Strange Rituals

Every day, at hundreds of thousands of software development companies across the world, a number of bizarre and secret rituals take place. Outsiders are rarely told of these obscure practises, because they'd fall over laughing once they realised their legs weren't being pulled.

Supplicants ritually stand up from their chairs, huddle together and intone unenthusiastically what they did yesterday, and what they're going to do today. The master of this ceremony will then ask, seriously, "is anyone blocked?", and all bring the benediction to an end by saying the word "no". Everyone sits down again.

Elsewhere, groups of developers shuffle determinedly into inquisitions that often run for hours. Here, the master will read out a particular piece of scripture, and all present must divine the difficulty of said reading in esoteric "story points", which bear little relation to the ordinary integers that you or I might now. But should one of the supplicants guess wrongly, either too high or too low, they are subjected to rigorous questioning on their heresy, and will often recant their guess to match the orthodox guess. From these guesses, the priests will be able to foretell the work of the coming fortnight.

Elsewhere, ordinary index cards will be solemnly moved between squares inscribed on a wall. Everything here has meaning - the position of their cards, and even their colour. Coloured stickers are sometimes placed on the cards, themselves rich with further meaning to the initiated. 

I am, of course, exaggerating the above, but not by a whole lot. 

The Books I Read in 2017

1. AskGaryVee - Gary Vaynerchuk - The more I think about business, the more I think that marketing is perhaps the most important of all the disciplines. So this year, I resolved to read more books about that, starting with this one. Vaynerchuk has assembled and tidied up a content from his YouTube videos, but there is enough wisdom here to be worth the price of admission. Perhaps most importantly, one is reminded of the need to "hustle" - just to do the damn work, and do it harder than anyone else.

2. Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood - Living in Berlin, I have something of a fascination of the history of this city, which is both visible and hidden everywhere. The time before the Nazis were in full control particularly fascinates me, because that descent from the decadent, theatrical creative Berlin of the 1920s to the streets of rubble in 1945. The threatening shadow of the Nazis hangs over Christopher Isherwood's robust and vibrant characters, and his description of a time long past.

The Coming Storm

Tomorrow I am going to England. In a few weeks I shall return, but only to pick up my things, before leaving Berlin altogether.

Poor Frl. Schroeder is inconsolable: “I shall never find another gentleman like you, Herr Issyvoo - always so punctual with the rent ... I’m sure I don’t know what makes you want to leave Berlin all of a sudden, like this...”

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new régime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the election last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whichever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
— "Goodbyte to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood

The Books I Read in 2016

(This post will be updated throughout the year, so check back often.)

Last year, I set myself the goal of reading 52 books in the 52 weeks of the year. That didn't quite happen - I only made it to 22. But no matter. I'm going to try again this year, and hopefully get closer to the goal of 52.

But this year, I'm adding a twist. Not by design, but all the books I read in 2015 were written by men. Every last one. And it seems, I'm not getting a particularly balanced view of the world. So in 2016, I've decided to only read books written by women. Even so far, it's proved challenging - browsing in Foyles, I was shocked at just how big a portion of their stock was written by men. It took significant time to find 5 books, written by women, that I wanted to read.

1. Hard Work - Polly Toynbee. I've not been too much of a fan of Polly Toynbee, finding her middle-class support of UK Labour as some sort of progressive force rather awful. But this book was something else, it was rolled-gold journalism. I thought I had some insight into the lives of the working poor in the UK, but I understood nothing. Those massive council estates you see, mostly filled with people who work at the most appalling jobs for wages that are unfit for a first-world country, and dealing with a Kafkaesque social benefits system. I doubt things have improved since 2003, when Toynbee wrote this.

2. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimanda Ngozi Adiechie. If there was a time and place so far removed from my current existence as to be completely unknowable to me, then the Republic of Biafra, the short lived secessionist state of the Igbo people of Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, would have to be it. Half of a Yellow Sun recalled Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, another book where the relentless cruelty of circumstance takes almost everything away, as it does from the four characters we follow through the breakdown of society and the terror of war.

3. Smile or Die - Barbara Ehrenreich. I admit to having a perverse interest in the architecture of kookery that surrounds the idiots who preach the Law of Attraction - the foolish idea that one can "manifest" material desires by simply thinking about them. Where Ehrenreich takes on this industry of nonsense was pleasing to me, but on the whole, the book felt a bit empty, as though I'd read all the things in it before. It's well-travelled ground, so maybe I had.

4. Strange Weather in Tokyo - Hiromi Kawakami. A love story, though an unusual and poignant one, between Tsukiko, a 30-something woman, and one of her high school teachers, Sensei, who she meets in a Tokyo bar long after she had graduated. Slowly, they bond, and finally fall in love. This was a delicate book, written with light words, and subtle themes, but rich in images and ultimately very rewarding.

5. Indonesia, Etc - Elizabeth Pisani - I have to admit, I picked this book because I liked the cover art, and because I had some vague interest in learning about Indonesia, that massive country so near to Australia, and one which I've briefly travelled in. And what I saw of Bali, and the few big cities of Java was very different to the diverse and far-flung parts of Indonesia tourists like me never visit. It was a pleasure to learn more about these places, and the social and historical context of them, and it made me see Indonesia in a different way.

6. Françoise Sagan - Bonjour Tristesse

7. Nawal El-Sadawi - Woman at Point Zero - This is a short book, but one that burns with anger at injustice, at violence and at abuse. It is, in a perverse way, also empowering: Firdaus, the titular woman, is finally only able to smash the men who control her and torture her through violence, but only at the cost of her own life. 

8. Lisa Hilton - Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

The Books I Read in 2015

I'd originally set myself a goal of reading one book per week this year, but only completed 22 - though I am in the middle of reading Raoul Vaneigem's "The Revolution of Everyday Life" (phiosophical gems amongst somewhat hard going) and Avishai Margalit's "The Decent Society" (clear and thought-provoking). In the order I read them, with some notes:

1. The Road - Cormac McCarthy. A bleak, bitter portrait of two humans in a burnt-out, desolate and cruel land. Others have called the ending wrenching and draining, but to me it seemed apt - the final extinguishment of hope in a hopeless world.

2. The Republic - Plato. Penguin has just released a new translation of this, by Christopher Rowe, and I found it made this foundational work of western philosophy leap off the page. Astonishing that ideas written over 2,000 years ago can still have currency.

3. How to Find Fulfilling Work - Roman Krznaric. I read this when I was pissed off at my job. I recall it seeming interesting at the time, but when I write this months later, nothing really sticks in my mind.

4. Antifragile - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Along with The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, this forms part of Taleb's "Incerto", which has rightfully reconfigured a lot of thinking about probability and risk. Antifragile looks at the response of systems - economic, biological and technical to risk and stress, and has changed my thinking about the world. This is probably the only book in this list I will re-read.

5. For Whom The Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway. Months later, I still recall the vivid characterisations - particularly the women. And the ending. A monument to the futility and cruelty of war.

6. In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan. Maybe this book would seem more radical in the United States, that land of florescent orange cheese and unrecognisable processed meat products. To anyone who eats decent meat and decent vegetables that they cook themselves, it will confirm but not surprise.

7. Nagasaki - Eric Hayes. A slim, but powerful novel that comments on the ever-growing loneliness of society - particularly in Japan. Depressing, but necessary.

8. Empire of Illusion - Chris Hayes. This book really impressed me - it's a series of essays about America, focussing on the surreal, the corrupt and the violent. The one that really stands out is the chapter where he carefully and convincingly draws out the violence now ubiquitous in pornography.

9. The Black Swan - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. You don't know what you don't know. And unless you know that, you may find yourself at mercy of a black swan: events that fall far outside the ability to foresee them and models to predict them, with consequences - both good and bad - to match.

10. Utopia of Rules - David Graeber. Graeber is probably one of the most interesting voices in the world today. One might associate bureaucracy with socialist governments and Terry Gilliam films, but Graeber shows that it is a product of capitalist governments and corporations as well. Why do we have all these rules, and who do they serve?

11. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde. Come to think of it, this might explain why some of my friends never seem to age. I found it most interesting to read for the implicit references to homosexuality, which seem to form a part of Dorian's tortured and cruel soul.

12. Platform - Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is the literary equivalent of fast food - nasty, greasy, bad for you, but sometimes it just tastes so good. Depravity, misanthropy, cynicism and even a hint of racism.

13. Explore Everything - Bradley Garrett. This was, I think, the standout book I've read this year. A magisterial treatment of urban exploration, with a mix of tense recounting of actual infiltrations and perspicacious philosophical discussions of the nature of private and public space. 

14. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger - I'd read this in high school 20-odd years ago, so decided to read it again. Holden Caulfield is still a knob.

15. The Lucky Country - Donald Horne - For a book written more than 30 years ago, it is breath-taking how relevant it is to modern-day Australia. Horne has found some of the essence of Australia, as a fundamentally good country that has succeeded less through effort and skill, and more through luck.

16. Zero to One - Peter Thiel - There is a view, that I share, that capitalism as now practised is tending towards a system of rent-seeking and wealth-concentration, rather than a system of innovation and wealth-creation, as imagined by Schumpeter (and, for that matter, Marx). So it was refreshing to see a venture capitalist put forward ideas for the second type of capitalism.

17. Siddhartha - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, short book, rich in images and meaning. A reminder that intellectual pursuits aren't everything, and sometimes you need to simply experience the world.

18. Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes. In 2011, Hitler suddenly reappears in modern-day Berlin, and - of course - becomes a YouTube sensation. Fantastically written, with a number of brave and trenchant jokes that had me laughing out loud.

19. Affluenza - Oliver James. Imagine that materialism and sociopathy is some sort of virus, and our societies infect us with it, causing us to be unhappy even as we're richer than ever. Not a bad idea, but James ruins it by his stretched and tortured virus metaphor, and the digressions into neo-Freudian psycho analysis make this book downright weird. A waste of time.

20. Mammon's Kingdom - David Marquand. The United Kingdom fascinates me, as a country I've lived in, and the country perhaps furthest along the road of capitalism. Marquand is deeply concerned, giving a portrait of "a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism". I'm not sure he was that effective, as I can not remember much of what he said even a few months later. Something is wrong in the UK, but this isn't it.

21. Consolations of the Forest - Sylvain Tesson. Now this was fantastic, even more so because it was true. Sylvain Tesson, a French writer, goes to spend 6 months in a cabin in the Siberian taiga, a sort of modern-day Thoreau with crates of vodka. Pithy, rough and I think revealing of some of the substance of life.

22. The Martian - Andy Weir. A bit of light sci-fi to round out the year, and a thoroughly enjoyable bit at that. I like sci-fi like this, where every last bit rings technically true, and I don't have to suspend my disbelief at all. Tense, realistic and funny.

On Labor and Sell-Outs.

Guy de Bord, writing in 1968, though he could have easily been describing the modern-day Australian Labor Party:

“The elevation of socialist journalists and parliamentary representatives above the rest of the movement encouraged them to become habituated to a bourgeois lifestyle (most of them had in any case been recruited from the bourgeois intelligentsia), while industrial workers who had been recruited out of struggles in the factories were transformed by the labor-union bureaucracy into brokers of labor-power, whose task was to make sure that that commodity was sold at a “fair” price. For the activity of all these people to have retained any appearance of being revolutionary, capitalism would have had to have turned out to be conveniently incapable of tolerating this economic reformism, despite the fact that it had no trouble tolerating the legalistic political expressions of the same reformism. The social democrats’ scientific ideology confidently affirmed that capitalism could not tolerate these economic reforms, but history repeatedly proved them wrong.”

– Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle”

Compulsion

The capitalist is not forced to buy labour-power on a continuous basis. He does it only if it is profitable to him. If not, he prefers to wait, to lay off workers, or even close his plant until better times. The worker, on the other hand (the word is used here in the social meaning made clear precisely by this sentence, and not necessarily in the stricter sense of manual labourer), is under economic compulsion to sell his labour-power. As he has no access to the means of production, including land, as he has no access to any large-scale free stock of food, and as he has no reserves of money which enable him to survive for any length of time while doing nothing, he must sell his labour-power to the capitalist on a continual basis and at the current rate. Without such institutionalised compulsion, a fully developed capitalist society would be impossible. Indeed, once such compulsion is absent (for example where large tracts of free land subsist), capitalism will remain dwarfed until, by hook or by crook, the bourgeois class suppresses access to that free land.

- Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx.

“…the life which is unexamined is not worth living”

Socrates addresses the jury about to sentence him to death:

Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.
— The Apology, by Plato

Serbia

If you want to see what a Tomahawk cruise missile can do to a modern urban building, come to Belgrade.

It was in 1998, when Serbia was still the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (along with what is now Montenegro – Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia had already become independent), that it decided to clamp down on the irredentist Kosovo Liberation Army, and to do so violently. The United States, for reasons which don’t seem entirely clear even now, regarded the KLA as freedom fighters and not terrorists (as always, a deeply subjective dichotomy), thus as Serbia’s attacks on the Kosovo Albanians escalated, so did the diplomacy within NATO and the UN. This lead to UN Security Council Resolution 1199, and after the failure of cease-fire talks, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

One place where this history took very kinetic form was on Belgrade’s Kneza Miloša, where the Yugoslav Interior and Defence Ministries stood on April 3, 1999. Eight Tomahawks struck these two buildings, each missile carrying almost half a ton of high explosives. Such a huge amount of energy will easily shatter concrete, yet will not break the reinforcing steel within it. Slabs of aerial debris are held together only by twisted metal, as a few tendons may connect a severed limb to a torso. Hugh architectural wounds gape amongst the right angles and straight lines formerly present. Through the liberation of chemical energy, the modern becomes organic.

 Tomahawk damage, Ministry of Defense, Belgrade.

Tomahawk damage, Ministry of Defense, Belgrade.

Astoundingly, though this happened almost 14 years ago, the damaged buildings still stand in Belgrade. No attempt has been made to repair or demolish them, and only a fence and some hoardings have been erected around them to prevent things falling on the heads of passers-by. You can walk by them, and look in, and – if you’re discreet – even take photos. I wasn’t, which earned me a brief chat with one of the uniformed army guards there.

Most cities don’t leave their scars of war open. In Warsaw, the old town was rebuilt as a facsimile of how it was before the Nazis flattened it, and in London, the hideous Barbican rose from the craters of the Blitz. Only the most evil of places, like Auschwitz or Oradour-sur-Glane, are left as is, a testament to crimes that must never be forgotten. Yet in Belgrade, this wreckage is left to stand, an unhealed scab. This isn’t new behaviour, either – a short walk away, in the oldest part of Belgrade, you can see the ruins of the National Library of Serbia, utterly destroyed (along with a good part of the records of Serbian culture) by the Luftwaffe in 1941. This is no memorial; indeed, if not for some canvas signs erected as a seeming afterthought, you’d never know what history lies between the grassed over bricks around this hole in the ground.

Another war scar from another war, left open in the air. This is a city in penance, whose sins apparently warrant the mortification of the civic flesh. But while some evils are remembered, others are forgotten.

Belgrade is divided by time, and the river Sava. On the eastern side of the Sava is the original Belgrade, settled for hundreds of years; on the western side is Novi Beograd (“New Belgrade”), a planned expansion of the city built after the Second World War to accomodate the many war refugees. But before Novi Beograd, still visible yet forgotten, the east bank of the Sava held the Sajmište Concentration Camp, established by the Nazis after their invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Forty thousand people were murdered here.

 Sajmište concentration camp central tower, Belgrade.

Sajmište concentration camp central tower, Belgrade.

An abstract sculpture at the focus of a semi-circle of parkland here is apparently a memorial to the victims of Sajmište, but you’d need Wikipedia to know that: there’s nary an explicatory plaque to tell the visitor what is being memorialised. As for the camp itself, the land where it stood has been woven back into the urban fabric of Novi Beograd, and apart from the still extant, distinctive yet abandoned central tower, it’s difficult to see the outlines of evil anymore. An inflatable sports hall stands perhaps on the same spot as a barracks used to. Roads cross the area, perhaps the same roads that brought the mobile gas-chambers to Sajmište. There’s houses built here now, obviously poor, and large dogs bark as you walk pass. It all seems so ordinary now.

A delicate, smoky mist lay on Belgrade the entire time I was there, and small, hard piles of dirty snow lingered after recent flurries. The cycle of the seasons over many years flexed the render off the tired buildings, leaving exposed brickwork that no-one has repaired. Something has bent the rusted awnings outside apartment buildings, and they’ve seized in place. Graffiti is endemic at ground level. Like a lot of other cities in former Yugoslavia, it’s not cleaned off, a punk veneer on cold, dour streets.

After Belgrade, I took the bus Skopje in Macedonia. Over the ten hours of the journey, we stopped in minor towns along the axis of Serbia, a dreary trip of glimpses into small towns that don’t generally trouble the writers of the Lonely Planet. The number of abandoned buildings astounds, a reminder that economies can contract as well as grow. Such a prospect must have seemed as distant to residents of 1989 Yugoslavia as it now seems to us.

I had one final thought in the last Serbian town I passed through before crossing the Macedonian border, called Bujanovac. You’ve likely not heard of it, and neither had I. Almost everyone has heard of London or Moscow, and most will know of Brisbane or Brasilia or Sacramento. But these cities aren’t the whole world. In every country, there’s hundreds of towns you or I have never heard of, towns like Bujanovac or Denkalikottai or Luquan. And in each of these towns, there are thousands of people like you or I, each living a life as complex and wonderful and painful and happy as yours or mine.

The world is always bigger than you can possibly imagine.

India

I’d been in India for almost 6 days before I realised: I hadn’t seen a plane in the sky. Not a single one. Afterwards, I kept an eye skywards, but still I saw no planes. It wasn’t until I arrived in Chennai, the final city of my trip to India and my port of departure, that I saw aircraft again. Back in London, and any other city I’ve ever lived in, planes are a constant presence in the sky. One can look up any time, and be almost guaranteed to see a large jet. The noise they make doesn’t even consciously register.

So this is India: a country with 1.2 billion people – 20 people for every one of us in the UK, of whom so few can afford to fly that it’s possible to spend 8 days in reasonably populated areas without seeing an airplane. We hear of the growing Indian middle class, demanding cars and Western-branded clothing, and who fly on overseas holidays. This is the faux (yet aspirational) reality of Bollywood films and Thomas Friedman. And while, yes, it does exist, it’s a scanty collection of rare and rarified bubbles where wealth can temporarily repel the squalor, poverty and filth. Step outside these bubbles, as you must, and you find India.

The garbage in India beggars belief. It’s everywhere. It’s on every street, the parks, the empty blocks. Somehow, perhaps the rains carry it, perhaps it’s swept there, it migrates from there to the margins of the city, where it accumulates between the slums and the foetid waterways, or beside the railroad tracks, or on the empty blocks. These are the ad-hoc landfills. Kids play on them, observed without interest by stray dogs made languid by the heat. Every so often, one will catch on fire, and the waste will finally be destroyed, a sort of perverse bushfire clearing the refuse scrub. I don’t see what new green shoots will grow from this however. Yet the cycle goes on.

India does, at least, have half a sewage system: for a lot of people, what goes in the toilet isn’t simply dumped in the nearest creek. This isn’t the case in the slums, built without the benefit of infrastructure. The people who live here simply shit and piss on the piles of garbage outside their houses. The piles of rubbish that the kids play on.  The smell, raised by the heat from the excreta and detritus, lingers everywhere, a constant presence to ensure you never forget where you are, and the conditions there.

This is the libertarian nature of modern India: libertarian, not in the sense that the state has withered away (it hasn’t), but that the state is ineffectual. Despite the bureaucracy, its reach is limited, and it simply can’t enforce its laws and regulations. Small businesses of questionable legality emerge and disappear with neither the knowledge or the approval of the government. Traffic laws apparently exist, but are ignored without fear of punishment. So, by all accounts, India should be a paradise: the invisible hand of self-interest should have created an explosion of wealth and the rising tide of economic growth should be lifting 1.2 billion boats. This is patently untrue – almost all entrepreneurialism that exists is the entrepreneurialism of the desperate, where you can start a “business” to eke out subsidence, or you can starve.

Thus, on each corner, the wretchedly poor will establish their business every morning, hoping to sell enough lemons, cheap (yet colourful, like everything here) plastic tubs or flower chains to afford to eat and pay rent. I remember watching the fantastic BBC documentary “Welcome to India” before I left – there, other “entrepreneurs” dug in sewers for scraps of gold, or sold used plastic bottles. It spoke to a brutal and unforgiving existence, and this is what I saw.

With the need to survive so openly felt, you find – as a white person, who is therefore rich – that it becomes difficult to have interactions with people; in their place, you have transactions. Everything is a potential opportunity for profit, so the white tourist will be assailed by cries of “Hello, sir, hello!”, or “Where are you from?”, and will be often grabbed by the arm to be guided into a shop. This is a pity – perhaps in another situation, these shopkeepers might actually care where I’m from, but not now: the economic calculus demands otherwise. It would be churlish to actually get irritated at this though: it’s just a concrete demonstration of the privilege we Westerners have. But you do get very defensive.

 Holi powder, Mysore markets.

Holi powder, Mysore markets.

A less brutal aspect of India’s libertarian nature is found in her traffic. I said above that there may as well be no laws, and that’s what it feels like. Drivers pass drivers without hesitation nor caution, their horn telling the other guy that they’re there. It’s hair-raising stuff – particularly when it’s your introduction to India after falling, half-dazed, off a long-haul flight. Lane markings on the road appear to be purely decorative, with more cars regularly passing side by side than there are lanes drawn on the road (In fact, Indian English has given us a term to describe this phenomenon: “lane indiscipline”). There seem to be two rules to driving in India, and – amazingly – they seem to work: 1) Don’t hit the other guy, and 2) maintain your speed, no matter what. It sounds elegant when written, but seeing them put into practise when you’re sitting in the jump seat of a crowded bus is the sort of thing that aids atheists to rediscover God.

And ever better result of this disdain for enforcing rules is found on the trains: It’s completely possible to open the doors of trains as they move (and, indeed, on the Chennai metro system, the doors are permanently open), and sit on the door sill and watch the Indian countryside pass by. The conductors don’t care – at one point, they even showed me something on the other side of the train to take a photo of. This is how train travel is supposed to be, much as sterile and sealed carriages of the Eurostar might be more comfortable, and – it must be admitted – safer. But they’re not as much fun.

After a day or so in India, you really begin to believe that there are actually 1.2 billion people on here. Everywhere is crowded – every street, every restaurant, every train, every auto-rickshaw, every bus and every beach. Even watching the rural countryside from a moving train, there are people everywhere, working in almost every field, walking their goats, or simply waiting, waving and smiling at level crossings. This is, perhaps, a truer glimpse of the Indian character: denied the opportunity to make some money because you’re rocketing past at 60km/h, their truer, friendlier nature comes to the fore.

Another thing to become accustomed to is the unceasing cacophony of horns (so many horns!), cries of children, exhortations of street vendors and diesel engines. The noise is everywhere, and requires some effort to escape. It permeates into restaurants, parks and hotel rooms, an omnipresent roar of humanity. You do soon stop noticing it, until you find yourself in a temple or some other sanctuary where the noise won’t reach, and you wonder why its so preternaturally quiet.

As I write back now in London, it’s a typical winter day: Black denuded trees cast fractal shapes against a pallid grey sky. Everything is desaturated, as it ever is in London. In this town, colour is an intruder. In India, however, everything is colourful. Women in a spectrum of saris work verdant rice fields beneath bold cerulean skies, hues that penetrate even the omnipresent dust. Crowded markets overflow with produce – green, wet herbs, crimson pomegranates, bananas in every shade from yellow to green, entire stalls full of purple onions, and chains of yellow, white and pink flowers to offer at temple.

In another life as a recruiter, I used to chuckle when receiving CVs from Indian candidates with fonts in 7 or 8 different colours. I understand that now.

 Sri Meenkathi Temple, Madurai

Sri Meenkathi Temple, Madurai

The religious architecture of India surpasses any in the world. When first seen in the distance, you see towers, primal, mythical structures through the haze, far larger than anything in the surrounding cities or plains. Upon moving closer, you see the exquisitely coloured panoply of details, a thousand (literally – sometimes more) individual sculptures with a thousand meanings that somehow combine to form a striking, coherent whole. This is an architecture of hope and history and celebration, not the architecture of original sin and medieval power of Europe (with the exception of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona). Inside, things suddenly change: the spectacular abates, and the sacred emerges. Temple interiors use just as many shades as the exteriors, yet manage to be contemplative without being austere. Passages are cool and quiet, and somehow accomodate an inordinate number of people without ever feeling crowded. As a non-Hindu, their forbearance in allowing me to wander almost anywhere in their holy places still seems remarkable.

The orientalist conceit of the West is that we are the norm, and that India (or any other culture) is “exotic”. This is not so. In a world of 7 billion people, grinding poverty is still the norm, and the fact that you use a computer, or have air conditioning means that you are part of an exotic minority, a lucky aberration in a world that’s actually nothing like what you see out your window. It is said that 90% of people alive now will never leave the country they’re born in. When we reduce our reality to our own privileged existence, we are committing a delusion. This is why everyone should travel to India: because doing so forces you to see the world – just for an instant – not how you think it to be, nor how you want it to be, but how it is.

When you realise you’ve been self-centered for too long.

Every so often, you find yourself in a confluence of events that change how you see the world, and yourself. This happened to me recently.

Firstly, I found out that a friend was involved in a fair bit of charitable work. This produced a very uncomfortable contrast to my own existence, which has been somewhat more self-centered. Sure, I give a little bit of money here and there, but that – like most charity – is more about salving my conscience rather than producing meaningful change in the world. It’s never a good thing to realise discomforting and undesirable things about yourself, so I realised I need to follow my friend’s example, and do more for others.

Secondly, I spent some time in India. I’ll write more about that another time – and there’s a whole lot to write about – but seeing with my own eyes the astounding poverty there had the effect of viscerally confirming my own privilege in living in a developed country. We might complain lots here in the West, but we’ve got it good (and a big part of the reason we’ve got it good is the centuries of colonial rape, which directly explains why others have it so bad). So I think I now understand my place in the world a bit better than before.

As some of you know, next year I’m planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is the nexus of these two realisations came home to me. What had seemed to me to be a great adventure suddenly seemed more like an an arrogant and self-indulgent ego trip. For me – a rich, white person who has had pretty much every advantage – to climb a mountain in a poor country, simply because I can, now reeks of obscene dilettantism and moral blindness.

So, in an attempt to at least turn this trek into something that will help people, rather than simply stoke my ego, I’ve decided to use it to raise funds for Medecins Sans Frontieres, a charity I have an incredible amount of time for due to the importance of the work and their unwavering political independence. So I’ve set up a JustGiving page to provide a central point for funds to be donated here, and if you could possibly spare some money to help support MSF’s work providing medical care to some of the poorest people in some of the most dangerous locations, I’d be extraordinarily grateful.

I’m not sure this is exactly the right response, but I am sure that it’s a damn sight better than what I was doing before. I also know that I need to do more for other people rather than concentrating on myself as I have been. But this is a start.

An Immoralist’s Bucket List

I’m in one of those moods where the futility of self-restraint seems overwhelming. Why give up on flying when no-one else is? Let’s marinate the world in CO2 and let the bastard cook! And so what if people must work in conditions that I’d not consider for a second to produce my iPhone? No-one else cares enough to boycott them, so why should I.

Against that moral backdrop, let me indulge in that hoariest of exercises in self-interest: the bucket list. Other people be damned, and the consequences of my actions be doubly damned; here’s what I’d like to do before I die (in no particular order):

  1. Own a dog
  2. Run a full marathon.
  3. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
  4. Visit all 50 of the United States.
  5. Get married.
  6. Become completely fluent in a second language.
  7. Go to every country on earth.
  8. Raise more than £5000 for a charity.
  9. Write my own programming language.
  10. Travel from London to Sydney overland.
  11. See Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed live.
  12. Visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
  13. Drink a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage.
  14. Stand beneath the Milky Way somewhere perfectly dark.
  15. Stand beneath the Aurora Borealis.
  16. Attend the Grand Prix de Monaco.
  17. See a total solar eclipse.
  18. Chase a tornado.
  19. Read Marx’s Capital, Churchill’s History of the Second World War, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

What would you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

I was browsing the self-help books in Foyles’ on the weekend, more out of a cynical curiosity than the expectation of genuine insight, and I came across a workbook full of exercises to help the reader reach their goals in life. Within this collection of philosophical trivia, there was the expected exercise to assist the reader to find their passion in life. One of the four questions it asked – and the others were so banal that I can’t even remember them – was this:

What would you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

Now, as these sort of questions go, this isn’t too bad. Most of the things we do are concerned with mere survival: we need to ensure food, shelter, medical care and the like for ourselves, so by deftly putting these things to one side, this question gets quickly to the real stuff of life.

For me, if I could transcend the grubby struggle for survival, I’d travel as much as possible, and I’d learn – something concerned with pure knowledge, say theoretical physics or pure mathematics, perhaps another language or two. Education is now not seen as an intrinsic good, worthwhile for no other sake but its own, but instead as an investment from which we expect a return.

But even this might just be a reaction to my present situation: do I only want to travel because I find it a wonderful escape from the drudgery of work, and only want to learn because my job lacks intellectual stimulation? Tom Hodgkinson, in How To Be Free offers another solution:

And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as your possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. Most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, stop trying. Career is a try-hard notion. The free of spirit have stopped trying and instead let things happen.

I think this offers a practical way forward: as I’ll have to deal anyway with the problem of meeting expenses without wage slavery (if possible), it seems that by dealing with this first, a space will follow naturally in which I can properly and responsibly address the freedom that follows. But even this is tinged with doubt.

It was Hegel, I think, who wrote that the familiar becomes invisible, or something alone those lines, and there is indeed something so familiar in both the above formulations of the same question that it’s invisible: the assumption the person asking it is a free agent, and that the proper object of anyone’s of life is themselves.

This raw individualism has not always been the case; until the reformation, the Catholic Church recognised the ability of the individual to find salvation through good works (or, ahem, through indulgences), and so that became virtuous in such God-fearing times. Here, the object of a person would be God and not themselves. After the reformation, the Calvinists with their notions of predestination didn’t really allow free-will: your fate was determined by God before you were even born, as were your actions, so you may as well work for yourself since your fate after death is already decided. From this, unsurprisingly sprung modern day capitalism.

(This must also be one of the few examples in history of the Catholic Church being more intellectually honest than its enemies.)

Outside of Christianity, there’s the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, another statement of purpose casting doubt on the idea that we should concern our lives purely with ourselves. I thus propose a slight modification to my original question, which I think provokes more insightful answers:

What should you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

I admit I find this difficult to answer, because to do so I must address myself to virtue, rather than desire. Should I seek pleasure as the greatest good, like the Epicureans would advise, or aim instead for the arrogant benevolence of the magnanimous man, as suggested by by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Perhaps a more Stoic approach is best, seeking virtue above all (and especially mere material things), or Gandhi’s ethic of service?

I need to think a whole lot more about this.

This is why I’m blogging

It’s not purely because I like the Queen track of the same name that I chose the tagline of my blog, and nor is it because my own house-cleaning activities bear a passing resemblance to those of Freddie Mercury in the music video. It’s because this simple, existential scream captures best what I want to talk about, and my own feelings of being trapped in capitalism. I want to break free, and I intend to work out how to do so.

Henry David Thoreau, when he wandered the few miles from his cabin by Walden Pond into Concord, Massachusetts must have felt the same way I do when I look around me in 21st century London.

I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders “until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach”; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars — even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness.

Each morning, my housemate and I engage in a wearied mockery as we wish each other a fun day at our respective jobs, knowing full well the tedium which awaits us. I have friends working hours that wouldn’t have been permitted in 19th century cotton mills at present day law firms, trapped in a job they find joyless by the cage of a mortgage. Further afield, other people return to work for which they openly express their lack of enthusiasm, leaving at home a new-born child for whom their enthusiasm is boundless. I see acquaintances building their identity on the aluminium trinkets issued by a certain firm in Cupertino, and every one of us has spent far too much money purchasing those clothes, furniture and holidays that advertisers convince us are indispensable to our sense of self. My own career consists of a decade in jobs I find contemptible at best and rage-inducing at worst, so I’m not any better. Astonishing forms of conscious penance indeed.

I do not feel free in all this, and I’m not really sure anyone else does either. Our very physiology forces to sell our labour for money in order that we may buy food and live under shelter, and our psychology is turned against us by skilled manipulators, creating insecurities and needs most certainly not innate, which by sheer coincidence can find their resolution in the products produced for profit. The place of free will and agency in all this is small indeed, which is why the forces arrayed against each of us so often succeed in holding us to the one responsible path of “education”, wage slavery, consumption and debt.

In The Republic of Silence, Jean-Paul Sartre evocatively elicits the consequential nature of authentic freedom:

We were never more free than during the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, beginning with the right to talk. Every day we were insulted to our faces and had to take it in silence. Under one pretext or another, as workers, Jews, or political prisoners, we were deported en masse. Everywhere, on billboards, in the newspapers, on the screen, we encountered the revolting and insipid picture of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to accept. And, because of all this, we were free. Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest. [...] At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: “Man is mortal!” And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: “Rather death than…”

It might be objected that the stark relief into which reality was cast by the Nazi occupation doesn’t exist in these more carefree and peaceful times. This is to miss the point: it wasn’t the external threat of death at the hands of the Gestapo which forced the French to reckon with the awesome consequences of actions taken in genuine freedom; it was death itself – the Gestapo merely made it impossible to ignore.

And death, to state the obvious, will come to us all, and not necessarily in the 50 or more years time we often assume. Even as you read this, a cell may be undergoing carcinogenesis to become the cancer that will kill you, or the beer is being brewed that will intoxicate the drunk driver who runs you down. Yet we don’t consider this daily; death is put in a box stored forgotten on a high shelf, left to gather dust, while we risk having entire bolts torn from the fabric of life without confronting our responsibility to it, dabbling only in the inconsequential freedoms of the market and capitalist culture.

It’s not even a case of not wanting to find myself on my deathbed wishing that I’d done more meaningful things, to have worked less to buy shiny things I’ll have then long forgotten. The ennui is more primal: I see the state of the world around me, and the future in to which I’m expected to step, and all I can do is ask: Is this all there is? Is this it?

The incorrigible Dan Nolan is even more profanely succinct than me:

Some days I feel like that one lemming wondering why those other cunts like that cliff.
— Dan Nolan (@dannolan) May 11, 2012

This is my project. I reject the path laid before me and choose to venture through the undergrowth of life, metaphorical (literal, if necessary) machete in hand, willing to help anyone else who wants to come along for the journey. This will require, I think, hard thinking, and also hard action, but to do anything less is to shirk the existential responsibilities of life.

I want to be free.

The Dart Is Thrown. Destination: Denkanikottai, Tamil Nadu, India

As noted previously, I’ve thrown a virtual dart against a virtual map to decide where to travel next. After discarding several throws into the various oceans (Rule 1), a throw into deepest Siberia (Rule 3), and one into Western Australia (Rule 4), the Fates in their incarnation as a Javascript random number generator have selected my destination: Denkanikottai, Tamil Nadu, India.

So I’ve booked my flights, and on September 16, I’ll be arriving in Bangalore (after a 1-day stopover in Doha, Qatar) on QR226, and I’ll have 7 days to make the 500km trip – including the excursion to that point in a field just south of Denkanikottai – to Chennai, whence I fly home to London on September 23.