Clothes make the man

My idea that you can signal to yourself seems to have some echo in the real world: “People who were given a lab coat and told it belonged to a doctor were found to pay closer attention to what they were doing than people who were given the same coat and told it belonged to a painter. The researchers’ findings suggested that just as we wear clothes, our clothes wear us, changing the way we think, feel and behave.”

Read the article: https://www.ft.com/content/97fc83ba-85c7-11e8-a29d-73e3d454535d

Meanwhile, I have been active on instagram with skincare as piedbeautyx. What am I signalling to myself? Control? Routine? Adulthood itself? Who knows, but I am enjoying it.

The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett, Review

This book is a summary of the recent news, research, non-fiction bestsellers and popular science relating to tech, in a political context. The author tries hard to maintain objectivity, but he ends up sitting on the fence and stating the non-offensive obvious rather than creating new insights. Perhaps, there is a certain irony in that: serious journalism doesn’t hit as hard as divisive tripe we’ve gotten used to on Facebook. Overall, it’s an entry level book for people who want to learn about tech vs politics.

On a personal note, I recently attended a conference on digital health where an IBM Watson guy described how it could make decisions that are 93% congruent with health professionals (source). That’s impressive. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it will. Ireland has decent IT in healthcare compared to most countries. Yet I still fax things a lot (welcome to the 80s). As a doctor, I often serve as a photocopying machine. I’ve seen radiology software pick some cool stuff up using algorithms, but it will be a long time before AI is on the front line of medicine, in my view anyway.

My highlights below (this is not to say I highlight things I agree with!)

…The digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley –social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence –that are increasingly dominating economic, political and social life. It’s clear that these technologies have, on balance, made us more informed, wealthier and, in some ways, happier. After all, technology tends to expand human capabilities, produce new opportunities, and increase productivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for democracy.

While there are certainly contradictions in minimising tax while claiming to empower people, doing so doesn’t necessarily betray insincerity.

The machinery of democracy was built during a time of nation-states, hierarchies, deference and industrialised economies. The fundamental features of digital tech are at odds with this model: non-geographical, decentralised, data-driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth.

We won’t witness a repeat of the 1930s, everyone’s favourite analogy. Rather, I believe that democracy will fail in new and unexpected ways. The looming dystopia to fear is a shell democracy run by smart machines and a new elite of ‘progressive’ but authoritarian technocrats.

Chapter 1: The New Panopticon

Social media platforms are the latest iteration of the behaviourist desire to manage society through scientific observation of the mind, via a complete information loop: testing products on people, getting feedback and redesigning the model.

The notion that with enough data the mysteries of the human mind can be understood and influenced is perhaps the dominant philosophy in Silicon Valley today.

Scientific theories were unnecessary, he [Chris Anderson, editor of Wired] said, now that we have big data.

Google engineers don’t speculate and theorise about why people visit one site over another –they just try things and see what works.

Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched. This kind of permanent visibility and monitoring is a way to enforce conformity and docility.

Being always under surveillance and knowing that the things you say are collected and shared creates a soft but constant self-censorship.

Diagnosis by AI will outperform professional doctors within a few years (it already does in many areas, but regulation is slower than tech).

Deny it if you want, but we already rely on the machine for moral choices.

I can imagine this kind of utilitarian thinking will take over the world, because it’s amenable to data and AI.

Chapter 2: The Global Village

We are living, as McLuhan predicted, through a great re-tribalisation of politics.

Humans were perfectly good at killing each other because of politics long before the iPhone turned up. But Silicon Valley, in its optimistic quest for a global village of total information and connectivity, has inadvertently let tribalism back out of the cage that modern representative democracy built for it.

At times ‘post-truth’ has become a convenient way to explain complicated events with a simple single phrase. In some circles it has become a slightly patronising new orthodoxy to say that stupid proles have been duped by misinformation on the internet into voting for things like Brexit or Trump.

Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

The point is that every individual now has a truckload of reasons to feel legitimately aggrieved, outraged, oppressed or threatened, even if their own life is going just fine.

Note how, for example, so many people who disagree with Brexit use the language of a small child that has yet to develop a theory of mind: why should I accept the result, I didn’t vote for it and I want my country back.

The liberals’ hopeful theory about the role of debate is that coming into contact with opposing views and opinions can help resolve difference.

Several inconvenient studies have found that if two groups of people debate with each other they often consequently hold more extreme views than when they started. 15

I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

But being apparently neutral is itself a kind of editorial decision. Everything on social media is still curated, usually by some mysterious algorithm rather than a human editor.

But the problem is that no one is intentionally programming it to be sensationalistic –it’s just a mathematical response to our general preference for edgy and outrageous videos. This is both a mirror and a multiplier: a giant feedback loop powered by big data. You feed data in, and you get results that replicate themselves. Newspapers have always traded on outrage and sensationalism, because they’ve long known what algorithms have recently discovered about our predilections. However, the difference is that newspapers are legally responsible for what they print, and citizens generally understand the editorial positions of various outlets. Algorithms, however, give the impression of being neutral and can’t held to account –even though the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what 1.5 billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined.

In her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt warned that if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues.

If the medium is the message, is there a way to escape the drift toward ever more extreme ‘system one’ tribal politics? Of course. Laws, regulations or education can help.

The qualities we associate with human greatness –such as sensitivity, empathy, compassion, kindness, and honesty –are also keys to political success.

At a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016, Trump told his supporters that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and … wouldn’t lose voters’. There is a distinct and terrifying possibility that, in an era in which emotion outranks truth, bias outranks objectivity and tribe outranks compromise, he was right.

Chapter 3: Software Wars

Every election now is a mini arms race.

Just like Brad [Trump’s digital campaign guy], Cummings set up Vote Leave like a Silicon Valley start-up, with physicists, data, innovation and constant testing of ads or messages. One especially smart move involved inviting people to guess the results of all 51 matches in the Euro 2016 football tournament with the chance of winning £ 50 million, in exchange for their phone number, email, home address and a score of 1–5 in respect of how likely they were to vote for staying in the EU.

I was surprised when Theresa [Trump’s digital campaign figure] told me that social media employees –and ones who shared the campaign’s political views –were working directly with the Trump team, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

We used to call this sort of thing propaganda. Now we call it ‘a behavioral approach to persuasive communication with quantifiable results’, and give awards to the people who are best at it.

It is important that everyone receives the same message –or at least knows what others are receiving. That’s how we are able to thrash out the issues of the day. If everyone receives personalised messages, there is no common public debate –just millions of private ones.

When I was at Alamo, Theresa told me that she wrote many of Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. That was odd. I’d always assumed Trump wrote his own posts. I’d read many of them, and they certainly sounded like him. Nope, it was Theresa, sitting in her San Antonio office. ‘I channelled Mr Trump,’ she told me, smiling. ‘How do you channel someone like Donald Trump?’ I asked. ‘A lot of believe mes, a lot of alsos, a lot of verys … he was really wonderful to write for. It was so refreshing. It was so authentic.’ She seemed unaware of the irony.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to have had a Damascene moment towards the end of 2017, when he acknowledged that the company needed to behave more like a responsible publisher that takes editorial decisions, rather than as a neutral platform that treats all information equally. This will certainly help.

Far too many otherwise-intelligent people, unable to comprehend Trump’s popularity, believe that voters were duped by Brad or Theresa, or even by Vladimir Putin, into ticking the box for Trump. Those involved are happy to propagate this myth, because it’s good for business.

I don’t recall similar levels of outrage when it was revealed in 2012 that President Obama’s team had placed voters into 30 buckets and ranked them according to persuadability, and that Google’s Eric Schmidt advised the campaign. Liberals were apparently extremely comfortable with the idea when it was their guy doing it. That was a mistake.

Chapter 4: Driverless Democracy

When AI techniques transform medical diagnosis –within the next few years –it won’t mean fewer doctors, but better patient care because our busy doctors won’t need to spend hours staring at scans.

A specialist in machine learning at Starsky Robotics or Google performs a non-routine job, since it involves a lot of intuition, creativity and independent thinking in unpredictable situations. So does a gardener, carer or Deliveroo cyclist. It’s the jobs in the middle –what you might call ‘routine cognitive’ jobs –that will be most at risk. If you are a train operator, a mortgage adviser, a stock analyst, a paralegal, a credit analyst, a loan officer, a bookkeeper, a tax accountant or a radiologist, you might consider retraining.

High levels of inequality also wear away the fabric of society. The more unequal life gets, the less we spend time with people not like ourselves, and the less we trust each other.

‘There are40 million people in the US that live in poverty,’ he [Sam Altman, Y Combinator] said. ‘If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that; if technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute it better, we should do that.’ There was no hint that tech has played some role in creating the problem that tech is now supposed to fix.

Chapter 5: The Everything Monopoly

Back in the 1990s many predicted that the internet would slay monopolies, not create them. The popular thinking of the time –repeated over and over by the era’s digital gurus and futurists –was that the net was decentralised and connected, and so would automatically lead to a competitive and distributed marketplace.

Market leaders in AI like Google, with the data, the geniuses, the experience and the computing power, won’t be limited to just search and information retrieval. They will also be able to leap ahead in almost anything where AI is important: logistics, driverless cars, medical research, television, factory production, city planning, agriculture, energy use, storage, clerical work, education and who knows what else.

At some terrible point, these tech giants could become so important to the health and well-being of the nation that they are, like large banks, too big to fail. Armed with the best tech and the most skilled engineers, maybe Google or Facebook could be the only ones who could solve sophisticated cybercrime (perhaps committed by a powerful AI from a hostile country?), fix computer bugs, predict and pre-empt economic shocks, run the National Grid or protect the cyber defences of the big banks –cyber security in the public sector is predictably understaffed and under-skilled.

Every politician, with only a few exceptions, values the support of business. But politicians need tech platforms to reach voters in a manner that they don’t need other businesses, and these companies own and run the platforms on which so much of our political debate occurs.

Chapter 6: Crypto-Anarchy

(Public key) encryption is the crypto-anarchist’s barbed wire. It allows people to communicate, browse and transact beyond the reach of government, making it significantly harder for the state to control information, and subsequently, its citizens. This is because of a simple-but-magic rule: due to some arcane properties of prime numbers, it takes far more computing power to decrypt something than to encrypt it. 3 It’s like an egg: a lot easier to crack than to put back in its shell. Julian Assange, who was an active contributor to Timothy May’s email list, puts it this way: ‘the universe believes in encryption’.

In the well-intentioned pursuit of privacy and freedom, we might risk undermining the entire edifice on which these rights are based. Most liberals have been very short-sighted about this, because they want total freedom and equality, without realising that the two are sometimes in tension. This is why the issue of encryption and privacy throws up peculiar political alliances. (The most notable of recent years is surely the idiotic social democratic love affair with crypto-anarchist Julian Assange.)

Democracy is about individual liberty of course, but that’s only half the picture. It is also a system of coercion because your liberty must sometimes be taken away too. The state must be able to force you to pay tax, remove your passport, restrict your right to assemble and back it up with the use of force if it needs to by arresting you and throwing you in prison.

A blockchain social media platform would be untouchable – no government would be able to edit or remove hate-speech, illegal images or terror propaganda, unless the whole network was somehow vaporised. Blockchain advocates hate ‘middle men’.

For reasons still not entirely clear to me, humanity is currently embarked on a quixotic quest to connect everything to everything else.

A recent survey in the Journal of Democracy found that only 30 per cent of US millennials (the demographic made up of those born since 1980) agree that ‘it’s essential to live in a democracy’, compared to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s, and results in most other democracies demonstrate a similar pattern.

Conclusion: Say Hello to the Future

In the hands of a techno-authoritarian, all the digital tools of liberation could easily become powerful tools of subtle coercion that might make society run more smoothly but wouldn’t make us more free or hold the powerful to account.

Digital technology is behind the slow unravelling of power and control in democracies. The obvious monster is Scylla – turbo-charged inequality and social breakdown. But in trying to avoid it, democracies could end up in the thrall of Charybdis, a digitally powered techno-authoritarian, and wind up with China and Russia undermining democracy in the name of order and harmony.

Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen by Hannah Howard Review

This book belongs to that dying coming-of-age-in-NYC-uber-honest-personal-essay-featuring-tampons-vomit-and-DMCs genre.

It’s also sweet and embarrassingly relatable for millennials.

The best things about this book is Hannah’s startling honestly. Not even so much when it comes to her devastating eating disorder, but how she feels about men and work. You kind of wonder if some of it was made up to protect the identities of the people involved. It’s preciously revelatory and confessional. You can feel the anguish.

It’s certainly readable, but I cannot honestly say I am a fan of the style. Some of it is beautifully descriptive. Parts are repetitive. Everything shines like the moon. Hannah is preoccupied with the sensations in her toes. 

The descriptions of food can be wonderful, but at times it seems like she ran out of paper and had to write her shopping list in her personal diary.

Other times, the detail seems unnecessary. For example, she cooks Irish oats. I effin love Irish oats. But frankly, they are not that different to good oats from anywhere else in the world. Why mention that they are Irish? To show your level of pickiness? Sophistication? But surely, oats are just oats – and anyone who cares about food enough to care that the oats are Irish knows that. Hannah isn’t pretentious or arrogant! (Of course, the reader is assured at this point that they know her like she is her best friend.) Maybe, it is just the glaringly obvious explanation: food is her tragic obsession and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

There are also too many Americanisms consumerinisms. She talks about writing things in Sharpie. Dude, why can’t you just say marker?

The main theme of the book, as I see it, is Hannah’s struggle to find people who will love her and accept her. She wants to find a “home”, “her people” and feel like she belongs. Despite severe anorexia, she even feels at home when the uberthin hostesses of an superposh New York restaurant side with her in a mean girls exchange. That’s all it took: knowing she wasn’t alone. Her fear of weight gain summed up in one line: “I will be unfuckable, or even worse : unlikable, unacceptable, unlovable.”

There is probably one most telling bit in the whole book. Hannah talks about the advice that works: “Get out of yourself and your own head. Call someone else. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their day. Listen. Don’t talk about you. That advice. I’ve heard it before from Aaron and it is exactly what I don’t want to hear. It works nearly every time.”

What is it? Well, the same way that steroids get rid of inflammation, this exercise gets rid of self-obsession. A crude diagnosis, but it’s there.

The ending is a little but too much of an amalgam of post card philosophy. I don’t think she’s not honest or what she says is wrong, but it’s not nearly as refreshing and gripping as the rest of the book. Then again, this also happened to War and Peace, so I don’t judge 😉

My highlights below.

On what food does for an addict

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable. Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Often, postbinge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness.

It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after — waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering.

My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.

I am not a cool girl. I always have friends, wonderful friends, and yet my identity as an outsider feels fixed from as far back as I can remember.

But most importantly, I am not thin enough. This sums it all up. This is my curse, my refrain, true as my name.

The mirror is enemy number one.

After cosmetic surgery

When I go back to school for senior year, nobody notices. If they do, they are silent. I feel the devastation in my chest, my bones, their marrow. I am still me.

On loneliness and lack of self-esteem

College means everything. If my body is one measure of my self -worth, college is the other.

I read. No matter how lonely I feel, how much an outsider,how fat, I am welcome in the world of words, stories, poems. They hold my hand. They show me that there are more ways to think and feel than I may fathom.

In my fantasy, something remarkable happens at college. I am not an outsider. I belong.

I am going to be a whole new Hannah. Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course. Skinnier is everything. Skinniness is next to godliness.

The summer holidays after getting into the college of her dreams:

My new life is full of possibility but I am stuck inside myself. My stomach feels round and big as the moon. I have big plans for my summer. I want to do unambitious things like make eight bucks an hour scooping ice cream, read a lot of trashy mags, and sleep. It sounds wild, an adventure. Also, I will diet.

It doesn’t feel like enough, not even close, but hunger seems a small price to pay for liking myself, for not dreaming of carving away the flesh below my belly button, the sides of my butt.

On starving herself

So much better than being cool, I feel powerful. My skin and bones are different, electric.

My stomach gurgles, struggling against its own emptiness, and I am proud.

I go long stretches of days with only Pink Lady apples, coffees with skim milk and Splenda, liters of diet soda and seltzer water. A frozen yogurt, sometimes.

My butt hurts when I sit, and sometimes my knees buckle under the weight of my body, like it’s heavier in its thinness.
I think about the pancetta sandwich he cooked me, the cruel extravagance of the buttery croissant.
I flip through the pages, deliberate over what I won’t hate myself worse in the morning for ordering.

On men

It is the best drug — wanting him, him wanting me. The room spins.

He peers over, and we make eye contact… “ You’re very beautiful, like a model. ” His eyes are wider than they should be, all pupils, like he’s taken an opiate. His gaze feels like a scratch on my skin, unbearable… He doesn’t say anything this time, his eyes are hard on me. I think, This is because of my diet. Fifteen pounds ago, this would never have happened. Is this what people want? Why?

“Your face is a ten, but your body is a six,” he says, unprompted. “ I’m only grading you harshly because you have such potential. You could be a ten, even, if you lost some weight, got in great shape.” I feel as if my skin has been peeled from me. And yet, I agree.

“Do you see the way men look at you?” Corey asks. “ ike they’re hungry?”

I still hate the roundness of my belly, pull on the flesh around my hips and fantasise about its evisceration. But I have felt immense pleasure and given the same. The power of that straightens my spine.

Because I don’t believe I am likable, even for a second, attention from men surprises me, every time.

On hearing that her boyfriend is addicted to coke and alcohol:

I don’t think, Hannah, yikes, walk away. I think, Thank god. I am not alone. He gets it… He drinks the way I eat—to fill something unfillable.

I think about years passing with him, decades. The thought makes me want to puke.

[There is a lot on sexism. There is also a rape.]

On wanting to be thin

I wonder how miraculous my life would be in her body.

“ You know,” she says, “ being skinny is such a strange part of beauty. It’s not the most important part. It’s just the only part you can control. ”

“The point is to be fuckable. ”

I fantasize about butchering myself the way the cooks I work with so beautifully break down a side of beef, carving away the excess until I’m okay.

I want to be badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.

No one wants me to join Ari on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I am sure. It doesn’t matter, the other stuff.

On finally being thin

I think, This is what I wanted. I’m skinny and eighteen and about to go out with a Michelin – starred, kind – of celebrity chef. I wonder why I’m not elated.

“ You’re beautiful, ” he tells me. The claim sounds ridiculous, cruel.

I don’t particularly want him, but being wanted makes up for it.

My chest hurts with each inhale, the empty ache of not – enoughness.
..deep inside my internal organs, there are millions of pounds of longing. This is not the way I thought skinniness would feel.
The Atlantic rushes up to my ankles, the beach smells of wind and sardines. My loneliness feels as wide as its endless expanse.
I want to eat the pastéis de nata and I don’t want to eat the pastéis de nata. I am trapped. Either way, I will let myself down.
I remember Corey saying “ Just lose some weight, then you can go back to loving food.” Am I there yet? That place does not exist. I will never arrive.

On work

Nobody goes home sick at The Piche. It’s the restaurant code of honor.

I close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 AM, and get up at 5 AM to open the restaurant the next day. “ It builds character, ” they tell the three management trainees.

At first, I love the profundity of my exhaustion when I come home, the satisfaction of the ache in the arches of my feet, my lower back, proof I have worked.

The day ahead here feels like a prison.

I don’t stop talking about whether to quit or not to quit. I’m trying to decide. Both options fill me with hot dread. I feel resigned. I fear that if I stay, Josh’s prediction will come true.

My soul will be constricted and slicked down, like my hair, until, starved for breath, it deflates. Yet if I go, I will be a quitter, a failure at my first real grown-up job.

What she really wants from work:

It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart.

The Corporate Steakhouse could never have been home. Walking out past the koi for the last time, I feel the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.

On finding out that what she thought was her dream turned out to be quite different in real life:

Our vision. Our dream. The truth is, I don’t love it or even like it. I am simultaneously stressed and bored.

On her initial recovery from anorexia

Anorexia is the most fatal mental illness. Deadly. Before a heart stops, way before hospital visits, furry skin, even when the anorexia is merely an idea of itself, a taste of impending famine, it starts to obliterate things.

I cry in her office. I know I am getting fatter. What was the point of all this struggle? I gain a few pounds, and nobody says anything ever again to anyone’s mom ; nobody worries about me.

I am not better. If anything, I am worse. I still go as long as I can go without eating, until everything around me breaks into little dots and begins to lose its substance. And then I binge.

On her success in recovery

No longer a secret, the food very slowly loses its tight grip on me. The shame begins to dissipate.

“Your feelings won’t kill you,” Faith says as if reading my mind. “And they will pass. Promise.”
I once thought I was eternally fucked.
They tell me “a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” I say that I don’t understand what the fuck that means.

On wanting love

Surreally pretty. I catch myself staring: his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his underwater eyes. That he likes me, loves me, seems unfathomable.

…our whole bodies are not just touching but without boundaries, his skin is my skin, his tattoo is my tattoo, and it is better than chocolate and cake and sex and success and all of the things that are good.

I notice that the people who love me do not love me more or less if I am thinner or heavier.

My eating disorder is all about me, me, me. A selfish beast. It tricks me into thinking that if I can shrink enough, I will be safe and loved and admired. But I am safe and loved and admired just as I am, no matter what size I wear, even if I have to tell myself this a million times over to half believe it.

Post-card philosophy

There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. Each time a piece of pottery cracks, it is lacquered back together with gold. All those golden threads make the piece what it is, extraordinary.
I like to think of my heart like that. That each time it breaks, it gets more valuable and beautiful with the mending. It is a collage of gold.

Insight

It makes me sad, how much of my own life I have missed, buried in the self-obsession of my eating disorder.
It’s not that I’ve emerged from my cocoon a butterfly. It’s not that I have escaped the taskmaster that lives in my brain and shouts and shouts an endless loop of fear, worry, shame. But I do know that the taskmaster’s voice speaks only some garbled, deeply skewed version of the truth, and that’s no truth at all.

“Impatient, immature, all-or-nothing attitude to ambition”

There an interesting psychiatrist and author, Theodore Dalrymple. Not his real name, which he chose because it “sounded suitably dyspeptic, that of a gouty old man looking out of the window of his London club, port in hand, lamenting the degenerating state of the world”. How accurate.

His writings are a joyous mix of thought crimes and insight porn expressed in an academic, albeit overwhelmingly British, manner.

Following on from our discussion of “specialness” and achievement, here are his musings on class in the context of the Hillbilly Elegy:

It might be said, of course, that not everyone can go to Yale Law School (thank God, one might add). But it is not a question of Yale or jail. Gradations of success are innumerable and every way of earning a living that is of service to others is honorable. Part of the problem, I surmise, is that we have been infected with the idea that only the highest achievement—either in academic status, monetary reward, or public fame—is worthy of respect, and all else counts as failure. From that premise it follows that there is no point in making a vast effort only to be a quiet, respectable, useful, God-fearing failure. It is precisely the absence of this impatient, immature, all-or-nothing attitude to ambition that accounts for the success of Asian immigrants. Whether Hillbilly Elegy will reinforce or counteract this attitude is an open question. Source.

 

Special like everyone else

“You are unique and special, just like everyone else”…

is a semantic cop out.

If special is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual, it means that most everything is usual – and once in a blue moon, we get to see something special.

So, no, everyone isn’t special. (The semantics are very simple: the fact that one is special in the eyes of another doesn’t mean that they are special full stop.)

Unique – is a different matter. Every piece of sh*t is unique, but they’re not quite so special. (Gastroenterology, look away).

Perhaps, it’s a semantic cop out that was trying to right some even worse wrong in the 1960s, when it was said by Margaret Mead, but today it can only do harm.

While building a brighter future during the Khrushchev era, my mother’s generation was convinced that to indicate that you wish to be something greater, yourself, was practically a crime. No wonder, the likes of Ayn Rand were screaming for a different view.

Reading blogs written in the US today, I feel much more aspiration for individual greatness, whereas in this part of the world, “delusions of grandeur” are strongly discouraged.

I think it is damaging for people to think of themselves as being special. It’s the sort of attitude that has people craving accomplishment and its short term substitute, other people’s attention.

If one comes to terms with the fact that they are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, perhaps they won’t feel the void left by… normalcy. Imagine that.

Maybe they won’t reach for their phone every morning for the dopamine hit of someone’s attention on social media that reminds them that they are special. Or look in the mirror to remind themselves of how their perfect skin/abs/ass makes them special. Or look at a wall full of degrees and ribbons to reassert their specialness.

A desire for specialness is mostly about an external locus of control. I think every person swings in and out of that unhelpful state at times, but I went through a transient, painful time when it really hit me hard. Was it my parents/teachers/friends’ fault? Or maybe that’s just social media? Whatever it is, it’s not an excuse to remain this way, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount to me.

In a previous post, some people said that they used to affirm their students’ specialness to them using this mantra, “You are unique and special, just like everyone else”. I think it’s kind and well intentioned, but perhaps not very helpful today as it feeds into the inescapable narrative rather than correcting for it.

I don’t think any teachers of mine ever told me I was special, it never occurred to me that they should. In fact, it would be weird. I looked for self-actualisation in other, what seemed like real, meaningful ways. I feel that this was a good thing. I think my phase of search for specialness was down to the fact that I got into comparing myself to others beyond all context.

This is by no means asking anyone to regress to the mean, encourage mediocrity or prevent people from doing something special. I just don’t think that special things should be done for the sake of making the doer special. They should be done for a real, less narcissistic reason, which usually involves someone else or something bigger than oneself.

And of course, we can define those special as relating to the general population, or better, to the relevant reference group. What is your cut off for special? 5%? 1%? Less than 5% of the population blog, so are we all special? Hmm. You get the point.

Is this as close to a long read as I am gonna get these days, jeez… For what I didn’t manage to say, here is some Radiohead rather beautifully wallowing in the pain of trying to be special, oscillating between idealising and devaluing. 1993. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Beautiful ordinariness

The word snowflake has filtered down to the teens (or did they invent it?) And they write about not wanting to be snowflakes. Us millennials inspired the term and obviously terrified the rest of the population. These Z people make me excited.

It was coined in Fight Club:

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Would it be a thought crime to say that it’s a good thing to come to terms with the fact that you, and everyone else, is ordinary?

As I see it, people can do things that are special, but the concept of being special is the root of millennial narcissism.

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.