Blog: The Motherlode

Meditations on Meditations: Change (7:18)

We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it? What does Nature hold dearer, or more proper to herself? Could you have a hot bath unless firewood underwent some change? Could you be nourished if the food suffered no change? Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change? Do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to Nature?
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7:18

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Change (7:18)

Meditations on Meditations: Retreat (4:3)

People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills. But this is altogether un-philosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.

There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.

So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Retreat (4:3)

Meditations on Meditations: Indignation (6:27)

“How barbarous, to deny men the privilege of pursuing what they imagine to be their proper concerns and interests!

Yet, in a sense, this is just what you are doing when you allow your indignation to rise at their wrongdoing; for after all, they are only following their own apparent concerns and interests.

You say they are mistaken? Why then, tell them so, and explain it to them, instead of being indignant.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6:27

Continue reading Meditations on Meditations: Indignation (6:27)

Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore, Dorset

Robert Louis Stevenson’s former residence is a glum affair, not least because it was completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

The day I visit is blue skies and October sunshine, but Skerryvore is cast in a shiver. Pines loom over the miserable ruins, given time to grow and overgrow since the bombsite was turned memorial garden 60 years ago. Continue reading Robert Louis Stevenson at Skerryvore, Dorset

Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, summer is sliding inexorably away. With heavy hearts, we pack away our shorts and sandals and dig out our autumnal garb. This is it, guys: we’ll be layered up until next spring.

So why haven’t I worn a jumper or a coat since Tuesday? Continue reading Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

Stoicism and The Word of God

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Christianity: two millennia of earnest study on the nature of being and how to live the good life – all based on one book. And there is plenty of good in the Good Book. Like Mark Twain said:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Continue reading Stoicism and The Word of God

What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

When was the last time you caught a train to nowhere, walked across fields and up a hill, before sleeping out under the stars?

That was the question I was asking myself after finishing last week’s piece on A.I.. The next question was: What are you waiting for? Continue reading What are we waiting for? A Box Hill Microadventure

Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Some of you probably know that, over the past 10 weeks, I’ve been studying person-centred counselling at the CityLit in London.

Some of you are perhaps also aware that I’ve recently (re)turned to mindfulness meditation to manage stress levels, as part of a concerted campaign against elevated Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies in my bloodstream.

And probably all of you know that over the last couple of years I’ve been investigating the transpersonal potential of psychedelics.

What I am slowly realising, however, is how tightly these three areas are woven together. Continue reading Counselling, Meditation and Psychedelics

Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)

This is mad, isn’t it? A year ago I was in the London Welsh Centre, watching rehearsals for a hair-based theatre comedy called ‘Foiled’. Being one of the writers, I loved every minute – but I never expected The Stage would call it ‘the perfect comedy’ in a 5-star review.

That was dreamy enough, but imagine being given a BBC Radio series! Insane. And it’s being broadcast TOMORROW.

YES – Saturday the 1st of July at 1pm. Continue reading Foiled Episode 1: Everything’s Kings (BBC Radio)

Camber Sands ride details

The sun will surely shine on Camber Sands, a beautiful strip of dunes on the south Sussex coast. It’s a moderately hilly ride from London on a mixture of country lanes and (hopefully quiet) A roads, through the beautiful High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s 70 miles from Greenwich to the coast, with an option to join the ride at Sevenoaks for a 45 mile ride. Continue reading Camber Sands ride details

The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

Weird stuff happens. People really do experience telepathy, alien abduction and pre-cognition.

In the UK, we usually push such stories to one side and either forget about them, or (worse) medicate them. David Luke, Senior Lecturer for Psychology at the University of Greenwich tries to understand them. Continue reading The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

Engineering Work Stops Play

So, the idea was to ride to the beautiful beach at Camber Sands on the first day of summer. A quick double-check of the return trains before we set off threw our plans into disarray with the dreaded words Rail Replacement Bus Service. Now, we’re tough, but not tough enough to cycle back after a 70+ mile ride. So we’re postponing the Camber Sands ride – keep an eye out for updates.

How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

In January 2016, Beth Granville and I were commissioned to write four episodes of our sitcom Foiled for BBC Radio Wales. I still get goosebumps writing that sentence! Getting a comedy commission from the BBC really doesn’t happen very often in a writer’s life and I feel fantastically lucky.

Earlier this week, Beth and I were invited by London Comedy Writers to share our recipe for the secret sauce. This blog is more detail on how I reckon we got that BBC radio comedy commission. Continue reading How to get a BBC Radio Comedy Commission

No Tabbed Browsing

UPDATE 28/1/19: The extension mentioned below no longer exists. Instead, you can use an extension like No Tabs, or just change the options so that your browser opens all links in a new window.


WARNING:

This could be the most boring positive constraint ever conceived. To be honest, I did feel pretty embarrassed about sharing such a geeky post. But if, like me, you sometimes feel chained to the hedonic treadmill of The Internet, then I have no shame.

This positive constraint has helped me spend less time in from of the computer, while making that time more productive. Thanks to No Tabbed Browsing I have spent less time aimlessly browsing the web and more time getting shit done.

I won’t blame you if you skip this one, but if you think you might have a problem – enjoy!

Continue reading No Tabbed Browsing

From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

In October 2015, I met a Syrian family near Spielfeld on the border of Slovenia and Austria. They were huddled together in the cold, waiting to cross into the first country in the EU that was even slightly capable of receiving them.

At that time, nearly 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq and beyond were landing in Greece every day. Making a notable exception for Angela Merkel’s conscience, most European governments were doing nothing more than passing the problem as quickly as possible to their neighbours.

Continue reading From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

This article is ambidextrous. On the one hand, it is nothing more than a non-fiction book review. On the other, it is a fully-featured 3,000 word guide to psychedelic microdosing.

The book in question is A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life by Ayelet Waldman. The title is a little coy – presumably so she can slip under society’s anti-drugs radar. Waldman is talking specifically about psychedelic microdosing, the habit of taking a very small dose of a psychedelic drug in the same way you’d take a microdose of caffeine with your morning coffee.

Waldman’s experiment lasted a month and follows the advice of Dr Jim Fadiman, who has been collecting informal reports from psychedelic microdosers for the last ten years or so. Once in every three days, Waldman would start her morning with a drop or two of diluted LSD, then continue her day as normal, recording observations on her mood, relationships and productivity at work. This book is her lab report.

Are you ready for this? So we begin, in conventional book review fashion. Continue reading A Really Good Day Psychedelic Microdosing with Ayelet Waldman

#21: Everything we know about psychedelics is wrong

1. 15.4% of UK adults have taken Class A drugs

My upbringing was most definitely drug-negative. I went to a school where “drugs” were for drop-outs. It would have astonished me to learn that more than a third of UK adults (11.4 million 16-59 year olds according to Home Office statistics) have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime – and almost a sixth (5 million 16-59 year olds) have taken Class A drugs.

Fear began to mutate into curiosity when, in my thirties, I first met people who were both well-adjusted and regular psychedelic users. Through them, I learnt that behind the fearful media image of psychedelics there was both science and history, which could, if we allowed, contribute to a much more mature and complete awareness of psychoactive compounds. Continue reading #21: Everything we know about psychedelics is wrong

#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

The Dark

I don’t mind admitting that a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat with no running, dancing, skipping or cycling, no meat or refined sugar, no speaking or smiling, no alcohol or caffeine, no reading or writing, no email or internet, no music or games, no computers or radio, no news or advertising, no physical touch and no mingling of the sexes at all sent me absolutely bonkers. To be more precise: by the end of the retreat, I was paranoid that everyone hated me. It was HARD. Continue reading #20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

#18: We are all the same

I’m beginning to suspect, however, that economists would love to live inside a computer model, where human beings are all the impersonal and interchangeable sum of their productive value.

Michael Clemens ran the stats comparing Indian computer programmers who won a visa lottery, emigrated and earned significantly higher wages in the US, with those who weren’t so lucky and stayed in India. He examined the differences between the two groups in education and programming skill, reasons for which you might rationally pay someone $60,000 a year more. There were no such differences; they might as well have been the same people. The only difference was location. His conclusion was inescapable: your earning potential is entirely governed by where you are, not who you are. And where you are is, under the current controlled system, almost entirely a fluke of birth.

This is a salutary lesson for those of us standing on the shoulders of our ancestors who had the industry and aggression to make the world their factories. But I can feel the weight of existential crisis bearing down on my shoulders. I can understand why we tend to instinctively reject these ideas.

I want to believe that I have justly earned my education, my opportunities, my three meals a day. I want to believe that I somehow earned the right to be born British. The absurdity of typing that last sentence brings me face to face with the painful truth that the only objections to free migration are political. Unrestricted immigration is a hard policy for politicians to defend when things aren’t going great, when you need a scapegoat to distract from your hapless or corrupt economic decisions.

Unfortunately, we humans do have a tendency to hold long-standing irrational prejudices about foreigners and those of a different cultural background. And those beliefs are easily used to either “explain” difficult social or economic problems or to wilfully distract us from alternative solutions. Thus the political response du jour to any economic or social crisis: tougher immigration restrictions.

In 2014, the German Marshall Fund, a US organisation dedicated to international cooperation, ran a survey in which they asked people across the EU whether they thought that there were too many immigrants in their country. In the UK, 54% of people agreed that our country was overrun with foreigners.

There is a twist, however. In some surveys, people were first told exactly how many immigrants lived in the UK. Under this condition, the number of people saying that the UK was full up dropped to just 31%.

Conclusion #1: Our prejudices are surprisingly easy to change through direct exposure to accurate information.

Many people fear a clash of cultures, that with too much immigration the “British way of life” will change beyond recognition, and in extreme cases that the immigrants will “take over” and the British people will be forced to adopt the foreigner’s law.

From the same Marshall Fund survey, only 46% of people agreed that newly-arrived immigrants were integrating into British society, but that number leapt to 63% when thinking about the immigrants’ children. I wonder how high that figure of approval would rise when considering their grandchildren or great-grandchildren?

Conclusion #2: Where is the clash of cultures if you believe that immigrants are well integrated into UK society?

I see these Marshall Fund statistics as signs of hope, that our prejudices can be challenged and changed. An even more encouraging statistic is that 73% of British people think the government is doing a terrible job on immigration. I agree, although perhaps not for the same reasons as the Daily Mail.

In the second half of the last century, ordinary citizens of the world successfully overturned countless deeply entrenched restrictions on human freedom of movement and self-determination. African-Americans and indigenous Australians now have civil rights in their countries, the controls of the apartheid state of South Africa have been dismantled, and the Berlin Wall that separated east and west in Europe has been bulldozed into history.

If the last thousand years are any guide, slow but dramatic change is not only possible but highly likely. And the policy of No Borders doesn’t sound extreme any more, it sounds humane.


Further Reading

Clemens, Michael A. ‘The Effect of International Migration on Productivity: Evidence from Randomized Allocation of Us Visas to Software Workers at an Indian Firm’, 2012. https://www.aeaweb.org/conference/2013/retrieve.php?pdfid=459.

‘Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2014’. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2014.

#17: No Borders is “the efficient way to double world GDP”

If only we’d listen to our economists, it could all be so different. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, describes No Borders as:

“the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP”

That’s an extraordinary claim, but it’s backed up with numbers. Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Washington, D.C., has collected twelve academic studies examining the “efficiency gain” to the economy from the elimination of various international barriers to trade.

Removing all global policy barriers to the free movement of capital is estimated to have a potential benefit to the world economy of anything ranging from 0.1% and 1.7%. That’s not an insubstantial amount of money, perhaps up to $1.3 trillion, an extra $185 a year for each of us – not to be sniffed at considering that over 700 million people still live on less than $1.90 a day.

Removing international barriers to the free movement of goods is estimated to have an even bigger potential benefit to the world economy of anything ranging from 0.3% to 4.1%, perhaps up to $3 trillion a year, or $450 each.

Dismantling all global policy barriers to the free movement of labour, however, has been estimated to give the world economy a boost of between 67% to 147.3%. That’s at least sixteen times the biggest gain of any other form of deregulation. Even at the lowest estimate, this would amount to an additional $51 trillion for the world economy, or an extra $7,370 in our back pockets every year.

Now can you see why Bryan Caplan ends his short review of Clemens’ work with an unambiguous call to arms for his profession and the wider public:

“If research energy were proportional to the inefficiency of the status quo, virtually every economist would study immigration. And if outrage were proportional to harm, virtually every protest on earth would be in favour of open borders.”

You might at this point be imagining Michael Clemens and Bryan Caplan as anarchist academics, the hard numbers corrupted by personal utopian fantasy. In fact, there is almost complete consensus among economists that borders are a terrible idea. A joint Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University survey in 1996 found that 47% of the general public thought “too many immigrants” was a major reason the economy wasn’t doing better; only 1% of economists agreed. Economics professor Alex Tabarrok calls immigration “the world’s best anti-poverty program”, and even the godfather of modern economics, Adam Smith, advocated not only free trade, but also a free labour market, one where workers could move freely to where they were needed.

Michael Clemens suggests that even just slightly relaxing our border controls could add trillions of dollars a year to the global economy. Michael shows how even mass immigration would support the local economy by drawing on the historical precedent of the millions of women who joined the labour market in a short period of time after the Second World War.

“Women entering the labour force are not exactly identical to men,” Michael says in an interview with Freakonomics author Stephen J Dubner, “so they often complement men in the workplace rather than substitute for them.” Similarly, migrants bring new ideas and skills to their work, complementing rather than directly replacing native workers. “Women start businesses that employ men,” Michael adds. “Migrants do too.”

In fact, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies, the five hundred most successful corporations in the US, were founded by migrants or their children. “Even though there might have been wage-competition between men and women in the ’50s and ’60s, nobody would say now we would make the US richer by banning women from working,” Michael concludes.

What about wage-competition in the UK? In 2008 the Bank of England published a paper that claimed a 10% rise in the number of immigrants working in semi- or unskilled jobs would lead to a 5.2% reduction in pay. In late 2015, the same authors issued an update. Not only had they significantly over-estimated the increase in the number of immigrants taking low skilled jobs, but the reduction in pay was far lower than they expected, just 1.88%.

According to economist Jonathan Portes, this works out to be a reduction of about one penny per hour. This is not nothing, but as Jonathan says, “it stretches credulity to suggest that other things – the level of the minimum wage, the decline in trade union power, technological and industrial change – have not had far bigger impacts on pay in these sectors”.

The flip side to this slight reduction in wages is that some of those savings to business owners are passed on to the consumer. Indeed, in 2008 Patricia Cortes of the University of Chicago found that immigration to the US reduced the cost of a typical shopping basket by about 0.5%.

If you want a large-scale twenty-first century experiment in No Borders, then look no further than Europe. In 2004, seven countries from the former Eastern Soviet bloc joined the European Union. Overnight, about 100 million extra people could move wherever they wanted to work. But, despite the huge differences in GDP between countries like Romania and Sweden, according to economist Philippe Legrain only 4% of people have actually moved, and even then most (perhaps 91%) only intend to move temporarily.

Meanwhile, UCL economists have shown that EU immigrants provided a net benefit to the UK economy of £20bn over the decade from 2000 to 2011, and the most irrationally feared East European migrants made up £5bn of that extra wealth. As for the countries these migrants left, they seem to be doing okay: Poland has outperformed the rest of the EU in terms of GDP growth every year for the last decade.

If the economic arguments are so strong, then what stands in the way of open borders? Well, we do.


Further Reading

Bryan Caplan. ‘The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty’. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/08/the_efficient_e.html.

Clemens, Michael A. ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, no. 3 (August 2011): 83–106. doi:10.1257/jep.25.3.83.

‘Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy’. The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey Project, October 1996.

Alexander T. Tabarrok. ‘Why Ruin the World’s Best Anti-Poverty Program?’ The Independent Institute. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=1737.

Tabarrok, Alex. ‘The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely’. The Atlantic, 10 October 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/get-rid-borders-completely/409501/.

Grieve, Roy H. 1983. Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’: the Legacy of a Great Scottish Economist Understanding the Scottish Economy, Publisher: Oxford: Martin Robertson, Editors: K P D Ingham and J Love, pp.pp.41-54

‘The “New American” Fortune 500’. Partnership for a New American Economy, June 2011. p2

Michael Clemens quotes from: ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’ Freakonomics. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://freakonomics.com/podcast/is-migration-a-basic-human-right-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/.

For more detail, see: Clemens, Michael A. ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?’ Journal of Economic Perspectives 25, no. 3 (August 2011): 83–106. doi:10.1257/jep.25.3.83.

Nickell, Stephen, and Jumana Saleheen. ‘The Impact of Immigration on Occupational Wages: Evidence from Britain’, 2015. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2706493.

Jonathon Portes. ‘How Small Is Small? The Impact of Immigration on UK Wages – UK in a Changing Europe’. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://ukandeu.ac.uk/explainers/how-small-is-small-the-impact-of-immigration-on-uk-wages/.

Cortes, Patricia. ‘The Effect of Low-Skilled Immigration on US Prices: Evidence from CPI Data’. Journal of Political Economy 116, no. 3 (2008): 381–422.

Blanchflower, David G., and Chris Shadforth. ‘Fear, Unemployment and Migration’. The Economic Journal 119, no. 535 (2009): F136–F182.

Dustmann, Christian, and Tommaso Frattini. “The fiscal effects of immigration to the UK.” The economic journal 124, no. 580 (2014): F593-F643.

Faris, Stephan. ‘How Poland Became Europe’s Most Dynamic Economy’. Bloomberg.com, 27 November 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-27/how-poland-became-europes-most-dynamic-economy.

#16: National borders were supposed to be temporary

In Britain, the first border controls were put in place with the Aliens Act of 1793, as a drastic measure to prevent French republicans from crossing the Channel and fomenting revolution. A few years later the perceived danger had passed and the controls were lifted.

It’s hard to imagine border control as a temporary emergency measure today, but that’s exactly how it was originally conceived. Lasting border controls only came to Britain just over a hundred years ago with the 1905 Aliens Act. Some of you might have known grandparents and great-grandparents to whom passports, borders, and immigration were quite novel.

Although not explicit in its wording, it was well known that the 1905 Act was drafted to deal with the “problem” of immigrant Jews, who were fleeing violent pogroms in Russia that killed thousands. The law was, and remains, in essence racist. The same is true for similar ground-breaking border control laws in the US (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and Australia (the White Australia Policy started in 1901).

Following these early racists forays, borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars, with the rise of the nation state. Henceforth, for reasons of geopolitical organisation and economic exploitation, every corner of the earth must have a sovereign master, demarcated with borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation state as:

an independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically)

This sounds reasonable at first pass, but the idea that a state-sized territory could have a “common national identity” is ludicrous. It’s estimated that at the time of the French revolution in 1789 only about ten percent of the population of France spoke fluent French. France has taken hundreds of years to evolve anything even close to a national identity, and is still riven by historical, cultural and ethnic divisions. So I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

After the Second World War, entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq: scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged in South Africa, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, quite regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

I make these historical observations to show that permanent borders, just like any unexamined habit, were once freely chosen as one solution among many possible solutions to a specific problem. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world.

In the course of a generation, military conflict went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in warfare, one which quite possibly demanded we find an equally radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could even argue that borders and the nation state have been a decent, if crude, solution to that problem. Many millions of people, particularly those in Europe and the US, have been living side-by-side in relative peace since the Second World War. And, considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: there is no natural law that commands we live with borders. There are people still alive today who remember a time when borders were not necessarily the way we resolved the problems, both real and perceived, of two tribes butting up against each other. I’m worried that we, as a society, are no longer interested in whether or not this current solution actually works, and no longer asking ourselves whether there is some better alternative out there.

The world has changed again, just as radically as it did a hundred years ago, and we must ask ourselves whether solutions chosen in 1905 are still functional.

Protection against terrorism is often put forward as an unanswerable reason for border control. But the tighter we close our borders, it seems, the more terrorist attacks we attract. Terrorism is no longer the threat of republican revolutionaries crossing the Channel from Ireland or France; the biggest terrorist threat the UK faces today is from its own population. There have been seven successful terrorist attacks in the UK since 2005. Every single one was plotted by British nationals, apart from one: Ukrainian far right terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn who murdered a Muslim pensioner and tried to bomb three mosques in the Midlands in 2013. Borders will not prevent terrorism if that terror is perpetrated by UK citizens.

It also doesn’t follow that borders could hope to prevent terrorists who do travel. Organisations such al Al-Qaeda and ISIS have amply demonstrated that they have the resources to work around any feasible border control, including the rather obvious tactic of putting “cleanskins” on, say, a cheap EasyJet flight from Egypt. That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to prevent terrorist slaughter, but it does mean that we should change our strategy.

Border control is a hopelessly inefficient and expensive means of solving the problem. It didn’t work for the Ming Dynasty of China who lost their Empire when the Manchus were allowed to cross the Great Wall, it didn’t work for the French Maginot Line, easily sidestepped by the Nazis, and it isn’t working for the Israelis who, despite their military supremacy, are losing a quite different battle of demography with Arab Palestinians.

In a world where we are all increasingly connected through a global web of fibre optic cables, and where corporations and ideologies operate on a transnational scale without impediment, is the crude restriction of the free movement of people really still our best option?


Further Reading

Aliens Act 1905: ‘LongView: The Aliens Act 1905’. audioBoom. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://audioboom.com/boos/2995294-longview-the-aliens-act-1905.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): ‘Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)’. Accessed 3 October 2016. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html.

White Australia Policy (1901): ‘White Australia Policy | Britannica.com’. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://www.britannica.com/event/White-Australia-Policy.

See also the excellent website, Open Borders: Lee, John. ‘Tearing down Chesterton’s Fence: The Bigotry of Border Controls’. Open Borders: The Case, 5 May 2015. http://openborders.info/blog/tearing-chestertons-fence-bigotry-border-controls/.

Grimes, William. ‘The Story of French By Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow – Books – Review’. The New York Times, 29 November 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/29/books/29grim.html.

‘Mosque Bomber Pavlo Lapshyn given Life for Murder’. BBC News, 25 October 2013, sec. Birmingham & Black Country. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-24675040.

#15: We all live moneyless Most of life is made up of spider's web networks of cashless exchange, favours and gifts

For Mark Boyle, who lived without money for four years, money is a wedge that separates us from the consequences of our actions – and he’s not just talking about material goods.

“For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me. More than anything else, I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me.”

I’ve only been living moneyless for a week, and in a very limited fashion, but I felt exactly the same. As Mark says, “My character replaced sterling as my currency.”

The Moneyless Life

Mark is far from alone in living the moneyless life. Other people who are living or who have lived without money include Daniel Suelo living in a cave in Colorado, retiree Heidemarie Schwermer in Germany, academic Carolien Hoogland in Amsterdam, squatter Katherine Hibbert in London, and computer programmer Elf Pavlik, who ranges all over Europe but whom I met in Austria.

But there’s one person I must give special mention to – you. There’s one area where we’re all guilty of moneyless living: with those we love.

Indeed, we’d be utterly outraged if anyone tried to give us cash in exchange for the dozens of acts of loving kindness that we perform for our friends and family every day. Research by LV has estimated the average cost of raising a child born in 2016 at £231,843, but any parental attempt to recoup the bill from their children would be monstrous.

The fact is that most of life is made up of spider’s web networks of cashless exchange, favours and gifts. Yes, I spend money six days out of seven, but I am reliant on friends and neighbours for almost every single moment – certainly all the most important ones.

Debt versus Obligation

Thinking in this moneyless way has profound consequences.

In his critically acclaimed book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber explains the difference between a debt and an obligation. Obligation is what I feel towards my neighbour after he invites me to dinner, lends me his power drill or looks after my (hypothetical) kids for the evening; debt is what I feel towards the bank for my loan-funded education, towards work after taking the pay check, or towards Shylock after losing his money in an ill-fated mercantile venture. Obligations bond human beings; debts divide them.

As Graeber writes: “The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money.” It follow that, if we remove money from a transaction, it becomes not a debt to be paid but an obligation:

  • an unspecific generosity,
  • of similar but crucially not identical value,
  • to be performed not immediately, but at some appropriate moment in the future, according to the unique needs of the recipient and resources of the obliged.

In this way, exchange by exchange, we could move from the waste economy of destruction to the gift economy of connection. We could move to a society where we treat each other more like family by exchanging gifts, sharing food and doing favours for the love, not the lucre.

Prosocial Spending

If you do have money, the best way you can spend it is on other people. In a 2010 working paper, an international team of psychologists reported on a series of experiments, including a survey of over 200,000 people in 136 countries worldwide, as well as more detailed and controlled experiments comparing selfish and prosocial spending in Canada and Uganda, and Canada and South Africa. Their results were clear:

“Human beings everywhere may experience emotional benefits from using their financial resources to benefit others … [I]ndividuals report significantly greater well-being after reflecting on a time when they spent money on others rather than themselves”.

Two of the psychologists involved in the study, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, have collected dozens of studies into the impact on our happiness of how we spend money and have concluded that effective prosocial spending should satisfy three criteria:

  1. The spending should be our own free choice: enforced charitable donations don’t make us happy.
  2. You should feel a strong connection to your gift or donation. Who you give to (a close family or a stranger?) and how you give (in person or remotely?) both profoundly affect how we feel about our spending.
  3. It should make a positive impact. It’s hard to see the impact of a £10 donation to a huge global charity, but spending £10 on lunch with a lonely neighbour will have a clear and immediate positive impact.

Happiness is the Opposite of Selfishness

This experiment in moneyless living has changed the way I see the world for good. Money solves problems, but only problems of distribution: the abundance is already out there, waiting for collection. Spending money, therefore, distances us from the source of our needs and becomes a direct correlate for waste. Indeed, financial transactions between humans creates debt and alienates us from each other in ways that are damaging to our personal health and the health of our communities.

There are two clear alternatives:

  • We can spend more time in our moneyless economies by treating more people as we already do our family and friends, relying on obligation rather than debt to balance our affairs.
  • We can do much more prosocial spending. According to the research, around 10% of our spending is prosocial. Could this be higher?

In the end, I’m reminded of the motto of fêted schoolmaster and biographer Sir Anthony Seldon, “happiness is the opposite of selfishness”.


Further Reading

Boyle, Mark. ‘Living without Money: What I Learned’. The Guardian, 15 September 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/15/living-without-money-what-i-learned.

Daniel Suelo: Sundeen, Mark. The Man Who Quit Money. 2012.

Film about Heidemarie Schwermer: ‘Living Without Money’. Living Without Money. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://livingwithoutmoney.org.

Carolien Hoogland TEDx Talk: ‘Carolien Hoogland: My Year of Living without Money – YouTube’. Accessed 2 October 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2aPTJurm-g.

Katherine Hibbert: Hibbert, Katherine. 2010. Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society. Ebury Press.

Elf Pavlik: ‘Living a Free and Abundant Life without Money @elfPavlik’. audioBoom. Accessed 2 October 2016. https://audioboom.com/boos/2595486-living-a-free-and-abundant-life-without-money-elfpavlik.

See also: http://moneyless.org.

‘Raising a Child More Expensive than Buying a House’. Accessed 2 October 2016. https://www.lv.com/about-us/press/article/cost-of-a-child-2016.

David Graeber. 2012. Debt: The First 2,000 Years. Melville House Publishing. p21

Aknin, Lara B., Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Justine Burns, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James, and Michael I. Norton. “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2013): 635–652.

Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. ‘Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness’. Science 319, no. 5870 (21 March 2008): 1687–88. doi:10.1126/science.1150952.

These rules for prosocial spending are taken from the excellent Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. Chapter 5: 105ff.

Chance, Zoe and Norton, Michael I. ‘I Give, Therefore I Have: Giving and Subjective Wealth’. Working Paper, Yale University.

‘Anthony Seldon: Five Things I Have Learned’. BBC News, 23 April 2011, sec. Education & Family. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12935895.

 

#14: Money is Waste

After a week of living moneyless, I’ve decided I need a new definition of money. The current economic system in the UK, and many other places around the world, creates an abundance, an excess of all kinds of consumer products, from food and clothes to technology and even shelter. All these things are created for sale and you can buy them with money.

But because of the excess, you can also acquire these things for nothing, by intercepting them at the point of waste disposal, either after the consumer has tired of them or before they reach the market simply because they are part of that essential excess built into the system.

That excess is created because money under capitalism is a right to demand. As consumers with money in our pockets, we feel a fundamental right to exchange that money for whatever good we desire, and there is no greater crime for a supplier than to fail to meet that demand.

I’ll show you how this works with a classic skipper’s example: chain sandwich shops. Sandwiches are cheap to make, but office workers will happily pay a triple mark-up for a sandwich from a shop like EAT. What are they getting for their money? Not the mere sandwich commodity; the real product being sold is convenience. But that convenience only works if they can get exactly the sandwich they want.

A City Solutions Consultant wouldn’t pay a triple mark-up if the only option was bread and butter, or if the shop persistently ran out of his favourite wild crayfish and rocket. If either of these things happens, the consultant takes his business elsewhere (or starts making sandwiches at home).

The consequence of this is that the sandwich shop’s business model is obliged to over-produce sandwiches; they cannot afford to sell out every day for fear of shedding customers to their rivals. The result: waste, in the form of bags of sandwiches dumped on the side of the street at the close of business. This is well known to scroungers in areas densely populated by chain sandwich shops, like the City of London.

Urban scavenger Keziah Conroy showcases such sandwich shop hauls on her blog: a jalapeño chicken wrap, an all-day breakfast buttie, sourdough toasties, a chicken sunshine salad, and a beef and tomato baguette.

So what is money, if you can satisfy all your material needs for free by changing the way you acquire stuff? Well, now I know: money is just one way of solving a distribution problem. That’s all.

My Solutions Consultant pays money so that EAT will bring together all the ingredients and labour required to make, package and store his sandwich. All he has to do is turn up at the conveniently located shop and hand over his money.

This also explains why the sandwich shop business model demands total saturation of an area. There are eleven EAT sandwich shops within a quarter of a mile of Bank Underground station in the middle of London’s business district: money is a distribution mechanism, nothing more, nothing less. It reduces the friction of our lives, making our lives easier by “greasing the wheels”.

Positive constraints like No Money increase friction, and my argument is that this is a good thing: friction helps us engage our imaginations, learn how our world actually works and come up with alternative solutions. If we don’t want to spend money, then we have to work out different ways of solving the problems of distribution, whether that’s by squatting empty buildings, cycling and hitch-hiking, or skipping from waste bins.

However, without the “right of demand” that comes with money exchange, we must also expect less than perfect distribution solutions and be more flexible with what product we end up with (although that often means much richer variety, as I found with New Covent Garden).

The truth is that, if money is a solution to the problems of distribution that creates vast systemic waste, then the expenditure of money itself is a correlate for that same waste. Because there is already excess and waste in the system, every time I spend money, I am being profligate, draining natural resources, contributing to pollution and environmental degradation, wasting labour and energy, and tossing more and more garbage into land fill sites and waste incinerators.

I cannot hide from the knowledge that spending money actively contributes to a wasteful society. My new definition is this: money is waste.

Mark Boyle, who lived moneyless for four years, has written extensively on the implications of our use of money and would agree with this new definition.

“If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.”

We don’t because we spend money to reduce the friction in our lives by distancing ourselves from these labours. And to serve us our frictionlessness, we conspire to waste on a collossal scale.


Further Reading

‘Binning = Winning’. Binning = Winning. Accessed 1 October 2016. http://urban-scavenger.tumblr.com/post/118375084608.

Boyle, Mark. ‘I Live without Cash – and I Manage Just Fine’. The Guardian, 28 October 2009, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2009/oct/28/live-without-money.

#13: Money is not Generosity

I first heard of London’s New Covent Garden Market five years ago. A couple of people I lived with sometimes cycled there on their way home after all night raves, coming home with heaps of free fresh food and stories of being run down by pallet truck drivers and robbed by security guards. They laughed, cleaned up their wounds, and made huge hangover soups and smoothies with all kinds of blemished, bruised and half rotten fruit and vegetables. I’d always wanted to go with them, but it had somehow never worked out and they left the house pretty soon afterwards.

In the five years since, the idea of “skipping”, as it’s known, had occasionally popped into my head, but with the convenience of my excellent greengrocer just over the road, why would I ever change my habits? I was always put off by the early start, the five mile cycle, my nervous inexperience, and of course by the security guards. But that’s the great thing about positive constraints: they force me into doing something different.

So I did what I always do when faced with a daunting challenge: I searched online and found a French blogger who had tried to start an online directory of the best place to skip free food in London. The website hadn’t really got off the ground (scroungers are understandably secretive about their grazing grounds), but there was one piece of information that surprised me: the bin men for New Covent Garden Market arrive around eleven in the morning, five hours after trading ends. The Frenchman recommended I turn up any time before ten – so much for the early start!

Emboldened by my Gallic guide, I set off on my bike at eight the next morning, garbed in workman’s fluorescent high-vis, an old trick to escape the attentions of security guards, hiding in plain sight. My first difficulty is finding the market. The area is pockmarked with construction, “the greatest transformational story at the heart of the world’s greatest city” according to developers. Cranes and steel support the groundwork for towers of five million pound apartments, interiors designed by Versace. And I’m here to swipe a shopping basket of land-fill fruit.

Cycling around the new soon-to-be American Embassy, I finally spot the drivers’ entrance, slip past the barriers, dip down under the railway and emerge into the market, a complex of warehouses, lorries, vans and pallet trucks zipping around. I feel out of place on my bicycle, but at least my high-vis fits in.

The market is based around three double-width delivery boulevards, onto which more than two hundred businesses open their shutters. New Covent Garden is the largest fruit, vegetable and flower market in the UK and according to their website it apparently supplies 40% of the fresh fruit and vegetables eaten outside of the home in London, catering for restaurants, cafés, schools and hospitals, as well as retail markets. And skippers.

I see a few other people on the prowl. One looks like he’s been printed out from stereotype, dressed all in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and bits of his face pierced to other bits of his face. There’s also an ordinary-looking guy rummaging through the bins, and one very elderly woman pushing a trolley, leeks poking out of the top.

My favourite, though, is a Vietnamese woman, crouched over a slush of cardboard and trodden in lettuce. She beckons me over. “You need lemon?” she asks. “Lemons? Lovely!” She wafts a hand over the other side of the boulevard: “Lemons, lot of lemons.”

I thank her for her help and cycle dutifully over to the stacks of crates she’d indicated. I turn over the rubbish thrown on top to reveal a dozen fresh melons. I laugh and pop a couple into my pannier, one honeydew and one bright yellow canary. The skin is a little discoloured and the top of the honeydew is slightly bruised, but when I crack them open later, the flesh is perfectly ripe, amply protected by the hard skin.

After my success with the melons, I toured the rest of the site, chatting with cleaners and shopkeepers, asking what was waste and what was waiting to go into vans. If you’re imagining me climbing head-first into skips and rubbish bins, picking through mouldy tomatoes and cigarette ash, then think again. At the market, waste is carefully separated, with plastic and cardboard recycled, and organic peelings and cuttings going into huge vats. The good stuff, the stuff that could be eaten by you and me, is piled relatively neatly on the roadside, there for the taking.

The stories my friends had told about aggressive security seemed very far-fetched. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and seemed well accustomed to the scroungers who made what they could out of produce that could never be sold. One energetic Eastern European fruit packer came out to help me pick through a couple of crates of bruised satsumas and apples. He had a good eye and I wondered whether he was himself a skipper.

My bags were filling up quickly: two heads of broccoli, tomatoes in green, black, yellow and red, lamb’s lettuce from Italy, a monster cucumber, horseradish from Austria, parsnips, a swede, pak choi, yellow peppers, an aubergine, ginger root, some limes, a dozen bananas, packed organic rocket, two melons, russet potatoes, green chillies, red onions, four artichokes, eight avocados, a box of lychees and a pomegranate.

On my way out, I stop to flip over a heavy box that had obviously fallen off the back of a lorry: full of spring daffodils. A young worker passes by as I’m wondering whether the daffs will survive the ride home. “You’ve come too late,” he comments. “You should be here at five, six o’clock, then there is so much stuff.” I stare at him in amazement: “But my bags are full, what more could I carry?” He laughs and we chat for a while about the waste he sees every day. “These are for luxury hotels and restaurants, so the vegetables must be perfect, absolutely perfect. For example, fifty boxes of aubergines, if there is one aubergine with one tiny scratch – ” he shows me a minuscule blemish on his index finger for reference – “they send the whole fifty boxes back to us, and we must put them out.”

I’m shocked. This is all good food; its only crime is to fall short of the standards demanded by mindless perfectionists. I ask him if he ever takes the thrown away food home with him, but he shakes his head. “No, it’s against company policy. Sometimes they give us a bag of grapes or whatever. It’s nothing for them, but for us it’s very nice. We’re like a family.” I’m shocked all over again. Here I am with enough fresh fruit and veg to feed a family of seventeen for a week, and he goes home with the occasional bag of grapes? It serves to remind me that taking food from bins is still, staggeringly, classed as theft.* I offer him a daffodil, but he just laughs and walks on.

Farmers of the United Kingdom grow astonishingly vast crops every year. Tragically, much of that crop ends up in landfill, or ploughed back into the land. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to one third of all food grown globally goes to waste. Some of that waste is unavoidable; by definition we must create more than we need because just one ounce less and someone goes hungry. However, we waste by orders of magnitude more than necessary, and people are still going hungry. According to WRAP, the average household in the UK throws out about 6 meals’ worth of food a week, and supermarkets are big wasters too: Tesco alone chucked out 119 million meals’ worth of food in 2015.

On my way home, I stop to give some bananas to a homeless man living on the footpath under Vauxhall railway bridge. He hadn’t realised he was sleeping two minutes from a nutritional gold mine and didn’t seem to believe it was possible. There’s definitely something weird going on here: we either don’t have the will to sort out these logistical problems, or we are complicit in deliberate attempts to keep people from a good meal. I’m really not sure which. In February 2016, France became the first country in the world to make it illegal for supermarkets to throw away or destroy unsold food. It’s a step in the right direction and Arash Derambarsh, the municipal councillor who inspired the change in France, is hoping to make it EU law.

Back home, the first thing I do is pile all the produce onto the table, cut away the melon bruises and bin the too-far-gone cavolo nero. I weigh everything and do a price comparison with Sainsbury’s online: this “shop” would have cost me over fifty pounds in the supermarket. Then I spend a couple of happy hours cooking for me and two friends, with more than enough left over for my housemates to take a bowl when they get home: a delicious broccoli and potato soup, an enormo-salad with peppers, tomatos, lamb’s lettuce and cucumber, and a spicy potato curry, all washed down with a banana and melon smoothie.

Far from bludging from my friends on this week of no money, I have more than contributed my share, and have to give away fruit and vegetables to everyone I meet. The benefits go far beyond saving money, though. Because I can only take what I find, my diet is much more colourful and varied. I’d never normally buy broccoli or parsnips, and until today I didn’t even know that earthy black tomatoes existed. I can feel good about my environmental footprint: the lamb’s lettuce travelled a thousand road miles all the way from Italy, only to go straight into the bin without getting near the chef’s table. That’s a tragedy and my interception felt worthwhile for everyone.

Best of all, though, skipping such a prodigious quantity of food means that I can “afford” to be generous. Not only that, but I positively must be generous, otherwise the food would rot away in my fridge before I could eat even half.

It’s surprising that living without money has showed me how easy it is to be generous. Before the experiment, I used to feel that I couldn’t always “afford” to be generous, but that has been exposed as a dog-in-the-manger mirage. If I’m able to be generous without spending money, then generosity has nothing to do with financial clout. Like any character trait, generosity is a matter of habit. I just wasn’t being imaginative enough to see how I could be generous with what I had. Now I can.

Scrounger turns provider, and my cupboards end the week far better stocked than they started it. Win-win.


Further Reading

* The law in England and Wales is that “[a] person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.” The grey area lies in whether the goods have been abandoned (finders keepers) or discarded (theft) by their owner.

‘Food Loss and Food Waste’. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 29 September 2016. http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/.

‘Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK 2012 | WRAP UK’, 5 November 2013. http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/household-food-and-drink-waste-uk-2012.

Wood, Zoe. ‘Tesco Food Waste Rose to Equivalent of 119m Meals Last Year’. The Guardian, 15 June 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/15/tesco-food-waste-past-year-equivalent-119-million-meals.

#12: Supermarket choice is terrible!

My local Sainsbury’s has more than thirty aisles; my greengrocer has just two. There is, without a doubt, a heck of a lot more choice at a supermarket than at a corner shop, but I wanted to know exactly how much more choice.

So I went to Sainsbury’s, clipboard once again in hand to do a choice case study on just one foodstuff: soup. Continue reading #12: Supermarket choice is terrible!

#11: Supermarkets aren’t cheap

One of the biggest myths perpetuated by supermarkets is that they offer “everyday value” to the customer through their extensive promotions, multi-buy deals and discounts.

The myth isn’t that supermarkets don’t run these formidable promotions: researchers found that more than half the food sold in supermarkets during 2015 was “on special”. No, the myth is that these promotions offer great value to the customer. Continue reading #11: Supermarkets aren’t cheap

#10: Supermarkets aren’t convenient

We think we’re in charge when we walk through the supermarket sliding doors, but that’s naive. Be in no doubt: when we enter the gleaming aisles, we’re entering a fully immersive, three dimensional, 360 degree, multi-sensory marketing experience. Every last element has been fine-tuned to nudge us into making just one more purchase.

The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not supermarkets are convenient, but more for whom are they convenient: us or them? Continue reading #10: Supermarkets aren’t convenient

#9: Phones make you dumb, dissatisfied and dangerous

When we get our phones out while talking with friends, our relationship suffers. So why are we tempted?

The answer is brutal: we’re looking for something better. We’re subconsciously wondering whether there’s something else more important going on right now. Continue reading #9: Phones make you dumb, dissatisfied and dangerous

#8: Getting your phone out makes your conversations shit

In a 2012 study, Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex found that the mere presence of a mobile phone during a face-to-face conversation between two people “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners”. Continue reading #8: Getting your phone out makes your conversations shit

#7: Energy needed for a year’s supply of smartphones = 3,700 Hiroshima atomic bombs

That fairly bad-taste headline pretty much says it all. In 2015, the planet was farmed for 1.4 billion smartphones and the energy required to produce them all was equivalent to the energy released from more than 3,700 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Continue reading #7: Energy needed for a year’s supply of smartphones = 3,700 Hiroshima atomic bombs

#6: TV adverts are awesome

That is not a title I ever thought I’d publish. But it’s true – TV adverts are awesome, or they can be. And when they’re awesome, they can help heal our time-harried sense of modernity – the problem of fast-walking Irishmen having heart attacks.

Awe is described by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt as being “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear”. We feel awe when we encounter something so strikingly vast or complex that it forces us to change our understanding of the world – and sometimes the course of our entire lives. Continue reading #6: TV adverts are awesome

#5: 1 in 10 cars stop to pick up hitch-hikers…

… That’s better than waiting for a bus!

There don’t seem to be so many studies done on hitch-hiking these days, but comparing studies from 1975 and 2009 it seems that (among female hitch-hikers in France at least) a car is as likely to stop now as 45 years ago: about 10% of the time. Continue reading #5: 1 in 10 cars stop to pick up hitch-hikers…

#4: Irishmen walk faster than Indonesians – but are they happier?

In 1748, Benjamin Franklin said that time is money, but he was talking rubbish. Time isn’t money; time is everything – after all, you can’t take your bank balance with you when you go. Continue reading #4: Irishmen walk faster than Indonesians – but are they happier?

#3 Constraints are Creativity

I didn’t invent positive constraints. No way. Humans have been exploiting them for personal growth since the dawn of history. Religions, for example, use limits to bond their communities, distinguish themselves from others and show the strength of their faith in god or gods. Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy (No Marriage) and many lay Christians promise No Sex before Marriage. Only in 1966 did Pope Paul VI relax rules on fasting to allow Catholics to eat meat on Fridays, causing a panic among the world’s commercial fishing concerns.

Continue reading #3 Constraints are Creativity

#2 Do Something Different / Become Someone Different

It is almost impossible for most breathing humans to resist noshing into a passing chocolate brownie sundae if one is dangled before their eyes. Willpower won’t work and we can’t lock all the chocolate brownie sundaes in the world into a cupboard (they’d all melt). No: the prospective follower of No Sugar (say) must re-mould their self-image and become that kind of person who doesn’t eat chocolate brownie sundaes, no matter how tempting they might be to others. There can be no struggle any longer: the chocolate brownie sundae is simply of no special interest. The difficulty, of course, is how to become that person.

Continue reading #2 Do Something Different / Become Someone Different

#1 Dancing Makes You Happy

Time: half eight. Location: bed. State of consciousness: awake, albeit reluctantly. Now what? My autopilot script is fall out of bed, stumble across the room, open the blinds and blink into the scarcely receding gloom of another miserable January morning in London. Everyone’s miserable before noon, that’s why they call it “the mourning”. Today, though, the autopilot script is going to be torn up and scattered to the incipient drizzle. Today, I will not walk – and that includes the stumbling shuffle that usually passes for locomotion before my legs have warmed up.

Continue reading #1 Dancing Makes You Happy

Are you experienced?

Imagine the scene. You’re on holiday with a big group of people you don’t know too well. The twelve of you hired a huge house in the countryside, sharing rooms to split the cost. You’ve been sunbathing on cushions in the garden, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of summer, drifting away in a meditation on beauty.

At some point, somebody brought you a glass of water and a hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread. You weren’t too hungry at the time, so only ate half the sandwich, leaving the remainder on the plate to dry in the hot sun. You drained the glass of water, grateful because you’d left your water bottle upstairs.

An hour or so later, you decide to return to the attic bedroom you share, for a lie down in the shade. As you poke your head through the attic trapdoor, you see the following, in series: a collection of cushions arranged around the sun-trap window overlooking the garden you’ve just left; a plate bearing a half finished hummus, avocado, spinach and tomato sandwich on continental dark bread; and a half full bottle of water – your bottle of water. You can’t help but be overtaken by the odd sensation that you’ve just entered a scene you only recently vacated: the same meditative garden view, the same sandwich, and your bottle of water. Continue reading Are you experienced?

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. Continue reading On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we’ve cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration.

It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival.

The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages, with some eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system for a decade or longer. Continue reading From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System