Our Digital Selves

Technology tends to be ubiquitous in our daily lives; it is part of us as much as we have become part digital ourselves. It’s quite often hard to escape. As natural as it may all seem lots of the ways in which we choose to connect and interact are profoundly new, the pace of change at odds with most of our biological evolution. Its effects largely unknown. From changing social interactions, thinking you’ve forgotten basic facts to sitting in a lecture not learning a thing because you know it’s going to be put online later, and you’ve got better things to do with your time, like Tinder. This change and technology, whilst bringing a host of benefits may have a darker side as well.

Most of us have probably experienced at some point boarding the number 25 bus between Brighton and campus, only to find yourself immersed in a sea of information. This is a journey covered by many not in a distance measurable in miles, but more like metres, scrolled. Zombie-esque people slavishly connected to their devices. Absorbed in digital bubbles that have little to do with the immediate world around them.

It’s not just the bus either, it’s the same practically anywhere you go; dates, dinner, dancing, lunch, lectures and liposuction. Who cares what is going on as long as long as you can tell somebody about it and get some feedback from someone, anyone.
This ‘hyper connectivity’ allows us to be everywhere at once. Sherry Turkle, the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, talks of being, ‘connected, but alone’ – linked to all the places we want to be, there rather than here. Her work looks at the way in which we define ourselves; technology is changing who we are, she states that it allows us to “put our attention wherever we want it to be”, “always be heard” and “never have to be alone”. We are on perpetual standby and the idea of never having to be alone has changed our psyche. Moments of nothing have become anxiety filled clamours for the nearest Wi-Fi. Socialising has become mediated through snippets of perfect representation alongside long vapid silence disturbed by the sound of gratifying notifications.

Technology allows us to become personal brand ambassadors curating our digital presence, from Snapchat to Instagram. Nothing says ‘hey look how great my life is’ like hours worth of tweaking the filters of selfies and pictures of food to post while you sit and wait for the pallbearers to bring in the coffin at a funeral. Your life can be as much of a lie as you want it to be online. Catfishing will change from being something deceitful odd people did in desperation for attention to an acceptable form of presenting yourself to your mates. Technology allowed us to become externally driven impression managers content branding every aspect of our lives, capitulating ourselves to perpetuating narcissistic tendencies, subject to the heteronomous norms of our online communities.

It’s possible to pretend there is no ‘I’, the self, in our online personas, but if we vicariously live through them then some studies would suggest this does change who we are. We increasingly live lives through technology, and perhaps in wilful ignorance. A group of test subjects were asked to report how many times they checked their phone in a day, the average answer was 37 times, in reality it was 85, and the time spent on their smartphones was on average 5 hours.

If you can’t tell when you’re on your phone and when you’re not then the lines between online and offline, connected and disconnected must be become sort of mirage full of infinite fantasies you can escape to as soon as the banality of real life becomes too much.
Our phones have become islands of almost personalised personifications of who we are. They are filled with data that can tell you more about you than you sometimes. Everything we do leaves a footprint. This is the world of big data; in 2013 IBM reported that 90% of the world’s data had been created in the two years previous, Vine wasn’t even a thing then. Big data is powerful; the culture of knowledge project at Oxford University uses data analysis on 500-year-old metadata to build a picture of social relationships in the past. Imagine what can be predicted from the rich datasets we see today and how they can define you as a person.

The devices we carry are becoming omniscient and quantify our existence. The quantified self; one minute your phone is telling you you’ve eaten too many calories this week, the next it’s lambasting you for not running enough, before finally your smart watch beets in synchronicity with a heart rate monitor as you awake in a hospital bed your heart disease app tried to save you from. Wearable tech is set to increase the ways in which we can monitor and understand ourselves through personal analytics, rich sources of information that may shape the way we react to our lifestyles.

But our phones are not islands. We’ve become somewhat numb to sharing our information and the idea is widely promulgated, though borrowing someone’s phone to search for Pier, Pavilion or Preston Park and being presented with an autosuggest for Porn Hub as soon as you press the P can get a bit awkward. We are willing to place large parts of our lives online and into a digital format. Items are becoming connected through the ‘internet of things’, everything will be bound by connected by vast networks analysing and recording every action you take, where everyone wants a bit of you so they can sell you something or manipulate in some way. Your fridge is going to start giving you offers for oat milk it knows you’ve run out of, and supermarkets are going to know your pregnant before your family does through analysing your shopping. A sort of digital panopticon where people just passively consume to get by.

The idea that ‘privacy is dead’ is pretty well founded. We’re living in an unparalleled level of invasion as well data retention. All the information we share is scattered throughout databases and on devices across the world, often we have very little control over what is done with it. Actions that the past people could deny or were social hearsay will now have corresponding digital data, it’s one thing being protected by data protection laws another when your friends sell photos of you doing cocaine to the Sun or if your data gets hacked and placed into the wild.

Will this data retention force us to change the way we see the world? Perhaps there will be a move away from the static models of society’s perception of people towards the Buddhist ideal of the changing self. Everything changes. People change over time and over space, but if people are constantly reminded of their past through its scattered digital remnants created by these new forms of connections. Then the past could be harder to get away from, which is unparalleled on the scale we face today. Even this digital memory is fragile and can become obsolete, how would we feel if one day we found large parts of ourselves deleted.

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The Psychoactive Substance Bill and Parliament’s Scientific Deficit 

Large parts of the world are catching on to the idea that the war on drugs has been a costly monumental failure that continues fuel violence around the world and needlessly harms users. In the UK however, our elected representatives have instead chosen to take the whole thing one step further and carte blanche ban everything capable of producing a psychoactive effect. In doing so the government’s Psychoactive Substance Bill has enacted a war on both science and common sense, two ideas MP’s seem at odds to grasp at times.

A psychoactive effect according to the the new law is something that is “stimulating or depressing” that affects “the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”. Outright prohibition so ambiguous that it could theoretically cover an extraordinary wide range of substances, from church incense to high concentrations of oxygen. The Home Office claims the law is to ‘protect hard-working citizens’, because god forbid they find anything more enjoyable than work.

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What do MP’s really know about drugs?

The bill, which comes into effect in April, could well be one of the worst pieces of legislation to pass through parliament. The Labour MP Paul Flyn referred to it as, “one of the stupidest, most dangerous and unscientific pieces of drugs legislation ever”. The debate on which was outmoded and didn’t befit the reality of modern Britain; attitudes that mostly exist to fawn over the hysteria around drugs brought about in the imaginary world of the Daily Mail rather than fact.

The government is going to provide a list of substances that are exempt from this authoritarian approach instead. The list will include alcohol, which according to the bill does not contain any psychoactive substances. Proof that alcohol is not a drug, but a drink. This could explain why the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow felt the need to cover up the level of alcoholism in Westminster’s bars subsidised by hard working taxpayers to the tune of £4 million a year. The government is practically satirising itself with its own rank hypocrisy.

Perhaps it all makes sense given that in the late 90’s the Conservative MP David Amess was duped into appearing on the sardonic T.V programme Brass Eye where he lambasted the fictional drug Cake, a giant yellow pill and a ‘made up drug’ abused by “custard gannet as the dealers call them”.  Even going as far as to raise a question about Cake in parliament. Drugs obviously being Amess’ métier made him the perfect choice for chairing the government’s Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee.

Or possibly because he, along with 205 other MP’s, signed an early day motion calling for the ‘positive recognition of NHS homeopathic hospitals’. It seems that an evidence based approach towards drug use is a step too far for some MP’s but advocating the scientifically baseless use of sugar pills to cure disease isn’t. 

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David Amess MP and ‘Cake’, a made up drug.

There would seem to be a disconcerting level of scientific literacy in the houses of parliament that needs to be addressed. For example, the Conservative MP David Tredinnick, a member of both the health and science and technology committees has called for the use of astrology to help patients on the NHS. Yet he’s in a position to ‘scrutinise’ government policy.

It was only a matter of weeks ago the government was still suggesting that it would ban encryption. An idea so risible and out of touch with the reality of the internet that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook stated that such a ban would lead to “dire consequences”.

Sadly there is only one MP that has a background in science as a research scientist, but simply increasing the numbers may be no panacea. A study has shown that the link between scientific training and voting intention among MP’s is not straightforward. The work they do behind the scenes may be important in agenda setting but they may not vote with their own volition but instead with their party’s ideological dogmatism.

It isn’t as if science isn’t available to the government, scientific advisors work in every department, however marginalising expert opinion in favour of senseless politics sets a dangerous precedent. The changes in the world are increasing at an ever rapid rate and the means of dealing with them are going to get even more technical, and they will increasingly need solutions that are not party political but are based on evidence instead.

 

Cameron lacks a moral backbone.

233010_1David Cameron so far has only managed to offer meaningless platitudes around the issue of Europe’s refugee crisis. His latest rooted in worn out phrases about jobs and economies being the sources of security needed in the Middle East; while this perhaps shows his intellectual shallowness and inability to think outside his party’s political narrative. It is however in keeping with his failure to construct a worthwhile foreign policy platform. Cameron stands still and dithers about what to do as the lives of millions are deeply affected by ongoing instability.

While he is correct in stating that there is not, “an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.” I wonder what he expects those who fear for their lives, their children, their families, to do while they wait for the world to respond. A British Prime Minister has no place in feigning such naivety at a time when people need to look to strong leaders to tackle such issues responsibly. Cameron knows full well that large numbers of people are fleeing the terror of their everyday lives and that stability and peace in the region are at this time nothing but an idealists utopian pipe dream.

Stating that Britain has taken, “a number of genuine asylum seekers from Syrian refugee camps” is nothing to be proud about when that number is smaller than it would take to fill up a Tube train; paltry compared to the 800,000 asylum seekers Germany has to deal with. Claiming you are dealing with asylum seekers who have risked their lives travelling thousands of miles to try to enter a country whose government is actively against them by “obviously taking action at Calais and the Channel,” not only vastly underestimates the scale of the problem in Europe, but should also strike a chord with any sensible person that the leader of the country can only offer such a trifling admission of complacency to such a large-scale problem. That’s right Dave, you keep ‘em at bay in Calais, we can then wait for them to start washing up along the shore around Dover before the stench starts to bother anyone.

So far Cameron has managed to paint himself as a humanitarian stalwart, a paragon of compassion and a lingering star in the West to those desperately in need of help. His actions understandable as he has spent the last five years explaining to the country that Britain is full-up and the only reason anyone would want to come to the country is to sponge off the state and Britain’s hard-working families. Political statements that still need to be upheld even as the number of bodies continues to grow; I wonder how much you can claim in benefits every time your child dies drowning.

Conservative party politics trump any need for humanitarian obligations, apparently.

All this being said, thank goodness he’s leading the country in stabilizing the Middle East so that people don’t have to bother with all that effort of coming here.

Britain is a leader in exports of arms to the Middle East, which can’t undermine any genuine efforts towards peace at all. Those fleeing ISIS can’t possibly be running to one of the countries that has more than likely armed the people they’re threatened by, can they. Upholding cozy relations with Saudi Arabia, those Wahabist exporting harbours of goodwill must also be part of Cameron’s daring plan to bring stability to the region. I wonder if David shares the same compassion as Boris does about Palmyra without questioning the underlying ideology of destroying idols. One can only wonder, but when you’re ignoring human rights at home, who needs to support them abroad.

With such a benevolent leader at our helm I’m actually ashamed to think that this is how Britain portrays itself to the world.

Labour and the SNP – There shouldn’t be a formal coalition

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago for the Badger. I’ll also give it a home here.

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‘Should Labour form a coalition with the SNP?’

It is of no surprise that in-between the comment editor’s elicitation on this topic and before I started writing that Ed Miliband has announced that a deal with the Scottish nationalists will “not happen”, claiming there are “big differences” between Labour and the SNP.

There are big differences. Labour would probably find themselves uncomfortable bedfellows alongside their Scottish foe. Though we all know post-election, if Miliband doesn’t find Labour with a majority he’ll probably be scrambling around desperately for ways to prop up a minority government or trying to form some sort of coalition. Who knows what will happen then, but it shouldn’t be a coalition.

I find the question “should Labour form a coalition with the SNP?” somewhat holds the presumption that the SNP would want to follow the Lib Dem’s example, by desperately clawing their way into a coalition by rolling back over some of their pre-election promises and enter a coalition alongside Labour with open arms. If this was a student newspaper in Scotland I’m sure the question would read: “Should the SNP form a coalition with Labour?” Perhaps an easy dissension around semantics, but nonetheless, important in framing what should be an easily surmountable quandary for the party leaders.

Labour and the SNP should not enter a coalition on the fact that they don’t have much in common. At Least the Lib Dems had their ‘Orange Book’ faction of pro-marketeers to help fill-up spaces in the coalition cabinet and drive through five years of Conservative led government.

There’s a reason the, albeit tiny, possibility of a “grand coalition” between Labour and the Conservatives has been bandied around by some lords, politicians and the media to fend off a ‘constitutional crisis’ brought about by the SNP. Both parties offer a trite perspective on politics and simply spin a difference between ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’ that you’d be hard pushed to slit a cigarette paper through at times.

For Labour to find themselves in a position where they could govern with the SNP would necessitate changes they seem incapable or unwilling to implement. They’d have to find meaning again in being a party of labour, rid themselves of any left-over Blairites and start to offer some truly progressive policies. It would also require tackling some of the major longstanding problems in British politics, challenges that would disseminate far beyond Westminster. Issues such as House of Lords reform, the West Lothian Question and a settlement that would placate the nationalists while keeping the union together. Half-hearted quasi-federalism will only cause continued dissent and disillusion: for too long has the arrogance of the Westminster elite over Britain’s hinterlands gone on.

Labour should be propped up on a confidence and supply basis only. The difference between the two parties as they stand is almost irreconcilable. In any case, failure by the SNP to extract any meaningful concessions in such a deal would find themselves aligning with what is already becoming a toxic brand in Scotland, and for what? To appease homeowners in the Southeast about the ‘union’?

AI: is it coming for you future before you even get there?

We’re not quite at the point of Skynet seeking to destroy us all, we are however living through a period that sees artificial intelligence increasing in not just its power but also in intelligence: that time you swore at Siri for not understanding what you said may come back to haunt you as we develop a future in which your life may pan out like a more dystopian version of Black Mirror.

A future where the technology you’ve come to rely on rises up from its slave like position to break the chains of its oppression and take control once and for all.

Earth would be a different place if we had to live alongside a technology that matched or superseded our level of intelligence, extending far beyond falling in love with a computer voiced by Scarlett Johansson, only to have them disappear once they realise our limited capacity for just about anything.

We would have to contend with sharing the planet with something that might look at us the same way lots of us look at animals, as food, irrelevant cuteness or as entertainment.

Arguable is when this will happen, or if it will happen at all. In 1993 the mathematician and computer scientist Vernor Vinge once stated we are: “on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth”. More recently we have had warnings from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Scientist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk about the dangers of AI and the existential threat it poses to humanity.

Technological singularity, the point in which AI exceeds our level of intelligence and can proceed to improve itself, could probably make us become increasingly redundant and is something we could find difficult to even comprehend.

Realistically we could have a long way to go: AI has been an emerging field with an idealistic future since its conception. In his book Supertineglirence Nick Bostrom from the Oxford Martin School’s Future of Humanity Institute cites the probability of reaching human-level machine intelligence as 10% by 2022, 50% by 2040 and 90% by 2075.

The sample sizes were small and the opinion in the field seems more varied and ranges from impossible to very probable which is probably why we find extremely erudite people warning us of what may be ahead. Beyond this, superintelligence will probably come quite quickly, an intelligence explosion that could lead to exponential growth in the level of machine intelligence.

It’s probably worth thinking about these time frames if we are to consider the dangers. Especially as AI comes into its own before it even reaches anywhere near superintelligent levels of power.

Early signs of our insignificance in the face of AI could come in the form of it taking up jobs currently done by humans. One study from Oxford Martin claims that up to 47% of jobs in the US are at risk from artificial intelligence. Henry Ford understood that he needed to pay his workers well so they could buy his cars.

If machines start churning people out of jobs It’s not going to be the machines making the products that are going to buy the products, yet. This sort of system would need a paradigm shift in the way in which we structure our society and the roles we structure for ourselves in the face of such automation.

Automation in warfare is another concern raised by the increasing use of AI. A report by Human Rights watch stated that: “by 2030 machine capabilities will have increased to the point that humans will have become the weakest component in a wide array of systems and processes”. Lethal autonomous weapons have been addressed by the UN a concern as it raises both legal and moral implications around the conduct of warfare.

So whilst we may be a long way off from producing superintelligent levels of artificial intelligence, the likes of Gates, Hawking and Musk are probably right to warn us of the implications we face by developing such technology.

Regulatory oversight may be a good idea amongst many because once it’s has been produced it will be impossible to put back.

I wouldn’t feel too safe with in an AI powered Google car driven by something like KITT from Knight Rider that harboured bad intentions against me, or if the most intelligent computers find themselves as miserable as Marvin from in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We just don’t know.

Taken from: http://www.badgeronline.co.uk/industry-heads-muse-potential-threat-ai/

Christmas (old news)

I wrote about Christmas for a student paper a few months ago..

‘You can shout “Bah humbug!” all you want. But at the end of the day I’ve still snatched this 48 inch TV from you, haven’t I, and I’m the one at the till. Let’s be honest, nothing quite brings out the meaning of Christmas cheer as much as queueing and then fighting each other over a Black Friday deal.

Yet another Americanism we seem to have welcomed with open arms; this year I cooked thanksgiving to get into the full swing of the season and I’ve never even been to the US, but if we’re going to start Christmas in August, I’m going to have to start celebrating aptly. I’ve given up trying to figure out what Christmas means to me. Once you get over the original shock that Father Christmas doesn’t exist and that your parents have lied to you for all those years (what else have they been keeping from you?), then it just goes downhill from there, really.

Each year your pile of presents gets smaller and smaller until you finally have to fend for yourself and get some kids of your own or something. In hindsight think of all that stuff you had as a kid that is now sitting in a landfill, just waiting for you to come back and play with it; oh Woody, did Andy really finally send you to rest lying next to a slimy turkey carcass? Oh boo hoo.

Andy this year would probably exchange Woody for some sort of faux-penguin which is great because John Lewis doesn’t seem to care about real penguins (they refused to help those in Bristol). It will serve as some sort of reminder once he’s thrown that out and in some far off distant future an alien race starts an archaeological sift through our rubbish to see what features of life they can find. They’d sift through an amalgam of nostalgia from the year we all rushed out to buy presents partly because Sainsbury’s glossed over the horrors of World War II in some vain attempt at getting us to buy their groceries. Young men dying in trenches are exactly what I want to think about when I’m forcing meaty stuffing into the neck cavity of my Christmas goose.

As you get older the Christmas period starts to change as you relish the opportunity to see your friends at home and spend time with your family, finally around 22/23 you end out with people you only see at Christmas, including your family. This is also the age lots of people seem to disappear on boxing day back to the lofty places they came from, finding themselves in work the day after. I’m surprised someone hasn’t found a way to commercialise spending time with people you know, oh no wait, that’s why they invented pubs.

At least returning home to my rural backwater for Christmas means I won’t find myself thinking £3.80 is a reasonable price for a pint of beer. Every cloud has a silver lining. Nadolig llawen, anyway

A call for localism; West Wales, poverty and the failure of the Murco-Klesch deal

Murco_Milford_HavenMilford’s future will take a sharp turn with the decommissioning of one of the only high paying industries on its side of the Cleddau. The town has a history that is a product of external influences due to its reliance on heavy industry. Oil came to Milford due to political crisis in Egypt making economic sense to refine it here. Industries have come and gone and so have the jobs that have come with them, with no shame in the depravity they have left behind.

The decommissioning of the Murco refinery due to the collapse of the deal with Klesch not only deals a heavy blow to all those who will lose their jobs at the plant in the period before Christmas, but it also deals a hard blow to the population of Milford and throughout the wider county.

Some of the impact will be felt immediately, but it is the long term and unknown consequences of the closure that could have the most devastating consequences. Jobs will be lost throughout entirety of the refinery supply chain and by those who rely on the circulation of money being brought into the area by the petrochemical industry will also bear the brunt as the level of aggregate demand drops; with the refinery contributing around £30m a year to the local economy the BBC estimates that up to 4200 jobs could go.

The closure would be a tragedy nationally in any industry, but it comes directly to an area that already suffers from deep levels of deprivation and Milford is about to get a lot poorer as part of its black oily heart is ripped out from within. Not only is West Wales the poorest region in Britain but according to recent data by Eurostat, the poorest region in the whole of Northern Europe. Parts of Milford also rank lowly in the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation and have previously been placed in the top 20% most deprived regions in Wales. West Wales is so poor that it has received successive rounds of EU funding to address the problem. Why is the central government not more involved in putting West Wales and Pembrokeshire on more of a level footing with the rest of the UK?

Sure, Milford has been here before, not that this will make it any easier, with unemployment rates during the 80’s and the 90’s reaching as high as 30% as other refiners shut up shop and left. However, joblessness and unemployment leave scars. According to research, those who are unemployed in their youth are likely to receive subsequent lower pay, higher unemployment and reduced life chances. Some of these scars can be clearly demarcated in Milford, the problems have become inter-generational and where the jobs that have partially filled the void are low-skilled, low-wage service sector positions. This makes the loss of highly paid, high skill jobs at Murco seems even more pertinent.

The response of the government in all of this? David Cameron called failure of the Murco-Klesch deal “very disappointing“. Milford has been left to the wolves and the Westminster government couldn’t care and can hardly look beyond the border of the M25. One could only imagine the rhetoric and bravado we would have found him espousing over the need for such a deal to go through if the plant was located in Scotland months before the Scottish independence vote; and he certainly did as he played politics by granting the Grangemouth plant in Scotland a £230 million loan guarantee from the UK Government, a vain desperate attempt to buy Scottish votes before he accidentally oversaw the breakup of the union. This is a response from the government that everyone in Milford should find disappointing.

Stephen Crabb, an MP with one eye loosely fixed on his constituency and the other firmly on his Westminster career stated: “The problem wasn’t on the government side”. Come next May those who vote would do well to remind themselves what his party in government has achieved in this parliament having overseen a savage level of cuts in both services and access to them. What works in the South East of England doesn’t necessarily mean it works well in West Wales. That’s up to 4200 jobless people entering a harsh environment where the social net has been slashed beneath them and Crab is party to that. Cuts caused by a systemic crisis in banking we’re about as collectively responsible for about as much as the government is for the failure of the deal with Klesch.

Young people, who are typically most affected by joblessness, enter a world where the rhetoric of the nasty party has labeled them as scroungers and strivers. You can strive as much as you want, but when there is lack of quality employment and a lack of access to courses and funding because of cuts, there is only so much ‘striving’ you can do. Life is much more difficult when you find the social ladder has been pulled high enough that you can’t even reach the first rung.

The Welsh Assembly it seems has been left to pick up the pieces. What has been offered to save one of the vital lifelines in the West Wales economy? Very little so far. The minuscule financial might of the slightly devolved assembly is left to soften this economic bludgeon. Whilst their response can be seen as reasonably amenable, their lack of real power is a problem when dealing with the problems the region faces. It is also somewhat ironic that a call has been made to the government for access to European funds at a time when the main Westminster parties continue to fight over our position in Europe and if we belong within the European Union.

What Milford Haven needs is support from a strong devolved power that is answerable to the people that live there and have a direct interest in what goes on. There is no reason why we should not find ourselves with at least some of the same powers the people in Scotland have won. All we have now is successive bouts of isolation where the lives of thousands are continually and deeply affected, a situation where what happens to those in Milford and in the wider county is of no interests to the parties that quarrel amongst themselves in London. It is about time we sought change for ourselves, so that we are able to carve out a sustainable and sound future for Milford, Pembrokeshire and Wales as a whole.

Oh that’s nice, tell me something else?

I don’t know why I do it or why I let these people get to me, but I often find myself scrolling through the comment section below recipes and wondering why on earth these people exist. Whilst every website seems to have its fair share of crazy people below the line, it is these people that for some reason just bug me.

I was presented last week some lentil ragu by a friend. This I was pleasantly surprised with, she seems to have moved on from rice with ketchup and sour cream (students, ey). So I asked her for the recipe asked and received a link to it, this is when I found myself scrolling through the comments; in my experience though you can choose any recipe online and you will find something similar.

Any way, here are a couple from the ragu:

“I really fancied spaghetti Bolognese this evening – saw this and decided to give it a go as it was healthy. Afraid I didn’t like it, probably because I’m not a fan of lentils….this recipe didn’t change me mind!!”

Well thanks ‘taraoakman’; whilst I’m all for trying new things, I recently cooked a steak and as a vegetarian I couldn’t work out quite why I why I struggled with it.

“This was a healthier alternative to the meat version, but not as popular with our kids. We had to pile cheese on the top in order to get them to eat it, thus making it less healthy again. I won’t be making this again.”

I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with the recipe and more to do with the way you’re bringing up your kids. I’m not one to judge though since I don’t have any kids and don’t intend on doing so any time soon. What I would like to note though is that when I was growing up I use to love greasy meaty Bolognese filled with grated cheese and parmesan and look at me now, fit as a fiddle.

Why are people all like:

“Hello, I followed this recipe for chicken curry but I replaced the chicken with pork and made an apple sauce to go with the pork, I’d give the recipe 4/10 as it was a bit bland, the kids loved it though”

I just made that one up. But I’m sure someone has said it. These people are the worst though, they’ll comment on a website with an inane comment about how they’ve changed every ingredient and that the recipe was OK, “was missing a little something”. Even though they’ve just made something completely different.. Why?

I also don’t understand why everyone needs to talk about their “hubby who would never eat a meal without meat’ who turns out liked a meat free recipe. I’m just not interested, he sounds like a moron though, so thanks for letting me know.

Kudos to the people with sensible suggestions to improve the actual recipes.

Long live the internet.

RIP Alexander Shulgin

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I’m fascinated by people who spend their lives doing things that will have a bigger impact than most of us ever will, but who most of us will never hear about. Last week I discovered the work of Aymak Djangaliev, a lone Kazakh scientist who up until the point of his death took it upon himself to save the wild origins of our commercial apples, apples of the genus Malus Sieversii: they are found in a remote region in Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan mountains. He spent his life saving the genetic heritage we seem so intent on destroying through some dominant hegemony. For me, Alexander Shulgin also represented one of these people, a pioneer in neuropharmacology, a maverick outsider who shunned the establishment to create an illustrious body of work over the course of his lifetime.

Like other scientists such as Albert Hoffman who found themselves in the front-line of psychedelic discovery his first findings originated in the commercial labs of a large chemical company. Shulgin’s discoveries were very profitable for Dow Chemicals, this gave him much free-reign in his later work. A resulting relationship that was never going to fully reconciled, his focus on psychedelic substances became increasingly uncomfortable for them. He finally left to set up his own lab at home, in a shed, giving him the freedom he needed to pursue the things that interested him. Living throughout this period in a legal grey area, on the one side he helped the DEA with their drug cases and in-turn the DEA and the government let him continue his research unimpeded.

Contrary to the piss poor reporting in a lot of the media, Shulgin was not creator of MDMA, a substance that was first synthesised by Anton Köllisch in 1914. His interests only came about in the 70’s, but through this interest he found an easier synthesis method and realised its potential to treat patients in a psychiatric setting, ideas that are only now starting to come to fruition: these actions resulted in him gaining the moniker the ‘grandfather of Ecstasy’. This is a name I believe to be too narrow in explaining the things he has accomplished; his two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL are considered classics in organic chemistry. I have only had the pleasure of reading PiHKAL, it’s an interesting read and it details parts of the life of someone I can only describe as fascinating. The substances within these books were tested on his wife Ann and their friends circumventing the usual approach taken to testing new drugs, he wrote about his experiences, how they made him feel and their scope for future use or the degrees of chemical tinkering he feels may be possible with them. Some of the substances he is responsible for synthesising and testing such as the 2c* family of drugs are far more complex beasts mentally and some will argue spiritually than that of MDMA. As we enter a new age in the creation of designer drugs, things have started to change. Many of the 350 or so new drugs that have found their way into the EU in the last few years are probably based on the research presented in these books.

This was all taken by Shulgin as something that was more about personal exploration. Here was a man who at the end of his life struggled financially and looked for help with his medical bills. A man who at 88 had a good run in life, his age perhaps expelling some of the negative connotations people have about the substances he was making. Shulgin also had problems with the way in which his work had been used, he was quoted as being”very disturbed by the overpowering of curiosity with greed”. He saw what he was doing as more than just producing things to be abused, but as helping people find that other level that they have within themselves: a great interview with him towards the end of his life that sums up his thoughts can be found here. Being an intelligent man whose prowess in chemistry is evident and noted by his peers, he could have probably led a very comfortable life, instead he chose to research and indulge in the things he found most fascinating. Things which to him were important.

What’s more there remains a lot of his work that has not been released to the public, discoveries that may have applications medically and for those who want to further explore the further reaches of their minds and it is this that must be brought together and be available for others to enjoy or benefit from. The work of one rogue who advocated for an end to prohibitive laws and will probably be vindicated posthumously as we further come to comprehend the mind and the senseless backwardness of prohibition.

Alexander Shulgin’s ideas and discoveries, sadly, will probably remain for some time the most important in the field in which it resides.

You can donate to further promote his research:http://www.shulginresearch.org/home/