94. The road to Hull is paved with good intentions.

mona lisa lego

It’s surprising how people you’d think would know better let their electronic stuff get covered in grime.

Although no-one got a Nobel Prize for inventing the microfibre cleaning cloth, one of these, plus a bit of solvent, is the answer.

Luckily Isopropyl alcohol can still be obtained legally in the UK. It’s an excellent way of cleaning computers, smartphones, spectacles etc

Or so I thought, until today, when I handed a pair of broken spectacles to the assistant manager of Specsavers. I mentioned they just fell apart while I was cleaning them. He asked me what I was cleaning them with and I replied, a little proudly, ‘isopropyl alchohol’.
‘That’s what killed them’, he fired back. ‘I’m afraid it’s smack on wrist time’. Specsavers haven’t been to the breaking bad news gently workshop.

Isopropyl alcohol should not be used on certain types of plastic, it turns out. When doctors make mistakes they are called ‘blunders’ in the press. But I’d prefer to call this one just an ‘adverse effect’. No-one is saying those spectacles weren’t clean.

There are probably other friends and relatives remembering that I cleaned their macbooks, wristwatches, phones etc and, come to think of it, they were never quite right ever again.

Isopropyl alcohol might just turn out to be everyone’s perfect scapegoat. ‘The first side of Scary Monsters never sounded quite right after you cleaned it’, people will shout at me. In the years to come the Brexit vote will probably be blamed on accidental exposure to cleaning fluid, rather than the usual ‘death wish’ theory.

To be honest, I cannot really explain my choice of solvent, except that it used to come in a tiny phial, with a cotton bud, for cleaning the heads on cassette tape machines. It seemed somehow so precious. But it was probably why cassettes never sounded very good, not even the ones called ‘metal’.

Like many interventions, from insulin coma therapy to prostate surgery, alcohol cleansing might do more harm than good. I thought that cleaning was improving the world just a little, sublimated baptism perhaps. Instead it was simply vandalism.

Such contributions are part of what I like to call the ‘behaving admirably agenda’, which I see as The Way Forward.

To be honest, I got the idea of behaving admirably from my cousin who lives in Australia. He is fantastically handy at fixing things, so that when he stays with someone, he likes to fix something as a kind of thank you note. For us, he sorted out the little wheels that guide the glass door on the shower. My cousin had taken the best aspects of the Random Acts of Kindness movement, and refined it into ‘specific and targeted acts of kindness’.

Combined with a few other thoughts I was having at the time I came to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words. Partly because Word Inflation has reached record levels. More words are being created and written down than ever before. So that the value of each written word is virtually zero. Take this blog for instance…

There are so many words about that people have taken to rendering them into cloud diagrams, so that words most frequently used get written larger and more often. Our leader, for instance, would just have the words Strong and Stable written over and over again in a very strong and stable font like Roboto Mono.

Our leader can’t even talk a good game. Which brings me to my point, which is that behaving admirably is far more difficult than initially meets the eye.

My idea of behaving admirably, while probably the same as yours, may not be the same as the lady up the road who keeps 14 cats in her bedroom, or the guy in the deerstalker hat who drives his disability scooter at 10mph round Tesco.  

That is perhaps why we have little aphorisms like, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. And phrases like ‘unintended consequences’. (A lot of aphorisms about this year – maybe the warm winter?)

While it is undoubtedly virtuous to pick up empty beer cans from the street corner and put them in the recycling, and indisputably evil to hang little bags of dog poo from tree branches, in between there are huge grey areas of ethical ambiguity. Many behaviours that are taken to be virtuous at face value, such as mindfulness exercises or prayer, could be seen as horribly self indulgent or even narcissistic, compared say with crown-green bowling or topiary.

One good intention that comes to mind is the current campaign to champion the cause of ‘mental health’. Lots of people have been piling onto the mental health bus recently, from the Royals and Prime Minister downwards, toward the self-congratulatory metropolitans who lead our Royal College.  

If we constructed a ‘word cloud’ from the mental health media coverage this year, what would it look like? The phrases ‘examination stress’ and ‘school mindfulness first aid’ would be in 96 font, whereas the words ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘psychosis’ would be written in size 8 Ubuntu Condensed. And you would need an electron microscope to reveal words like ‘Section’ or ‘ECT’.

Whilst accepting that the mental health discourse is a lot broader than that perceived through the half-moon spectacles of traditional psychiatry (smashed, as they are, by alcohol misuse) it looks as though the notion of severe illness has been drowned out of the conversation. Who would think that mental illness tends to affect older people, that it doesn’t always respond to talking a lot and sometimes disables people for years or decades?  

You could get the impression the government was piling money into mental health services, instead of shutting down all the day facilities, closing wards and sacking community support workers.

The mental health movement is well intentioned but it is all based on words. In particular the notion that the more a person speaks, the more his problems will be solved. Instead of talking, people should try behaving differently, or even admirably. Instead of shouting at your IAPT low intensity worker, why not clean the rubber bits around the washing machine door and the top of the fridge? I have just the solution for you.

Words are just clouding the picture, like the view you get through contact lenses cleaned with alcohol and cotton buds.

Sorry about that.

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50. Taking Canadian Living more seriously.

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First, cement each of the six guitar strings to the guitar. Then, cement the guitar to the James Blunt figure. Now, cement the James Blunt figure to the tank controls…

When I was about 7, I had a book called ‘365 Things to Make and Do in Nature and Science’. To be honest, many of the projects were frustrating, as it was difficult to obtain the necessary parts and materials, some of which were quite exotic. In our town it was very hard to obtain, say, an old altimeter from a WW2 German bomber, or a tin of gunpowder. There was also the obvious problem of leaving one day relatively unstructured during a leap year.

Until now, I have never questioned the idea that Doing Something is a worthy use of time, as compared with Reading Something, or Watching Something. But now, typing with a bandaged thumb from an unfortunate slip of the Stanley Knife, tennis elbow on both sides, from excessive screwdriver and spanner activities, and lower back pain from heavy lifting, I’m forced to ponder whether it’s time to say goodbye to B and Q and that new yellow brick road I was planning.

The Nike slogan, ‘Just do it’, is now 25 years old. People were tougher in the eighties – if coined now,  that slogan would come with a number of provisos and safety warnings, such as adding: ‘once you have checked with your cardiologist’ or  ‘providing you are Corgi Registered’.

Though Nike do not state this overtly, their motto asserts a behaviourist stance on life which I interpret as follows – you are what you do. There is a worthy theory underpinning this outlook, stemming from the psychology of self – perception. From what we find ourselves doing, we infer who we are and what we stand for. I am sitting at a computer, wiping blood off the spacebar, so I am a dedicated writer. If I had a Scotch, a full ashtray and a loaded revolver on the desk I’d be even more dedicated.

Last year, as further evidence of a shift from behaviourism toward ‘cognitivism’, Nike took the ‘just do it’ campaign in a new direction: Possibility.

With ‘Possibilities’ we’re taking ‘Just Do It’ to a whole new place, showing people a new way to set goals and think about their own athletic potential’

Thinking about our athletic potential is quite cognitive. If you are taking a penalty shot or serving at tennis, the last thing you want to do is think about possibilities. Probably the one time David Beckham thought about possibilities was the time he shot the ball twenty feet above the crossbar.

Apple’s campaign ‘Think Different’, invented in 1997,  also seemed to pursue a cognitive path. 29 famous ‘thinkers’, such as Albert Einstein, were included in the campaign posters. But if we look more closely at the list, we see that many if not most of the ‘thinkers’ were actually artists or musicians, i.e. people who held tools in their hands, made grooves in vinyl or canvas and left a legacy of artefacts and occasionally accidentally cut their fingers. In fact, none of those featured in the ads were Philosophers, unless you count Kermit the frog.

‘Here’s to the crazy ones’, ran the script,  ‘The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo’.

The script seems to owe something to Top Gun, where, rather lazily in terms of character development, the hero was named Maverick.

We probably know many such mavericks, but they have never become well known or achieved much, because they thought too much and didn’t do enough. In Britain they would mainly be described as harmless eccentrics. On the other hand, those who made it into the ranks of Think Different were prolific doers. Alfred Hitchcock made over 60 movies for instance; Bob Dylan made over 40 albums.

Maverick couldn’t wait to get catapulted off an aircraft carrier and frighten the MiGs.

I just collected a Depression Leaflet from the doctors while I had my finger looked at.

In the ‘what can be done?’ section there is a bit of practical advice as follows:

‘Vary your normal routine, get out and about if you can, keep occupied if possible, if you can’t sleep, try watching TV or listening to the radio.’

In search of useful things to do I turned to ‘Canadian Living’ magazine. I found an article called ‘Fifty good deeds for fifty days’, which borrows a little from the Random Acts of Kindness movement.

Like ‘365 things to make and do’ however, some of the materials are hard to find. For instance I have no ‘well behaved dog’ to take to visit elderly people, nor any fresh cut flowers to leave at a nursing home. If I happened to buy some pet food at the supermarket to take to the local animal hospital, I’d probably buy something they weren’t allowed, like cream buns.

I’ve come up with these ideas instead, which I’m hoping Canadian Living will publish:

  • Wearing a salvation army jacket and carrying a clipboard, feed parking meters that are about to expire – not for Audi drivers though
  • Get everything out of your food cupboard and throw away any packets with a sell by date before you were born, or 1963, whichever is more recent
  • At Tramshed, in Shoreditch, try and make a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair.
  • Find a pothole in the road, chalk round it in yellow and report it to Fillthathole.org
  • Place a small whiteboard in your toilet, headed: ‘This toilet was last checked at…’ Then sign with a fictional name and date, such as Attila the Hun, 453 AD.
  • Install Windows 8.1, but first say goodbye to everything you have on your computer, it’ll be like new
  • Phone up Santander Bank at 5.30pm and ask them to answer a short feedback questionnaire, regarding your performance as a customer
  • Phone up the bursar at the University of Leicester and ask for a cash donation towards your holiday in the Bahamas

In other words, don’t just think different – do different. Or differently, if you prefer .

23. A little less conversation and a little more action. Please.

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I look good, don’t I? Unfortunately, it’s all I do.

There are more pictures about than ever before. The digital revolution means that an almost infinite number of images can be created, stored and accessed within seconds. Its easy to see that the introduction of video recording has proved to be a hazard for narcissists, being massively more versatile than mirrors or pond surfaces. People can video themselves all day long and send the videos to the friends they inevitably don’t have. Yet it is only 150 years or so since artists relied on watercolour and charcoal for a flattering self portrait. People who like to look at themselves have plenty more opportunity nowadays, plus Photoshop.

Narcissus himself fell in love with his own reflection and somehow died. There was no coroner’s inquest in those days, but legend has it that he was tricked into this by a vengeful goddess, after he spurned the advances of a local nymph.

Since then everyone knows ponds – and nymphs – can be dangerous. Shop windows and plate glass are also hazardous for those who like to gaze at themselves. Budgies know about this, locked as they are in an eternal battle with their mirrors, never seeming to realise they are just attacking themselves. Luckily they have millet and cuttlefish to distract them from their eternal struggle with their hated double.

More recently, narcissists have attracted a range of unflattering self-reflexive terms, such as being ‘up themself’ or ‘disappearing up their own arse’. The message seems to be that Narcissism is something to guard against and brings with it anatomically impossible challenges.

Some species, such as whiptail lizards, have succeeded in having sex with themselves, creating an all female population. Whiptails have been called – unkindly, it seems to me – ‘pseudocopulators’. There is very little political correctness in the lizard world.

If you are feeling a bit useless or redundant, imagine how a male whiptail must feel, particularly if it is made to attend diversity workshops.

In the DSM classification system, Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is included in the notorious Cluster B, whose other members include Sociopathic and Borderline personality disorders. Cluster B are known as the ‘dramatic, emotional and erratic’ characters, the ones who populate all TV soaps, most prisons and half the queue at A and E.

There is more to Narcissistic Personality Disorder than just liking the look of yourself reflected in Gap’s window among the Jeggings collection. There is more to it even than the ordinary vice of vanity. People with NPD are said to be arrogant, lacking in empathy, manipulative and constantly seeking attention and admiration. They could really use a new PR campaign. How about, ‘narcissists are lovely people, even if they do say so themselves’?

There are plenty of narcissists in politics or running large organisations, but there are also quite a few in prison. If they are lucky they will work as a presenter on a high number digital channel where all the programs are about dating.

Narcissists present a challenge to a therapist. On the plus side, they love talking about themselves; on the downside, this is liable to make them worse.

The danger is sending people even further up their own nether parts than they were before.

Therapists of various kinds are reluctant to accept that therapy carries the risk of negative change, something which is taken for granted with drug treatment, i.e. side effects.

In full sceptical mode, (something I should leave to the ‘neurobollocks’ website as I don’t like to appear negative) I read The Times this morning (8/7/13) and find an article called ‘How to become an optimist’.

To describe a ‘mindfulness’ technique the author, Michael Mosley, writes, ‘I sit in a quiet place and focus on physical sensations such as the weight of my body’.

And in describing what is called ‘Cognitive Bias Modification’ he looks at successive video screens containing blank, angry or smiley faces, ‘the idea is to train the brain to look for positive images’.

Probably best not to read the rest of the newspaper then. In particular don’t turn to page 27 and look under the headline: ‘referee who stabbed player is beheaded by fans’.

While keeping an open mind about the value of mindfulness etc I hear a shrill voice in the wilderness, shouting ‘get a life mate’.

The Horizon program version of the article will, no doubt, show people looking in wonderment at their own brain activity shown on scanners and scientists will say things like the left side of the brain likes Snickers and the right side likes a Mars Bar.

Contrast this introspective approach with the movement called ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ (RAK). It’s hard to know quite how it started. Probably it was born in California, in the mid-eighties. Interestingly the same kind of location and era as CBT. Although I’m pretty sure as far back as 1968 the Bonzo Dog Band were advising people to do things like leave a packet of fruit gums on London Bridge.

Now we have a ‘one million random acts of kindness campaign’: http://www.4000saturdays.com/rak/

This is a strategy designed to improve society by introducing new positive behaviours within the framework of a social movement. There is still a cognitive aspect to it though, which is deciding what constitutes Kindness.

Is it really being kind, for instance, to give a policeman a helium balloon, or might it just possibly encumber him from drawing his weapon, should the need arise?

Is it really a kindness to feed an expired parking meter, or are you depriving the council of useful revenue, and possibly another driver who is looking for a space?

People who paid toll charges for those behind them in a queue of cars apparently caused even greater tailbacks because of the ensuing surprise and confusion.

It usually feels good to let someone in from a side road, and the traffic system relies on this to function properly. On the other hand, people who scream down the right hand lane expecting to muscle in at the end of the queue should, like murderous Brazilian football referees, expect no mercy, let alone kindness.

Religions – they have all tried –   had quite a few problems sorting out the ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ issue, especially if sadomasochism is thrown into the mix.

Could so called ‘tough love’ for instance be seen as a RAK?  Is it OK to chase cats away from birds, or is that kind of intervention in nature rather colonial? Some of these world policeman roles have got confusing post-Iraq.

Should overweight people be sent away from KFC? Should you give elephants cream buns while the zoo staff aren’t looking?

Should the queue of people about to buy lottery tickets be dispersed by water cannon? When is it kind to be cruel?

To answer all these questions you really need your own ethical committee.

Also, the question arises: could RAK have an opposition movement, Random Acts of Unkindness? If so, it’s important these people never infiltrate dentistry.

So which is better, CBT or RAK? Should we sort out our own thoughts and feelings or go and help an old lady across the road before the Stealth Renault gets her?

Or is RAK just another kind of CBT, more biased towards behaviour?

RAK tends to take place on Fridays, so there is time to do both. For starters, go to your local pond and put up a ‘Danger: Nymphs’ sign.

Put another one up in the park: ‘No Pseudocopulating’.

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