Friday, September 06, 2019

fairies AND gnomes

It’s now just over 100 years since the famous Cottingley fairy hoax. Two spotty teenage English cousins called Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright took photographs of ‘fairies ‘at the bottom of the garden of the house belonging to Elsie’s parents in Cottingley, a leafy West Yorkshire village close to Bradford.

Of course, the photographs are clearly staged. The fairies are simply paper cut-outs Elsie had copied from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published just a couple of years earlier in 1915. The girls were having a bit of creative fun, hoping to wind up Elsie’s father whom they had borrowed the camera from and been given some quick photography lessons.

It was all harmless fun until Elsie's mother, Polly, attended a lecture on ‘spiritualism’ a couple of years later. Following the talk, she dug out the photos bringing them to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement.

Boom! The photos were declared totally “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures."

Very soon the validated fairy pictures began circulating throughout the spiritualist community and landed on the desk of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Whilst the fictional Holmes is arguably the epitome of rationality and scepticism, the avid spiritualist Doyle immediately endorsed the fairy pics as clear proof of the existence of supernatural entities.

Before you can say ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’, Doyle had sent Gardner up to West Yorkshire to interview the girls, collect some new photos of the fairies (and a couple of Gnomes who happened along), and penned an ecstatic article for the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine. Within weeks the Cottingley fairies became among the most widely recognised examples of early amateur photography in the world, their authenticity further endorsed by Gardner who - having taken a registered psychic with him on the trip oop t’north just to be sure - declared the whole area to be teeming with fairies.

Things had clearly got out of hand, but the girls decided to roll with it. What started out as a bit of kid fun had seemingly caused a large group of adults to completely lose control of their minds. What should they do? Confess to the hoax and face the wrath of cheated believers? Or just carry on with the fiction and go along with what the grown-ups want?

The thing is, the time was just about right in 1920 for the Cottingley fairies.

Throughout World War I, spiritualism had grown in popularity with the grieving British public.

Amid the chaos of war, with deaths occurring in almost every family there arose a sudden and concentrated interest in ideas of the afterlife, and so the prospect of being able to access some supernatural power, or otherworldly influence, would have been consoling.

Spiritualism, mediums and psychics role was twofold; to reunite families with their dead sons and husbands with ‘evidence’ that they were in a better place and as a reassurance of an afterlife that represented a promise of respite from the hardship and turmoil experienced during and after the Great War.

Of course, Spiritualism's success was its entrepreneurial egalitarianism.

The ability to incorporate a variety of other supernatural concepts, including fairies and gnomes, into its repertoire without blinking is phenomenal agility.

New technology also played a major role. Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic..

This was certainly the case in the early 20th century with the advent of ‘radio’, and telegraphy linking people together during the war. This was close to magical and gave people a way of understanding Spiritualism.

A medium making contact with the spirit world would ‘tune-in’ to the ‘channels and wavelengths’ of the ‘other side’. Even the real world of wireless communications led to experiments in ‘psychic telegraphs’, which inventors claimed could pick up ‘auras’.

In 1920 even any kind of photography was still quite a new idea for ordinary people. The world’s first mass-market camera, the Brownie from Eastman Kodak had only been invented twenty years earlier in 1900.

The most remarkable part of the Cottingley hoax is not that two young girls pretended they found fairies at the bottom of the garden. That is what children do. Play make-believe.

What is remarkable is that so many adults really wanted it to be true.

Fairies and gnomes.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'A Cauldron of Illusions' which examines 'magical thinking' and why smart people believe stupid things.
The full essay is in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.

Friday, August 30, 2019

short excerpt from 'notes on the bullshit-industrial complex'

Noam Chomsky once noted that Michel Foucault– often cited as among the post-structuralist and postmodernist thinkers although he didn’t like these labels - was actually intelligible if you sat him down and had a normal conversation.

(Unlike many of the other French philosophers).

Chomsky explains, ‘I don’t particularly blame Foucault [for obscurantism], it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it.’

Interestingly, Foucault confessed to his friend the American philosopher John Searle, that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience.

Searle has revealed that Foucault privately admitted this to him,

"In France you must make 25 percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker."

The French structuralist Pierre Bourdieu claimed it was markedly worse than that. The BS quotient in the ‘works’ of Jacques Derrida, for example, is probably closer to 100%.

Foucault concurred, saying that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism).

“He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

But a background theory is mandatory.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'Notes on the bullshit-industrial complex' in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

how does it feel to feel?

People - especially ad people - get terribly confused about what is meant by ‘emotion’.

For a start its not just one thing.

There are distinctions between the functional emotion (‘the emotional state’), the experience of the emotion, our ability to perceive and attribute emotions to other people (and to animals).

Also our ability to think and talk about emotion and, of particular interest to advertisers, the behaviours caused by an emotion state. The expressions and emotional responses.

But emotions are first and foremost about the states and everything else flows from that.

In essence, to understand what emotions are, and what they are for, requires a fundamental or ultimate explanation.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs.

Whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

It’s not neat. 

In fact, it’s a bit messy, not least because these programs, or modules, evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, they are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I'm in two minds about that.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted from over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

It's worth pointing out straight away that the EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is obviously very different from our modern world.

Our brains and minds evolved to operate in hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies.

And so it's an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing a 'mismatch'.

Evolutionary mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we're not. These are evolutionarily novelsources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears have more ancient sources. Among them, spiders, snakes and the dark.

And social exclusion (so I have so many followers on Twitter...but why don't they share my post?)

Each of these mental modules, our software or apps, is a specialised structure sculpted to carry out a particular function. But integrated into a complex whole, and activated by a different set of cues.

These functions include 'basic' things like breathing, heart-rate regulation, sleep management, and perception.

Alongside all-important social mechanisms designed for face recognition, mate choice and ‘reading’ other peoples minds. A more ‘recent’ adaptation would be language, of course.

Steven Pinker describes resulting social behaviour as the outcome of an internal struggle among many mental modules, and it is played out on the chessboard of opportunities and constraints defined by other people's behaviour.

Of course, this internal struggle between cognitive programs creates another adaptive problem.

Programs that are designed to solve very specific adaptive problems could, if activated at the same time, conflict with one another, interfering with each other.

For instance, a sleep mechanism has to be over-ridden if cues for self-protection are present. If the house is on fire you better get out.

To avoid misfires, the mind must then be equipped with other superordinate programs that can override some programs when others are activated.

At the same time, certain adaptive problems are best solved by activation of multiple mechanisms at the same time, running from the fire in the dark needs to pump up heart rate regulation and spacial awareness mechanisms.

A superordinate system is needed to co-ordinate the activity of neural systems, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time. Emotions are functional states that regulate behaviours.

This is what Emotions are for.

Orchestrating the mind’s many and varied subprograms so that at any given time the organism is functionally coordinated.

Emotions are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration.

Emotions arose and assumed their structures in response to conditions, contingencies, situations, or types of events that recurred during evolutionary history.

Mating and fighting are two big ones, for a kick-off.

Avoiding and escaping from predators, parenting, exchange of trade and favours, establishing rank and status, dealing with the death of family members.

Anger, revenge and love. Deciding what to eat (and not) and predicting other people’s behaviour. These are just a few.

Repeated encounters with these situations selected for adaptations that guided information-processing and behaviour.

Emotions are the superordinate programs that mobilise a subset of the mental mechanisms in any given configuration in response to recurrent situations.

When a condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognisable kind is detected, a signal goes out from the emotion radar that activates the specific combination of subprograms appropriate to solving that type of adaptive problem(s) - and also deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving the most pressing problem.

In ‘simple’ terms, an emotion is a SUPERORDINATE program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of the other mental subprograms.

Perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions; reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, and so on.

Because emotions are clearly a product of adaptive design they cannot be irrational. In fact, emotions are super-rational adaptations, finely tuned to countering threats and recognising opportunities.

An emotion cannot be reduced down to any one category of effects because it contains evolved instructions for ALL OF THEM.

Consider this before reducing the assessment of advertising to ‘emotional’ or ‘rational’ appeals or entertaining 'new data' that claims to compare the emotional connection rankings of top brands.

There's either a response or no response. Your superordinate system of emotions decides.


Further reading: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture - (Barkow, Tooby, Cosmides)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

live and dangerous

I've not posted anything for a while.

I've been busy getting together the next book.

It's in the final stages and going through the mincer, with a bit of luck it will appear later this year.

In the meantime - and closing the chapter on 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?' - here's a video of the talk-of-the-book from the Mumbrella260 conference in Sydney in July of 2018.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

deeply superficial

Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes were first exhibited at The Stable Gallery on West 58th Street, Manhattan in 1964.

More than any other early works it was these boxes that shot Andy into superstardom, and prompt the Columbia University philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto to proclaim ‘the end of western art!’.

Those boxes posed this question. ‘What distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art?’

In an amusing coincidence, the original commercial Brillo packaging as recontextualised by Warhol was designed by a fella called James Harvey.

Harvey was a lower league abstract expressionist painter – so far down he wasn’t even on the map - who (struggling to pay the bills through his art alone) had bitten the bullet and taken a job in advertising!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and advertising is still a business that few people really aspire to join. In particular, many creatives would much rather be directing movies or writing their novel than trying to get people to buy car insurance.

And so closing the irony loop, the striking Brillo logo had been designed by an action painter; a practitioner of exactly the kind of non-representational, raw expression art that Warhol’s was a reaction against.

Harvey wasn’t a fan of Warhol's work, although he did attend the opening of the 1964 exhibition and is said to have had a long chat with Andy. But didn't mention having designed the original Brillo packaging.

Never cross the streams.

‘66 Scener Fra Amerika’ (66 Scenes from America) is a 1982 documentary film by Danish director Jørgen Leth.

It presents a variety of short vignettes with no discernable connecting narrative, other than exhibiting a seemingly random patchwork of objects and scenes that all together resembles a collection of cinematic postcards from a road trip. Essentially an experimental visual time-capsule of nothing-much-happening smack in the middle of life in Reagan-era America.

The film's best-known scene is a four and a half minutes long segment of Andy Warhol tucking into a Whopper from Burger King. An obvious pastiche of Warhol’s own signature film style, although the entire film is Warhol-esque.

While doing their research in advance of preparing a campaign for Burger King, the fast-food giant’s agency stumbled upon the Andy footage on YouTube and took it to their client.

After much high-fiving and a year of wrangling with the various parties and rights owners, they had secured usage rights and set about preparing it to run as a showpiece in the advertising event of the year, the 2019 SuperBowl.

If not the most flamboyant, it is undoubtedly one of the more extraordinary SuperBowl ads of recent times when looked at from a philosophy of advertising standpoint. Not least in the way it spectacularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

The Warhol/Burger King spot is, in effect, a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, exemplified by the notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Duchamp was a French-American painter turned sculptor. While he made his name as a kinda Cubist, he is widely regarded as one of the primary influencers in the rise of conceptual art. His Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 brought the house down at the 1913 New York Armory Show – even the Manhattan art public was scandalised by this European weirdness - however following that he pretty much abandoned painting and focussed on ‘sculpture’, creating the first of his readymades in 1913.

The theory behind the readymade practice took a while to develop. It was finally explained in the editorial of the May 1917 issue of the avant-garde magazine The Blind Man, edited by Duchamp.

Whether Mr Mutt, with his own hands, made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
The object has been recontextualised.

There are three essential components to the readymade provision.

Number one; the choice of object is itself a creative act.
Number two; by doing away with the function of an object, it becomes art.
Number three; presenting the object as art gives it a new meaning.

In a nutshell, what is art is whatever the artist says is art.

This mini-manifesto represents the beginning of the movement towards conceptual art – and the post-modern aesthetic - as the status and relationship of the artist and the object are called into question.

The new postmodern artists disparaged modernists and their naive belief that a work of art could somehow appeal to a broad audience who had neither the time nor inclination to get up to speed with the latest continental philosophy gobbledygook.

Vous m'avez mal compris, vous êtes idiot.

If the readymade concept can be understood, at the very least, as a deliberate assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of art, is Burger King’s use of an existing non-advertising object ‘found’ by the agency and recontextualised as a 45 seconds SuperBowl spot a assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of advertising?

Almost. It is achingly close to being a dialetheia. Or a 'true contradiction'.

Had they pulled it off we could have been saying this Warhol film – this object - is an ad only insofar as it is not an ad.

It is what it is not and this is why it is what it is.

This idea slightly offends objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises! - yet Burger King’s spot is oh-so-close to being an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object.


Take the statement ‘this sentence is false’.

This is the famous “Liar’s Paradox”, the statement that everything being said is a lie. So, if the liar is lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied, which means they’re also telling the truth, which means it’s a lie and so on, and so on.

With Fountain and many of his other 'sculptures', Duchamp’s only contribution was to sign the object and exhibit it as art. Similarly Warhols only contribution to many of the works produced in his 'Factory' (including the Brillo Boxes) was to ‘sign’ or 'authenticate' them as art.

What are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

What is media insofar as it is not media?

What could we simply label as advertising by ‘signing’ it?

Burger King’s marketing people are quoted in the press as saying 'we didn’t want to change or touch the film in any way that would take away from its original intent’.

Yet they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag on the end frame.

Before the big game, BK's social media followers had been encouraged to claim a free Mystery Box Deal via UberEats style meal delivery service DoorDash. The box contained a silver wig, a bottle of ketchup and a Whopper voucher redeemable on game day. It was anticipated that recipients would don the wigs, eat the burger and post pictures and videos of themselves, and some of them did.

But now that made it an AD.

It then ceased to be what it is not – and became only what it is.

To simply run the film and sign it with the logo would have been it.
To allow simply the choice of object is itself to be the creative act.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!
Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

And a burger chain decontextualizing and commodifying an artist who famously adored advertising for its powers of decontextualization and commodification.

The balls to do that!

But they blew it at the last second.

By the inclusion of a self-conscious, self-contradictory (in the wrong way, keep up) and self-undermining element, what should have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the biggest stage instead becomes more like an overly hesitant parody.

And even after the fact, the boffins of mediocrity at Kellogg School of Management guffed in their assessment ‘It’s also unclear how many viewers will recognize Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, which limits the appeal of the commercial.’

Kellogg could not be more wrong. Warhol is very much an artist of our time.

Self-commodification is now ubiquitous. The idea of a Facebook ‘friend’ is not only a reified commodity but is also now increasingly becoming the way we understand the nature of authentic friendship.

Instagram influencers are not influential through possessing any particular expertise or knowledge, one now becomes an influencer by merely declaring oneself an influencer (a readymade) - and Warhol's 15 minutes of fame dictum is more accurate than ever in the social media era.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Compromise is often thought to be in play when ideas have things taken OUT, but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between an ok SuperBowl spot and what was nearly THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

i can't see much of a future unless we find out what's to blame, what a shame.

The journalist Paul Morley said 'Buzzcocks came from the better side of punk, the bands who were aware of things like Faust and Can.'

He wasn't wrong.

By early 1976, and after building his own oscillator from scratch, Bolton Institute of Technology engineering student Pete Shelley had already completed a whole 'album' of experimental synth music, inspired by his love of Kraftwerk and other krautrock bands.

It was there that he first met Howard Devoto who was looking for someone to soundtrack an art movie he’d made. Howard was studying philosophy down the road.

Both Pete and Howard were avid NME readers and after reading a small review of relatively unknown London band, Sex Pistols, and inspired by a quote in the piece attributed to Pistols guitarist Steve Jones ('we're not into music, we're into chaos'), the new friends booked a small room at Manchester Free Trade Hall and invited the Pistols to play. This event June 1976 has gone down in history as 'the gig that changed the world' (among the 30 or 40 misfits in the audience were future members of Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and The Fall.)

The day after the show the pair immediately formed Buzzcocks and booked the Pistols to play again six weeks later with their own combo as support. At the second gig the hall was full to its 150 capacity.

The rest is history, of course.

Billy Bragg once remarked that if everyone who claimed to have seen the Pistols in '76 really had they would have sold out a month at Wembley Stadium rather than a few one-nighters at assorted Soho strip clubs. Correspondingly, if everyone who claimed to be at one of the Manchester shows had attended it would have been a week of sell-outs at the G-Mex.

(If every ad planner and marketer who claim in-depth knowledge of Ehrenberg-Bass principles had bought 'How Brands Grow' then I reckon Byron and co would be kicking back on a private island next to the ones occupied by Richard Branson and assorted retired Bond villains rather than still pursuing their academic careers.)

Paul Morley is also on record as claiming ‘I remember delightedly screaming, “This is like...Ornette Coleman!” when I went to see the early Buzzcocks play.'

(But he was now just being a bit silly, albeit setting the tone for much of his subsequent writing.)

Shelley’s iconic deliberately inane minimal two-note guitar solo in Boredom (from Buzzcocks debut EP Spiral Scratch) was pretty conceptual. 

The solo consisted of just two notes repeated 66 times, ending with a single modulated seventh. One suspects that it was this last flourish that Morley interpreted as the free-jazz component.

Pete played a Starway, a cheap Japanese brand of guitars sold in department stores. 
A rudimentary instrument, the Starway featured just one pickup and two control dials for volume and tone.

Shelley is said to have bought his in a Manchester branch of Woolworths. 
(While the guitars were sold there, Pete actually acquired his one - second-hand - in a charity shop.)

To be more exact, the four tracks on '...Scratch' were recorded using just TWO-THIRDS of a Starway.

Pete had accidentally smashed his axe into two pieces during a rehearsal.

The top part of the body snapped off but the guitar was still totally playable, and so continued to be his main tool until the band had a few hits and he could afford to upgrade to the (only marginally more sophisticated) Gibson Marauder.

If inspiring the DIY punk revolution with only two-thirds of a guitar was not minimal enough for you, Shelley's engineering chops learned back at Bolton Tech came in handy.

It's often been said that creativity can be propelled by constraints - even if the limits are artificial.

He rewired the insides of the Starway to bypass the volume and tone dials, sending the pickup direct to the jack - it was now two-thirds of a guitar with only ONE sound. It was a pretty good sound, though.

The economist Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher once coined the term appropriate technology. Meaning the 'simplest level of technology that can achieve the intended purpose'.

Simplicity has never been a bad idea.

In a world of applied appropriate advertising technology, most of the links in our complicated and bloated demand/supply chain - SSPs, DSPs, exchanges, third-party verification systems and various proprietary reporting mechanisms - wouldn’t even have a business. They wouldn't exist.

So-called 'safety' tech vendors have even more mysterious incentives given that they DEPEND on the continued existence of botnets, domain-spoofers and malware fraudsters for their own business model.

But when every step in a web ad 'value' chain is deliberately opaque, they all do to some extent.
A cynic would call it a cynical exercise in deliberate obfuscation.

The funny thing is that we think we know how this advertising technology demand/supply chain works, and the more available information we have, the more our confidence grows.

This is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (or IOED) - the persistent illusion people have that we know more about more than we actually do. IOED was coined in 2002 by cognitive scientists Rozenblit and Keil.

Rozenblit and Keil asked people to rate their knowledge of how mundane mechanisms worked – things like zippers, refrigerators and toilets.

Respondents rated their comprehension highly, but when pressed to explain their understanding, they tended to fail miserably.
Or the technological sophistication inherent to the adtech paradigm offers a veneer of profundity.
An illusion of explanatory depth.

As the old adage goes; where there's a mystery, there's a margin.

Fritz Schumacher also famously said; 'Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.'

But as the number of businesses between advertisers and publisher the advertiser grows - all claiming to do something - and 70 cents in every dollar gets eaten up by whatever that something is, we've never been further from sending the pickup direct to the jack.

But, you know the scene - very humdrum.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

come on myelin, too-rye-ay

These people 'round here,
Were beat down, eyes sunk in smoke dried faces,
They're resigned to what their fate is,
But not us, no never - no not us, no never,

We are far too young(ish) and clever...

You're probably au fait with the ‘10,000 hours’ theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

In one example from his bestselling book Outliers, Gladwell asserts that getting in 10,000 plus hours of practice in the relative obscurity of Hamburg strip joints between 1960 and '62 helped the Beatles to propel - fully formed and honed - to the toppermost of the poppermost in 1963.

Dexy’s too, I don't know if they are known to Malcy although he is on record as being a bit of an Anglophile and a fan of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello.

Dexys Midnight Runners were formed in 1978 in by fellow Brummies Kevin Rowland and Kevin Archer from the remnants of punk band the Killjoys. Their first single hit the UK top 40 in '79 representing a transformation from one chord wonders to sophisticated soulsters in less than 12 months.

The band's name was derived from Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine. 'Speed' pills popular with dancers at Northern Soul all-nighters. Presumably, strategic usage would have been useful in enabling Dexy’s to get their 10,000 hours in a bit quicker.

This is entirely plausible. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols claimed to have learned guitar this way. Going from scratch to developing his unique power-chord style and recording the first Pistols demos in about 3 months by playing along - in marathon amphetamine assisted all day sessions - to the first New York Dolls album and the Stooges Raw Power.

Gladwell’s piece was based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State University.

Ericsonn specialises in the science of peak performance and, while probably grateful for the exposure Gladwell gave his work, is careful to add that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour rule.

It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.

For Ericsonn, deliberate practice means getting outside of your ‘comfort zone’ and pushing yourself to improve beyond your current abilities.

This is important because just being able to competently reproduce skills you’ve already mastered might feel good, but it’s not enough to make you get better.

But what happens physically, as we learn?

As it processes information, your brain makes connections growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons. Making new connections and breaking old ones.

But once a circuit is made, it needs to be used if it is going to stick around.

This physical process is myelination - the process whereby a circuit that is stimulated enough times grows a covering of membrane called myelin.

The wrapping of myelin increases conduction speed, making the circuit work more efficiently. The more the circuit gets exercised, the more it wraps and the stronger the connection becomes.

What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them?

Deliberate practice, focused attention and actively recalling the learning causes your brain to strengthen the new connections as does linking new bits of information to what you already know.

There’s a great myth – mostly perpetuated by youngsters - that we stop learning as we age. There’s no physiological reason why this should happen.

It’s more likely that many people just spend less time learning new stuff as they get older, and even when we do, we maybe don't do it with the same enthusiasm as we did when we were younger, so the neural connections don’t get made, the myelin doesn’t wrap. Too-rye-ay.

Ageing can also bring about the loss of some brain tissue, but this may have more to do with lack of exercise. Regular physical exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus area of the brain - crucial for learning and memory – in people of all ages, improving connectivity and making it easier for new things to stick.

Keeping that in mind, it makes sense of the new look adopted by Dexy’s mk2 of 1981-82, a move away from the young soul rebel ‘street cleaner/docker’ chic to the Rocky garb that included hooded tops, boxing boots and a corresponding strict fitness regime.

Kevin had the band working out together and running to the recording studio for 8am starts.
The band would also do group exercise sessions before shows and needless to say, alchohol and recreational pharmaceuticals were also strictly verboten.

Whilst not exactly textbook rock’n’roll behaviour the now ripped mk2 band shortly went on to produce - via another costume change, this time to an Okie farmhand/Irish gypsy hybrid - the gazillion-selling Too-Rye-Ay album and global number one hit Come On Eileen, at the same time pushing their sound into a new genre-defying combination of horns and fiddles driven blue-eyed-soul and celtic-folk crossover.

As far as science knows, no brain has ever run out of hard-drive space.

But some neuroscientists do agree on another reason cognitive skills may often slow down with age, not because the brain deteriorates, or fills up, but because it does need the occasional defrag.

So probably just as important as continuing to push yourself and your learning to develop new skills, is having a clear out of the crap you don’t need.

Come on myelin.

In this business that's probably never a bad idea. Even better, start young.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie,
And I don't believe you really like Frank Sinatra...