For example: it would, as we’ve all discovered in the years since, be crushingly dull to not leave the house every day — but there’s no reason that we have to walk.
So, for one day, back in 2015, I didn’t walk. I ran, I danced, I jumped, I skipped, I twisted my ankle, I crawled to A&E and I learned a lot. Particularly about crutches.
The point of the book is that we should learn to question our habits and at least try living without them: sometimes to discover an unexpected better life and sometimes just to return to normality, with gratitude.
One of the most instructive chapters of the book was called ‘No Mobile Phone’. This experiment was run in the halcyon days before I owned a smartphone, but I was no less addicted to those old school beeps and vibrations.
In the month before I ditched my Nokia — back in 2015, remember — I had sent 419 text messages. As I observed at the time:
that’s a ridiculous 13 per day, which makes me look like either a man in demand or a man desperate for attention. I have a horrible suspicion it’s not the former.
Fast forward seven years and I suspect I would be aghast at the number of messages I send on my smartphone in a month.
Actually, as a confirmed data-holic, I wouldn’t be aghast, I’d be fascinated. And then aghast.
Perhaps that’s why Android, Signal and Whatsapp make it either completely or virtually impossible to count the precise number of messages sent from your phone.
(Do you know how? Message me.)
Back in 2015, I wrote about the powerful effects of ‘social gravity’. I was concerned then with the pressure building on all citizens to buy a smartphone:
If we don’t go with the tilt, with the tendency for everyone to have smartphones, then we must be prepared to work ever harder against the steepening slant.
More than one of my freelancing friends finds that they need a smartphone in order to get emails on the go: if they don’t reply immediately to that job offer, then someone else will.
Today we can see the effects of social gravity in the way that we use our phones to communicate with each other.
In fact, to call this communicative tool a ‘phone’ is now almost a misnomer. ‘Phone’ is ancient Greek for ‘voice’ but today, compared to text messaging, we rarely use our ‘phones’ to transmit our voices.
According to a 2018 study, the average Whatsapp user sends or receives a total of 145 messages per day. That’s more than ten times my ‘ridiculous’ 13 text messages per day back in 2015.
It follows that the researchers found that phone calls make us feel more bonded with others than text-based communication like email or messaging.
Voices make us feel good. Intuitively, we know this.
But that’s not why we make fewer phone calls today compared to 2012. We make fewer phone calls because phone conversations, even with friends, are faffy and awkward.
And that’s where the research gets more interesting.
Before the event, the 200 study participants expected that a phone call, whether with an old friend or a stranger, would make them feel more socially awkward than connecting by email or text.
But when asked how the call went afterwards, participants reported no extra awkwardness from the live, unscripted nature of the conversation.
In fact, the phone call was not only a more positive interaction than the text-based communication, but it was also no extra faff. The researchers found that a simple phone call took no longer than reading and responding to the same scenarios over email.
In conclusion: we overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and we underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.
* The kicker is that, after seven consecutive years of falling call minutes, 2020 saw a huge leap in our use of phones for voice communication. Lockdown helped us rediscover the dial tone.
Are you emboldened now to hit CALL instead of SEND? Do you find yourself more often swiping right to answer instead of left to reject? Have you learned to love again the sound of the human voice?
Please don’t bother answering by email — call me instead!
The experiment, then, was a success: the stated objective, to have ‘a lot more’ adventures, was achieved.
But getting outside more isn’t what made the experiment a success. What made the experiment a success was the success of the experimental method.
(Last week, a friend and reader said that he was never quite sure whether he understood my emails: with sentences like the preceding, I concede his point.)
Let me explain.
In 1747, the ship’s doctor of HMS Salisbury, James Lind, decided to compare six different treatments of scurvy, the bloody scourge of sailors long at sea. Some were given cider, some were given sulfuric acid. Some were given oranges and lemons.
In the process, Lind learned how to cure scurvy (it wasn’t the cider, sad face). That was useful, sure, but not nearly as useful as simultaneously proving the efficacy of a well-conducted clinical trial.
I’m not saying that 100 Days of Adventure was a well-conducted clinical trial, but it was a trial with a positive outcome and, like James Lind’s scientific successors, I can work backwards to isolate the elements of the trial that supported its happy ending.
Based on my reading of immortal business management truisms, two contenders for contributing elements of success spring to mind:
Public accountability thanks to this newsletter
Working with a well-defined and measurable goal
On closer reading, I’ve learned that both might well have done more harm than good.
1. Go public — but not too public
I’d assumed that, by talking about my goal in this newsletter, I was being held to account by nearly 300 discerning humans. And I thought that this was a good thing that would help me reach my goal.
Turns out that I was probably wrong.
A 1998 management study found that, while conditions of ‘low accountability’ improve goal performance, conditions of ‘high accountability’ merely encourage people to massage their public image, with no improvement in performance.
But is this newsletter helpful low accountability or damaging high accountability? Well, it’s hard to say for sure because I don’t have access to the paywalled academic papers…
But perhaps what this newsletter was helping me with was not accountability at all, but commitment.
Thanks to this newsletter, every week last year, I sat down with my calendar and counted up how many Days of Adventure I’d had in the past seven days. On the equinox and solstices, with the changing of every season, I also delved a little deeper and wrote a little more, reflecting on my progress towards my goal through the year.
Perhaps it was this regular commitment to the process that was helping me, rather than the sense that you lot were standing over me, tapping your rulers on the desk, waiting to punish or reward me.
This is certainly what I’ve found in the opening months of 2022. There was no fanfare at the end of 2021: there were no fireworks to celebrate my achievement. All that happened was that I moved onto a new page on my spreadsheet and started again from zero (now on nine).
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
2. Not so SMART
Some of you business types will immediately jump up and tell me why my process was successful: it was because I created a SMART goal.
The 100 Days of Adventure project was:
Specific. 100. Days. Adventure.
Measurable. A day either is or is not adventurous and when I hit 100, I’d hit my target.
Achievable. Before starting, I counted that I’d done 67 the year before, so 100 didn’t seem like too much of a stretch (as long as Covid played along).
Relevant. 100 Days of Adventure was totally aligned with my personal and professional values and priorities.
Time-bound. I knew exactly when to begin (1 January 2021) and when to end (31 December 2021).
But what if 100 Days of Adventure succeeded despite the smartness of the SMART acronym? After all, how specific was my definition of a Day of Adventure?
Not very, as it turns out.
My original definition is that a Day of Adventure is a day when I could answer the following question in the affirmative: ‘Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?’
I immediately followed up this definition with a weasly confession:
‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.
This definition did mature over the course of the year. At some point, I decided that three hours was unequivocally significant, but I still maintained that great adventures could be had in less and several, particularly as the end-of-year deadline drew closer, were more like two hours.
Compare this to the stringent requirements of the forty practice hikes that I have to log before I can take my professional Hill and Moorland Leader assessment. These require me to do at least four hours of walking time. No ambiguity there — particularly not when all my hikes are timed and logged automatically by GPS.
The lack of wiggle room in this qualification metric means that I missed the deadline for taking my assessment next week. I’ve been out on far more than forty hikes in the hills and moorlands of England, but, analysing the data, I fall six days short.
Although I’ve enjoyed every single practice hike that I’ve done, the reality is that, by the SMART goal measure, I have failed. And that failure makes me feel a bit crap.
But my deliberately, ostentatiously vague definition of a Day of Adventure meant that there was plenty of flexibility in my 2021 goal and — surprise, surprise — I completed the challenge and that made me feel bloody marvellous. What an accomplished human being I am, pat on the back for me!
Two outdoor challenges: one I can put down as a triump, the other I’m forced to consider a failure.
But here’s the thing: the two challenges were identical. By definition, any day that qualified as one of forty practice days for my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment was also one of my 100 Days of Adventure.
They were identical in every detail bar one: one of the goals wasn’t so SMART. And, confusingly, sometimes smart goals aren’t SMART goals.
Suppose I’d only managed 99 Days of Adventure in 2021. What would I have gained from that year of abject failure? Yes, that’s right — a whole heck of a lot!
Similarly, what have I gained so far from only completing 34 of 40 logged hikes for my Hill and Moorland assessment? Yes, that’s also right — a whole heck of a lot!
The flexibility of my definition of Days of Adventure encourages me to go outside and try something new.
The inflexibility of the professional definition of a Hill and Moorland qualifying hike means that I won’t go outside until I can guarantee at least four hours walking.
Last time I was on Dartmoor, I arrived extremely tired. I’d meant to do a four-hour hike that afternoon, but only managed a couple of hours before I quit.
The pressure of an inflexible goal kept me going longer than I should have and, when I got back to the bunkhouse, knowing that the deadline loomed, I went back over the past few years of hiking, desperately massaging the numbers, trying to convince myself that I was ready for assessment.
I was doing exactly what the literature told me I would do. Instead of improving my performance, this condition of high accountability was making me manipulate my public image — I was being lured into lying!
So I stopped scrolling through my hike logbook and went to bed instead.
A couple of quality hikes later, walking off Dartmoor, through the woods on the edge of Fernworthy reservoir, the sun jumping from leaf to leaf through the trees, the chill air plucking at the hair on my bare arms, I realised that I didn’t want this to end; I didn’t want to qualify; I didn’t want to finish my training.
SMART goals are time-bound. SMART goals end.
What more would I accomplish by rushing to accomplish this goal? Nothing. Nothing, no assessment, no qualification could top what the process consistently delivers: these moments of serenity in the woods and on the moors.
There will be no fanfare, no fireworks. All that must happen is to move onto a new page and start again from zero.
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
So, sitting in the car, the chewy scent of mud in my nostrils, I opened up my email and wrote to my assessor, telling him of my gleeful decision to cancel…
Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel famous for its paradoxes. It’s so iconic that the book’s title has become the technical term for a specific type of paradoxical situation in which we’re trapped by the circular logic of rules and regulations.
Catch-22 was inspired by the inexorable bureaucratic logic of war, where war itself is a paradox.
We don’t need long memories to remember preemptive or, even more absurdly, preventive war: wars fought to prevent wars. The US and UK justification of their invasion of Iraq in 2003 springs to mind.
But how can war prevent war?
The paradox deepens, of course. Less than three months into World War One, HG Wells published a book describing that conflict as The War That Will End War:
[It] is a grim satisfaction in our discomforts that we can at last look across the roar and torment of battlefields to the possibility of an organised peace. For this is now a war for peace.
Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!
But how can a war end war? How can nations wage war for peace?
History tells that the peace won by Wells’ paradoxical war lasted barely twenty years. Among the ruins of the World War Two, another author stretched the paradox.
After George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, wars are no longer fought for peace. Now, according to the doublethink doctrine, ‘war is peace’. Perpetual conflict abroad is the easiest way for a government disinterested in social progress to foster a distracted sense that all is well at home.
The paradoxical logic of the military-industrial complex
It’s no coincidence that both ‘catch-22’ and ‘doublethink’ have entered the modern lexicon.
We are, all of us, too familiar with the inexorable bureaucratic logic of the military-industrial complex that has become an invisible motor running in the background of our societies.
That motor may be invisible to many of us today, but in 1961 — the year Catch-22 was published — it was evident as a growing threat to liberty and democratic process.
Those are not my words, but the words of President Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two and one of the prime architects of D-Day:
[We] must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.
Living inside the paradox
For anyone who doubts the modern relevance of these military-industrial paradoxes, ponder for a moment which side of the paradox you’re living through.
The war or the peace? The security or the liberty? The paradox or the logic?
Are you the crazy Orr, blythly flying deadly missions when you could be grounded? Or are you the sane Yossarian, flying deadly missions in terror that ‘they’re trying to kill you’.
Maybe you can’t feel the edges of the paradox because your reality persists entirely on the side of the happy-go-lucky.
It’s probably easiest to illustrate with an example. You’ll have your favourites, but here’s one that’s often on my mind.
Consider the paradox of the asylum seeker.
On one side of the paradox, refugees arriving in the UK after fleeing conflict or persecution will, in the grandiose name of Great British justice, be granted asylum.
Asylum seekers should be welcomed and immediately expelled.
War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.
We are the catch
Of course, the kicker is that, in Heller’s novel, Yossarian comes to realise that the regulatory trap of Catch-22 is a trap of our own imagination:
Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.
The paradoxes of seeking asylum are not entirely traps of imagination. Unlike Yossarian, we do have a text we must ridicule, refute, accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon and / or burn up.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is still being debated by the Lords. If you are a Lord, please choose at least three of Yossarian’s verbs and apply them most vigorously to the infamous text before you.
But, even if you are not a Lord, we are all responsible for the collective imagery of the multiple Catch-22s that appear in stories like ‘some humans are illegal’, ‘the unemployed are a drain on our national resources’ and in any number of doublethink bureaucratic snares whose teeth are invisible to those of us lucky enough to exist entirely in the land of the happy-go-lucky.
I don’t have any big and clever ways out of the paradox. Except to remember that human affairs are perhaps best described by Shakespeare’s Romeo, using, of course, paradox:
Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
Where you go from here is up to you. Are you crazy enough to be grounded? Are you sane enough to keep flying? Is the answer to this question ‘no’?
Since I bought The Corollavirus back in March, I’ve driven 4883 miles. This has cost me about £777 in petrol, racking up a carbon debt of about 968kg CO2e compared to similar journeys on public transport. It’d take 44 mature trees a year to absorb these new emissions. That’s a whole copse worth.
In monetary terms, I’ve worked out that the unembedded carbon cost of my 4883 driving miles is £480. More to come on this calculation in a future email — along with where I’m going to invest that money for maximal positive environmental impact.
Even if negative emission technologies are a huge success, we must still make far-reaching changes to our societies and our economies. And, of course, there is no guarantee that negative emissions technologies will be a huge success.
If it passes without amendment, our government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.
Dylan’s finest albums by decade: Bringing It All Back Home (1965, 84% perfect), Blood On The Tracks (1975, 88%), Oh Mercy (1989, 63%), Time Out of Mind (1997, 56%), Modern Times (2006, 50%), Tempest (2012, 40%), Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020, 30%).
Writing a diary keeps me sane. I’ve written in excess of 223,000 words in my journal this year.
I use the wonderful novel-writing software yWriter to store my diaries and, since 2010, I’ve amassed more than 2.7 million words for future historians to sift through in bewilderment.
Above all, I’ve learned (again and again) that the discipline, creativity and curiosity of sharing this newsletter with you is not only good for my heart and soul, but that so many of you generous humans love it too!
Thank you for sharing some of those 8,744 hours with me. Thank you for hitting reply or posting a comment and telling me what moves you. Thank you for sharing these words with your friends and for helping this newsletter grow.
Most of all, thank you for helping everyone through a year of resilience and adventure.
I look forward to seeing what becomes of 2022 and I hope you’ll join me there.
Over the past few years, I’ve become a much more qualified arsonist.
Back in 2009, I remember footling around with a grate and some matches for about three hours, before a consummate fire-starter dragged a toothpick along an emery board for an instant conflagration.
Here are a few of the cheats I use today:
Cotton wool balls rubbed in Vaseline make for excellent lightweight, multi-purpose and fragrance-free starter fuel.
Stop using cigarette lighters and matches. Start using a torch. Not those kind of torches. These kind of torches, the ones with a steady, focussed blue flame that you might use to cremate a crème brulée. I’ve started fires with wet tinder using this. Definitely cheating.
Use an axe, penknife or saw to cut your fuel down to the right size for whatever stage of fire building you’re at. From bundles of finger-width twigs to hefts of wood block.
Make sure there is enough draft under your fuel. Oxygen is the forgotten force in the fire trinity of fuel, heat and air.
Don’t waste your breath on breathing life into your baby fire. Fan the flickers by using a piece of card, a scrap of bark, a book or even a t-shirt. You’ll get a much steadier draft and won’t pass out from smoke inhalation.
Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).
The Chocolate Phase
The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.
The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.
Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.
The Eating Phase
Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.
In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.
They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.
We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!
Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than, say, your shins, but this doesn’t translate to more rapid cooling from an un-hatted bonce.
However: if the rest of your body is well-insulated with woolly jumpers and thermals, then — yes! — the absence of a similarly-insulated noggin will result in a surprisingly rapid drop in your core temperature. But, I repeat, this is only if the rest of you is wrapped up warm.
A cold head alone doesn’t trigger the shiver reflex (which slows the rate of cooling). Strange, but true.
There are a lot of blood vessels very close to the surface of your scalp and face. When exposed to cold air, the blood passing through your scalp cools quickly and this cold blood gets pumped around the rest of your body. Brr.
Even when I don’t have a cold, I sneeze a lot. It seems to happen as a reflex response to getting a bit chilly, particularly my feet. And then, sometimes, the sneezing doesn’t stop.
As I spent the week on Dartmoor, I, and particularly my feet, got cold. During the course of a beautiful four and half hour walk on Thursday, I sneezed a grand total of eighty times.
There would appear to be two possible explanations for my heroic record of sternutation (you didn’t think that medicine would call a sneeze a sneeze, did you?):
The trigeminal nerve in my nose is hyper-sensitive to stimulation (in this case, fluctuations in temperature).
The sneezing centre in my brain’s lateral medulla has a low threshold for triggering explosive exhalations.
I could perhaps moderate the first using a steroid nasal spray. The second might have developed as a result of a work-shy allergy to dust and might be influenceable by some kind of Jedi mind trick?
Frankly, I’m speculating / making things up. Let’s get back to the science.
Counting one’s bless-you-ings
I’m a huge fan of The Boring Talks and, as a sneezer, the most memorable for me is #11: Sneezing.
It’s narrated by Peter Fletcher, a man who logged every single sneeze he ever snozed between July 2007 and June 2018.
To take my mind off my explosive sternutations, I decided to give Sneezing another listen.
I was shocked to discover that I sneezed more times on Thursday than sneeze-meister-general Peter Fletcher ever recorded in a month across eleven years of monitoring (95 in March 2008).
My twenty-four hour sneeze count topped out at 127.
You can see from this chart that peak sternutation occured while walking the windy wilds of Dartmoor, between about 10am and 3pm, before settling down in front of the cosy bunkhouse fire and stopping completely after I fell asleep.
During non-REM sleep, our cerebral cortex and thalamus get together to massively raise the waking threshold for incoming stimuli. Without registering the irritating stimulus, there is no sneeze reflex.
During REM sleep, we also go into a state called REM atonia, during which our motor neurons are inactive. As sneezing is a physical reflex, this sleep paralysis prevents the coordination of muscles necessary for a jolly good wachoo.
If, while you were soundly sleeping, I were to tap your knee with one of those silly little hammers, you’d just lie there and take it. (Unless I give you a proper whack, that is.) No reflexes; no sneezes. Mercifully.
How often does the average person sneeze??
It turns out that my epic sneeze count means that I am in high demand. At least, I would be over on Sneeze Fetish Forum. Oh yes. There’s a forum for everything.
After all, the great poet Homer once sang of the mighty sneeze of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and of how patient Penelope interpreted this awesome sternutation as a divine omen that her depraved suitors would be vanquished by the mysterious stranger:
Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, ‘Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.’
So next time you see me, tremble before my almighty sternutations and weep!
This segment is inspired by two superb newsletters that dropped earlier this week. So before I go any further, hats off to Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing and to Nikita Petrov of Psychopolitica.
Todays newsletter is about the stories we tell each other about current affairs — popularly known as ‘the news’.
First up: the Metaverse.
Did you see this? If not, I’ll let Mike Sowden do the dirty work of introducing you to what can only be credibly comprehended as the feverish gibberings of Mark Zuckerberg in the afterglow of a wet dream:
A few days ago, Facebook’s parent company (also called Facebook) changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video outlining his vision for what he calls the Metaverse: a seamless network of virtual experiences that’ll try to create the perpetual illusion you’re “inside” the Internet while you’re online.
The Metaverse is full of ideas like virtual businesses running on Zuckerberg-owned cryptocurrency, cartoon avatars slightly more handsome than you, virtual screens that float in front of your face and augmented reality glasses.
Zuckerberg reckons this Metaverse is about 10-15 years away.
Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space — or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.
Because god forbid that you’d want to ever actually leave the Metaverse. After all, inside your own private bubble, no one can hear you scream.
The beauty of ignorance
I don’t know how you learned about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse announcement (maybe it’s from me, right now — the honour!), but I’m glad I got the news from Mike Sowden because, for a newsletter with the title Everything Is Amazing, the Metaverse comes as an existential threat.
It’s not just that a Zuckerberg-designed virtual reality is a terrifyingly advertising-strewn prospect, it’s that it will be bounded by human limitation in a way that reality reality is not.
In a virtual universe designed by humans, by definition, humans know everything. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.
I’ll leave you with Mike’s beautiful conclusion:
Virtual worlds are most definitely designed by humans. This means they’re limited to what the human imagination is capable of cooking up, and the human-made computing hardware that can make it happen. In every way, a virtual world is anthropocentric. It’s by, & for, human beings.
The actual world, on the other hand, has a wonderful and occasionally disturbing tendency to ignore our wishes and surprise us in its unfathomable complexity, boundless novelty and awe-inspiring beauty. It is a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of, and most days, that’s kinda why life is worth living.
REALITY: The antidote
The antidote to the Metaverse, as Mike Sowden suggests, is reality. But perhaps not the REALITY of Nikita Petrov, author of the Psychopolitica newsletter.
Petrov’s REALITY is a work-in-progress YouTube show in which the most outrageous news stories of the day are read out in a dispassionate voice by an alien Bodhisattva journalist.
Jan Zimmermann, the YouTuber in question, launched their channel in February 2019. According to psychiatrists at Hanover Medical School, Zimmermann’s videos are peppered with ‘countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours’ that he claims are tics caused by Tourette syndrome.
The only issue is that these tics are only stereotyped ‘mimics’ of symptoms that ‘lay people typically associate with Tourette syndrome’.
Yet Zimmermann’s atypical behaviour is being copied by teenagers in Germany, UK, US, Denmark, France, and Canada, making it an illness seemingly induced by the viewing of entertaining YouTube videos.
Flying sharks and stress relief
This is how the Hanover psychiatrists introduce the new illness:
Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.
These teenagers basically start acting up when confronted with disfavoured tasks like schoolwork.
All patients presented with nearly identical movements and vocalizations that not only resemble Jan Zimmermann’s symptoms, but partly are exactly the same such as shouting the German words … “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks) as well as bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the Tourette-like behaviours mysteriously disappear when the teenagers are engaged in more pleasurable tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, maybe…
According to the Hanover psychiatrists, these behavioural tics are a response to societal stress:
They can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.
These stories are all very interesting, but what’s the point?
Good question. This segment has two points. The first point is that I heard the news of both the Metaverse announcement and the new social media-induced functional Tourette syndrome contagion from non-traditional news sources.
This made me reflect on the stories we tell each other about current affairs (AKA ‘the news’).
I’ve chosen to trust these two writers with telling me their news stories and both arrived directly into my inbox. I’ve been subscribed to Psychopolitica for over a year now, whereas this was my first edition of Everything Is Amazing.
Mike Sowden’s story, about technology in the shadow of climate change, is a desperate appeal to fall in love with reality reality again — before it’s too late.
Broadly speaking, Nikita Petrov’s REALITY is a satire on newscasting, but the story he’s chosen to read is a dispassionate account of what can happen (functional Tourette syndrome) when we mistake artifice (the YouTube storytelling of Jan Zimmermann) for reality.
Stories — whether wittingly or unwittingly — teach us lessons and both of these are lessons worth learning and re-learning.
I’ve been following my no news diet for five years now and these are the questions I ask myself on the regular:
Who are you letting tell you the news? Are these active or passive choices? Signing up to the newsletter of a trusted writer: active. Listening to the 5-minute news segments that appear between songs on a radio station: passive.
What kind of stories are they telling? You can even pin down the genre: is this a horror story? A thriller? A rom-com? A tragedy? A farce?
What lessons are you learning? This might take some digging because, as Nikita Petrov shows us, the storytelling of journalism is often concealed behind a supposedly dispassionate delivery.
How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel alienated?
That’s the first point of this segment. The second point is simply to say thank you for allowing me the privilege of telling you the news today.
As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:
Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?
There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.
I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.
Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:
Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.
Kiwis, lambs and apples
‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’
I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.
But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.
Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.
This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.
An apple a day…
Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)
The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.
As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.
This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.
Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.
(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)
But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?
To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.
Coconuts versus the climate
According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.
How can this be true?
Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.
That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.
You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.
But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.
Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.
Fooled by paddy fields
On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.
In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.
Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.
Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.
Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.
Deadlines are great. They’re the reason why I’ve sent this email every week for the past six years. They’re the reason why, at the halfway mark, I’d only bagged 28 of my 100 Days of Adventure — four months later, with time running out, I’m on 81.
Deadlines are the reason why Beth and I have written an Edinburgh show and four series of radio comedy — and the reason why the beginning of our writing process is so expansive and the final weeks so intense.
Deadlines are great because they generate a scarcity, in this case, of time. Humans respond to scarcity with hyperfocus. When you’re trying to complete a project, this hyperfocus is really useful.
(Unless you’re Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’)
When good deadlines go bad
But hyperfocus comes at a heavy cost. Under conditions of scarcity, we enter a single-minded tunnel that excludes everything outside our immediate goal.
In the blinding heat of those final weeks before a deadline, we get the work done, we get the script finished — but when we come up for air and our tunnel vision fades away, we realise that we’ve neglected our diet, sleep, exercise, electricity bills, friends, family and houseplants.
Basically, everything that isn’t scriptwriting goes to shit.
And this isn’t just the experience of a hapless scriptwriter; this is a replicable scientific observation.
That clever book is called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, written by two clever people: psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan.
In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Shafir explains that the pair started out with the assumption that the money-poor were neither perfectly rational economists (none of us are) nor that they are uniquely afflicted by stupidity, loose morals and myopic planning (that’s all of us).
They believed there was something else going on…
Over time, we started getting more data and observing cases where the poor seemed to be making more extreme errors than those with greater means. That gradually led us to the idea that there’s a very particular psychology that emerges when we don’t have enough and that this psychology leads to very bad outcomes.
Very particular psychology
Just like busy people under deadline start to neglect their houseplants (I’m so sorry!), people who are money-poor become hyperfocussed on their economic situation and start to neglect the spheres of life that float outside their tunnelled vision.
The stark difference is that my deadline will come and go, but it’s much, much harder to get out of poverty.
This matters — a lot — because, according to the research, the cognitive penalty of living with a scarcity mindset is a temporary penalty of ten IQ points. Ouch.
All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all or most of the time. Understanding the particular psychology of scarcity is slightly terrifying, but it also enables a leap of empathy.
As Shafir says:
What’s most striking is that these findings make a very strong case for the idea that people who look very bad in conditions of scarcity are just as capable as the rest of us when scarcity does not impose itself on their minds.
So the next time someone says or does something stupid, maybe ask if they’re worried about paying a parking fine or meeting a deadline.
Cut them some slack.
Exploiting scarcity with my 100 Days of Adventure experiment
I’m already well past the 67 Days of Adventure of last year and, thanks to the self-imposed scarcity of the deadline, I feel genuinely motivated to somehow wring another nineteen Days of Adventure from the dirty dishcloth of 2021.
Bearing in mind that I’d only managed to collect a quarter of the adventures by the end of June, I think I’m doing bloody well.
I could find excuses for the slow start — a lockdown, winter weather — but the same thing probably would have happened under any conditions. That’s how deadlines work: we fritter away our time during periods of abundance and only when time is running out do we knuckle down and commit to completing the project.
One solution to the last minute panic effect could be to make the deadlines come around quicker. Rather than giving myself a year-long deadline, I could work in seasons of three months each, perhaps aiming for 40 Days of X.
This is actually a much stiffer target (160 days over a year), but with more regular deadlines I will be held more closely accountable. There’ll still be last minute panic, but the panic will be less daunting. Maybe.
Whatever I end up doing, I’ll definitely be reporting my progress in this newsletter. Having a public forum of accountability is almost as good as having a deadline!
There are only seventy days left in 2021. Cast your mind back to January. What did you have planned for this year that you haven’t finished yet?
It’s been a busy first week here in Cardiff. Mushroom-picking, market-hopping, Greek-nighting, poker-dealing, date-walking, theatre-laughing, frisbee-throwing and, of course, play-writing. I might have ended up lying in bed with a pulled hamstring, but it’s been a well-worthwhile week of most living.
what counts is not the best living but the most living
As an absurdist, Camus found it impossible to pin down a single ‘correct’ way to live. To summarise his philosophy:
Humans like us are desperate to find meaning in our lives, to give us a clear direction, to tell us the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, the Universe doesn’t give a shit. There is no ‘right thing’ to do with our lives. No right and no wrong. Else how could the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of the ancient Greeks (think the honourable blood-feuds of Achilles) follow a code of living so starkly different to the code followed by the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of today (think the rapacious avarice of Jeff Bezos)?
Without rules, life, therefore, is absurd. So, rather than struggle with the wretched task of perfecting our ‘best lives’, the logical response to existence is to pack our brief conscious flowering with as much experience as possible. Ergo: choose most living over best living.
Camus uses the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate the logic of absurdity.
According to legend, Sisyphus had a persistent habit of irritating the gods. After escaping the Underworld not once but twice, Sisyphus was eventually brought to justice and sentenced to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a steep mountain.
Shortly before Sisyphus reaches the summit, however, the enchanted boulder slips from his grasp and rolls right back down to the bottom, where the whole charade resets and resumes. Forever and ever. If the myth is to be believed, Sisyphus is still out there today, shoulder to boulder.
Camus argues that it wouldn’t take too many mountain reps for Sisyphus to realise he is being pranked by the gods. Knowledge of his eternal fate matures into acceptance and, far from being a source of despair, Sisyphus’ acceptance of the absurdity of his unique struggle becomes meaningful.
Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.
Human life, for Camus, is as absurd as Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity. Once we accept that inherent absurdity, our struggles are no longer so desperate. They can become joyful.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
You might think that this is a bit extreme, but Camus’s theoretical musings are paralleled in the couldn’t-be-more-practical experience of Holocaust-surviving psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity … to add a deeper meaning to his life.
Of course, acceptance of the struggle is only the beginning. Atop this foundation, both Camus and Frankl build the possibility for lives rich in more traditional human virtues, such as creativity, love and frisbee.
But such most living begins with the acceptance of the absurdity of best living, so let’s join Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain, put shoulder to boulder, and laugh.
I was feeling pretty good that I hadn’t needed to use mine for a Vernian eighty days and got a wonderful cosy feeling when, on clunk-clicking the door on Wednesday morning, I found the interior covered in cobwebs.
But the Corollavirus didn’t feel the same. He wouldn’t start. So, for the second time since I took ownership six months ago, I had to call out the breakdown mechanics because I hadn’t been using up enough fossil fuels to keep the vehicle functioning.
Luckily, the mechanic sorted me out within half an hour and I managed to get to the Chilterns for the above-mentioned work.
But then I had the temerity to drive home. At night. With the headlights on. Ever since, the battery has given me not a flicker.
Somebody told me that I need a trickle charger. But I suspect a better solution would be to sell the car…
The redistribution of public space is a policy of social redistribution.
Fifty percent of public space is occupied by private cars, which are used mostly by the richest, and mostly by men, because it’s mostly men who drive, and so in total, the richest men are using half the public space.
So if we give the space to walking, biking, and public transit, you give back public space to the categories of people who today are deprived.
While walking the Jurassic Coast last weekend, I had an idea for how to think about sharing our lives with others.
PPF3 is an awful acronym that stands for Past, Present, Future and Far Future. The idea is simply to exchange with your interlocutor one meaningful memory, moment, occurrence, coincidence, problem, hope, fear, ambition, dream, day-dream or impossible dream from each of these time periods.
In doing so, I think we’d learn a lot about what’s really important to each other. Maybe in ways that wouldn’t come out in normal conversation.
Here’s something I might share:
PAST: It’s amazing to remember that I once cycled over four thousand miles around the whole of Britain. It feels like I’ve seen everything—and nothing.
PRESENT: I’m really lucky that I get paid for hiking around the countryside with funny/interesting/weird young people. Facilitating those encounters between human and nature feels like worthwhile work. The problem is how to extend this to schools who can’t afford to hire the company I work for.
FUTURE: One day, I’d like to run free outdoor experiences (hiking? cycling? running? camping? firelighting?!) for people typically excluded from the outdoors. Given my background, refugees would be an obvious starting point.
FAR FUTURE: I’d like to be involved in a project that finally bans cars from town centres and plants forests over all the concrete car parks.
Although Invisible Women supplies women with an enormous cache of ammunition to use to fight for justice at home and at work, the people who really need this book are men.
I say this after a conversation about the book with a female friend who said that she found the book rather repetitive: each chapter—excellent in isolation—drills home the same central idea over and over and over again: that there is a systematic gender data gap that not only inconveniences women, but actually kills them.
I observed that repetition into submission is exactly what men will need before they’ll get the message.
I imagine that a lot of women will find Perez’s barrage of statistics tremendously validating, but I don’t think many women will be surprised to learn that, globally, females do twice the unpaid childcare work and four times the unpaid housework compared to their male counterparts.
Nor will it comes as a surprise to women that this unpaid care work, irrefutably essential for the smooth running of society, is not accounted for when designing transport systems, workplaces and public services. Bus routes that don’t connect the places women need to go, insufficient and poorly paid care leave, a tax regime that penalises women’s economic activity.
None of this will come as a surprise to any human woman—and that’s kind of the point of the book.
The gender data gap is there because fifty percent of data isn’t collected and fifty percent of stories aren’t told. The pervasive ‘default male’ approach scientific research, product design, news media and the arts means that, most often, women simply aren’t consulted.
I could rant on, but I’ll leave you with one powerful contrast that nimbly demonstrates the yawning gap between women’s experience and the design of our societies.
‘Staring, touching, groping, ejaculation, exposing genitalia and full rape’: women get sexually harassed on public transport. A lot. A 2016 survey of 6,000 French women found that 90 percent had been victims of sexual harassment while travelling on public transport.
From conversations with female friends, I knew that men had a serious problem with sexual violence on public transport, but I had never truly grasped the extent of our problem. I’m beginning to now.
The powerful contrast that Perez draws is this: although I’m better informed about sexual violence against women on public transport, I still have no idea how to go about reporting this criminal behaviour. For a violation so serious and affecting so many people, I have never once seen any public information posters or heard any announcements telling victims and witnesses what to do.
This lack of clear information goes part way to explaining why, according to Transport for London’s estimates, ‘90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported’.
On the other hand, as Perez points out:
Most authorities seem to have managed to install clear signage about what to do in the event of spotting a suspicious package.
In the case of the UK’s ‘See it, say it, sort it’ anti-terrorism campaign, with its frequent loud announcements at every train station and on every train, it’s almost impossible to evade knowledge of what to do.
I would love to compare the number of victims of sexual violence with the number of victims of terrorist attacks on public transport over the past ten years. But I can’t because one of those statistics only affects women and thus isn’t properly collected.
Rather than terrifying the populace about the occasional abandoned backpack, our society would be much better served by public information campaigns that aim to eliminate the constant daily abuse suffered by half our population.
I took far too many books away with me this week, including three about the people and places of Dartmoor—but I only read one: Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.
Newport’s provocation was supported, not only by numerous case studies of organisations that have eliminated email, but also by psychology research and, most interestingly for me, history.
I was startled, for example, by the discovery that email overwhelm and inbox bankruptcy wasn’t merely latent in the system, but already evident from the very beginning, as this anecdote from the book shows.
When Adrian Stone implemented the new email network at IBM in the 1980s, he carefully estimated the number of emails that the server would need to handle, based on the number of telephone and paper messages that were passed between IBM employees on a typical working day.
Email was seen as a significant leap in efficiency for the company, removing the logistical complications of both synchronous communication (pinning someone down for a phone call or meeting) and asynchronous communication (delivering a pen and paper message).
Unfortunately, as the cost of communication dropped to zero, the number of messages the employees exchanged shot up and, within a few days, they’d blown the email server with the superfluous cc’ing of colleagues into endless back-and-forth email threads. Sound familiar?
As Stone puts it:
Thus—in a mere week or so—was gained and blown the potential productivity gain of email.
When IBM discovered this fundamental flaw with email, of course, they abandoned the experiment and everyone went back to communicating face-to-face, person-to-person in the old, slow, productive fashion. Oh, no, wait…
Luckily, in the second half of A World Without Email, Newport suggests alternative workflows that don’t provoke the misery-inducing ‘hyperactive hive mind’ of email and instant messaging.
I’m conscious of the irony of recommending this book in an email newsletter, so—before you unsubscribe—it’s worth saying that the title of Newport’s book is, by his own admission, more marketing hype than practical proposal.
Email still has a (drastically limited) role to play as a versatile, snappy, cheap tool for asynchronous communication. Inspired by the Reach Out Party, if I could declare one inviolable rule for every email interaction, it would be this:
Make your recipient’s inbox a better place to hang out.
The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.
WARNING: STATS AHEAD!
In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.
I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.
Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.
I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.
I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.
I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…
I feel bad about the car, actually.
(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)
Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.
They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.
It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.
This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.
(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)
Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.
‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.
As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.
I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.
(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)
To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.
So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)
(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)
Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.
As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:
Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…
(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)
But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?
Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.
The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.
This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.
Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.
You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.
Yesterday, at exactly 14:27, I sent an email to Alee Denham at CyclingAbout to say thank you for his articles about bicycle aerodynamics and touring weight. The internet is ram-packed with incredible writing that helps me make thousands of daily decisions and occasionally changes the course of my life. It felt good to say thank you.
For the past three weeks, at exactly 14:27 every work day, I have been privileged to be a part of the Reach Out Party, a Zoom room of people encouraging each other to send little gifts to friends, colleagues and total strangers. Total strangers like Alee Denham.
It might not sound particularly exciting, but there is real magic in knowing that almost everyone on planet earth—from your auntie Jean to your head of state—is only an email away.
What one question would you ask your first primary school teacher?
What is the greatest piece of advice football megastar Megan Rapinoe ever heard?
What is the one book that David Attenborough would bury in a time capsule for future generations?
Thanks to email (and social media, the telephone, postal service, etc.), we can—we really can—ask burning questions of the people we most admire. They might not reply, but that’s why the Reach Out Party is based primarily around the idea of giving gifts.
Our email inboxes are frequently little more than ‘a to do list that anyone can add to’, so Molly Beck and Carly Valancy, founders of the Reach Out Party, suggest we premise our reach outs on the following question:
How can I make so-and-so’s inbox a better place?
We have the power to make each other’s inboxes healthier, happier places: let’s use that power.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve sent emails to all kinds of people. As well as thanking Alee Denham, George Monbiot, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Andy Zaltzman, I’ve also emailed and messaged friends, particularly friends I haven’t heard from in a while.
My favourite response so far was actually my first ever reach out. I emailed Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, thanking her for the influence her book had on my career swerve towards outdoor work.
A few hours after sending the email, Florence replied—she replied!—saying that my email had made her day—had made her day!
Although most of these ‘cool reach outs’ to strangers haven’t had a reply (yet!), the past few weeks have shown me that a day with a reach out is better than a day without a reach out. It’s as simple as that.
Rather than typing words with my fingers, I made this video about my reach out experiences during week one of the Party. Enjoy!
Or: Wages ~ immorality: Stating the obvious, part XVI
It’s hard to tell how much statistical cherry-picking has gone on here, but this is still probably the second greatest graph I have ever seen in my life:
The graph is taken from an economics paper published last year that found, predictably enough, that most people have to be paid more to do work that is perceived as being immoral. A finding that is simultaneously heartening (that they do) and depressing (that they still do the work).
In another victory for stating the obvious, the researchers also found that corporate sociopaths were more likely to work in sociopathic corporations. From the abstract:
We also measure individuals’ aversion to performing immoral acts and show that those who find immoral behaviour least aversive are more likely to be employed in immoral work.
If there is a take-home message for those of us more generally averse to immoral behaviour, perhaps it is this: frowning and tutting isn’t enough.
Last weekend, I did a marathon. Not all in one go—that would be such hard work—but I did cover 46 kilometers in the 48 hours I granted myself as time off. (Don’t ask me off what?)
There wasn’t any good reason for the Weekend Marathon, aside from a desperate need to spend some time outside the box, doing something active, something new that stands half a chance of standing out in the time swamp.
That’s the same reason why I’m going to cut my own hair later tonight: something needs to change around here and I’ve already reorganised my spice rack.
You see, yesterday marked a year since a remarkable night on Merseyside, when Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Athletico Madrid.
It was remarkable not because of the astonishing number of shots missed by the Reds (32), but because of the 52,267 people crammed into Anfield, including thousands from Madrid only two days before the Spanish government declared a national State of Alarm over this thing we rather quaintly called Wuhan Novel Coronavirus.
The UK government would fatally wait ten days longer to annouce our own lockdown, but I’m not concerned here with their incompetence. I’m concerned with the state of your brain. In the UK, for most of us, it’s a year since our brains were challenged with the everyday normality of negotiating the world.
A year of ‘mild cognitive impairment’
It’s easy to forget how much our brains need normality. It’s easy to forget how much our brains get out of navigating street traffic on the walk to work. It’s easy to forget how much exercise our brains get in awkward social situations. Heck—it’s straight-up easy to forget.
That’s why we’ve spent lockdown frantically picking up new hobbies and hurling ourselves into pointless challenges like my weekend marathon, right? As neuroscientist Mike Yassa says:
Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty.
Everyone’s a runner now and everyone’s got their lockdown thing: knitting, veganism, family history, ukelele, cryptocurrency, kimchi, drawing, baby-making, gardening, podcasting, online poker, online yoga, online dating, online anything, please god, no more online anything.
Whatever you’ve got into over the past year, it’s given you a chance to tap into the beginner’s mind: that healthy headspace where you give yourself permission to fail hard and learn hasty.
And there is no hastier fail curve than slamming your body onto concrete and taking pratfalls in public. I’m talking, of course, about the art of skateboarding.
Skate at 38
You may say that 38 is too old to learn how to skateboard. You may say that my sense of equilibrium is shot, that my bones are too fragile and my courage too frail. And you would be right. But no one forgets a bruise: they are an excellent way of marking the time to unlockdown.
My skateboard came from the back of a cupboard in Dulwich, a relic of flatmates long-gone. When I took it to a skateshop in Boscombe last weekend, the shopkeeper nodded: whoever had owned the board knew how to skate. The nose, the tail beat up in memory of far-off skateparks, the trucks scarred from years of railing.
Time hadn’t been good to the bearings: the wheels barely turned. That wasn’t a bad thing for a beginner, who could never build up enough speed to fall too hard. But I got them replaced anyway, and bought some fatter wheels to give much-needed stability.
Since then, I’ve been skating most days, including a fair few kilometers of that weekend marathon. The slips and falls have become notably less frequent and I’ve started learning to ollie in my kitchen, as I wait for the kettle to boil. (Progress so far: I can almost balance with both feet and all four wheels on the floor.)
Learning in public
Skating is perhaps unique in its possibilities for public embarrassment. Thanks to its well-known California-inspired subculture, people expect skaters to look cool. The British, however, have a highly developed sense of hubris and I suspect most people secretly hope to see something spectacular and exceedingly uncool.
I am usually happy to oblige. It’s okay, I tell myself as I admire once again the sheer speed at which my board can disappear from beneath me, I am Learning In Public.
As well as publicly learning how to fall spectacularly (tip: buy wrist guards), I have also learned how to get the board moving, how to ‘carve’ around gentle corners and obvious obstacles, how to stop without always throwing myself into the undergrowth and how to annoy dogs (that one’s easy: skate). I am yet to learn how to stop crapping myself on even the gentlest of downhills.
Why am I telling you all this? Simply in the hope that it encourages you with the small idea that, even in these slumbrous hours of late-stage pandemic survival, the beginner’s mind can lift our spirits, make our days stand out on stalks, and help lockdown leave its mark in a good way. And also in a bruises way. Rad!
Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?
It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.
If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!
Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies
For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.
This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.
Don’t be shy to add protein
Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.
In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.
Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.
It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.
I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.
Eat these superfoods every day
One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.
For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.
Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.
A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.
Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.
Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.
As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.
More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.
Step Two: What does the blood say?
Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.
Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!
I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:
I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.
It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.
Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.
However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.
Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.
Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?
It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?
Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.
Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.
One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.
However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!
I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.
The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.
Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!
After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.
Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?
B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.
At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.
Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.
The word of the day is Waldumrauscht, a rare German word found in the 1854 dictionary of the Brothers Grimm. Appropriately enough for lexicologists famous for their collection of fairy tales, Waldumrauscht means to be surrounded by a rustling forest.
I learned this word from Heimat by Nora Krug, a graphic memoir about a German family coming to terms with the shame of World War Two. I was surprised to read that the author, now living in New York, still encounters mistrust and prejudice and still feels a strong sense of personal shame.
Whenever I travelled abroad as a teenager, my guilt travelled with me. ‘Just say you’re from the Netherlands,’ my aunt Karin told me before each trip. I should have taken her advice. […] It doesn’t help that […] I am spat at while speaking German with a friend in a Russian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, or that an American fellow student at the school where I study refers to another as a ‘Jewish pig’ behind her back, hoping for my German sympathy.
I was surprised because, when I searched my soul, whatever vestiges of blood guilt that run through the decades have been washed away by more recent history: the compassion shown by German politicians towards refugees since 2015, the drive towards decarbonisation of the world’s fourth largest economy, and of course the overwhelming kindness that I have always received while travelling through the forests of Germany.
Recounting the history of the tragic past is important because it gives us the determination to write happier histories for now, for the future.
On Tuesday, I took the mobile version of my WordPress blog from a Google PageSpeed score of 65% (super slow) to an almost perfect 99% (super fast).
The only thing that Google has left to suggest is that I upgrade my server. Awesome. What’s even more awesome, is that this leap in speed took me barely fifteen minutes and, by following this short guide, you can do it even faster.
Before I dive in to show you exactly what I did to improve my blog speed, I want to quickly explain why I wanted to up my PageSpeed score.
Why go faster?
Quite simply: Google uses PageSpeed to decide where to rank your site on its search pages. Annoying, but totally fair enough: their business depends on giving users the best possible search results.
Most of that comes down to the quality of your content, but the user experience on your page is also important. How many times do you click away from a site because it takes forever to load? If your site is one of those, you will slink, slip and slump down the rankings.
I’ll keep an eye on my stats to see if I start to creep up Google’s search rankings now I’ve got world-beating site speed. But even if I don’t, all my readers (and me) benefit from a much, much improved experience.
Okay, so now on with the how-to.
How to convert your slow WordPress site to superfast AMP
Time: 5 minutes
Difficulty: 🛠️ (Ridiculously easy)
Potential PageSpeed Boost: +15
AMP is an open-source HTML framework that makes webpages load faster. Much faster. Especially on mobile devices.
Converting my site to AMP resulted in a huge boost (+15) to my Google PageSpeed mobile score. It made no difference to how my site looked to readers, only that the pages were loading almost instantly. Best of all, the conversion to AMP was incredibly simple.
NOTE: I initially went for the ‘Reader’ template mode, which generates both AMP and non-AMP pages for your site. This was because the AMP Settings Wizard told me that my theme (TwentyFifteen) was incompatible with AMP. This turned out to be untrue, so I switched the template mode to Standard. My site is now 100% AMP.
How to remove pointless Google Fonts
Time: 5 minutes
Difficulty: 🛠️ (Ridiculously easy)
Potential PageSpeed Boost: +10
Most WordPress themes include a few Google Fonts by default. In theory, all this does is make your site look 0.5% prettier. In practice, because these fonts need to load before your site displays properly, your readers have to wait around for an extra second or so.
Annoyingly, there is no way to remove Google Fonts without getting very technical (trust me, I learned this the hard way). Luckily, clever people on the internet have created plugins to do the work for you. I used one called OMGF.
How to find unexpected speed gains within WordPress
Time: 5 minutes
Difficulty: 🛠️🛠️ (A tiny bit harder)
Potential PageSpeed Boost: +5
Hopefully by now your WordPress site is enjoying some pretty sensational speeds. I found another few Google PageSpeed points by sniffing around the ‘Opportunities’ section of my PageSpeed results.
Depending on your site, this might require a little ingenuity and detective work on your part. But here are two very easy things that anyone can do to speed up their site:
Turn off Gravatars in your comments section by going to your WordPress Discussion Settings. Scroll down to the bottom and untick the box that says Show Avatars.
Deactivate any plugins that you don’t use or could do without. I deactivated Easy Custom Auto Excerpt (no idea what I was using that for), Print My Blog (excellent, but not currently required), Simple Yearly Archive (cool, but unnecessary) and Worth The Read (very cool, but also unnecessary).
Whenever you make changes to your site, check back with Google PageSpeed to make sure things are going in the right direction. It’s worth saying, however, that your ‘initial server response time’ can vary so take that into account when tracking changes to your PageSpeed score.
Finally: choose luxuries to treat your readers
Once your site scores over 90% on Google PageSpeed, you can shift your focus away from speed to other features that might improve the reader experience.
For example, re-activating the Worth The Read plugin, which gives readers a useful heads up on how long an article takes to read, knocks my PageSpeed score down from 97% to 95%.
I’m not great at maths and I know that 95% isn’t quite as much as 97%, but it’s still pretty darned high. Hopefully by now you too have got the wiggle room to include a few luxuries for your readers.
Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
Optional: salt or other spices
Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.
2. Vegan naan bread
I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.
It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.
The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.
It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.
Martin: A timeline of adventure
Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…
A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.
In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.
More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.
Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.
Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.
When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.
A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.
Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.
But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.
What did Martin ever do for us?
A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.
I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.
Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.
Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)
But at what cost?
You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… 🤓 The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.
That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.
What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.
On the naming of things
It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.
Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.
And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?
Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.
Stuff has a soul
This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?
But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.
Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.
A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.
So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.
The bike is gone, long live the bike!
What now for Martin Jnr?
Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.
I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!
I love looking back over time past, especially as a writer, when my follies are etched in permanent print for all to admire. On 3 January this year, for example, I wrote the following:
My 2020 is—absurdly—already mapped out.
I went on to predict that Foiled would be broadcast this summer and that I’d then be cycling off on an epic group bike adventure across Europe, before finishing up in Athens.
So it’ll be deep September before I have time for anything radically new. Already, then, January 2020 is about planning for 2021 and beyond.
Suffice to say that January Dave looks pretty foolish to December Dave. And this is exactly how it should be. Our plans are a starting point from which we always diverge; what counts is how we diverge.
No matter what you’ve been through this year and how many plans you’ve cancelled, replanned and recancelled, you’ve still grown as a human being and learned many new things from many new experiences. Don’t forget that.
As January Dave put it:
It’s easy to miss that we’re constantly putting down bedrock.
… Even when all your plans are scuppered and rescuppered by a global pandemic.
So without any further ado, here’s a list of things that I’ve learned in spite of being totally mugged off by 2020.
I’m incredibly lucky. Astonishingly, unfairly lucky. I’ve had four tests for Covid-19 this year (as part of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study) and have come up clean each time. As a writer who works a lot online anyway, my business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the pandemic. Although my outdoor instructing did take a hit, I was still able to get out in the autumn to help three groups through their Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expeditions. 2020 has been a lot of things for me, but above all it’s been lucky.
Having said that, I don’t deal with the loneliness of isolation very well. Without the release valve of human contact, I gradually get more and more stressed, almost without noticing, until everything has to stop immediately. Good to know.
Video calls are great—and I have the data to back it up. Despite a three-month lockdown, despite social distancing and despite the infamous Rule of 6, I’ve had as much contact with friends and family as I would do in a normal year. In fact, looking at my closest friends and family, I’ve actually had significantly more.
The famous constellation of the Plough is actually a small part—an asterism—of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in deep darkness. In most of our lamplit skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
There is only one ocean. We think of The English Channel as a body of water distinct from, say, the Indian Ocean, but it’s not. It’s merely convenient geographical nomenclature. Convenient, but dangerous. We have only one ocean; let’s look after it. Credit: David Annette-borough.
The Conservative government is trying to criminalise the currently civil offence of trespass. The difference between criminal and civil law is essentially the difference between the class of crimes that affect the whole of society—things like murder, fraud and sexual assault—and the class of crimes that only affect the rights and property of individuals or organisations—such as divorce, breach of contract and, unless the Conservative landowners get their way, trespass.
Marcel Proust’s 4,215 page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is an absolute banger.
They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
During the first UK lockdown, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees joined forces with hundreds of awesome cyclists to attempt to cycle 24,901 miles ‘around the world’ in 40 days. We ended up doing two and half revolutions and raising over £130,000 for refugees across Europe. Thank you to everyone who supported us!
SCREENS & NEWS
This year, I spent about 2,117 hours on my computer—that’s 88 days straight or about a quarter of my time on earth in 2020. Chuck in another 500 or so on my mobile phone, plus factor in that I sleep about eight hours a night, and the proportion of my waking time spent on screens goes up to about 45 percent. Is that too much? Or is that the famous ‘new normal’?
This year, I visited approximately 64,120 webpages. That’s an 8 percent increase compared to 2019. In my defence, 2019 didn’t have a three-month period where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
2020 was the fourth year of my ‘No News is Good News’ media diet. Excluding sports, this year I read 150 BBC News stories, nearly three times my total for 2019. Half were me trying to find out information about coronavirus. Most of my other visits to the BBC News pages were for research, but I did also read current stories about Black Lives Matter, the campaign against food poverty and, in total, five articles about the US presidential election.
Contrary to popular belief, and thanks to decades of extremely hard work, most bad things are getting better: the number of people living in extreme poverty, the number of young women in education, global life expectancy. However, some things are bad and still getting worse. For example, the number of displaced persons around the world has more than doubled in the last ten years.
SPORT, EXERCISE & GAMES
I don’t have the perfect media diet: this year I mindlessly clicked on 2,705 BBC Sport stories—mainly because Liverpool FC won the league for the first time in thirty years.
You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.
You lot are great! Seriously. I know you’ve had a hard year, but somehow you’ve found the time to read this newsletter and sometimes send me very kind replies. Your emails always make my day. Some of you have even decided to dip into your pockets and support financially. I can’t thank you enough! Knowing that you good people are out there is honestly what’s kept me going this year. I hope that the words I’ve put down for you have sometimes helped you a bit too.
The man in the panic-buying supermarket who, after staring aghast at the empty shelves, turned to the shop assistant and beseeched him: ‘Do you not have any… pistachio oil?’
The refugee in Turkey who emailed my mum, urgently asking whether our family were okay.
The NHS and everyone who took part in the spine-riffling Clap For Carers. I really didn’t think Bournemouth would be much into it, but I could hear claps, cheers, whistles and whoops echoing all around town, from pier to pier, from neighbours near and far.
Fossilisation. On Bournemouth beach (I spent a lot of time marching up and down Bournemouth beach) there is a tree fossil that is 140,000,000 years old. You can see the impression of the bark and the roots and run your hands over another epoch. Puts another twist on time.
Viruses that infect other viruses. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting to know that obnoxious little snotrags like Coronavirus can themselves catch a virus. In fact, this is how all life began. We are nothing but an ecosystem of symbiotic relationships, including fungi, bacteria and, yes, viruses. You’ve heard of the human microbiome, and perhaps even the fact that there are more bacteria in our gut than stars in the galaxy, but now it’s time to learn about the human virome.
Everyone who has had, is having, or will have a birthday during lockdown. This may well be the most contemplative anniversary you’ve celebrated yet. (24 June, thanks for asking — save the date.)
The moon and sun. Hasn’t the moon been spectacular, keeping us company on the bright nights? One of my favourite sights this year was a spectral gibbous moon rising against a cobalt sky. The sun too has played its part, especially with the spring haze that gives soft focus to the horizon and draws the song of the birds closer. It’s like listening with headphones on.
Portugal. In response to the coronavirus, Portugal has given refugees and asylum seekers full citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this liberation will last only until June 30, so rather than full marks perhaps it’s more like a B-. But still: this move shows how easily human lives can be loosed from their imaginary chains, with the merest stroke of a pen.
Everyone who’s found their way up onto a rooftop. Give us a wave!
Usama and Omar. Two kids who were stuck in their school accommodation in Bournemouth during lockdown, making the most of the extra English practice while they wait for flights back to Palestine. Except, of course, there are no airports in Palestine, so they’re waiting for flights back to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt — or pretty much anywhere.
The postal service, which made many of my days this year in both the sending and receiving of gifts Thank you, posties. (And special thanks to the cross-stitchers of this world.)
Rain after a dry spell. Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks go to rain showers for making the trees happy.
Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which sprung some flowers in spring.
Paul Powlesland. The barrister rescued 1,000 oak saplings from a nursery that had to abandon their plans to plant 750,000 of the trees due to a change in government policy and our old friend the coronavirus.
The Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker app. Every day, along with a couple of million other people, I’ve been logging on to the Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker. The data is fascinating and shows predictions of how the disease is progressing. Every week, the scientists behind the project give a public webinar to explain the science.
Robigus, the Roman God of Wheat Leaf Rust, who could destroy a year’s harvest if displeased. As Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.’ The moment of our conception, the arcane decision-making processes of university exam boards and, not least, governments, but also the diseases that gather on the periphery until the day they strike at our daily lives. The Romans went in for dog sacrifice, but I wonder what offerings we could make to the invisible powers that circle our lives?
The NHS — but not (only) for the obvious reason. Twelve years ago an NHS GP told me that I wasn’t unfit, lazy and bored of life; she told me, rather, that I had an underactive thyroid. It was that NHS GP who first looked at my pathetic jumble of symptoms and recommended a blood test. An NHS phlebotomist took the sample. An NHS lab analysed the results. An NHS endocrinologist lost his trousers with excitement and diagnosed me. And NHS pharmacists have been packaging up prescription drugs for me ever since. Thank you for keeping me alive.
Kimchi. Packed full of enough microorganisms to defeat an invading army, vegans may take my cheese, may take my yoghurt — but they will never take MY KIMCHI!
I’m gonna say it: Zoom. Yeah, I know about the security flaws, but as well as hooking me up with pub quizzes galore, Zoom connected me with family flung out all over the world.
Thighs of Steel for making the best of a bad show. Instead of cycling from London to Athens, we cycled 2.5 times around the world and raised over £130,000 for Help Refugees. Epic!
Down time. As sleep researcher Sara Mednick explains, an afternoon nap is as restorative as a full night’s sleep. She also proposes that, for our productivity and health, we should not only take every Wednesday afternoon off work, but also take unlimited holiday, ad libitum. I wonder what she thinks of our enforced furlough?
Charities helping refugees beat tech inequality during lockdown. Can you imagine not having the internet right now? Staff and volunteers at Bristol Refugee Rights are calling up to a 100 elderly asylum seekers, single mothers, people with disabilities or mental health issues a week to provide wellbeing services and combat isolation. You can help fund their work.
Better protection for cyclists and pedestrians. The UK government has promised us £2bn to help make cycling and walking—let’s be honest—safe. This includes £250m for emergency protection for cyclists and pedestrians while we still have to observe social distancing regulations.
The Israeli billionaire trying to solve Gaza’s water crisis—say whaaaat?! According to this Times of Israel report, Michael Mirilashvili ‘hopes to deliver enough units to meet the Strip’s daily needs within a year’.
Your second self. Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood introduced me to the concept of the ‘second self’, the notion that our habits are so powerful and so estranged from our executive function that they deserve equal acknowledgement alongside our autobiographical, conscious ‘I’ or ‘ego’.
Khora. Huge shout out to everyone volunteering at Khora, helping deliver thousands of free meals to refugees and other vulnerable lockdowned humans in Athens and beyond—especially in 38 degree heat!
The 2,500 council volunteers in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I helped a man with a gammy leg in Westbourne who needed someone to top up his electricity meter and pop to the shops for him.
The inventors of the bicycle. We’ll never quite know the names of all the inventors who’ve contributed to this near-miraculous feat of engineering, but I thank them all the same. Especially as a bizarre ankle injury meant I couldn’t run for a spell.
Marcel Proust. In Proust’s own words: ‘In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.’ Quoted in How Proust Can Change You Life by Alain de Botton.
Ness Labs, James Somers, John McPhee and, above all, the lexicographer Noah Webster for introducing me to ‘the right dictionary‘.
Protestors. No one would choose the global outbreak of a deadly disease as the ideal moment for a mass civil rights movement, but Covid-19 has certainly brought our disastrous social inequalities to the surface. The effort to protect people from Covid-19 is an extraordinary global collaboration, mustering extraordinary financial, academic and political resources. But where is the extraordinary collaboration, financial, academic and political, to fundamentally change the way this unequal society operates? Is it coming?
The bacteria in my kimchi. The only problem is that, while it takes at least two weeks to ferment one jar of kimchi, I can eat the contents in less than five days.
Lakshmibhai Pathak. Founder of Patak’s—a brand of Indian-inspired cookery foodstuffs. Specifically, Patak’s manufacture an excellent chilli pickle that has been entertaining my tastebuds for the past few months. Pathak was a refugee from Kenya.
Wyclef Jean. Fugees’ 1996 album The Score was the sound of David Charles realising, not only that some people had a very different experience of the world, but that they could put that experience into words and invite the rest of the world in. I never thought of this before, but the clue’s in the name, really: Wyclef Jean was a refugee from Haiti.
George Orwell and the #1984Symposium. On George’s birthday, as usual, Documentally hosted a leisurely picnic of ideas around Orwell’s gravestone. 25 June every year, Sutton Courtenay. Find us on Atlas Obscura.
Mamihlapinatapai. According to Wikipedia, mamihlapinatapai is a Yaghan word meaning: ‘a look shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start’.
Train station staff. After taking my first train in three months and arriving back to the chaos caused by the thousands of holiday-makers who swamped Bournemouth in the summer, I have a new respect for the workers who must deal with the consequences of our government’s, shall we say, leadership.
Old Father Thames. There’s nothing like a river swim. I love the sea, but sometimes I crave the certainty of the river. While tranquil, still the river knows well its direction.
Cows. Relaxing in a cradle of oak roots, reading my book as the sun fed through the leaves, a herd of curious cattle mowed the grass to my feet, where one adventurous soul decided to ruminate on my shoes.
Gifts. It really is the thought that counts. Thanks everyone!
The antischedule. I’ve been using pen and paper more often and my timer is lying in pieces on the desk—I think it knew its time was finally up.
The English language. My current toilet reading is The English Language by David Crystal. Published in 2002, the book traces the history of English from ancient to modern. But contemporary language is volatile. While Crystal clearly relishes sharing the millennial vocabulary of new technology with his readers, when was the last time you called anyone a ‘cybersurfer’, ‘netizen’ or—my personal favourite—‘nethead’?
Cycle lanes. Can we have some more please?
The River Thames and navigation in general. In the summer, I spent a glorious couple of days on a widebeam, slowly cruising down the Thames from Laleham to Windsor. Most river vessels or canal craft, whether barge, narrowboat or widebeam, move scarce more swift than pedestrianism: the ponderous pace of my thoughts. ‘Canal mania’ and the golden age of riverine industrial navigation may have lasted less than a lifetime before surrendering to the locomotive, but its legacy was savoured in the soft drizzle.
Big trees. Cruising along the banks of the Thames, I was constantly awed by the gigantism of the riverbank trees. Perhaps it was because our eyes were at duck level, perhaps it was the fertility of the water, but the sinuous ash, the weeping willow and the London plane loomed quite magnificently.
Playing Out is a great campaign led by parents who want their kids to be able to play safely out on the streets. Like in olden times. The idea is that communities club together to agree a block of time when they won’t drive on the roads.
Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:
The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.
My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?
Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?
Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?
The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.
Egyptians use the same word for bread as they do for life: عيش—‘aish. Bread, quite literally, is life. Street bread in Egypt عش بلدي—‘aish baladi—translates just as well as ‘rustic loaf’ as it does ‘live my country’.
If you like your bread leavened, then you’re at the mercy of burping microbes. This episode of BBC CrowdScience follows the fabulously unlikely story of how humans found yeast that actually tastes good.
Besides walking upright, gripping a hand tool and moaning about the weather, baking bread is the closest modern humanity comes to the lived experience of our Mesolithic ancestors.
If you’re uncertain about your status as a flesh and blood human being, what more direct way of communing with our evolution than to bake and break a loaf of bread?
Perhaps that’s why so many people have turned to their ovens during this pandemic. In a very literal sense, we knead bread.
Now I too have joined the baking legions, with a loaf that might consume your soul, but won’t consume your time. My bread of life recipe doesn’t need any kneading because there’s no gluten and no added yeast. It doesn’t need fancy weighing scales or even a loaf tin. You simply mix up the ingredients, leave it to rest (or don’t) and bake it.
Credit where credit’s due: I pinched the bones of this recipe from the back of Bauckhof’s gluten free, organic, vegan bread mix packets. I have also found this similar recipe by Sarah Britton, which gives a great explanation of how this bread works without the binding gluten of flour, and what kind of substitutions you can play around with.
Bread of Life: Ingredients
155-215g wholemeal rolled oats
185-245g of your favourite whole seeds (not ground). Bauckhof use (in descending order of quantity):
Linseed (= Flax)
2 tbsp Chia seeds
3 tbsp Ground psyllium husks (important!)
1 tsp Fine grain sea salt
Play around with the ratio of oats to seeds (or go crazy and add a few nuts) for a total weight of about 430g for all the dry ingredients.
If, like me, you don’t have weighing scales, then simply measure out the dry ingredients using a measuring jug. You want to fill it up to about the 700ml mark.
Please don’t worry too much about precision: you’ll soon be able to tell when you mix the dough with water whether you’ve done too much or too little, whether it’s too wet or too dry.
Bread of Life: Method
Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
Form the dough into a loaf and put onto a greased baking tray. You can also use a well-greased loaf tin if you have one
Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
Bake for 70 minutes at 200C. I use a fan oven, but every oven is different so keep an eye on it. It’s ready when tapping the bottom sounds kinda hollow
Take out of the tin and leave to cool, about 20 minutes
What you’re left with is a nutritious loaf that, per 100g and depending on your ratio of oats (higher carb and fibre) to seeds (higher fat), delivers:
NOTE: This is not the Chorleywood Process, so forget any notion of airy vapidity. This recipe makes a dense loaf, an equal partner in a meal rather than the merest carbohydrate envelope for your sandwich fillings. Bauckhof note that ‘oat grain fibre contributes to an increase in faecal bulk’—great for happy guts!
This week your humble writer is brought to you by the Rogue Welsh Cake Company, a mother and son hot-plating duo, flogging morsels of ‘is-it-a-bread-is-it-a-biscuit’ goodness to astonished foodies in the South Wales area.
The menu boasts nine audaciously rogue flavours, from coconut and mixed spice to Marmite and cheese. The young company’s Head of Fancy Dress, Mr Joseph Granville of Penarth, tried to explain what on earth they were thinking to a local newshound:
We’re all massive food lovers, literally everything revolves around food in our house. You know how some people taste with their eyes? We really do taste with our mouths. We care about flavours.
At a time when most people are really struggling, in life, love and laverbread, the Granvilles have become the nation’s undisputed Welsh Cake Barons, the hottest thing in baked goods since Mr Kipling first burnt the icing on his fondant fancies.
But the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s despotic laughter is benevolent: over half term, the company have been doling out free dollops of doughy delights to frazzled families and their offspring.
But, Dave, what is the secret to the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s meteoric success? I’ll let the company’s Y-chromosome mansplain:
It’s just me exploiting my mum’s talents really.
Now that’s what I call rogue.
If you would like to order some Rogue Welsh Cakes, DM the family on Instagram. Joe will come round your house dressed as a Welsh peasant girl and feed you cake. NOTE: Delivery currently only in the CF area—but they are experimenting with postal deliveries so if you swamp their DMs they’ll have no option. Class.
If you have any heartfelt products or services that you want to share with an audience of discerning and beautifully dressed mammals, then let me know by replying to this email.
Welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?
Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!
Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.
Humans have come a long way, baby.
What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.
For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life.
But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.
Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?
If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:
Cycling around the coast of Britain.
Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
The death and funeral of my nan.
Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.
Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:
The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.
From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn’t so bad.
Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.
Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.
We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.
(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)
Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.
As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.
The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.
On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.
I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.
Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.
The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.
2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.
If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)
Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.
The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.
One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.
Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.
The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.
The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.
You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.
Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.
In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.
He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’
This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.
The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.
‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’
At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:
We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.
Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.
Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.
You know the dealer, the dealer is a man With the love grass in his hand
That’s us. We’re dealing a whopping 75 percent of the love grass.
If you’re wondering why Britain grows so much cannabis when we have one of the most restrictive legal structures on its use in the world, then all I can tell you is that, apparently, cannabis seed makes good bird feed.
If you’re starting to get annoyed that our government is saying one thing to its citizens and then doing the complete opposite behind our backs, well, hold up, soldier. Maybe that’s a good thing.
There are some things that for some reason (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail readers) are ‘politically impossible’ for our governments to achieve. The decriminalisation of cannabis is one such.
The most popular illegal drug in the country was briefly downgraded in illegality from Class B to Class C under a Labour government in 2004—a decision that was labelled a ‘mistake’ and reversed by the same politicians in 2009. This despite the fact that the science and hospital admissions show that, as a compound, cannabis is much less dangerous than alcohol.
So it’s kind of nice to know that, behind the headlines, politicians are secretly doing the ‘politically impossible’ anyway. It’s just a shame that, for a taste of Great British dope, we have to go abroad.
P.S. This week Future Crunch pulled this story out of The New York Times, which illustrates a parallel point. Governments, no matter what they say or feel it is politically expedient to say, are as much in thrall to the tide of history as anyone:
During the first term of the most coal-friendly president in American history, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been shut down, eliminating 15% percent of the country’s coal-generated capacity. This is the fastest decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. #MAGA
My sister is a speech therapist who works with people who have suffered a stroke. A stroke is what happens when the blood supply to your brain gets cut off, usually by a blood clot but sometimes after the bursting of a blood vessel.
By the way, the etymology of the word ‘stroke’ is completely unrelated to that thing you do to cats. It’s from the same root as ‘strike’: a blow delivered, such as the stroke played by a top order batsman to a half-paced delivery outside offstump. It’s use is metaphorical in the medical case.
Whatever the etymology, being struck by a stroke is not a good thing. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the more extensive the damage to brain cells, damage that can be long-lasting and even permanent.
Hence the international information campaign to improve public recognition of the signs of stroke:
And hence why victims of stroke sometimes need speech therapists like my sister to help them re-wire their damaged brain to cope with the loss of the cells that used to manage language and communication.
What has this got to do with values?
Not a lot, but also everything.
Treating someone who’s had a stroke isn’t like treating someone who’s got frostbite. I’m not one for body-mind dualism, but for most people our brains are a significant contributor to what makes us us. And the importance of correctly parsing and producing language is absolutely ru8gia;;AKL
At a stroke, a stroke can completely transform the person we thought we were. It’s a cataclysm—and an opportunity.
In the three months after a stroke, as the body madly tries to heal itself, the brain enters a period of heightened neuroplasticity. This is when speech therapists do the bulk of their work, which begins by exploring the patient’s values—those invisible through-lines of a human’s psychology and behaviour.
Philosophers, theologians and self-dev gurus are prominently conscious of their values. The rest of us tend to cruise through life with our values in the driving seat, blissfully unaware we’re a passenger until something forces us to take the wheel for a second.
Like when we have a stroke and a meddling psychologist asks us a bunch of damnfool questions in a desperate bid to figure out the kind of brain they’ve been tasked to put back together.
Enter my sister…
There are two ways to look at stroke recovery. It’s an opportunity to change the values you’ve always lived by because they’re not working for you. Or it’s an opportunity to hold onto your old values, as one solid anchor at a time when everything else in your life has been turned upside down.
I say deceptively simple because, as my sister explains, when your language and cognition have been banjaxed by a stroke and you have no understanding of abstract concepts like ‘courage’, picking words from a list is nigh on impossible. It’s the speech therapist’s job to help people communicate across the opening chasm.
But when they’re pinned down, these six words, these six values, give the survivor a foundation on which to build the rest of their post-stroke lives.
As my sister says:
You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.
If Janet decides that one of her values is generosity, then she can apply those values as easily to her post-stroke existence as she did before. Maybe she can’t work any more and can’t afford the big money gifts she used to dole out to friends and to charity—but generosity as a value is independent of wealth. It’s up to Janet to decide what generosity means for her now.
In this way, human beings can find meaning in any situation by foregrounding and following their values instead of focussing on the mental, physical and material capacity they might have lost.
This remains true even if the only value left to them is the ability to bear suffering with fortitude. If you’re dubious, see Viktor Frankl. And if you haven’t had a stroke recently, please don’t check out because…
As human societies the world over are wracked with The Virus, we’re showing all the signs of a metaphorical stroke. Bear with me.
We can’t do the same things as we could a year ago—we can’t even think the same thoughts. We’ve become estranged from society and alienated from the world. Our future horizon has shrunk unpredictably: tomorrow is another day, but only probably.
Doesn’t it feel, metaphorically speaking, like we’re stumbling around half paralysed, thinking through the sludge of a million dead brain cells? Not really, no. But also: yeah, a bit.
Without downplaying the complementary cataclysms of either stroke or global pandemic, I think there’s something in twisting my sister’s words to the scenario:
You might not be able to play touch rugby, find gainful employment or buy toilet paper during a global pandemic, but you can always live by your values.
~ FWIW: When I went through the Russ Harris values worksheet yesterday, I settled on no less than thirty-one values that were very important to me. It was sweaty work narrowing it down to six, but I ended up with adventure, creativity, curiosity, generosity, intimacy and—the one ring to rule them all—connection.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)
I started growing my hair long back in the summer of 2011—coincidentally the last time I cycled around Britain. My central reason for donating my hair to make wigs for children with cancer is, as you could guess, guilt.
But it wasn’t guilt felt for the injustice of being a healthy and hair-lthy adult when there thousands of kids undergoing chemotherapy while still in primary school.
No: I felt guilty for taking the piss out of a friend for growing his hair long. It was only after six months of gentle, yet persistent ribbing that he turned to me and said: ‘So what are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?’
Over the past nine years, I’ve donated my golden locks no less than five times. My reason for doing so has morphed from that schoolish guilt into no-brainer logic:
‘My hair is growing anyway, so why the blue blazes would I not donate it to charity, if it’ll do some good in the world?’
Now, sadly, the time has come to hang up my hairbrush and put away the conditioners. I have been advised that my male pattern baldness may have become too extreme to pull off long hair a sixth time.
But, you know, two of my favourite comedians of all time are Andy Zaltzman and Bill Bailey so never say never.
Above: Two handsome style icons.
If you decide that you might as well let your hair grow so that kids can get cancer wigs, then look up the Little Princess Trust. They’d love your long locks, ideally anything upwards of 11 inches. This time around I went out with a record-breaking 16 inches.
Cycle touring as a vegan is, well, tricky. I didn’t have the heart to ask Debbie for a salad sandwich, for example. I’ll go out of my way to eat vegan when I’m in charge of the food, but there are times when the most gracious thing to do is to eat a bit of cheese—particularly as my reasons for veganism are more straightforward (and selfish) than ethical.
Quite simply: I have the sense that, as a species, we’re moving inexorably towards a meat-free future and I reckon that it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind.
So, during lockdown, I wanted to know whether I could hack a plant-based meal plan (the answer is yes, quite comfortably). Eating vegan makes me more resilient to the future. That’s reassuring.
But when will this meat-free future arrive? Well, it’s already creeping up on us: this Bloomberg article reports how meat production has declined for the second consecutive year for the first time in recorded history.
That’s good news for the planet (and for human survival) so we might as well get ahead of the curve, right?
I’ve been trying to exploit the wisdom of this trite little question this week.
What if this is happening not to me, but forme?
Late on Monday night, driving home from visiting my sister, I missed my motorway exit. The missed junction added ten minutes to an already delayed journey. I hit the steering wheel in frustration and then, somewhat sarcastically, asked myself whether this curséd calamity was instead happening for me.
Once I’d calmed own, I noticed that the rest of the journey would take me through Reading, along a route I first travelled as an eleven year old schoolboy more than two decades ago. Annoyance turned to grateful nostalgia.
I’ve no idea where this ‘for you not to you’ idea came from. I first heard it on a Tim Ferriss podcast, but Jim Carrey puts it well:
And when I say, “Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,” I really don’t know if that’s true. I’m just making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way. You’ll come up with your own style—that’s part of the fun!
UPDATE: When I mentioned this idea to a friend, he nodded calmly and added: ‘Or what if every that happens is happening with you?’ After all, each of us are only superficially different expressions of the same universal consciousness, right?
The last three weeks of lockdown have been difficult. I know there are people who have been and still are in much worse situations, but Covid-19 gave me 90 straight days without human contact and nothing to do really other than work and exercise—a reliable recipe for stress-related illness.
And for three weeks up to last Wednesday, I delighted in a wide range of symptoms, from wanting to sleep the whole time (and not feeling rested when I did) to brain fog, mouth ulcers, diarrhoea and IBS. Not pleasant.
Luckily, I’ve been able to take the whole week off (birthday week!) and spend time with other human beings, both socially distanced and in a bubble with my parents. The rest has released the pressure, the symptoms have largely disappeared and I feel restored.
This is all good: everyone needs human contact and a break from work every now and again. Ordinarily I might leave the insights there, but lockdown is encouraging me to reexamine the way I do everything.
What if there was a way of working where holidays weren’t medically necessary to cure my mouth of ulcers and clear my body of stress hormones?
As a freelancer, I’m paid by the hour. Time, sadly, is money. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Dana Carney, workers who have an ‘economic mindset’ about time—i.e. people who are paid by the hour—report higher levels of psychological stress.
One reason for this elevated stress might be because hourly workers spend less time socialising with friends and family. Gutted. If time is money, then we are constantly locked into a (subconscious) hedonic calculus: is seeing my friends for an hour really worth another hour’s work?
The answer is almost always yes, but salaried workers don’t have to answer this question, not even subconsciously.
Look on the internet or in self-help books for how to reduce ‘time-stress’, you’ll read a lot of advice about efficient scheduling.
For example: the Ness Labs newsletter popped into my inbox this week with an article about how to manage stress. Perfect timing! One of her suggestions was, yep, better time management.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s approach is typical of the genre. This is her opener:
Except if we end up inventing time travel, we need to accept the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to achieve our goals, we need to be smart about how we allocate our time to different tasks and activities.
Anne-Laure’s suggestion is ever more precise calendar use, with everything scheduled down to the last hour, including breaks and spending time with friends.
On the face of it: great advice—and I’m sure it works for her. But what if I already have a killer schedule? What then?
My current orthodox solution
My current schedule is managed on two spreadsheets:
One acts as my calendar and reminds me about deadlines and such like
Another tracks what projects I’m working on and for how long
Here’s how it plays out:
In the evening, I check my calendar and lay out the work I’ll do the next day, building a to do list text file.
In the morning, after yoga and breakfast, I get to work. I set a timer for 90 minutes and begin. Thanks to the timer, I find it very easy to prevent procrastination and slip into work mode, no matter how reluctant I was feeling before the clock started.
When the 90 minutes is up, I write down my hours in my working spreadsheet, which automatically tells me how much work I’ve done and, if it’s hourly paid work, how much I’ve earned.
It sounds like a great system and, for the most part, it is. I get plenty of work done, on time and with minimal fuss.
But if it’s such a great system, why did my body break down with time-stress? What if scheduling by the clock created my time-stress?
I suspect that this is more than an idle what-if question.
Taking on time in an arms race
The orthodoxy posits that the solution to time-stress is ever more precise time-scheduling.
But that sounds to me like an arms race, where there is no end until one side or the other blows up. In this case, I can guarantee that time isn’t the one that’s going to blow up…
My scheduling system probably could be improved with time-management techniques from high achievers on the internet—but I suspect only marginally. I haven’t found any advice online or in self-help books that offer the radical changes that I suspect would materially reduce time-stress.
If we guess that my system is already, say, 80 percent efficient, then the effort needed to eke out the last 20 percent of efficiency gains might only add to my time-stress.
I’d argue that time management in itself can be very stressful, especially as it becomes more and more precise. Time management forces us to think about time with a stressful economic mindset—especially if we are paid by the hour.
Side note on Covid-19
Of course, I’m not the only person who has found the last three months psychologically difficult. The World Economic Forum discovered that the number of people in Belgium at high risk of toxic stress had increased to a quarter of the population during the Covid-19 pandemic, up ten percentage points compared to last year.
I think a lot of my time-stress goes away when I’m able to whinge about stuff to friends. Nothing like a good old whinge. Isolated from these friends thanks to Covid-19, I’m not getting my quota of whinging.
But what kind of a time management system is founded on whinging? Not a very good system, if you ask me. I think we can do better. But how?
I propose a pincer movement:
Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
Introduce activities that expand perception of time
I’ll explore these in reverse order, finishing with the antischedule.
Playing with time perception
Time is immutable, but humans aren’t embodiments of pure physics and we can play around with our perception of time.
Humans have an internal clock that beats ‘time’ throughout the day, but different activities are counted at different paces. Sometimes time crawls, sometimes it flies. When you’re asleep, for example, your time perception goes right out of the window.
Time-stress is what happens when we feel that there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do. Time is real, but we should forget that time-stress is a feeling.
If we do more activities that make us feel like we have oodles of time, then we reduce our sense of time-pressure and so reduce our time-stress.
But what are those activities? They probably vary from person to person. Here are some of mine—a few of which have had their time-expanding properties documented scientifically.
You’ll have your own ideas. What makes you feel like you’ve got endless time?
A typical junior doctor on a tyrannical schedule, Bell found inspiration in a tweet by Naval Ravikant:
The single best productivity hack that everyone should aspire to—don’t keep a schedule.
So Bell stopped tracking time and keeping a schedule. The effect was transformational for him:
My inner tyrant had left his post, and so too had any sense of time pressure. Now there was an abundance of time, rather than a perpetual scarcity of it. And there was no inner voice barking orders anymore.
It’s a terrifying prospect, to work—or live at all—without my calendar, to do list, timer and working diary. How will I stay on track?
But. Wait. What kind of a track am I on? One that gives me mouth ulcers and diarrhoea? What kind of a masochist wants to stay on that track?
Some other ideas
My holiday ends on Sunday: what will I do when I start work again on Monday? I haven’t committed to adopting the antischedule. I’m scared.
Besides chucking out my orthodox scheduling tools wholesale, there are a few other options I could explore.
Seven week sabbaticals. This idea from Sean McCabe was one I adopted with relish before Covid-19 struck. The idea is simple: six weeks of scheduled work followed by one week of unscheduled, unstructured time—a mini sabbatical. For some reason, I thought Covid-19 meant I couldn’t take sabbaticals. Stupid.
Switch from a countdown timer to a countup timer. Hitting start on a timer is a great way to shortcut procrastination, but there’s no reason why that timer can’t count up instead of down. I’ve started experimenting with SpaceJock’s free TrackAMinute software, designed for freelancers like me but useful in most computer-based lines of work.
Sacrifice time-accuracy for reduced time-stress. I have to track my time because I must invoice for my work hourly. But I don’t have to track that time myself: what if I invoiced based on passive time-tracking software like RescueTime? It might be less accurate, but surely a reduction in accuracy is a good sacrifice to make for the sake of my oral and gastric health!
Find satisfaction from completing worthwhile projects, rather than from stacking up hours of work. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, tracking the hours I spend on my projects takes out the mystique of creativity and production. I know now that writing a BBC Radio series is simply a matter of showing up and putting in the hours: that’s tremendously liberating. On the other hand, sometimes the hours I put in can get muddled up with whether or not the work is taking me in the direction I want to go.
Decide on and stick to my boundaries. When is enough enough? Putting in the hours is all very good, but how do I know when to stop? Should I stop work at 6pm? 4pm? 2pm? I could take weekends off—or only work a half day on Wednesdays. I had some success with this approach a couple of months ago, working for 4 hours or so in the morning and then taking the rest of the day ‘off’.
Use technology less. I run everything through my spreadsheets, even my time-expanding activities like reading and exercise. I could use pen and paper much, much more—even if only to add the data in batches at the end of the week.
Say no more. Say no more.
Have you found a way of avoiding time-stress? Do you use clocks and watches and timers? Are you acutely aware of time—or not? I need help!
On Thursday 5 June 2014, at Sanford Housing Cooperative, I called what I believe was the first ever Questionable Meeting: a meeting in which participants are only allowed to speak in the interrogative mood.
Questions have a habit of generating unexpected ideas. It is very hard to come up with good ideas if you’re just asked to come up with good ideas, but if you’re asked to come up with good questions, then the ideas flow naturally.
In life there is no such thing as a final answer, only better questions.
Rules of the Game
“All games have rules; it’s what distinguishes them from real life.”
There is only one rule at a Questionable Meeting:
Participants may only speak in the interrogative mood, i.e. they may only ask questions.
There is, of course, one exception that makes the rule:
Participants may also use the exclamatory phrase, “Good question!”
“A child who is always asking “Why? Why? Why?” shows not their ignorance, but their wisdom.”
Dr Ros Wandkalf
a. Meetings are often charged with “know-it-all” ego-driven solutionising. The truth is that the best answers are very rarely those thought of on the spur of the moment. By removing the possibility of any instant answers to any questions, we remove snap judgements and improve the likelihood of a reasoned, thoughtful, considerate response outside of the meeting.
b. Meetings can be dominated by those who enjoy speaking, showing off how much they know or how important they are. In a Questionable Meeting, no one can speak without donning the cap of humility. To speak, you must concede that you don’t have all the answers. There are no categorically “right” answers in life, so in this meeting, we listen and question.
c. By posing questions without trying to answer them, the subconscious brain is activated. Perhaps, after a good night’s sleep or a week’s quiet rumination, a more creative answer will emerge from the depths of your subconscious. Or perhaps not.
“Strategy, after all, is only one strategy.”
The Turquoise Empress, Xiaoling
Start each meeting with a period of silence. From the silence, reasonable questions shall emerge.
If desired, the meeting can then proceed to setting the Questionable Agenda: ten minutes in which participants can ask broad, thematic questions, which shall form the interrogative basis of the rest of the meeting. Alternatively, a Questionable Meeting could be called to query a specific theme, couched, naturally, as a question. For example: “How can Sanford help other housing cooperatives?”.
There are no bad, wrong or stupid questions. If you think there are, then you are either bad, wrong or stupid.
After each question, leave a respectful pause. Don’t barrel in with your oh-so-important question.
Make sure you are really listening to each question; allow it to sink deep into your subconscious. If in doubt, count to ten in your head.
No participant may attempt to provide any answer or solution to a question.
No participant should pass judgement on a question. Particularly not using body language, sighing, huffing, etc..
The questions shall be recorded, if desired, and Questionable Minutes, consisting solely of a list of questions asked, circulated by a Questionable Secretary.
Participants may ask questions about the questions. These cannot be answered, of course.
If you would prefer, the question can be written down and put into a Questionable Hat, for minuting by the Questionable Secretary. NOTE: Written notes will not reach the subconscious of other members, only yourself.
Think about your questions carefully. Be clear and concise. This respects the brains of the other participants and will inspire better subconscious responses.
For most of us, Covid-19 has radically shifted our day-to-day context: our work environment, social milieu, shopping and even our sleeping habits.
I think the most striking change for me has been stability.
I’ve spent the 74 nights of lockdown in Bournemouth. I haven’t stayed in one place for anywhere even close to 74 nights since my records began in July 2015. For those of you (hi) who love the stats, these are my longest sojourns over the past five years:
2019: 22 nights (Bristol)
2018: 23 nights (Bristol)
2017: 23 nights (Peckham)
2016: 27 nights (Edinburgh Festival)
20 July-December 2015: 25 (New Cross)
At least once every four weeks for the last five years I have been on the move, travelling across the country for work or to visit friends, or further afield on overland adventures.
Without lockdown, I don’t think I ever would have realised how much I travel—and the possible advantages of stability.
With a rocksteady context, I’ve been able to build consistent habits like never before. With no interruptions to my developing routines, I’ve seen improvements in both my work and rest.
So, before we rush headlong out of lockdown, I think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves a few other questions about how our lives have changed and what we might be able to salvage for the future.
52 questions to answer before leaving lockdown
Readers of this newsletter come from all over the world, from extremes of both the World Clock and the Covid-19 infection scale.
It seems like the UK is slowly shaking itself off and starting to pick up old habits. But perhaps you are only now battening down the hatches, perhaps you have already returned to some semblance of work and play.
Wherever you find yourself, the idea of these questions is to build up a picture of your life under lockdown, to reflect on how your context has moulded your behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, to ponder on what and how you would change for the future.
I’ve split the 52 questions into 9 sections:
I’m not going to even suggest that you sharpen your pencils and set aside three hours; this isn’t an exam. Feel free to let the questions wash over you as you read, and simply notice what bubbles to the surface.
How do you start your day? List the first ten things that you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
How do you end your day? List the last ten things you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
Think about a typical day in lockdown. What are you doing regularly now that you wouldn’t have done before Covid-19? What old habits have fallen away?
Is there anything you miss from your old life? Why do you miss these things?
What activities have been most important to your mental health over the past three months? Have these become habits? Would you keep them or adapt them?
Where have you been spending most of your time?
Name at least three things that you appreciate about where you’ve been staying.
Think about your best habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it better supports your best habits?
Think about your worst habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it inhibits your worst habits?
What places outside your home have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
How have your travel habits changed? What modes of transport are you using now? Has this made your life better or worse?
How’s your physical health? How do you feel in your body?
How’s your mental health? How do you feel in your mind?
How have you been keeping fit? How would you change your exercise if you could magically do anything, with anyone?
How are your sleep patterns? Better or worse? Earlier or later? Regular or irregular? Are you napping? Dreaming?
Have your eating habits changed at all? What’s your diet like? Are you eating more, less or the same? Where are you when you eat? What are you doing while eating? What food has been particularly important you over the past three months?
How’s your oral hygiene?
How have your relationships with others changed?
Have you formed any new friendships? Or rekindled old friendships?
Have you been using any new forms of communication? Would you keep them or adapt them to the new context?
How has your relationship to yourself changed?
Who are you speaking to the most? Who has been particularly important for your mental health over the last three months?
Who have you been neglecting?
Is there anyone—you don’t have to know them personally—that you’d like to say thank you to? Or say sorry to?
How has work changed for you over the past three months? Are you working more, less or the same?
How are your working days organised now? How is that different to before?
Has anything changed at work, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? If yes: do you want to keep, adapt or develop these changes?
What part of your work or business has disappeared? Do you want or need it back?
What is important or essential about your work? Can you uncover or emphasise these elements in the future?
Are there any educational opportunities you’d like to arm yourself with for the future?
What might your working future be like? In a disaster scenario? And in a perfect world? What can you do to start making those futures a reality?
How have your shopping habits changed?
Have you bought more or less than you used to? If that’s a hard question to answer, look at the raw numbers: have you spent more or less?
Can you remember how you used to shop and spend money? Would you like to go back to those days? Would you rather keep or adapt your new shopping habits?
What possessions have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
Are there any possessions that you thought were essential, but haven’t even thought of using since lockdown?
What clothes have you been wearing most?
Do you feel more or less a part of society?
What’s most important for the healthy running of our society? What’s the significance of being a citizen in our society? What role does government, both local and national, have to play in our society? How would you like to participate?
If you could change one thing about our society, what would that be? Could you take one small step today to help make that change a reality?
What have you learned about your neighbours? About your local area? Who are the key workers for you? What are the most important businesses?
What’s the first thing you’d do if you were allowed to travel and meet people freely?
What’s important to you this coming summer or winter? What are your three highest priorities?
What are you most worried about as you emerge from lockdown?
Think about how you felt as the news filtered in about the deaths in China, the arrival of Covid-19 in your country and the announcement of lockdown measures. How did your past self feel about all this uncertainty at the time? How do you feel towards your past self now? How do you think your future self will handle future uncertainty?
What areas of life do you think you’re handling well during lockdown?
What do you think you could have done better? How? Can you think of anyone who you thought managed those problems particularly well? What could you learn from them? If you’re not sure: ask them.
Do you feel more or less resilient and ready for the future? No matter what your answer: why do you think you feel this way? What steps could you take to feel more sure-footed?
What have you noticed about the changing seasons? The weather, the trees, the birds, the plants? The smells, the sounds, the colours, the growth?
If you look after household pets or plants: what have you noticed about their lives during lockdown?
What scents have been particularly important to you during lockdown? What sights? What sounds? What tastes? What other sensations?
What music, art and literature has been particularly important to you during lockdown? Why?
Don’t panic, I’m not really going to bore you with my laborious answers to all 52. But I will finish the one I started to answer at the top, about the changes in my immediate environment.
As well as spending 74 consecutive nights in one place, I’ve also taken an equally unheard of zero train journeys.
In the 10 weeks prior to lockdown I took 21 rail journeys, spending a little over £40 and 5 hours on trains every week.
This is remarkably consistent with my travel habits across the whole of 2019, when I took 2.5 journeys and spent £40 on trains for every week I was in the UK.
Nice stats, but what have I learned?
My train travel is a change of context. The way I travel is not like commuting from one familiar context to another; it’s more disruptive than I thought.
Changing context so frequently is harmful to my habits, which thrive in stability. For example: a late train back from London interrupts my evening routine. Interrupted evening habits means worse sleep, which means a less productive morning and a drop in my sense of wellbeing.
I have a new respect for habits. My work habits are the rockbed of my productivity, as my health and fitness habits are of my wellbeing.
Therefore I should be more careful about how and when I travel, particularly when I can’t or don’t want to take a break.
The case for creative stability
There are quite a few things I wouldn’t change about my lockdown life and travelling less frequently is one.
Without long train journeys to disrupt my daily and weekly routines, my second self does all the heavy lifting: automatically preparing for work, systematically feeding, clothing and watering myself, habitually letting my fingers fly over the keyboard for hours on end.
In turn, this easy automation of the second self gives time and space for my executive self to do what he does best: creative direction.
As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890):
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.
With little variation in my 24 hours, a surprising amount of writing work has been possible. Knowing now the benefits of creative stability, I will think twice about how and when I surrender the environment in which my second self thrives best.
Of course, I’ll still travel—if only to slow down time a little. Without changes in context, the days blur into each other and our perception of time condenses forgettably.
Routine might make us more productive and more content, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for great stories!
I know that I’ve been very lucky with my lockdown so far, but I hope that you’ve also discovered something interesting about your daily life.
I also hope you’ve found these questions worthwhile and have enjoyed taking a moment to think about where we are now. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share any of your findings.
Finally, if you know anyone who might also enjoy these questions, feel free to share the post. Thanks!
This post was written as a thank you to the generous folk who have donated to my Help Refugees x Thighs of Steel fundraiser. Collectively, we’re riding around the world to raise vital funds for refugees facing COVID-19 in dire conditions.
If you get anything out of this blog, I’d be very grateful if you could chuck us a few quid. Thanks!
I recently finished reading Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and I thought I’d share a little more and introduce you to your own ‘second self’.
‘The world of habit is so self-contained,’ Wood writes, ‘it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.’
The distinction between these two ‘selves’ will be familiar if you’ve ever read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he describes the differences between System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (attention) thinking.
But where Kahneman is resigned to the incorrigibility of human error in System 1, Wendy Wood celebrates the superhuman strengths of our second self and urges us to harmonise our two selves or systems.
This is an idea with a long, if partially forgotten, lineage. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James declared:
‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.’
Both selves have strengths and weaknesses, but Wendy Wood argues that for too long we have ignored or maligned the second self:
‘If our noisy, egotistical consciousness takes all the credit for the actions of our silent habitual self, we’ll never learn how to properly exploit this hidden resource. Habits will be a silent partner, full of potential energy but never asked to perform to their fullest.’
It’s time we got to know our second selves.
Introducing David and Dave
So I have two selves: isn’t this great news? To get away from total confusion, let’s call them Dave and David.
Until now, David has been the all-conquering, egotistical genius taking the praise for everything this body accomplishes. As far as David is concerned, writing these words is an act of sheer will alone – the finely tuned composition and typing habits of Dave have nothing to do with anything. David is the ego-self, or Kahneman’s System 2.
In contrast, Dave goes about his business quickly, quietly and easily – automatically, in fact. Dave is the second self or Kahneman’s System 1.
We know almost too much about David, so forget him for a minute (he’s throwing a strop already). What, according to the science so far, are Dave’s strengths and weaknesses?
Let’s start with the weaknesses because that’ll keep David happy for a second:
Completely thoughtless and utterly uncritical.
Heavily dependent on familiar cues, he’s a total fish out of water in even a slightly different context.
Can’t react to changing events and will carry on executing the same orders, regardless of whether the result is actually useful any more.
Can suck the fun out of anything, even the most exquisite romance, by sheer repetition.
Can’t set his own conscious goals.
Doesn’t Dave sound like an idiot? Yes he does, but stop judging and let’s look at his strengths for a second.
Can’t be bribed with rewards. Can’t be punished either.
Doesn’t need willpower to resist temptation: simply executes. Almost impossible to distract.
Utterly committed to delivering relentlessly, effortlessly, day after day after day, through good times and bad.
Cheap to run. Doesn’t guzzle calories like profligate David does.
Very chilled. Dave doesn’t panic, worry or ever get confused about what to do
Actually thrives in times of stress or when the body is tired, hungry, sleep deprived.
Incredibly fast – so fast that action comes before even thought (Dave is Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’).
Waaaaay tougher, stronger and more resilient than weeny David.
Highly skilled. It’s Dave who can play guitar, speak pretty good English, chop vegetables with a sharp knife, and ride a bike (although not all at the same time) (yet). Dave can be trained to do almost anything.
Makes life feel meaningful (say what? for real – this is Dave’s domain)
Although Dave might not set goals initially, it’s Dave who achieves my goals and, through his repeated actions, ends up deciding what I value. Mind blown.
Dave sounds like a total LEGEND!
Not one, but two of Wendy Wood’s studies (2002, 2005) found that 43 percent of our behaviour is automatic. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, then the sooner David lets Dave strut his stuff, the better it’ll be for both (?) of us (!).
As Wendy Wood concludes in Good Habits, Bad Habits, working in harmony with our second self isn’t only more productive, it’s also ‘a simpler, more integrated way to live your life.’
We all live habitually already. Most of us just aren’t aware of it. And because of that, we’re ignoring a big part of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re also ignoring all the many ways we could be doing things better.
Sometimes I forget to breathe. I’ll notice that I haven’t taken a deep breath in the last hour (or week) and, standing by the sink in the kitchen or staring into the pixels of my computer screen, I’ll consciously make the effort.
I’ve spoken to plenty of people who feel the same: we’re shallow breathers. But given how wonderful that first deep breath feels, wouldn’t we love to breathe a little deeper all the time?
After all, the air is right there, waiting for us to swallow it down to the bottom of our lungs. There are deep, inexhaustible breathfuls of air all around us, all the time. And breathing can do wonderful things.
Air doesn’t care whether we clear landmines for a living or make bullets for child soldiers in the Central African Republic. No matter: air is there for us.
Air gives us breath in abundance: we take as much as we please, almost without noticing. And, on the exhale, we pump out that sweet, sweet carbon the trees thrive on.
Breath in, breath out: the atmosphere is kept in balance. It is the base unit of our existence—and the existence of every living being on the planet. Air must be circulated. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down.
This is exactly like love.
Love is nothing special. Love isn’t something that we have to mine from the sweat of our brow. Love isn’t something tangible like fruit or clothing. It’s not even something purely conceptual like war or money.
It’s like the air: almost ludicrously abundant, the fundamental currency of life. Intangible, but real; everywhere, but invisible.
We might not be able to see the air, but we can all feel it: the rustle of the wind in the trees or the almost imperceptible caress of a zephyr on our cheek. At other times, the air is master of our existence: trapped inside a hurricane or in a storm on the high seas.
So too love: if we stop we can usually feel love even on the calmest of days. But love is no less there even when we can’t perceive it, in the same way that the air is no less there because we can’t feel the wind or see the trees swaying.
We don’t need to notice or think about the air in order to breathe. All we need to do is let our autonomic system do its thing.
Like the air, love is always there for us, unconditional. We only need to open our nostrils, throat and lungs and breathe: love in, love out.
Of course, neither air nor love are always entirely wholesome. We have polluted air and we have polluted love. Most people some of the time have moments when they find it hard to breathe—most people some of the time find love hard to feel, detect, receive or return.
But tapping off another living being’s supply of love is akin to standing on the hose that pumps oxygen into the lungs of a ICU patient.
Maybe, I thought one morning as I awoke from an aural dream, maybe I’m worrying too much. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe I don’t have to do anything for love except let my autonomic system do the easy work: breath in, breath out.
The out breath is important. We can’t stockpile air: we’d explode. We can’t stockpile love either. Love is desperate for circulation. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down. So we don’t hold our breath: we breathe out.
My breathing is shallow. Next time I’m standing by the sink or staring into the pixels, I’ll imagine I’m breathing in all the love in the world—wouldn’t I breathe deeply then?
And wouldn’t I breathe out as deeply, because I want to share this carbon with the trees and this love with all living beings.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)
Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.
Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.
The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.
We are all antifragile
Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.
Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.
In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.
Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.
This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.
It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.
Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.
Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’
‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.
Remind you of any recent events?
This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.
The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.
But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.
Change your environment, change your behaviour
Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.
Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.
The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.
For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.
But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.
All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.
As NEF put it:
When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.
Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.
Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.
A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.
So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.
Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.
I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.
This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.
I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.
But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?
We don’t want ‘normal’
Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.
It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.
But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.
Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.
My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.
When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.
But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.
It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.
So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.
(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)
The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.
Smug as fuck.
We’ve. Got. Time.
It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.
I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.
But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.
As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.
It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.
My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.
Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.
Over to us
Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.
Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?
My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.
This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.
I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.
Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.
Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.
For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably PowerPoint presentations with my dad.
But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.
The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!
And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.
This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.
This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:
I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.
Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.
Coronavirus is crap. Isolation is brilliant. I’ve spent approximately thirty-seven and a half years of my life trying to please other people and now I find myself entirely alone.
I know everyone loves bigging up their own particular foibles, but of all the neuroses of humanity people pleasing is surely the most pernicious.
First of all: a definition, my definition.
‘People pleasing’ is what happens when you worry too much about what other people might think of you, your behaviour and your life choices.
People pleasing isn’t merely finding it hard to say ‘no’ or a vague desire for everyone to like you. It goes much, much deeper than that, inveigling its needy little voice into every decision you make.
Your own personal pleaszus
Personally, I hear people pleasing as an internal voice of varying pitch and volume that chirps up before, during and after almost any choice or action.
It applies to thoughts great and small — and even to things over which I have no control, like my skin colour, place of birth and fondness for the word ‘quagmire’.
People pleasing kicks in no matter whether my behaviour materially affects anyone else, and regardless of whether anyone has ever even implied that they’re judging me.
‘I’m a writer’ — what do you think about that, friends?
‘I might buy some oat milk’ — any objections, random stranger?
‘Quagmire’ — is that okay by you, planet earth?
As you can imagine, it’s exhausting.
In my case, people pleasing tends to go alongside that ancient and noble art that counsellors admonish as ‘mindreading’ — I assume that I understand other people’s thought processes without actually asking them.
In other words, rather than double checking that the people I’m trying to ‘please’ actually give a shit, I tie my stomach up in knots trying to take into account whatever I imagine their lofty opinions might be.
You’re very welcome, people.
Please please me
Most of us — I’m including my former self — believe that people pleasing is one of three things. Moving up the scale, we think that people pleasing is either:
A charming and considerate personality trait.
A total waste of time because the people you’re trying to please won’t notice, don’t care or are disfiguringly ungrateful.
People pleasing is none of these things. (It is a waste of time, but not for those reasons.)
It’s taken four weeks of living with myself, with next to zero face-to-face critical feedback or approval, for me to realise that people pleasing is nothing — nothing — but passing the buck.
People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. End of. (It’s not the end of, there’s more — keep reading. Please?)
Mind games, forever
In life, we all have choices — or at least the illusion of choices.
Embedded in every choice is a dollop of responsibility. Some people take responsibility for their own choices and some people don’t. People pleasers fall into the second category.
A concrete example is in order.
Mind 1: People pleasing
Ooh, maybe I should drop everything and become an academic because both of my parents have PhDs and I’m sure they secretly want me to be a professor.
Note how my interior monologue is subtly passing the responsibility for my genuine, if far-fetched, choice over whether to become an academic onto my parents. It’s not really my decision, my little voice says, it’s theirs by proxy.
Worse still, this people pleasing is based on a completely fictitious version of my parents: they’ve never even hinted that they might like me to work in academia.
In this mind, I’m not choosing for myself; I’m trying to second guess what someone else might choose for me.
Mind 2: Non people pleasing
Ooh, maybe I could drop everything and become an academic! Hm. I could ask my parents what they think, particularly my mum, who got her PhD in her fifties. Why did she decide to go back to university? That’d be really helpful to know and might give me a clue as to what I could expect from academia. But we’re different people and, whatever I choose, I will choose for myself, not for her or anyone else.
Isn’t this amazingly rational? After all, there’s nothing wrong in having far-fetched ideas like dropping everything to become an academic. Ultimately, though, the decision-making buck stops with me.
After hearing Mind 2, it seems hard to believe that anyone would think like Mind 1, but believe me it happens. And if the Internet is anything to go by, it happens a lot.
The other side of the mirror
People pleasing is a two person game, although the second player is usually reluctant. The people I am supposed to be ‘pleasing’ must either accept the responsibility I’m trying to subcontract — or they can reject it.
It’s an unwinnable game with only two outcomes:
I’ve not met anyone who can take bear responsibility for another adult human’s choices without buckling under the weight of expectation. The friendship is strained, the work becomes hard and everyone loses.
But if player two chooses to reject the responsibility (as they must eventually), that only hurts the people pleaser — and exacerbates their anxiety to please. It’s back to square one, or it’s game over.
You see, people pleasing isn’t only damaging for the pleaser; it’s also a cruel gift for the people we’re trying to please, usually those we love the most.
This is why I say people pleasing is so pernicious: people pleasers hide behind their ‘niceness’, but in truth it’s a poisoned chalice.
So far, so depressing.
‘And with a single mighty bound, he was free!’
Lockdown has been many things for many people, but for me it has been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sit with myself, almost in hermitage.
One thing I’ve realised is that I really look forward to seeing people — as you would expect for a people pleaser. Quite often I would look at my calendar and fix on some future social event: going for a group run or ride, writing Foiled with my co-writer or going up to Bristol to play Frisbee with friends.
And then I’d just sort of fill time until then.
Yes, I would do some tasks that to the untrained eye might look productive, but often I hadn’t really taken responsibility for those tasks. I would do them competently, but mechanically, worried that someone would be upset if I didn’t.
I would subcontract my responsibility.
But since the middle of March the coronavirus has stripped away all of the things by which I would normally mark time. With the empty months stretching out before me, I faced a stark choice — and one for which no one else could possibly take responsibility because all the people I might hope to please are in lockdown too.
Coronavirus has made people pleasing impossible.
So what on earth does the people pleaser do when he knows he’ll not see another human being for a couple of months?
There’s only one practical choice left: he must take responsibility. And not only for the work that he’s committed to for the next couple of months, but for all the choices he’s made over the past thirty-seven and a half years that have brought him to this point.
This is a tremendously liberating feeling, impossible to overstate, almost impossible to put into words. That inveigling little voice? It’s not mine. It’s an eccentric visitor, a curiosity rather than a compass, like a stock photograph on the wall of a corridor.
Edith Eger is a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. Her book The Choice tipped the first domino of this mindshift. Particularly this passage:
Most of us want a dictator — albeit a benevolent one — so we can pass the buck, so we can say, “You made me do that. It’s not my fault.” But we can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet. A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.
I feel like I have stepped out from under someone else’s umbrella — and this whole time it wasn’t even raining.
It may feel like our days are shrinking, that our expansive social and working lives are being stolen away from us.
The reality is that our lives are now being lived in the details, and it is in the details, as any artist or scientist knows, that we find our richest rewards.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Viktor Frankl likens human suffering to gas spreading through a chamber:
[M]an’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
The same metaphor, I would argue, could apply to almost any aspect of human experience, including curiosity, fascination and excitement.
But whereas suffering expands to our limits without much effort on our part, I think most of us have to work a little harder for these positive emotions to fill our chamber.
We might feel, since lockdown, that we’ve lost the richness of experience that comes from travelling up to London for the day, cycling into the country on a weekend, or hiking the Peak District for a week.
Some of us might even pang for the forbidden pleasures of formless office meetings, or fondly remember the frustration of traffic jams that held us up, once upon a time, when we had somewhere to go.
It might feel like we’ve lost something to our days and that the nights, though sleepless, can’t come soon enough.
But those lost experiences could only ever have swollen to fill a finite chamber, the finite chamber that is our destined interval of consciousness on earth.
The experiences that Newtonian physics demands must inevitably replace those that are ‘lost’ will, if we only get out of the way of ourselves, swell to fill an identical space in our soul.
The only thing we need is a little fascination for the details.
Rather than the broad strokes of outlandish living, rather than the transcontinental love affairs, the nights out on the dancefloor, the boozy Sunday roasts with friends and family, we choose to exist for now on a smaller scale, in among the overlooked details of our lives.
Be like the mycologist, who could happily spend a dozen lifetimes exploring the thousands of fungi that inhabit a handful of soil.
From where I stand at my desk, I can see sun-facing rooftops covered in bright yellow lichen — Xanthoria parietina (‘grows on walls’).
This week, in among the details, buried in books and podcasts and open access science papers, I learnt that lichen is not one organism, but two.
Most lichens are a mutualist symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, a collaboration that dates back hundreds of millions of years.
Long before humans discovered agriculture, fungi learned to farm algae for the energy they generate from photosynthesis.
(Side note: it’s not just agriculture we have in common; fungi are more closely related genetically to humans than they are to the algae they have domesticated — or indeed to any other plant species.)
I also learnt that lichens cover eight percent of the earth’s surface — more than is covered by tropical rainforest.
Without lichens, there might be no life on earth. They mine minerals from sheer rock and form the first soils in otherwise barren ecosystems. Lichen has been found inside lumps of granite.
Lichens have given us antibiotics, Harris tweed and, as black stone flower, garam masala.
I don’t suppose that I’ll look at that rooftop in quite the same way again. Will you?
All about us are the tools of enquiry — our senses, our curiosity and vast repositories of knowledge waiting to be dusted off and discovered. (I’m talking about the Internet.)
Has anyone else noticed how quiet the world is now? How ripe for observation?
That photograph at the top of the page, of the 140 million year old fossilised tree: I would never have noticed that staggering lump of palaeontology if it weren’t for the ‘boredom’ of lockdown.
There is an openness to the world right now. In our long days, we have time to notice the things that were once drowned out by the clamour of ‘business as usual’.
Rather than asking, ‘What’s on Netflix?’, we find ourselves asking instead, ‘How does the haze form, that makes this sunset so beautiful?’
Like the lichen on the rooftops opposite, everywhere we look there are questions that could seed many lifetimes of fascination, with each new discovery opening up new tunnels of exploration like the hyphae that forage and fracture to create the mycelium network that breaks up and becomes the soil beneath our feet.
Fascination is built from the combination of curiosity and imagination; given those ingredients, it is boundless. If you’re not sure, check the ingredients list on your garam masala.
I’m currently reading Edith Eger’s book The Choice. Like Viktor Frankl, Eger also survived the Holocaust. Like Frankl, Eger also moved to the US, also became a psychologist and also wrote a fascinating book about her experiences.
In April 1944, crammed into a cattle carriage with a hundred other Jews, destined for the gas chambers and smoke stacks of Auschwitz, Eger’s mother told her:
“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”
These words sustained Eger during the year of captivity and abuse that almost killed her a dozen times over.
Our self-isolation is nothing remotely like what Eger and Frankl experienced during the Second World War, but Eger’s mother’s message holds true: it’s time to fill our minds.
You could do a lot worse over the next few weeks than to fill your mind with either The Choice or Man’s Search for Meaning.
After finishing an online game of Codenames on Tuesday night, my friends said goodnight, put down the phone and went their separate ways. I was left alone.
The nothingness swept into the emptiness and I had to sit down.
There’s nothing I look forward to more than seeing my friends. So, for the next couple of months, I have nothing to look forward to.
That was my thinking.
I undressed for an early night, hoping for consolation between the sheets of my bed, between pages of a book.
Then the phone rang. I looked at the unknown number, and unexpectedly answered.
It was a good friend I hadn’t spoken to for four, five years and my thinking was thrown on its head.
When life looks loneliest, there are people thinking and caring about you. Sometimes they’ll ring at that precise moment; sometimes they won’t and you’ll never realise unless you look at things in another way.
Sometimes these thoughtful people are friends, old or new; sometimes they’re people you barely knew, who crossed your path but once on the streets of New York, who you know can never find you or call you, but who are thinking about you with a smile, singing a song for you nonetheless.
Am I alone? There’s always another way of looking at things.
Here in Bournemouth, hundreds of people are drawn to the seafront. Keeping to the two-metre rule is difficult and demands nimble, if not outright acrobatic footwork.
This could be annoying. It could be an inconvenience. Or it could be the end of perceived isolation. How can I be alone on such a busy beach?
On Wednesday morning, during a half-hour run, I instituted a new rule: say good morning to every person I pass.
Yesterday, I started counting. I ran past 42 people and 32 of them, much surprised, said good morning back, making me fist-pump with pleasure.
(The other 10 mostly had headphones on so probably didn’t notice me.)
Perhaps now the time is ripe for extravagant enthusiasm: for us to go beyond everyday norms and stake out the boundaries of the world we want to see, rather than the world penned by the apparent limits of quarantine.
Extravagant: to wander out of bounds; fantastically absurd, flagrantly excessive behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.
Enthusiasm: possession by a god; inspired greatness; a deifying of terrestrial behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.
After all, I’d rather be known as the guy who says good morning to everyone than as the guy who… well, almost anything else, right? Perhaps this is the fourth sign of ageing: a contraction of ambition to the point where being known for decency is the pinnacle of heroism, but still…
A poster has recently been put up on Bournemouth seafront. It’s a crowdfunding campaign to buy a stroller for an elderly dog. The dog, the poster informs us, usually accompanies a man who has picked tonnes of litter from the beach over the years of daily exercise.
I don’t know anything about this man, except that he is known for his prodigious litter picking, for his extravagant enthusiasm for making our world more pleasant.
In isolation and loneliness, extravagant enthusiasm is a classic Stoic intervention: working within stringent limitations to explore hidden expanses of freedom.
Some ideas for extravagant enthusiasm:
Greet everyone. No exceptions. If you’re overtaking, then wait until you’re level or slightly ahead and then turn: most people will look at you.
Establish eye contact well in advance. This is not a drive-by; this is a firm, positive connection.
It doesn’t have to be ‘good morning’. ‘Alright?’, ‘Beautiful day!’ and similar all work. Vary your game if you get bored.
Don’t be intimidated by groups or people in conversation: be confident and cheerful. You’re not interrupting; you’re like the weather: warm, sunny and just there.
Maintain eye contact after speaking. People will be surprised and think that you can’t possibly be wishing them well. Disabuse them of this notion.
If it gets weird, add a nod or a thumbs up.
Thumbs up is the perfect sign language for people wearing headphones and people at a greater distance as well.
Feel free to continue the chat at a safe distance.
You know why big retailers have loyalty cards, don’t you? Yep — so they can build a picture of your shopping habits and the shopping habits of three generations of humankind and use all this data to sell you more stuff. Cool.
The data these cards collect is a significant revenue stream for supermarkets.
Did you know, for example, that Tesco has its own international data analysis company, Dunhumby? They’re actually a pretty big deal, employing over three thousand people in more than thirty countries worldwide, analysing the habits of over 1.3 billion shoppers.
And their analysis can result in some terrifyingly precise marketing campaigns that exploit ‘downstream-plus-context-change’ interventions.
Your supermarket loyalty card scheme will know when you fall pregnant — sometimes before you’ve told anyone else — and will start bombarding you with advertising in an attempt to change your habits so that you’re more profitable for them.
Companies like Dunhumby know that if they can get you now, when your context is changing, when your life is in turmoil, then they stand a good chance of keeping you after the baby arrives and your shopping habits ossify once again. Cool, huh?
This is what we’re interested in.
There’s nothing sinister about downstream-plus-context-change interventions as such: they’re a powerful tool for breaking and reforming robust habits when changing your intention is no longer enough.
‘Downstream’ simply means that you’re in control of the intervention directly (rather than, say, obeying government policy imposed on you ‘upstream’) and ‘context-change’ represents those times in life when big stuff is happening: when you take a new job, move to a new city, start a family — or freak out during a global pandemic.
These are moments when you are vulnerable to substantial and enduring habit change. An opportunity to change ourselves forever. These moments are rare.
Side story: the same mechanism might be on offer during psychedelic trips. The snow globe of your mind is turned upside down and almost everything is up for grabs.
I’ll mention one hopeful grocery-based example here. Yesterday I ran out of fruit and vegetables, so I cycled along to the greengrocer. On my way there, I passed two-metre-spaced queues snaking out of a customer-restricted Tesco Express (housed, shudderingly, inside a deconsecrated church).
When I got to the greengrocer, the shelves were almost audibly complaining about the weight of colourful stacks of seasonal vegetables. Huge sacks of potatoes and other hearty roots were piled up on the cramped shop floor, as if in mocking defiance of the empty supermarket chains.
After filing up my panniers, I asked the woman at the till whether she was busier than normal. ‘A lot busier,’ she said. ‘Hopefully, after this is all over, they’ll keep coming back.’
Thanks to this context-change intervention of Covid-19, I think there’s a good chance this shopkeeper will be quietly pleased come Autumn.
Switching lanes: what other habits could we loop-the-loop with?
I’m a freelance writer, so — as I mentioned last week — my worklife hasn’t actually changed much. I still don’t go to the office, I still don’t chat to colleagues over a brew, I still don’t meet face-to-face with customers or clients.
I work mostly alone, in isolation, as normal.
What has changed, however, is my social connection. And not for the worse.
Over the past week, I have had twenty-six conversations with friends on the phone. As well as these conversations, I’ve also taken part in a virtual pub quiz with rooms full of friends, played online Codenames and Pictionary, had several massive Zoom video meetups — and, of course, cycled off on a remote Thighsolation group ride with a whole peloton of pals from around the world.
Because I need professional help, I have kept a spreadsheet of every single phone call or face-to-face meeting I’ve had with friends over the past three years. Happily, that means we can compare data.
Corona Isolation: 26 conversations
20-26 February 2020: 8 conversations
20-26 January 2020: 18 conversations
20-26 March 2019: 18 conversations
20-26 March 2018: 8 conversations
Weird palindromic pattern in the non-corona numbers.
Ordinarily, I’m pretty isolated, averaging less than two conversations with friends or family per day.
This past week, in contrast, I have had more than three and a half conversations with friends every day.
Obviously, for most people who aren’t freelance WFH writers, this social trend will have been sharply negative. My point isn’t to brag, but to show that change is possible.
If you’re feeling disconnected, then let’s set up a fifteen minute call. What’s to lose? On Tuesday, I had a really nice connection with a friend who got in touch after seeing my Calendly message in last week’s email. Simply book a time slot any day between 6 and 9pm GMT and let’s chat.
There has never been a better time to get into better habits.
We all secretly know this, by the way. It makes me happy to look out of my window and see so many people jogging, cycling and walking past in the sunshine, all discovering what Søren Kierkegaard observed:
Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.
One of the corona-habits I’m pleased to have slammed back into my routine is cold showers. I would write something inspirational about the experience, but James Parker at The Atlantic has done the work for me:
The water hits, and biology asserts itself. You are not a tired balloon of cerebral activity; you are a body, and you are being challenged. You gulp air; your pulse thumps. Your brain, meanwhile, your lovely, furry old brain, goes glacier-blue with shock. Thought is abolished. Personality is abolished. You’re a nameless mammal under a ravening jet of cold water.
How else I would like to change in the crisis?
I’d like to smile at strangers more (not in a creepy way). I noticed last week that I was avoiding eye contact, as if eyesight was corona laser beams. It takes some courage to look someone in the eye and smile, but it’s always worthwhile, especially if you’re otherwise avoiding one another, quite literally, like the plague.
I’d like to spend three hours outside every day. As this isn’t really possible anymore, I’d like to make the most of the time I can spend outside: suck up the sunshine, the scents and smells.
Related: I’d like to do more foraging. Nature’s allotment is overflowing with three-cornered leek and wild garlic at the moment, and a friend taught me last week that the beautiful hawthorn flowers are edible, leaving a delightfully peppery, buttery aftertaste.
Actor, comedian, dear friend and work colleague Beth Granville woke up on Sunday morning with a start: her alarm wasn’t ringing.
She had a sitcom recording to get to.
She grappled with her phone, eyes swimming in an abyss of darkness. An unresponsive power button; rising panic.
Luckily, it appeared that Beth’s phone was the sole victim of a vicious electromagnetic pulse attack, localised in the Wanstead area.
The rest of the capital’s telecommunications network and transport infrastructure was, thankfully, still working and Beth got to the recording studio just in time.
The only embarrassment, apart from losing the phone numbers of every comedy producer she’d met since 2018, came when Beth had to ask someone on the tube what the time was. Lucky not to be arrested, frankly.
But the black screen of death was the harbinger of an unexpected light.
Phoneless Beth picked up a book and finished it in two days.
If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.
Reading is restorative and relaxing in a way that computers or phones will never be.
At the end of my 45 minutes’ reading, I feel enriched in the equal and opposite way that I am exhausted by 45 minutes of browsing the same amount of material on the internet.
A couple of times this week I’ve even taken my book out to the pine woods near where I’m staying in Bournemouth, set up my hammock and gently swung through the pages for an hour or so. (Tuesday was interesting: sunshine and hail.)
This isn’t a lone response from someone who grew up reading.
Note: Fiction seems to offer more to our brains here than non-fiction.
Side note: Science fiction in particular might offer our brains something particularly valuable at the moment — the sense that the future is malleable and open to change.
Books also offer a counterpoint to the pell and mell of news, which I’ve written about and insulted before. As Marcel Proust said, long ago:
The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
One of my reading mentors, Ryan Holiday, deliberately weights his reading choices towards ‘timeless’ books.
‘I don’t want to read things that are very quickly proven irrelevant or incorrect,’ he says in an interview with Tim Ferriss (~1h51). He continues:
You’d be better off sitting down and reading Shakespeare’s plays because they have not only had 500 years of cultural impact, but will probably have 500 more years of cultural impact.
Think of what Ryan Holiday calls ‘the halflife of information’. The news that fires itself, cannon-like, out of your radio has a halflife of perhaps a day or two: tomorrow the triviality will be forgotten.
But a book has already proven itself durable: even a book published this year has probably been a couple of years in the making. If a reputable publisher was involved, the ideas and concepts are, if not timeless, then at least enduring.
Too many people write reading off as unproductive and it’s true that sitting down with your head in a book can look an awful lot like doing nothing.
Inside your skull, however, your brain is doing imaginative weight-lifting.
Reading strengthens language processing areas of the brain, as you might expect, but it is also a tremendously embodied experience: we truly live the novels we read.
Explaining the results of a study that showed long-term changes in brain connectivity among 21 people forced to read a Robert Harris novel, a team of neuroscientists from Emory University wrote:
It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity. … Reading stories … affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.
Humans are wonderful fabulists: reading is the next best thing to being there.
Reading itself is a creative act. Of course, good books are full of good ideas and I can’t count the number of passages that have changed the way I write, permanently.