Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Joy of Listening to LPs and Drinking Wine and Hanging with Friends

Just spent this past weekend visiting friends up in Norwich. It was fun, and when I suggest that there are certain rituals to be observed (bringing wine for my friends, and multiple boxes of the same candies for the kids), that shouldn't be taken as a criticism. It seems eminently fair that I should try to get the children on-side, as guests coming to stay usually means having to be on your best behavior and maybe doing boring stuff, like going to cathedrals.

At least, that's how I remember it from my own childhood (minus cathedrals, which we don't have in Palo Alto).

But I'd say my big highlight was listening to records - honest-to-gosh LPs on a turntable - after the kids had been packed off to bed. It helps that my friend has good taste in music (even if I'm a bit less keen on Bob Dylan than he is), but what struck me was how pleasurable the physical act of choosing a record, putting it on the turntable and listening to it properly (with some interludes for chatting and for topping up the alarming amounts of booze we drank).

This is something that's struck me recently at my own house, as well - last year I rediscovered the pleasures of CDs when I started listening to them on the Bose sound system we have at home. After years of listening to music on Apple laptops or on Apple headphones, it was like the first time I put on a pair of eyeglasses... everything suddenly jumped into focus.

I sometimes wonder if that lack of sound quality on digital has something to do with how most people listen to and value (or more appropriately, don't value) music now. The obvious thing is that streaming services and YouTube commoditize music by making it "free", but I feel that in itself isn't a strong enough motive to reduce music purely to background status, as most people seem to want it for nothing more than background noise for reading, cooking, driving, whatever.

Heck, I love having music on while reading or writing, so I'm not innocent of the charge myself.

But when the music is nice and clear, so that you can hear each note and each instrument properly, and when you're spending time with friends, the music becomes the objective. We listened to Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and so on, and it all sticks with me because for once we were paying attention to it.

It reminds me of a news story I once read about the placebo effect. The ritual involved makes the placebo more effective - so taking a fake pill is more effective than drinking a liquid, but a fake injection is even more effective than that. So I wonder if the pleasure at listening to music, and the sound quality, reflects the ritual of selecting the disc, putting it on the turntable and, ever so carefully, placing the needle.

Or, you know, maybe I only think I notice it because it's how I grew up with music. Who knows?

Though now I'm thinking about buying a turntable of my own...

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Spoiler-filled Thoughts on Star Trek Discovery

So I finally finished Star Trek Discovery, thanks to Netflix's content deals that mean I can watch it there abroad but not at home. I started it when I was in Japan, and resumed when I got here to London, neatly sidestepping the issue of the mid-season hiatus.

I have a few conflicting thoughts and feelings on Disco, as I've seen it called, so I'll try to lay those out in some more-or-less coherent form. But that'll be difficult, because just like my feelings about the show, Disco itself is a bit all over the place.

Let's start with a positive, though. The show looks great. There's clearly been a lot of time and money spent making the sets and uniforms and effects look not only good, but also distinctive. This doesn't look like JJ-verse Trek, which is neither a good thing nor bad, as the reboot movies have always looked amazing. It's done a good job of setting itself apart, visually, from everything that came before, while also looking appropriate to what you'd expect.

The uniforms are well-done, looking like they belong in the same universe as other Starfleet uniforms, and the ship looks like a Starfleet ship. The effects are also subtle, avoiding the early-CGI cheapness we got with Voyager (to take an example at complete random). For example, the tardigrade of the early parts of the series looks like it's actually in the room with the actors - even recent shows like the CW's Flash sometimes look like they've lifted footage from video games.

Plot-wise things are a bit more of a mixed bag. An uncharitable part of me wants to quote an old joke my dad always tells, that "there are good things and new things here, but the good things aren't always new and the new things aren't always good". But I think it's more complicated than that.

Instead, I'd like to quote the AV Club's definition of fan-fiction, from a recap of episode 13:
It’s a show that uses the tropes of an established franchise without any real understanding of how those tropes work; and it’s written without the craft or patience necessary to tell a story that means something outside of our recognition of those tropes.
I hadn't even finished watching the show when I first read that, but it sums up perfectly my thoughts on what they've done with it. Although even that feels a little harsh, given that I liked a lot of stuff about it.

The overall story, of the first war between the Klingons and the Federation, is told well, and resolved in a manner that fits with the vision of Star Trek. It's too bad that the Klingon messiah, T'Kuvma, is eliminated in the first episode, and that his second-in-command, Voq, also disappears early on, to be revealed as Lt. Ash Tyler.

But the plot about Tyler being a vessel for Voq to infiltrate his enemies and sow chaos is a neat idea, though like many things on Disco, it's not clear where it should lead. There's no indication that he's waiting for a time to kill Michael Burnham or Captain Lorca, and he doesn't transmit details of Discovery's spore drive to the Klingons. There are reasons why, as he's ostracized and exiled from the Klingons, but the sense is that he's inserted himself into Tyler's psyche so that the show can have that reveal and also Burnham's conflicted feelings about having bonked a secret Klingon.

Lorca's also an interesting character, though again, I'm not sure how well his plot line holds up. The questions of how trustworthy he was as a captain were well-handled at the start, but once he's revealed as the Mirror Universe version of himself he just becomes an asshole. I'd have liked to see more fallout from Starfleet (especially the admiral he bonked, as there's clearly a lot of bonking on this show) on the fact that they didn't detect him for so long.

Burnham has a good arc, overall, but in those first two episodes I actually found her to be even more annoying a character than Neelix, from Voyager (who's just awful and such a drag on what that show could have been). She gets better, although in the end I'm not sure how earned her progression is - remember that it took the Next Generation seven seasons to show us how much Captain Picard had changed.

The one character I'd hold up as being really well done is Cadet Tilly. She's introduced as the kind of scatter-brained younger woman that seems to be in vogue in entertainment these days (Exhibit A is Felicity Smoak on Arrow), but the writers gave her a lot to do, starting with assisting with the spore drive. By letting her get good at something, the show also let her become the conscience of the show, espousing the values that Star Trek represents when other characters are toying with ignoring them.

The rest of the cast ranges from underdeveloped to "meh". It's a shame to relegate Doug Jones as Saru here, because I like him as an actor, but I hold out hope that as the show continues it'll develop him further.

Back to the fan-fiction stuff: though it was kind of neat to see Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, in the context of the overall story it didn't add much. And the spore drive thing was a neat way to move the plot along, but even in the first half of the season, it felt inconsequential, given that we know Starfleet doesn't use spore drives in the later/earlier shows (this reboot business is confusing).

I'd also like to single out how stupid killing off Commander Landry in the early episodes was. Not that I had any real interest in the character, since she was underdeveloped to begin with, but opening the tardigrade's cage and standing in front of it has to be one of the most pointless deaths in the history of television. They clearly had to get the security chief role open for Tyler, but it would have been good if they could have found some way to do it that was more organic. Also because the reveal of her character in the Mirror Universe fell a bit flat - she was so underdeveloped to begin with that it's not much of a shock. She's an asshole in the regular universe, and she's a follower of Lorca in the Mirror Universe (so, an asshole). Big whoop.

The tardigrade storyline was also disappointing, and a case of the "good/new" dichotomy. You don't have to be ridiculously well-versed in Star Trek to have seen immediately that the poor tardigrade was misunderstood, and that by using it to power the spore drive Starfleet was enslaving it. This is a trope that's been explored before, multiple times, and almost always to better effect (see: Devil in the Dark). The time resetting plot that marked Harry Mudd's second appearance was also kind of blah, as again, other Trek has done it better.

As for the structure, I'm ambivalent about the switch to serialized storytelling. It seems to have become the default way of doing TV, without regard to whether it suits the story being told. And while the old model, in which shows could be aired out of order for syndication, was a little cynical from a money perspective, there are pleasures to dipping into an episode at random sometimes and enjoying a complete story, with at least some closure. And more to the point, Trek has balanced standalone stories with serialized stories before, with Deep Space 9's Dominion War plot. It's one wish I won't get, but it'd be nice for season 2 of Disco to build its overarching storyline through multiple shorter episodes, so that the rest of the cast can develop.

When this show first came out, but before I saw it, I saw a number of folks online calling it the best Trek, or saying it stood up with the best. I can't agree. In terms of story quality, it's behind DS9, TNG and TOS, in that order; in terms of how Star Trek it is, it's also fourth, behind TOS, TNG and DS9. The storytelling wasn't as sophisticated as the very best Trek (and wasn't helped by randomly throwing in swear words, which I guess was to show how cool and with it this new Trek is), and as I said, the plots didn't always bear close scrutiny.

But... I didn't give up on it midway through. There was a lot to like, and it was interesting to see how the crew would react to a given set of circumstances. The other thing Disco has going for it is that Trek shows usually don't pick up until the second or third season, so as the writers better understand how the universe they're playing in works, I'll expect the show to get better too. And I have to give it credit for looking at the philosophical questions, which Voyager and Enterprise didn't always do well.

So it's not a perfect show, but I'll be looking forward to next season. I might even pay for CBS All Access, to watch it in the US.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Evening in London

There's great Mexican food to be had here

Seriously! It's called Mestizo, it's near Warren Street, and it's tasty af. I went with my friend Tom, who's not Mexican, and his friend Axel, who is Mexican. Axel and I both agreed that the place was the real thing - right down to the tamales and the al pastor and the pork chile verde.

I'd gotten resigned to decent but not stellar fare, with the best examples being Wahaca and Chipotle, but I'm pleased to see that there's some actual good Mexican food in town now. I still remember what passed for it when I first moved here in 2001: the awful and touristy Chiquito in Leicester Square that served stale tortilla chips. Since then the UK's Mexican game has improved slowly, but inexorably - and the fact that there's now a pretty big Mexican community means that the food's coming along.

So much walking

This year I've set myself the ambitious goal of hitting 3 million steps. I've just hit 330,000 for the month, so I think I'm well on the way. Just one of the advantages of living in a city and not having access to a car.

Though I do miss my podcasts and not having to worry about getting run over by crazy drivers all the time.

So little writing

The negative side of all this social butterfly activity is that I seem to have very little time and mental bandwidth for writing. I've managed to get blogs out every Sunday so far, which is good, but most of the rest of my time is going... I don't know where. I have ambitious goals, like submitting twenty stories again (I managed 21 last year) but I don't seem to have the energy to do it. In part because the commute home's a little more hellish and it takes longer to get home than to get to work.

I'm already freaking out (as a general rule) that I'm squandering my life, and this is just one more anxiety-mosquito buzzing around my head and nipping me when I let my guard down.

On the plus side, I'm reading a fair bit more (thanks to the commute) and going to a lot more writers' events. But still not much actual words on paper...

Moving into the big Waterstones

It could be that one of the things tying up my time at the moment is visits to the flagship Waterstones on Piccadilly. My obsession with the place grows and grows - after lunch I walked with my friend Tom to Tottenham Court Road, and from there eventually made my way to Piccadilly, reasoning that I probably had to get to Green Park to get home, so I might as well stop in...

The problem remains that I don't have a load of space for all the books I'd like to buy. I managed three yesterday, short ones, and it felt good because I'd been holding back until my first paycheck came in. But I'm surrounded by wonderful, interesting books and bookstores, all of which I want to support. I just can't take everything back with me.

I guess I'll be making a few donations to the charity shop before I leave in March...

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Getting Reacquainted With Harry Potter

Finally finished watching the Harry Potter movies last week, before I moved into my new place. It feels apt to have done that during my move back to London, although it's worth admitting that I'd be considering it for a while before I knew I'd be coming back.

I first encountered Harry Potter, in earnest, in about 2000 or 2001, though I'm sure I must have known about the books earlier. I was in Göttingen, wrapping up my year abroad and my final year of college, and suddenly all the bookstores in town (of which there were a few) had pictures of kids in wizard capes, as well as actual kids in wizard capes, running around.

After I finished I moved to London, where the fever pitch of anticipation for the first movie swept me up and I consumed the first four books in rapid succession. I watched the first movie that year, around the same time that I saw the first Lord of the Rings movie, and the second movie the following year... and then kind of stopped. The third movie, which a lot of people say is the best, passed me by, and I saw the fourth when I lived in New York, but as the whole enterprise went on I clearly had my mind on other things.

I did read the books as they came out, of course, and I remember, especially in the final three, seeing so many turns of phrase and ideas that I loved. One scene that sticks with me is when Mad-Eye Moody is showing Harry the picture of the first Order of the Phoenix, and describing the fates of each of the wizards in the picture. And I remember the satisfying final chapter of Deathly Hallows, where everyone's gotten together with who they should have and you see how the relationships, even with Draco Malfoy, have turned out - it stuck with me, for sure.

But a few things have worn away at my curiosity in the years since I read Deathly Hallows. One was the fact that Potter stuff is basically everywhere here in the UK - one of my offices was right around the corner from a VFX firm that did work on the Potter movies, so I must have seen a wireframe Dobby the House Elf hundreds of times. Add to that the fact that a lot of my female British coworkers were of an age to see it coming out in real-time, so I heard a lot of disquisitions on how hot the actor who played Neville Longbottom has become.

And I follow JK Rowling on Twitter, because she's funny, interesting and let's face it, there's hardly a better example of where a good story can take you. From single mother writing in cafes in Edinburgh to billionaire, you have to respect what she was able to create and, honestly, the integrity to make sure her vision came through both in the books and the movies.

So it was always floating around me, and finally I took the decision last year that I wanted to reread the books. But somewhere along the line I decided that watching the movies would take less time, and anyway it would be uncharted territory for me. So that's what I did.

In an illustration of how chance favors the prepared mind, HBO duly announced that it would add all eight movies to HBO Go on January 1. I'm pleased to say that I got through the first four in those days before I flew to London, and since then I rented the other four on iTunes, since I wasn't sure if Amazon would work out here.

The AV Club did a "Run the Series" article on the Harry Potter movies, where they said it was the greatest sustained series of fantasy films ever put on screen, and I have to agree. Lord of the Rings started out really well but with each movie got farther from what it should have been, and the Hobbit was even worse, while Game of Thrones can't be fully evaluated yet because it hasn't finished (and we still don't know how the books will turn out).

But the Potter movies work because they do a nice job of distilling and simplifying the stories as told in the books, so that after the first few films there's less about life at the school and more about bringing the plot forward. In fact, the worst of them, Chamber of Secrets, is the one that hews closest to the source material, and is accordingly the longest and least focused.

The other thing I like about them, stories and movies, is how well they play with existing myths and legends to weave together something new. I remember someone saying (dismissively) that Order of the Phoenix was stealing from Star Wars, but that's not a bad thing, because like Star Wars, it's lifting ideas and remixing them into a thing that resonates with huge numbers of people.

In contrast to Star Wars, though, Potter's remixing turns it into what you could call English fantasy, putting it in the same category as Neil Gaiman's stories (like Neverwhere or American Gods), Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or even the Lord of the Rings. The difference as I see it between English fantasy and epic fantasy, which is the subgenre that LotR gave rise to, is the reliance on the trappings of fairy tales to tell something that resonates more. I talked about the difference between the two a few years ago, and the idea applies well to the Harry Potter movies.

While reading up on the books' reviews and criticism, I remember one reviewer pointing out the Anglo-Saxon origins of names like Dumbledore.

I'm not the only one who thinks so, as there's currently an exhibition at the British Library about the fairy tale and folkloric sources that Potter draws on. The write-up on it in the London Review of Books is probably another thing that made me want to watch the Potter movies.

You can argue that the movies aren't the best, just as the books aren't the best examples of writing, but as I say, the stories are satisfying, particularly as you chart Harry's progression from child to man. To say nothing of the pleasure of watching the characters around him grow up - like in real life, a person who you thought of as always in the background may end up having outsized significance to your life later on. Or, as in the case of Snape, finding that your initial opinion of a person is completely at odds with who they really are.

But again, the movies attracted most of the great British actors of the last couple of decades, with Alan Rickman's portrayal of Snape and his nuances being probably one of the high points. My favorite moment has to be in Prisoner of Azkaban, where they're confronted by Lupin in his werewolf form and Snape puts himself between Lupin and the three kids. It's a moment that a kid might pass over, but contrasting Snape's ultimate loyalties with how he and Harry take such an immediate dislike to one another makes it quite poignant.

As I say, there's a certain pleasure in watching Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up, along with their other friends. And it's interesting to consider the kids who filed in to watch the first movie had grown up alongside the characters, just as a couple of years earlier other kids grew up with the books. It's a bit of a sad pleasure, considering the characters and actors who've been lost during the story, and since, but it's a good depiction of growing up for all of us.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hitting the Reset Button in London (Again)

So here I am, back in London, the place where I've spent most of my adult life. As I type I'm looking out the window of the room I've just moved into for the next couple of months, on a slightly more uplifting prospect than the overgrown garden at the back of my not-beloved Airbnb in Bethnal Green.

This is the second time I've moved back. The first time, arriving in 2006 after two years away, I was a little surprised by how little had changed and how easily I dove right back into my old London life. This time, I'm not as disconcerted by the familiarity, as I've been back to London every year since leaving, so I'm up to date with the things that have changed and the things that haven't. And I know to expect the easy transition back.

Of course, reminders of the previous tour of duty here are all around. For one thing, Bethnal Green is where I spent four and a half years, off and on, so I was aware of how to get around and where all the important things were (Tube station, ATMs, McDonalds, Nando's). For another the flat I've moved into today is next door to where a friend of mine was living when I came back in 2006 - it didn't sink in until after I'd come to see the place the first time, but I was having all this weird deja vu while walking up to it.

In any case, it's nice to be settled somewhere and not living out of a suitcase anymore, at least until March. And it's nice having a little more space than I did at the Bethnal Green Airbnb. There was no living room there (it having been converted into my room) and there was no comfortable place to sit and write. Now I've got a nice desk, and a comfy bed in my room, as well as a kitchen, living room and bathroom to share with just one other person. It's hard to overstate the sense of well-being from having a place to sleep in that you don't mind hanging out in.

My last post was downbeat but cautiously optimistic, and I think I remain in that mindset for now. But I'd say things are looking up. Time to see where they lead.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

2018 Will Be a New Frontier

It's maybe a little early to be drawing a veil over this year, but screw it, I'm so ready for it to be over. It feels like a year with few professional or personal highs, and against the backdrop of what's been happening out in the world, it's hard to maintain an even keel sometimes. If 2016 was the year of bad things coming out of nowhere (whether celebrity deaths or, you know, Brexit), then 2017 has been the year of bad things accumulating.

At a macro level, the ongoing wrangling over Brexit and the slow march to authoritarianism (and possibly nuclear war) in the US are seriously getting me down. And what's worse is the inability of people to unbend from their positions - the fact that any politician who dares to question the hardest Brexit possible receives death threats is chilling on so many levels. Another frustrating thing is that a number of friends seem to think the problems of 2002 (like Islamic fundamentalist terrorism) are still the gravest existential threats - they never were, but having the arguments just leads to further polarization.

At a personal level, I'm pleased with a number of things that happened, but against the grand sweep of things it's hard to see those as more than whistling past the graveyard. I don't know if that's a result of my setting unambitious goals, or if my perception is skewed, but the fact is that I don't feel like I've made progress on any fronts.

This is a bit harsh, because some of what I've accomplished holds the promise of better stuff coming tomorrow. But some of the rest just kicks the can further down the road. And the loss of my job also colors things pretty severely - longer term it's probably positive that I'm not in that situation anymore, given how frustrated I was by my manager's inability to manage, but losing my job just as healthcare gets harder to find is not ideal.

On the other hand, I'm excited to have landed a three-month contract in London. It came about as a direct result of me telling my friend circle on Facebook what had happened, and it will pay me a lot better than what I was making in my job, while also keeping me in the industry. Personally, it's also nice because I'll be working closely with two friends and will be in London long enough to spend more time with my sisters and to see a bunch more friends who no longer live in town.

The other big positive from this year is the trip to Tokyo. It's a little bittersweet, given that I lost my job just a month after I got back, but at the same time that makes me glad that I chose to do it when I did. The thinking had literally been that I should do it now, before something changed. There's nothing to suggest I'll never get a chance to take another trip like it, but the simple fact is that I'm not planning any trips anywhere until I have a long-term paycheck lined up.

On the writing front, I did manage to get some new stories written, and into circulation. That's a positive, because the more I have to send out the more likely something is to get accepted. And because it's pleasurable to write a story, hammer it into shape, and be able to let it go out into the world while I focus on the next. A lot of writers hate writing but like having written; I only hate the revising part.

And it was nice to get interviewed by my friend to talk about books, writing, and the difference between fiction writing and news.

In any case, another positive for the year just gone is that the year to come can't help but be different. I'm not implying that my 2017 couldn't have been worse, because I think a lot of people did have it worse than me. But, perhaps as with those months between when I graduated from college and when I landed my first job, the lack of certainty is kind of liberating. There's a chance for things to get worse (and the stuff out of my control almost certainly will), but the things within my own sphere of influence can get better.

To lift a line from JFK's New Frontier speech (much in my mind because I just reread DC's New Frontier book yesterday), I cannot fail to try.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

America's Increasing Reliance on Recreational Substances

I've recently noticed a pair of contradictory trends in media and advertising, when it comes to recreational substances (I can't think of a better catch-all term for alcohol and other legal drugs, as well as illegal ones).

The first one relates to the imminent legalization of marijuana here in California, and specifically to the increase of advertising for dispensaries and delivery services. The one that bothers me most is Eaze, which is currently running a billboard along the 101 freeway that says "Hello marijuana, goodbye stress".

The other one is the increase in thinkpieces, primarily by women, examining how alcohol consumption has become a must for Americans (but primarily women) to "take the edge off" stressful lives of dealing with work, romantic partners and children. It's so prevalent that at one of the gyms I go to, the cute slogans on the exercise tank-tops include stuff like "Does running out of wine count as cardio?".

The first one isn't so much a problem without the second, but together they're painting a pretty worrying picture. Essentially, they're normalizing the idea that we need substances to get through our day, whether that's coffee to wake up in the morning, booze to wind down in the evening, or weed (or stronger stuff) to make the weekends pass by faster. If you think about it, that's a pretty dangerous idea overall.

(Full disclosure: I'm drinking a bottle of Mexican Pepsi as I type, so I'm not fully free of caffeine addiction myself)

The statistics page on says that 21.5 million Americans age 12 and up battled substance use disorders in 2014, of which 80% had alcohol use disorders. Seven million had drug use disorders, and one in eight suffered from concurrent alcohol and drug use disorders.

For specific drugs, daily marijuana users among full-time college students increased threefold compared with 1994, to 6%. Overall, around 4.2 million Americans aged 11 and up had marijuana use disorders in 2014. This is compared with 2 million for opioid-based painkillers. But alcohol's the biggest one, with around 16.6 million Americans aged 18 and up battling alcohol problems in 2013.

America's not the only country with a drinking problem, of course. Britain's famous for it, and the high taxation in Scandinavian countries doesn't prevent Swedes and Norwegians from having frightful numbers of alcoholics. Even Italy, which saw a 23% decline in alcohol consumption between 2006 and 2014 and has one of the lowest rates of alcoholism in Europe, is still seeing growth in binge-drinking behaviors.

But because I'm here in the US, and am steeped in the culture here all the time, I feel more comfortable saying that recreational substances are more clearly positioned as a crutch here than they are in other countries. I have trouble imagining my relatives in Italy talking about reducing their stress with a bottle of wine - rather, it'd be a pleasurable thing to have with dinner (or maybe lunch).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't drink booze or smoke weed or enjoy the odd caffeinated drink, of course. But we should be consuming them more mindfully, and more aware of why we're consuming them. As I say, I have my own low-key caffeine addiction, which I continue to feed because I consider it more trouble to go through the withdrawal headache and whatnot. But interestingly, because I don't drink coffee, I don't take in that much, and am consequently not dependent on caffeine to wake up every morning. If I can get a glass of iced tea or a Coke in me with lunch (or frequently even later) then I'm good.

It's worth remembering that we consider caffeine and alcohol essential crutches to getting through our days because the companies that sell us coffee and beer depend on it. We associate booze with good times because we've seen commercials showing people having a good time at bars, and because we've had good times at bars we then strengthen the association in our own minds. That said, what we maybe forget is that we're having that good time because we're with people that we like (usually) - it's a lot harder to have an epic time at a bar on your own.

The other thing is that for a lot of us the day-to-day is pretty shitty. We need money to survive, so we take on jobs that either suck, or that start off great but eventually suck. Our relationships have ups and downs, and people around us get sick or die, sometimes suddenly and sometimes over a long period of time. And behind all of that is the knowledge that at some point we're going to die - if you really stop to think of those implications then you can't be blamed for wanting a stiff shot of scotch.

Where we're going wrong as a culture is in using recreational substances as a way to never face up to those things. The energy we spend in acquiring alcohol, weed, caffeine or harder substances could be spent in finding better jobs or starting side hustles or even simply cleaning up the damn house (this one's directed at me). The danger is that by always turning to booze or weed or whatever to intensify being happy or sad or angry, we lose the ability to experience those emotions naturally, and we lose the ability to cope with them healthily. This is Chris Hardwick's takeaway from his own experience with alcohol addiction, as related in The Nerdist Way: getting off booze was only the first step, and when he managed that he still had to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy way.

The reason I'm bringing this up is not to say that weed or alcohol should be illegal. But simply legalizing drugs, without taking into account how they're marketed or used, is as bad a strategy for winning the war on drugs as banning everything has proven. Weed may not make people beat each other up the way booze does, but if legalizing marijuana creates a generation of zombies who can't muster up the enthusiasm to do anything but smoke, then we're not seeing a net win here.

I don't see myself giving up caffeine, and I don't see myself giving up booze, just as I don't see myself taking up regular pot consumption. But as a culture we need to think more carefully about how and why we consume these substances, because if we're only ever using them to relieve "stress" rather than as an adjunct to a pleasurable interaction with friends and family, then we're in big trouble.