It’s a shock to realise that it’s almost a year since I blogged here. I was posting regularly to my other blog at https://mikelynch.org for a while, but mental health issues got on top of me and that petered out as well. I’m going to set aside some time to revamp that site, making the main page more like a CV / resume / portfolio, but I want to keep the blog. I had plans to port all of the content of this site over as well, but that seems unlikely in the short term.
I keep thinking of this as the second lockdown, which seems very parochial when I think of what Melbourne’s been through. I never went back to the office full-time but I did notice what a difference just two days of getting across town made, and going back to working from home full time is taking its toll on my mood. The two weeks before this lockdown started I was away from work trying to have a rest and giving my antidepressants time to start working, which is the longest I’ve ever had as sick leave for my mental health. Being up front about it with my team was a big step for me, and the consideration which everyone has shown me has been really good: I need to remember that when I start to sink back into the bad mood again.
The new meds are working, although I’m not back to normal, I no longer have a permanent tape-loop of very negative thoughts going around my head. I took a break from social media and, unlike in 2020, I haven’t used this lockdown as an excuse to fall off the wagon, which I think has been good for me.
I also bought a Roland FP-10 digital piano and have been using it to drive my SuperCollider synths, which has been fun. At some stage I want to write a set of blog posts – which will probably go on the other blog – along the likes of “what I wished I’d known about SuperCollider when I started to learn it”. I feel like I’m getting to the point where I can sit down with it and jam and record stuff without getting too bogged down in the technicalities of why a particular bit isn’t working.
I’m pretty much only reading the internet via my RSS feeds these days, which explains why I’m getting so much of this, I guess. I am still on Instagram, a bit, and I use it to post my Glossatory drawings, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it. One of the things which spurred me to get off the net was that Google thinks I am likely to be interested in ads which are obvious financial scams purporting to be hot tips from Dick Smith. I was a fan of his shops when I was ten years old but even then the man himself had a kind of horrible Cub Scout leader energy, and that was before he became a condiment nationalist and dog-whistle racist.
So realising that I was addicted to surfing the net became easier for me to do something about when it meant that I would not have to look at his face anymore. My first exposure to computers and computing culture came from buying hobbyist magazines in the Dick Smith store in Parramatta in the early 80s, so there’s a pleasing symmetry to this. Even back then, the whole brand had a strange thing about putting his face on everything.
There’s an impulse to think that it’s good that he’s being exploited like this — it’s an interesting category, the list of celebrities which internet scammers think will work on boomers, and most of the people on it are awful, so one doesn’t immediately sympathise with them — but responding to the situation like that is part of the sarcastic mindset that I want to get away from.
(An aside: one of my daughters is reading Ulysses and told me “no wonder you like it, it’s essentially one big shitpost.”)
I’m aware that WordPress peppers this blog with content network ads which I can’t see when I’m logged in, so complaining about this while my few readers get annoyed with whatever junk the algorithm has decided will work on them is ironic. I have plans to merge the content here into my other blog which doesn’t have ads, but that will take a while. But if there is some hope for tech as a form of human communication — and for all my grumbling and pessimism about it, and awareness of how bad it is for my own mental health, I find that I still believe in that — it’s about self-hosting, getting away from the big companies who have turned it all into the largest and trashiest magazine in the history of the world.
It used to be a truism that the internet was killing journalism, but what has actually happened is that the internet has become journalism, of a really obnoxious kind.
Maybe one day I’ll start blogging something here which isn’t about the internet and how I use it.
I haven’t been active on Twitter since 2016, and wasn’t planning on ever going back, but the hack story finally spurred me into deactivating my account.
All of the posts I’ve read have involved lurid fantasies about “bad actors” using the platform to influence the US election or start a war, and none have mentioned a more basic problem: that every journalist in the world and a lot of other people who obviously think of themselves as fairly cluey are spending heaps of time and emotional energy on a really awful website run by negligent wankers. And the only answer to the problem is to leave.
It occurs to me that people who use the word “actor” to describe someone who is not playing a role in a dramatic performance are, I think, engaged in their own form of amateur theatricals, in which they’re playing the role of a tough cool security man, and you shouldn’t trust them, either.
“In fact, everyone feels reluctant in speaking with others on this subject, fearing that his listener might know more about it than himself.” – James Joyce, “Oscar Wilde, the poet of Salomé”, Il Piccolo della Sera 1909
This was my Big Lockdown Novel, although I finished it back in April and let’s not go into why people need a pandemic to read big books, and Bloomsday combined with my lack of a good Bloomsday blog post idea is prompting me to get around to reviewing it. (Abandoned Bloomsday blog post ideas: a Bloomsday in which no-one spends the day wandering around Dublin because they’re not allowed to go outside; a description of my increasingly detailed knowledge of the limited horizon of my world since although restrictions are lifting in New South Wales, I’ll be working from home until at least October, and I am experiencing the changes of the seasons and the small day-to-day life of my neighbourhood with an almost hallucinatory and modernist vividness which I am doing my best to appreciate rather than resent.)
It’s a love story between two boys, mostly set in and around Dún Laoghaire in the shadow of the 1916 Easter Rising; the ambition of setting a modernist novel which is literally set in the shadow of the martello tower at Sandycove made famous in Ulysses is breathtaking, and the book more than achieves what it sets out to do. It’s also in dialogue with Flann O’Brien, as is obvious from the title, not only with that author’s well-known works (there’s even a nod to de Selby, the mad scholar of The Third Policeman, and a surprisingly moving one at that) but also his lesser-known and, I think, underrated domestic comedies like The Hard Life.
Apart from the fact that it’s beautifully written and funny, it’s a marvelous achievement to have taken the tools of Joyce’s epic of the everyday to explore the lives of gay men and boys in the early twentieth century. The dual political identities arising from Ireland under British rule – one of the young hero’s fathers, Mr Mack, is a Catholic but an ex-soldier with a fierce loyalty to his British regiment – aren’t merely mocked (Joyce, I feel, felt himself above all that) but confronted head-on and put into metaphorical interplay with the divisions of self made necessary by homophobia and sodomy laws.
It helped my appreciation that I’d spent a happy day wandering around Dún Laoghaire and Sandycove when I was in Dublin (because of course I went to the James Joyce Museum which now occupies that tower) and the book is as full of local details as its ancestor. It’s quite a different experience when this makes you remember a place, rather than merely picture it.
Also, and I can’t really blame the stressful conditions on this, because it would have anyway, the final chapter made me weep buckets, but I knew that was going to happen, Irish politics in the twentieth century being what it was.
I haven’t been able to be on social media much lately, and I think that’s a healthy instinct, although it’s left me feeling very cut off. I’m feeling quite angry that the ways we’re all supposed to keep in touch with friends and family are corporate platforms with a vested interest in encouraging as much awful political debate as they can whip up, and I feel a surprising amount of hostility towards anyone who still goes on Twitter. I’m sorry, because this includes a lot of my friends and people who I’m very close to, butI feel a sort of helpless, empty frustration about this. What are you doing? Do you seriously think this is going to help? Is this the sort of place you want to hang out? Are the thoughts that go through my head.
But that could be a whole blog post in itself, and not a very worthwhile one, because my problems with Twitter are mine, not yours, though perhaps you should consider developing your own.
One thing I need to get off my chest: the attempts of Australian politicians to distance ourselves from the global campaign against racism are ridiculous. Whiteness, global whiteness, isn’t something you can just compartmentalise and distance yourself from, as if each settler society (a term which now sounds nasty and euphemistic) somehow just happened, as if they weren’t all part of the same empire, an empire which was racist to its core.
We congratulate ourselves on our prime ministers and business leaders being Rhodes scholars as if that institution wasn’t an explicit vehicle of race imperialism, we talk a lot of bombastic guff about the US-Australian-UK alliance and how we have these indissoluble ties, the nature of which isn’t ever spelled out because no-one wants to admit that what the guff actually means is our ruling class reassuring themselves that it’s ok, we’re the good guys, we’re still white.
We import less polite and more dangerous forms of white nationalism into our own political arenas: this is what “the culture war” really is, and it’s another euphemism we should stop using.
We don’t then get to turn around and act like what’s happening in the USA has nothing to do with us.
I started cooking more vegetarian food when my daughter was living at home: lately, a nurse advised me to get more of my fibre intake from beans rather than grains, so I’ve been making a lot of vegetable soups and stews, and it’s really lifted my cooking game. I’ve come to think that meat is a lazy ingredient: it hits so many deliciousness notes that you can get slack about everything else, and I think this happens on the level of national cuisines. It would certainly explain Australian traditional cooking.
This recipe is copied from one my partner made for me: the main thing I added was the fennel. It takes about an hour and a half to make, of which probably half an hour is busy. The amounts here will make enough stew for you to have maybe three or four meals for two people, and it keeps well.
one fennel bulb + stalks and leaves
about half a bunch of kale
one large onion
two large potatoes
two cups of dried white beans
four or five cloves of garlic
two cups of stock (I used Massel chicken or vegetarian stock cubes: you can use whatever you like) (Massel’s “chicken” stock is vegan)
one tin of chopped or crushed tomatoes
two or three teaspoons of tomato paste
Chop the stalks and leaves off the fennel bulbs and put them aside.
Chop the fennel and onion into wedges. Peel the garlic cloves. Put the fennel, onion and garlic on a baking tray lined with baking paper, drizzle with olive oil and put into an oven at 180C. Roast them for 30m and turn them over at 15m.
While the fennel and onion are roasting, put about 4 L of water in a boiler with the beans and bring them to the boil. (You don’t need to soak the beans beforehand.) Once it reaches a boil, turn it down to a simmer.
Chop the potatoes and carrots.
Devein the kale, set the leaves aside and chop up the stalks into bite-sized lengths.
Once the fennel and onions are done, add them and the potatoes, carrots and kale stalks to the pot.
Add the tin of tomatoes, tomato paste and stock.
Season to taste with oregano, paprika, salt and pepper.
Let it simmer until the beans are tender, which should take another 30 to 45m.
Tear up the kale leaves and stir them in.
Chop up a shallot, a handful of parsley and a handful of the fennel leaves.
Serve in bowls with the chopped shallots, parsely and fennel leaves as a garnish.
This has become a whole subgenre of jounalistic take – ‘So you’ve been having weird dreams during lockdown, too?’ I’ve blogged before about a mode of contemporary journalism which treats elementary ideas about human behaviour as if they were stunning or alarming insights, but the “weird dreams” stuff gives me the same odd feeling. Not that people are having weird dreams, but that people are so perplexed to be having them.
Of course you’re having weird dreams, is my reaction, but then I wonder about the extent to which thinking psychologically is part of my own worldview. Partly from education, but not much – I did, I think, two psychology subjects at university – mostly it’s from being an introspective and neurotic person with episodic depression who’s been in and out of therapy most of his adult life and have spent plenty of time thinking about my own moods, my relationships, my sexuality, how my own brain works or doesn’t work, helping his family members to work through their own issues, and reading a lot about such things.
Maybe I’d taken for granted a post-Freudian idea of human consciousness – that our minds are not at all entirely clear to themselves, that our motives are often mysterious and sometimes contradictory, and that events in the individual and collective life surface in unexpected ways, in our moods and dreams – which is not, after all, as widespread as I’d thought. A friend on Mastodon suggested that the people writing these articles are members of the “default” demographic (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class) and their default mental state is Never Had Any Problems, and that’s definitely part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.
When I had the idea for this blog post my attitude was going to be scornful about people who (as I said to one of my kids) “just discovered that psychology is a thing” but I don’t feel that way anymore: it’s genuinely interesting that people can have such different ways of approaching the world.
A less benign subgenre of take is what another internet friend has labelled “COVID-19 apologists”, those politicians and columnists providing hard-headed analyses of how the lockdown is going too far, and advocating the sacrifice of people over 60 (the commentators seem naively attached to this cut-off point) for the sake of the economy. I have not been reading these takes, in the spirit of good Social Media Distancing, but while I was thinking about psychology and the pandemic, it occurred to me that being hard-headed, boldly thinking the unthinkable, taking a position of ruthlessness from a comfortable home office, is a defense mechanism. One of the ways people who think of themselves as rational and intelligent cope with anxiety and fear is by an ostentatious display of cold-blooded and even cruel mastery in the form of having a Very Serious Opinion based on Cost Benefit Analysis and Economics, or reading such opinions. Science fiction has a strong streak of this – realising it was what put me off the genre in my twenties and why I can’t read blog posts by sf writers and fans wargaming the apocalypse now.
Anyway, we should condemn the COVID-19 apologists for being shameless shills for capital, but also remember that the whole business of generating contrarian takes for money isn’t just about ideology or the share market. There’s a libidinal charge to feeling on top of it all, and the hard-headed rationalist is just as much a seething cauldron of emotional turmoil as the perhaps hypothetical person (I still can’t quite believe in them) who spends six weeks at home and then wonders why it’s affecting their dreams.
As a tangential example of how science-fictional thinking can collapse psychology and social effects, here’s a post by a blogger I’ve enjoyed for many years, Matt Webb: What if charisma is a golden mane? Again, this is a way of asserting mastery over the social facts of political and economic dominance by indulging in the fantasy that powerful men behave the way they do because of some undiscovered physiological gimmick, rather than a whole society which supports and enables them.
The original Stakhanovites arose from the dreams of heroic collective achievement in the USSR: I’m persisting with my punning coinage because the urge to see the pandemic lockdown as an opportunity for achieving a growth mindset, for entrepreneurial projects, even for intense study or hobbies, seems like a horrible parody of the opposite, the atomisation of effort under capitalism. If everyone’s physically separated, we can all achieve even more and go to extra Zoom meetings during our lunchbreak to learn about home office productivity tips and learn a new language (programming or natural) in our spare time between craft projects. If you remember to knock off at all!
The big myth here is that the part of office life which isn’t you coding or thinking or writing an important report, heroically knocking your head against the glow of your monitor, like Stakhanov at his coalface – all the meetings and logistics of kitchens and stationery, all the communication, is a kind of fluff or excess that gets in the way of the real thing. I don’t think that’s the case, and the difficulties of remote work are exactly the lack of those things. It can feel like trying to do your job through a keyhole.
Never mind that we’re all frightened and upset and those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be able to work from home have either lost their jobs, are about to, or are on the front-line. We need to be kind to ourselves, and to everyone around us. Be not solitary, be not idle, advises Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, but he also spends a long chapter on the “miseries of scholars”, chief among which are the dry brains produced by overwork.
We even need to be kind to the stuck-inovites, who are just as frightened as the rest of us. Teeth-grinding workaholism is a plausible psychological coping strategy and it should be treated with compassion even as we turn our backs firmly against it.
I’ve taken up one of the laziest and most patient of hobbies, brewing beer. Apart from a busy couple of afternoons spent sterilizing the kit and bottling, the yeast do all the work.
My team started working from home three weeks ago, as we were able to and we all know how to use Zoom already. This week I was supposed to go down to Kioloa Beach on the south coast with Christine – a bit of bushfire tourism to put some money back into the economy, since we didn’t go down over Christmas, luckily – but we had to cancel that and stay in Sydney.
I’ve spent the past year or so feeling increasingly isolated, especially since my kids moved out of home, so now I feel like the world has in some weird way caught up with me, or, in more solipsistic moods, that the world is enacting a gigantic parody of my own personal crisis. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity for me to break out of it. Here is a good essay on similar themes from one of my favourite writers, Justin E H Smith, currently locked down and symptomatic in Brooklyn: It’s All Just Beginning.
Why wasn’t I already videoconferencing with my kids and friends and family all this time?
I haven’t blogged about it until today because so many blog posts seemed to be seeing the crisis through the blinkers of the authors’ own personal hobby-horses. I’m doing that, too, but I’ve stopped giving myself a hard time about it.
Before we cancelled our trip, I was having bad feelings about it, because in the science fiction stories I read as a child, leaving the metropolis when a disaster strikes seems like a good idea but always turns out to be a big mistake. I don’t like admitting this, because reaching for apocalyptic sf clichés at the moment seems distasteful and juvenile. Brian Aldiss was right: male sf is an adolescent power fantasy. Even the writers who seem to evade this by being grim and pessimistic, like Peter Watts, are allowing you to indulge in the fantasy that you’re hard enough to entertain the most brutally nihilistic readings of our place in the universe.
J G Ballard and M John Harrison seem like more appropriate touchpoints: it’s time to explore your dwellings’ inner dimensions. I found some weird lamps when I was decluttering the cupboard under the stairs.
One of the motivations for this was the ongoing big project to get rid of almost twenty years’ worth of kid-related clutter: the other was so that I could start home-brewing again. Sadly, I didn’t check my fermenter for leaks before I put a batch of brown ale into it on Tuesday, so I had to flush that down the drain and start again. I’ve got a new fermenter on order and should be picking it up tomorrow.
Of course, everyone who’s ever made home brew is getting back into it and cleaning out the suppliers. Like a lot of internet dads, I spent two weeks feeling furious about panic-buying, and didn’t calm down until I read this article about modern supply chains and what happens when everyone starts shopping a little more defensively. There’s very little slack in the system. It wasn’t the hoarders, it was all of us, doing what the authorities were telling us to do, get a bit more than you would normally. That’s enough to empty the shelves.
There’s a parallel here to how social distancing is supposed to work: it’s not really about stopping you, a human individual, from getting sick, but reducing the number of occasions which you, a point in a vast cloud, bump into other points and have a chance to act as a vector for the virus.
All of us are coping in different ways, some by the relentless optimism of maximising your work-from-home productivity, what I’m calling Stuck-Inovism. I’ve been repelled by the various nerd strategies of play-acting the apocalypse, pretending that you’re an epidemiologist, or geopolitical wargaming, but find myself falling back on my old standby, culture theorising, looking at supermarket shoppers in terms of the Deleuzean distinction between the molar and the molecular.
There’s a strange disjunction between the work-from-home and staycation models of the lockdown, although both of them are an invasion of the domestic by the corporate: the staycation model is, if anything, more strenuous. It strikes me as weird that people are avidly sharing lists of Books To Read On Lockdown because I always have a stack of five or six I haven’t gotten around to yet. And this sort of listicle-lockdown culture is coming from a very privileged place, given the sorts of jobs that can be done from home, or what’s possible when you’re taking care of small children.
A side-effect of the lockdown is that people have gotten a head-start on bad writing about this crisis, although I’m a bit late to the party here. And the first awful novel of covid-19 is probably in its second or third draft. I don’t think journalists have much that is interesting to say about it, because it’s too much like their normal life. What is more interesting is the opportunity it gives everyone else to see, perhaps, why journalists are like that. Staying indoors, day-drinking and generating bad takes has been democratised (with the proviso about class above).
I’ve stopped being quite as angry with how the Australian political leadership have been handling the crisis. I knew that when the lockdown came, people like Christine and I, who’ve had a committed relationship but separate residences for more than a decade, would not be told clearly what we were allowed to do: having had shared custody of three children for twenty-odd years taught me that Australian authorities at every level think of the world as being made up of families with two adults and two-point-five kids and only make allowances for anyone else if led to it by the nose. Because of this I was genuinely surprised, and relieved on behalf of all the people involved, that the NSW rules explicitly allowed shared custody arrangements to continue.
I don’t think we should forget or forgive what a hash they’ve made of communications, but I also know that I have an idea in my mind of how crises like these work, and a lot of it is based on an idealisation of London during the Blitz – the sort of idea that made the “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” signs popular. This is a myth, and I imagine that the introduction of wartime measures was probably just as confusing and clumsy. The lack of coordination and clarity of how Australia is running its lockdown is not new: it should be familiar to anyone who works in, or has anything to do with, any of our institutions, because it’s very much how our ruling class thinks and acts. One of the worst forms of middlebrow optimism is that in a crisis, people Grow and Change and Step Up, but I don’t think this is true, I think that we are all still just ourselves, and that is enough.
It’s a long while since I read a lot of the law around mental disability, but the court’s discomfort with having to make a call about Dr McGregor’s mental state in the absence of a positive diagnosis comes through in paragraph 93:
Dr McGregor has not admitted that he has an impairment, but that conclusion is supported by Dr Wright’s evidence with which we agree. It is not necessary to identify a diagnosis in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) or otherwise. It is sufficient to note that we agree with Dr Wright that he has impaired reality testing. His perception is not the reality. Alternatively, he may have a delusional disorder or paranoid personality disorder. He has a psychiatric impairment, disability, condition or disorder.
What I’m interested in examining here is the distinction between a delusion in the sense which a psychiatrist would use the word, and belief in weird ideas. I don’t recommend looking up Dr McGregor’s blog – he’s still posting on it, and if you want to get an idea of the content, there’s an excerpt in the case – but the thing which strikes one about it is its extremely stereotyped nature, like most conspiracist material. This isn’t a hallucination or private delusion of his own which Dr McGregor came up with during a psychotic episode, but acceptance of a corpus of already existing material.
As Liam points out, major religions make many bizarre truth claims which, if they have enough collective social support around them, are not seen as evidence of insanity. (The sometimes vexed boundary between a cult and a religion can, in this light, be seen as an analogy of the sorites paradox.) But there are all sorts of ideas which fall between unquestioned fact and private psychosis:
letting someone down gently when you don’t want to date them
telling your kids about Santa Claus
one’s own self-image, estimations of one’s talent, attractiveness, etc
tenets of mainstream religions
tenets of fringe religions
unspecific metaphysical beliefs, like a vaguely non-denominational afterlife
personal communion with dead loved ones
mild personal religions experiences (the comfort of prayer or the presence of God)
severe personal religious experiences (believing oneself to be a prophet)
the contents of fiction
liking weird art
making weird art
being extremely online
unorthodox political beliefs
extreme political beliefs leading to radical action
orthodox political beliefs (about the inherent benignity of the state, social institutions, etc)
These ideas don’t really fall on a continuum and their truth-value, and the social and cultural forces which inform our opinions about them, are all very different. We all have weird ideas, and – contrary to what people sometimes seem to think – there is no educational process which can inoculate us against them.
One of my own weird ideas is that a certain inflexibility about epistemology is becoming more widespread because of the internet: I privately refer to this as Houyhnhnmism, after the race of rational horses who were forced to resort to the circumlocution ‘the-thing-which-is-not’ when Gulliver was attempting to enable them to understand the English word ‘lie’. Houyhnhnmism is the spirit of the well-meaning parent who thinks that maintaining the fiction of Santa Claus will sap their children’s honesty later in life, and of the world-building nerd whose takeaway from “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is not “oh right, this is a fairy story with lasers and robots” but rather “ah these events clearly do not take place in the Milky Way galaxy”.
I have sympathy for the judges in the case of Dr McGregor, because the law long ago decided that mental impairment is a call best left to medical professionals: I think that they were on much stronger ground when they relied on the harm he was doing to potential patients by posting his nonsense on his practice’s website, and the abusive behaviour he exhibited when the Medical Council started to investigate him. (The blog came to the Council’s attention only after another doctor had reported McGregor for unprofessional behaviour with regard to a colleague who he believed to be having an affair with his secretary.) QAnon, like all conspiracy theories, attracts people with genuine mental illness, but I feel that for someone like Dr McGregor to fall for such a pile of transparently evil bullshit is an ethical, not a cognitive, failing.
Online life is, of course, full of people like this, and we generally talk about them using the language of mental illness, or use borderline euphemisms like ‘cooked’ or ‘broken’, none of which are really satisfactory, because they neglect the fact that these are social movements, sharing the nature of what was once called mass hysteria and political radicalisation without really being the same as either.
I have even more sympathy for one Dr Wright, who was assigned the unenviable task of meeting up with Dr McGregor for an informal assessment. One of the incidental pleasures of the law is when a well-drafted sentence can pack the understated emotional punch of a good novella, as in para 85:
Dr Wright denied that he was not empathetic, was robotic or irritated. He admitted that he was anxious about the interview, but said that he was pleasantly surprised when Dr McGregor engaged fairly easily. He described the conversation as “collegial”. Dr Wright noted that Dr McGregor was upset when he made it clear that he was not going to discuss the content of a 600 page document Dr McGregor had brought with him, expressing political views.