Dissemination Cascades

Talking about art and spending your time doing it can feel ineffectual and inappropriate, in these times. With so much political and economic turmoil and so many senseless wars in the current human consciousness, how can anybody, in all conscience, prioritise making pictures, songs or stories? Isn’t this a case of pure head-in-the-sand denial? Are we artists just running away and hiding from the horror? How can art have any effect on Sarin gas and those that would gleefully use it on babies?

A sign of our times is the Internet meme. These have come to symbolise the zeitgeist. It was with wry amusement that I encountered this meme, today. It’s germane to what I want to talk about, in this article.


If the relevance isn’t clear to you yet, let me tell you a true story. It was once the case that wolves lived prolific lives in the Yellowstone National Park, but farmers, seeing them as a threat to their livelihoods, had argued that they were a menace to human life, thereby rationalising their lust to hunt them to extinction, in that locale. Over time, wolves were, indeed, wiped out by government predator control programmes and so, no longer inhabited that particular wilderness. The last grey wolf in the park perished in 1926.

To quote Wikipedia, “Once the wolves were gone, elk populations began to rise. Over the next few years, conditions of Yellowstone National Park declined drastically. A team of scientists visiting Yellowstone in 1929 and 1933 reported, ‘The range was in deplorable condition when we first saw it, and its deterioration has been progressing steadily since then.’ By this time many biologists were worried about eroding land and plants dying off. The elk were multiplying inside the park and deciduous, woody species, such as aspen and cottonwood, suffered from overgrazing. As elk populations rose, the quality of the range declined, affecting many other animals.”. The extirpation of the wolves had caused an environmental catastrophe.

Wolves were reintroduced in 1995, relocated from Canada. This changed the behaviour of the elk population, halted overgrazing in the valleys and allowed the woodland to recover. This, in turn stabilised the river banks, changing the course of the river itself and thereby providing viable habitats for birds, insects, beavers and otters. Much of the decline was reversed by the reintroduction of a small pack of predators.

Ecologists refer to these chain reactions in the environment as “trophic cascades”. They relate to food chains, specifically, but the concept has applicability in the world of ideas too, I think. There are many situations where a small group of people can bring original ideas to the fore and these ideas subsequently cascade throughout the population, sometimes with unpredictable consequences. In ideas, and in art, your behaviour and habits change other people’s behaviour and habits and this changes the whole environment and ecosystem. There are many vivid examples. Here are some of them.

We (humanity) thought the goal of fruit growing was to produce larger, sweeter fruit. Apricots were once tiny, dominated by their stone and with flesh that wasn’t very sweet, but over hundreds of years, they were cultivated to favour larger, sweeter fruit. Now, they are so full of fructose, they adversely affect our livers, our waistlines, our brain function, blood sugar and insulin. These effects foreshorten our lives. We’ve turned our apricots (and many other foods) into a toxic substance. Unintended consequences. A cascade of things we didn’t want.

Farmers thought (and presumably still think) the main issue facing them was insects destroying their crops, so chemical weapons were developed to kill the insects. That, in turn, starved the birds and poisoned the bees. Monocultures became susceptible to the effects of the insecticide, so scientists genetically modified the crops, with genes borrowed from who knows where, so that they could be saturation-doused with chemical agents, killing even the most resistant insects, but not killing the plant. Now, a soup of insecticides can be detected in newborn babies and in mother’s milk. Nobody knows the consequences, but evidence is beginning to mount of severe long term harm. Bigger crops, but a degraded ecosystem and toxic food. That’s a trophic cadcade nobody really wanted or predicted. Yet, in the absence of behavioural changes, it persists.

Researchers are discovering that the most efficient means of real-time signalling, in distributed computer systems, is to employ cascades to disseminate the information. Block chain distributed ledgers, a technology predicted to become as ubiquitous as the Internet itself, works best when information cascades. There is no central, master controller. That architecture can’t work and won’t scale. Dissemination cascades turn up everywhere.

We find dissemination cascades in social media, too. Flickr photographs, viral videos and memes all have a cascade quality about their spread. Most of the time, we don’t even know who posted the item first. Authorship is obscured and this, too, is an unintended consequence of social dissemination cascades. They start with an act of creativity, however and this fact should excite all artists.

The source of the cascade is always an original, creative work. Block chain may, in time, preserve the authorship of such digital works, throughout the ensuing cascade and could serve to protect the originator’s rights, give artists recognition and maybe even compensate them fairly for their contribution.

Revolutions begin with information cascades. Ideas that resonate, whose time has come, disseminate like wild fire, out of control and with their own velocity. When the present regime has had its time and lost the support of the populace, deposing them can take no time at all. By the same token, it’s easy to replace the incumbent with something just as bad, or worse, at equally breathtaking speed. This is where we are today. It won’t be long until the next dissemination cascade displaces this regime too. Dissemination cascades are a powerful force.

Depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with more than 300 million people suffering. Rates of depression have risen by more than 18 percent since 2005, but a lack of support for mental health, combined with a common fear of stigma, means many do not get the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives. What are the cascading consequences of this epidemic? Nobody knows, but we are going to find out.

Depression is a common mental illness, characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest and lack of ability in everyday activities and work. It affects around 322 million people worldwide. That’s nearly 5% of all humans alive and even this may be a gross underestimate of the true number of those afflicted. Depression also increases the risk of several major diseases and disorders including addiction, suicidal behavior, diabetes and heart disease, which are themselves among the world’s biggest killers. WHO has expressed concern that, in many countries, there is little or no support for people with mental health disorders, and said only around half of people with depression get treatment in wealthier nations. On average, just 3 percent of government health budgets is spent on mental health, varying from less than 1 percent in poor countries to 5 percent in rich ones, according to the WHO. If we think this won’t end worse than exterminating the grey wolves in Yellowstone, we’re deluding ourselves. It will change the course of history, at a minimum.

Of course, rather than “treating” depression, addressing the root causes could be more effective. There is a growing body of thought that depression frequently has its roots in abusive behaviour towards the individual, a diet heavily biased toward carbohydrate consumption (which exacerbate the inflammation often correlated with depression), and the combination of increasing income inequality, the rising real cost of living and the dismantling of social safety nets. It’s all evidence of the effects of some massive dissemination cascades and the source of many others, downstream. Abused people tend to abuse people. Cascades can self-perpetuate in perpetuity.

Because of decisions made by long-dead politicians, in far-away, remote, war rooms, I came to be born in Australia, decades after the conflict known as World War II began in Europe and finally ended. My people brought their culture, ideas, ideals, life experiences, outlook, history and recipes, which profoundly changed Australian culture. The conflict spawned the Cold War, which affected my young life in myriad ways, being descended from a country then regarded as a sworn enemy of the one I was born in. I’m a living, breathing result of dissemination cascades. Interestingly, I’ve moved to a different country to the one I was born in, which shaped me into who I am. Now my very presence, both in this land and on-line, reshapes others in ways that nobody could have expected. The cascades never end.

Science is only now beginning to discover how our gut microbiome infuences our health, our state of mind and our well-being. For most of my life, its role was discounted, dismissed and ignored, but that cascade of ideas was wrong and the consequence was needless suffering and premature deaths. Our gut microbiota actually comprises a metabolome – it creates metabolites that interact with the host organism: us. We are co-dependent.

Even the effect of daylight saving changes the equilibrium of the bacteria in our digestive systems. It turns out the bacteria have circadian rhythms of their own and disturbing them, even by an hour, causes a cascade of metabolic consequences to both us and them. This new field of study is called chronobiology. Daylight saving was originally championed by a builder from Farnham called William Willett, who had no knowledge of the metabolome. The cascading of his idea caused significant consequences to our health, by a mechanism of action unknown to humanity, when his campaign was first propagated. Yet, we persist with it, over a century later, as well as shift work and a flirtation with frequent jet lag. We know not what we do.

In fact, so little was known about the composition of the microbiota in our guts, it wasn’t until 2012 that a highly heritable bacterium, with a strong correlation to the incidence of obesity, was identified and named. Christensenellaceae were not studied at all, practically, until then. It will be interesting to see how this dissemination cascade plays out. Fat shaming might turn out to be predominantly toward people with a particular bacterial infestation, which they got from the mothers. Who knows? Punitive health policies, rationalised on the belief in the fecklessness and moral turpitude of the obese, could prove to be without basis.

Another recent finding is that antibiotics, used to treat infections in people, act like a forest fire in the gut microbiome. The harm may turn out to be significant, as it affects gene expression, disrupting human biological processes, rightbdown to endocrine signalling, creating metabolic dysfunction. Antibiotics still have obvious net health benefits when used clinically, but inadvertently consuming them through foods and drinking water is not as safe as once assumed. The antibiotics contribute to their own trophic cascades. The behaviour and adaptation of infectious agents, in response to the ambient prevalence of antibiotics, leads to antibiotic resistance, thereby imperilling us all.

I’ve already discussed the use of glyphosate on genetically modified organisms (i.e. food crops), which reinforces monoculture, subsequently killing wild animals, which have nothing to eat, due to the disruption of their food chain. Glyphosate also kills wildflowers (“weeds”, in farming parlance), leaving nothing for the bees, other than the food crop itself. That’s not enough to sustain healthy gee populations and so crops begin to fail, due to the absence of pollinators. The yield is supposed to go up, yet it ultimately goes down.

Glyphosate also kills gut bacteria by the same mechanism it kills weeds – disruption of the shikimate pathway, by removing vital manganese. Mineral uptake in plants is also reduced, affecting its nutrition. What we eat is, consequently, less nutritious than it would have been without glyphosate. This greed-driven stupidity and insane pursuit of an idea that cannot fundamentally work, to deliver net benefit to humanity, is a classical example of a malevolent trophic cascade, in which humans are both unwitting victims and bad actors.

Cellular manganese content is developmentally regulated, in human dopaminergic neurons.  It affects our brain function. Dopamine dysregulation can be implicated in depression, which we’ve also already discussed above. Manganese depletion affects multiple biological processes and causes disease. Why would we grow good that is deliberately deficient in manganese, when this mineral is vital to our health? Yet that’s the very mechanism used to kill the weeds. The cascade, disseminating a bad idea, carries on like a juggernaut.

Here’s another trophic cascade, due to the invention of man-made fibres and the washing machine: the weight of plastic microfibres in the ocean, shed from our clothing when we launder it in our washing machines, now exceeds the weight of all the fish. The fish eat the microfibres, it passes into their bodies, making them sick. Then, we catch and eat the fish, ingesting thousands of these plastic microfibres (from our clothes) in every portion.

Here’s one more: because of industrial processes and the exhaustion of agricultural soils, due to over exploitation in farming, wind erosion of dry soils and industrial smoke put tiny 2.5 micron particles into the atmosphere. We breathe these in, but they’re small enough to enter our blood stream and cross the blood-brain barrier. The dust we cause, we breathe in and it ends up in our brains. It’s not supposed to be there. The damage its presence causes to our health is still largely unknown, but we’re going to find out. Trophic cascades are often insidious.

Incidentally, it has recently been discovered that lungs make blood platelets. Our very blood cells are created, in part, by an organ we’re contaminating with tiny PM2.5 dust particles, which may disrupt those platelets. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that the lungs only served to oxygenate blood, not to actually make it.

It is one of those peculiarities of consumer culture that we come to believe that Italian tinned tomatoes are the only acceptable kind. Tomatoes in tins from elsewhere remain unsold indefinitely. Nobody wants any other sort of tinned tomatoes. Only Italian ones will do. Consequently, tomatoes from all over the world are sent to Italy, to be tinned. The consumer is none the wiser. It says “made in Italy” on the tin. The added food miles are never counted, but the transport emissions put more tiny particles into the atmosphere.

Of course, some people want real Italian tomatoes in their tins. To meet this demand, great swathes of Tuscany have been given over to growing tomatoes for canning, thereby exhausting the already dry soils, adding to the atmospheric particulate burden, while simultaneously polluting the rivers with the aggressive pesticides, necessary to maintain tomato crop yields. The fish suffer, the tomatoes are tainted with pesticides and for good measure, the internal surfaces of the tins are lined with endocrine-disrupting epoxy coatings, to prevent the acidic tomatoes from corroding the tins. The tomatoes you eat contribute to metabolic signalling disorders, which probably exacerbate depression and obesity. Some cascade.

To your liver, starch is treated the same as sugar. It’s readily converted into a substance that spikes your blood sugar concentration and insulin. A primary source of starches, in our diet, is anything made with wheat flour, potatoes and other grains, such as white rice. Your liver just responds to them as sugar. However, the action of yeast on starch is that it breaks down the long molecular chains, partially digesting it.

Sourdough bread, which takes something like 36 hours to make, gives the yeast time to work, resulting in bread that doesn’t cause quite as drastic a spike in blood glucose and insulin. This is a little safer for those with insulin resistance; a widespread affliction in modern, carbohydrate-saturated populations. Within living memory, this used to be how all bread was made (though it was adulterated in several other horrendous ways).

Industrial (and even artisanal) bakeries think the 36 hours needed to make a loaf of genuine sourdough is uneconomic. They need to produce a loaf in one tenth of that time, to remain viable. Yet, people aware of the terrible health effects of starchy white bread have expressed a clear consumer preference for sourdough. Faced with this problem, bakery supply companies found a way to add sourdough flavouring to factory-made bread, to meet the consumer preference, without taking the time needed to let the yeast digest the starches. So, you get a loaf that tastes like sourdough bread, but full of unmodified, long-chain starch (i.e. sugar).

Consequently, bakers succeeded in making what is marketed and sold as “sourdough bread” dangerous to those with blood sugar dysregulation, while simultaneously making it hard to tell and trust real sourdough bread from sourdough-flavoured starchy bread. Insulin dysregulation is a killer. You need both low blood sugar and low insulin, for long life and optimal quality of health They both need to not spike wildly. It’s no joke, but while the trophic cascade remains unacknowledged, bakers recklessly endanger a significant portion of humanity, without even knowing it. Dissemination cascades sometimes spread ignorance.

Crushed by the weight of student loans, Millennials don’t want to take on any more debt. Now they are teaching their kids, Generation Z, to shun borrowing. How will traditional lenders survive, if two consecutive generations spurn credit? Who cares? Lending always was a con. Debt is a guilt trip imposed on moral people by the amoral.

The fact is that the money loaned was invented, out of thin air, the moment you signed the loan agreement. It didn’t exist, prior to your signature. There never was a moral justification to pay the lender anything, let alone the interest. The money loaned simply represents your pledge to produce enough economic value to equate to this nominal amount. The lender is just the thug that will hurt you, if you don’t. Why you should repay them for their powers of deception and intimidation is anyone’s guess. Your real obligation to produce something of value is to the community you trade with.

The lender, instead of producing something of value, parasitically gets you to do that for them, which they reap as interest payments. You produce more value than you borrowed, so that they don’t have to produce anything (other than needless, bamboozling bureaucracy, sleight of hand, threats and menaces).

This idea of spurning debt is spreading. We’ve been under the spell of one sort of dissemination cascade for generations. Will this new dissemination cascade take root and displace it, for the right reasons? Time will tell.

Why do neurons die, in brain injury cases? Nobody knew the answer, when I was young. These vital brain cells kept mysteriously dying off, long after the injury incident, resulting in terrible brain damage, observable as loss of mobility, language, comprehension, memory, sensation, personality and intellect. There are other structures in the brain, other than neurons. Astrocytes and exosomes also react to brain injury. These structures play a role in controlling the concentration of free, neurotoxic glutamates in the brain.  

Astrocytes are glial cells that moderate neural transmission. It has been found that after a brain injury, they reduce their glutamate uptake, leaving more glutamate around to kill neurons. Nobody quite knows why astrocytes react this way in response to a brain injury, but the effect is readily observable.  

Exosomes, first discovered in the 1980s, modulate cell to cell communication. It is believed that exosomes can regulate the bioactivities of recipient cells by the transportation of lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, while circulating in the extracellular space.  

People have discovered that microRNA in the exosome can be used to push astrocytes to resume normal glutamate uptake, thereby protecting adjacent neurons. Get the exosome to send the astrocyte the right chemical message and normal functioning resumes. How miraculous! This information has not yet been widely disseminated, but it could save a lot of stroke victims from severe brain damage, for example. Let’s hope this dissemination cascade flourishes.

The political vision for society that venture capitalists are funding and building is hollow and dystopian, but that won’t change the deal flow. And they don’t believe themselves accountable to the vast majority of present and future humanity in any way. It never even enters their heads that maybe they ought to be. This is yet another dissemination cascade with profound consequences, but which few people are paying much attention to. The world you build has an inevitable political dimension. While the default vision is anathema to the rights and freedoms of the majority, a minority should not be permitted to manifest their self-serving vision unchecked. Yet, it’s happening.

Nikola Tesla said everything is connected. “Though free to think and act, we are held together, like the stars in the firmament, with ties inseparable. These ties cannot be seen, but we can feel them.”

We’ve all got to grow up and take responsibility for the cascades of idea dissemination we start and propagate. We’re the medium through which these ideas spread and many spawn trophic cascades. Spreading positive messages and doing the necessary work to arrest the destructive cascades is going to take a lot of creativity and application. That’s why making the pictures, singing the songs and writing the stories really matters. These are the tools we have to shape those dissemination cascades. This is how we make a difference.

Art is life. Creativity affirms life and counters destructiveness, in destructive times. It’s not a futile, quixotic hope to cling to art; it’s a way of reinforcing and starting beneficial dissemination cascades.

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Is Anybody Still Interested in Art?

Serious question: does anybody care if art disappears entirely from daily life? We all seem to assume that there will always be art and music available, on demand, in abundance, for free, but who is going to make that art and how?

It has now reached the point where there is so little funding or monetary support for artists, there are practically no opportunities to get good at making it. The art that gets made suffers from the fact that artists can’t afford to dedicate and devote the time to make it really good, unless they suicidally volunteer to starve and perish.

Even if the financial incentive for making art was argued to sully the purity of the artist’s motives (an argument that never seems to be applied to financial speculators), the practical necessities for making art still have to be paid for. Who willingly pays for that? Increasingly, society is saying, emphatically, that they don’t want to. They find every which way to take the art from artists, but give nothing back. It’s nothing less than abusive.

When we consistently abuse those that care enough to produce works that spread joy, eventually, despite the noblest of intentions, they just cannot go on making them. Cannot. And so, the net stock of joy, in the world, steadily declines. Existence becomes joyless. For everyone. 

That seems to be the kind of world our leaders and the general populace wants, if judged by the actions they (don’t) take to protect the steady flow of joy being brought into the world. Their every action is to deny it’s importance, to steal it, to denigrate the artists and to actively dismantle its support structures, in the interests of economic prudence, efficiency and savings.

Well made art is substantially disappearing. It’s happening under our very noses and nobody appears to care. If anybody cares, then the actions they take to stem the tide are largely ineffectual. The destroyers are getting a free ride, with widespread public support and encouragement. Artists are being mugged. What profits there are go elsewhere; not to the artists and producers.

It’s your world. If you want it filled with badly made art, or no art, with no new songs or records, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep voting for anti-art candidates and support businesses that industrialise the cannibalisation and pillage of the artist community. Behave abusively toward authors, musicians, painters and other creative, like you do today. Encourage them all into bullshit, bureaucratic, soul-destroying jobs like yours, out of jealousy and spite. Destroy your own means of escape from the torment and drudgery. Volunteer for your own emotional enslavement. Submit.

You’ll reap what you sow. Maybe what you want is a joyless, austere world, where all that matters is material wealth, but where there are no fine things to spend it on. That might be your comfort zone. Conservative, controlled and colourless. This is the world you’re creating, by how you’re behaving. Now. It’s your present reality.

You can have it.

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Poison

Imagine waking up, one day, to the realisation you were being poisoned – slowly, but inexorably. The tell-tale signs had been there for the longest time, but you had convinced yourself that nobody had wanted you dead or debilitated so badly that they would engage in such a stealthy, patient, utterly sinister game. Indeed, you had been frequently gaslighted into believing the unmistakeable symptoms of slow, deliberate poisoning were either all in your head, or down to other seemingly more plausible explanations. You had made bad choices, were lazy or stupid, they had breezily corrected you. There was no conspiracy to poison. How would anybody organise such a massive, co-ordinated plot? How would they keep the conspiracy a secret, with so many involved?

Yet, on finally making the unarguable realisation, going back over the thousands of incidences when the trickle-slow poison was administered, you came to see, with lucid, clear understanding, that almost everyone you knew had been in on it. Some had undoubtedly done it for money. Others were unwitting accomplices, content to accept, without question, the authorities’ earnest assurances that the substance they were administering was non-toxic. Still others accepted that the poison was possibly harmful, but not in such small doses, surely.

They all denied the obvious, readily observable fact that the poison’s effects were cumulative and progressive. In the late stages, the consequences included blindness, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, loss of limbs, gangrene, infections that never healed, liver damage, kidney failure, dementia, depression, muscle seizures and wasting, severe fatigue, tooth loss, malabsorption of essential nutrients and many other quality of life diminishing afflictions. Imagine coming to understand that many people you loved the most had suffered and been taken from you, long before their time, because of this poison.

The trajectory of the toxin was deterministic. It led to every cell in your body being rendered unable to use energy, diseased and dysfunctional at a mitochondrial level. In this state, every normal action became an epic struggle between the will and failing biological machinery. Everything involved pain and exhaustion. It was ultimately fatal, with people dying prematurely of “the effects of old age”. Even in death, the true root cause was always concealed.

With your new realisation, imagine if you then discovered that this poisoning was widespread and accelerating, in the whole population. It wasn’t just you they were relaxed about poisoning; it was everyone. They were even unwittingly poisoning themselves, in ignorance. Some succumbed sooner than others, so those that were resistant were used as deceptive evidence that nobody was being poisoned.  

Observing how such a monstrous thing could have been perpetrated, you learned that the government and their scientists had actually recommended you substantially base your diet on the ingestion of the poison. With your taxes, they had heavily subsidised it’s production and uptake. Doctors assured you that the poison was safe, being the most culpable of the gaslighters. An entire industrial supply chain, vast in scale, had grown up to deliver it.

Looking down the aisles of any supermarket, you saw that nearly every foodstuff on sale had the poison included, sometimes concealing the adulteration, but other times openly advertising it as a health food. Often, you could get two for one. There were entire aisles full of the stuff, so that actually avoiding taking the poison was almost impossible, especially for the unwary and those that hadn’t yet realised.  

In millions of restaurants and fast food outlets, it was almost impossible to find an option on the menu that wasn’t contaminated with the poison. Convenience foods were universally tainted. Some enterprises even specialised in unashamedly dispensing it, dressing it up in attractive and delicious packages to tempt the uninformed. A lot of people were getting very rich supplying the stuff.

In tragic ignorance, parents would often feed it to their children, as a pacifying treat and expression of love, unaware of the biochemical processes they were setting in train. They’d been reassured by every authority figure they trusted. The poison was also highly addictive, causing those that tasted it to come to crave it. A physical and psychological dependency could be well established in early childhood, rotting their baby teeth down to festering, fetid stubs that had to be surgically removed.

The pharmaceutical industry had developed elaborate and expensive treatments and medications to mask the symptoms of the poison, so that the afflicted could continue to consume the deadly stuff. The mechanism of action of the poison was well understood and characterised, with a clear path, biochemically speaking, from root cause to disease effect. Triglycerides were directly correlated with the dose. But there was no money in eliminating the root cause, so doubt was cast over the simple biochemical explanation and on the scientists who espoused it. Their voices were silenced, their reputations destroyed and their warnings futile.

Manufacturers of the poison would pay for monumental art galleries, with the profits. Several times a year, marketing campaigns would, for purely sentimental reasons, exhort everybody to consume particular foodstuffs richly laden with the toxin. People who were already sick were encouraged to eat and drink more of what was killing them. Indeed, they were shamed if they refused to partake.

In an effort to increase the dosage, some companies had added the stuff to salty, aerated water, both to arrest the emetic effect of a saturated solution of the poison and to prevent your thirst from being slaked, so that you drank another glass or bottle of it, and then another. This most potent version of the poison was advertised in association with young, fit, vital, carefree, liberated people, not those in the late stages of its grip – a monstrous deception. The smartest investors in the world endorsed the company producing the drink, through large shareholdings. Profits were healthy, even if the product was not. Government secret services concealed their foreign agents by sending them into enemy territories to preside over the company’s licensed bottling plants.

Some believed that if you eliminated the most obvious form of the poison, you were safe, not realising that most other commonly available and cheap foods were converted into the poison, by your body, directly. The class of foods that either were the poison, concealed the poison or were readily converted into the poison was overwhelming.  

Ironically, the worst effects of the toxin could be ameliorated and substantially reversed, within ten weeks, if all forms of it could be avoided, but that was the point. It was almost impossible to avoid. That’s why it kept on killing. Slowly. Deliberately. Uncaringly.

Imagine how your relationship to the world and everybody in it would change, once you understood that you were being poisoned and the myriad, insidious ways it had been happening. Who could you trust? Who could you tell, without them accusing you of being a conspiracy theorist? It would be a very lonely and isolating moment. You’d feel an intense sense of betrayal. How could anybody even begin to tear down this well-entrenched, institutional edifice?

The worst of it, for an artist, would be the realisation that fellow artists had enthusiastically collaborated in the artful concealment of the deception, sometimes even fooling themselves. So blinded had they been to the consequences, they had leapt at the chance to make their art in the service of death and disease. They hadn’t seen it that way, of course, but that didn’t change the truth of the matter.  

In using their art to make the poison come to be seen as benign, they were just as complicit as everybody else that maintained and reinforced the deception. Other people were paying for those artistic indulgences with their very lives. No artist would like to imagine their work makes other people thoroughly sick, yet this is what they had accomplished. All of their artistry had amounted to this.

The deception, it turned out, was generations, even centuries old. Nobody had unmasked and halted it, in all that time. If anything, it was getting worse, with consumption of the toxin steadily increasing and the health of the populace steadily declining. It was almost unsustainable, as the attrition and losses mounted. No wonder productivity had grown stagnant. At the root of the economic malaise was a health crisis.

Humanity is prone to wrong-headed, bad ideas. They’re incredibly difficult to change and become tenaciously embedded into the normal run of how things are done, regardless of how harmful and maladaptive. In fact, our stubborn refusal to confront and revise them is the most maladaptive behaviour of all, with existential consequences. Mass carbohydrate toxicity, for that’s what it is, in reality, is a ready metaphor for other, even more serious human delusions. It serves as a model for how you can fool all the people, all the time.

One of the more insidious bad ideas was planted during what has been wrongly labeled “The Enlightenment”. People, in truth, are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent, trucking and bartering through life. Smith had turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers. This way of thinking took hold of us and it delivered a society which is essentially amoral and asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody and everything else as a means to their own private ends. 

As articles of faith, these ideas have consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we find our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we receive, there is a new way to pit us against each other. The costs have become too high. Mass carbohydrate poisoning, the excessive consumption of these toxins, beyond the human body’s capacity to withstand them (which turns out to occur at a much lower dose than widely acknowledged or officially sanctioned), is but one of the direct consequences of this way of thinking. The learned tendency for selfish materialism, without fear of censure, is what makes it so difficult to bring it all to a sensible halt. There’s too much money to be made in allowing the harm to continue, unabated.

A society that conceals and continues the death and debilitation, for profit, is one based on a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

When we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. We open the door to blithely, if slowly, killing each other, without a pang of conscience. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs – the need to huddle, socially, to care for one another, to share our warmth and to experience the security and comfort of solidarity. We want to feel safe from harm.

We would much prefer to live in a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. Simple societies tend toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasise feeling and mutual affection. Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living. In simpler societies, they feel the exact opposite. Everybody owes everybody else. There are mutual ties. People don’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they have a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it, because it nurtures you. That’s very different from the Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to vanquish each other.

You have to create peaceful, nurturing conditions, or the human race can’t survive. There is no other fount of social morality itself. But, we have a bias toward centering on male aggression and taking it to represent everybody, which is unfair.  

Most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress, while ignoring and actively, visciously suppressing the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On the flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other. We’re labouring under the yoke of some very bad ideas, which work to obscure better answers for society. We’re blinded.

The natural outcome of our blinkered belief in rugged individualism is conquest, violence, dehumanisation, a tendency to attack or exploit those weaker than ourselves, narcissism, mindless escapism and consumerism, bullying, assault, adherence to hierarchies of power and unquestioningly trusting in illegitimate authority figures. All of these terrible flaws are what keeps the carbohydrate overdosing going, for example. That’s how you keep a massive conspiracy active, yet hiding in plain sight – by tacit, unspoken agreement. It’s all there. There’s no master plan or organising committee. The monstrosity perpetuates organically, because we all accept its premises and assumptions as axiomatic.

Regrettably, artists have, for centuries, used their work to legitimise these terrible ideas, which deny our true human nature. They’ve actively participated in the propagation of the propaganda, programming all of us to keep taking the poisons, whether they be simple carbohydrates, or racism, misogyny and prejudice. It’s very disappointing that such brilliant, creative talents could belong to such hard-hearted, shitty specimens of humanity. We could have done better, had we chosen to.

Ultimately, we can resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in evasion, passive-aggressive insolence, disobedience and exile. We don’t have to eat the poisons they foist upon us.  

We had better get to it, though. To put it bluntly, our current set of ideas are not compatible with human civilisation. One of them has got to go. I know which one I’d rather eliminate. Our current politically-driven orgy of indulgence in the worst ideas possible will precipitate an inevitable existential crisis and we’ll have to choose which will be retained – civilisation or our delusional beliefs. Perhaps that moment will come sooner than we expect.

Abuse people long enough and they become brutal too, in turn. The brutalised brutalise. The cycle becomes harder to break. This is where we are. We poison ourselves, each other and our children, in myriad ways, interconnected by a belief in a body of bad ideas, rather than facing uncomfortable truths and dismantling entrenched privileges.

What we have is a distinct solidarity deficit.

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Making Art In Dark Times

I think the thing I struggle with most is making art when my heart is aching. Unfortunately, the list of things that can make somebody pre-disposed to being an artist (a modicum of sensitivity and a heightened aesthetic sense, for example) feel heartache can be pretty long. Creativity dries up for so many saddening reasons.  

There’s the difficulty in carving out creative time and a space in which to create. The pressures to earn often include the distraction of a demanding day job, which you need to give your best to, for pure integrity reasons, but which can leave you feeling drained, dispirited and depleted. Inevitably, there are health issues to contend with, bureaucracy to comply with and the tribulations and troubles of those closest to you, who you love the most. It all has a creativity dampening effect.

Add to that the ambient background of a veritable cavalcade of your artistic heroes and inspirations dying, the prevailing political climate, the parlous state of the global economy, crumbling institutions and infrastructure and a despoiled natural environment and you would have to be pretty self-centred to not notice. In fact, isolating yourself and creating art, in the face of all of that, which requires quite a bit of detachment from other people and intense focus, can be seen as an act of selfish abandonment. That can make you feel awful, too.

What’s an artist to do?

I see it as the greatest test of an artist. It’s tempting to give in to despair and just stop creating, but you have a duty to others, as an artist, even if your contributions go unappreciated. You have a duty to fill the world with as much hope, beauty and wisdom as you can create. Your imagination and ability to see differently is crucial to changing an unacceptable situation. Your works are needed to soothe humanity, give them comfort and be a conduit through which they can feel their fears and grief. Art has an important emotional and psychological purpose and artists who can provide that relief really should.

Without your art, ideas, creativity and imaginative connection, human thought devolves into the drear existence of the purely functional. All the joy disappears and everybody’s heart becomes heavy. Efficiency displaces frivolity. Productivity replaces quality. The calculus fetishises cost over delight. Everything has to turn an advantage and profit to those controlling the swindle.

Have you ever noticed what dull, two-dimensional people billionaires tend to be? They’ve dedicated so much of their existence to the accumulation of wealth and power, that they have let their imaginations, intellects, generosity, sociability empathy and souls wither and atrophy. Then, they attempt to remake the world in their own image, according to their distorted values, impoverished in the very things that make us human. They do so, because they have the influence and purchasing power to amplify their muted, stunted character and personalities. Is it any wonder that modern cities, centres of wealth and power, are such deserts of culture, lacking grass-roots vibrancy and intellectual stimulation?

The heavy-hearted die young. Art is what helps humanity slow down its inexorable march toward death and oblivion. It is the only thing capable of uplifting the downtrodden. Each artwork is an expression of love – a gift given to mankind, in the hope that it will be accepted.

If that seems like a daunting responsibility to shoulder, as an artist, it is. What you make matters, but more importantly, demonstrating the strength and defiance to make joy and wonder, in a tumultuous world, is even more inspiring. In the darkest days, when things are no longer funny at all, finding ways to bring smiles and laughter into the world is like delivering a medicinal salve and a balm to heal the most wounded of hearts. Art is life.

So, keep writing, drawing, joking, parodying, painting, sculpting, architecting, designing, discovering, engineering, playing, inventing, composing, innovating, recording, knitting, sewing, crocheting, gardening, growing, nurturing or whatever else you do to express your creativity. In the darkest of days, when the world seems hell bent on an orgy of hatred, violence, vengeance and base cruelty, art is the antidote. It matters more in dark times than when times are good and the living is easy. It’s also much harder to produce.

In giving the gifts of your creativity, freely and with gratitude for your abilities, you can heal your own aching heart, even though it feels intensely painful to dredge the original and delightful from the depths of your own raw feelings of distress. The process of making art, in dark times, can be extremely uncomfortable and require you to dig deeply for the courage, but humanity desperately needs your contribution.

Be brave and keep on creating. You must create better, faster and with more strength, than the destroyers can destroy. It’s a titanic contest.

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Sacrifices

Everything you do requires a choice. What you spend your time on is a decision to not spend time on something else. Some of the things you spend your time on, regrettably, have the effect of foreshortening the amount of time you have left. All of your activities come at a price, expressed in lost opportunity of one sort or another.

I get a little frustrated when I see artists dismissed as lazy, but talented. What annoys me is that it pre-supposes that their laziness is not a deliberate, legitimate choice, often for exceptionally good reasons. It suggests that a person’s worth is measured by the extent to which they apply their talents. Just being, it is asserted, is not enough. You must be something. I don’t agree.

It’s none of anybody else’s business how a person chooses to spend their time. Being talented does not oblige you to do nothing other than develop and exploit that talent, to the exclusion of all else, especially if the implication is that you owe it to others. No you don’t. It’s your life. You can do whatever you want with it, regardless of other people’s demands and expectations. You weren’t born to serve audiences, at the expense of pursuing other fulfilling things, while you’re alive. Who needs that kind of pressure?

So, most of us are talented, but lazy. And that’s OK. If you have many talents, that doesn’t single you out for a purgatory life of frenzied development of every talent you have, to world-class accomplishment standards. The joy may be in being goodish at a lot of things. So what, if you’re terrible at some of them?

You also don’t have to give up on things you love to do, just because you only have time to work hard enough to excel at only one of your talents. Choosing to spread your time out, over the many things you can spend your time on and derive enjoyment from, rather than focusing on being outwardly successful at just one of them, is a perfectly valid life choice.

If you work hard on your talent and find yourself enjoying it less and less, you’re allowed to quit.  It’s not compulsory.  Just because you have a talent doesn’t mean you have to stick at it forever, especially if it becomes a chore.  Sometimes, laziness is just taking time out from working on your talent, until it becomes fun again.  This is a perfectly good reason for laziness.

Becoming more talented takes really hard work. You have to make sacrifices. That means less time with those you love, less recreation, less reading for pleasure, fewer trips away just to experience new surroundings, less time taking care of your health and less sleep. You’ll probably dance less too, unless dancing is the talent you are working to improve. Those are all consequential losses. You can work really hard on developing your talent, but don’t ignore and diminish the importance of what you’re giving up.

Being less lazy is also something you can work at, but that’s a choice that demands sacrifices too. You’re not a machine, put on earth to be productive, but otherwise of no worth. That’s a narrow, utilitarian viewpoint, propagated by those that profit from your sweat. Sometimes, your very presence is all your loved ones need. It doesn’t matter that you’re not cranking out brilliant, creative masterpieces at the time. It really doesn’t.

How tragic to reach a point, in your life, where you feel you’re surplus to humanity, unless you continue to exhibit and improve your one most outstanding talent. You’re worth much more than that.  

If you decide to work hard at something, it turns out that it’s easier to get less lazy, more brave and to obtain greater clarity about your fears, your work, your values and your purpose or mission, than it is to get more talented. That’s your choice too, but there will be sacrifices that must be made, no matter what you choose.

There is so much more to life than being productive and displaying your talent, the whole damn time. You can choose to remain as you are, if that allows you the time to do all the other things that make you happy and fulfilled. Don’t measure yourself solely by the number and quality of the artifacts you leave behind. Consider how much of your love, empathy, connection and wisdom you were able to share.

At some point, staying alive a while longer, with an adequate quality of life, surpasses the need to crank out one more fine, creative work. Who is to say that is wrong, or lazy? What does it matter if you neglect your talent, while you pay attention to this? Your talent evaporates, when you’re dead, so focusing on staying well preserves your talent anyway. Without life, it’s gone, no matter how outstanding it was.

Spending all your time dedicated to turning the planet into waste, through consumption of art materials, so that you look talented and not lazy, is actually the height of insanity, akin to burning the furniture and the fabric of the house, to keep warm. Encouraging others to consume yet more of what you make, so that your talent develops and you can’t be accused of idle indolence, is just as mad.

You need to experience all of life, not just the expression of your talents. Always be mindful of the sacrifices.

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Playing With Commitment

I was reading one of those glossy guitar magazines, the other day. My wife buys me one, every now and then, as a much appreciated gift. In this edition, there was an obituary, of sorts, for the late Rick Parfitt, of Status Quo. Quotes from previous interviews with the guitarist were interspersed in the valedictory article. One question asked him to distill the magic ingredient that made their seemingly simple music such a potent crowd pleaser. In trying to capture that particular lightning in a bottle, Parfitt observed that the key to it was to play those riffs with one hundred percent commitment. If you didn’t, he explained, the music would sound lame.

I thought that was a rather important insight. Even if your hands hurt and your fingers are bleeding, or your head is filled with distracting catastrophes, in order to make the music work, you have to play it like you mean it. You can’t phone it in. You have to be fully present in the moment, focused completely on just one thing: driving the song along and entertaining people enough, to make them forget about their woes and dance. It takes one hundred percent commitment to delivering the groove. 

We learnt this in our teens, as a young covers band. This was Australia, in the nineteen seventies and pub rock was just being born. Our repertoire included many Status Quo numbers, which at the time, were still relatively contemporary songs. It was cool to play them well. It was disastrous, if you did so half-heartedly. An audience would party hard, along with you, if you delivered, but equally make their displeasure known, in the form of vociferous, ferocious heckling and thrown glassware projectiles, if you weren’t right on it.  Playing authentically and with total commitment to the beat was both a form of self-preservation and a way to make yourself and everybody in the room feel good. That’s why you were there. To entertain. Nothing feels better.

This is also why AC/DC works, in my opinion. It’s solid. Relentless. The instruments are pounded ruthlessly, to create that solid engine of a rhythm section. The song and audience are propelled by a constant, driving, insistent, assertive pulse, which pervades every air molecule in the place. This is the very essence of Australian pub rock. The beat just never quits and you can’t ignore it. You’re compelled to move in time with it. Your very heartbeats fall into synchronism.

As a musician, you have to get into the zone and ignore distractions, to bring this feeling off. You have to be immersed in the flow. To me, this is where hired-gun session musicians sometimes fall down. They remain detached and aloof – technically flawless, but uninvolved in the soul of the music. They play it like it’s just another sheet full of notes. Rarely will they dig in and participate in the creation of the rawest, visceral communication, from musicians to audience. They play in a non-committal way. Too cool to get down and dirty.

Though we deny it, everything we do relies on human energy and effort producing the goods. Physical, kinetic movement. Muscles. It’s easy (and lazy) to think that entertaining people and motivating them to enjoy themselves is not work at all, but it takes effort, dedication and generosity. You’re using your human energy and your commitment to delivering the groove to unleash everybody else’s expressions of joy. You have to unlock their hearts. You have to fight for every heartbeat. It takes a lot of humanity to make it sound like a well-oiled machine.

It’s not at all easy, until you surrender yourself to this purpose. When you do, suddenly everything slots into place and you’re playing right in the pocket. If every member of your band does this, at the same time, then the magic happens. It’s not what you play, but how you play it. Putting something of yourself into it, holding nothing back, is how this is done. It’s all or nothing. Half way is nowhere.

Just because you’re not the drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time. The groove consists of every contribution and only spot on is near enough. It has to motor. In fact, the other musicians should be consciously trying to make the drummer sound amazing. Tap your foot and move your body, to keep the beat. It’s a dance and you need to dance with it, even if you only nod your head in time.

It helps a lot to sing the melody in your head, just a few milliseconds before you play it and sticking to the melody, supporting it, honouring it and preserving it is very important. If you want to deviate from the melody, you’d better have a better melody to replace it. You’re there to recreate memories with melodies.

Don’t play what the piano player is playing. They’re the piano player, not you. Play something of your own, which complements what they’re playing. Playing in unison should be for effect and emphasis. You’re trying to lift the bandstand and the room.  

Don’t listen to the musicians that are trying to accompany you – you need to lead! And try hard to accompany the lead instrument or voice, not swamp and overwhelm them. Don’t stand on their melodic toes and listen for where their line needs an answer or support.

To quote Jazz musician Thelonious Monk, “you’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?”. Always know. Hesitancy and uncertainty is immediately audible and destroys the groove. Play with verve and panache.

Discrimination is important. You’re always playing with light and shade. There has to be a lot of darkness, for the lighter, contrasting moments to shine. Notes can be as small as the sound of a pin dropping, or as big as the universe. What you choose to play depends on your musical imagination.

The inside of a tune (the bridge) us what makes the outside of a tune sound good. Crisp beginnings and endings make the band sound tight, “together” and polished. Don’t play everything all the time, or every time. Leave some space for the imagination to fill in the details. Sometimes, what you don’t play is as important as what you do. Always leave them wanting more.

Stay in shape, as a musician. If you only play at gigs, you may turn up to a gig out of shape and then you won’t be able to make it. When your commitment to playing wanes, so does your playing. On the other hand, when you’re swinging, swing some more. If you’re not playing right at the very edge, you’re taking up too much room.

If you write music that isn’t interesting enough to play, to get your band members to come to rehearsal, write more interesting music. Musicians should live to play it. Your responsibility is to write something worth playing. Exciting music. Getting gigs is easy if you stay on the scene, are part of it and you define it. Make the music that matters.

When the spotlight is shining on you, you’ve got it and you have to carry it. If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but it’s on you. You’ve got it. Do something entertaining with it. Then pass it on and let somebody else take it.

Whatever you think can’t be done, or can’t be played, somebody will always come along and do it, or play it. It might as well be you. Get it done. A genius is the one most like himself. Be open and authentic, when you play and play with the courage and vulnerability to fail. If you drop it, puck it back up again immediately. Don’t miss a beat. Commitment, not omitment.

That, I think, is how you play with commitment.

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Nobody Wants Your Shit

Tiny, typical houses are full to overflowing with consumer crap. They don’t want any more. There’s just no room. Whatever masterpiece you’ve created, it’s the wrong colour, anyway. It won’t match the décor, even if they have the wall space, inclination and patience to hang and frame it.

Every man Jack is making some kind of art, to varying standards of accomplishment. Nobody is as dedicated to buying it, though. That’s not a creative pursuit. It’s not seen as a means of expressing yourself. There’s no passion in it.

Your artistic folly is just playful silliness mixed with melancholy. Nobody wants to indulge your penchant for regret, at paths in life not taken. Everybody knows those paths were impossible and unrealistic. Your self-doubt would have crippled your progress along that path, anyway.

You think if you make art purpose-designed to please, then somebody will want it, but ironically, it’s your art’s very inauthenticity which makes it unpalatable and repulsive. You can’t please anyone, most of the time.

There’s no time to listen or to read and far more nostalgia value in replaying familiar favourites. Who needs the shock of the new? Who wants to waste time explaining why you won’t pay attention?

Nobody wants your shit.  

Even if you make it entertaining and viciously brief.

Even if you dumb it down.

Even if you compromise your artistic integrity to naked populism.

Even if you give it away.

Nobody wants your shit.

So, make it authentic, make it good and hope it touches somebody else, in some small way. Get some joy out of the making.

If acclaim is what you’re seeking, to fill the void inside, the truth is that the void is unfillable. You’ll have to fill that yawning, abyss with something more substantial – a sense that you deserve to be happy, just for being.

Don’t expect anybody to affirm that for you, though.

They won’t.

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