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№ 2: Left Brain, Right Brain, Crypto Brain, Coffee Brain, Artist Brain

Alex Payne
Alex Payne
5 min read

Table of Contents

Quick refresher: each issue has something for your mind, your body, and your soul. I don't use affiliate links, so if I recommend a thing you can buy, it's simply because I liked it.

FTX, EA, and hemispheric dysfunction

for your mind

The recent implosion of prominent cryptocurrency exchange FTX prompted much investigation of the firm's founders—the sort of journalism that should have been done during their propulsive ascendency, but oh well! With (largely hypothetical) billions wiped out, all that's left is the tale of these fifteen minute child emperors, and to ask: what was going through their heads?

We know that FTX's CEO and his inner circle were captivated by Effective Altruism (EA), a philanthropic ideology grounded in rationalism and utilitarianism. You may have seen stories about under-forty overachievers working as hedge fund traders or specialist programmers, maximizing their earnings so as to give away as much as possible. The causes they support must fit within the EA framework, with each donated dollar intended to do the most good for the most beings.

EA is philanthropy for robots. It makes sense in a world that can be modeled and measured—graphs before grants, giving by way of positivism. Like the abstracted economic thinking that characterizes (and plagues) our time, EA makes sense on paper but can't survive contact with reality. No shock, then, that one of the planet's biggest cryptocurrency advocates found an intellectual home in EA circles—crypto, too, has that stubborn little reality problem.

This all brought to mind one of the most transformative books I've read in recent years: Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary (2009). Its author is a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who abandoned a promising career as a literary scholar. He makes the case that the two hemispheres of our brain function differently, and that these meaningful differences have been too often overlooked, underestimated, or denied outright. From the respective viewpoints of the hemispheres, he then maps the evolution of Western culture, drawing on his literary training but branching into all major art forms. What concerns McGilchrist, ultimately, is the ascendancy of left brain thinking: clinical, alienated, convinced of its rationality and rightness, blind to its limitations and biases, in many respects profoundly mentally ill without its hemispheric counterpart.

The rise of crypto and EA are too-perfect extrapolations from the future predicted in Master. If the hairs on the back of your neck aren't rigid by the final chapter, you haven't been paying attention, either to McGilchrist's warnings or to our changing world. Read it, and you'll soon be seeing the damage done by domineering left brains everywhere. Hopefully, too, you'll see signs of a right brain counterrevolution...

coffee alternatives

for your body

I powered through my 20s and early 30s on cup after cup of coffee. As I approach 40, my body seems to have had enough. Coffee, like alcohol, has thus been placed in the penalty box. Whereas I try to drink booze almost never, I've moderated coffee to about once a day, with occasional stretches of total abstinence.

Part of me (my GI tract, specifically) would be relieved to swear off coffee indefinitely. Yet as far as I've seen, no evidence suggests that moderate coffee consumption is in any way harmful, barring conditions like ulcers. In fact, for depressives like me, coffee may be beneficial (or maybe it's just caffeine that helps?). All I know is that I feel better when I don't drink it. Now that I no longer live in coffee mecca Portland, most of what I come across hardly seems worthwhile anyway.

To constrain my coffee intake, I've found two reliable alternatives.

The first is matcha, a finely powdered Japanese green tea. In nearly all respects, from color to taste to mouthfeel, matcha is coffee's opposite. That totality of difference is why it works for me: with matcha, there's no pretending that you're drinking coffee. Instead, it's a frothy spring green cup offering calm, sustained stimulation. I get mine from Portland's Mizuba Tea Co.. While you can't go wrong with any of their offerings, I like the Yorokobi variety. If that tiny tin seems spendy, consider that each of its 20-30 servings comes out to about a buck fifty, a price at which I defy you to get a decent cup of coffee.

What I start my day with, however, is MUD\WTR, whose brand really is stylized like that, forward slash and everything. Everything about it is designed to appeal to people whose last lingering bit of cool was already nearing room temperature in Instagram's heyday. I feel like an absolute rube buying it, but I've come to enjoy MUD, usually shaken up in a thermos of hot water with an ounce of almond or soy milk for body. It's like someone spilled chai (heavy on the cinnamon and ginger) into gritty unsweetened hot cocoa, which I recognize sounds gross but actually isn't. The effect is sufficiently eye-opening to get me from 7 AM to noon, at which point I self-administer matcha.

no matter what

for your soul

I should be writing fiction. Things get in the way: moving, troublesome appliances and utilities, the baby, business affairs.

More than all that, I get in the way of my writing. My fears are bog standard: the work won't be good enough, or nobody will see it, or if they do they'll be angry about what I've said. As much as I fear failure, I fear success pulling me back into the kind of 24/7 professional intensity that burned me out of tech. I worry about taking up space along all sorts of dimensions of identity.

There are shelves upon shelves of books for writers and artists facing creative blocks, and it feels like I've read most of them. My favorite was The Midnight Disease, which examines both writer's block and its opposite, hypergraphia, from a clinician's perspective, with the author as patient. There's the perennial The Artist's Way, with its exercises and twelve-step spirituality—I followed it to the letter at the outset of my writing journey. For tough love, The War of Art; then the balm of its gentle brother, Art and Fear.

A newer addition is Make Your Art No Matter What (2021). Artist consultant and trained counselor Beth Pickens has produced a guidebook that's easily digested, sensitive to artists' widely varying circumstances, and grounded in the practical. I didn't run back to my word processor after the last page, but I felt a little better for having read it.

Early on, Pickens distinguishes between artists and art-appreciators. Placing herself in the latter category, she says that artists feel compelled to make their art. Whatever their situation, when artists can't create, or don't, they're distressed. This was a useful reality check for me. At times, it's been compelling to think that since I haven't been writing, I might not be meant to write. But I feel better when I do, and bad when I don't. Damn.

bonus: Dry Cleaning

for your ears

A quick bonus, since this issue was so belated.

Have you heard Dry Cleaning, the band? I want you to hear them. Think Pavement meets Stereolab with, mm, a hint of Slint and a dash of Tortoise?

It may be helpful, going in, to know that the vocals are mostly going to be spoken, not sung, by Florence Shaw, a droll Englishwoman with clotted cream diction. Shaw shares internal monologue, or maybe snippets towards an acerbic novel. Many lyrics on their most recent release, Stumpwork (2022), sound like the couldn't-make-this-stuff-up overheard phrases that won faves on Twitter way back when. My favorite song, Gary Ashby is about a missing... I won't spoil it.

Until next time! Which I swear to Gaia will be in January 2023. If I'm late again, you can personally claim from me one (1) really nice chocolate bar or dietarily compatible equivalent.