Tales of Sin City

Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

Out in the barren desert exists a swollen spread of light and colour, as though mustered and plonked by some alien species—a kind of base experiment, to be observed with scientific, oversized eyes. It glows like a party of a million writhing fireflies, criss-crossing their way across sandy dancefloors, and buzz buzz buzzing through the all-too-quick night, spindly legs shaking in protest at the emerging glares of the unsought sun as it peeks over the horizon. No matter, another night awaits, and another, and another, until bellies, livers and minds become bloated to excess, desperate to burst with raging torrents of sickly vomit.

Spic and span is the money-making plan—every surface must be gleaming, carved from imitation marble, threaded with lavish bands of silver and platinum. How better to gain riches, than to present richness? How better to stoke vanity than with the illusion of splendour, nourishing the confidence of its imprudent admirers? Here’s a gleaming pyramid, surface spotted with warm, yellow luminance; here’s a soaring water feature, radiating with the sheen of a thousand beams of light, undeniably beautiful, but designed to hypnotise nevertheless. A city filled with gratified cooing, senses endlessly feasted, treated like the kings of old, perched atop their garish thrones peppered with gold and jewels, celebrating their awesome stature with the enthusiasm of a thousand unhinged men. Every seat suitably padded, every bed perfectly soft, every whim wholly satisfied—grunting, belching, slapping and snorting our way to hedonistic ecstasy, ingesting Mitsubishi-stamped pills and mounds of white powder with the stench of chemicals, blood trail leading back to the slums of South America, too dark and distant to be perceived.

Luckless ladies weave throughout the grid, targeting men of every kind, their ill repute disguised beneath a glossy-lipped smile of feigned interest. Wife waiting back at the hotel? No problem—we’re here to please, not to judge— take my hand and let me lead you to the softest of places, that may or may not be smeared with hair-clinging crustaceans, waiting for the opportunity to clamp their yellowy claws onto a victim new. We even take chips as payment. Swappin’ plastic for fellatio, just don’t ask us to swallow—a hangover remains. Not interested? Then fuck you. Flee to the pole-clinging strippers, stuff their lace with paper, and forego the satisfaction of a real happy ending. Try to ignore the empty look in their eyes as they thrash about like reluctant puppets, wondering how it all went so tragically wrong—but wait, I love this song!

Rooms packed with sweat-glistened bodies, jostling and grinding to the sunken soundwaves of the latest musical fad, sipping extravagant, overpriced vodka—same stuff, different label—obvious, pitiful peacocks, drowning in feathers and arse, deficient in novelty. Swanky swimming pools peppered with brown bodies, arms flailed in the direction of a sunglass-wearing douchelord—a commander of the most basic of sheep. Respite is taken in the squishy comfort of a private poolside cabana, waited on by a bony young waitress wearing a plastered smile, serving spirit from a $750 bottle—every penny soothing our insecurity through the illusion of status. In the Nevada desert, eminence is expensive, and oh-so-fleeting.

Just a couple of colours to determine your destiny, with another thrown in, sometimes twice, to cheat you out of it. A table surrounded by expectant faces, one moment joyful, the next despairing, as the chips inevitably make their way back into the owner’s overstuffed pockets, ready to be reinvested into some shiny new thing—a glistening fountain; a glossy chrome staircase, or a younger, red-lipped waitress—whatever it takes to bring in the hapless punters. At table forty-two is a man with his head in his hands, who sold his home to make it big—a hundred thousand chips shrunk down to one, with remorseless masters grinning in the shadows, and beaming as a fresh-faced mug nestles into the seat next to him.

It isn’t really the money we’re after, but dopamine, to be got at all costs, with peril ignored—a teeny brain squirt after every little success, scantly experienced, yet catching us hook, line, and sinker, over and over again, until our mouths are dry, and pockets desolate—an empty space where even the most dishonourable moth wouldn’t be caught dead. Success at the table is not the same as success at life. Moments of jubilant triumph, laden with chips of the richest colour, are equalised by periods of exhausted devastation, when you’d better hope that there’s someone who loves you enough to comfort you. On its most lucrative days, the city carves out our insides until all is hollow—nothing left but an empty shell whose hopes and dreams have been efficiently collected and deposited. 

But don’t worry, you can win it all back next time.

Life as a clap-addict, and how to beat it

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My name is Rob, and I’m a clap-addict.

In the hours following a new blog post, I check my Medium notifications at least 10 times an hour. I’m woefully desperate for my articles to be liked and appreciated by others, and fully aware that it’s an unhealthy behaviour. And yet, like a wretched crack-smoker, those hits of dopamine yank me back to the bewitching little green circle.

I’m relatively new to blogging, only recently mustering up the courage to start publishing my thoughts. Putting yourself out there is unnerving, especially when you’re not entirely confident in your own abilities. Though my surety has certainly grown in recent months, I’m still at the point where approval of my writing is crucial, and so I check my stats obsessively.

Views, reads and claps are obviously an important indicator for success, but like much else in the world, a felicitous balance must be struck. The occasional check is great to understand whether my articles are resonating with people, but looking at them 10 times an hour in a desperate craving for validation is obviously futile. It’s wasted time that could be spent writing valuable content.

I’m also aware that as a social animal, approval-seeking is infused into my brain. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks became so popular. We love being loved, and the neurochemicals that flood our brain when being validated can make slaves of us.

“It is a new step towards independence, once a man dares to express opinions that bring disgrace on him if he entertains them; then even his friends and acquaintances begin to grow anxious. The man of talent must pass through this fire, too; afterwards he is much more his own person.” —Nietzsche

Claps on Medium are a small measure of my success as a writer, and given my determination to succeed in this endeavour, my willpower is almost non-existent when it comes to checking them.

There’s also procrastination to content with, that diabolical arch-enemy of productivity. Putting your thoughts into words in a way that’s helpful, compelling and amusing can be challenging to an anxiety-inducing degree, and Medium stats are always peeking around the corner at you, beckoning with a seductive stare. Each concession to temptation strengthens the procrastination habit, making it harder to resist next time.

This article is an inducement to stop this clap-checking madness, and if you suffer from these frustrating behaviours, the following might help.

Set boundaries

Checking your stats a couple of times a day is enough to gauge your progress on Medium. You can figure out which stories are succeeding and failing, and hopefully have a slightly better understanding of why. You’ll still receive those enticing little dopamine squirts, just much less frequently than usual. Once in the morning and once in the evening is a good balance.

Consider your reasons for writing

“Don’t worry about getting credit, do the work anyway.” —Richie Norton

One of the main reasons I write is make sense of the absolute chaos inside my own head, which hopefully, when solidified in print, helps other people as much as it helps me. This is a motivation worth remembering and adhering to; a motivation that actually has value, as opposed to worthless, addictive stat-checking.

Figuring out your own core motivations, and reminding yourself why they’re so important, can move your unhealthy desires for approval into the background. They’re suddenly overshadowed by something much more personally meaningful, and with a bit of luck, will start to fade into obscurity.

Recognise your discomfort, and work through it

“My mother always told me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I procrastinate. I said, ‘Just wait.'” —Judy Tenuta

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Writing can be tough, but it’s even tougher to stay with it. 50% of my writing time is spent with my fingers hovering above the keyboard, staring blankly while I frantically try to figure out what I want to say. These moments are the most difficult, and as a feeling of stupidity washes over me, my craving for approval suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks.

Being mindful enough to catch myself in the act is the first challenge. The next is having the courage to actually continue writing. Meditation can help with being mindful, and bravery is cultivated by just getting the fuck on with it, and realising that it isn’t half as frightening as you assumed.

Tons more tips on defeating procrastination can be found here.

Strive to be a great writer

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway

Assuming that you’re writing because you actually want to be a writer, why the hell are you wasting so much time checking your stats? Every minute lost is a minute in which you could be writing something insightful, and honing your skills as a master wordsmith. Striving for excellence is not only admirable, it can put a motivational rocket up your arse. Try your very best to be the best.

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The little green circle doesn’t have to be so alluring. Writing great content is all that really matters, and with a little knowledge, courage, and perseverance, we can ruthlessly destroy our doleful clap-addictions.

The dangers of smart drugs

1_8mMH4FLDgUAwrZFNFcGNuwPhoto by Sara Bakhshi on Unsplash

If you’re an athlete with a performance-enhancing chemical coursing through your veins, you’re considered a cheat. The entire country of Russia was banned from the Olympics back in 2015 for repeated doping scandals, and have only recently been allowed to re-enter under strict conditions. It simply isn’t deemed fair for athletes to infuse themselves with ability-boosting chemicals – what would be the point of having a competition in the first place? Unless there’s a baseline – in this case the undisturbed human body – a tournament cannot be fair from the outset.

Widen the scope from a sports competition, to the competition between humans as a whole. Our species is hierarchical in nature, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunate circumstances and repeated awful decisions might position us at the lowest rungs of the hierarchy – drug-dependent, chaotically-minded, and living on the streets. Auspicious circumstances could place us at the other end of the scale, highly-successful with a fulfilling job and family life. If the bum discovers a fortuitous chemical that will improve his dire position, is that still considered cheating? Would doping our way to the summit of our economic hierarchy turn us into swindling tricksters, just like the Russian athletes?

“Smart” drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, Modafinil, and many others are alleged to give you such an advantage. Droves of students are using them in order to excel in their studies, leaving their peers in the dust. How this affects the self-esteem of those left behind is difficult to measure, not to mention the pressure it puts on them to take the drugs themselves in order to keep up. Classical musicians, highly-respectable and almost regal in their image, are taking beta-blockers in an attempt to control their nerves, creating a dependence in the process. There’s clear similarities in the idea of instilling yourself with Dutch Courage by downing a pint of beer before a nerve-wracking event. The French Foreign Legion, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, and the Indian Air Force are all dabbling in the narcolepsy-treatment Modafinil in order to enhance their troops’ performance. The next world war might bear witness to soldiers popping a few smart pills before clambering over the top into no man’s land. In the prosperous Silicon Valley, tech employees are taking small amounts of psychedelics in order to enhance their creativity; everyone wants to be the next Steve Jobs. Idiotic parents are even hooking up their children to “brain stimulation kits” – literally electrocuting their offspring in an effort to improve them. The tyrannical Nurse Ratchett would be proud.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be the best possible version of yourself, but are smart drugs really a safe way to do so? Though not physiologically addictive like alcohol or cocaine, there’s a clear risk of psychological dependence. When you’ve had a taste of higher-level functioning and reaped the rewards – a job promotion; a better grade on an exam – the incentive to return a lowly, loser-like baseline might be lacking. A bowl of clumpy gruel isn’t quite so appealing after eating Kobe beef. Through consistent use of smart drugs, we’re raising our expectation of what our baseline performance should be. It’s hazardous territory to navigate.

There’s also obvious health concerns to consider. While the traditional smart drugs are FDA-approved, there’s a plethora of other chemicals being sold online which aren’t. Who knows how the impressionable and ambitious souls who take these substances are polluting their bodies? Even the drugs that are approved by the FDA have unclear consequences of long-term use – they simply haven’t been around long enough to know. Are you willing to risk your own health on these chemicals in order to run the rat race a little bit faster? Whatever happened to slowing down and savouring each moment? Life isn’t just about getting ahead of the competition.

It’s easy for drug companies to determine the medical side effects of a product without giving a single thought to the social implications. One only has to look at the opioid epidemic in America as an example, a chemical-compound so effective at numbing pain that it’s become a medical disaster. Could smart drugs be on the same path? Nietzsche’s Will To Power – the idea that the main driving force in humans is to reach the highest possible position in life – supports the idea. Our innate desire to climb the economic hierarchy might be made easier through the use of smart drugs, but at a health cost that nobody really understands. Until we do, it might be wise to continue living your life down in the ditches, unenhanced, as nature intended.

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The perils of social media

1_P2ly9bSClopyi9qqDAkkYAPhoto by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

Social media has received some devastating blows recently. Cambridge Analytica – the data firm who helped to position the clownish imbecile Donald Trump atop the American Empire – were caught red-handed stealing data for 50 million Facebook users. An associate boasted that the data enabled them to predict a person’s neuroticism, agreeableness, political views, and much more. Without this information, Trump may have lost the election, going so far as to casually boast about it. It’s the tip of a colossal data-collection iceberg that is destroying our trust in social networks, with their blatant and appalling disregard for operating within ethical boundaries.

This was likely a big factor in the recent #DeleteFacebook movement, which encourages users to quit permanently. For the first time since its inception, Facebook reported a decline in U.S users in 2017, though other apps such as Instagram and Twitter are steadily rising. In addition to quitting entirely, roughly 40% of Facebook users are starting to take extended breaks, often deleting the app from their phones.

Fighting against shady data-usage is important, but what’s more insidious are the effects that social networks have on our mental health, particularly for young people. One report showed that symptoms of ill mental health are increased by 15% for children using social media. Facebook and Instagram’s terms of reference state that you shouldn’t be using their services if under the age of 13, but do absolutely nothing to enforce the rules. Why would they? Even pro-capitalist media powerhouses such as the Financial Times and the Economist are calling for more regulation against these alarmingly immoral organisations.

Addiction is a fundamental goal for many social networks, and they’re designed with this in mind. Our primal desire to be liked results in positive chemical rushes whenever somebody validates our post, so we develop a habit in which our eyes compulsively return to the little red circle. The concept of a endless feed utilises the variable ratio schedule, which shows that people become more obsessed with something when rewarded irregularly, rather than steadily. Being presented with the occasional entertaining post is what hooks you.

We don’t sign our children up to pre-credited gambling accounts, hand them a gram of cocaine and suggest that they let loose for the weekend. Yet these things exploit the exact same dopamine-based reward system as social media, with addiction as a dreadful consequence. It effortlessly pulls on our attention, distracting us from vital problems such as climate change, poverty, or Trump’s totalitarianism. The precious hours of our lives are being consumed and vomited into the coffers of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, who “apologise for their mistakes” but not their repulsive business practices.

Even former leaders of tech companies are rallying for change. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit organisation founded by such folk, with the intention to spread the idea of compassionate design starting from a foundation of vulnerable human instincts, as opposed to attention theft at any cost.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” – The Center for Humane Technology

In addition to being attention whores, social media has a devastating effect on our self-esteem. It enables us to compare ourselves to other people on an unprecedented scale, creating pressure to be as allegedly perfect as everyone else, and leaving us in a cesspool of self-loathing. Life isn’t how Facebook and Instagram portrays it; disappointment, rejection, and pain are nowhere to be seen. When such impending things do happen, you can be forgiven for shaking a fist at a God who undeniably hates you.

Any intention to better your life is made more difficult by social media’s blissfully sedative effects. Why bother trying to learn something that you’re passionate about when you can spend hours scrolling through insipid content? Nobody likes discomfort, so social media sucks us in like a prostitute desperate for a fix. The exceptional is cast aside in favour of dull mediocrity.

Clambering over the proverbial fence for a moment, social media does have some positive uses. It’s an effective way to stay in touch with old friends, even if only contacting them once in a blue moon. Many businesses rely on social media for its powerful ability to reach customers, and would struggle desperately without it; movements such as #DeleteFacebook would do well to remember this. Promoting anything (e.g. this blog) would be infinitely harder. A research agency found that Facebook users have more close ties with the people within their network than other internet users. In addition, they noted moderate associations between social media use and trust, plentiful close friends, greater amounts of social support, and higher civic support. It’s easy to be dogmatic about such an immoral industry, but important to realise that it’s not all bad.

Despite the positives, the evidence for the ills of social media are overwhelming. If you’d rather not take the drastic plunge and quit cold turkey, you might want to consider restricting your usage – Chrome extensions such as BlockSite allow you to easily do so. With less use, it’s likely that your life will improve. Just be prepared for the fact that by continuing to use the apps, your data probably will be illegally mined in order to influence your opinions, and to persuade you that you’ll be undeniably happier if you purchase those fetching shoes. The whole structure is completely vulnerable to manipulation, and no amount of new regulation is likely to change that. Greed always finds a way to exploit, and with two billion connected people, social media companies have the power to influence an unfathomable number of people with terrifying precision. Is it a risk worth taking?

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Addiction

A friend of mine has severe depression, a debilitating drug-addiction, and a gambling problem of epic proportions. Over the last two years, he’s alienated almost every one of his family and friends, disfigured his nose by snorting obscene amounts of cocaine, and lost over £100,000 (profit from the sale of his house). At the moment, he lives with his parents, both of who have come to detest him, but can’t stand the thought of him living on the streets.

His downward spiral has been happening for a long time. He loved drugs from a young age; always indulged in any kind of escapism, anything that numbed the pain of existence. Challenging/worthwhile things were ignored in favour of something easier. He never learned to persevere. He only ever headed in a single direction – the easiest one. He never learned that a great deal of happiness is to be found in doing what’s difficult.

I can’t imagine what it feels like to be in that kind of situation; the helplessness of it all. An awful sense of pity and frustration washes over me whenever I think about him. Every person who cares about him knows what he needs to do: rehab, and ongoing therapy. Yet he refuses. He continues to live a life that simply isn’t worth it, because it’s easier.

An addict can’t be forced to seek treatment. We’ve tried every persuasion technique possible. We’ve been patient and compassionate; furious and coercive. Nothing gets through. The affect that he’s had on his family has been heartbreaking to witness.

By allowing him to live in their home, his parents are keeping the situation stagnant. He has no responsibility to feed and shelter himself. He often sleeps all day, because he can. They’ve paid off his drug debts (£15k+) multiple times, and every single time that they do, they’re helping to kill their own son.

So a battle is being fought on two fronts: convincing his parents to stop funding my friend’s drug habit, and convincing him friend to get professional help. They seem like hopeless tasks, and I’m now starting to wonder whether this is something that I need to walk away from, for the sake of my own mental health. But doing so feels like giving up on someone that I love.


Are you suffering from any of these problems, or know somebody who is? You might be interested in the below.

Suicide prevention: https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Alcohol/drugs: https://adf.org.au/help-support/
Addiction: https://au.reachout.com/tough-times/addiction

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