How To Get Better, Faster

It’s conventional wisdom that practice makes perfect, but like much conventional wisdom, it turns out to be an oversimplification. Practice is important, but how you practice makes a big difference to whether you get better faster or slower. While there are no shortcuts to learning anything new, there are definitely things you can do to help you learn in less time, given you are already dedicated to practicing.

Most people equate practice with repetition – boring, soulless, zombie-like repetition, doing the same thing, over and over again, until it becomes an autonomic skill. We’ve all seen and maybe done it. Examples are learning scales on piano or guitar, or painting the same scene, the same way, using the same colour palette, over and over again, until you can perform those actions without having to think too hard about it. Unfortunately, mastery doesn’t work that way, according to recent research on learning. Boring repetition can actually make your skills and performance worse, especially if what you’re drilling includes bad, uncorrected habits.

Researchers at John Hopkins found that if you practice a slightly modified version of the task you want to master, you learn faster than if you pound on practicing the exact same thing, multiple times in a row. If every pass or repetition contains a minor variation, your brain works to affix those memories in your wetware using a process called “reconsolidation”, whereby existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge. Do only what the brain already knows, repetitively and reconsolidation doesn’t need to take place. There is no new knowledge, so no reason to recall the existing memory and revise it. The key is in giving your brain something new about something familiar.

Let’s say you’re trying to learn to play a new guitar riff. One way is to play it repeatedly, at the same tempo, on the same instrument, using the same amplifier and effects set up. Eventually, you will ingrain the motions into your muscle memory, so your accuracy and consistency will improve. In other words, you will stop making obvious mistakes and fluffing the notes. However, if you play it wrongly (let’s suppose you have a grave error in your technique, for instance), you’ll only learn to play it wrongly with fluidity.

The better, faster way to improve is to slightly adjust the conditions in subsequent practice sessions. Musicians always know that playing the riff slowly at first, but perfectly, allows you to incrementally increase the tempo, repetition by repetition, until you achieve mastery of the riff or lick at the required tempo. The best guitarists will finish off their learning by repetitions at speeds faster than they’ll need to play it in performance. However, even tempo changes can become dull and uninteresting. What else can you do to introduce new information to your brain, as it becomes familiar with the task?

I suggest that you’ll get even better improvements by trying the same riff or lick on a different guitar – perhaps one with a shorter or longer scale length, a different action, or tuned to dropped tuning. Alternatively, you could try to play it in a different key, or begin playing it on different strings. Even switching the distortion pedal off, or trying the riff on an acoustic guitar, instead of electric, can improve your grasp over what you’re learning.

Priming the reconsolidation pump is what helps you learn much more quickly.

The trick is in not changing things by too much, too soon. If the change you make is too dissimilar to the first pass, you simply create new memories, rather than reconsolidating existing ones. Then you lose the reconsolidation advantage. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle.

Spacing your practice sessions out appropriately is also important. Reconsolidation takes time. Researchers found that a six-hour gap between training sessions was optimal, because neurological research indicates it takes that long for new memories to fully establish. They found that if you practice differently too soon, you won’t have given yourself enough time to internalise what you’ve already learnt. Without a solid existing memory to recall and modify, the process of reconsolidation cannot take place. You have to lay down a memory and wait for it to settle, before you can recall it and reconsolidate it.

The key to continuous improvement is making small, smart changes, spaced apart optimally, evaluating the results (by recording your playing and listening back to it critically, in our guitar riff example), discarding what doesn’t work and further refining whatever does work. It’s a classic feedback loop. Try, evaluate, fix, repeat. When you commit to constantly modifying and refining something you already do well (or even adequately), you’ll find you can do it even better. That’s true mastery.

If you were learning a guitar riff or lick, now it becomes a part of your musical vocabulary, which you can apply at will, in a variety of musical contexts. It goes from simply being a piece you can play note-perfectly to something deeper – a fundamental building block of your technique. When it comes to improvising, being able to draw on this multiply-reconsolidated memory (and all the others you form, over time) will greatly enrich the range of expression you’ll be able to contribute, in any musical conversation.

So, here’s how to learn new things better and faster:

1. Rehearse the basic skill. Run through it a number of times, preferably under the conditions you’ll face when required to perform it for real. The second iteration will be better than the first, but going over it too many times will cause you to reach a point of diminishing returns. Each pass isn’t really that much better than the last. This is when you should end the session. You’ve done as much as you can to embed the initial memory.

2. Let it percolate. Give your brain the six hours minimum it needs to consolidate the memory from short term working memory into longer term storage. Sleeping on it is good advice.

3. Rehearse again. This time, you want to leverage reconsolidation. Go a little faster, even if you make more mistakes that way. You’re still modifying old knowledge with new knowledge and that’s laying the groundwork for improvement. Or, go a little slower. Going back to our guitar riff example, insert dramatic pauses for effect, swing the beat, concentrate on your vibrato and tone or vary your playing dynamics. Polishing these aspects of what you’re trying to learn is still leveraging reconsolidation. Break it up into small segments, discrete step by discrete step, picking one section to polish at a time. Deconstruction, fine-grained analysis and incremental improvement helps you master it. Then, put the whole sequence back together again and see how it hangs together. It’s probably more nuanced and delivered with more confidence, now.

4. Next rehearsal (at least six hours later), change something else. Use a different instrument, for example, or play it louder, or much quieter. Make preparations for the unexpected, so that you can handle them, if they occur.

While this works for learning a guitar lick, a similar process can be applied to almost anything you’re trying to learn. Use your imagination to adapt your practice so that you lean on the brain’s facility for memory reconsolidation (which is another way of saying “memory reinforcement”). It doesn’t have to be a motor skill that you’re trying to perfect. Reconsolidation can be applied to any mind skill.

If you already do something well, you can use these recall and modify technique to take your performance to another level again. You can hone and polish your technique, simply by deconstruction, modification of some small performance aspect (fast vibrato versus slow, deep vibrato, for example) reassembly and reconsolidation of the learned memory. Always leave time for the reconsolidated memory to percolate. Rushing it is actually the slow way.

Learning through leveraging memory reconsolidation techniques helps you learn much quicker than you can through simple, laborious repetition and it is also the fastest path to expertise and true mastery. Give it a try. I’m going to.

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If you suspend your belief in the romantic myth of being a noble, pure, vocation-driven, starving artist, for just a second, you rapidly realise you’re an artist that is starving. In other words, you’ve been reduced to the status of proletarian and you’re being exploited.

This moment of epiphany destabilises the cruel, unrealistically optimistic hoaxes of meritocracy, freedom, egalitarianism, creativity and individual fulfilment that the prevailing, orthodox mythology ascribes to life as an artist. An honest and dispassionate examination of your true situation reveals that advancement and success as an artist have nothing to do with your intrinsic artistic merits. Your freedom is severely circumscribed and constrained by your economic circumstances. The art market is a winner-takes-all game, where egalitarianism is a virtual stranger. Your creativity will be unavoidably limited by your access to resources and the necessity of existential survival, which will always override your need to express yourself or self-actualise. There is very little fulfilment to be found in having one’s life and prospects so severely constrained by external factors beyond your direct control.

Your labour, within the art economy, is being exploited in no less a fashion than all labour is in the broader economy at large. Artists are not exceptional. The gig economy, which is the norm for artists, is no different in complexion to the zero hour contracts that Uber and parcel delivery drivers work within. It’s not wild and glamorous; it’s dangerous and precarious. As an artist, like every freelance worker in the world, you never know if or when you’ll work again. Nothing is guaranteed and your plans can never be long term.

Not only will your artistic working life be difficult, but any complaints you make about it will receive little sympathy, as people working in non-artistic jobs will castigate you for your ingratitude. They will assert that your working terms and conditions are much more flexible and desirable than their own, ignoring the many hazards and penalties that are part and parcel of working as an artist. The similarities are not recognised. Art work is arduous and uncertain – two characteristics that are not always present in more mundane occupations.

More profoundly still, a dispassionate reckoning of your predicament, as an artist, will draw attention to the fact that there is hidden organisation and exploitation of cultural labour taking place, which all artists are required to comply with. It is rendered invisible, opaque and mystified by the cliched narratives that describe life as a working artist. The typical portrayal of the starving artist is but one of them.

The political economy of artistic labour, when illuminated by a momentary awakening, is shown to depend entirely on hierarchy, exploitation and the extraction of value. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the commercial music business, with its one-sided contracts of adhesion, established pecking order of and within the vast corporations that run it and even in the hierarchy of stars, superstars and megastars. It’s baked into how royalty payments are calculated and disbursed, for example.

The system artists work within, just because that’s the way it is and will always be, positions artists as workers without health care, child care, maternity/paternity leave, sickness, retirement and holiday benefits. They are unprotected from risks to their health, safety and well-being, with no limits to the hours they must work, the conditions under which they will labour and very little control over where they are required to work or when. They work within a largely unregulated industry. This is all consistent with a longer, historical tradition of aligning artists with the proletariat, rather than the elites or the middle class bourgeoisie. Artists, even at the pinnacle of the hierarchy, are still essentially plebs. Art serfs, if you will.

Furthermore, the condition of art workers illuminates the changing nature of work in the wider allegedly post-industrial economies, where each and every worker, whether full or part-time employee or self-employed freelancer, is compelled, through dearth of alternative choices, to take on the mythologised, romanticised, non-worker identity of the artist. Why is everyone forcibly encouraged to adopt this role? It’s precisely to expedite and normalise new forms of the exploitation of precarious labour.

Artistic existence has been co-opted as an ideal that all workers must aspire to emulate, but the personal benefits are vastly overstated, while the myriad mechanisms of suffering and exploitation are minimised, if mentioned at all. We’re all being conned and played – both the artists directly and all other workers, who are increasingly required to perceive themselves as free-wheeling, creative artists, irrespective of their actual occupations.

Art, like everything else in neoliberal economies (which are, these days, global), has been fully financialised. With financialisation has come a denigration of the authentic, non-monetary values that supposedly characterise a life of creative, artistic freedom.

It amounts to ordinary, everyday exploitation. Relentlessly.

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Are The Controllers of the Dominant Narrative Sane?

Elites spend vast fortunes controlling the dominant narrative.

They do this because it’s what works and they have enough money to control it exclusively in their own interests. It’s effective. They make excellent returns on the money they invest in making sure we all think what they want us to think, when they want us to think it. Control over mass thought is very valuable to predatory capitalist exploiters. It increases their incomes and reduces their losses.

We make it easy for them to claim the expense of manipulating thought, throughout the population, as tax deductions offset against their massive incomes. Instead of paying their taxes, they use this money to instead subvert democracy and disproportionately influence government policy, in line with their own aims and objectives. They operate like a thuggish mafia, threatening dissenters with legal action, public smears to their reputations or loss of their positions of power and prestige. Faced with these existential threats, even the most honourably recalcitrant falls into line. Money talks, but it can also gag.

A whole new form of covertly billionaire-funded, policy factory “think tank” has emerged that is more engaged in selling predetermined ideology to politicians and the public than undertaking objective, evidence-based, scholarly research. The American Enterprise Institute, Atlantic Council, Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundations of the world represent the inversion of the progressive faith that social science should shape social policy. Social policy is, instead, being determined by the extremist hard-right ideology of a secretive, self-serving, billionaire donor network, who would rather eschew their duties and responsibilities to society than invest in humanity. If ever there was a population of unabashed, shameless, determined shirkers, it’s these people.

According to one account, it was Hayek who spawned the idea of the think tank as disguised political weapon. Politicians were prisoners of conventional wisdom, in Hayek’s view. Think tanks would have to change how politicians thought, if they wanted to implement what were then considered outlandish free-market ideas. To do that would require an ambitious and somewhat disingenuous public relations campaign. To succeed required some deception about the think tank’s true aims. They needed to be “cagey” and disguise their organization as neutral and nonpartisan.

In other words, they would have to speak and act in bad faith.

Choosing a suitably anodyne name, calling it the Institute of Economic Affairs, the grandfather of libertarian think tanks in London was founded. One of its co-founders, Oliver Smedley, wrote that it was “imperative that we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the public along certain lines which might be interpreted as having a political bias. In other words, if we said openly that we were re-teaching the economics of the free market, it might enable our enemies to question the charitableness of our motives.” To do otherwise was to risk losing their tax-exempt, charitable status.

According to Jane Mayer, in her book “Dark Money”, “The new, hyper-partisan think tanks had impact far beyond Washington. They introduced doubt into areas of settled academic and scientific scholarship, undermined genuinely unbiased experts, and gave politicians a menu of conflicting statistics and arguments from which to choose.” Fear, doubt and uncertainty were promulgated. These think tanks became organisations for the bamboozlement of the masses.

Jane Mayer again: “The hazard was that partisan shills would create “balance” based on fraudulent research and deceive the public about pressing issues in which their sponsors had financial interests.”

“You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank,” which “hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.”

It’s worth examining the psychological profiles of the oligarchs and plutocrats that fund the prevailing narrative. The backgrounds of media moguls and think tank founders is invariably one of (childhood) abuse, isolation from both reality and humanity and a self-serving existential fear of losing their inheritances, so predictably typical of the nouveau riche. These people are obsessively, paranoically fearful of losing it all.

Their first hand experience of precarity and poverty is non-existent, so the loss of everything they possess is feared perhaps even more acutely than by those for whom it is a daily, grinding reality. The elite dress their prejudices and primal fears in seductive, plausible-sounding academic theories, but their positions don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny, which is why they do everything possible to prevent scrutiny and dissent, by exercising tight control over the boundaries of the Overton window. Controlling the prevailing narrative is the only way to sustain the deception.

They’re so scared to lose their fortunes, I believe, because they lack the confidence to be able to start from rock bottom and make it big again. It all came very easily to the inheritors of unimaginable, monopoly wealth, so they lack the necessary skills to start with nothing and make it into something. They are also probably lucidly aware of the skullduggery, chicanery and sheer dumb luck that helped their ancestors amass their primary fortunes. It’s not something they think they could do again, despite their posturing and bluster about being self-made billionaires, who succeeded through their own brains, grit, hard work and guile. They’re only too aware of how much was handed to them, unearned, on a plate.

The controllers of the dominant narrative make it so through saturation media coverage of their favoured positions, cleverly and deliberately disguised as grass-roots, popular opinion. Ordinary people are thus suckered into supporting causes that go against their own interests. The manipulators act in abject bad faith, concealing their real (selfish) motivations. They’ve accomplished this through highly concentrated media ownership and weaponised “philanthropy”, which has become little more than the unattenuated voice of the plutocracy.

There are legions of contemptible researchers, operatives, spokespeople, presenters, reporters, writers and journalists who happily, capriciously sell their souls, so that they can enjoy minor opulence and access to power. We see them on television acting as insistent apologists for the contemptible actions of billionaires daily. You know their names and faces well. These people are despicable. They frequently espouse lies they know to be so. As such, they’re just another species of predator.

This is the current status quo, but there is a huge problem with it. What the narrative controllers think they want isn’t rational. In fact, it’s positively insane.

They only want what they want because they’re too remote from real life to experience, first-hand, what their commercial and political activities lead to. They’re insulated from the human immiseration that their pet policies and hobby horses cause. But the cancers, brain damage, mental health deterioration, birth defects, and environmental damage affect us all. Even the oligarchs. It’s still the case that even unlimited money cannot cure some of the consequential ailments that result from unregulated, laissez-faire business activity. Pouring quarts of mercury into waterways at a time is not without rebound. Eventually, it finds its way into your own food and water.

The narrative controllers experience it last, though, when it’s too late to turn back.

The elites are also controlling things from a position of profound ignorance. In other words, the don’t know what they’re doing and are heedless of the consequences. They typically dismiss any and all expert scientific analysis that disagrees with their settled policy choices, irrespective of the weight and reliability of the evidence. This is why we have climate collapse denial.

It’s also a fair bet that most of them have never heard of the exposome, or have any understanding of the connected, symbiotic relationship between man and his environment. Most are stuck in the theologically-derived “conquest and dominion over nature” mindset, which is an anachronistic absurdity, in the real world. You can’t expect to destroy a finite resource that sustains your own life and think you can simply buy your way out of the unavoidable consequences of your acts of despoliation.

The narrative controllers are adept at disguising their naked self-interests with plausible-sounding, seemingly-laudable abstract principles (mostly derived from fictional works of Ayn Rand) but they make their assertions without backing them with solid empirical research and supporting data. The gaping flaw in their grandiloquent philosophy is that if you attempt to construct a society along the lines of their hypercompeitive, ultra-conservative theories, it rapidly descends into extremes of authoritarian violence, destruction, division, distrust, corruption, visceral hatred and misery. Always. The appeal to their peculiar brand of distorted morality results in widespread amorality. It has never been possible to build a functioning society their way. Ever. There hasn’t been a single instance in all of history.

Our plutocrat billionaires, a numerical minority, vastly outnumbered by their opponents, are waging a class war against the rest of us and so far, they’re winning. But, it’s an insane strategy. Sooner or later even their most sycophantic enablers and courtiers stop taking their money. They cease taking orders that result in harm to their own class interests. Once the oligarchs’ money is no good and no longer accepted in return for executing covert, dirty deeds, their class war is lost and they’ll have spent their fortunes waging it.

Their other vulnerability is people boycotting the near monopoly enterprises that buoy up their obscene fortunes. We ultimately stop adding to their fortunes, either because we wake up or we’re so impoverished by their policies, that we lose the wherewithal to remain spending customers. Money is fuel, so cutting off their supply has rapid and devastating results. If this isn’t strategically insane, I don’t know what is.

It’s impossible to draw any other conclusion than those calling the shots have lost their minds. They’re so blinded by their personal psychological damage, the result of their both pampered yet brutalised and loveless, lonely upbringings, in isolation from the warmth of humanity, that they lack a rational grip on reality. They’ve been profoundly traumatised and abused and only know how to cope with it by passing it on. It’s that or absorbing the enormity of the assault that was inflicted upon their infant psyches and emotional stability. Most can’t face that level of self-awareness with honesty. It’s why alcohol and drug abuse is so rampant among the very wealthy.

The elite don’t know how to find purpose and meaning in their lives in any other way than trying to bend all of reality to their bizarre, hallucinated desires. It’s the only genuine struggle and accomplishment they can ever hope to grapple with. They feel entitled to have reality conform to their vision of it. That’s what they’ve been told, their entire lives – that they’re the chosen titans, destined to bestride humanity as heroic conquerors. Imagined meritocracy is a comforting lie they like to tell themselves, in preference to honestly and authentically confronting their own human frailty and vulnerability.

That’s tragic for them, but no reason for the rest of us to indulge and excuse their dysfunction, as pitiable as it may be. We don’t have to comply and obey just to make them feel better.

It’s time to take back the narrative. It’s plainly not in sane hands. In fact, many of the original think tank founders are dead. Only their money and their reactionary ideas live on. The conservative project is something of an adrift ghost ship, programmed on its course, but with the captain no longer at the helm. It’s rudderless and destructive.

Once these toxic ideas gather a momentum of their own, they are carried forward by ambitious imbeciles convinced that espousing, propagating and promoting them will be their ticket to success and power, seemingly unaware that the people they think they’re impressing (who they believe will shower them with riches and favours) are long dead. Politicians and journalists are particularly renown for their barely disguised sycophancy. They’re unconcerned about and largely unaware of the damage they will do to ordinary people with their policies and pronouncements, because coming from their privileged, hermetically-sealed bubble, they don’t actually know any. Ordinary people are, to them, a somewhat abstract concept.

We don’t have to let the insane write the script for humanity‘s destiny. We don’t have to carry out the policies of dead, old capitalists, who only embarked on this course of ideological warfare because of their personal psychological issues and sheer unearned wealth. Why incinerate the world for the benefit of twisted, reactionary men who aren’t even alive to see it?

The project they paid to set in motion is not sane.

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Abandoned Projects

I have a lot of different projects I’ve not finished, but I never throw them away.

I know that even if I’ve lost enthusiasm for something, it will renew later. I’ve finished many things after allowing them to remain fallow for a long period of time. This is something about myself I have learnt, over the years. I stick with ideas and persevere with bringing them to fruition, but not by killing myself or forcing the work when it just won’t come. Patience is important.

Sometimes, you simply lack the requisite courage, temporarily.

Some things you make just don’t thrill you enough to finish them, then and there. There’s something missing you just can’t put your finger on, or the plan won’t gel in your imagination or else you realise you have to develop your skills further to do the work justice. For lots of reasons, I sometimes leave projects to brew and stew, while ideas to complete them percolate in my mind.

Strangely, I usually get on with something else, while I wait. Other works come quickly, without friction. It’s the damnedest thing.

Every now and then, going back to half-finished works amazes me, because seeing them again with fresh eyes often reveals that they were better than I thought, or at least a very promising start. You can learn a lot about yourself, your state of mind and the state of your artistic progress by reassessing frozen works in progress.

They also mark time. Your half-attempted works are like a diary of your artistic life. They remind you that your own life is finite and choices carry opportunity costs. You can’t do everything, all the time. It would exhaust you.

Occasionally, a work you abandoned just didn’t go right and is unsalvageable. Better to leave it in limbo, than complete it, only to find it is still unsatisfactory. Here’s where your taste can be very reliable. You can feel, before completing the work, that it would be still born. No sense in going all the way, with those ones. They’ll only diminish your body of work. It takes bravery and honesty to admit your artistic mistakes. There’s no shame in it.

There’s nothing wrong with making art for the fun of it. You don’t have to meet the expectations of external critics. They never need see or hear what you’ve made. Sometimes, you make things to please yourself and if you don’t finish them, or bring them to a high polish – well – there’s no law against it yet. It’s not compulsory.

Often, you can borrow from your own incomplete fragments, mash them together and get something remarkable. You just never know how your original artistic vision will morph and transform. You can surprise yourself.

There are few more satisfying moments than bringing a long ago stalled project to completion. I find the last bit comes in a rush, with a rare certainty about what to do to finish it. It’s like the assurance has built over time and finally reached a tipping point. Then, it’s released like a dam bursting. The flood is glorious.

I’ve found it’s best to harvest your creative ideas only when they’re ripe and ripening takes as long as it does, no matter how impatient you might be.

Yes, it would be nice to finish everything you start and it can drive those closest to you crazy, but the pressure to complete shouldn’t drive you crazy. I’ve seen unfinished paintings by Manet. They never will be finished, yet they still tantalise. You capture something of the artist’s method and approach in the raw sketch. You also wonder why this picture was never completed. Perhaps we’ll never know.

It’s your art. Take your own sweet time. You’ll be a better artist for it.

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Expressing the Inexpressible

About half the population of our planet cannot express their true thoughts and feelings, for fear of the consequences.

That’s the best estimate I could find. It’s probably higher than that. Self-censorship is rife.

They live under regimes that prohibit dissent, using violent means to punish transgressions.

They worry what their employers will do, in retaliation.

They don’t want to reveal any perceived weakness, for fear of their predatory competition.

They’re scared that family or friends will ostracise them (or worse).

If you find yourself in a position where you cannot express the inexpressible, even if you are able to find the right words, you can’t talk about the things you love, or which greatly trouble you. You may not critique the prevailing orthodoxy or propose alternatives. For the sake of order, you are required to remain silent and compliant. We obey.

Doubters and haters patrol everywhere. People have their block, unfollow and mute controls on a delicate hair trigger, willing to capriciously consign you to permanent oblivion for the most trivial of disagreements. People get perverse pleasure from trolling, or from adopting contrarian and deliberately obtuse counterpositions to things that matter to you deeply. They treat it as sport. Your competence and credibility are permanently on the rack.

Art can be a way to express the inexpressible with a modicum of plausible deniability. If it’s just a story, or a fiction, or a work of the imagination, you can make your point without personal attribution. Lots of artists use their art in this way. The problem is that there is an inevitable dilution of impact, as the ideas you hold most dearly are translated into something more anodyne, acceptable and palatable. What you think and feel is necessarily watered down, often to the point of becoming insipid.

Tragically, this fictionionalisation ploy only works if anybody pays attention to your art. For many artists, operating in a blizzard of information overload, where attention is scarce, summoning the courage to bare one’s soul, irrespective of the possible repercussions, can be a fruitless exercise, ultimately. Nobody notices. You express your inner most thoughts and feelings, but nobody cares at all. All the bleeding and gut wrenching was for nothing.

The up side of nobody noticing is that the peril is lessened. The down side is the terrible realisation that you’re alone and that thoughts you care deeply about are of no consequence to others at all. It’s a very isolating and lonely moment.

Another factor that makes it increasingly impossible to say what you’re really feeling is that the audience you address is invariably terminally bamboozled, in the main, because of cradle-to-grave gaslighting, propagandising and brainwashing. In their confusion, they’re just as likely to attack you savagely for your candour, rather than to listen and empathise. It can be like delivering your manifesto to a lunatic asylum. Clarity and quality of thought are generally low, so putting your deepest thoughts out into that intellectual swamp is unlikely to gain the reaction you hope for.

I think more and more of our deepest, darkest, but most sincere thoughts are largely unwelcome. There is no way to express them, without very negative reactions. You can no longer say your piece without misinterpretation and distortion. We don’t know how to talk to each other with openness, trust and unalloyed sincerity, any more. There is no soul to soul connection.

Your intellectual and emotional sovereignty is nowhere respected. People will shun and act censoriously toward you, rather than hearing you out. You’ll be typecast as gloomy and negative, causing people to run away in fear that your thinking will infect their carefully confected, rose-tinted point of view, like a virulent contagion. The art of reasoned debate, which requires the ability to temporarily hold two mutually contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time, is all but dead.

People no longer communicate in good faith. Liars will lie, knowing that you know they are lying, but being unashamed of their monstrous lies regardless. This has never been truer than it is in modern politics. Bare-faced lying has become a strange kind of arms race, with opponents seemingly seeking to tell the most outrageous lie, to better their opponents.

All of this leads to a weird kind of emotional constipation. When there is no psychological safety, you become hypervigilant, looking harried and hounded, when in truth absolutely nobody gives a damn about your ideas and perspectives. You can’t unblock the blockage and let it all out, because even if you do, you are confronted with the insignificance of your own inner life and identity. So, it all stays in your own head – unexpressed, but festering.

Can people live this way, over the long term? I don’t know. I wonder if it has ever been studied. It seems to me it shares much in common with solitary confinement, where there is nobody to hear your pain and anguish and no interaction with, or response to, your visceral howls. You’re in an invisible cage, with no way out and no relief.

So many people are living this way today. They keep up appearances at all costs, preening and curating their Instagram feeds, scared to death they’ll be found out to be human, imperfect, mortal, ordinary, anxious, lonely, misunderstood, worried and out of their depth. Realism is lost. Authenticity is fabricated. Everybody wants to look like they have it all together and like they know all the answers, but who honestly does? Anybody? They will only ever show you what they want you to see; very careful to never reveal anything else.

In so doing, they turn their backs on connection, mutual understanding, affection, solidarity, comfort, warmth, support and understanding. The show must go on. No wonder mental health is going down the pan. The worse everybody feels; the more they withdraw from each other. It’s a downward spiral.

You could, of course, say what you think anyway and be damned. It’s just terribly sad to learn that nobody is listening, even if you do.

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Art Smuggling

There’s something important about LP records that the inventors of the compact cassette, compact disc and streaming music services evidently failed to grasp. If they were to be believed, these music delivery formats had a single function – to deliver music. Sadly, this wasn’t all an LP record delivered and later formats singularly failed in these other vital functions.

The LP record was actually an art smuggler.

It brought art into suburban, middle class homes that wouldn’t and couldn’t have been there otherwise. On the basis of the music recorded on the vinyl disc, here are some other things that snuck through the doorway of your home – things that you wouldn’t have bought, were it not for the music:

1. Modern cover art – often paintings, conceptual photography or collage, of a size large enough to notice, when you entered the room. Always eye-catching and intriguing. Sometimes, the colour palette was the most immediately recognisable and memorable feature of the album.

2. Avant garde graphic design, typography and layout – compared to most other commercial printed material, which tended to be staid, utilitarian and conservative, this was fresh, distinctive, anarchic, playful, unusual and fascinating.

3. Glimpses of exotic places in album art photographs – transporting your imagination to a different place and lifestyle.

4. Fashion – the musicians were frequently pictured in the latest couture or street fashion trend.

5. Sheer bloody poetry – in the form of otherwise incomprehensible song lyrics, printed out in full.

6. Discovery, introducing you to other artists – the list of contributors often lead to discovering other bands and records that were in a related style.

7. Thematic wholeness – concept albums tied the individual songs together in a cohesive theme, conjuring an imaginary world that was far richer than a single song could evoke on its own.

8. Strange, beautiful music – extending the musical artform to bring you creative pieces that could never have achieved airplay, which you only got to hear at all because they were affixed to the same music delivery vehicle as the hit singles.

9. Insight into the artist’s process – listings of the gear that made the sounds possible, or studio photographs, all showed snatches and glimpses of how the music was made. Very inspiring to aspiring musicians.

10. Liner notes – frequently written by talented writers, they provided supplemental background information or whimsical tales that accompanied the music.

11. Immersive experiences – lifting the needle to skip tracks was an inexact science and carried the added risk of scratching and damaging the record permanently. You tended to let the music unfold and envelop you, a whole side at a time. Impatience was curtailed. Listening was more active.

12. Playful packaging – pull-out posters, panoramic gatefolds, cardboard toys, picture discs – there was often something to play with, while you listened to the music.

13. Visible signifiers that you belonged to a certain tribe – you could tell a lot about your friends from a cursory glance at their record collections. It often immediately revealed something of their hidden selves. Harder to do with playlists.

14. Admission to participation in a thriving artistic scene, by proxy, for a short while.

Somewhere along the line, the music industry asserted that we wanted compactness, convenience, robust sound quality and low cost above all else. I don’t think they were entirely correct.

We’ve more or less lost these companion aspects of art smuggling that LP records used to succeed in bringing to audiences. It was a better experience. You were more involved. There was more art in the package to delight you. It shaped your tastes far beyond your musical preferences and taught you that creativity was possible. These pieces of smuggled art helped to define you as a person.

Today, we have digital side channels like Instagram, which can deliver some of what record sleeves did, but the format is more constrained than album sleeves were and you have to search and seek for those artworks. They don’t come bundled with the digital music stream.

There were tangible artefacts placed in your hands, which persisted in your living environment for years. Today’s music is quickly consumed and forgotten, lacking context or any sort of permanence. Digital music delivery is different, but it’s not better.

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How much stuff gets thrown away not because it’s no longer functional, but because people no longer have a use or need for it, or they don’t know how to fix it, or how to get the replacement part for it? It’s otherwise perfectly good, or could readily be made so, but it’s thrown out anyway. How much gets discarded simply because its owner no longer likes it, or has no way to transport it to their next place? How much of the stuff that finds it’s way to landfill could, with a little love and attention, fulfill real needs for somebody else, if only they could be found? And when things are thrown away, where is “away”?

This is all wastefulness. Capitalists love wastefulness because they get to sell another one, without having to pay the costs of disposal of the previous one. But somebody pays. Someone’s life, health or environment is adversely affected by the waste. It’s just not the capitalist directly, or indeed the consumer that contributes to the waste. This is why there is planned obsolescence and why people don’t have the education, information or access to special parts, processes and tools to salvage stuff that is only slightly broken. Everybody thinks they’re getting away with it. Only, they really aren’t. Everybody is fooling themselves and each other. The waste is mounting. Waste is everywhere.

A vibrant Cooperative Movement emerged during the Great Depression, in response to unconscionable waste. Rather than see idle, unemployed men and women and their families starve, while factories remained at a standstill, unable to find anybody with the necessary cash to buy their products and while farmers were leaving fruit on the trees and crops in the ground to rot, or flushing thousands of gallons of milk a day down the sewers, because supply far exceeded demand, as measured by the money in people’s pockets, people self-organised. The real level of demand, as measured by hungry bellies and need, was the same as it ever was. The productive capacity was also still there, undiminished, but nobody was paying to mobilise it. Capitalism had failed them. All that had happened was the Wall Street casino was bust, taking money out of circulation. Untether the real economy from this made up money game and life could return to normal.

So people did, using the barter system, or trading their time and labour for the things they needed. Broken productive capacity was repaired and brought back into service, often by scavenging parts from other broken things. People, some 300,000 of them, found thriving livelihoods in mutual assistance schemes and cooperatives. Without investors, professional managers, government intervention and finance, they got back to work and restored their communitys’ standards of living.

My childhood experience of cooperatives is vivid. Our daily bread, our groceries, all our home wares, the fuel in our cars, books, school needs, the tools and building materials we required were bought from a cooperative, locally known as “The Store”. Just about everybody was a shareholder and it paid annual dividends, such was the prosperity generated. The cooperative extended a form of credit through a practice known as “lay by”, where you paid a small downpayment to secure the goods and they were held in your name until you could make the final payment to retrieve them. You didn’t buy bread, you bought tokens and exchanged them for bread on a daily basis. This prepayment scheme allowed the cooperative to buy the raw ingredients up front at better prices, because purchasing power was pooled. It worked.

When you needed to build a house or buy a car, you didn’t get a loan from a commercial bank. Instead, you sought a loan from the local credit union, whose funds were the savings of everybody you knew. There was no funny business and interest rates were favourable, because you knew this was a mutual support scheme, not a for-profit commercial enterprise. Overheads were kept scrupulously low and behaviour was exemplary, because nobody wanted to cheat anybody else. It wasn’t predatory. It was all of us helping all of us.

For decades, the city’s biggest employer, the local steelworks, had a less than acceptable safety record, with workers often killed and maimed, no longer able to work. The company washed its hands of these unfortunates and their dependents, not even paying for their medical care or funerals. At the front gates of the factory, the employees launched Newcastle Industrial Benefits, a fund paid into by the workers that acted as health insurance for the afflicted. My dad and my uncles were among the founders, outside the gates of the steelworks.

This fund brought decent standards of health care and poverty relief to workers and their families, if they were rendered sick or injured, or even killed. Everybody owned their health insurance fund. Profiteering was rare, because you were taking on everybody if you did. Healthcare providers had to look these working men in the eye, every day and everybody knew where they lived. Their children went to he same schools. You didn’t monkey around with healthcare charges like US hospitals and doctors seem to do these days. Everything was played with a straight bat.

These things are known as reciprocal economies and it appears to be a little studied and remembered aspect of economics, today. Reciprocal economies don’t obey the orthodox economic assumptions about people being self-serving, seeking only to maximise their personal gain. Mutual support systems that work tear the foundations of current neoliberal thinking apart, with concrete examples from empirical reality that comprehensively disprove and demolish neoliberal theory. Neoliberalism is bunk and we have the proof.

In the spring of 1932, in Compton, California, an unemployed World War I veteran walked out to the farms that still ringed Los Angeles. He offered his labor in return for a sack of vegetables, and that evening he returned with more than his family needed. The next day a neighbor went out with him to the fields. Within two months 500 families were members of the Unemployed Cooperative Relief Organization.

That group became one of 45 units in an organization that served the needs of some 150,000 people.

It operated a large warehouse, a distribution center, a gas and service station, a refrigeration facility, a sewing shop, a shoe shop, even medical services, all on cooperative principles. Members were expected to work two days a week, and benefits were allocated according to need. A member with a wife and two kids got four times as much food as someone living alone. The organization was run democratically, and social support was as important as material support. Members helped one another resist evictions; sometimes they moved a family back in after a landlord had put them out. Unemployed utility workers turned on gas and electricity for families that had been cut off.

The UCRO was just one organization in one city. Groups like it ultimately involved more than 1.3 million people, in more than 30 states. It happened spontaneously, without experts or blueprints. Most of the participants were blue-collar workers whose formal schooling had stopped at high school. Some groups evolved a kind of money to create more flexibility in exchange. An example was the Unemployed Exchange Association, or UXA, based in Oakland, California.

Noteworthy is Upton Sinclair’s campaign for California governor in 1934. Sinclair was a kind of Ralph Nader of his day. He based his campaign on a plan he called End Poverty in California, or EPIC, which was based in turn on the self-help cooperatives, UXA in particular. It would have taken the state’s idle farmland and factories and turned them into worker co-ops.

The idea of a genuine economy shorn of Wall Street contrivance touched a chord. Some 2,000 EPIC clubs sprang up. Sinclair won the Democratic primary, but California’s moneyed establishment mustered $10 million dollars to pummel him. EPIC died with his campaign, and the idea has been associated with quixotic politics ever since.

According to Wikipedia, EPIC “was a political campaign started in 1934 by socialist writer Upton Sinclair (best known as author of The Jungle). The movement formed the basis for Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California in 1934. The plan called for a massive public works programme, sweeping tax reform, and guaranteed pensions. It gained major popular support, with thousands joining End Poverty Leagues across the state. EPIC never came to fruition due to Sinclair’s defeat in the 1934 election.”

Specifically, “the plan called for state seizure of idle factories and farm land where the owner had failed to pay property taxes.The government would then hire the unemployed to work on the farms and at the factories. The farms would then operate as self-sufficient, worker-run co-ops. EPIC also called for the implementation of California’s first state income tax. The tax was to be progressive, with the wealthiest being taxed at 30%. The plan would also have increased inheritance taxes and instituted a 4% tax on stock transfers. EPIC also included government provided pensions for the old, disabled, and widowed. To implement EPIC, Sinclair called for the creation of three new government agencies: the California Authority for Land (CAL), the California Authority for Production (CAP), and the California Authority for Money (CAM). CAL was to implement the plan for seizure and cultivation of unused farm lands. CAP was to do the same for idle factories. CAM meanwhile was to be used to finance CAL and CAP by issuing scrip to workers and issues bonds for the purchase of lands, factories, and machinery.”

“EPIC faced major opposition by the Republican Party and major media figures. Opponents of EPIC “organized the most lavish and creative dirty-tricks campaign ever seen—one that was to become a landmark in American politics” involving “turning over a major campaign to outside advertising, publicity, media and fundraising consultants for the first time.” Notable among these opponents were the heads of the major movie studios in Hollywood. This was largely due to Sinclair’s proposal to hand over idle movie studio lots to unemployed film workers to make movies of their own. In reaction, the studio heads threatened to move film operations to Florida, and deducted money from employee’s paychecks to give directly to the campaign of Sinclair’s Republican opponent for governor, Frank Merriam. In addition, two of the state’s most influential media moguls, William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler used their papers to solely cover Merriam’s campaign and to attack Sinclair.”

Money is a lubricant that enables work to be done and value to be created, through trade and economic activity. When an economy is starved of lubricant, because it is being hoarded, in off-shore bank accounts, then the real economy grinds to a halt, for want of those trading tokens. It turns out that any trusted, agreed upon token will do. Even scrip.

One of the best-known applications of the stamp scrip idea was applied in the small town of Wörgl in Austria in 1932 and 1933. When Michael Unterguggenberger (1884-1936) was elected mayor of Wörgl, the city had 500 jobless people and another 1,000 in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, 200 families were absolutely penniless. The mayor-with-the-long-name (as Professor Irving Fisher from Yale would call him) was familiar with Silvio Gessell’s work on alternative currencies and decided to put it to the test.

He had a long list of projects he wanted to accomplish (re-paving the streets, making the water distribution system available for the entire town, planting trees along the streets and other needed repairs.) Many people were willing and able to do all of those things, but he had only 40,000 Austrian schillings in the bank, a pittance compared to what needed to be done. Instead of spending the 40,000 schillings on starting the first of his long list of projects, he decided to put the money on deposit with a local savings bank as a guarantee for issuing Wörgl’s own 40,000 schilling’s worth of stamp scrip. He then used the stamp scrip to pay for his first project. Because a stamp needed to be applied each month (at 1% of face value), everybody who was paid with the stamp scrip made sure he or she was spending it quickly, automatically providing work for others.

This was a way to prevent hoarding and increasing the velocity of money in the local economy. You can liken it to a game of pass the parcel, because nobody wants to get stuck with having to pay for the stamp, at the end of the month. If you spend it before the charge is due, it retains its face value. The lubrication that money serves as, in an economy, was recycled much more rapidly, in this experiment, facilitating much more economic activity. When people had run out of ideas of what to spend their stamp scrip on, they even decided to pay their taxes, early.

Wörgl was the first town in Austria which effectively managed to redress the extreme levels of unemployment. They not only re-paved the streets and rebuilt the water system and all of the other projects on Mayor Unterguggenberger’s long list, they even built new houses, a ski jump and a bridge with a plaque proudly reminding us that ‘This bridge was built with our own Free Money’ (see photographs). Six villages in the neighborhood copied the system, one of which built the municipal swimming pool with the proceeds. Even the French Prime Minister, Édouard Dalladier, made a special visit to see first hand the “miracle of Wörgl.”

It is essential to understand that the majority of this additional employment was not due directly to the mayor’s projects as would be the case, for example, in Roosevelt’s contract work programmes described below. The bulk of the work was provided by the circulation of the stamp scrip after the first people contracted by the mayor spent it. In fact, every one of the schillings in stamp scrip created between 12 and 14 times more employment than the normal schillings circulating in parallel. The anti-hoarding device proved extremely effective as a spontaneous work-generating device.

Wörgl’s demonstration was so successful that it was replicated, first in the neighboring city of Kirchbichl in January of 1933. In June of that year, Unterguggenberger addressed a meeting with representatives of 170 other towns and villages. Soon afterwards, 200 townships in Austria wanted to copy it. It was at that point that the central bank panicked and decided to assert its monopoly rights. The people sued the central bank, but lost the case in November 1933. The case went to the Austrian Supreme Court, but was lost again. After that it became a criminal offence in Austria to issue “emergency currency.”

Does this sound familiar? Only a central authority saviour can help people who are not allowed to help themselves locally. And as all economists will point out, when there is enough demand, supply always manifests in some way. Even if you have to import it. During the Anschluss of 1938, a large percentage of the population of Austria welcomed Adolf Hitler as their economic and political saviour. The rest is well known history.

The current global economy is dragging ordinary people into precarity and penury once again, as inequality, plutonomy and neoliberalism gather a galloping pace. Democracy itself is being deliberately dismantled to enable it. Strongman saviours, who seek to divide the world into the deserving and the undeserving, forcibly taking everything from the undeserving in order to enrich the deserving as their zero sum solution to people’s economic woes, are once again in the ascendant. I like cooperative solutions, like the ones discussed above, much better. They are less wasteful.

Activism of this sort, which actually is a benign species of applied anarchism, is something that most thinking people can, in good conscience, support. It even gives their lives meaning and purpose, because the cooperative nature of the work helps people directly and lifts them out of terrible circumstances. It’s fundamentally tied to generosity and gratitude – two very powerful human motivations.

The wealthiest capitalists always destroy and subvert these grass roots, self-help, mutual aid initiatives. They prefer to see their fellow man immiserated and destitute, rather than lose command and control over their economic profits and property. They’re remarkably cruel and callous, as human beings and have no place in any community of mutual benefit. They’re outcasts.

History shows the scale of the resources and sheer skullduggery that the wealthiest have employed to smash, weaken, subvert or absorb cooperatives and mutual societies, for their own personal profit. It happened to The Store, our cooperative local merchant, our credit union and our industrial benefits insurance in my home town. Even the cooperative bakery was closed. They were all privatised or run into the ground by commercial predators. Sometimes the names of the organisation remained, but their complexions changed as they began to favour the narrow interests of private shareholder profit over community well being. We no longer held a stake in these operations and they no longer cared what happened to us, as long as we kept paying. They uncoupled from their communities.

Only a change of heart and mind can affect a movement in our collective imaginations. We persist with the current foolish, failing economic games only because the narrative about a better, more fruitful, more prosperous, less wasteful future is insufficiently vivid and hence compelling. Despite the history of experiments that worked, the information has been suppressed and forgotten. Capitalists are necessarily dismissive of its unarguable successes for the prosaic reason that they want to maintain their unearned privilege at all costs – costs which they often don’t have to pay.

The only way to compel people to care is to exclude and ostracise those that don’t. We have to begin shunning, not serving obsequiously, those that act in ways that increase waste and immiseration. There have to be personal consequences for destroying the quality of life enjoyed by everyone else. It can’t remain an unpunished crime.

Above all, our current economic system represents a colossal waste of human potential. What a waste!


Some of the above was abstracted directly from these better-written articles:

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