Book of the Month :: Why Numbers are Scary, and Other Stories.

Freakonomics is, undoubtedly, a brilliant book of essays which almost effortlessly uses causality to knit together seemingly disparate truths. However, for me at times it was a hard set of scenarios to grasp. The problem is not the details, but numbers. Economics, as is the case with so many branches of the sciences, relies on a strong mathematical base: understanding how figures interact and create the foundations of this and other scientific disciplines is pretty much essential. I have always struggled with maths, for as long as memory exists: words are natural, almost fluid but the same has never been true with calculations or equations.

In fact, I have nightmares sometimes over the basic inability to cope with mental arithmetic. If there is homework that involves the discipline, I’ll politely remind either son or daughter that dad’s the better person to ask. ‘In mathematics, something must be invested before anything is gained,’ writes David Berlinski in his book ‘One, Two Three’, a study of the basics of mathematical principle: ‘what is gained is never quite so palpable as what has been invested.’ Once I realised that my mind was the problem and not complexity of equations, it began a train of thought that seemed worth sharing.

When asking the question ‘Why am I terrible at maths?’ there were a lot of possible solutions, including the possibility that I might suffer from dyscalculia, which is a form of dyslexia. It is considered a specific developmental disorder, with an estimate that up to 6% of the population could suffer from some form of number ‘blindness.’ This ties in with the inability to read musical notation (despite having been taught to) and my total inability to remember people’s names, which has caused me issues for decades.

However, over time, and with practice, mathematical competence has improved. What normally tends to happen, and this was most definitely the case whenever Levitt and Dubner used numbers to make a point, I’d simply switch off and skip the sections which asked for specific concentration. This had become the way I dealt with other issues too, even when sitting and listening to mathematical discussions. Was it really my brain at fault? In the spirit of using causality to look beyond the obvious, I sought answers from my past. When did the issues with maths truly begin, and could a mental disorder be the cause?

1091849

In the early 1960’s Sir James Pitman (grandson of Sir Isaac Pitman, inventor of a shorthand system) created the Initial Teaching Alphabet (or ITA for short) which was meant to help children learn to read. It meant that, as a child, I was taught two alphabets for basic comprehension and not one: for instance, I will when tired still spell like as liek (with that middle vowel sound part of the ITA ‘phonics’ system, as you can see on the end of the third line of the picture above.) This same confusion remains after decades: I’d not linked this with possible mathematical shortcomings until very recently.

Enter RadioLab, ‘where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.’ This WNYC podcast is much beloved by my husband, and I’ve begun to become a fan myself over time. In this case, Season 6 Episode 5 [Numbers] was the causal link required to jump from one point in a personal chronology to another. In the segment ‘Innate Numbers’ comes explanation and understanding that, as children, we have no concept of numbers whatsoever, and the strict linear progression from 1-10 has to be quite vigorously reinforced before cognition occurs.

radiolab

Suddenly, I appear to have discovered a causal connection that not only makes sense, but that feels innately correct. However, thoughts are not facts, and if I want to know the real truth over whether my struggles with ITA as a child really have contributed to a disconnect with maths in subsequent decades, there are other possibilities to consider. I won’t win prizes for mental arithmetic speed any time soon: however from these initial issues, a fear and general lack of interest in mathematics no longer exists.

As I push myself into learning more about my own body, challenging how problems are dealt with, comes a deeper awareness of how reaction to stimulus occurs, using the mental tools I wield with most comfort. It is why, I suspect, poetry rhyming feels far more comfortable than the dissonance of imagery and metaphor: those things work better as prose, and poems are more fluid and natural when flowing almost as music. Then, looking at how my mind now reacts to music, there is no longer simply the enjoyment of lyrics or melody, but a rediscovery of how numbers dictate rhythm.

In this regard, mathematics is the most natural thing in the world: chord progressions and key changes are inherently built into my make-up: at 10 I was a fairly prodigious recorder player, and it was suggested I might take up the clarinet or oboe as a way not only to help with asthma, but to develop the ability… yet issues reading music effectively scuppered the dream. The bigger problem however wasn’t a technical glitch in processes, but a deeper set issue, which only now is being actively addressed.

My biggest single issue with an inability to grasp mathematics is fear.

For a very long time, exercise was the same. Intimidated by others, there was no desire to make an effort, coupled with the belief I simply wasn’t good enough. That changed when knees began to hurt not because of exertion, but simply lack of use. An exercise regime then began with thirty minutes of walking a day, and would extend after taking daughter to school, just around the corner. As the walks got longer I used maths to measure progress, thanks to the Fitbit tracker on my wrist.

That journey now means my own body weight can be lifted, that stamina and strength have been built where none existed before. I’ve lost six inches around my waist, yet weight has remained pretty much static in the last ten months. Here’s another mathematical conundrum: counting calories since the start of the year, I am undoubtedly fitter and slimmer than was the case when this began, yet the numbers say I should be thinner. If I’m being accurate with the reporting of calorie intake, who is to blame?

Well, that’s simple. All those cups of tea have a calorific content. Each snack that wasn’t recorded eventually adds up. Food dropped on the floor and then eaten does not have no calorific value, despite what your brain might try and argue as otherwise. I might be able to fool myself, but the truth remains constant and intractable. Mathematics relies on everybody playing by a very specific set of unmalleable rules. You cannot be creative and hope nobody notices. Even high profile politicians can’t do that and expect to escape scot free.

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Understanding yourself is an exercise in causality. What Freakonomics has done for me is open the door into a world I knew existed, but was too afraid to explore in detail. The final piece in that puzzle has been a course in Mindfulness that was begun (and abandoned) earlier in the year, but restarted a few weeks ago. Thanks to meditation there is now an ability to quieten my mind sufficiently to eliminate everything except coping with the moment. This has busted that door to my mind off its hinges, forcing the reassessment of a ton of stuff that has tumbled out.

Only by putting all the pieces of a puzzle together will one be able to understand the picture presented. For me, mathematics was always boring, pointless and ultimately something little cared for. After reading Freakonomics, there’s no instant desire to go solve complex equations, but I did make myself go back and read anything again I glossed over due to complexity. There’s now an enthusiasm to grasp the stuff that doesn’t make sense on the first read, rather than walking away and this is most definitely a step in the right direction.

When I began the Internet of Words project, this was one of the overriding objectives: make people think. What is now apparent is that it wasn’t just a desire that could benefit other people: this is becoming a deeply personal journey into past, present and future. By challenging our shortcomings, there can often come revelations about the reasons why individuals think and act as they do. It is often the most difficult task to do so, because of the fear of so many things: rejection, disappointment and unhappiness. Except, sometimes by embracing these feelings, comes a deeper understanding of what matters most.

Mathematics no longer scares me, and its comprehension is a shortcoming I’ll work to improve upon. Like everything else, it forms a complex and unique part of what is my whole. Understanding that is never likely to happen overnight, and becomes as much a part of life as clothing choices and dinner contents. However, if there’s never the desire to think past the basic life decisions made, true development as a person is a long way off. In this regard I am more than grateful to Messrs Levitt and Dubner, for helping me take a step into a far more interesting and challenging Universe.

Write Off :: The Day before You Came

Write off (3)

Occasionally, you come across something that you don’t remember writing. That is the case with this week’s piece, sitting in a folder that had a bunch of house correspondence in it. It was produced for a writing challenge on Livejournal, and if the save date on the file is correct, produced in May 2004. What makes this a bigger surprise, I’ll be honest, is the genre it was written for.

Buffy-titlecard

I’m a HUGE Buffy fan. I don’t make a song and dance about it, but it was a massively influential part of my life. Ironically, I never felt a huge affinity to the female characters in the show, but was more drawn to the men, especially the character I chose to do this fiction prompt for. I wasn’t attracted to him either: he was me, more or less. I couldn’t identify with any of the major protagonists, except him.

This is Daniel Osbourne (Oz) Fic. It happens before Season Two of Buffy begins. I’d never written Buffy fanfic ever, so decide how I did for yourself.

oz

It’s very much rated R for adult stuff too. I warned you.



The Day before You Came

Oh yes, I’m sure my life was well within its usual frame
The day before you came



the sky goes on forever

Oz turned seventeen in the slow, kohl-rimmed blink of her eyes: ancient in the moment of transition, bones brittle and painful in skin that now crawls with heat and dust. Her mouth is sucking the life from him, teeth on skin drawing blood as she slurps all too slowly across his stomach, destination crotch. Part of his brain, the smallest synapse, needs to prevent the inevitable: too late, boy, the flesh has won, desire is king… thankyewverymuch. He prays for strength, rain, time to stand still, but it’s the briefest of battles. The pills have slowed his world to a crawl; worm speed, worm food her food, kith and kin with the dirt and the fire ants. A thousand miles away the festival shows no signs of abating, the hurricane of noise and sweat building slowly towards optimum destruction. He needs to escape but he’s trapped here all night. The van was traded for a handful of chemical promises, the band’s gift to him on this night of evolution: something special to mark the transition. He wanted to just play and leave yet something stopped his passage. Someone. She smelt of smoke and mirrors, UFO’s and conspiracies. Flame red hair, eyes sharper than diamond… reminding him of a girl he wants to know, but doesn’t know how to ask. That’s for another time.

it should be cold not close to boiling i’m going to combust

The band bought him to Rachel, Nevada and now LuLu is showing him what girls who spend their puberty in the shadow of Area 51 know about secrets: smeared liberally with silver body paint and wearing only a g-string, she whispered in his ear she’d not hurt him, just give him what he wanted. Before he could protest she took him to a tent where her friends giggled and preened, replacing the dull brown polish on his nails for silver and gold, marking his forehead with an iridescent red star. In turn each one filled his mouth with champagne, then sucked the remnants dry, passing pills from tongue to tongue as they did so. Next he danced with them all: myriad fingers moving seamlessly from ass to crotch to zipper to balls, girl-women all-too-trained in the art of instant and painful arousal. Surrounded by the Sisters of the Conspiracy he became a child of the desert, at one with the night before the world got too fast: kaleidoscopic colours, audio overload quicker than either brain or body could cope with. Maybe he should have asked someone what he was taking, or maybe he shouldn’t have drunk anything first. Food sometime today would have helped, but he’s too lost for sense and good advice, too busy losing the battle with the substances. He’s past gone and coming back on the return stub.

LuLu weaves delicate snail-trails of saliva up and down his naked chest: teasing his expectancy, silver paint mixing with adrenaline and pheromone desire. As her mouth finally, blissfully wraps around his cock it’s the catalyst to his chemical reaction: mind and body separate in a burst of light and sound. He’s outside himself looking down on them both, amused that he can fly and get blown simultaneously. Great place to be spaced out: if he drifts too high will they send the Stealth fighters to intercept? Maybe he’ll just disappear in a puff of denial instead…

little green men yeah right big silver women mmmmmmmmmmm

Sunnydale has broadened his horizons: he used to be the ultimate skeptic, now he’s not so sure. There’s something in the air out here, not like the East Coast where he came from. They’re crazy, insane, affected… scared. He never got the fear, not until they passed the City Limits sign. Then it was obvious, that it had been there, traveling with his family: ingrained in him. He just never knew what it was.

Something clicks, a light goes on. His body is beginning to buck, semen shooting into her open mouth, pouring across his stomach, a huge tide of unstoppable reflex. He feels nothing, the drugs have blocked all signals to his brain: forced to watch the moment pass whilst simultaneously trying to work out how he gets his consciousness to fuse back with his body, Oz can’t understand why he doesn’t care. This is a big deal, remember? You should be there, in there… Seed runs away, scattered to the ground where it begins to grow, pale silver tendrils wrapping themselves around his legs, restricting his movements. He needs to stop her, hold her, tell her how grateful he is but there’s a rrrip of foil and something strange on his cock and her words in his ear we need to be safe, right? He tries to reach down, to stroke her hair and kiss her neck but the ground gives way as he feels her muscles around him and in him and

ohmygodit’shappeninghavetogetbacknowaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh

It’s over before it’s begun, the second spurt as she digs her nails into his arms, drawing blood as she screams into the night, drowned by a sudden throbbing bass rumble as the sound system overloads, plunging the entire desert into darkness. He’s no idea how long he’s been conscious, when he passed out or whether he dreamed the whole thing in the first place… then he feels the sudden burning feeling in his throat and the nausea is too sudden and violent to ignore. LuLu is stroking his head and asking if he wants to chuck any more… He’s lying next to a tent, inside which the lead singer of the headline band has one girl on his face and another around his dick, moaning expletives as the pair drag their painted nails across his body. He’s moshing, surrounded by hundreds of rabid drunken bodies, slick with sweat and caked in dust and silver paint…

“Oz?”

Consciousness is sudden, painful to every sense that still functions, ears complaining at the familiar scrape of metal on rubber as his van’s side door is pulled open. Outside it’s too warm to be the desert at night, the vague smells of vegetation and civilisation at the end of a long and hot Summer. He’s back in Sunnydale. Somewhere between Friday and right now he lost a whole weekend in a haze of stop-motion images: he knows what happened, just not the how and the why. Gotta stop doing this or you’re gonna explode. He feels like he could sleep for a week, but ten hours will have to do… there are too many questions but not enough words as someone lifts him, puts his arm over their shoulder, drops him on his bed, drives away in his vehicle.

It can wait until the morning.



Oz wakes up.

The sun is far too bright through the cherry wood blinds, smells of the desert clashing with familiarity, seeping through his semi-conscious defences. He aches in places he wants to forget, but the pain in his soul is too insistent to ignore. Emotionally he’s dead, having killed his own hopes thanks to too little independence and too much stupidity: that is enough to wake him, to force a body abused by the world to demand attention. He only just makes it to the bathroom before he vomits: it’s close. After the first retch there’s nothing but bile and pain, yet it keeps coming, spasm after spasm: the brutality a reminder of the perils of his situation. Finally, blissfully, he looks up and focuses on the clock: 8.45am. Downstairs there is movement, his family well awake. No way to avoid this, just take it head on.

It takes an hour in the shower and bathroom to return his physical state to something approaching normal, and he’s grateful for the acetone he finds in the bathroom cabinet. He’s all out himself, and he remembers all to clearly what happened the last time he went downstairs after a weekend away with the remains of his own efforts on his nails. Rebellion in this family has to happen, sure, just a step at a time. Right now, he’s doing it with clothes. The only souvenir of the weekend that’s not covered in either semen or vomit seems a good place to continue the resistance: that shirt the guys stole for him when he refused to enter the brothel, late on the Saturday night. Everyone grabbed some kind of a souvenir, that was the deal. Instead of sampling the women for himself Oz sat in the van, playing his acoustic, making a note to himself that when he gained manhood, it would be with someone special.

Yeah, and that promise lasted all of a day. Maybe it’s time to stop just doing this stuff and start thinking about the why. Maybe it’s time to get serious and find some new guys to hang out with on the weekends… Jesus, he sounds so old, and he is, a whole year gone, lost in the dust. Can’t ever get it back, remember?

Time to make a change.

Oz clears away the detritus of his weekend, wrapping his clothes and stashing them in his guitar case, to wait for the moment he can clean them without his mom seeing the stains. Then he opens all the windows, letting the Sunnydale air wash through his room, blowing the last of the cobwebs away while he braves downstairs and does something about the ache in his stomach. He arrives in the kitchen just as his mother is clearing away the breakfast things: his bowl and plate remain, Mom prepared to extend serving for his benefit. They never talk; it’s enough just to be there every morning, to keep up the pretence of routine. The smell of cooking batter should make him ill, instead there is a level of familiarity that soothes his senses, settles his stomach. He hasn’t eaten for over a day, it’s time to take the plunge and see what happens. After the sixth mouthful of pancake he knows things are returning to normal.

This next year at school will be different: he’s gonna work hard, do well, and work out how to make something of his life. Plus, he’s gonna find some new friends, special people who won’t get him stoned, then leave him in a pile of his own excretions in the middle of the desert.

Or who will steal his van when he’s unconscious.

”Sweetie, did you hear me?”

Mom is talking to him, and he’s not listening.

“Sorry, say that again?”

‘You haven’t forgotten, have you? You promised to babysit Jordy for Aunt Maureen tonight… you haven’t got anything planned?”

Jesus, after what’s just happened he could do with some monotony, plus Jordy’s too hyperactive to allow him to think for too long. That’s no bad thing. Yeah, babysitting will be cool.

What’s the worst that could happen?


 

GSME #23 :: Big Log

social-media-asides

So, I should have done this a long time ago, on reflection.

thismonth

This is the true measure of progress since Twitter reset its UI in the Summer. In four months, I have picked up one new follower. This is what happens when you systematically remove the elements that exist within Social media whose sole purpose is to self-promote a chosen few. Like everything else (SEO, marketing, brand identity) there are a very specific set of rules one needs to follow to become a success.

Those can be summed up in two statements. Either you:

Are genuinely successful and organically gain an audience with a genuine interest in your life, brand or product;

OR

You create a completely fictional representation of the exact same thing using robot followers and reciprocal follow-backs.

From a distance, most users will be hard pressed to distinguish the two.

everheard

It is the biggest and worst kept secret on the entire platform. If you pay enough money, you can be an overnight success, but if you never listen to anybody else or indeed contribute anything of note? What is the point of existing?

Then there’s the moments when the robots try and convince you they are human, and the humans think they’ve been clever when really, they’re dumber than rocks. However, in amongst the trash are some real treasures. Anna was one of them last week: she’s been trying to follow me for a while, and with 16k followers you’d think she might be worthwhile, but her Twitter’s a stream of quotes and pictures and little if no reality injected. Looking at her biography, she appears ‘real’ enough:

Student. Writer. Gamer. Slytherin. Bookaholic. Dork. Programmer in Training. Founder of [Account 1] and [Account 2] Part of the Response Team at [Online Employer]

[US LOCATION] · [Website here]

The two Twitter accounts she’s founded have no content, plus the company she works for is involved in curating automated content for Twitter. When I followed her, the first thing that was sent from her account was as follows:

awesomesauce

She almost had me, until I followed her from my Patreon Twitter and the exact same message was sent there, too. For a second I hoped that maybe I’d found someone who wasn’t playing the game, or simply here to show how easy it is to manipulate people into following but no, I was wrong. Anna was the straw that broke my social media ‘back.’ Fictional popularity is probably is the most insidious concept I can imagine, but has become a perfect metaphor for the current state of humanity.

The saddest thing of all is that Anna may well be real; going through her website there’s a response form, details of her education… and that she’s training in computer forensics. Ironically, right now, she’s reading 1984, which is particularly apposite with the level of doublethink operating here. If my investigations have awoken the real Anna’s interest, and she’s come here to read about what I have to say, I wish her luck in this future career, but I’ll keep you blocked. I have enough mindless crap on my feed without promoting any more.

The time has come to promote only reality in my journey.

Fear :: Haiku and Micropoetry

Haiku is going to become quite important over the next six weeks or so. I’ll be filling everybody this time on the 22nd on what happens to the form in October (THERE’S A PLAN) plus the schedule for National Poetry Day on the 28th. Don’t worry about the Micropoetry, that’s getting its own special treatment for October too. For now, here’s this week’s work, on a subject very close to my heart.

Fear

Fear :: Haiku Edition

These are dark times, friend:
We fight fear on every side,
Resist the panic.

Look inside yourself:
Understand what drives a mind
To create issues.

Some is external,
Yes, out of your remit: but
Scope exists for change.

Be prepared to fail:
Going backwards: part of life
To then move forwards.

Fear is your fuel, take
Every chance to consume, then
Beat demons with thought.


Fear :: Micropoetry Edition

I sit alone
My world, oppressed
Time to stand up;
Issues redress.

No longer right
This sanguine stance:
The moment’s come,
Truth to advance.

Consume my fear
Without remorse;
Let confidence
Now run its course.

The future can
Be mine to place
Redefining
This vital space.

Fearing nothing,
Grasping all:
A chance to rise
After the fall.


 

Bad Day

WiP Day

There comes a point, in every writer’s life, when you look at a segment of plot and realise, with a heavy heart, that it is absolutely dire. After 16 years, I’ve revisited a story that is very important and yesterday, came to the first truly shoddy section of work. [*] I can’t in good conscience allow it to remain as it does, but the dialogue and exposition that takes place is pretty much vital to the overall development. So, not without a measure of trepidation, there has to be a rewrite of the entire thing from the ground up.

Once upon a time, this would have been enough for me to abandon the project. In fact, I know that’s the reason this has never been finished, time and again. At every point a problematic issue occurred, where hard-written words would have to be destroyed, panic would ensue. The epiphany that resulted from this bombshell yesterday has been making ripples all over the place this morning, and that is NEVER going to be a bad thing. In fact, it’s released a creative block that’s been hamstringing real progress for some time.

walkaway

I don’t care who you are, and how brilliant you believe work to be, everything can benefit from not being just written and presented as is. With blogging, goalposts can shift a bit, depending on the time of day something is written, or the creativity level you happen to be at when the post takes form. With fiction, rules are very different, because what matters above all else is your ability to maintain a believable narrative state. You’re selling this fiction to a reader, and to make it really immerse, there has to be a total belief that what you’ve presented is the best work possible.

That seems to matter a lot more in the realms of science fiction, which is where my story probably would be placed if they were selling it in a bookshop. Therefore, this section needs to be completely re-thought. I’m doing that right now, as it happens, as this is being typed. The scene in my head replays, over and again, working out what moves and stays, where characters shift, how dialogue alters. As soon as the sequence feels right everything is likely to be dropped so it can be plotted: that’s why the notebook’s here (/points) in case that happens when I’m out of PC range.

greatjobguys

Once upon a time there was a mistaken belief that all that really mattered was a decent story: now I grasp that with the best plot in the world, shoddy presentation simply make everything look bad. All the stuff learnt, over years of writing non-fiction, leads to the inevitable conclusion that sometimes, it doesn’t matter one iota how brilliant the prose is if the point you want to make is lost or indistinct. In my case, I’m explaining a central conceit of my novel here, and not doing a decent job at all. I’m 90% certain this is the right place to be doing it in (setting is solid) and the people doing the explaining are the right ones (characters are sound) it is just how those two things combine that is lacking.

Piece by piece, combining the factors required to make this work something that really matters, it will be completed in the timescale I put aside to do so. That, in itself, will possibly end up being the biggest triumph of all.


[*] Let’s face facts, it could all be shit, I have no idea, but there has to be a benchmark somewhere ^^

Book of the Month :: The Hidden Side of Everything

Book of the Month

It is a truly brave commentator who’d consider comparing the Ku Klux Klan with a bunch of Estate Agents, but that is exactly what Levitt and Dubner decide to do in Chapter 2 of Freakonomics. This section of the 2005 book is particularly apposite in light of current events, with the alt-right very much front and centre in public consciousness. To understand why this juxtaposition works as well as it does, one must grasp a number of underpinning principles, the most significant of which is causality. This is how selling houses can be connected to lynch mobs without breaking stride: more significantly understanding the principle breaks down a lot of the mystery around what truly goes on in our World.

All of us are familiar with the concept of ‘things happen for a reason’ but the practicalities often depend on how much we think about these things to begin with. It is a basic human reaction to consider what is presented at face value when thrown into unfamiliar situations: two cars hit each other on a busy street, and the relative physical positioning of one to the other will allow us to make certain assumptions over the circumstances by which the accident occurred. However, only by digging deeper does the true nature of these series of events become apparent: who is to blame is often far more difficult to discern than at first appears.

The key to causality is grasping that more than one event can be responsible for an action: a man arrives in A&E with chest pains after our accident in the previous paragraph, and the assumption might be that the impact and pressure of seatbelt across the chest has caused an issue with his heart. However, on discussion with the patient these issues began months ago, without real awareness of cause, and it is only the accident which has highlighted a true risk to his longterm health. Only by making an intuition leap based on the available hospital data does it become apparent that a moment in time has exposed a long term set of relationships between disparate factors.

Once one grasps the fundamentals of causality, it becomes apparent that information also matters a very great deal in our understanding of the World around us:

Information is a beacon, a cudgel, an olive branch, a deterrent – all depending on who wields it and how. Information is so powerful that the assumption of information, even if the information does not actually exist, can have a sobering effect.’

Freakonomics, Chapter 2 Page 63.

If all one does in life is assume that what one sees and hears is all there is, there’s a blinkering of so many potential possibilities as to beggar belief. However, on the flip side, one can then easily invent circumstances and possibilities that simply don’t exist, and that is where the science of economics (in Freakonomics’ case) becomes the vital anchor. It doesn’t have to be economics either: history, biology, sociology all have parts to play in illuminating events and connecting the disparate.

In the case of the Ku Klux Clan—it was making private information public knowledge after the Second World war, by giving (of all fictional people) Superman a new force of evil to confront, that helped to contribute to the destruction of the organisation’s mystique. Understanding the market forces estate agents work under and how they use language to create the illusion of a saleable property, by altering information to present a different version of reality… both groups understand the significance of what happens when someone else exposes their ‘theatre’ and shows the truth behind communications used to sell services, or recruit followers.

However, there’s a more potent thread winding these two units together, and that’s fear. Information can be used for many things, after all: if you smoke too much you’re at greater risk of cancer is undoubtedly rooted in scientific fact, but plenty of heavy smokers outlive peers and carry on puffing away to the end. Yes, being overweight may expose you to multiple health risks, but it does not preclude you from physical fitness, or the ability to do anything a ‘thin’ person is capable of. How you use the tools at your disposal (language, information, argument) to either calm or create tension is as significant as the action itself: this transforms the simplest of statements into either a potent threat, or a persuasive admission.

Creating fear to fuel personal belief is corrupting: your way of life is being compromised by immigrants; you should sell the house because tomorrow, that offer may not exist… both play on basic human instinct to create first conflict, and then offer an obvious and easily provided resolution. They might seem a world apart, but causality tells us how much a roof over our heads matters. We grasp why xenophobia is a potent weapon simply by looking at current world events, and why keeping home safe matters, not simply because if there’s a Hurricane tomorrow everything could be taken away regardless. Challenging individuals by threatening what they stand for and what has allowed them to be happy will result more often than not in a predictable reaction. People can become incredibly susceptible to suggestion, if a canny orator knows the buttons to press.

It is why charismatic individuals such as Donald Trump can become President of the United States: many of you will undoubtedly call issue with the use of ‘charismatic’ in that last sentence, but for others that is what they see. It is the veneer of successful business, of a man who is happy to sacrifice his own desires and ambition (with the exception of golf) to, as he reminds us almost daily, ‘Make America Great Again.’ This is no different to the estate agent’s well-worn sales patter, after all. Trump’s allure to the alt-right comes with more complex baggage however, but they know full well the benefit of snaring the support of disaffected or unhappy white men and women who are also registered voters. In that regard at least, everyone can see how causality allowed the events of the 2016 Election to play out, even if many still fail to grasp the result as valid.

The reason why I urge people to consider Freakonomics as an important part of their cognitive arsenal begins with the acknowledgement of causality’s importance. It can take many years to understand the complexities of modern life, and I doubt there’s anyone who’d view themselves an expert, but these philosophical concepts begin to allow the individual a measure of freedom and autonomy. We may all feel helpless and trapped, but individual acts of rebellion can and do add up over time. Causality matters far more than many people might realise.

It is not simply the understanding of interrelation that is important: ideas such as metaphysics (which examines the fundamental nature of reality) are going to become increasingly significant as science itself reveals more to the Universe than has currently been visible via the naked eye. We will consider the significance of mathematics in the modern world in next week’s essay but for now, Freakonomics asks a basic question of any reader: how much information are you prepared to accept as possible explanation?

With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ in current society, it is becoming increasingly apparent that individuals would often simply pretend something is right if it allows them a measure of emotional security, even if that is not the case. Watching compassion fatigue on social media after months of disparate economic, political and environmental disaster is a reminder that after a while, everybody just stops caring and gives up wanting change. However, if more of us were able to escape the oppressive gravity of information overload, see beyond what is presented to us at face value, many circumstances could and would affect real progress.

In the case of the increase of natural disasters that are inevitable as a consequence of global warming, proactive donations to charities and organisations ought to become de rigeur, not money after the fact. Increased production of pointless material goods should be tempered against the economic impact of their manufacture. Refusing to listen to contrary viewpoints, turning your social media into an echo chamber should be balanced against allowing companies more and more personal data so they can sell items to you that really aren’t necessary.

Picking and choosing what to listen to and believe matter, but so does ignoring bigger pictures for the sake of a quiet life. The next part of the century will put personal security and information freedom front and centre, and at the heart of it all will remain the individual. There has never been a better time to learn, and to educate yourself on how the World is never as black and white as it might appear. Correlation is not causality, however, and that may be the most important lesson to take from the entire Freakonomics concept.

The only true means by which one is able to understand complexities around us comes from embracing the facts: often it can take time and effort to find them, or uncover the real truths behind circumstance. A solid grounding in scientific principle (whether they be pure, applied or social) is the best foundation anyone will find to truly understand our planet and the people on it. Freakonomics simply takes the building blocks of an accepted world, pulls them apart, then rebuilds the structures in another way. It is a life skill we can all learn from, with considerable and positive consequences long term.

Take the Long Way Home

WiP Day

Those of you paying attention will know that Thursdays are now intentionally quiet on the Blogs because I’ve decided to dedicate an entire 24 hours just to writing fiction. The positive effect this is having on mental health is not to be underestimated, quite apart from the actual progress being made. 40 pages of editing was managed on MMXCI and the hope is to double that this week, but that’s not the whole story. I also forced myself to hunt down and seek out half finished works, notebooks full of treatments, and to track down fragments of documents saved on various back up CD ROMS.

The result is a new found confidence over what I have produced, and what can now be built from the foundations in place.

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Not all of these ideas are great, lets be honest. I’m not about to start shouting my proficiency from the rooftops, but there are elements from some stories that can be co-opted into others, for example. There are ways to take ideas and adapt them elsewhere, but the key is that everything is written down. Learning how to notebook, or if I’m on a treadmill write notes on my Phone has become a thing of great usefulness, and I’d argue that any artist benefits from not just working in their familiar spot or favourite space. Taking yourself out of comfort zones makes for interesting writing. By far the biggest buzz I got writing poetry this year was at a local festival. Sometimes, it helps to mix it up and do stuff that’s scary.

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What has been the most significant takeaway from all of this however is that I can write a decent story (if I say so myself.) What hasn’t happened is experimentation, or any kind of extension outside of what were very long-established comfort zones. That’s why I’ve picked the oldest story to start with, because in effect it has the most potential for re-imagination available. As a result, a major character’s changed sex, and a number of key scenes are being replotted in my MMXCI edit, to better reflect what I feel is the true diversity of humanity that should be presented. It seems odd now, looking back on what I feel had to be normal, realising that my own blinkered imagination was only reflecting back the circumstances I was trapped within.

Needless to say, I’m beyond excited at what is potentially possible with all of these works going forward. I’ll be keeping you up to date on progress, and am hoping to pick a completely new work to serialise on the website starting next year.