opportunity.

Make planning reform and the housing crisis a major thing.

This is the nearest suggestion I have to a practical, policy-led idea, and yes, it’s also a long-standing interest of mine, but its suggestion here is pure pragmatism. If the press is largely a foghorn for the right wing, choose something that a few people who are generally considered right wing (rightly (ha!) or wrongly) are interested in. Well-known libertorian krazies the Adam Smith Institute have published something (authored by the estimable Tom Papworth of course) on this. These people know people who know people. It also happens to be a major factor in declining standards of living. Leave benefits, wages and even income tax alone, and go all out on this.

The ex-big beasts should band together and write a book exposing the Tories’ awfulness in government.

One of the luxuries of being wiped out after a spell in government – I am the Queen of the Bright Side – is that for the first time in thirty years we now actually have ex-big beasts. Some of them have already written books. They need to do it again. Vince, Danny, Norman, Lynne, Steve, if you’re not on a group email back-and-forth with Iain Dale right now you are not the gutsy survivors I thought you were. Break every promise, sever every pragmatically-formed friendship. Shop them. Shop everything.

Let’s go on a few protests!

It might be fun, and what with the almost complete annihilation of an actual voice in government frankly you have fuck-all else to do. Also, it probably has more impact than you think. Laurie Penny wrote the best piece I have read of hers in years about the parallels between depression and being – comprehensively – in opposition. Inevitably she makes a cheap shot at Clegg at the end, but we’ll let that pass. Her main point is that giving up and lying down is what the people who’ve defeated you want you to do, precisely because the alternative is actually alarming to them.

Recently, I heard David Graeber tell an anecdote about his part in a protest of whose provenance I am unsure. A meeting of the IMF, I think, outside their headquarters in Washington. Unlike Penny I’m not well-versed in protest lore. It doesn’t matter anyway. It was a small protest by the standards of the event taking place, about a thousand people were miserably and non-violently kettled in the rain for a few hours outside this monolithic, impregnable, cordoned building. And then we all went home and were depressed about how little difference we’d made, Graeber said. And then some time later he talked to someone who had actually attended that conference. It was one of the most miserable experiences they’d ever had. They had to go through umpteen security checks and have their bags searched every time they moved around, all the parties and jollies and fringe meetings associated with the event were cancelled, they were ever-conscious of the thousand (unbeknownst to them) miserable people sitting in the rain outside the window. It was lockdown, they couldn’t escape it. From within that scary-looking building, everything looked quite different. That’s one thing to remember about the all-powerful; the only way for them is down.

…And don’t agonise too much about the new leader.

This is a cheaty sixth point, because my main five points, and indeed the whole point of this post, are pretty outward-facing. But really guys, let’s not tear ourselves to bits over this, whatever encouragement our enemies might give us to do so. Hindsight is always going to laugh in someone’s face. I voted for Chris Huhne in the last leadership election because I thought his communication style was exactly what we needed at the time, and that ever-increasingly looked like it had been a great instinct on my part right up to the point where he got busted for speeding, and then Cleggmania happened, and then, and then… etc. I know many, many people who voted for Clegg have similarly swung through ups and downs of vindication and wild regret and continue to do so.

The fact is, you make the best choice you can with the facts in front of you, you don’t get an overview. Tim and Norman (assuming they are the front-runners in a field of precisely eight runners) are both good guys, they both have different strengths and weaknesses. Either one could lead us to triumph or (further) disaster given the right circumstances. So don’t overthink. Let’s just get it done.

So there you are. You won’t read that on Lib Dem Voice.

Blessed are the carbreakers

The Green London AM Jenny Jones has put out an odd little curate’s egg of a report complaining about the Mayor of London’s backing of residential housing projects at the cost of light industrial land (thanks to @leftoutside for the link).

I have to admit, the future of light industry in the big smoke is not something I have thought about before, there being so many other enormous and pressing moral and practical questions to detain your average London conspiracy theorist – the housing shortage, the City, the Russian billionaries, the housing shortage, the very existence of dire poverty in one of the world’s richest cities, the schools, the housing shortage, the growing population, the state of public transport, the state of the Victorian drains (that one will bite us on the arse in a few decades’ time, believe me, and I do mean on the arse) and of course the housing shortage.

So I thought about it. I put aside the shortcomings of the format – only a mother with a tin ear could love whoever wrote “Where will the car breakers, the coffee roasters, the plumbing and building suppliers go?” – and tried to consider the underlying economics. Jenny Jones does after all concede that there is a housing crisis, she simply seems to be asserting that solving it at the cost of light industry and wholesale is not viable. Could this be this true?

It is certainly true that London needs MOTs and plumbing supplies. It is certainly good that London has brewers (good grief, yes) and aerospace manufacturers. Do any of these things really need to be in zone 2? Ironically they went to Peckham and Charlton in the first place because it was cheap then. They’re still in Upton Park and Selhurst because it’s cheap now. And many of these sorts of businesses have been shipping right out to zone 6 (horrors!) and quietly tucking themselves down the Purley Way for years, with effects that most Londoners would consider beneficial – the spread of jobs out from the centre eases congestion on transport, means more people can walk or cycle to work and live further out to reduce their housing costs.

Most cities with any vision are actively trying to do this. When London moves whole government departments or BBC radio stations to other cities with greater jobs shortages and lower housing costs this is hailed as progressive and economically forward-thinking. One of the great advantages of the South East, fans of city studies will be aware, is the huge concentration of skilled workers that make the satellite towns like Croydon, Milton Keynes, Watford, Bedford et al viable for all kinds of businesses that need to be within reach of London, but really do not need to be twenty minutes’ bus ride from the City. With all the other problems that beset us, is it really going to kill us to have to go to zone 6 to work in a car-breaking business?

There is one sense in which I think her argument is getting at something real. There are certain kinds of businesses – and plumbing and building suppliers is one – that do need to be everywhere, for the benefit of the customers rather than the workers. I’ve lived, sans car, in places that are too posh for their local hardware store not to be crushed beneath the merciless advance of Planet Organic, and it’s bloody inconvenient. Most people in those sorts of places have cars and can get to the North Circular to go to B&Q, and I didn’t. Sucks to be me. But really, that problem just underlined how interconnected is the whole shebang and how oddly partial Jones’ take is. The hardware store gave up and Planet Organic moved in because the rent went up, and the rent went up because the owner realised loads of spiffy Planet Organic-type customers lived in their area and could support a business happy to pay astronomical rents, and the loads of spiffy customers were there in the first place collectively driving up the prices because, the housing shortage. Housing is the key to it all, because more housing comes a more diverse customer range, and that means a better mix of businesses. Anything else, however well-meaning, is basically propping up the current system.

But then I am hopelessly sad and pessimistic about London. I don’t like that it is essentially a city of the accountant and the ad exec and their attendant baristas any more than Jones does. I just don’t see that championing the plucky little aerospace worker’s right not to work in Croydon at the expense of reasonable housing costs for the accountant and the barista is going to do anything other than make the lives of absolutely everybody involved even more bloody than they already are.

Unreview! The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett

UoL Goldsmiths has a department with the promisingly Mulder-esque name of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. They run a glittering speakers series whose link I am sharing reluctantly, because they’re free and up the road from my gaff and nobody seems to know about them and I don’t want them clogged up with Other People.

No, it’s fine really, come on down. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear Jamie Bartlett talk about his new book The Dark Net, which I haven’t yet read owing to its lying full fathoms five in a cardboard box in a secure unit somewhere in Beckenham. Bartlett is a great speaker, and has that ability to create controversy by disclaimer that is catnip to non-fiction publishers. We were going to find some of these topics, he told us, uncomfortable. The more he investigated drug dealing, child pornography and far right political activism on the internet, the more moral ambiguities he found, and meeting some of the people involved prompted a sympathetic response that unnerved him. This schtick made me wonder if absolutely everyone embarking on research for a thoughtful bestseller table book subconsciously designs a neat personal growth process for themselves, so that they can finish up by saying, “I went into this expecting to find that x, but in fact I was struck by y.” It shows you’re open to ideas, man. What kind of unreflective moron would you be if you found roughly what you expected to find and were pleased about it? Well, a research scientist, I suppose.

I’ve not bought drugs from the Silk Road, so for all I know Bartlett is right that the operation of a review system and a dazzling array of choice is driving up customer service standards and product quality (what, drug dealers aren’t motivated enough to investigate ways of gaming a website review system and search facility? Really? Even Amazon has astroturfing.) But one thing I have dabbled in is online political activism, and about this I think Bartlett was wrong in a fairly important respect. He is impressed with the passion that far right online political activism generates, and the fact that a Facebook group was used to organise an EDL march thousands strong in Waltham Forest. The Labour Party, he said by way of counter-example, never managed that sort of turnout, and mainstream political activism online had a lot to learn from the far right if it was going to survive.

Now, I am first with the custard pies when it comes to attacking our uninspiring political culture, and yes, membership of all political parties is in decline. But Labour, like other major parties, quietly gets high dozens or low hundreds of people onto the streets every single Saturday, and they certainly use Facebook among other things to achieve that. They’re just not doing anything that attracts Bartlett’s attention. Mild social democrat delivers Labour leaflet is not news. Racist delivers BNP leaflet is an ominous indicator of well-organised hatred in the heart of our political system. Actually, the far right are pretty unremarkable in the tools they use and the way they use them. Elsewhere in politics, Bartlett was spot on about the pedestrian nature of the techniques used by the ISIS Twitter account to create publicity, which have been hailed as technical wizardry in some corners of the press. It’s odd that he doesn’t see how the same applies to other political groups in the spotlight.

But then, if your thing is to turn a given picture through 90 degrees and be satisfied with the first counter-intuitive angle you find – paedophiles are sometimes nice people, political extremists are pretty successful campaigners, online drug dealing is a perfect free market in harmonious operation – you are going to finish up with contradictions. It’s controversialism that, in spite of the serious-minded warnings at the beginning, isn’t going to frighten anyone or get to the bottom of anything. I was entertained and informed – did you know that the biggest selling item on Silk Road before it closed was fake £20 Tesco vouchers? – but there were no true 180 moments when you realise the world is actually the other way up from how you thought it was. For those, presumably you have to take a look at the dark net for yourself.

“The one about the Chinese lapdancer”

My quest to become London’s premier Rubbish Polymath leads me to all sorts of places in the name of edutainment (the pub, in the case below), and I don’t always have wherewithal/spoons to record my Very Important Thorts thereon. Thus there follows a guest post by my co-conspirator, the sole resident and Poet Laureate of the People’s Republic (I have kept all the other jobs), Citizen AJ Dehany.

Recently, at a regular comedy night devoted to offering punters a cheap gig and comedians a chance to try out new material in a sympathetic atmosphere, there was an unsympathetic incident. A funny but not widely known comedian, just as he was about to finish his set, got himself badly heckled, and the whole place exploded.

How, why? The comedian, mixed-race and liberal as all hell, had done some routines involving a strip club, documenting his amused unease in such an environment and some exchanges with a “£5-a-go” Chinese lap dancer. As he was finishing up, he asked, in a manner of speaking, if there was Any Other Business from the floor. Immediately, a man near the front row stood up and set on him. He made a broad accusation of misogyny about the material, and in so many words asked the comedian if he thought it was okay to be misogynistic as long as you were not racist, and whether the comedian’s mixed race status meant he felt he was exempt from such issues. Arguably a racist suggestion in itself, made to a comedian noted for his “frank but ironic take on racism” – ironically the heckler had taken issue with ‘the one about the Chinese lapdancer’.

The comedian hardly knew what to make of this. He was embarrassed as much because he’d been seconds away from leaving the stage and was now in a situation. The comedian made the mistake of inviting the heckler to explain his criticisms, but the heckler was strident without humour and seemed to believe he was in an appropriate forum for a political debate chaired by His Truly. He somewhat aggressively invited the comedian to “Buy me a drink afterwards, and I’ll tell you” and, not unnaturally, the comedian saw the unfunny. In little short order, with feathers flying, he left the stage, and left the heckler too, who still had the floor seemingly expecting to have his points addressed (maybe with footnotes).

Without going into the intricacies of the controversial comedic material, which I’ve in any case quite forgotten, there was a feeling that the heckler had the nub of a decent point and that we should all strictly speaking have been on the heckler’s side, but that he had lost the audience when he’d made it into his own ‘ego thing’. It is interesting that the comedian let the heckler get to him, implying that the comedian was aware that there were potentially problematic sexual and racial elements to the material that he was presenting, and suggesting that his confidence had been knocked by being pulled up on it. It seems rather unfair to knock a comedian who has a certain bravery in choosing to confront racial and sexual matters for not laying out the issues clearly in footnoted essay form. I mean: it’s comedy! But then, if you go there, you can say that Jeremy Clarkson’s observations are “just comedy” too – hey man, lighten up. If anything, I expect that the comedian’s undoing was actually in not having gone far enough to raise a racial/sexual question from an ironic liberal but provocative angle. He perhaps knew there was a conceptual weakness in the material and the heckler managed to spring it open.

My response on either side of this, should I dignify it by calling it a debate, is qualified. I’m uneasy about the heckler’s line of questioning, more so than the disputed elements of the routine itself. Furthermore this unease makes me uneasy. Others seemed to have a different reaction. When the smokers shuffled outside during the interval, eye-rolling at, and then gradually talking to, each other, one audience member took the following position. It wasn’t so much that the material was inappropriate but the context might have been; you have to consider the reaction before speaking out in public – and this applies to both comedian and heckler.

Furthermore, she said, what would be fine and sweetly outrageous to say in a group of familiar friends might not be appropriate for public utterance. Her point was that not everybody would know to take it as tongue-in-cheek comment. This seems a little problematic in itself – who is to say which audiences are “educated” enough to take things the “right” way? Nevertheless, we all do this, un-PC jokes or whatever, something scenting of scandalous but that you’d never say ‘out loud’… Except that some people do say it out loud, and we call these people comedians, and pay to watch them. What is it we are asking of our comedians if we can round on them for only doing their job? Or had the comedian just not considered his material thoroughly enough? And is it even his job to do so?

After the interval, the big name comedian headliner seemed less willing to be edgy than we’d expected, or than the earlier acts had been before the bad business. Worse still, he seemed to at times to be indulging in that kind of distancing-from-my-material-just-in-case facial expression Jimmy Carr does when he says something idiotic that is “hey, just comedy”. The temperature in the room had dropped, and everyone had suddenly become more aware of the implications and underpinnings of comedic material. Shit had got real, and the comedy had got less funny. Funny that.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

On Wednesday, to Housman’s bookshop in King’s Cross, a place I am making a habit of, to hear Jeff Laster talk about the Weathermen, the radical 60s student underground movement in America of which he had been part as a teenager (though there’s underground and underground – “I wasn’t in the proper Underground, I wasn’t considered radical enough.”) The session started, as many good things do, with a song to which I knew all the words, and turned into a propah seminar.

I couldn’t stay for the whole evening owing to personal flim-flammery, which was a great shame as he was a highly engaging speaker, reflecting usefully on the differences between British and American radicalism, then and now. Short version: Europe has a tradition of full-on Communist-stylee radicalism, America doesn’t and didn’t, and the Weathermen were (this is my take on the basis of what he said, not his) in their early days much closer to what I would consider a modern social liberal democratic tradition than to balls-out left-wing radicalism. Laster started the discussion by reflecting on participatory democracy, an idea which the Weathermen avowed in their early days and only jettisoned later on in favour of strict hierarchy as their movement grew, and as external events (the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam) sharpened minds and raised stakes. “I took orders,” Laster drawled, and it was at this point, when he was getting with marked enthusiasm into a description of the kind of free love-related orders he had taken, that I had to leave.

My sole contribution to the unfolding discussion was to answer his first question to the audience (yes, I was that child at school), which was along the lines of “Can any political movement have genuine participatory democracy?” I said that if any movement was successful and started to grow, decision-making processes would become unwieldy. He ran with the idea and talked about the different perspectives that started to emerge in the Weathermen movement, and the arguments they had about what kind of causes they should fight for – should it be the working class as a whole, civil rights, the draft?

In the event it was civil rights and the draft, and not the working class as a whole. It is difficult to talk about the working class as a homogenous body in 1960s America because of the profound racial divides. But it is also, conveniently, true that civil rights and the draft were naturally close to the hearts of the mostly middle class college kids who formed the heart of the movement. Laster was refreshingly – or appallingly, depending on your viewpoint, and at least one member of the audience did seem fairly appalled – honest about his take on the working class. The relatives he knew who belonged in that category were to his ears racist, retrograde, right-wing in their opinions, and he decided he wanted nothing to do with them. It is the kind of thing you suspect many British Labour politicians over the years have thought but not (unless accidentally captured on a still-recording mike) said.

But what I had in mind when I mentioned the unwieldiness of burgeoning political movements was not so much a multiplication of views as a multiplication of people, and I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing. A classic anthropology article which made a great impression on me when I was studying archaeology is Gregory Johnson’s 1983 meta-study of the operation of consensual decision-making and heirarchy among pastoral nomadic groups. He concluded that “information processing overload” imposes natural constraints on the size of communities that can get by with genuinely consensual day-by-day decision-making, and scaling up beyond a certain size invariably entails some kind of reorganisation into some sort of hierarchy, even if this is broadly what we would call a democratic one. The classic upper limit on a human group operating on pure consensus is, apparently, six. Six people. That’s not very many, is it?

This number can scale, such that six groups of six can come to a decision that usefully furthers the interests of the group as a whole, and so can six tribes each composed of six groups of six people, and so on. But already we are a long way from direct participatory democracy, and into representative democracy, the system with which we all have to live, for better or worse, as “enlightened” modern nation states, and latterly international blocs. And in representative democracy, as we know, things fall down the back of the sofa; certain groups’ voices are not heard, because there is a degree of summarising, of neatening round the edges of the message that each sub-group takes to its superior group in the course of the decision-making process. It needn’t be the case that radically different views are involved. Johnson’s point is simply that not all views can be assimilated in any sort of complex society, even if they are on the whole quite similar, because the human brain simply cannot take it. And even this imperfect system presupposes a perfect Russian doll style set of nesting groups of six, which is a shockingly long way from what we have in the UK parliament. No wonder people feel disenfranchised, I suppose.

On the plus side, it strikes me that, excepting Antarctica, there are six continents in the world, politically speaking. So if that alien war Hollywood is waiting for ever does come along, as a race we are sitting pretty. Just don’t be surprised if the fall-out conducted notionally in your name is Not, in fact, In Your Name.

The economics of anxiety

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.

Yeah, I get that a lot.

I like the concept of decision fatigue. For one thing it’s a neat little piece of research to have to hand when arguing with people who believe that the country’s social problems are essentially a matter of Other People not getting up early enough, or failing to get three meals out of an organically reared chicken, or persistently watching their big flatscreen telly rather than, I dunno, buying an old cathode tube one off ebay or something, seeing as you can’t actually buy a non flatscreen telly in the shops any more. If willpower is a finite resource, all the small survival decisions that come with being poor and having to worry about money deplete your resources very early in the day. They make your life mentally harder. Apparently there is some scarily literal science behind all this – it is a matter of glucose depletion (pdf).

You will notice that much of the popular chat about this is couched in terms of temptation – resisting the cake makes it harder to resist the fag. Hence smoking, drinking, poor diets etc as a social problem. But people don’t seem to talk so much about the implications for general anxiety and related foibles, across all classes (reference to mental health is buried in the “Implications” section of the study linked to above).

And yet this is one of the key applications for the concept. In the case of both poverty and anxiety disorders, decision fatigue has the potential to make you poor at, not just later decisions, but big decisions. This is a killer. In both situations is the chronic battle against a stream of small problem-solving, decision-making exercises that mean you will rarely have the mental energy for big picture stuff like quitting smoking, or looking for another job.

Being not quite in either camp, I have found that the concept galvanises me to actually sweat the small stuff less, rather than just nodding glumly when people tell me that is what I should do. As far as anxiety goes I only have low-level common-or-garden crazy. For me, knowing that the thinking resource is finite is a useful brake on looking for problems to expend it on. And in the name of my sporadic quest for eliminating residual crazy, it occurs to me that there is one area of enquiry that has developed models to deal with exactly this problem of scarce resources: economics. Has anyone ever applied relevant models from the field to the problem of dealing with one’s own anxiety? Behavioural economics is a lively sub-field interested in human behaviour in given situations, our calculations, our perception of variables and so on. But economists – or maybe just people – being what they are, behavioural economics tends to conceive of people as indivisible wholes interacting with each other. What if there was a branch of behavioural economics devoted to teasing out the most resource-efficient way to interact and negotiate with oneself?

With any luck someone will now tell me this exists.

I’m the urban spaceman, baby

There should be a collective noun for a mismatched set of opinions that are almost unfailingly congenial to one particular type of person, which are unmistakeably redolent of That Sort of Person but are nonetheless stubbornly contradictory.

A “politics” perhaps. Hm. Anyway, one such set lurks in urban space. How we use it now, how we want to use it in the future, a problem particularly acute in That London, but I don’t think anyone can really ignore it. It’s a human problem. As of 2008, for the first time in history, as many of us live in cities as live outside them. So the ongoing dialogue about urban space is one of the key challenges for any far-sighted government. Ha, yes, those.

My attention was drawn to this today. I’ve never been to the Half Moon in Herne Hill (and maybe that’s part of the problem), whenever I’ve had occasion to murder a few liver cells up that way it has been at the Prince Regent, but I am nonetheless vicariously distressed to learn that it has been closed since July last year and proposals have been advanced by the owner, Dulwich Estate, to turn most of the building into flats with a pub remaining underneath. That post records a statement from Dulwich Estate, before any planning permission had actually been sought:

However, following pre-application planning advice received from Southwark’s planning department it was suggested that the Estate should look at alternative uses for the upper floors other than for residential accommodation.

Fans of planning permission and urban distopia (I know you’re out there) might care to compare and contrast the case of The Greyhound, Sydenham, which did get planning permission from Lewisham council for a similarly peculiar combination of flats around and above it, which subsequently fell apart in spectacular fashion as the developers’ real intentions were revealed. They were fined by the council for deliberate demolition of the pub (this was just after the People’s Republic arrived in the area – lawks), and in the glare of publicity had new plans to rebuild it approved… and now the shell is just sitting there. It looks sad as anything. I’ll take a picture next time I’m past, but essentially it won’t be much different to this:


There’s a campaign, of course.

And I find myself rather spoilt for piss-boiling options, because while it unquestionably boils my piss that developers do what the fuck they like and get fined the housing market equivalent of pocket change by lackwit councils that should probably never have approved this shambles in the first place, it also boils my piss that there aren’t enough places for people to live.

We can’t have it both ways. Living in urban society with limited space is a constant business of negotiation between the nice-to-haves and the must-haves, and housing is a must-have. Pubs are a nice-to-have. Now, nice-to-haves always shade into must-haves at some point – a park for every street in London is clearly just a bonkers nice-to-have; no parks at all would be an unsustainable disaster. But in a housing crisis there has to be some sort of argument for maintaining alternative space uses other than “we like it and it’s always been there”. There’s a name for that kind of argument and it begins with a small-c.

(There’s a name for the mechanism that would sort this whole business of property values and amenities out overnight, by the way, and that begins with LVT. It would be a pretty bloody night, mind.)

And these are exactly the kinds of opinions you will find simultaneously held by people, well, frankly very similar to me. We support our local arts festivals and scribble on our local forum and shop in the local butcher (cheaper than the supermarket as eny hipster kno) and wring our hands over the housing crisis and want all the pubs to remain open forever and ever.

We’re nice, I suppose. I just sometimes wish we had more of A Plan. It would almost certainly be a better plan than whoever’s actually making the plans would make.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,379 other followers