Path dependence, Chekhov and control

Blogging resides on the boundary between personal and literary for most people.

I just read a heart-wrenching piece, and it’s impossible to comment on it because it is so personal, but for me, it is also impossible to walk past it without reflecting on it given how sorrowful it is.

Anton Chekhov said something that resonated with me:

“If I had left my family and handed them over to the mercy of fate, I would try to find an excuse in my mother’s inadequacy, in my TB, and so on. This is natural and excusable. This is just human nature.” (my translation)

I think the original blog piece is more about gender, but my point is more about sovereignty, a kind of independence from the past.

We are all functions of what we were yesterday, no doubt about it. My argument isn’t about outcomes, it’s about motives.

Our motives cannot be subverted and limited by what happened to us in the past. This doesn’t mean that we have unlearn what we learnt, but rather find the strength to learn even more about that little bit of space in this world where we do have some control.

Not saying goodbye – a book series that died

Somewhere between trashy and literary, there is a set of historical detective novels about Erast Fandorin. I was a fan when I was younger and recently, the concluding book was released, Not saying goodbye. The character has a beautiful sense of duty mixed in with a XIX century James Bond style immortality.

Spoiler alert. Until he doesn’t. The ending was disappointingly cynical. Once again, he prioritised his sense of duty over his family, just like he did in the first book, Azazel, which I never really liked. The cynicism comes from the setting: orphans, an explosion… It’s almost like fate herself came around to avenge the death of his first wife for which he is arguably responsible. I felt he wasn’t. The author seems to think he was – after all this time.

I think the author’s main concern throughout his writing has been this sense of duty to the world at large – which he felt was impossible to combine with the duty to one’s loved ones. Alas, I think the author turned into a different man to the one who wrote the books that I really liked, namely The Death of AchillesThe Coronation and Special Assignments.

Inci-dental findings

I have found 2 phenomenal dental things recently even though I wasn’t really looking:

Tepe easy picks

They’re basically like floss, only you can dip them into mouthwash, they don’t hurt and they clean really well. I use the orange ones because my teeth are a lil crowded.

These things are much better than their flagship interdental brushes that stick right into your gums if they’re not perfectly aligned (which is very hard if you’re cleaning the 7 and 8s). Even the smallest calibre of these is too big for me 😦

I also like dental harps. Basically, anything other than the Oral B Satin floss that all dentists seem to love, but I find really unpleasant.

Colgate’s deep clean toothpaste

Definitely the best commonly available toothpaste I’ve ever used.

As an aside, I also used this toothpaste from India that contains some magical herb – which seems to have had good results for me after my teeth faced a bit of a chemical/laziness attack.*

*Basically, I used to live in an apartment in Dublin city centre and work in a busy hospital. After a year of that, I went to the dentist to discover I needed a ridiculous amount of work. I couldn’t figure out why that was.

Fair enough, going around the hospital eating Milk Tray and Celebrations that patients kindly bring in to thank us the nurses isn’t helpful. I had to be up very early for work and I think I neglected to brush my teeth quite as diligently because coffee was a higher priority. But still, it just didn’t seem to explain the extent of my troubles.

So, I decided I wanted to measure the pH of the water supply. The easiest available method for me was a urine dipstick, so I went right ahead and dipped it. 5.5! No wonder my teeth were melting away!

Water pH has to be no less than 6.5 to be safe. Obviously, my measurement may have been artefact, because urine and water aren’t really all that similar. I asked my rocket scientist friends who work in labs if they had access to a way to measure pH. Those came back at around 7 and they gave me rocket-sciency explanations that basically when pH is around 7, you have to use some other method to measure pH to see how close it is to being deionised. A commercially available lab charged something like 400 euro, so I didn’t go with that.

I contacted the official water people with my concerns anyway. They got back to me quickly, to be fair, and told me that they have arranged to flush the area.

So, in line with the scientific method, I went back to my original testing method after the intervention. I urine-dipped it after the flushing – and it came back at pH of 7 – not 5.5. Go figure.

Anyway, I haven’t had any problems since – is that due to better water or to the magical Indian herbs? We will probably never know.

I am trying to figure out why it occurred to me to blog about teeth. Not the sort of subject that lends itself to producing a good long read. I think the reason is that my Image Experiment has demanded discipline. I have the work ethic of a horse, but my discipline may not be so so stellar. Who knew they were different things – and what you can discover when you have to put creme on your face everyday.

 

 

Don’t ask why?…

A reader kindly sent me this article.

I don’t agree with its analysis, but it has some interesting points about using what vs why can have a significantly different effect.

During my stint in psychiatry, I learnt perhaps the most helpful question: what makes you say that? Notably, not a why question even though it asks about the same thing.

I also remember a brilliant psychiatrist giving a patient advice. The patient had a personality disorder and started reading about them to understand why she has it. He told her that at that point reading that could make it worse – and that interventions such as mindfulness and therapy were superior.

As for my disagreement. The article suggests introspective people are unhappy. It assumes and, with a very simple experiment, shows that asking why causes people to be sad. I think that introspective people aren’t sad because they are introspective, but sad and poorly self-aware people turn to introspection. And Negative Capability is still a thing.

January results of the Image Experiment

What I learnt working on my image this January:

  • expensive products commit you to putting in more effort, hence, you look better
  • when you do as you’ve been told by Andie MacDowell since you were 5, you feel like you are part of the club
  • the people who market to you don’t expect you to have even a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method or statistics, or any critical thinking really
  • you can use these lotions and potions in a mindful way

See the backstory here.

In early January, Santi brought me two things I had been contemplating getting myself:

1. Revitalising Fresh Shampoo by L’Occitane

The revitalising shampoo tingles lightly when you leave it on for over a minute, which is very relaxing. I guess for the oils and whatever else to work, you really need to give it a little time. What made me laugh was this on their website:

why do women love cosmetic products
Does this offend your intelligence? I hope it does. Also this.

What I found was that it was great for relaxing in a mindful way. The tingle draws your attention to your scalp – a place you don’t often concentrate on otherwise.

Did it make much of a difference to my hair compared to the normal run of the mill L’Oreal shampoo? Not really. But I think that I spent more time brushing my hair and was more diligent when blowdrying it. In other words, having spent a bomb on shampoo, my brain tells me to be consistent and dry my hair in manner that’s becoming of a woman who spends a bomb on shampoo.

2. Repairing Hair Mask by L’Occitane – also brought by Santi

I wasn’t a fan of the smell, it reminds me of some yucky Soviet herbal shampoo. Chances are that they both contain a herb I don’t like. Effect? As above with the shampoo. They used to have an olive oil range that was excellent, but this product didn’t have that miraculous effect.

Santi was thoughtful enough to throw in some samples of L’Occitane face cream all of which are 10/10, except the rose-scented one that was overpowering with its perfume.

Then my first Birchbox (affectionately known as Bitchbox in my household) arrived. From Sweden!

It contained

1. The Sand & Sky Brilliant Skin™ Purifying Pink Clay Mask

All the way from the land down under. How exciting.

It tingles very gently and dries very soon after you put it on. I got out an old Mac brush to put it on which made it feel all the more glamorous and added 100% to the fun of this peculiar ritual .

There is a warning on the back of it that you can’t use it with oral vitamin A without consulting a doctor. In other words, it was full of retinoids, which do actually work when applied topically – something I know from the dermatology lectures of my youth.

My boyfriend who is ultraskeptical of the cosmetics industry noticed a difference. That’s as reliable a fact that it works as can be. Go Australia (and retinoids). (As always, this is not medical advice!)

2. Kebelo Clarifying Shampoo

This really intrigued me: a shampoo to be used once or twice a month in order to give your hair a really thorough clean. I used it after a swim in the hope that it may wash out the chlorine that little bit better. I was kind of worried that it would make it all fall out be very harsh, but it was fine and my hair was actually lighter, much easier to brush and much shiner after using it.

3. Baija Gommage Festin Royal Miel Caramélisé

Which was ridiculous! A jar of marmalade with solidified sugar to be used as a scrub! Anyway, it’s not actually edible (the auld benzyl alcohol is that little bit toxic). Kinda nice, kinda felt stooopid using a jar of marmalade though.

It also contained a lipstick that made me look older and a synthetic brush that I have no use for. And – a discount if I had wanted to sign up to Virgin Wines as a subscription box too! Clever bstrds know all about marketing.

I also picked up a L’Oreal pre-shampoo clay mask! Oooo. As in, you put it on before you use shampoo. It’s cheap, but less than cheerful in a really artificial blue colour with strong perfume.

I didn’t notice any difference to my hair, despite using a myriad new products, except with the paintstripper Kebelo use-once-a-month potion, that didn’t come from just paying more attention to it.

How do I know this? Well, when I have something big coming up and don’t have the heavy artillery to hand, I spend more time dolling myself up with ordinary products and come out looking the same as with all these products.

 

I also was religious in terms of the cleanse-tone-moisturise skincare routine. I do it anyway, but I am ordinarily a bit sporadic (lazy) with it. This month, I learnt just how difficult it is to actually exfoliate your skin properly. I more or less have to go to the sauna to make it happen. Good exfoliation appears to be what gives skin this beautiful shimmer that people adore. And it makes sense because the surface are isn’t interrupted by the rough dead cells, hence the light forms a nice continuous reflection.

Furthermore, it’s a slightly strange ritual to take off all the skin’s natural sebum, forcefully, and to replace it with moisturiser, but that’s what the cosmetics industry preaches.

Did I feel much different? No. More confident? No, but maybe more grown up, because following a skin care routine is adulting. More girly or feminine? No, but I felt that I was part of some invisible club – and that made me feel better – and probably more confident in a way I didn’t perceive. Did I notice a different reaction from people? No.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.

What would your friends buy from you?

I did a 5 hour exam seminar today and one of the things that the students perked their ears up at was the idea of writing not for readers, but for a reader.

This was half way across the country (it’s snowing here). On the train home, in a bout of nostalgic tiredness, I flicked through the blogs of people who I followed 10 years ago and something occurred to me. A lot of bloggers ended up having some kind of successful business, often hingeing on a personal brand. I found an interesting correlation between their business and their friends. It’s painfully obvious, but for me it has been hidden in plain sight for a long time.

They sell the things their friends would buy from them.

And by friends, I don’t mean people who follow them, I mean friends. Real life friends.

So to rephrase the writing canon:

Don’t sell to followers, sell to a follower. 

The concept of selling to your friends seems a bit odd at first, but it’s the perfect litmus test of whether what you’re selling is worth buying. I think some people rely on the vastness of the internet to find their product and end up making spammy things that don’t sell, where in reality it’s probably not going to take off unless their friends would buy it from them.

The publisher has been the supplier of good books for her friends. The photographer who became popular has been taking her friends’ photographs for a long time. The lad who has a web development studio developed his friend’s sites. The girl with the jewellery store has been the to-go to person for nice jewellery before she had a bona fide store. My personal experience is congruent with this.

I think it’s a good way to think about small business. Think of a friend: what would you buy from them? What would you sell to them? I had a think of my friends and all they are good for is professional advice and good alcohol. Oh dear, rofl.

The social/economic mechanics of this are obvious and not worth chewing over, but it’s just a good way to think for some people who are thinking of monetising something.

What would your friends buy from you?