I believe in Minimum Viable Technology

How many devices have you looked at this morning?

I’m on seven.

  • I checked the time on my bedside travel clock
  • I listened to a comedy on my DAB radio
  • I used a stopwatch to time my press ups
  • I wrote my diary using a typewriter
  • I sent a text message on my feature phone
  • I took a photograph with my smartphone
  • I typed these words into my computer

You’ll note that all of these tasks could have been accomplished using only one tool: my smartphone. So why have seven devices when I could have only one?

After all, the smartphone does many things excellently.

Most people in the world will never have owned a camera as good as the one on the back of their smartphone (myself included).

Smartphones have normalised the miracle of GPS navigation, made mobile internet access a pocketable habit, and serve us as powerful micro-computers whose potential is limited only (it seems) by the imaginations of app developers.

I have used my smartphone to practice yoga, answer emails, chat with work colleagues, catch up on the cricket, check train times, monitor my sleep, write blog posts and, of course, track my smartphone usage.

Incredibly, this is quite normal.

But whereas the smartphone is a complex technology, basically indistinguishable from magic to most people (myself very much included), single-purpose tools like my travel clock or DAB radio are what I call Minimum Viable Technology.

Rather than starting out with what the tool can accomplish (Ooh! Look, it’s a clock and a radio and a stopwatch and a phone and a camera AND a yoga teacher!), the principles of Minimum Viable Technology first define what you want from life (Bleeurgh, what’s the time?), and then find the simplest tool to match (a bedside travel clock).

Principles of Minimum Viable Technology

  1. Clearly define the single task at hand
  2. Use the least complex tool that still accomplishes that single task
  3. Stop. Adding. Features. Goddamit.

I believe that such Minimum Viable Technologies offer significant advantages over complex multi-purpose technologies.

1. Focus
It is too easy to switch task when using a multi-purpose tool.

We’ve all been there with smartphones and computers, but it’s equally true of other complex technologies – a house, for example.

Would I be more comfortable in the lounge or the kitchen? Should I lie on the bed or rest in a deck chair in the garden? Does the bedroom need another lick of paint, and when am I going to put up those shelves? Is the heating on too high?

It sounds ridiculous, but the plurality of options and the ease of task switching is detrimental to our ability to focus. And losing focus quite possibly makes us more miserable humans.

2. Quality
Does the blade on my Swiss Army knife have a sharper cutting edge than the cook’s knife in my kitchen? No.

Similarly, does the camera on my smartphone take better photographs than a dedicated SLR? Clearly not.

The best multi-purpose tool will never be superior to the best single-purpose tool, and that has consequences for the way we work (and play).

Are we willing to accept good enough for the best?

In many arenas, the answer will be emphatically yes, but for the most important things in life, the answer simply must be no. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?

3. Waste
There is an argument that using one device to rule them all is less wasteful, and I wouldn’t like to argue with that.

I have now seven devices where one would do and at some point all those devices will end up in landfill and their useless lumps of plastic will out-live me. I feel pretty shitty about that.

But the principles of Minimum Viable Technology tend towards less wasteful behaviour, not more.

For example, the absolute Minimum Viable Technology for cleaning my hair is, quite simply, water. Having grown up in a certain society with certain expectations, however, I have settled on using diluted lemon juice.

No more need to buy expensive (or indeed cheap) shampoos and conditioners. No more need to wonder what all those ingredients are doing to my hair (let alone what happens when I wash them down the sink).

In the final analysis, do I really need my own travel clock? Do I really need my own phone? The wide span of human history argues in the negative. I just don’t have the guts to go without.

4. Skill
If we all use multi-tools, what will become of the artisan and the artist?

The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skill you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road.

Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you have to go back to the approved dealer for repairs.

Technology, as it becomes more complex, leaves in its wake a certain kind of ignorance.

Of course, this ignorance is not always or necessarily a limitation. Drivers who don’t know the first thing about car maintenance (myself included) can instead spend their time on other pursuits – but it doesn’t make them better drivers.


Side Bar: It’s not all about ‘devices’

Technology is everything humans have ever invented to try and make our lives easier, from agriculture and money, to shampoo and footwear.

Here are some other ways that Minimum Viable Technology influences my life choices:

  • I prefer to walk than cycle, if I have the time. This often surprises people who think that I’m a devoted capital-C Cyclist. I am, but also: MVT, baby.
  • I wear ‘barefoot’ shoes that don’t over-complicate the business of keeping my feet warm, dry and protected from sharp stones.
  • I don’t have a gym membership because I can use press up bars and a yoga mat in my own bedroom.
  • I eat a primarily plant-based diet: a more simplistic diet than meat-eating in almost every way, from food production to preparation and digestion.
  • I don’t use supermarkets when there is a low tech greengrocer in town.

If in doubt don’t spend money, say no to ‘upgrades’, and always check the ingredients.


With all this in mind, I believe that my original question should be flipped: Why have only one device when I could have seven?

Rather than depending on complex multi-purpose tools for everything, I believe that we should use them as ‘catch-all’ technologies to mop up the functions that are either unimportant to us, or we simply haven’t had the courage, the time, the money or the wherewithal to replace yet.

My smartphone does only one thing better than any other device I have found: GPS mapping when I’m on my bike.

Does that make it worth having? Frankly, no. I cycled around Britain without GPS: it’s not a big deal.

But my smartphone sweeps up a few other useful functions that are nice to have, but aren’t sufficiently important to me to find a dedicated replacement.

A yoga teacher would be vastly superior to the app on my phone, but I’m just not dedicated enough to make the switch. Likewise, I don’t care enough about photography to buy an actual camera.

And so we come to the 50ft-chameleon of the personal computer.

I wrote a line to myself recently: A computer is not a crutch. And yet that is exactly how I treat it.

My computer is my workstation and playstation combined. It is my portal into the world, and the screen through which I peer. It is the medium of my creativity.

I know that my life could benefit from applying the principles of Minimum Viable Technology to those moments when I turn to my computer screen.

What do I want from life right now? It’s probably not to stand here typing, reading on a screen, or replying to emails.

This computer is so far from being a Minimum Viable Technology that it’s actively keeping me from being the person I want to be.

Woah.

I’ll see you outside!

Further Technologies

  1. Minimum Viable Technology (6 minute read). The tool is not the task. In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use. Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  2. Productivity Positive Constraints (5 minute read). The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all. There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
  3. No Money Mondays (6 minute read). I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.

Look after the weirdos and delete everything

So apparently Facebook have had some bad press recently. What can I add to the debate, other than being smug about being 5 years ahead of the curve?

The way I describe quitting Facebook is that it’s as if a tiny little bit of your brain suddenly becomes available again. I didn’t realise that it was being taken up by Facebook 24 hours a day until I quit. If you haven’t already, and if only for that reason, quit.

If you’re worried about What Might Happen, take courage. After deleting my account, I didn’t get a single twinge of remorse. I didn’t miss a thing, although I do now have no social life (unrelated, I’m sure…) Continue reading Look after the weirdos and delete everything

No No Aeroplanes: 98 Months and Out

I last took a flight in January 2010. I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, of no fixed abode (no change there) and had only been taking writing seriously for a year. I didn’t own a bicycle, had never worn a beard or grown my hair, and knew Cairo better than I knew any town outside London and my county of birth. Continue reading No No Aeroplanes: 98 Months and Out

No Phone (Before Noon)

The best positive constraints are easily explicable and as simple to follow. Before bed, I put my phone on airplane mode and hide it away in a drawer. Then I don’t touch it until after noon the next day. (Unless there is some pressing human need; but that’s only happened twice in the last three weeks.) Continue reading No Phone (Before Noon)

2017: No News is Good News

This year, I have tried my best to ignore the edutainment of what is colloquially known as “The News”.

According to my internet browser history, I have visited only 52 unique pages on the BBC News website this year – previously my number one news source. There was an understandable peak around the General Election (6 pages) and I was also interested in the referendum in Catalonia (3 pages) and the German election (2 pages).

9 of the 52 pages were news stories about sport. My news injunction did not extend to sport: I visited a gluttonous 516 unique pages on the BBC Sport website this year, which gives you some indication of my previous BBC News addiction. Continue reading 2017: No News is Good News

Wim Hof: The Cold is Our Teacher

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

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

The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

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

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

No Tabbed Browsing

WARNING:

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

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

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

Continue reading No Tabbed Browsing

From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

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

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

Continue reading From Syria to Switzerland: Hossam’s Journey

#21: Everything we know about psychedelics is wrong

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

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

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

#20: Three Lessons from a Vipassana Meditation Retreat

The Dark

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

#18: We are all the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#16: National borders were supposed to be temporary

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

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

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

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

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation state as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moneyless Life

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

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

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

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

Debt versus Obligation

Thinking in this moneyless way has profound consequences.

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

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

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

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

Prosocial Spending

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

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

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

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

Happiness is the Opposite of Selfishness

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

There are two clear alternatives:

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: http://moneyless.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#14: Money is Waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

#13: Money is not Generosity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

#12: Supermarket choice is terrible!

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

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

#11: Supermarkets aren’t cheap

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

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

#10: Supermarkets aren’t convenient

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

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

#9: Phones make you dumb, dissatisfied and dangerous

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

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

#8: Getting your phone out makes your conversations shit

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

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

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

#6: TV adverts are awesome

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

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

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

… That’s better than waiting for a bus!

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

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

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

#3 Constraints are Creativity

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

Continue reading #3 Constraints are Creativity

#2 Do Something Different / Become Someone Different

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

Continue reading #2 Do Something Different / Become Someone Different

#1 Dancing Makes You Happy

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

Continue reading #1 Dancing Makes You Happy

Are you experienced?

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

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

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

Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding

In October last year, I started a very exciting experiment with crowdfunding publishers Unbound. We had a target of £10,648, and an initial funding period of 90 days. Sadly for me and the 100+ people who pledged money for my book You Are What You Don’t, earlier this week we acknowleged that, despite raising around £2,400, this experiment should be catalogued under FAILURE. Continue reading Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding

Christmas Bonanza: £5 off, Xmas cards & free books!

Happy Christmas and welcome to my Christmas bonanza!

As you know, I’m publishing my book You Are What You Don’t with Unbound, the publisher where YOU decide what gets written. We’re in the crowdfunding stage at the moment, trying to raise ~£10,000 so that this book can see the light of day. We’ve already raised 16% of the target, but there is a long way yet to go.

So, to nudge you all into pledging, I’m entering into the Christmas spirit and turning You Are What You Don’t into this season’s must have gift. (Well, it sure beats Tickle Me Elmo and a botox anyway.)

If you gift the book to your friends, family, binmen or newsagent, I will:

  1. Write them a handwritten, personalised Christmas card.
  2. Give them a highly sought after You Are What You Don’t badge.
  3. Give YOU £5 off your generous Christmas pledge.

Furthermore, if you pledge for a very special signed first edition hardback (only £30 with the discount), then I will also send you a signed copy of one of my already published books.

And, of course, in Spring 2017, your friend will receive a surprise parcel in the mail – their very own beautiful edition of You Are What You Don’t, with their name in the credits.

Read on for more details on what I think will be a lovely little Christmas present, but first…


How to Give

It’s super simple.

  1. Pledge, using the code xmas5 for a £5 discount (don’t use this if you want the full £5 to go towards the target!)
  2. Change the name in the back of the book to the name of the person you’re giving the book to.
  3. Send me an email through my website with the name and address to send the card, badge and book (either to you so you can present the person with it, or their address for a lovely Christmas surprise).

For the UK, the deadline is Thursday 17 of December to catch the post. Contact me ASAP for international orders. Any questions, likewise: contact me.


So, what’s included in this lovely little Christmas pledge?

A handwritten, personalised Christmas card message from The Author.

I will write your friend / family member / binman / newsagent a personalised Christmas card, including a little story of one of my positive constraints and a tiny challenge for them to try on Christmas Day.

The card will be designed by one of three artist friends, see these pictures for a taster:

Real Design cards (with boggly eyes and glitter)
Real Design Christmas cards (with boggly eyes and glitter)
Amazingness cards
Anna Hillman Christmas cards (Amazingness.com)

Your choice of You Are What You Don’t badge.

These badges went like hot cakes during our launch event a couple of weeks ago. All the cool kids in London are wearing them now!

You Are What You Don't badges
Pretty You Are What You Don’t badges

Which one does your friend need?

  • You Are What You Don’t (in pink and yellow or blue and yellow)
  • No Borders (red and black, only one left!)
  • No Walking (purple and yellow)
  • No Clothes (red and black)
  • No Phone (red and black)
  • No Toilet Paper (blue and yellow)
  • No Money (pink and yellow)
  • No Planes (red and black)
  • No Facebook (red and black)

Remember to tell me in your email which badge you’d like. Otherwise, I’ll just pick a random one myself.

For you, £5 off your very generous Christmas pledge

Thank you for pledging! I know this is probably a great big leap into the darkness. I appreciate it, I really do.

£5 off makes the hardback edition only £15, and the special signed hardback edition, with personalised positive constraint challenge only £30. Postage and packing, I should warn you, is £4.

Go on and pledge using the code xmas5. You deserve it 😉

+ Free book for pledges over £30

If you pledge for the special signed hardback edition, then I’ll send you a free copy of one of my other books to give to your friend on Christmas Day. (Or keep for yourself!)

  • The Soles of My Shoes. The story of my hitch-hike from London to Ben Nevis and back, with pathetic love story and a hitch-hiking how to guide. 170 pages.
  • How to Cycle 4,000 Miles When You Hate Lycra. A short book that will inspire the hapless bicyclist to get off their ass and out on tour. 50 pages.
  • Elevate #10. A collection of essays on political ideas, including answers to many baffling questions including: What is “surveillance capitalism” and how can we cook it? Are artificial volcanoes going to stop global warming? 179 pages.

Be sure to mention this in your email – despite continuing experiments, I’m still not psychic. 🙁

Most excitingly, in Spring 2017, your friend will get a beautiful edition of You Are What You Don’t with their name printed in the back.

Worried about the wait? Don’t be – it’s a good thing! Did you know that we get more pleasure from the anticipation of a thing, than from the thing itself? Guinness were almost right: “Good things come to those who anticipate.”

++ UNEXPECTED SCROOGE BONUS

If the book isn’t funded (BLACKMAIL ALERT: it won’t be if you don’t buy a copy), then you get your money back – cheapest Christmas present ever! 🙂


How to Give

It’s still super simple.

  1. Pledge, using the code xmas5 for a £5 discount (don’t use this if you want the full £5 to go towards the target!)
  2. Change the name in the back of the book to the name of the person you’re giving the book to.
  3. Send me an email through my website with the name and address to send the card, badge and book (either to you so you can present the person with it, or their address for a lovely Christmas surprise).

For the UK, the deadline is Thursday 17 of December to catch the post. Contact me ASAP for international orders. Any questions, likewise: contact me.


Thanks everyone! This will happen with your support. Sorry if it all comes across as the hard sell, but I’m really excited about this book – it’s going to be well worth the wait, I promise. Every day, I hear of more and more people joining in and changing their lives in exciting and creative ways.

Onward!

d

You Are What You Don’t at Elevate Festival

I’m super busy working and writing at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria at the moment. But between catching thoughts, ideas and arguments in my butterfly net of words, I managed to find time for a conversation with Christian Payne, AKA Documentally, which he kindly recorded and uploaded to Audioboom.

We talk about Calais and his recent trip there, as well as positive constraints and new publishing models – including You Are What You Don’t at Unbound.

You can listen to the conversation below and make sure you check out more audio from Documentally at the Elevate Festival – a dozen conversations with people even more fascinating than me! 😉

No Multitasking

The hardest positive constraint ever. Impossible, in fact. Mainly because I had no idea what multitasking was.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is doing more than one thing at exactly the same time. This is what I’m doing right now, in fact: I’m writing this blogpost while listening to Bach’s Toccata in D minor.

Okay, that’s probably not what you think of as multitasking. Writing feels active, while listening feels passive. Nothing bad will happen if I zone out of listening to Bach. Something bad will happen, however, if I zone out of writzifljds.

But I am only able to multitask in this instance because writing and listening to Bach use different parts of my brain. If there were lyrics in this piece of classical music, then I would be unable to multitask writing and listening.

Listening might feel passive, but it’s still a cognitive distraction. Hence why music helps beginner runners forget the pain, but has no effect on more advanced runners – and might even slow them down.

Except for the very rare times when different tasks use different parts of the brain, multitasking is only possible if one of the tasks has been fully automated. I can walk and talk, just about. But that’s pretty much it. I can’t drive safely and talk on the phone at the same time – and neither can you.

Aside from walking and talking, almost everything else that I thought of as multitasking – doing the washing up while cooking dinner, reading a research paper in one window while watching YouTube videos in another, brushing my teeth while tidying away my clothes, speaking to a friend on the phone while scrolling through the rugby scores – isn’t actually multitasking, it’s just rapid task-switching. Or being a dick.

Either way, it sucks.

What is task-switching?

Task-switching is exactly what you think it is: starting one task, then switching to another before the first is finished. This is what I do a lot of. In fact, my day often resembles a vast Russian doll of activity.

Take one simple set of tasks that I performed today, under the title Returning Home From The Greengrocer:

  • I throw my coat onto the sofa, but don’t put it away.
  • I start to unpack my bag, until I reach a banana. Ooh!
  • I unpeel the banana and take a bite. I put down the banana.
  • I finish unpacking my bag, but don’t put the cheese into the fridge.
  • I take the banana over to my computer and check my email. Ooh!

If I’m lucky, the cheese hasn’t completely melted before I get around to finishing the simple task of unpacking groceries sometime around midnight.

Task-switching is what I’m doing when I catch myself automatically going over to my computer while talking to a friend on the phone. It might feel like I can scroll while talking – but I can’t. How on earth can I read about Scotland getting cheated in the Rugby World Cup while also listening and reacting to my friend’s story about her leaking pond? It’s impossible.

Instead, my brain rapidly switches between the two tasks, so fast that I pretend to myself that I really am multitasking. But I’m bound to miss something (just like referee Craig Joubert in the rugby) and then there’ll be an awkward pause in the conversation. “Hmm? What, sorry?”

But it’s too late – the conversation has gone sour.

Why multitasking is bad, according to science

There is one positive aspect of task-switching that I know of, but it’s certainly not the random, distraction-led task-switching that so many of us get addicted to. Ending a task before it’s finished means that your subconscious can work on the problem without you, while you do the washing up or go for a walk.

This is useful only in a restricted field of activity – putting my coat away doesn’t require a creative breakthrough – and only after you’ve put in a sustained period of effort into the task already.

How did I do?

This has been super hard, but worth it – and for two reasons that stretch beyond the science-supported examples above.

Mono-tasking makes things more fun. I’ve found that, when I’m task-switching, I enjoy each task much less. If I throw all of my attention into cooking and then eating dinner, I will enjoy the rich sensual experience fully. If, however, I’m half-watching an episode of Maigret while shovelling porridge into my face, then I’ll not fully enjoy either.

I’ve started a new morning habit that attempts to instill this mono-tasking frame of mind: reading 20 pages of my book. Sitting down and reading 20 pages can only be done by mono-tasking and I’ve found that this new habit has disrupted my old task-switching routine of thrashing around on my computer, checking email, brushing my teeth, going to the toilet, showering and cramming in breakfast.

Secondly, the exclusive attention of mono-tasking is an extremely powerful tool – and not just for learning, getting tasks done quickly or enjoying my food. As more and more of us get distracted by task-switching devices like our phones, a little burst of exclusive attention lavished on us feels more and more special.

So when you’re with other people, agree to switch off your phones and hide them in a drawer. Because mono-tasking = love.

 

You Are What You Don’t: LAUNCH!

Just a swift note to say that my book on positive constraints has finally hit the crowdfunding shelves (hurrah!). Read more – and watch my scandalous No Clothes promo video – on the Unbound website. Or go right ahead and SUPPORT THIS BOOK!

You Are What You Don’t is an unconventional celebration of what happens when you turn your habits on their head. What if you tried to live with no aeroplanes, mobile phones, supermarkets, money, English or borders? Not appealing yet? Okay, what if I did?

This loving-crafted book is part (mis)adventure story and part philosophical / psychological / sociological investigation of why we do what we do – and what happens when we don’t.

To catch more of a literary whiff, read this free sample chapter on No Walking. Yes, I didn’t walk for a whole day – much more fun and educational than it sounds. Although it did end in comic tragedy. But enough.

What is Unbound?

Unbound are a publisher for the 21st century. You won’t believe this, but publishing used to consist entirely of bleached skeletons holding glasses of sherry stumping up millions of pounds to put out a book, written on dead organic matter by another sherry-toting skeleton, in the vain hope that someone in the Skeleton Sherry Review of Books would like it. Madness.

Unbound, on the other hand, lovingly proffer their books to the shooting zoo of the internet. In this digital Darwinian discotheque, if a book sounds like a good idea, then you and I will want to put up money to make it happen. Simple. Be my guest.

Miraculously, it works. Check them out – loads of fully funded books by intelligent humans. And Steven Gerrard. Only joking of course  – his header against AC Milan in 2005 alone surpassed the intelligence of a whole keyboard full of correctly employed semi-colons.

Anyway. I digress. Of course it works: it’s the internet, where YOU run the show.

This cunning crowdfunding business model means there is next to zero risk to the publisher – if a book doesn’t reach its funding target, then no one has lost anything (pledgers get their money back, no questions asked). And this means they can take on unproven or risky prospects (= me).

It also means that the book must prove it has at least 500 people willing to buy the thing, which avoids embarrassment and wasted time all round.

That win-win becomes a win-win-win when you factor in the fact that everyone who pledges for the book gets, not only a special hardback edition, but also their name in the credits. Never before has it been so easy to pretend you’re a medieval sherry-swilling skeleton.

So, go, do – pledge!

Without you, this won’t happen. The task is, frankly, daunting, but I believe in the book, I believe in the ideas behind the book and I believe in you, dear reader.

As a little fillip, Unbound say that if I can reach 30% in the first 30 days then we’re odds-on to reach our target. So it’d really be awesome if you could share this around and dig around the back of the sofa for a sneaky tenner or what have you.

THANKS!

ps: We’ll be throwing a wee party on the evening of the 19th of November, at the Horse and Stables pub in Waterloo, London. This will essentially consist of me talking + booze + free badges + live music + a man standing on his hands. So that’s loads of fun and you’re invited. Now go and watch that video. It’s gold.

No Stuff

My name is David Charles and I own 975 things. That figure would be comfortably over 1000, but those other bits and pieces are scattered around other people’s houses so I’m going to ignore them for the moment.

That figure does however include 12 colouring pencils, 11 batteries (mostly AAA), 10 incense cones, 9 screwdrivers, 8 magnets, 7 plants, 6 thirty inch bungee ropes, 5 souvenir coins, 4 feathers, 3 juggling balls, 2 old bits of wood and a partridge in a pear tree*.

(*Probably.)

Wait a second, wait a second. You counted all your stuff?

Oh yeah. I forget that’s a weird thing to do. I come from a family that has a proud history of counting stuff and putting the data into spreadsheets.

In my opinion, our magnum opus is my dad’s spreadsheet of everything he might want to take on holiday. Not so special, you might think, until I tell you that everything is meticulously weighed. The spreadsheet includes memorable data lines like “Credit cards: 1g”.

This means that he can, not only ensure he falls within stringent baggage weight limits, but also politely inform airport staff of any inaccuracies in their equipment when weighing his bags at check in.

Minimalist Culture

The idea for No Stuff comes not from my dad, but from the minimalist sub-culture. I don’t just mean traditional ascetics or hermit monks, but modern minimalists too, people who prioritise quality over quantity.

This minimalist culture is thriving online, where people boast at each other of how few things they have. It makes a nice counterpoint to the usual materialist urge to hunt and gather.

James Wallman’s book Stuffocation gives an excellent introduction to this new form of minimalism and suggests that we can all benefit because “memories live longer than things”. His book is a manifesto for experientialism, the doing of things, over materialism, the acquisition of things.

No Stuff: How?

Box Trial

One of the most memorable techniques for stuff reduction that I read about in Stuffocation is the box trial. According to this method, you pack all of your stuff into boxes. Over the course of the next thirty days, you can gradually repatriate your stuff into your life – but only if and when you actually need to use it. At the end of the month, everything left in the boxes gets chucked.

In lieu of boxes, I’ve done a countback on my spreadsheet instead. Of those 975 things, I estimate that I’ve actually used only 289 in the last month. By the box trial rules, I should chuck the remaining 686 unused baubles.

This is extreme. There are plenty of things that I haven’t used in the last month that I would miss heartily, like my beloved bivvy bag.

It does, however, make me ponder why I haven’t used my bivvy in the last thirty days. I have no answer to this ponder, which leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that I really should be using my bivvy bag on a monthly basis, minimum. Use it or lose it. Not a bad way to live.

The 100 Thing Challenge

But the box trial isn’t even nearly as extreme as the 100 Thing Challenge. The name gives it away really: live with 100 things or less.

Rules vary, but usually don’t include shared items like kitchenware, nor furniture or books. My count of 975, I should say, does not include kitchenware (none of which is mine), but does include 21 items of furniture and 102 books. Some people also count similar items as one, like “underwear” or “tools”, but I think that’s cheating (except for socks, which I count in pairs).

Personally, I love the idea of the challenge. I fantasise regularly about being able to fit all of my worldly possessions into a single backpack. But I’m also quite clear-sighted about the fact that this will likely never happen.

No Stuff Holidays

One alternative to grown up No Stuff is to play around, like when you’re on holiday.

Clara Benson writes about what I assume her editors at Salon forced her to call “the craziest OKCupid date ever”, which is a scandalously crass way of describing what was actually a fascinating experiment in No Stuff.

She and her date, Jeff, travelled through Europe for twenty-one days with no luggage, pretty much just a couple of credit cards, their passports and the clothes on their backs. Clara sums up the secret yearning we all have to throw caution and weight to the winds:

What would it be like to say no to heavy backpacks full of coordinating outfits, Lonely Planet travel guides, and cheap souvenirs?

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clara and Jeff had an absolute blast and No Holiday Stuff, far from being restrictive, was like all good positive constraints and the doorway to adventure.

The Rule of Thirds

Back in the real world, I will content myself with slimming down by one third. I will, by the end of this blog post, have got rid of 325 things, leaving me with “only” 650.

This is still, obviously, a massive numbers of things: more than twice as many as I need according to the box trial rules and nearly triple according to the 100 Thing Challenge. But it does at least mean I can lose at least two of my three bow ties. Why do even I own these things? I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit, let alone a Ferrari-red bow tie.

Why No Stuff?

Enough fun and games, here are five rock solid reasons for going on a No Stuff binge.

  1. Your environment dictates your state of mind. Less clutter in your life means less clutter in your mind.
  2. Possessing a thing causes mild anxiety about that thing. If I don’t own a car, I can’t worry about it being left out on the street and getting bumped and scratched.
  3. Why do I have a thing if I don’t use it? Why do I have 25 pencils, when I don’t use them? Could someone else be making better use of them? Yes. So give them away.
  4. Having less stuff that I don’t want means I spend more time with the stuff I actually do. In some way, you become the objects with which you surround yourself. It sounds stupid, but I would never have learnt to play the guitar if I had never gone and got myself a guitar.
  5. Likewise, the stuff you don’t use is still stuff in your possession, still stuff that is liable to become a distraction, an interruption or at the very least an irritant when you’re scrabbling around in your bottom desk drawer looking for your phone charger.

Out, out, damned wax!

So I have committed to throwing away, giving away, recycling and charitying 325 things. Some of these are easy to lose, like the empty tub of hair wax that I was mysteriously keeping for posterity. Some of these will be very hard to part with, souvenirs of far-flung adventures or gifts from long lost loved ones.

Almost four years ago, me and my friend Patrick wrote a superb Christmas song that involved various parts of the world and beer. For the video he skilfully created a “Cool Saharan Beer” out of a can of Carling and a home-printed label. Since 2011, that can has sat on top of my medicine cabinet. Now it is gone.

I know I won’t miss it, in the long run, but I cherish the memories it is attached to in my brain. I can only beg forgiveness and hope that this blog post, in some small way, is a fitting memorial.

Cool Saharan beer
Cool Saharan Beer (Limited Seasonal Edition)

Positive Constraints: A Round Up

As you know, I’ve been trying all kinds of different positive constraints over the last month. These aren’t just happening in a weird blogging vacuum – this is my life. So I thought it’d be interesting to let you know whether I’m still getting on with them.

The titles link back to the original posts.

No Hot Showers

I have had exactly two hot showers in the last 5 weeks, both in the last two days because I’m currently the proud owner of a stinking cold. No excuses, but I’m going back to No Hot Showers tomorrow, for that icy thrill of electricity in the mornings.

No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation

This was a deeply silly positive constraint, but one that I still enjoy. Except when I’m the only person getting off.

Excitingly, though, I did get an actual train driver commenting on my post:

People don’t seem to understand that you have to wait for the buttons to light up before pressing them will do anything. I wait until they light up and press it but always get someone tutting and pushing forward to press it before the driver has released the doors.

No Meat

As you’d expect, such a radical change to my diet is still having repercussions on my life. So here are a few more short observations.

I’m still finding the No Meat diet a little hard on my stomach. I find I’m uncomfortably bloated more often than I’d like, particularly at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve also had multiple bouts of heartburn or acid reflux, which were previously very rare. I suspected this might be down to increased nut intake, but that hypothesis doesn’t seem to stack up. Any ideas?

On the plus side, I managed to train for and run a half marathon as a vegetarian without any discernible impact on my performance. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any before and after controlled testing, but I don’t feel any weaker. I ran the half marathon in 1:29:12, which is perfectly respectable, especially with the aforementioned stinking cold.

People expect me to have spent less money on groceries since going vegetarian. I have not found this to be the case, or only slightly. On a meat diet, I average £47 per week on food shopping. Since going meatless, I have spent an average of £45.50 per week, rising to £50 if you include supplements (these are bulk bought, so I’ve adjusted for approximate per week consumption).

What has been interesting is that, aside from one slightly extravagent trip to Waitrose at the beginning of the experiment, I haven’t been to any supermarkets. It simply isn’t necessary. I can get almost all of the food I need from my local greengrocer and anything else from markets or from the Suma food cooperative.

This is a good example of how two positive constraints can dove-tail quite nicely, and No Meat and No Supermarkets are far from the only such cases.

Experiment with something like No Hot Showers and suddenly you start to question why we need things like boilers or central heating. Could there be a better way? Likewise with No Toilet Paper – I had an interesting discussion with a fellow coop member about installing a compost toilet in our garden. No Plumbing. Why not?

All in all, digestive struggles aside, I’m very happy with my No Meat experiment and it shall continue.

No Toilet Paper

I have used toilet paper only once and that was on Sunday, just before the Oxford Half Marathon, when I had to use a public portaloo. I didn’t really want to run without washing!

Otherwise, I’ve been very pleased with the experiment. I feel cleaner and more thoughtful about what I’m doing in the bathroom. A tiny little part of my brain is free from worries over whether or not there is any toilet paper left on the roll.

I have, however, found that some public toilets are better suited to my new habits than others. My mum recently got home from Sweden and reported that, over there, public toilet cubicles have wash basins inside, as well as outside. That would certainly help clean people like me.

A friend of mine also pointed out that, in my original article, I didn’t mention any toilet techniques for reducing faecal filth. In many cultures around the world, people squat when they shit. This opens up the colonic passage, meaning the waste comes out more cleanly. (There’s also less straining involved, which means you won’t rupture a spleen or something.)

The squatting technique, I discovered on a podcast yesterday, is also enjoyed by Hollywood director and screenwriter Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Interview). Evan’s comedy partner Seth Rogen even bought him a special toilet modification so that he can squat on Western style toilets.

You should be squatting when you shit. It’s natural, it’s better for you. It’s bad for your back, it’s bad for your bowels to sit on a toilet. Pop a squat.

Who am I to argue? This experiment, too, shall continue. Possibly with unicorns.

No Facebook

I’m still not on Facebook. However, I am noticing that Facebook is becoming an increasingly public-facing network. I can still read much of the information on public profiles, groups and events, even though I am not part of the network. (At least overtly – Facebook actually still store all of my old data and there is evidence and suspicion that they collect data on individuals even if they are not on Facebook – yet…)

Recently, many people have insisted that I simply have to be on Facebook in order to promote the Unbound crowdfunder for my book. One of my friends, also a writer, opened a blank profile so that she could create a page for her book. I would love not to have to do this, but we’ll see. I’m not ruling it out.

Help me prove that we don’t need Facebook!

No Plastic Bags

In this post, I didn’t really write about my relationship with plastic bags. It was more of a comment on the efficacy of positive constraints (where you decide) versus negative constraints (in this case, government imposed).

So what’s my plastic bag use like? I very rarely ask for them or accept them when offered, but since writing this post, I have become much more aware of the frequency with which I nevertheless use them.

Staying at a friend’s house last week, he uses plastic bags to store his litter and recycling. I did too. At least this does extend their life-span, but it does make me uneasy. There simply must be a better way of dealing with waste and our plastiphilic culture.

After the half marathon yesterday, for example, I was given a plastic bag with all kinds of nutritional freebies inside. I’m now using that plastic bag to transport some leftovers back to London. Once home, however, I’m sure it will go straight into the recycling.

Must try harder.

No Clothes

I have not been naked in public since recording the video for You Are What You Don’t – which you can watch here.

Pledge now, pledge now!

No Television

In today’s digital age, No Television isn’t much of a positive constraint for a lot of people. We can do all our couch potatoing in front of the computer instead: Netflix, YouTube, DVDs. Distracting diversions and an escape into ennui is right at our fingertips.

But, for me, No Television is kind of where it all started. When I was growing up, my family never had a television. The only time I saw a moving picture was when we went to my nan’s (always on a Sunday so that I could watch Football Italia), when I went round a friend’s or when we went on holiday.

The stated reason for this prohibition, for the 18 years between my birth and when my older sister went away to university and brought back a TV, was that television would rot our brains.

The consequences were, I think, far reaching. I’ll quickly cover three of them.

I spent more time reading books or entertaining myself by digging holes in the garden.

Without a television to distract me, I read a lot of books. Yep. I was one of those kids who’d already read The Lord of the Rings before anyone else in primary school had even heard of The Hobbit.

I also spent more time on computers. Television wasn’t allowed, but computers were, and we had a BBC Micro ever since I can remember. This computer ran games like Frogger from tapes you had to put into a tape player and rewind after playing. Sometimes the tapes would get chewed up and you could never play that game again. Medieval.

I had almost zero exposure to popular culture.

I missed every significant British cultural event, from Torvill and Dean’s ice dancing (23.95 million viewers in 1994) to the funeral of Princess Diana (19.29 million viewers in 1997), as well as everyone else’s must-watch TV, from SuperTed to Father Ted. I had no idea what any of the Hollywood women looked like and couldn’t sing the theme tune to Match of the Day.

I also missed out on all the great adverts of my generation: the milk tray man, the roller-skating pandas, funky chunky almonds , the red car versus blue car race – to name just the chocolate-based ones.

As a consequence, however, I never got caught up in any of these crazes. I couldn’t participate, so instead I held all popular culture in utter disdain.

It gave me a taste of the unconventional.

Having no television when I was a kid made me highly eccentric. In 2001, 97.5% of households in Britain had a television and watching TV was a full-time job for a lot of people, with average viewing time over 30 hours per week (still is, actually).

That gave me a choice: I could either live my life permanently embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t join in the conversations about Chris Evans on TFI Friday or Naked Germans of the Week on Eurotrash – or I could embrace being the unconventional eccentric weirdo.

That’s a pretty weighty life decision for a nine-year-old.

Where are we now?

Hmm. More time reading and on computers; zero knowledge of, and utter disdain for popular culture; an acquired taste for the unconventional. That pretty much describes the essentials of grown up Dave’s character.

I read 35 or more books a year and try to write a couple too, using my trusty computer (I’ve upgraded from tapes, though). Despite the valient efforts of my friends, I’m still miles behind on popular culture – I watched a film on Sunday night for the first time I can remember in years. And this whole blog is dedicated to the unconventional ideas and actions that can take our lives out of the ordinary and into the memorably extraordinary.

Indeed, positive constraints, the art of doing exactly the opposite of what everyone else is doing, could be seen as the brain-child and embodiment of that first enforced constraint, No Television.

Coda

We found out, years later, that the reason we didn’t have a TV was not because my parents were scared us kids would waste all our time rotting our brains out over Eurotrash. Oh no. It was because my dad would’ve done.

Positive Constraints in Literature

Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.

Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.

Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.

Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.

No Adverbs

The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.

In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.

Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.

Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.

Word Counts

Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.

One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.

Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.

Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.

Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.

Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.

And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).

No Clichés

If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.

Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.

Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:

  • “When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
  • “The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
  • “A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”

Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.

And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.

Ludic Literature

Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.

Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”

Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.

Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.

Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”

And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.

The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.

No Plastic Bags

Today, October the 5th 2015, England finally caught up with the rest of the UK in trying to encourage a nationwide experiment in positive constraints: No Plastic Bags. From today, all shops and chains with more than 250 employees (in total, not per shop) will have to charge at least 5p for a plastic bag.

On the face of it, this is an excellent initiative and not a moment too soon. Plastic bags are phenomenally damaging to our natural environment. They are not biodegradable and litter the countryside and pollute our rivers for, not decades, but hundreds of years after they have been discarded.

Plastic bags are also totally unnecessary. The number of times I am automatically handed a plastic bag when I’m only buying a banana and a block of cheese is a constant source of annoyance to me. Even when I do need some sort of conveyance to transport my produce from shop to home, I’d far rather be given something I can either use again or that I can throw in the compost, like a paper bag or cardboard box.

But…

You knew there was going to be a “but”, didn’t you?

While I applaud any attempt to encourage us to consume less plastic, I know from experience that you can’t force people to adopt a positive constraint. In fact, that’s a contradiction in terms. The “positive” refers to the free agency of the person affected. This, effectively, is a government-imposed negative constraint – albeit one that has very noble ambitions. And negative constraints don’t work very well in the long term.

It is far more effective to freely decide yourself to stop using plastic bags than it is to allow the pain and inconvenience of a 5p charge make that decision for you.

Fascinatingly, if you take a close look at the statistics, there may already be some evidence to back up my worries. Much has been made of the 78.2% reduction in plastic bag usage in Wales since they introduced the 5p plastic bag charge in 2012. However, if you look back through the data, plastic bag usage has increased every year since the charge, from 62 million in 2012 to 73 million in 2013 and 77 million last year (you can delve deeper on the BBC here).

This is, of course, still a huge drop from the 273 million plastic bags that were used in 2011, but it does make me worry about the long-term efficacy of such a scheme. Why? Because a negative constraint (or “stick”) approach like this provides only an extrinsic motivation for No Plastic Bags. Extrinsic motivation, for example when we are motivated by money, fame or public approval, is linked with lower levels of compliance and lower satisfaction when we achieve the object of the motivation.

What we need are postive constraints, where the motivation for the behavioural change comes from within each of us, so that the motivation is intrinsic. This is how our new No Plastic Bag habits will last, not just until we forget the pain of the 5p charge, but for the rest of our lives.

(But still: No Plastic Bags, yay!)

No Meat: Meaty Moths & 3 Observations

After three weeks of No Meat, I feel like I’ve finally arrived as a vegetarian. Mainly thanks to a catastrophically meat-centric encounter at a restaurant. I’ve heard these sorts of stories many times from my vegetarian friends, about being served chicken or thin slices of ham, but I’ve never experienced vegetarian-does-not-compute dining myself.

Until last night.

I should preface this by saying that the meal was otherwise excellent; the two vegetarian dishes we had were superb. But the bread contained meat.

I’ll say that again. The bread contained meat.

We were enthusiastically tucking into hummus and baba ghanoush with hunks of warm flat bread, until my friend pointed out that this surprisingly delicious bread had a certain je ne sais quoi. Then we did sais quoi: ground lamb.

For the sake of the experiment, I took my hummus neat after that. Not too long after, we found a moth in the pomegranate salad. Suffice to say, we got a free dessert…

Observation #1: Identity Crisis

In other news, I’m having an identity crisis. At the restaurant and when others are cooking, I am forced to identify as a vegetarian. As a life-long (and eager) meat eater, this is very odd, especially as vegetarianism is not a neutrally-charged. In our society, being vegetarian comes along with some level of prejudice and judgement – not least by myself.

I’ve been surprised to notice that I like being a meat eater. It’s part of my identity. I like being a meat eater, not for the nutritional benefits of eating meat, but because I like the idea of being that sort of hearty, eat anything, eat everything, sort of person. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat frail: it feels like an absence, rather than an abundance.

I know that’s ridiculous, especially considering my previous meat and beans diet, but hey.

On the plus side, as a vegetarian, I can share food more often with my vegetarian house mates. Or with anyone, in fact, because no one wants to eat meat and beans all the time.

Observation #2: The Power of Meat

I now fully appreciate the power of meat. That first week was tough. The Friday, five days in, was terrible. I felt dizzy and had to roam the streets at night looking for vitamin pills.

Now I supplement like a Tour de France dope fiend. I take a full A to Z of vitamin pills, garlic capsules, fish oil, extra vitamin D3, as well as my pea protein, creatine and spirulina milkshake.

This brings me onto a related observation: most vegetarians I know eat meat. That might be a weekly fish supper, or monthly meaty treats. This was a surprise to me, but having lived on a purely lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for 3 weeks, now totally understandable.

It’s hard work making sure you get full nutrition on a No Meat diet. My friends seemed to be most worried about iron deficiency. I’m most worried about wasting away, especially with a half marathon next weekend.

Observation #3: The Laziness of Habit

To be honest, I was expecting to go back to meat after that first week, but for some reason I didn’t. That reason was laziness. I simply couldn’t find time to buy any meat, so just drifted on without.

This laziness shows, not only how much my condition improved after that first Friday, but also the power of inertia. Inertia usually works against us, keeping us wallowing in the rut of habit, lazily taking the same bike route to work every morning, annoying our house mates by leaving the washing up in the sink, or popping in for a swift half that always turns into five or six.

With this No Meat experiment, however, it was surprising how quickly inertia flopped over on to my side. It was an additional effort to buy meat, so I simply didn’t.

I also benefit from the positive nature of my decision. It’s not that I can’t eat meat – no one is stopping me. I simply don’t eat meat – it’s my free choice.

Vanessa M Patrick and Henrick Hagtvedt have researched this very linguistic nuance and found that a refusal that is termed as I don’t… is “more effective for resisting temptation and motivating goal-directed behaviour”.

My own I don’t… was tested when I went for a take-away alone for the first time. I could have chosen anything from the extensive meaty and fishy menu. (The two vegetarians who were staying with me both had fish and chips from next door.) But I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it. I freely chose a vegetable masala. And bloody good it was too.

No Clothes

When I’m on my own. When I come in from work. When I’m hot. When I sleep. When I wake up and stumble to the bathroom. I take every opportunity to be as naked as possible. I’m writing this, dear reader, dressed only in a towel.

But I’ve never gone naked in public before. I’ve never explored or experienced what it would be like to live without clothes.

Until yesterday, that is.

Studland Naturist Beach

Yesterday, me and a couple of friends caught a bus to Studland (oh, the jokes), where there is a mile long stretch of sand reserved for naturists. Climbing over the scrub to the shore, we see flashes of pink flesh poking around the dunes.

With a squeal for the bracing wind, we threw off our clothes and ran to the sea. The water sloshed around bits it wouldn’t normally. I could dive and jump the waves without anything holding me down. It felt good, but surprisingly not unusual.

Walking back bare-buttocked up the beach, we passed a gaggle of fully-clothed dog walkers. They were the weird ones, togged up in garish garb, training shoes, bow tied laces, double socks tucked into corduroy trousers covering up knickers, belt pulling everything in tight, a vest over a bra under a blouse, fleece zipped up inside a wax jacket, a scarf against the wind, topped off with a cap.

It all looked so complicated.

A Society of Clothes

We take clothes for granted in this society. Well, some of us do. The rest obey this most basic of social norms on sufferance.

One of my friends was on her period. “I feel much better naked than wearing clothes,” she told me. “If I was wearing knickers I’d be worried about staining them. It’s so much nicer.”

Earlier in the day we’d been non-nudist swimming on Bournemouth beach. It’d been a right faff, trying to preserve our modesty in full sight of an Italian restaurant, hopping around holding onto towels while trying to pull up pants. My friend ended up with a massive wedgy. Ridiculous.

Clothes are also a tool that we can use to sexually tantalise or enhance ones natural charms. There is an interesting difference, for example, between being skimpily dressed and being stark naked. A skimpily dressed woman, in a mini-skirt and a push-up bra, is called a slut; a stark naked woman is a bohemian or a naturist.

Likewise (although facing significantly less opprobrium and social disapproval), a man oiled up in a posing pouch is a poser; a naked man, bits flopping about, is simply not.

When we strip, we are more likely to become innocent and defenceless. The strip-tease is arousing right up until the final moment of complete nakedness. Then the show is over.

Clothes of Shame

When Adam and Eve realised their state of nature, they felt shame and covered themselves up. But what if it worked the other way around? What if they covered themselves up and only then felt shame about their state of nature?

This actually seems to be the most likely explanation. Shame, according to Brené Brown, is a learned condition. Only when people point and laugh at our wee-willy-winky do we go red and cover up with a towel. I’ve got a 1-year-old niece and she is utterly shameless, prancing around without a care in the world.

The movement against body shame is usually directed at unrealistic fashion shoots, where models are air-brushed into impossibly pneumatic poses, which we’re supposed to somehow emulate.

Slim but not thin; curvy but not fat; six-pack and shoulders but no back hair: these computer assisted models are risible and should be air-brushed from history. But surely the ultimate ambition for the body positive movement is for all of us to feel comfortable naked. That’s comfortable not just in private, but also around each other.

Naturists, people who make a lifestyle of their bare bodies, I’ve realised, are not the mad ones.

Freedom Fighting Naturists

The most famous naturist I know (and the man who inspired me to do this positive constraint) is Stephen Gough, otherwise known as the naked rambler. Stephen successfully naked rambled from Land’s End to John O’Groats twice, in 2003-4 and 2005-6, but has spent most of the years since in and out of prison.

That the police and the Crown Prosecution Service feel so strongly about a man’s buttocks peaching around the Lake District is a sign to me that our civil law is still suffering a most Victorian malaise.

It’s clear that nudity isn’t for everyone. As I can attest from our Autumnal escapade on Studland, Britain is pretty chilly in the nuddy, and even Stephen Gough misses the convenience of pockets. But why the devil shouldn’t we be allowed to go on the occasional ramble exactly as god intended?

The End of Public Decency

Of course, the day public decency laws are repealed will doubtless see some outrageous displays of indecency, but that’s what you get for keeping us bottled up for so long. After a while, outrage will simmer down to normality. After a while, doesn’t your partner’s body lose its capacity to shock and surprise?

By the way, if you’re worried about cleanliness, then you need to stop and think for a second. You just shook that besuited man’s hand: does he sprinkle when he tinkles? And who’s just turned that door handle? An unsavoury butcher, a careless dog handler, an inattentive urologist? You have no idea, but somehow you survive.

There are some encouraging signs that we might be heading towards a more naked world, a world that the gymnosophists believe will be happier. To make this happen, all we need is you.

Your Turn: Be Naked

Head down to Studland, or your local naturist beach (map here). Naturists have enjoyed Studland beach for decades and local group Studland Nudists campaign for their rights and fight “nudist harrassment”. The National Trust, current custodians of the beach, welcome the bare-bodied and also serve ice cream.

The World Naked Bike Ride is an annual event that takes place in 70 cities in 20 countries, including 18 in the UK. The main focus of the ride is to challenge the supremacy of the metal apparel that many humans wear to travel on the roads (cars). But traditional clothing is also, as the organisers say, optional, making this an excellent opportunity to be publically naked.

If you’re not quite ready for a public display of nudity, then try your local sauna (not the red light ones). Let it all hang out and slowly sweat away any vestiges of shame.

As we dressed to go home, we watched a Muslim couple cavorting on the beach. Mr was taking photos of Mrs’ scandalous nudity. She was wearing clothes, of course, but her hair was uncovered, hijab thrown to the winds. They wrote their names in the sand to celebrate their love.

Freedom from the tyranny of garments comes in many guises.

Productivity Positive Constraints

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.

No Desk for Creativity

This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.

The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.

I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.

But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.

With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.

Folded desk
Folded bliss! There’s my sofa on the right, ready for leg stretching creativity. Note also the plants: greenery is good for mind relaxation too.

The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.

It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.

What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!

No Phone against Distraction

When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.

After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.

These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…

Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.

What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.

No Computer for Writing

I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.

Neo 2015-09-28 001
The Neo. Indispensible.

There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.

This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)

The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.

A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.

What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.

So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.

If you’d like to be first to hear of the positive constraints book, please sign up to my mailing list here.

Minimum Viable Technology

This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.

Rather than an experiment, this blog post deals with the idea of Minimum Viable Technology, one of the most important basic concepts that governs the wider application of positive constraints. First, a little story to illustrate the principle.

I was in Boots the other morning, buying a Meal Deal for the train down to Bournemouth. I hadn’t had time for breakfast because I’d had to get up super early to appear on the Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2. But that’s another story altogether.

Boots, if you hadn’t noticed, has self-service checkout machines. You know, the ones that constantly screech about an unidentified item in the bagging area. You know, the ones where you don’t have to talk to another human being. You know, the ones where you can leave your headphones on, stay on the phone and surreptitiously put down six avocados as a kilo of onions in Asda.

I never use them.

I queue up for an actual human interaction. Except there’s no queue because everyone’s too busy screening their phones, waiting in lines for the self-service checkout machines.

I walk up to the man behind the checkout and smile. He smiles. I say good morning, he says good morning. I hand over my Meal Deal merchandise and he says there’s an unidentified item in the bagging area. We laugh.

Then it comes to the bit where I have to pay Boots some money. I whip out my debit card and ask him if I can use this. He replies in the affirmative.

“Is it contactless?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “Thank god. I never want one of those.”

“Why not?” he asks, preparing the machine to receive my contactless-less card. “They’re really handy!”

“Really?” I ask.

“Yeah! They’re so quick and easy – it takes like two seconds! Please, insert your card.”

I shove my card into the machine and wait for the invitation to enter my PIN.

“Isn’t this quick and easy enough?” I ask him. “I think there’s a certain level of technology that’s enough, you know. I don’t think we have to always make things quicker and easier. I can use this bit of plastic to pay for things without money. It takes about twenty seconds. Isn’t that quick and easy enough?”

The machine flashes that my transaction is complete.

“Yeah, I suppose.” He hands me my receipt. “I never thought about it like that.”

“And we wouldn’t have been able to have this little conversation. I like that twenty seconds!”

He laughs.

Minimum Viable Technology

Technology is there to solve the little problems of existence and support us in our lives. There’s a lot of amazing tech out there and it’s easy to get sucked into saying yes to every little advance, whether it’s needed or not.

Technology solves problems. That’s good. But when the problem is solved, I think we should stop there. Paying for something when I haven’t got any cash on me is a mild inconvenience, but my debit card solves it with little fuss. Saving a further twenty seconds at the checkout is simply not a problem that I have.

In fact, far from being a problem solved, shaving seconds from that interaction is actually a bad thing. Solving problems that aren’t problems will always have consequences. In this case, it alienates us a little further from the people who serve us our Meal Deals.

I’m far from being against all technology (he says, publishing this on the vast interconnected technologies of the internet), but I do think we should always use the minimum viable technology for a task. In other words, we should use the most basic tools that will still get the job well done.

Minimum Viable Technology: Benefits

Skills

The more basic the technology, generally speaking, the greater the skills you must learn and deploy.

For example, motorists who grew up in the 40s, 50s and 60s had to become semi-skilled mechanics in order to keep their cars on the road. Modern motorists have no such need. In fact, car manufacturers deliberately make their technology unhackable, so that you must go back to the approved dealer for expensive repairs.

The same is true of modern computers. You used to have to understand the fundamentals of programming to use a PC properly. Nowadays, user interfaces have evolved to the point where the internal workings of your computer are shrouded in mystery. When something goes wrong, the user is clueless and open to exploitation.

Of course, for many people, myself included, this ease of use is a good thing. But ease of use and incomprehending dependence are two completely different things.

Dependence is hierarchical and undemocratic, concentrating knowledge and power in the hands of the few. It reminds me of the worst excesses of medieval religion, where divine forgiveness was sold to the layman by a corrupt hierarchy of priests.

Hidden Benefits

Using the minimum viable technology for a task often has hidden benefits. For example, writing long hand on paper is important to cognitive development in children, helps you learn by combining visual, motor and brain processing, could make us more creative and stave off mental decline as we get older. Not bad for something that is so obviously “backward” in this screen-filled age.

These hidden benefits apply to almost every positive constraint that I’ve experimented with: No Hot Showers, No Mobile Phone, No Supermarket.

The Tool is not the Task

In our search for the most efficient technology, we forget that 99% of a task is not about the tools we use.

  • Cleaning yourself is not about power showers, hot water tanks or expensive shampoos; it’s about water and scrubbing. Jumping into a lake would do it.
  • Communication is not about 4G, wifi or GSM; it’s about talking to other human beings. Like the ones you see on the train every morning.
  • Grocery shopping isn’t about foil-packed for freshness, 138 different varieties of soup or self-service checkouts; it’s about building a strong and healthy relationship to your food and the people who supply that food. You find that at your local greengrocer, not in the aisles of a supermarket warehouse.

The Best Things in Life are Simple

Using the minimum viable technology reminds us that the best things in life are not complicated.

There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than pulling on a pair of walking shoes (my minimum viable technology for travel without blisters), slinging a small backpack over my shoulder (MVT for basic food and camping gear), walking out into the sunset, sleeping the night on a hilltop in my bivvy bag (MVT for sleeping) and waking to the warming glow of the sunrise.

I don’t need much more than that. Anything else is a luxury and distracts from the task at hand: exploring the corners of the life I have been given.

Technology is there to support us when we need it, not to be taken for granted. When the support falls away – and it will one day – will you be able to stand on your own two feet?

Coda

When I arrived home from my trip to Bournemouth, there was a letter on the mat from my building society. Inside was a letter congratulating me on my arrival in the future, attached, my new contactless debit card.

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No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

No Toilet Paper

“The fundamental problem is that the area used for releasing urine and faeces is compressed between thighs and buttocks, so we are more likely than other animals to foul ourselves.”

That, supposedly, is why we humans must use toilet paper. Other mammals, whether dogs, great apes or unicorns, walk on four legs and so have a clear passage for faeces, once the tail is raised to attention. To keep ourselves clean, we must wipe.

The obvious extrusion in the preceding paragraph is “toilet paper”. Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Jews used small pebbles or the smooth edges of broken pottery. French satirist François Rabelais recommends the neck of a well-downed goose.

We have seventh century China to blame for today’s proliferation of toilet papers: one-ply, two-ply, six-ply, quilted, perfumed, perforated, embossed and decorated with the colours of your football team. 83 million rolls of the stuff are produced globally every day, a daily consumption of 27,000 trees to feed our voracious appetite for smearing shit onto paper that we then flush into our rivers and oceans.

NOTE: Oh yeah, this piece might get a bit gross for some of you. Get over it.

Not Saving the Planet

A lot of people, when they hear about my experiments in positive constraints, come to the understandable, but incorrect, conclusion that I’m worried about “saving the planet”, “environmentalism” or “being green”. I’m not.

It’s not that I couldn’t give a crap (sorry) about these things, but we can only change the world by changing ourselves.

It’s impossible for me to comprehend my miniscule contribution to the fate of the planet: I am one of seven billion. What I can understand, measure and describe, however, is the individual impact on my life of changes to my personal behaviour.

That’s what I’m going for with these experiments in positive constraints. Talking of which: I’m duty-bound to remind you that, if you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments and hear first news of the how to get your hands on the book then please join my mailing list. Then come back to read the rest of this riveting instalment of positive constraints…

So the main reason for adopting a positive constraint like No Toilet Paper is not the saving of paper, trees and money, but Ockham’s Razor.

Ockham’s Razor

Ockham’s Razor was the first philosophical principle I ever came across, aged about 14, and is the number one reason why, 19 years later, I’m still such an insufferable intellectual snob. (Hey, at least I didn’t use its Latin name, lex parsimoniae.)

The principle has made a celebrity out of fourteenth century theologian William of Ockham (a village in Surrey), but the idea is as old as the hills: the simplest explanation or the simplest solution is most likely to be the best.

If I can explain why the sun appears to rise every morning with basic astronomical physics, then I probably don’t need to invoke the Egytpian Sun God Ra and his star-pulling chariot. Equally, if I can design a perfectly good dining table with four legs, then it’s probably superfluous to add a fifth (Rube Goldberg machines are a delightful exception to this rule).

It follows, therefore, that if I can live without it, then why the hell would I ever bother using toilet paper?

No Toilet Paper 2015-09-21 002
Gutted.

No Toilet Paper: The Principle

Luckily, the rest of the world isn’t quite as insane as Europe, the US and Australia. Large areas of the globe are already on a No Toilet Paper regimen. Unfortunately, Western behaviours are currently “on trend” and the utterly pointless behaviour of scraping around your anus with a patch of wood pulp is spreading.

Large swathes of the Muslim and Hindu world still use water to clean themselves after defecating. The methods vary, but the principle is the same. I’ll illustrate it with a little quiz.

You’re out fixing a new chain on your bicycle or digging up your new veg patch. You finish the job (Well done!) and go inside for dinner. You notice that your hands are covered in oil and grease or mud and worms. Do you:

a) Wash your hands with soap and water?

b) Smear the dirt around with a scrap of paper?

Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

No Toilet Paper: The Methods

Hopefully we’ve established that you’d be mad to continue using toilet paper. But, given our awkward self-befouling human anatomy, how exactly should we clean ourselves?

In the course of my experimentation over the last two weeks, I’ve come across several different options. Here they are, in order of increasing complexity:

  1. Do nothing. I don’t quite mean that, of course, but often I’m remarkably clean and have no need to do anything special. After a few days using other methods, you’ll get a feeling for whether you need to clean more thoroughly or not.
    WARNING: This does depend on your diet. Since my experimentation with No Meat, I’ve noticed that I’m visiting the toilet more often (that’s fibre for you) and need to clean more thoroughly. Previously, when I was eating a simple meat and beans diet, I was a steady once-a-day man, regular as clockwork. Because I’d go in the morning, I could easily wash myself in the shower, no toilet paper required.
  2. Use your hand. Assuming you’re not having any problems with sticky poo (check your diet), you might be surprised to find that there’s never really much there to clear away. Use only one hand and make sure you wash with good soap (and a nail brush if that’s necessary).
  3. Use a wet flannel. This was suggested by one of my friends. She keeps three flannels in her room and uses them in rotation throughout the day to clean herself. At the end of the day, she boils them all in a pan of water to kill any residual germs. The only downside is you’ll have to carry a flannel with you when you go out.
  4. Use a bowl and pitcher. This is an absolute classic all across the Arab world. To be honest, I find it a little fiddly, but the technique is just to splash yourself with water. Again, this is more annoying if you’re not at home. You could carry a dedicated bottle of arse-water.
  5. Install a bidet shower, “health tap” or a purpose-built toilet. These are all ways of using water pressure to hose yourself down. Options include a basic shower head, a trigger hose or a specially designed toilet. The toilets are particularly good fun, with a little nozzle in the centre of the bowl firing water straight up your anus. Complex, expensive and slightly unnecessary.
The solution.
The solution.

Benefits to No Toilet Paper

  1. Stop worrying about public toilet paper provision. (Or at home either.)
  2. Feel cleaner after washing compared to smearing.
  3. Be more ape and feel at home in the great outdoors.
  4. Stake out your independence from the unnecessary comforts of modernity.
  5. Save money. You probably spend about £20-30 a year on toilet paper. It’s one less thing to remember in the shop too.
  6. Stop culling your share of those 27,000 trees per day.
  7. Be more rational and treat Ockham’s Razor with the respect it deserves instead of mindlessly following stupid inherited cultural habits.

Are there any downsides to living without toilet paper? I guess that some people might think I’m gross, but I stopped giving a shit about that a long time ago.

Thanks for reading – I hope it inspires you to look at your life and your habits and to peer round the curtain at what’s really going on. If you’d like to stay in touch and hear about this famous positive constraints book, then please join my mailing list or follow me on Twitter.