Cheese Sandwiches in a Time of Coronavirus

Twitter always delivers.

This week, I watched a guy live-defending his claim that with only three ingredients (cheese, bread, margarine), his Mum’s cheese sandwiches were, beyond any doubt, the best in the world. End of discussion.

With that one simple statement, I started thinking just how susceptible we are to the contexts we live in. We hold beliefs and ideals that we believe to be solid. Some of us might even be particularly vocal about them (see Twitter). And we claim to be rational beings despite the fact that scientific evidence shows this rationality, in many cases, to be an illusion.

There’s two ways in which those cheese sandwiches can become tastier. The first comes from an invisible change that took place, at some molecular level which somehow enhanced the ingredients. Or perhaps it’s just because our taste is in fact governed by context. Maybe it was the first food he’d eaten for days. Or was it because (as he claimed) the sandwiches were made with love – and that level of care was the reason for the change in the taste?

If that’s true, perhaps the reverse is also. Can you, for example, taste the loathing with which an underpaid Subway worker built your footlong baguette as it seeps through to your palate? And is that why it usually tastes better drowned in so much sauce? I digress…

Science shows that the taste of food can be affected by tweaking certain  elements such as colour or smell. So why wouldn’t invoking that mysterious power of love in the kitchen also have an effect? After all, we’re talking about an intense emotion that’s capable of disturbing everything, from the most macro of decisions by world leaders to the daily minutiae of everyday life.

And nowhere is that sort of magic likely to have such pronounced effects as in the midst of a pandemic.  After all, this is virus actually causes sensory deprivation for some. For those who do lose their sense of taste, the Covid World is a particularly colourless one, pushing its humans much further down Maslow’s Pyramid in search of satisfaction of more basic needs.

Maybe that boy’s sandwich didn’t change colour en route to his belly. But it was still prepared by a loving mother in the safe bubble of a home. A simple cheese sandwich it might be – but it was delivered into one of the most disrupted environments in recent memory.

Disruption is by definition an interruption in, and replacement of, context. And beliefs will change as the world does. Think of how people’s views have evolved recently. We’ve seen shifts in views about those who wear masks in public; about the relative value of commutes and colleagues; and about just how crucial the lowest-paid in society turn out to be. If there’s one thing that 2020 will be remembered for, it’s that opinions can, and do, change.

The exciting thing about a shift in context is that it allows us to exercise our taste. Taste is the foundation of so much joy in our lives. It’s the playground in which we as sentient humans come most fully alive. Intrinsic or cultivated, it’s our preferences that govern the ecstasy we seek in life – from music, to food, sex, friendships, exercise, and everything in between. It’s in our tastes that we choose the colours with which to paint our life’s stories as vividly as possible. It’s where our memories transform into satisfyingly precious gems that stay with us and it’s how our dreams become so achingly desirable.

We use our preferences to signal to others that we are free. And we feel most  vital when we’ve manage to satisfy our own requirements of taste.

But tastes shift along with context. And that’s both healthy and important. Whilst it may be comforting to listen to the same music that soundtracked your teenage years, life becomes so much less vibrant if you shut off the possibility of discovering alternatives as you age.

To quote Heraclitus, the Greek philospher:-

“No man ever steps in the same river twice – for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man”.

And in the same vein, Robertson Davies wrote:-

“Nobody ever reads the same book twice”.   

In 2020, many continue to insist on asking some variation of ‘when will things be back to normal’? But I think that’s the wrong question. There is no normal. Not really. There never was. Our lives are governed by changing contexts that continually swirl and shift around us. It’s up to each of us, guided by our own tastes, to define exactly what that each context means for us – today. Because whether it’s good or bad, today is all we have.

Should More Gigs Be Livestreamed?

I’ve always been a fan of live-streaming events. Can’t afford a show once you wrap in travel, food, accommodation and ticket? Go on. Just take my money already.

Sure, an audience of one sucks in a different air. Foreign and remote, it’s insulated from the molecules bothered by the performers onscreen. That magic is missing, along with that indescribable wonder that only exists in a room where people’s heartbeats synchronise in response.

But still you, the audience, in your one-ness, get something. Even on your sofa, in your pants, eating crisps (theoretically). It’s better than nothing. And in many cases, remarkably.

So if you’re willing to pay for it? Everyone’s a winner.

You probably get the sense now that it didn’t take too much to get me watching a Biffy Clyro livestream on Saturday night. The band were marking the release of their album ‘A Celebration Of Endings’ with a live (ish) performance of the full album (plus soundcheck songs to warm up) resulting in a powerful ‘gig’ that delivered on all fronts.

So why did it work? Well, a mix of fantastic production values, a great venue and a one-off feel definitely helped. For those who aren’t Biffy-aware, they’re an insanely tight rock band – a 3-piece (mostly) who delight in challenging time signatures. So it helped that punters knew in advance their £15 ticket price wasn’t going towards an outfit that would likely come shambling onstage late, with out-of-tune guitars, half-forgotten lyrics and a barely concealed simmering hatred between personnel born out of years of touring, as each member refused to acknowledge the other’s existence…

The mix of music and visuals worked brilliantly, with the designers filling up the empty crowd space with a selection of mannequins, light bulbs, alternative areas for the band to walk around and – most memorably – what can only be described as a big perspex box with fluorescent lights which they all climbed inside to belt out a couple of songs.

Being able to take over The Barrowlands for the filming, one of the most atmospheric venues in the UK was a sound choice – and a gamble. It’s iconic largely because of the crowd that’s been filling it year after year. ‘Playing the Barras’ has been a rite of passage for thousands of bands over the years. And how do you recreate that famed Glasgow atmosphere when you’re lacking the sea of skulls that are responsible for generating that atmosphere in the first place?

For Biffy, the gamble paid off. But is it the future in a post-COVID world?

For certain bands, definitely. It should be at least a part of the story. But can it be as good as a live show? I’d argue the two aren’t comparable in any meaningful way. Much like live-streamed theatre, it’s a entirely different thing. But, done the Biffy way, it’s indisputably A Very Good Thing.     

The ‘Letters To…’ Project

A few weeks ago, the Stellar Quines theatre company put out a call looking for writers for its ‘Letters To…’ project.

So I wrote a short piece and was delighted to be picked! Here’s the video they made of my work, with the help of Pitlochry Festival Theatre actress Felicity Sparks and director Shilpa T-Hyland who I think did a fantastic job with my words.

Seeing how others interpret your writing is fascinating. No matter how short it is, decisions are made as life gets breathed into the piece. Often they’re as you imagined. But sometimes they’re unexpected. And those are the most exciting.

P.S. You can check out the other winners here – definitely worth a watch! And if you haven’t yet seen the  recent BBC extract from ‘Fibres’ by Frances Poet (which was a Stellar Quines co-production with the Citizens) about the damage wreaked by asbestos on workers and their families in the Glasgow shipyards performed by Jonathan Watson as part of the National Theatre of Scotland project, please just stop what you’re doing and watch it now. It’s stunning.

Social Distancing: Stop Messing Around

For the last six days, with Covid-19 ravaging the globe, I’ve been self-isolating at home. Or I guess I should say practicing ‘social distancing’. Because now – more than at any other recent time in history – the words we use really matter. It’s not overstating it to say that the language we use is now likely to impact significantly on the direct lives of our nearest and dearest (in addition to many others far beyond).

The last few weeks have been wild. From being hit with the realisation of how bad this was going to get, to pulling the kids out of school (which crazily here in Scotland as of 16th March are still open…) to the massive frustration with governments and companies for failing to act decisively… I don’t blame the people as such but I do blame the systems we have in place. Lethargy in action.

It’s been reinforced all across the globe: institutions, countries and organisation simply cannot move quickly enough to make the correct decisions. Without serious advance planning (which we in the West appear to have dropped the ball on – for reasons to be discussed after this), there simply aren’t the feedback loops available to help them to  digest broad sources of information and digest them competently across their hierarchies.

I’m certain this will improve as we move into a full-blown emergency. But it will also take a massive shift in mindset to do so. And we need the people who are able to act decisively to step up to the plate. Even if you don’t care about your own health – think of the ones who you’ll harm if you don’t.

When people who are sworn ideological enemies start to all converge on something, it’s time to start taking things very seriously.

Sticking with the importance of language, let’s be careful with the war allegories at this stage. It absolutely is a global war in terms of impact on the public and potential for disaster. But in some places, people seem to be building this into their foundation for acting in the ridiculous belief that the correct response is to simply carry on as normal. Not to over-react. Whereas the very real human cost of all of these people congregating in bars, gigs and restaurants will be heartbreaking if we are ever able to trace this in the aftermath (don’t be Patient #31).

But – words. Communication. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial. We can’t have people like Trump displaying woeful incompetence (in both words and understanding) reactively across one of the most powerful global publishing platforms history has ever seen. It’s harder to think of a more perfect storm for disaster. I have no doubt that competent and talented people are stepping up there to guide him. But now is not the time to give him too much freedom.

Because if you continue get the words wrong, we have a much bigger problem than the massive mountain we already have to climb.

Stay safe out there.

Deep Work

One of the great books I read last year was Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Focus‘.

If you’ve not yet read the book, there’s a useful article in the NYT that summarises his key arguments in an interview format. In essence, deep focus is simply about ensuring that you build in periods of focus into every day – without any distractions – electronic or otherwise – to put you off.

In a nutshell, the book suggests:

1. Actively schedule (and aggressively protect) this time carved out for deep work in your daily schedule.

2. Embrace boredom – don’t check your mobile out of habit when you have the chance. If you don’t, you’re simply training your brain to seek stimulii when challenged (which breaks your focus).

3. Quit social media – self-explanatory but I’d struggle with this myself. I’d suggest restricting it to scheduled times and batching time on it (with notifications turned off) may be a sensible compromise here.

4. ‘Drain the shallows’ – miminise the shallow (non-focused eg administrative) work you do and be very intentional about when you do it (and how you can become more efficient at it).

None of these are easy – or common – of course. But if you work consistently at it, as Newport says:

“Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.”

Giving Advice Is Easier Than Following It

I came across this quote from Sam Harris in Tim Ferriss’ book ‘Tools of Titans‘:-

“On one level, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice. It’s actually very easy to give people good advice. It’s very hard to follow the advice that you know is good….If someone came to me with a list of problems, I would be able to sort that person out very easily.”

How often have you had that experience? Solving other’s problems  usually seems much more possible. Is that because as a non-involved party, you can be objective? Or is it simply because you hold the get-out-of-jail-free card – that you never have to go through with the advice you dish out because, by definition, it doesn’t apply  to you,  in your life, in the same way?

Be More Hume

One of my goals for this year is to read the works of David Hume. Perhaps not all of them (all 6 volumes of ‘The History of England’ aren’t exactly beating a path to my door at this stage). But enough to really start to get my head around some of the key concepts that this giant of Western Philosophy who lived just up the road in the same city as me – albeit some 200-odd years ago – became world-renowned for.

I guess that probably means reading the entirety of at least one of my two copies of ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding‘…

But while I’m in what I like to think of as the preparatory stage (readily identified as being that stage between hearing repeatedly about the book and actually sitting down and working your way through it, when instead the guilt is building that I’ve gone through life without yet reading a book that seems to have shaped innumerable conversations around the globe for a very long time), my mind is tuned to every mention that I come across of his name.

All of which meandering instruction goes some way to explain why I found an article (‘How to generate ideas: Be more Hume, and stop doing what you’re f****ng told‘ by Clare Barry ) particularly interesting today.

I plan to revisit this post once I do – finally – get round to actually doing the reading. But in the meantime, here’s a couple of my takeaways.

Hume talks about the difference between impressions (the things we hear, see, feel, love, hate, desire or wish) and ideas (the entirely subjective responses we have to those impressions). So “ideas aren’t some divine intervention or a spasm of genius – they are entirely dependent on what you’ve experienced”.

Her conclusions are:

– Stop doing what you’re told: to come up with ideas, you have to reject the ‘usual’ way of doing things.

– Ideas are created by unique collisions of our experiences – so experience as much as you can whilst seeking new ideas. And specifically, don’t consume the same content everyone else looking to be creative is consuming.

– Never dilute a decent idea. Continue in the face of criticism, no half-measures. The path to mediocrity is littered with the accepted suggestions of others.

A few things to think about there. But there are obvious examples of where each of these approaches can be shown to have worked in the past.


Chinese Click Farms

If you want to understand better the madness of the current Web, a good starting point is to think about Click Farms:

Wikipedia defines a click farm as a commercial enterprise that employs a large number of people to repeatedly click on items of online content in order to artificially inflate statistics of traffic or engagement.

In short, every mobile has a unique ID that is required in order to generate advertising revenue. Its not something that can simply be done by firing up thousands of virtual machines on a server somewhere. The more mobiles, the more profitable it is.

From fake clicks to fake social media accounts, much of the Internet today is fake. And as one of the comments in that thread says, “It reminds me of The Matrix when Neo first wakes up“.

As Douglas Rushkoff points out, it’s somewhat ironic:

“Consider the irony: malware robots watch ads, monitored by automated tracking software that tailors each advertising message to suit the malbots automated habits, in a human-free feedback loop of ever-narrowing ‘peesonalization’. Nothing of value is created but Billions of dollars are made.”

There are far better alternatives out there than a system that survives in the shadows without bringing any real benefit for the advancement of our society and culture. Indeed, it undermines it.

When Your Lunch Also Commutes

In a world that is shaped by digital decisions upon platforms that we often don’t control, it’s always heartening to hear tales of traditions that persist. Whilst technology increasingly proves that more efficient solutions are within reach, sometimes that personal, human touch can still survive.

A great example of this is the tiffin lunchbox, predominantly found in Mumbai, India. With so many individuals travelling long distances into the city to work, there is still a demand for good old home cooked food when it comes to lunch. Whereas in this country, office workers may nip out for an overpriced and oversalted lunch at a heavily-branded sandwich joint, many workers there can rely on food lovingly cooked fresh for them at home that morning.

Dabbas are large circular tins with a number of tiers. The freshly cooked food is placed into them at home – and then the real magic begins.

The dabbas are passed across to a human delivery system – 5,000 people (known as dabbawalas), many on bicycles, who then transport some 200,000 dabbas to the trains (each one marked by hand with a system of symbols and colours) where they travel for often a couple of hours before being picked up by local dabbawalas and handed directly to their individual recipients every day.

Now for a couple of amazing facts.

First, the food is never late. Amazing when you take account of the fact that its delivered direct to each individual’s place of work.

Second: the dabbas, once empty then travel back and get returned to the houses from which they came. Incredibly, none of them carry a home address – and yet they all return to the sender at the end of the day. Only to repeat the journey once again the next day.

The secret is the intricate system that is used – a combination of local knowledge, train lines, and dabbawalas’ memories. And the dabbawalas are so trusted that often workers will place their wages into the dabbas for the return journey so that they don’t have to travel home from work carrying precious cash on their own person.

The system was started by a banker, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, who wanted his home cooked lunch delivered all the way back in 1890. And it’s claimed that the dabbawalas now only make one mistake every six million deliveries – a success rate that shames any other physical logistics infrastructure out there in the business world today when you factor in just how many delivery locations they’re servicing. The system’s been studied by Harvard Business School and is always talked of as being the envy of FedEx.

Sometimes I guess you just can’t beat those home comforts after all.

Pink Flamingos and the American Dream

I’ll be heading over to America later in the year so it feels like as good a time as any to brush up on some American culture. And what could possibly be better then than – pink flamingos!

You may have thought infrequently (never…) about them before. So here’s some pointers:

1. Pink flamingos (the garden lawn type) were invented by Donald Featherstone in 1957. They soon became cultural icons of the US. As Featherstone stated, “We sold tropical elegance in a box for less than $10”.

2. The powerful assumptions that accompany the ubiquitous flamingos have been put to good use. On occasion, people have been subjected to ‘flocking’ – a form of bullying to encourage the target to ‘voluntatily’ donate to a charity when he or she wakes up to find flamingos all over their lawn. Although interestingly, such a tactic clearly only works when the target is someone who would be clearly embarrassed by an infestation of such visible tackiness on their homestead…

3. Bonus fact: Donald Featherstone and his wife Nancy wore exactly the same outfit/clothes design for over 35 years..