Life Hack, Music Hack


(I’m writing shorter posts now, by the way: no more than 1,500 words each.)

Life Hack

In writing about myself last time I identified a problem that I’m trying to solve, which is that I get obsessed with particular hobbies – music, programming, writing, researching, camping, etc. – and I keep doing the same thing for too long. I get bored with it, but keep pushing myself, because it was so enjoyable, and then I suddenly switch to another. This leaves long periods in between pursuits, so I forget where I got to, making progress frustrating and inefficient.

I noticed it again in relation to music when I began re-learning to play the piano. I’m now practising fairly regularly, and I lose a lot of ground if I leave it even a few days between sessions, so I really don’t want to go off it and get obsessed with something else.

I began to feel the threat of another of my hobby phases approaching: programming. Just as piano playing had ousted my infatuation with wild camping, I began to worry I’d switch again and forget most of what I’d learned of my Bach and Chopin and Glass.

And then I had a brainwave – actually a brainwave from an earlier programming phase – an idea to write an activity tracker, to help me avoid one hobby fading into oblivion. It could also remind me of tasks that need regular attention, like changing the water filter, doing computer maintenance or getting exercise.

I sketched a prototype of it with Small BASIC (which is a nice, easy programming language), and then ported it to AutoHotkey. This worked well, it’s quick to update, and I’m using it every day. A glance and I know I’m doing well on my piano practice, but well behind on writing my blog (fixed) and my exercise. Some software I like to write myself so it works exactly how I want it to, and I probably need that for anything that nags me to do things!

So, ironically, instead of resisting the switch to programming, I’ve used my programming itch to help me avoid neglecting my other hobbies and repeating tasks. Clearly, “help” is the operative word – I still need to act on those reminders. It has another function, to show me things I spend too much time on, like social media.

A similar change has happened as with music: I’ve lost my ambition to turn this hobby into a business. Writing software for general use is a thousand times harder than writing it for myself, even before I start considering distribution and sales.

Music Hack

Playing music also increased my desire to program, because I was reminded just how insane traditional musical notation is. I began researching alternatives, and that led me to a tentative idea for a future program, an editor for what’s known as “Klavar” notation (short for “Klavarskribo”). This system is most suited to keyboard instruments, although the piano keyboard has become the default instrument that many musicians learn alongside another, and people – including most classical composers – now use one to interact with MIDI software to write music on computers.

I struggle a bit with the traditional notation, but I’ve done a fair bit of it and I don’t mind continuing. However, I think a lot more people would learn to play piano if they were introduced to Klavar, and the more I think about it, the crazier our current system seems. I’m currently trying to make contacts to discuss it more. Most users and resources are Dutch; there was an English website, but it’s now gone offline. Trying to get traditionalists interested in it is an uphill task, but I think some tweaks to the system might help, hence my playing about with my own version.

Here’s an extremely simple example of traditional musical notation:

You know how it works: you read left to right, and the dots show how high or low the note is. You might think that would be easy, and – with a simple melody like this, a few lessons and some homework – it is. If you haven’t learned to read music, however, it is virtually meaningless. If you sat at a piano and tried a guess, you’d have no chance. Moderately well-trained musicians have to do a lot of mental processing to read music, too, although after years of study and countless hours of practice, pianists assure me they can read even complex pieces with ease.

Now, have a look at this:

It looks more complicated, doesn’t it? You might think you’re worse off. For a start, there are a lot more lines, and it looks like I’ve turned the music sideways. Are you meant to read from top to bottom?

Yes, you are. But, if you look closely, the vertical lines are grouped in twos and threes. Now you can decipher the notes fairly easily, because this “stave” (or “staff”) represents the keys of the piano.

Of course, the stave in standard notation also represents the keys of the piano (and other instruments – here I’m just thinking of keyboard players), but knowing which is which is actually quite complicated. Not only does the stave not look like a piano, but a dot on a line or space doesn’t represent a specific piano key or musical tone unambiguously, it depends on a lot of things. Beginners usually don’t realise that – introductory material suggests it’s all fairly straightforward – and then, I imagine, a lot must come up against the complexities and give up.

The clef (the curly symbol at the beginning) is the “treble clef”: if it were another, all the notes would be different. Usually, piano music has a treble clef above, for the right hand, and a “bass clef” below, for the left, but they indicate different notes, and they often switch in the middle of a piece. Imagine if in writing English we occasionally put a mark that indicated all the letters are now going to shift up the alphabet two letters. Yjcv yqwnf aqw ocmg qh vjku? 😉

Then there are the sharps (the “#” symbols above) and flats (little ‘b’ shapes) that move the note up or down by one piano key, and “key signatures” (groups of sharps or flats at the beginning that change all the notes on particular lines or spaces). These are then further altered by “accidentals”, which make a note “natural” again (overriding the sharp or flat from the key signature) or even “double-sharp” or “double-flat”, moving it another key up or down!

That’s before we consider all the symbols for different note values, i.e. how long each one is held for, and “rests”, periods of silence.

Here is that Klavar image again, showing how it relates to the piano. Although at first it might look more complicated, it isn’t. The following quick lesson will tell you how to play it on a keyboard, and it will give you most of what you need to know to play anything in this notation, because notes always mean the same thing.

You start at the top, working downwards, and play each note just as it appears on the piano, guided by the sets of two and three lines that mimic the piano layout. The dashed lines down the middle just indicate the middle of the keyboard. A white circle shows you which white key to play and a black circle shows which black key to play. Each note has a tail pointing to the left or right, telling you which hand to play the note with. There are wider spaces between the lines corresponding to where there are two white keys together on the keyboard. These spaces take a circle to one side or the other to differentiate those keys. The stave can be extended outwards if necessary.

You can tell when to play each note much more easily, too. You’ll see the numbers 1 to 6 in the top section between solid horizontal lines (this is a “bar” or “measure”). These show in this case that there are six beats to the bar, so you just have to count 1 to 6 evenly, matching the notes to the six divisions (later marked by dashed lines across the stave if no note is shown there).

This is almost the same tune as the first example in the traditional notation. One difference is at the end, where the Klavar version has a final chord. In case you’re wondering, this is the “Westminster Quarters” that many church bells play, and precede Big Ben’s bongs.

Although this version of Klavar notation is the most used, there are others, including one where you read across the page and the tones go upwards, as per normal. There have also been plenty of other suggestions for better musical notation systems.

Well, that’s about all I have words for this time. Vjcpmu hqt tgcfkpi!

¬~

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Duck Wrangling


In loving memory of John Brand

When I was a teenager, I wrote a song, To Watch the Clouds, that goes:

A man may take a little time off
To feel the colour of the sky
To watch the clouds go by

Sometimes he's taken to a hilltop
Sometimes he feels he could fly
The god of gravity sighs

Life is what you make it
So please don't you waste it
Don't watch the clouds go by
Until the clouds run dry

It’s a warning I largely failed to heed. I still watch the clouds. Most mornings, I lie in bed drinking coffee and gaze out the window for an hour or more over the rooftops, thinking my thoughts. I was always getting told off for it at school too (gazing out the window, I mean, not lying in bed drinking coffee).

Luckily, my clouds haven’t run dry yet, but, as I approach 60, I feel an increasing need to catch up with things undone. The pandemic is adding a little impetus. As Mum used to remind me, you only live once.

This post is largely autobiographical, catching up on recent events, sharing some of my psychology, and delving into some of my past. I’m thinking of writing about whatever’s on my mind on the blog from now on rather than having a particular focus as it has. As 2021’s sky dawns red, I feel a need to publish some of my music and poetry, because they’re a significant part of my life that got lost along the way. I can do that here (or with links from here).

It’s been hard to share that ambition in case I fail to do it, through the same failings that have got in my way so far, being undisciplined, getting distracted and changing tack, the fear of exposure, and simple procrastination. It’s happened so often that I made up a rule, which I’m now breaking, never to say what I’m going to do, only what I’ve done.

The subject of this post also seems uncomfortably vain while millions of my fellows have wrecked livelihoods, thousands struggle to breathe, some parked in hospital corridors, thousands are bereaved and hundreds will die today. I sit on a sofa fiddling about with some words while the NHS burns. But no-one is entirely unaffected by the virus. I’m scared again, wondering if my loved ones and I will all get through the winter. My partner and I have written a list of essential information – financial and so on – in case one of us is seriously ill or dies. (I have yet to complete mine.)

I get distracted in the long term too. I have an unfortunate habit of getting obsessed with something for a period of time and then switching fairly suddenly to something else. It can be most annoying, and leaves a trail of unfinished projects. The switch often seems to correlate with the changing seasons, and a chunk of a year is a long time to leave things before picking them up again. Even if I continue where I left off, which often isn’t the case, a lot of time and effort goes into picking up the pieces.

I tried to play the guitar the other day, which was depressing. I’ve forgotten how to play most of my pieces and my fingers have gone soft. With regular practice, you get callouses on your fretting finger ends, and without those it’s painful in no time. It’s amazing just how many muscles need toning again, from the hands to the whole torso, to comfortably maintain a good playing position. If I just played the guitar once a week, there’d be no problem.

My childhood injunction not to waste my life (I was, of course, talking to myself) came from recognising a risk I was willing to take. It would come with the approach to life that I desired and suited my personality. I grew up in the ’60s with two older sisters, and I developed an immature hippie rebelliousness and laissez-faire attitude by the end of my first decade. I watched the flamboyant flower-power children on TV, dancing barefoot through the Summer of Love, against a backdrop of wars and riots and the increasing threat of nuclear annihilation.

I was powerless at that age, of course, but looked forward to a time when I could “tune in, turn on and drop out”, whatever that meant. The alternative, as I saw it, was horrifying. I saw people everywhere running on the hamster-wheel, with the world going to wrack and ruin. My father was running himself into an early grave. The cultural model he held was the modernist dream – his generation were much better off than his parents, as they were than his grandparents, etc., and mine would enjoy even more wealth and ease – and yet here we were, looking unlikely to die of natural causes, thanks to those clever scientists and their “progress”.

I saw that certain people escaped the wage-slave fate my parents suffered, and they seemed to be happier. Some, often artists, might be hard working, but the work was not work as Mum and Dad worked, in a job for which they incubated a fragile tolerance in exchange for suburban normality. For those free people, work was an obsession, their passion: it drove them, inspired them, captivated them, and thus wasn’t really work.

I found it hard to do what I wasn’t passionate about, so I hoped to navigate that sort of route through life – assuming WWIII didn’t kick off – as a musician and poet, or maybe a novelist. I was shy. What I needed was something easy and reclusive.

There was probably no other option. It’s who I was, and it’s still largely who I am. I’m glad of the many rich rewards that have accrued, but I made awkward and unsatisfactory progress in my art, and I ended up with a lot of clouds watched, but little to show for it. There is almost nothing of my writing published (other than self-published here), just one rather weak chapter in an anthology about counselling. There are a few songs I can barely play anymore. I have a few decent poems squirreled away in drawers. There may be some rough gems in the diaries and notebooks I kept for many years. I will have another reason to go through those, perhaps, as I hope to write my autobiography as well. If I could just clone adult versions of myself and work on things in parallel..!

Through spring and summer of 2020, my attention was on the pandemic and keeping safe, helping my brother-in-law who was shielding, researching some of the conspiracy theories and arguing with idiots. As summer turned to autumn, I tinkered in the shed, improving bits and pieces of my camping gear. In the autumn I got into foraging and made some preserves from hedgerow fruit. I fervently hoped this was where I’d stick, with just this one hobby, the outdoors, camping, nature and its bounty. I longed for the continuity and simplicity of it. It seemed possible at the time, as it always does, despite knowing it had never happened before.

Then, of course, I switched again. In late October, my partner and I decided to decorate the lounge, and she asked whether I wanted to keep my old piano. She was happy for me to do so, but it took up a lot of room and I never played it. This was mostly because of the very thin wall between us and the neighbours, but also because my relationship with music had soured over the years, trying and failing to be a successful musician. It was now just a large shelf for ornaments, dust and regret.

The prospect of getting rid of it reminded me of the great sentimental value it had. It was Mum’s, and had been in the family since before I was born. I tried to find ways not to let go of it. I asked my sister, Jan if she wanted it (it is hers really) but, after a similar emotional struggle, she said no. We asked the rest of the family. Nobody wanted it.

It weighed a ton, and was going to be difficult to sell or even give away, especially in 2020. We moved it to the hall temporarily with the help of two strong neighbours so we could decorate and to see how it fitted and if I might play it a bit more. I suspected I might not, in which case that would be the end of it. Perhaps I’d keep the fallboard (the bit that covers the keys) with its Squire & Longson insignia, or some of the ivories. I could mount bits of its carcass over the fireplace like a hunting trophy.

But it fitted rather nicely in the hall, and, after a time eyeing it with a mixture of nostalgia and suspicion, I sat down and started playing. Further away from the neighbours, I felt uninhibited, and – I’m not sure why – I lost the complicated, unpleasant feeling I’d had about music. At first I just wanted to learn “proper” pieces again, as I did when I had lessons as a kid.

I remembered Mum and Jan both playing a very moving, but tricky, piece, and struggling endlessly with the difficult part, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I described it to Jan and she emailed back: Prelude in E Minor, by Chopin. Soon after, she sent a book of Chopin with it in and I started learning it. Jan and I both took lessons for several years, and then we both moved on to playing the guitar. I began writing songs and recording them on cassette. I still have those first recordings, digitized, a little late to avoid them being muffled and hissing.

I play for an hour or more most days. As well as the Chopin, I’m learning a few pieces by Bach and one by Philip Glass, and I have managed to dust off my memory of things I wrote myself. I even started composing again. The piano has become a great pleasure, and I’m immensely glad we kept it. I’ve now started working on the guitar too, gradually figuring out how to play my compositions again.

Despite my musical obsession as a teenager (mostly folk and rock), despite composing songs and instrumental pieces on the guitar and piano, despite recording them, even working out how to overdub from one tape recorder to another to add instruments, and despite starting a prog rock band at school, my parents awkwardly resisted this turn of events. I was a good all-rounder, and they persuaded me to “get a science degree under your belt before trying to be a rock star” (hoping, of course, I’d forget all about that once I graduated).

I tried. I took science A Levels and went off to do a geology degree at Oxford Polytechnic, but I couldn’t hack it and dropped out (after tuning in and turning on, obviously). It’s easy to type the words, but this was a devastating time for all of us, made worse by the discovery that I smoked pot. I settled inevitably into my new identity as wastrel and began sleeping on friends’ floors or renting the cheapest of rooms. I answered an ad for musicians to join a band, auditioned and was welcomed. This ushered in one of the happiest times of my life, albeit smoothed by beer, pot and unhurried youth.

I worked in a number of bands after that, but none came to anything much. It’s a common enough tale. The world is littered with old rock-star-wannabes like me. My friends went on to have careers, some as musicians (one becoming a very prestigious composer, I learned recently), while I languished in an increasingly confused state. My musical ambition went through fits and starts, but gradually got weaker and more difficult and more painful, while I bounced from dead-end job to dole queue to dead-end job.

I eventually sought therapy, which helped me out of the rut. I began doing some part-time social work, which led to training and working as a therapist for about ten years. Every now and then the music bug would bite again, but each time it brought anxiety, even when I should have known I wasn’t going to resuscitate a career that had never been livelier than comatose. However, I’m starting to suspect that it was the hope – however faint – of getting on stage again, or playing in a band, or even busking on the street, that caused the anxiety.

With the moving of the piano, I’ve got a sort of musical ambition again, but it’s very different. It’s like I’m David Attenborough encountering endangered animals. I feel I need to rescue any that still have a pulse, for their sake as much as mine. It’s about my creatures, my creations, and posterity. My hope now doesn’t really extend beyond relearning my old songs, improving my skills, and making some recordings.

I think one of the secrets to living well is finding a way to accommodate both ambition and equanimity. We need hope and purpose along with the acceptance that things might not work out.

Last year in June, my very good friend, John Brand died. He lived in San Diego and we never met in person, but we developed a very close friendship over the Internet in the twelve years we knew each other, sending each other inumerable hours of voice mails. John had a dire opinion of himself, quite unwarranted: he was a funny and loving man. He lived for most of his life with suicidal thoughts, which he struggled with daily as he became old and frail and began to lose his memory.

He was terrified of needing care and his savings being spent rather than going to his daughter. He was always talking about the urgent need to prepare, “put all my ducks in a row”, and then “check out”. He found he couldn’t end his life, to his great frustration. Finally, old age and a lifetime of self-medication caught up with him. He was found unconscious in his trailer and rushed to hospital, and never fully recovered after being discharged for a time, then readmitted. His daughter looked after him for a time. I don’t know how straight his ducks ever got.

Philosophies the world over repeat the importance of remembering that we die. Some, like the Christian memento mori, urge us not to identify with the mortal body, but concentrate on the fate of our eternal soul. Others, like Horace’s carpe diem, remind us that life is short and to get on with it. The Norse tradition emphasized that only the stories told about us would survive.

The only aspect of life that can approximate immortality (in my humble, atheist opinion) is our legacy, what we leave behind for our friends and children and future generations.

One might expect the atheist not to care about a legacy. When I’m dead, I can’t worry if nobody plays my tunes and all my writings rot in a landfill site. But while I’m alive, that does matter to me. It would help me face my waning years to know my creations have been given a good start in life. How they fare after that, who can say?

Thank you for reading. I hope 2021 finds you safe and well, with hope and purpose and equanimity. Now, I must go and practise.

In the moment of our talking,
envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow
e’en as little as you may.

Horace
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Arguing with Idiots: Sceptical Outreach during a Global Pandemic


I have an addiction: I go on YouTube quite a lot, doing what my late friend, John Brand used to call, “arguing with idiots.” He always advised against this. “You should never argue with idiots,” he’d say, “it just confuses them.”

They’re probably not generally idiots (although some clearly are), they just say idiotic things, but I’ll come to that in a moment. And they probably need confusing. Confusion is a good thing. Avoiding confusion (avoiding cognitive dissonance) is why they say idiotic things, as will be demonstrated later. Continue reading

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Natural Consciousness: (Part 2) Being


man holding a hammer

I think; therefore it’s time I returned to my series on consciousness.

Part 1, “Emptiness”, was mainly anecdotal, sharing what I think I’ve concluded from my experience of meditation. I suggested that the idea of “pure awareness” is an illusion, and instead that awareness is an interaction with an object.

I ended with this:

Witnessing necessarily involves an object. All talk of “the witness” in this metaphysical context may be utter nonsense. Of course, something is certainly witnessing. I hope to delve a little more into what we might reasonably consider that to be in future posts.

I was denying that we have a non-physical mind that witnesses our life. My intention in this series is to approach the difficult task of grasping a materialist explanation of consciousness. I am trying to make sense of the idea that what is witnessing our life, the “I”, the “self” is simply the physical brain-body system.

This causes much difficulty, not because it is illogical or because the evidence points elsewhere, but because human cultures ubiquitously deny it, and we all grew up within a human culture. It is difficult to see beyond what we take for granted. Indeed, our language does not easily encapsulate the idea of conscious matter. Presumably it was so for most of human history: mind, we say, is what animates, knows, thinks, speaks, in a world that is otherwise dead.

Dennett remarks that consciousness is the new élan vital, that was thought to make the difference between life and non-life. Now we’ve got used to the twin facts that there is a fuzzy line between them and that we define life with arbitrary conditions, we puzzle similarly about consciousness.

So, people can accept that they are physical entities, but repeatedly insist that consciousness is a mystery, because they imagine it to be non-physical. They say it must be non-physical, although they seem rarely to consider what that means, by what attributes something “non-physical” can be identified. They simply have an unspoken rule that matter cannot be conscious – it is essentially part of their definition of matter.

The difficulty, of course, is what David Chalmers famously called “the hard problem of consciousness”, which is to explain how (and why) the brain performs the feat of creating subjective experience. I am suggesting that the reason is simple: we refuse to accept that we, as physical matter, could possibly experience the brute fact of our being. Losing the notion that we are a ghost in the machine – easier said than done – is what allows us to feel our physical reality, whereupon the mystery begins to dissolve. Continue reading

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Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Belief’ – Annotated with facts: the final summing up


This deserves reblogging, especially now. It’s Yakaru’s summary of his incisive critique of Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief.

Spirituality is No Excuse

I have noticed an up-tick in people looking for information on Bruce Lipton and I assume this must have something to do with the Coronavirus and COVID-19. A brief check and I see that indeed is contributing his ideas to the discussion. Clearly many people are trying to figure out there is any merit to his claim that you can use thoughts to “control your biology”, so I will offer a brief summing up of my exhaustive 77 post review of his book The Biology of Belief.

Sadly, Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief fails entirely, and in the most ridiculous manner, to provide any support for his claims. It is baffling that someone with a Ph.D in biology can get so much basic factual information in his chosen field so wrong. Worse, the way he constructs his argument doesn’t connect up with the case he is trying…

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English Turkeys Vote for Another Five Years of Christmas


Well, there you go. I said it, didn’t I. England is full of cretins, easier to herd than a flock of sheep. Cluck at them for a couple of weeks about how oven-ready they are, how lovely it’ll feel to be hung, stuffed with nuts and baked on a medium heat for five years, their carcass finally dumped on the lawn for the starlings to peck at, and the English turkeys will gobble up all their tasty sound-bites and pop themselves in the microwave.

selective focus photo of red turkey head Continue reading

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Are Brexiteers Stupid?


man person people emotions

Yes. On the whole, it appears so. At least, they were stupid enough to be duped by some very clever people who don’t care about them. Of course, lots of people are stupid, most people, and some of them are Remainers.

I blame the parents…or, rather, previous governments using education (…education, education) as a political football. We allowed education in this country to be degraded and abused for decades. Deliberately or otherwise, we’ve been dumbed down. Continue reading

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Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #12) Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street


This is the last post in my review of a talk by Jordan Peterson on his 12 Rules for Life. The relevant section in the video begins here.

The review of this section won’t take long, and I hardly even transcribe any of it, but I then summarize what I feel I’ve learned about Jordan Peterson from the experience and a few other sources. I may write a longer summary of the ten rules I’ve dealt with (he missed two out) in a later post, but a more important subject for the future seems to be the much wider, deeper cesspit of anti-woke bullshit that steams noxiously under the pseudo-intellectual crust.

I’m glad to get to the end of the series, because I’ve wanted to write about other things. I didn’t want to interrupt the series with other posts, however, or I might have lost momentum.

But now we’ve arrived where all good Internet memes should begin or end, cats! God, they’re adorable, aren’t they?

person holding white kitten with flowers necklace

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Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #11) Do not bother children when they are skateboarding


We’re getting close to the finish line. Sad, isn’t it? This post deals with the penultimate, Rule 11, of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Here’s a link to where he begins talking about it. I’ve missed one out again, because Peterson missed it out: Rule #10, “Fly to England and ramble incoherently about ten of the twelve rules in your book.” No, sorry, “Be precise in your speech.” Nobody in the audience alerts him to the fact he missed out rules eight and ten. Probably afraid of dragons.

I feel it’s sufficient to say that precise speech is a reasonable aspiration, and one which Peterson fails at spectacularly (almost always, but particularly conspicuously in this section).

child in black jacket blue yellow old school print fitted cap riding skatebaord

 

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Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #9) Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t


We’ve got up to Rule #9 of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. As usual, here’s a link to where he begins talking about it. It should be Rule #8, “Tell the truth”, but he forgot it, despite checking his notes.

A curious thing happens at this point. The tone has got more and more disturbing since he began talking, but now Peterson suddenly leaves the mass murderers, Gulags and Nazi death squads to give a half-decent mini-lecture on the benefits of listening to people. This poses an editorial decision, because it would seem perfectly normal to criticise psychobabble, pseudoscience, imprecision and poor logic in the work of someone more “normal” – less worryingly disturbed, emotionally driven, absolutist and paranoid – but with Dr Jordan Peterson the same level of criticism looks like nitpicking.

I’ve erred on the side of a fairly close analysis, and – it has to be said – despite the blunders, exaggerations, contradictions and manipulations, this is genuinely a good “rule”. Jordan Peterson got something right!

action adults celebration clouds

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