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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 AmericanAddictionCenters.org 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.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Importance of Social Networks

So I was quite suddenly let go from my job on Friday, as my position was made "redundant". This is the British term for layoff, which I prefer to use as it's more evocative of why the decision was made to terminate someone's employment - to say "let go" can be ambiguous as to whether that was because of cost-cutting or because the employee was not particularly good.

In any case, it was a bit of a shock, which I'm still processing (and working my way through the various stages of separation, eg denial, anger, bargaining, and so on). But what's helped, at least in these first couple of days, is the response of friends and family. I've been helped by them to indulge in numerous vices, ranging from beers to frozen yogurt to tacos, which is quite nice. After all, who wants to consider their diet when they've just lost their job?

The other thing is in offers of help and expressions of moral support. It's too early to tell whether any of these will lead to new jobs or sources of income, but the important thing for now is that they're there, and that people who can potentially help me are aware that I need help. I did this by posting my news on Facebook on Friday and asking people to let me know if they heard of any leads.

As I say, it might not go anywhere, and I'll probably be relying on my LinkedIn network rather than Facebook, but again, it's important people should know what I'm looking for. It's easy to dismiss Facebook as a place to post exclusively positive things, but for stuff like this it's worthwhile getting support from people you know, whether they're local to you or not.

In any case, time will tell what comes of this, but I'm hoping for a speedy return to earning a regular income and access to benefits like healthcare. With what's happened in the news lately, that latter will be most important of all.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Weird Counterfactuals from the 2016 Election

I read the Guardian's interview with Susan Sarandon this morning, which leads with the provocative idea that if Hillary Clinton had won the election we'd be at war right now. My first reaction was "Fuck off", but I decided to skim the article and see what else she had to say. The Clinton stuff is pretty minor, but it got me thinking that the current wave of sexual harassment allegations and resignations would probably not be happening right now if we'd elected our first female president.

It's kind of an odd thing to think about, and I'm clearly not the only person thinking about it, since this article quoting Nancy Pelosi also showed up on the Guardian today. But it also reminded me of an article on fivethirtyeight.com where Nate Silver provided "dispatches" from the parallel universe where Clinton won the election.

That was before the Harvey Weinstein allegations came up, unleashing the flood that has taken down Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, and that's drawn attention on Al Franken and Roy Moore, so the biggest counterfactual Silver came up with (as I recall) was that the UK's election this past June would have strengthened Theresa May's Conservatives, rather than the diminished majority they got in reality.

But it's pretty clear that because Donald Trump's "locker room talk" on the infamous Access Hollywood tape didn't kill his presidency, we've been looking at this kind of behavior much more closely than we might have otherwise. After all, the women's marches back in January, on the weekend of the inauguration, were in response to his clear misogyny and lack of remorse over that and other actions he's taken that are pretty fucking gross.

Before any conspiracy theorists twist my words, it's clear that the accusations against Weinstein would probably have come out anyway, regardless of who was president, but it's fair to ask whether they would have taken on this life of their own and spread to other malefactors. Because the real issue around the accusations against Weinstein is that it touched off the #metoo thing, where many women felt they were able to share their stories. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of #metoo posts, both from people I know and shared from celebrities.

It's sort of cliche to say that Trump's election emboldened racists and whoever to come out into the open, but it's also true that as I walked on the treadmill at the gym that inauguration weekend I was next to two guys who were referring to the women's marchers as "rainbow dykes" and other pleasant names. It's hard to see them having that same conversation if the women's marches hadn't happened.

And that, in turn, is likely what led to a lot of women deciding they'd taken enough shit in their lives. After the Santa Barbara shootings, social media got divided between #notallmen (which is the #alllivesmatter of gender politics) and #yesallwomen, and unfortunately didn't take on the critical mass that #metoo is taking. Luckily, #metoo is phrased in such a way that assholes can't jump up and muddy the waters with semantics - there's no obvious response.

The other way is in the dominoes that have fallen since Trump took office. Clinton wouldn't have tapped Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, so his seat wouldn't have come up for election, and Roy Moore would just be this asshole known only to people in Alabama politics but few others. The accusations against him would still have come up, but if it were now, they wouldn't have the force they currently do, given that they dovetail with the wider #metoo movement; if he'd been up for the seat later, they'd probably have sunk because they didn't come on the tail of these others.

In either case, they wouldn't be the instructive example they are now, of a GOP that's so lost its way that it would rather have a safe vote for its agenda who's a pedophile. It's damaging not only because it makes a mockery of its standing as the party of traditional values (whatever that means), but also because they're clearly afraid of going out and selling their ideas. Their way or the highway.

So while this is a difficult time for all people of good conscience, there's a glimmer of a possibility that the big mistake our country made last November could make people more conscious of these issues. I won't say it'll definitely lead to a better environment for women, but we have the opportunity to improve things, and it's all because we're seeing how bad "bad" could get. Hopefully not too many people get hurt in other ways while we get back on the right track.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Self-policing social media

Just a quick PSA this week. We've been seeing Twitter taking a stand on accounts that broadcast hate, and/or that belong to neo-Nazis and other forms of racists (I don't like to use "white nationalist" because it obscures what these guys are actually preaching), and that's a long overdue step.

However, my PSA is a reminder that these things are self-policing, to a certain extent. I don't know about you, but when I first started using social media and playing online games, I'd see people being racist or homophobic, and I'd roll my eyes, wring my hands and wonder why the worst people congregate on the internet.

In one case, some brat on World of Warcraft thought the expression "sand niggers" was so hilarious that he (I'm assuming it was a he) copied and pasted it repeatedly on a group chat. I played on, without interacting with this person, and then mentioned it to my flatmate, who also played, in a what-can-you-do sort of way. And he just said, "Report it."

I haven't had much call to think about that exchange until recently (since 20 January 2017, to be precise), but it's stuck with me, and I've found myself taking that advice much more often. I'm also proud to say that almost all of the accounts I've reported have been found by Twitter to be in violation.

My reporting them probably didn't tip the balance either way, but it does feel like taking a stand, in a very low-stakes kind of way, for the type of online environment I'd like to see. It's not about stifling free speech, because I don't report people who are being jerks, and it's not about protecting myself from opposing viewpoints, because Nazis and white supremacists are not viewpoints that belong in the mainstream (mainly because why the fuck should you debate the merits of an ideology that wants to annihilate you?).

It's also a response to the nihilism of certain folks, usually young white guys, who like to make comments like this but then write them off as jokes. We can give the likes of PewDiePie the benefit of the doubt (but only the first time), but if they're just spouting racist and anti-Semitic comments to get laughs, we need to let them know it's not funny.

This is different from the Nazi-punching argument that erupted on the internet back in January when Richard Spencer getting punched turned into a meme. You might persuade yourself not to do anything by telling yourself that some racist is just going to report Black Lives Matter or something, but so what? If someone reports me for saying that I think the police shouldn't extrajudicially murder black people, Twitter's going to reject that report immediately, because that statement is not an incitement to race war or to go out and hurt anyone.

(BTW, I'm not only singling out white supremacists here. The reason my examples have all been related to Nazis is that in my day-to-day life I've never come across Islamist fundamentalist hate speech. I know it's out there, because I've heard ISIS/Daesh's Twitter game is on point, but for whatever reason I don't see it)

So take responsibility for the kind of online environment you want to see, just as surely as you should for real life. If someone started putting up swastikas in your town, you'd probably get the police to do something about it before Nazis overran the place. Nobody would expect you to take the law into your own hands, but whether on the street or on Twitter, it's up to people of good faith and honest ideals to work together to deny hate a place to flourish and attract more followers. And this isn't an abstract ideal, either: Heather Heyer was run over while protesting against neo-Nazis, while Jo Cox was shot and stabbed by someone who'd been indoctrinated by xenophobic hate.

So get reporting.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Quick Visit to Fort Worth

Gosh, so much to write about in the couple of weeks since my last post - do I talk about Stranger Things, or the increasingly surreal Senate race in Alabama? I'm going to opt for my rapid weekend in Fort Worth, since that's a little more fun.

I was there for a work event in Plano, which ended on a Friday, so I had the organizers fly me back on the following Sunday and I booked myself into a Best Western just outside Fort Worth. I spent it tooling around town, visiting museums and eating loads of unhealthy food, and if I didn't exactly get under the skin of Texas, it was at least fun to get to know that area a little bit.

The Best Western was a bit of a shock to the system after my hotel in Tokyo, and my hotel the previous night in Plano, being a smidgen more basic than either, but in the event was fine - the bed was comfortable, the drapes blocked out all light and even though there were a bunch of guests in town for NASCAR, I didn't have any trouble with noise.

Before I flew out a friend of a friend recommended Sundance Square, so that's where I spent my first evening, stuffing myself with barbecue and trying to decide on a place to drink. My first indication that I wasn't in California anymore was the Cigar Lounge, which looked pretty inviting, in a smoky, Eisenhower-Republican sort of way. But just to indicate the times we live in, that cigar place (where, in case it wasn't clear, you could smoke inside) was right next door to an artisanal olive oil shop. Go figure.

The following day, I opted for Fort Worth's Cultural District, a triangle of land right next to the University of North Texas, where there are about five museums, including some galleries for science and technology and for modern and contemporary art. I went first to the Kimbell Museum, which specializes in European art (with some galleries set aside for Asia, Latin America and Africa), and then to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which was just one enormous lawn over.

Both were pretty respectable - the Kimbell had some fine Renaissance and Dutch Masters, as well as nice Impressionist paintings, while the Carter made much of its Frederic Remington and Charles M Russell works, depicting scenes from the Old West like robberies and chases. At the Carter I took the opportunity to get a mini-guided tour by one of the docents, and as I happened to be the only taker I got the full experience, I'd say. Both are free, incidentally, which means you can spend more on food and drink.

Food-wise, I ate pretty damn well. Asked what my favorite food was that weekend, I had to say it was the chocolate pecan pie I ate at the Kimbell's cafe. It filled me up nicely after the soup and half sandwich, and was delightfully chocolatey (something I find important). And for dinner that night I had a pretty large platter of tacos, including the brisket tacos that are so popular in the area that even Dairy Queen sells them now (billed as street tacos).

To help make sense of it all I had Paul Theroux's latest travel book, Deep South, with me to read. In the early chapters, which are mostly in and around Alabama, he attends a gun show and a college football game, in between chatting with locals about their towns. I didn't quite get to either, though I saw a gun show advertised near my hotel, and I did visit Texas Christian University on Saturday afternoon, where I got to see how the locals in Fort Worth prepare for big games against rivals like the University of Texas.

Certainly the fairground atmosphere at TCU was light years away from my undergrad experience, where we didn't have a football team, but even if we'd had one, few people would have cared much. Here there were tents set up for sponsors' guest, like UBS, musical guests and a stand giving away free brisket tacos. Another stand sold signed memorabilia from TCU alumni who'd gone to play in the NFL.

Not everyone at TCU was a student, or parent of a student, but it was clearly the big social event, with a lot of the women all dolled up as if they were going out on the town. I don't get out to Stanford games much, but I have trouble seeing it as more than an afternoon out for people in my town, though in fairness I should probably go investigate (seems Stanford's playing Cal soon, so might check that out...).

I guess what's interesting, if not exactly original, is that sense of being in a different place, even if it is still America. Here in Palo Alto, if you ran around wearing a cowboy hat or cowboy boots, people would think you a little strange, but it's part of the culture there. Beyond superficial stuff like that, there is a sense of different rhythms, and of people enjoying different rituals than they do here - even of enjoying rituals at all, which I find hard to recall from growing up in Palo Alto.

It would have been nice to spend a little more time there, and potentially meet up with a college friend who lives there now, to get a local's sense of what Fort Worth is like. But I can at least say that in these days of political polarization and regional estrangement, it was good to spend some time out of my bubble and seeing some of what we have in common, instead of where we disagree.

Plus, I got to spend the weekend zooming around in this bitchin' ride:

Upgraded from a compact, FYI