Monday, October 07, 2019

On Greta

What is your position on Universal Basic Income? If in favor why would you prefer Universal Basic Income over Universal Basic Assets? How about negative taxation? If you oppose UBI on what basis do you object, and what are you concerned about and for whom?

Is the world in the state it is because of unbridled capitalism or because capitalism is bridled? How much of the progressive movements and platforms are funded or subsidized by conservative hegemony? Where are your superannuation funds invested? Are they in an ethical fund? Does that fund use positive or negative screening processes? What is ethical? How is consumer activism effected by transfer frontiers? What is capitals obligation under the corporations act and which branch of government is responsible for reform?

Yesterday while washing dishes, I put on commercial free to air television (a highly recommend this, better than Netflix, but that's another post). At 2pm on channel 7 afternoon news program, they played a video recorded by Bjorn of Abba fame opining on Greta Thunberg.

It strikes me as fascinatingly insane. For the record I still haven't watched Greta's UN address. I've just been watching the coverage. Which is bad because my understanding of Greta's central complaint is that she isn't being listened to.

Just upfront, a lot of the facebook coverage on my feed, was at the positive end of the spectrum 'woohoo go Greta!' cheer-squad, and at the negative end of the spectrum was sharing the mansplainy articles 'why some angry men are triggered by Greta...' from the boo-squad.

'Triggered' is probably a good diagnosis of the people being criticized by these articles and by Bjorn Ulvaeus. Though I am not holding my breath that the boo-squad will come out in defense of Donald Trump when his appearance and penis size and body shape are constantly ridiculed by angry men on the internet like Seth Myers and Stephen Colbert, or telling lay people to knock off trying to diagnose Trump as pathological or having a narcissistic personality disorder. Nor do I hold my breath that it will now be regarded as fair game to dismiss someone posting online about their diagnosis of PTSD, and how difficult some daily activity is because of its triggering nature.

I'm sure the boo-squad doesn't believe it has a partisan double standard, but there's a clear rationale where Donald Trump is fair game because of his power and that he is a public figure, whereas a 16 year old girl with no particular qualifications has a TEDx talk with 2m views, and gets to address the UN delegates has no power and is just a schoolgirl with no agency, and thus not a public figure.

Even so, I agree, there's a bunch of perhaps mostly men, or views mostly vocalized by men, that are 'triggered' and committing mean spirited fallacies or crying cynical crocodile tears for her mental welfare. I don't particularly care about Greta's mental health, I'd be willing to bet, almost nobody sincerely does.

I can't tell if I'm empathizing or projecting my own adolescent experience onto Greta, but just because I and others are not truly sympathetic to the mental health risk posed to Greta by being the face of a global movement, doesn't mean those mental health risks don't exist.

For one thing, I see a lot of adults lauding Greta as their champion, their hero, where unless I'm grossly misinterpreting (or have to reserve the right to plead ignorance); Greta's core complaint is that she isn't able to be a child because the adults aren't taking care of the planet. That there's a lucid interpretation that Greta's story should have stopped in the class where she was taught about climate change because the teacher finished the lesson with 'But you can relax kids because we're handling it.'

So to me, there's probably an obvious risk of 'Covert Incest' but at some societal level, where it is Greta's cheer-squad and the angry-internet-males boo-squad are the primary potential contributors because they are the adults leaning collectively on a child to comfort and reassure them.

Now onto the meat of this post, I feel but have no proof that we live in an era where 'listening' has a very narrow definition. Which is to say, there is no independence between legitimate problems/concerns and legitimate solutions. By which I mean, for people to feel a complaint (specifically theirs) has been heard, it means the solution they proffer must be enacted. Eg. a waiter doesn't write down a customers order, and they forget they said no cheese on their enchiladas, and the customer complains and demands free meals for life from the restaurant. The customer has a legitimate complaint and an illegitimate remedy.

A tool I find useful, is to imagine a trial. The desired outcome of this trial is that justice is served. Now in life, sometimes you might be a defense attorney, trying to ensure your innocent client is not convicted of a crime they didn't commit. In other circumstances you may be the prosecuting attorney, where justice is served by ensuring the guilty defendant pays for his crimes.

In every case though, there are two paths to injustice, and this point I observe seems to not occur to most people. The first is that the other attorney is unscrupulous and cunning and through their extreme competence will successfully prosecute the innocent and defend the guilty. The other path to injustice is through your incompetent bumbling your innocent client gets convicted, or through your incompetent blundering a guilty party walks free. And without digging too deep into the analogy, there's all sorts of shit a lay person could do to fuck up a trial, like introducing evidence without discovery, unduly influencing a juror, or say asking the defendant to try on a pair of gloves found at the murder scene.

So there's a future, where 35 year old Greta is sitting in her living room, reading an article about how civilization was almost lost, because the Extinction movement sucked up all the oxygen around addressing climate change. A problem that was solved through investment and innovation in technology including nuclear reactors, where several countries tried to move towards centrally planned economies and disastrously increased their carbon footprints, inspired by Greta. A thorough and sober and lucid postmortem of that time that people rallied around a teenager's diagnosis of the problem and the solution that grew up around her.

Sure there's also a potential future where Greta is leader of the free world largely credited with inspiring and motivating the mass mobilization of the world's population to face down the existential threat of climate change.

But risk is calculated by the variance of outcomes, and much as today not too many people make noise about how great Justin Trudeau is given the black-face, brown-face and banking corruption stuff. Greta is unlikely to prove as hypocritical and shallow as Justin, but I put good money on Greta knowing about as much as I would expect a 16 year old who has missed a bunch of school to know about addressing climate change.

When I was younger, not Greta young, but mid-twenties, I was studying with the intention to become a financial adviser, on route to being my own ethical index fund manager. It got derailed as a plan for various reasons, but I remember stumbling across this particular conundrum...

Most people are financially illiterate. That's the basis of a financial planner, or financial adviser contributing value. However it dawned on me, that to really get value out of a financial planner, you need to be financially literate yourself, or your financial planner/advisor/accountant needs to be an excellent teacher to get you financially literate as a client (but then how do you know what you are being taught is real or part of a con). Perhaps my own earliest conception of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Just yesterday I was reading this article about the post GFC american housing situation and it had a chart at the bottom demonstrating an inverse relationship between rental yields and housing prices and thinking 'how many people do I know that can interpret this information?' and that's with the caveats of, I haven't fact checked the sources and studies, read the methodology, I'd never heard of this publication before, and basically that there's never been a harder time to make sense of the world than in the post internet era.

My feeling is, we have this 'customer is always right' paradigm that has invaded society, this I find interesting. Because many of the people railing against capitalism's psyche is a direct product of this very very capitalistic idea. We have been trained in most cases from birth, to not conceive of our own solutions but to accept the solutions marketed to us, and we do this with brands like Greta or Universal Basic Income. Capitalism is full of the 'fait accompli'

Again, keeping in mind I haven't watched Greta's UN address, because I'm not interested in the content remotely. But one of my friends linked to some coverage of it with the excerpt 'How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.' So I don't know if that's a verbatim quote or not.

But assuming it is, then this is bad journalism to focus in on that quote... Fuck it, I'm going to watch her address now... okay, I think Greta and I agree that she shouldn't be there. I was surprised that it's only a few minutes long, and not in the good way like the Gettysburg address, but in a way that makes me perplexed at how a speech with so little content could generate so much press and praise and criticism.

It's a pretty terrible speech, however given the polarization of society and the abandonment of community, half of the partisan population will immediately recognize how terrible the speech is, and the other half is incapable of recognizing that the speech is terrible, because it contains their thoughts spoken aloud.

Again I don't know if I can empathize with Greta or am merely just projecting, but the general impression I get is that the rule is 'if you've listened to Greta then you must agree with her, wholesale.' otherwise you aren't listening.

And that comes from I suspect, growing up being bombarded with this capitalist materialist message that all our problems can be solved, and that we don't have to solve them ourselves, we just have to consume. Otherwise known as advertising. This is my suspicion, and we aren't, as lay people, particularly well equipped for this mindset of: working in order to consume easy fixes because everything is dedicated to our satisfaction, might create it's own problems, such as climate change.

So who stole Greta's childhood? Was it the current incumbent politicians? Some vast conspiracy of politicians over the last 30 years? Was it the neo-cons? (Reagan through Bush) or the neo-liberals?(Clinton-Blaire-Obama). Was it FDR speaking of the four freedoms, including the freedom from want? Or was it pig iron Bob Menzies, thinking the way to fight communism was to encourage home ownership in Australia? If we plugged Greta into a global political leadership role, would her integrity shine through or would she find herself bound by obligations and quid pro quos and trade deals and treaties and demands from her constituents to pack all their groceries into one bag and for that bag not to be heavy? Do we need reform to unshackle our politicians so they can do what in their heart they feel is right? What if that unshackled politician is Donald Trump?

And what actually needs remedying? Is it bridled or unbridled capitalism? Do free markets need to be reigned in, or do markets need to be set free? Or do we need to declare capitalism dead and implement a working socialism? Have we become unstuck because the experts and elites have been lying to the general public that has lain dormant? Or have we become unstuck because the non-expert public is too involved in public life and experts can't implement top-down solutions?

The one thing I'm confident of, is that were I to interview Greta or any other 16 year old, the odds that they would be able to answer any of these questions is practically 0, or it would quickly be revealed that they are a 16 year old child that has little practice at second or third or fourth order thinking. Even given a child prodigy, I'd still rather talk to the expert that is a child prodigy 40 years later, with emotional maturity and life experience.

Alain De Botton offers alternative poles of analysis than just the left-right, which is almost meaningless these days to me. I like his breakdown of Romantic-Classical poles, where the vast majority of people are Romantic-thinkers, and a tiny minority Classical.

One characteristic particularly relevant to the coverage of Greta, is that Romantic thinkers tend to believe there is somebody specific to blame. Bad people that we could remove and fix everything. (and particularly prone to having no interest in the abysmal history of revolutions).

So I ask myself, what would all these people do cheering on Greta or booing the angry white men, if we just removed the white men to blame from the equation? Presume that bulwark or obstacle to mobilization is out of the way. What's the next step?

Do these people confront the massive restructuring of their daily lives? And it isn't the stuff people have embraced: reusing their grey water to maintain the garden, eating a plant based diet, installing solar panels on their roof, and riding a bike to work. All good things.

I mean, losing your job and defaulting on your mortgage, your house plunging into negative equity, declaring bankruptcy and having no credit. Dealing with Austerity budgets and the collapse of funding for the arts and community services, food shortages, and worse, popular uprisings.

I wonder these things, because I see. I see people post shit booing our politicians for their inaction on climate change, and then those self same people posting about their upcoming international holidays, short term, and completely discretionary. (I noticed these things because I felt terrible flying a return trip to Australia from Mexico to attend a friends' wedding last year, one of the things that made me feel better was judgmental comparison to how many and how frequently my friends take international holidays. Some take 4 separate holidays a year.)

Greta urges the people who stole her dreams and childhood to confront uncomfortable facts, one thing I would urge my people to confront is that less people are 'on-board' climate action than claim.

I suspect most people are actually just self interested, they want to go about with their daily lives, their dreams and prolonged childhoods and not have the mob descend on them. They will embrace solutions so long as they are low-cost and high benefit, namely confer social status, by being vegan or some other form of conspicuous consumption like keep-cups or a tote bag for a local food co-op. They will pay $1 but not $10. In which case the environment is an incidental beneficiary. All the while assuming that somewhere out there, there are fat disgusting old white men chewing on cigars that will have to make all the actual sacrifices, and get lynched justly for fucking up the planet, with little consideration that they distribute their wealth out to us via investment to become their income via our custom and borrowing from our future selves.

We live in a world where we will give not a few minutes, but hours upon hours of coverage to a divisive figure like Greta, who has an opinion but no real content, because I suspect she is a 16 year old girl, and a large contingent of people want her to succeed with the same degree of non-expertise as the large contingent of people who are "triggered" by her because of who she is, not the content of her character (or largely content-less speeches) but it's extremely hard to get anyone listening to a middle aged white man that has really looked hard and deeply at the problems and solutions:

It's possible because we can't very well blame privileged white men for the state of the world and look to privileged white men for the solutions. It could also be because of who the speakers hold responsible. Greta and the Extinction movement has the benefit of the hand washing exercise of Romantic blaming. Someone else did it to us, let's muster a posse to round em up n lynch them. Problem solved. The other says YOU, YOU are dragging your feet and your behavior betrays your professed public sentiments.

I'm optimistic about the climate, and I hope Greta can gracefully transition back to a private citizen with minimal damage, free to pursue her personal happiness. Which is to say, I hope her central complaint is addressed. But having now actually watched her mercifully short address at the UN, I totally understand why a lot of people dislike her and why a lot of people don't understand why those people dislike her. Alas my strongest and most negative reaction was to the people who cheered her, and the two people sitting to her right that are nodding approvingly, because they seem to not realize that Greta is talking about them, about you, about all the adults. ALL the adults.

I confess, I no longer know what an adult is. I haven't done my research and that's a discussion for another day.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

We Need To Talk About Travel

I'd like to challenge this common intuition that 'travel broadens the mind' and the almost religious regard we hold for travelling as an intrinsically virtuous undertaking. 

 These decorated my hostel wall, last time I was away travelling:

And for some reason, my brain spewed out the question 'why?' and followed it promptly with 'and why not?' by which I mean specifically why are these the kinds of quotes and messages one sees in a backpacker hostel, and never in accommodation targeted at say, business travelers. By the time you are in a hostel in Guatemala city, at least circa 2019 and the issues the country currently faces, do you really need inspiration to pack your bags and go off on an adventure? Versus someone sent to Budapest on business to inspect a factory holding, one of 19 trips might need a reminder to seize the opportunity to get to know the world, to explore, to discover oneself.

It struck me as propaganda, a rationalization there to reinforce the beliefs of people that have already bought in. A 4 star business hotel, I guess, wants it's occupants to stay in, raid the minibar, call room service etc. not go out looking for dumplings from a street vendor. Curious to me, is this message is targeted at the young, almost as if it is spruiking an education, a degree, an expensive one, which makes me suspect what is actually being sold is the debt in exchange for a dubious degree. 

That travel is regarded as somehow universally and somewhat holistically educational seems curiously unchallenged to me. It's one of those quite ubiquitous cases that presents me with a lot of data with which to test the claim, and yet it just about goes unchallenged, perhaps because, as I suspect will prove the case with me, to question it is to tread on a taboo and reveal myself to be quite a horrible person.

I believe of all places, I was inspired to the following thought experiment by crappy BBC show 'Art Attack' though I'm never going to find the episode. But it was to think of your life from a bird's eye view perspective and sort of heat map your movements:

This is a not-to-scale approximation of my life between 1998-2001. Where day in day out, I either stayed at home in my room. Ran around the lake, walked to school, where I would walk around the campus in a fairly routine way, even at recess. I would spend a lot of my leisure time going up and down the street, and I would have other running paths and tracks.

I don't know why Art Attack recommended this exercise to children, if indeed it did, (I could have gotten it from some other program) because it made me realize how small my life was. I run around some circuits, go up and down a shopping/residential strip and wander around a school campus. Day in day out, for years. I could draw heat maps of other routines I've fallen into at other stages of life, but I tend to fall into the same patterns everywhere. Most of my movement is a commute, running trails, and eating establishments in my local hoods.

By contrast consider this that I just grabbed from a google image search of 'travel map where I've been':

This person compared to my high-schooler self, seems to have lived a much larger life, seen a lot more, done a lot more. And if you think the twist is 'this person is one and the same' it isn't.

I suspect it's something like this comparison though, that we all understand. Most of our lives seem too small to be of any interest to anyone, we work for employers whose names are only known really within the industry, or we are a very small cog in the great machine of a globally recognized brand. The globe-trotter, the global citizen though, their life is defined by global brands - Paris, London, Tokyo, New York. They've gone to places everyone knows, eaten at restaurants you've heard of, and come back with stories of... eating things that are 'so good' and catching various forms of transport, and if you're lucky, some kind of scam, crime or illness that evidently was not too serious.

And history has produced some great globe-trotters. Ghenghis Kahn, and in the other direction, Marco Pollo. Mark Twain made his name with 'Innocents Abroad' about Americans on the Grand Tour, and paid off his debts by travelling the world on an onerous speaking tour. The Beatles... ah... of course, the explorers, Magellan, Columbus, Cook. The speculatively richest person to have ever lived was Mansa Musa I of the Mali Empire and he was famous for bringing so much gold on his pilgrimage to Mecca that he inadvertently ruined the economies of nations he was trying to be generous to.

A bunch of the broadest people, in terms of wisdom and contribution to culture, historically, did not travel much at all, or did so under duress, or in military service. Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Freud, Marx, Spinoza, Shakespeare. Historical figures like Des Cartes or Da Vinci might wind up travelling and dying far from home, but they tended to be wise before they departed.

What tends to make people wise, as near as I can observe is a combination of a) aging, and b) introspection. With some of the most profound commentators on the human condition basically being shut-ins and homebodies. And what do the wise say about Travel?

The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. ~ Marcel Proust
Who I suspect was the first exposure to this idea, that there is plenty to learn from at home.
You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.
You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
The mind cannot find strength in its leisure unless it stops looking around and wandering around.  To keep your mind within bounds, you must first stop your body from running away.
Your rushing around will bring you no benefit, since you are traveling in company with your emotions, and your troubles follow along.  . . .  A sick person does not need a place; he needs medical treatment. If someone has a broken leg or dislocated a joint, he doesn’t get on a carriage or a ship; he calls a doctor to set the fracture or relocate the limb.~ Seneca the Younger.
Seneca admonishes against what I feel is my own conclusion - travel employed as a non-solution, an avoidance of what really ails people.

What is the usual practice, then?  People behave like a traveler, who, returning to his own country, comes across a good inn on the road, and because the inn pleases him, remains there. Have you forgotten your intention, man?  You were not traveling to this place, but only through it.  ‘But this is a fine inn.’  And how many other fine inns are there, and how many pleasant meadows?  But only to be passed through on the way. Your business is the other thing; to return to your country, to relieve the anxieties of your family, to perform the duties of a citizen, to marry, to have children, and to hold public office. For you have not, I think, come into the world to pick out the most charming places, but to live and act in the place where you were born, and of which you have been appointed a citizen. 
 . . . you regard it as a misfortune to die without seeing such sights. But when there is no need to travel at all, and where you are already, and Zeus is present in his works—will you not desire to contemplate these things and understand them?  Will you never perceive either who you are, or for what you have been born, or the purpose for which this vision has been given to you? ~ Epictetus.
In the latter quote, Epictetus preflects Proust. In the former, he points out how little service people render by travelling, essentially reviewers of hotels and perhaps meals in the present day context, and directs the focus on finding purpose closer to home.

I could go digging for more, but because of personal preferences it's hard for me to step beyond the Stoics. Alain De Botton has a book, and conveniently a BBC feature on this very subject:

As I've lived my own life, I've become increasingly skeptical that travel does anything of the sort, anything close to, broadening people. At best I would concede it doesn't necessarily narrow the minds of people who travel, but as to the claim of broadening, the map doesn't match the ground. Which is to say, when I recall the most globe-trotting people I know, the word that bubbles to the surface of my conscious to describe the insights they offer is 'underwhelming'.

In my experience, most often those truly bitten by wanderlust are characterized by being stupefied by the very notion of the question "why travel?" Making an impression on me that they've actually never thought about it at all. Like someone showing me the rock they bought for $500 that prevents them from being mauled by a tiger, 'of course it works!' they say 'I've never been attacked by a tiger!' missing that an absence of tiger attacks is not proof positive of the rocks magical power, especially given I have no such rock and have also never had any trouble from no fucking tigers.

Now with a climate change study coming out seemingly weekly to remind us that we are on the brink of destroying human civilization if we don't act, it feels like a worthwhile endeavor to challenge the mythical benefits of travel.

Because that's where it differs from the more complex issue of the value of University degrees (at least for domestic students, education as an export folds the two together.) True you may study a very expensive and quite useless degree, and go on to throw good debt after bad by going on to post grad studies that leave you with the same two career paths - work in a bookstore or become a teacher; and bookstores are in much shorter supply. But Tertiary studies eat up time and keep people on the bread line for 3 to 5 years, put people in debt that restricts future cash flow so if anything, lowers a person's carbon footprint. Not so with tourism's contribution to the supply of airline services.

What makes travel hard to question, is the social contract that I suspect for many is in play. Esteem needs as psychological/emotional needs that need meeting and which to some extent, travel meets. Travel as apologetics in our society, for our existence.

I also have a limit in my ability to sympathise with globe-trotters. I have never 'reacted' to a friend posting on facebook that they've just 'bought' a property, which were I to share my actual reaction to people buying Australian real property, is in itself I feel a kind of kindness on my part. Travel photos I have liked, because I do know what it means to people. But not photos of bowls of ramen and In-and-Out Burgers. 

I have to, of course put the brakes on myself, because I'm aware one can suck the moisture out of just about anything. Take my beloved king of sports - basketball, easily described as 'ten or less people running up and down a stretch of flat surface trying to put a rubber ball through one basket more times than the other team can put the same rubber ball through the other basket.' There's a level of observation at which some of the most profound and amazing things can be reduced to banal and worthy of ridicule. Travel is certainly one of these things you can reduce to 'I exchanged money for goods and services' where the standing on the observation of the Eiffel Tower on a summer's night can be described as 'waiting in a queue to take an elevator ride' and running in the New York Marathon can be described as 'running around some streets for hours.'

I don't wish to do this, what my experience testifies to though is how many people return from travel with the remarkable ability to turn a visit to the Blue Mosque as 'I took my shoes off to go in an old building.' I don't suck the emotion out of the experience, most travelers I know simply cannot articulate what they got out of the experience.

I'm sure, I'm sure if the average level of articulation was higher people would be able to describe what it feels like to wake up in a yurt and step outside onto the Mongolian steppes, being a stranger in a strange land confronted with a profound truth of the limits of your own ego and your place in the universe, to momentarily break the chain of ancestry that defines our culture and lifestyle and link onto an entirely different one of the nomadic peoples of Mongolia whom once dominated more of the known world than any other people ever had before. 

Or the euphoric sensation of peeling off wet clothes and tumbling into a dry bed in the middle of a rainy night in the middle of the Czechoslovakian countryside after spending a day getting lost on a tour bike with a Michelin map, to feel the world's roads open up to you in kaleidoscopic possibility and truly understand what it is to have a roof above your head, suddenly holding up the sky like Atlas, the mercy you are at when you relinquish control of your climate to the stratosphere and ponder how many pockets of hospitality are out there in the dark waiting to receive you, given that you simply happened upon this one.

Or the instantaneous renewal that comes from opening one's eyes after diving into the turquoise pools of Peru watching the fish that live oblivious to your worldly struggles beneath the surface scatter from your submerged form. To turn over and pear upwards at the disturbed surface as it tries to calm itself, distorting the sky and you suddenly feel you do not occupy one world, but one of many interconnected ones.

The thing is, I can describe these things, and imagine them somewhat vividly having never done any of those three things. I may not be much of a writer and thus not up to scratch, but I suspect to some extent it would prove true that someone could go through a truly bizarre and unique experience, sit down with someone imaginative that hasn't, and find to their chagrin and consternation, that they can't describe the experience they've had, but someone else can describe their experience that they haven't had.

I have some experience of this myself, I drew a piece based on intoxication for my exhibition entitled 'feel' that connected sufficiently with someone enough to sell, and I somewhat disappointingly had several people ask me about my experiences with psychedelics, of which I have none yet by their testimony I had accurately captured in my picture, which amazed the people that inquired.

The point of this, is not just that life is cruel, but that what most people get out of travel is a private, not public good. Private consumption can be justified, but I would see an end to rationalizing travel in particular as some public good that makes people, into 'better' people.

I remember sitting in a car on a two day work trip with a company sales rep, it was to show my face to the customers I served via phone from head office, and get a picture of the actual business model. The sales rep taking me around was in his late forties and at some point on the long road trip he mouthed what I feel is a popular conjecture. 'It should be mandatory for all kids to spend a year travelling, seeing the world, it would get rid of all these dopey racist c*#ts' or something to that effect.

...Maybe. My lived experience leads me to suspect that confirmation bias is at play, that the kinds of people who do travel in Australian society at least, are the least likely (in their youth, who knows once they are employing the services of financial advisers and chartered accountants) that vote left-wing liberal progressive. And they don't travel to see the world, but confirm their belief of what the world is. So maybe if it was mandatory for everyone to travel, and the government financed the blue-collar kids to go travel for a year visiting at least one country in each continent, we would see a massive swing away from racism and towards progressivism.

Something that flies in the face of this expectation though, is again, confirmation bias. The Australian citizen that earlier this year murdered a bunch of people in two New Zealand mosques, had traveled, not just from Australia to New Zealand, but around Europe: 
Captivated with sites of battles between Christian European nations and the Ottoman Empire, he went on another series of visits to the Balkans in 2016–2018, with Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina confirming his presence there in these years. ~from Wikipedia's 'Christchurch Mosque Shootings' page.
Terrorist attacks in general are not carried out by parochial home-town working class young men. They are often educated and affluent, and dual-citizens. Often literally educated and employed in the societies they wind up attacking. Then there's my grandparents generation, many young men of which were shipped off overseas during WWII, and despite being helped along the Kakoda Trail by the "Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels" have not left a great impression on me as to being open-minded, tolerant, peace loving, multiculturalism enthusiasts. More like loyal servants of the Crown that marched off to war when called.

Then there's me.

I was just in Guatemala last week, a country poorer, more corrupt and less safe than Mexico at least by testimony if not my experience. I mean it was poorer because goods and services were cheaper for me, but I never experienced any actual danger to my persons or belongings, nor any corruption.

But I was on alert the three days I spent there. My mind dedicated attention to where my valuables were at all times, the physical proximity of strangers, the time of day and angle of the sun. I was more suspicious and more physiologically aroused than I am in Guadalajara. To some extent, the danger, or sense of it, was what I was consuming. I wanted briefly to feel awake to life, it's fragility and thus preciousness.

This is a valuable experience... in theory. In practice though I got to the airport on Sunday morning to catch a flight back to Mexico and the guy at the checkout desk wouldn't let me board the plane unless I had a booked flight out of Mexico, something that has never been required of me before. Under duress I bought the cheapest flight I could find to meet the criteria and be let past this gatekeeper. I now found my thoughts preoccupied by getting back a couple of hundred dollars on a transaction I was forced to make (Mexican immigration granted me another 180 days in the country before they bothered to even ask me the purpose of my trip, which was the only question I got asked, and I got the distinct impression that I was asked because they remembered there was a box they were supposed to tick, not because they cared or that it matters to them, which is wonderful). 

It was a matter of minutes between sitting in the back seat of a cab and literally thinking 'okay I can't use a seat belt to strangle the driver, but I think I could strangle him with my hands if need be.' thinking through what to do if the taxi driver attempted to abduct me rather than deliver me to the airport. How much would I pay an abductor in Guatemala to save my own life? Or even the fingers on my hands, or not have my face lacerated? Probably Thousands of dollaridoos. 
Now though with that bridge uncrossed; now I was caught up in feeling ripped off by Aeromexico's check in policy, that I am still unsure whether the fault was his pedantic nature or my ignorance of the airline policy.

Only sitting in the terminal lounge did I cool off enough to become salient at how quickly I had forgotten any 'perspective' I may have gained from surviving intact my time in 'dangerous' Guatemala. By analogy, if I had been wrongfully jailed for murdering my wife, and after 12 years in prison was finally exonerated by new evidence, and released from prison, and at a press event held in a hotel bar room, I ordered a lemonade and something fucked up with the dispenser such that I got a glass of carbonated water, no sweetener. I would be profoundly disappointed in myself if I reacted to this as the greatest injustice to have befallen me.

I don't believe my mind to be unique in this regard, if there is anything possibly rare, it's that I noticed my irrationality at all. So again, to degrade my own case, I personally do think I can get a lot out of the stimulation of travel. 

But I reflect, I write blog posts, of which I only know one person that maybe still also writes blog posts. I know a bunch of artists, but very few of them produce substantive pieces, and very few of them on the subject of travel. To be honest, as most people I suspect, will suspect, most artists produce work that is entirely vacuous, accompanied generally by impenetrable word salads that are submitted as artistic statements. 

What of less reflective people? What of the people who do the kind of travel the bourgeoisie love to hate on? Those who go to an exotic country to stay entirely within a 5 star resort, sipping cocktails, getting pedicures and riding jet skis. 

To me this type of travel better demonstrates the social contract I believe may be in effect. 'I work hard, I play hard.' It is not true of me that I work hard. I'm a big fan of the 'Lewis family motto' (of Author Michael Lewis fame) 'Do as little as possible, and that with great reluctance for better to endure a slight reprimand than an arduous task.' but I can again imagine a great value to a holiday that consists entirely of lying on a banana lounge on a Vietnamese private beach.

What I imagine is the feeling of abandoning a sinking ship, clinging to a life jacket and swimming all through the night. Arms and legs aching, mouth choking back up the salt water that splashes into it, you lose consciousness under the blistering sun and awake washed ashore onto terra firma. After a long struggle you just want to lie on the beach, completely burned out until you recover enough to face an actual struggle for existence again.

But again, such holidays are never presented as such to me. As people having achieved some career milestone that took so much out of them that they had to retreat some place far away and highly ergonomic to recover. Nor does it generally follow that people having recovered, recharged, rejuvenated make any real changes to their lifestyle upon return to avoid reaching such a point of exhaustion again. Most people I know just go back to work, often having never really left their lives behind, as evidenced by all the photos I see posted to social media as the holiday is happening.

No, what is presented to me is something that stimulates an altogether different impression: this is what I get, this is what I get in exchange for working a career I find so dull I never talk about it publicly or socially. What I get is to visit a material paradise for 2~4 weeks a year, before I return once more to a life I do not find worth sharing.

This selective publicity of course, has a name, called 'image-crafting.' And like many issues of our time, it gets talked about for a while and then we stop talking about it even though none of the issue is actually addressed, the behavior doesn't stop. We just find new issues like pile-ons and doxing etc. to discuss without action.

Image crafting is probably at the crux, if not the very manifestation of the mythical benefits of travel, and taking what I am sure is a very lovely and comfortable international holiday to a 5-star resort you could not afford in your domestic market, is functionally to me no different from completing a climb of Kilimanjaro if communicated by the same means to the same effect.

As an artist who publishes my work on social media platform, I do spare some attention for a bit of market research in the form of noticing what people like. I tell myself I do this mainly to try and inoculate myself from a Skinner-box type feedback effect, where I find my own practice hijacked by chasing what the public like. (Many an artist I've followed on Instagram has fallen into the trap of producing nothing but fan art, because they get addicted to the easy likes this brings) Probably, it's also a condescending exercise in judging those around me, so that I may enjoy feeling superior. 

What I have broadly concluded though, is that people like what is easy to like. Every artist faces a challenge on a platform like instagram for example of putting hours and hours of effort into a piece they share to receive 17 likes and the occasional spam comment 'wow I really like your stuff, please check out my page!' or something. Then they will notice a friend of theirs that works in accounting took a photo of the hamburger they ordered for lunch today and it has 62 likes.

I've had friends advise me to have a baby, because they have a license to print 'likes' on social media. Which I don't really begrudge babies, I understand the import babies have in people's lives. Just so, I don't begrudge that any work of mine should ever get more attention than somebodies grandma dying or pet dying. 

My broad theory is though, that people like things that they can easily do themselves. Basically, the achievements most valued are expressing non-controversial opinions like that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are bad. It requires nothing of people to express solidarity with sympathetic people, it often doesn't actually require them helping those sympathetic people in any meaningful way or even ceasing behaviors they are engaged in that may hurt the very people they sympathize with.

Purchasing a house, taking a holiday and eating hamburgers are all very egalitarian achievements. They involve the spending of money. This is also somewhat true of announcements of graduation. 

Author Chuck Palahniuck tells an anecdote from a reading in New York, where he cited that Truman Capote claimed 'Americans don't like natural beauty because it isn't egalitarian enough, they like fake beauty; hence we have Sarah Jessica Parker...' which he says produced boos and hisses and jeers from the audience in their condemnation of his cheap shot at the hometown heroine. The nearest Capote quote I could find by the way was: "She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty"

Thus I feel the Travel broadens the mind myth propagates because we want desperately to believe it is true. That something as simple as booking a plane ticket and a place to stay online, and exchanging some dollars into some other currency can make us better people and respected members of our community, it would be so nice if it were true...

My jury may be out on the personal benefits and growth promoted by travel. But the deliberation is going in a clear direction as the circumstantial evidence piles up. What most people appear to get out of travel is a personal indulgence, an experience akin and probably amplified to reflect the costs both material and mental involved, of the pleasure received from eating a fatty salty meal.

It occurs to me, that my attitude not towards Travel per se, but to the myth of Travel's medicinal properties, is very similar to the epiphany I had towards the end of highschool. Back when I was trudging around the campus in a predictable way. 

The epiphany was thus: I'd never seen a teacher take a dumb student and make them smart. To some that might seem obvious, but for some reason I held a naive belief at the time, that education made you smarter. It doesn't and the key distinction is between knowledge and intelligence. My school could cram a bunch of data into any kids mind that would improve their performance on a given test. But that was the limit of the performance enhancement. After the test results came back, their minds had about as much utility as before. True of me to this day.

Travel then, has been sold, probably as middle-class propaganda, as Lumosity which if you are already forgetting what Lumosity is/was, it's probably because you used Lumosity thinking it would improve your memory somehow.

Lumosity might be the best example to end on, because I titled this we need to talk about Travel, and currently we don't. Lumosity was a product that sold itself as some kind of nuerosciencey brain boosting gaming app. Flashing up on youtube, and we never really discussed these ads as they made their outrageous claims. I didn't talk about Lumosity, and something was painfully obvious to me about the ads. The hired spokespeople came across as really stupid.

I feel we are equally silent on how many people come back from their travels, and couldn't pass a multiple choice test on their travels. Nor when we think of our oldest friends and families, how many have made an impression altering change as a result of the travels they have undertaken. Our characters, and our vices and virtues, seem quite robust in the face of exposure to new places, new cultures, new ways of being.

In the meantime we are killing the planet as part of the deal we signed with nobody, that we get to travel to exotic countries in exchange for working jobs we feel we really need the break from.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

On Propaganda as a Tax

It often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it;
~Jonathan Swift.

Oral Calumny is tardy, feeble, and circumscribed, but give her paper wings, and, like a bird, she cleaves the clouds, and flies from province to province, from kingdom to kingdom...
 ~from 'the Confessions of Jean Baptiste Couteau'

A lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has even put its shoes on.

~dubiously attributed to Mark Twain.

This is a meme:

Generated by nobody from a website that allows anyone to make a meme from a template, one presumably of many. It takes seconds to create one, and perhaps a second to share on social media.

This is also a meme:
That was shared by several artists I follow on instagram and via rss feeds on my feedly news aggregator in the wake of the Christchurch shootings. It contains a lot of... stuff? and while it took somebody a matter of hours (probably) to make the graphic it takes somebody perhaps a few seconds to glance over and a second to share. It's created by nobody, that we know of, and doesn't show up on, it says it is 'adapted from' a piece of work.

I've done it before, and redid it now, and after 15 minutes, it's hard to hit bedrock in terms of the source of this fascinating 'information' it's easy for example to find the meme it is adapted from:
Much harder is to find the information it is adapted from on the seemingly respectable SPAN website, the nearest I could get was this pdf document, written by somebody but with no publication date, sighting no sources (though it recommends several books) and the author while named is nobody of note, in terms of a google search, there is a linked-in profile that might probably be the author of this pdf document.

To be honest, my bullshit detector need not go that far down the rabbit hole before I would throw out the original diagram. Because the anonymous author demonstrates their ignorance in the box in the top right hand corner:
"In a pyramid, every brick depends on the ones below it for support. If the bricks at the bottom are removed, the whole structure comes tumbling down."

I learned in high school, why pyramids are so stable, and from I believe one of the Zork games, the tower of hanoi mathematical puzzle of which many infants will have some kind of toy version of  that they play with, made from wood or plastic from which we all probably have the requisite experience to know the statement about the fragility of pyramids doesn't wring true. We will never see a pyramid collapse like the Twin Towers on September 11. We'll never see a pyramid burn to the ground.

It's too tempting to go even further picking apart this meme. I've started that rabbit hole of text and deleted it several times to keep it on point.

And what is the point? The point is the asymmetry. These memes can propagate faster than I or anyone can fact check them, qualify them or refute them. What if one sees a concerning meme doing the rounds? how does one respond?

At great expense to limited effect.

The very fact that I've seen people respond to the 'Flat Earthers', that any rational person has spent a moment of their time reminding themselves that these people are indeed crazy, settles my case that propaganda is tax...

Except that having completed an economics bachelor degree, I'm not sure myself if I should be using the word 'tax' 'levy' or perhaps even 'externality'. I don't have sufficient authority to conclude, but the cost of propaganda is out there and someone generally has to pick up the tab, whether that is technically a tax, a levy foisted on a subset of the population or an externality that has to be addressed by some future generation.

What is propaganda? I'm not sure I know. I guess it would be an effort to assert and propagate a counter-factual claim. Let's see what wiktionary says:
information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
But we live in a society where an idea with no factual basis, like vaccines causing autism, the earth being flat, Trump/W Bush/Reagan being brilliant etc. spread, and spread quickly such that at dinner parties the few have to expend energy as the social equivalent of white blood cells pushing back.

As per the second of the opening quotes, verbal lies were more manageable because they had to go via one-to-one communication, or perhaps one-to-many but there would have been far more gatekeepers to arrest their spread. More points at which they can fail.

The printing press and the pamphlet allowed lies to scale up, something that enabled the literal witch hunts of the past I'm told. This was addressed by establishing a principle of authorship, table of contents. Tim Snyder testifies to this history here:

The internet and social media, well you don't need to imagine. You know. And I don't need to elaborate the discussion is being had by better thinkers than I.

I was crossing the street. Not the most novel of experiences. I was jaywalking. Also not that novel. Two ladies on the other side of the street saw me crossing, and they crossed, nothing unusual yet. I crossed, they stopped and had to back up. Also perfectly ordinary. I'd seen this behavior a millionty times in my life, I understand it, I understand how it happens, I never fail to notice it.

They had taken their cue to cross the street by watching me, not the traffic. I had a different vantage point, a different starting point so relative to the vehicle moving towards me it was safe to cross. Not for them.

What was unusual was that it made me think that maybe this was a life hack. It made me recall a children's story that I feel was written by English-Australian author Morris Gleitzman but can't find from his largely unsearchable website. The story I recall, by him or another, featured a narrator character that was illiterate. Unable to read menus, he had a way of getting around his illiteracy by standing in line at the fish and chip shop and listening to what the person in front of him ordered, if it fit the bill he would say 'same again.'

Mugen's illiteracy also gets revealed through a similar inability to read menus in Samurai Champloo.

While I'm sure what I witnessed with the two ladies' abortive jaywalking attempt wasn't a kind of traffic illiteracy, but social behavior common to all humanity. What struck me was that I never considered before the possibility that a lot of people find life complicated and much of our behavior are hacks.

For example, a case can be made I feel, that a bunch, if not most people, don't understand what makes the Nazi's bad. They don't understand German National Socialism on any real economic, socio-political level of analysis. So they use hacks to be on the lookout for 'Nazis' which might boil down to wearing a Swastika or tattoo, antisemitism, and perhaps even 'being unpopular'.

And you produce a person that will lose their shit over Prince Harry wearing a Nazi Uniform to a fancy dress party but will vote for a political party that is looking to deregulate media ownership while legislating tough new police powers to deal with a negligible gang problem among at risk teenagers from a refugee population.

The broader principle I'm currently entertaining, is that society is going to operate at a level of complexity above what is necessary for the majority of it's constituents to understand. On some level this has to be true. How many people can use money as a medium of exchange without understanding monetary policy, money supply, inflation, the velocity of circulation, money illusion, etc. We just need basic numeracy and trust, for money to work as a medium of exchange.

There are examples where understanding the complexity of something yeilds us no real utility - for example understanding the endocrine system probably doesn't make the information of your emotional states any more useful to you.

If you have the presence of mind to say 'I'm angry' it doesn't help any, and possibly diminishes your utility to yell 'My CRH is spiking!'

But it leaves us all vulnerable to propaganda. Because most if not all of us, in some contexts are illiterate kids standing in line at a Fish and Chip Shop, with no ability to read the menu, what we order depends on what we hear others ordering.

The term 'conman' comes from 'confidence man' which in turn comes from a gentleman who stood on the streets of New York asking his marks if they had the confidence in him to lend him some money or their watch. Cons have become more sophisticated and often more elaborate since. However when I think about it, I walk past a store with 'McDonalds' written in a certain type face on it's facade, and I feel confident I know what I will be able to order within it, just about anywhere in the world. That's a pretty good hack, and one that might spare me having to listen to other customers to figure out what to order, if I know what I like I can probably order it in English anywhere.

Just so, a bank may operate in a city where people take their money and deposit it, secure loans to finance their businesses and so forth. One learns that the bank can be trusted with money, (well in the Old West perhaps), without understanding it's because they are regulated, they are insured, they have reserves of cash deposits against which to guarantee their loans and other practices, learned over years and in an ongoing way how to protect themselves from robbery and burglary etc.

People learn, their money is safe in the bank. They learn that the bankers wear suits, shirts with collars and sleeves, they are lettered, professionally attired. People learn that people you can trust with money dress professionally and conservatively.

Then a con man just turns up wearing a suit and tie is lettered and speaks financial gibberish and promises you a 30% return if you deposit your funds in his trust.

This is what our illiteracy hacks leave us vulnerable to. With con men, there's an obvious financial cost. What about propaganda?

Well propaganda generally has a benificiary, someone for whom whether conscious of it or not would find life easier if the propaganda were generally accepted as fact. Thus the loser who is motivated to actually pick up the cost, are the people who are adversely affected by the propaganda. A government official may find their job much easier if the public perception of their performance is their ability to provide simple solutions to non-problems like cracking down on statistically insignificant gang violence, rather than having to tackle costly problems like a conversion of the energy grid to a sustainable and renewable one.

Let's say you are a junior employee in a corporation, and you are tasked with mailing out the new price list to your network of retailers. You put 1,000 envelopes into the post, and job done. Then a sales rep calls you up after a week and points out there's a misplaced decimal meaning that over the past week the corporation has sold 3,000 units at a 90% discount.

In this case, addressing the error is easy, the company fires you for your lack of proofreading, corrects the pricing in the system that generated the error and sends out the correction using the mailing list of retail clients.

With a social network, you read a horrifying article about a person who caught aids from a persimmon that sights 'sources' that you don't bother to check and post it to your social media page visible potentially to 400 friends you can't name off the top of your head and often forget can see what you post. The link you post gets shared 45 times, it becomes a news story and suddenly it is echoing back on itself, being covered by the press, and you are seeing follow up newstories about persimmons being pulled from supermarket shelves and being destroyed. In the meantime, one or two of your 400 friends, that perhaps graduated from medical school points out that you cannot catch AIDS or HIV from eating fruit or any other foodstuff, it can only be transmitted through blood or ejaculate from a carrier.

Still the bad association with persimmons may linger for years, and it's because people's heuristics for navigating a society more complex than they can comprehend got hacked. People seeing that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Age, The Guardian etc. have websites that look polished, and have links to share on social media attached to articles, and named authors etc. and when you share the link it has a picture with a watermark of the publication brand etc. and that's what legitimate news looks like (without going down the rabbit hole of how to identify an Op-Ed from a reporting of factual events...)

You may be saying 'so what? who gives a fuck about persimmons? stupid fruit.'

Someone might though, and we've lost the ability to intercept or conduct an idea recall. We have thousands of signal fires that ideas can move through, and their quality control functions are potentially primative.

Imagine a well intending good person who wants to help their community avoid catastrophe and prosper and thrive. They don't understand economics, medicine, psychology, philosophy, civics, law, finance, chemistry, biology etc. not to any degree of complexity. They have a voice, and they have a rule and the rule is 'communism is bad' they 'know' the way to help steer their community in the right direction is away from communism.

Unfortunately they don't understand communism, Marx, socialism, taxation, etc. this person is easily presented with ideas and their rule is - if it denounces communism, share it. So they see an article that says a National Disability Insurance Scheme is communism, they share it. They see a meme that says a mining tax is communism, they share it. They see a gif that ridicules a politician for suggesting a failed financial institution should be nationalized as part of it's bail out. They share it. They see a meme that says the water supply should be privatized to lower costs to the consumer. They share it.

They are networked in with a 1:100 ratio of other signal repeater stations that do not share their primative decision rule. By the time that 1 person has pushed back on just one of those memes, it's had 100 opportunities to spread and contaminate a new 1:100 pool of repeater stations.

So what gives me optimism in this hopeless situation?

For one this isn't the first time the world has faced the introduction of a disruptive technology, as per that Tim Schnyder video. Between the invention of the printing press, and the enlightenment there were the dark days of the reformation. And it isn't like Protestantism was all bad, it was a source of important reform. The Enlightenment was better, but as is being discovered, it didn't and perhaps didn't need to, penetrate humanities consciousness very wide or very deep as Douglas Murray somewhat puts it.

But eventually the gate keepers regulated and addressed a large part of the problem. In hindsight my year 10~11 geography teacher Mr Schomburg (or something) when he extolled the virtue of going to the library and using actual books for our assignment because they were written by creditable authors, unlike the internet information super highway, was one of the most valuable lessons I received in my schooling.

I can also remember, just vaguely the days when my McDonald's hamburgers came in a Styrofoam container. When my grandparents had a garbage incinerator in their back yard. In my lifetime, early on in my lifetime, scientists and baby-boomers got together and got rid of styrofoam packaging in McDonald's. Apollo Bay got rid of plastic bags maybe a whole decade before the major supermarket chains followed suit.

If society can have it's attitudes shifted about the physical garbage they dump into the ecosystem, they can be shifted on the garbage ideas they dump into social media spaces.

There's also regulatory steps that can be taken to exclude the public from discussions where they are doing more harm than good spreading propaganda. On the harsher end of the spectrum, a distributor of a false and misleading meme could be fined like 5c for every time it is shared. Such that a few pariah's wake up to discover they have a several billion dollar fine for their efforts to combat climate action.

On the more gentel end of the spectrum, a government could regulate that each time you log into social media a load screen flashes you a message like 'articles shared on social media are rarely fact-checked.' and 'social media is not an appropriate place to relieve mental anguish.' and so forth.

I do sincerely believe that social media and smart phones are the cigarettes of this century. We are only a few decades in and we are starting to notice and document the adverse health effects and addictive nature. Huge gains were made in the anglosphere against smoking, (until perhaps, the advent of social media) and the same can be done I am sure, for social media.

And there's consumer activism, endeavor to share less content and instead write things in your own words, speaking on your own behalf. A big culprit in a lot of issues is time-poverty. Your time is taken away from you through rising living costs and decreasing job security, then the market steps in with a product, and one such product it seems, is to spare people the effort of thinking and throw them back on their primitive rules of 'Nazis are bad' 'Communists are bad' etc.

In the meantime, while I'm sure Donald Trump has speech writers on staff, we have this prominent example of a tax on journalism, and information in general. The press does an admirable job in staying on top of Trump's penchant for just uttering complete and incoherent bullshit. From journalists to comedians, many many people are employed just to keep us tenuously in touch with reality thanks to the impulsive utterances of just one man.

It's even a tax imposed across national borders. The Australain public broadcasters have to spend money commenting on and correcting Donald Trump. It can be argued that Trump has boosted subscriptions and ratings for journalism and in that regard, creates employment in the industry. But that employment is literally engaged on the singular task of just correcting for his own propaganda. Important and consequential issues get substantially less airtime.

The truth needs fact-checkers, researchers, presenters, office buildings and overhead. Propaganda needs two thumbs and a smart phone. Someone has to pay for this mind pollution. Don't be like Donald Trump.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Sweat Lodge

I went to Mexico to draw, to fill sketchbooks and notebooks. To write, and to figure out my life because I hadn't actually looked this far ahead. That's all going well. It's hard to describe what I've been doing this past 9 months, as an 'adventure' because to be honest, I don't do much.

While nobody except maybe a few tax-auditors are likely to look over the work most professions produce. Unless I guess, you make hamburgers, ramen, cafe lattes, crepes etc. and art. But back when I was making art in a studio back home, I would find myself telling people at parties that found my job interesting about how the work of an artist involved a lot more TV watching and eating Doritos than many would assume.

And my time in Mexico is much the same, except eating Doritos here is kind of pointless. But I was bestowed with both the opportunity and the honor last Sunday to be invited to join in a Temazcal, or more descriptively known as a sweat lodge. I of course accepted the invitation and did something interesting, at least, that is to say, I don't find my daily life that interesting or assume it isn't because it takes place mostly in my head.

So we caught a bus from the center of town where I live, out, out, out to the outer edges of Guadalajara, arriving late to be just in time for the lighting of the fire that would heat the stones that create the steam that I won't say induces, but exacerbates the sweat in the sweat lodge.

Alejandra ran me through the do-not's of the ceremony, and allow me to then provide my layman analogy of what a sweat lodge is, which is a purification ordeal. The obvious analogy is a sauna, but it is also dark and people sing and play instruments. Furthermore, my prior experience with saunas, I generally lasted about 5 minutes before I decide it's time to submerge myself in the cold pool.

This will subsequently seem misleading, but I stayed in the sweat lodge for an hour and a half. Which consisted of 3 of 5 actual sessions where the exit was sealed and the rocks wet, and the songs sung. However my brief was that the sweat-lodge would run between 3-5pm.

So I was sitting where I was told, a little nervous, but my concerns were whether I could sit cross legged on the ground for a long time, since I have always struggled with my flexibility and sitting on the floor. And also I guess the indignity and disrespect of maybe having to interrupt the ceremony to make an exit if I was feeling woozy. Then the doors were closed.

It's an incredible experience. Intensely unpleasant.

So maybe the first thought on it is a callback to a hypothetical I used to, and still do ask people. Which was:

You're at a party, and a shady guy who calls himself 'stretch' offers you a choice between two freebies. The first is basically xtc, it will give you 10 minutes of sheer bliss no matter the circumstances. The second is the opposite, absolute despair, 10 minutes where you feel the worst you have ever felt in your life, before you promptly recover. Which do you take?

A minority of people, including me... well to be honest, I prefer to reserve my nervous system and brain receptors for their natural purposes. My most honest answer is shamefully, the weasel one of passing on both. Most people, reflecting life or the portion of life I've experienced, are pretty keen on MDMA. I only have interest in the 'absolute despair' pill, it's the only one I'd consider.

I asked a Tinder date in Mexico this hypothetical, who picked the MDMA, claiming she'd experienced absolute despair and absolute bliss and definitely prefers bliss. I responded at the time, that I wasn't sure she had her mathematics right, but I wasn't sure I had mine right either.

What I mean by that is, if you are a relativist, so on a cold winters night, stepping into a warm tavern and having a hot meal and some mulled wine is just the best thing in the world, and on a hot summers day partaking in the exact same experience of warm tavern and hot meal, then becomes the worst thing you can think of. That's generally my approach, 'better' and 'worse'.

If you are an absolutist, (and apologies, this approach is foreign to me, so it's hard for me to conceive of and describe) that's taking the view not of moment to moment, but taking the sum total of moments in your life as the endgame. So it isn't now is better than just before, but things are 'good' or 'bad'.

As a relativist, this means most of what I'm going to experience is my normal state, so I take absolute despair because it will calibrate 10 minutes as being worse, possibly 'the worst' and then my normal life will always be 'better' than that experience. In which case, taking some pill that induces the pinnicle experience, then becomes a curse upon the rest of my life.

Alternatively, if you are absolutist, you only get so many chances in life to experience anything at all, so if you get a chance to experience absolute bliss, you take it, and if you can avoid any despair, you avoid it. the doors are closed, and I should point out, I was already drenched with sweat just from sitting in the lodge before hot stones were placed in the pit. Steam starts to expand off the rocks, people are singing and I am just trying to keep my shit together.

Steaming is a literal method of cooking. I assume everyone has the experience of pouring out pasta water into a strainer, or opening a microwave dish, and immediately burning their hand and exclaiming 'ah fuck!'

I was in pitch blackness, but I felt like I was sitting under the Australian sun on a 40 degree day. I no longer really practice mindfulness, but I have done a fair bit of it, and so I was moving my consciousness around my body. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, my toes in the dirt, and my lips having the humid air dragged over them, and the skin on my face and shoulders cooking.

It was taking all my concentration, my attention, just to sit still. Alejandra in a panic had mouthed at me from across the lodge, that my watch was on. She evidently didn't recognize that it's a Casio G-shock, and would survive the sweat lodge even if nobody else did. I glanced at my watch several times, trying not to move my wrist in such a way as to set off it's back-lighting. I was doing so to make deals with myself.

I have enough experience from running of what it's like to get light headed, and lose consciousness and what not. I figured I would be safer crying out in panic, than losing consciousness at what I presumed at this point was going to be a 2 hour sauna session. What I was mostly doing was trying to get stock of what the time was, to gauge how long I could endure sitting upright, before I might resort to laying down, where there was less steam and less heat. If I did that immediately, or too soon, I had no line of retreat.

I had helped carry the buckets of water, and knew there were around 7 PVC buckets to go through in the 2 hours. So I also wanted to figure out how long this first bucket would last, how hot it would get before it would somehow be refilled, probably by the guy outside whose duty it was to tend the fire, open the doors and keep things real in the real world.

The other thing I had to do, was each time it got worse, as in, hotter, steamier. I gave myself the conscious instruction to imagine it would get 3 times worse. To always, always anticipate that this was not as hot or bad as it would get. And thus to save my precious line of retreat, of going to ground.

While I was doing all this, everyone else was singing and shaking shakers, and beating drums.

Then the elder, running the session, took his dipper and started dousing us with water, one by one. It was unexpected relief, one of the great gifts in my life for which I am eternally grateful. At this point, I was still under the impression this was one long sauna session. I figured, the experience had to eventually taper off into a steady state, a steady temperature. You can't just endlessly douse rocks with water, they lose their residual heat and stop producing steam. Then the elder called out 'Doors please' and the blankets front and back were lifted. Light poured in, air flowed. My second unexpected relief.

I initially thought that maybe I looked like I was dying, and the elder had declared an emergency. It became apparent though, that in order not to routinely kill people, the sweat lodge runs through several sessions. Some people even sitting out a session or two.

Taking a leaf from Josh Waitzkin's book, I decided to take the recovery time seriously, and lay flat on my back breathing in as much air as possible and calming my heart rate down as much as I could. When water was offered I drank, but also tipped a lot over my head, more or less the same as I do running marathons.

Then I reset, back to sitting ready for the second session. Now a profoundly different experience.

For one thing, I had new expectations to be betrayed by. In one sense, anticipating how bad it could get, as new stones were pushed into the pit, I could panic. For another, the second session could go longer, or get hotter, and thus if I felt I knew how bad it would be, I could find myself without mental reserves. But I no longer had to manage with any expectation that I had hours to endure, not minutes. A lot more minutes than I'd ever spent in a sauna, but still well shy of solid hours.

This second time, I went to hell. Part of the reason I'd eagerly signed on, was that that day was the anniversary of the suicide of my oldest friend, James. I had been catching up with him in the months before, and I'd seen stuck on his wall in his old room, papers with numbers to call if he was in a bad place and so forth. One of them read the short message 'breathe deep and pray to no-one.'

James was raised Catholic, I can recall as a child, the one time I had the misfortune to attend mass with his family when I slept over on what must have been a Saturday night. I can't recall what age I would have been at the time, but I feel it would have been an act of restraint on my part to not blurt out after the congregation was discharged into the light 'what the fuck is with all the kneeling on those fucking wooden boards?'

I'm fairly confident, James was not Catholic at his end, but I'm told Catholic guilt goes deep, and I imagine even after discarding one's faith, when it's been inculcated as a kid, you probably still look over your shoulder expecting God to be there for the rest of your life.

And It is my layman understanding, that if you attempt or commit suicide in Catholicism, you go to hell. Also probably if you are just an unbeliever like me, post the revelation of Jesus Christ, and I've certainly heard of the guy, I go to hell.

So here I was, in Hell, Hell light. Not one of the 'Hell House' theatrical productions teen christian evangelists apparently do in 'Merica. But more just experiencing what it feels like in a basic atmosphere where breathing is pain, not relief, and there is no relief, and imagining this as unending.

I had professional reasons for going there too, as I am sketching out a script for a comic set in Hell, about how Hell just doesn't work, is an entirely pointless exercise. Inspired by civil disobedience movements like Gandhi's work in South Africa where they got arrested to destroy the fear of prison.

Anyway, one point is that if you are immortal and eternal in construction, pain then conveys no information. It is just pain for pain's sake. I should point out that I do not understand the actual intentions of the Indigenous people's ritual of the sweat lodge, I was just getting from the experience what I could.

Drawing hot, suffocating breaths, where the pain means nothing, and there is no recourse, and imagining that just being the basic atmosphere in hell, an environment calibrated to one in which no human being could survive, unless they couldn't die. Hell by most literary accounts, is probably overthought, and overengineered. One does not need much for it to be unbearable torture, just crank up the temperature and humidity, bury people in dirt with just a handful of air to gasp at and experience permanent claustrophobic suffocation.

The sweat lodge, was not hell, because in an environment where pain is meaningless, I wouldn't be sitting on dirt, but on the hot rocks themselves, such that there would be no relief in going to ground, no relief anywhere, ever.

The second session ended quite quickly, at least to my perception, I was doused in water what I felt was quite early on, which I then thought if there were no seconds, would make this session worse. But it ended after I think, or perceived, only two songs.

By the time it ended though, I'd been blessed with release from a nagging fear of the soul. That James was in Hell. Sure, only for on the scale of things, a blink of an eye before I joined him. But join him I would, and join him I must, for there can be no Paradise where someone I love is excluded. And that's the thing, once one person you love is consigned to a lake of fire, it's game over for the whole afterlife system.

I realised while cooking in that steam, that there could be no salvation for me, no paradise offered that excludes James or anyone for that matter. Nor could I be admitted to any paradise where I am given a reunion with James as necessary for my paradise, while James suffers for eternity simultaneously for his sins, for then there can be no souls, our essence are but programs, duplicated.

And no good person, dealing with eternity can watch their friends thrown into the fire and think of their own salvation and secure it at any cost. The suffering cannot escape, unless empathy can be escaped. I picture a paradise of cool breezes and people given an eternity to contemplate the suffering of those who were not permitted through the gates, so suffering cannot be escaped except for those few who care for no one but God. Who have the resolve to wash their hands by saying 'I warned them' to the sinners.

Thus, while I can appreciate that most people would conceive of Paradise and Inferno as night and day, to me they have no meaningful difference, something I've known for quite some time. Both are merely cruel meaningless forms of torture. The only paradise, release, is oblivion.

And so the second session ended and I no longer just knew it, but felt it. Having felt the frailty of my resolve in the minutes of steaming in the sweat lodge, the knowledge that I as a frail mortal pack of meat, could not last an hour in such conditions as those, would have no recourse but to endure much much worse in any conception of damnation. I could not be damned, I could not be saved and the same was true for all of us, whether they have the courage to believe it or not.

So I lay, and the guys around me lay where we could fit, as if we were all in kindergarden taking a nap. The purification was a re-calibration for me, laying drenched in sweat in dirt, I didn't care, the dirt sticking to me, painting me in a thin coating of sweaty mud, didn't bother me, nothing bothered me because I could breath, cool 32 degree air. I could drink room temperature water. The elder excused himself and his partner lead the next session.

The guy beside me, who sat closest to the firepit where the experience was most intense, requested for a pair of eagle wings for the next session. I had a hunch looking at the matron running this one, that it would be longer, harder than the second session and to brace myself. Here was someone that calibrated time possibly based on childbirth.

The doors shut, and the third session began. The guy in front of me flapped the wings, circulating the air inside the sweatlodge such that it was as hot at my feet as it was around my head. A new experience, an even harder one.

I was conscious of, and intune with my body. I found curiously that I could induce panic in my chest by thinking about panic, and just as easily think it away. Like I had my hand upon some panic knob.

Alejandra sang, and I still somehow had the presence of mind to think that this was an easier way to hear the girl of my affections perform, than sitting through a free jazz gig. She told me afterwards that she wanted to keep on singing that song, it had more words, more verses, but she sensed the mood was that it needed to end soon, and she obliged. I counted four songs in this session, which the matriarch kept calling for.

Somehow from lying down and sitting up, I'd repositioned myself such that the guy sitting near the pit was now blocking line of sight between me and the elder running this session. If she tried to douse me with cool water it was all hitting him except for a few droplets that landed on the edges of my arms and legs. This session was longer, was harder, for the wings and the lack of water dousing. I resolved to lay down. There are sacred directions, I could only move around the tent clockwise I think, so I didn't want to risk shaming the other guy by trying to move around his body.

The session eventually ended, the doors opened, but I was done after three. In halting bad Spanish I asked if I could exit, but probably said 'Can I am exit, please' and crawled out, kissing the dirt several times as I left, with the other participants taking my arm to steady me/keep me from falling into the fire pit.

Outside the door I was helped to my feet, where I just stood until I felt I could stand for my own volition. Then asked in which direction I should exit, and followed that direction until I could get my towel.

It took me hours and liters to get rehydrated to the point I could use a bathroom again. I noticed myself thinking again, became aware of my own consciousness, when I saw a hummingbird feeding. Not my first, but hummingbirds are rare enough it was pretty special.

I would later think that it would be even more special had the first thing I became conscious of was a giraffe, not native to Mexico that only I witnessed, before it snuck off. I would read much more meaning into that.

Alejandra lasted five sessions, in other words, all the sessions. It was not her first sweat lodge, I suspect she does it most months. I was asked by a participant if I would do it again, I politely told her that it's difficult because I would return to Australia in a few months, she told me a few more times I could do it then.

I don't think I will, because I feel I got what I needed to out of the ceremony. I am already committed to running five more marathons to get a green t-shirt by the time I'm 40. I feel for me, to rejoin the sweat-lodge again would be an act of masochism, not purification.

I regard all spirituality as such. It is a mine-field for hubris. To think that opening a third-eye permits for the closing of the other two. There is a feel, an energy best described as greed in my experience among spiritual practitioners. The experience for many is not often enough, just as it is, they have to reach for more.

I'm not referring to this specific custom, or these specific people. But more the people who will take a strange phenomena like deja vu, and try and pull a justification for telekinesis, telepathy, prescience through it.

For me the sweatlodge was that pill of absolute despair, but in a physical rather than emotional sense. In my first year of Uni, when my then partner dumped me, my first long term and intimate partner, it was James' number in my little black address book I had called in my absolute despair. I spoke to his mum through gasping tears, and she arranged for me to come to dinner and dispatched James to come pick me up and give me a lift.

That's probably the closest situation I've been to an emotional sweat-lodge session, when I get dumped. I don't think I'm in any actual danger, but it's the despair combined with an inability to escape it.

I don't know how many times I got the call from James, when he was drowning in despair, and subsequently bought him a few more days, weeks or months. He shared the despair around, which is to say the love, but I suspect I got the call and answered a few times, before he stopped calling anyone.

A year on, I sat on a cinder block, in the very yard-like back yard of a loving strangers house, feeling like a 32 degree day was crisp and fresh, as my sweat drenched singlet started to actually chill me to shivering. I had experienced perhaps, a pretty good opposite of XTC, of Heroin. A brief trip to hell, before coming down to Earth again. It is great to be alive, amazing.