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How lovable are you, on a scale of one to ten?

A few weeks ago, I woke up at 3am, for no particular reason, and lay in my bed listening to the city sleeping. My middle-class street in Tufnell Park was placid and at rest. Then I heard a woman sobbing, as she walked down the street. It was such a strange, piercing sound:  in the middle of the night, outside the silent family homes, was an adult weeping like a lost child. I wondered if I should get out of bed, put my clothes on, go into the street and offer her help. Was I really going to intervene in the messy chaos of her life? I went to the living-room to see if I could see her. But by then she had disappeared, and I went back to bed, slightly relieved.

The problem, as I see it, is that just about every human in the world doesn’t feel entirely loved or lovable. We carry the secret wound of our unlovable-ness deep within us, all through life, and out of these wounds our feelings of self-worth leak out, drop by drop. So we are constantly trying to top up our self-worth. And we do this in inappropriate ways.

The most obviously inappropriate way we try to feel loved is by piling up honours or wealth, in order to win the approval of strangers. We bring each new triumph to lay at the feet of other people, like a cat bringing in a dead bird. The feeling of being unlovable is actually an incredible motor for achievement. Hey guys, guess what I did? I’m lovable, right?

A likeability scale, from Forbes magazine

Alas, success doesn’t really make us feel loved. Success gives you a quick intoxication, and we might blurt out, like Sally Field winning her Oscar, ‘You like me! You really like me!’ But just as many people will envy and dislike you for success. And admiration is not the same as love. Admiration keeps you at a distance and misses your flaws. Love holds you close, and accepts you despite your flaws.

We seek love through celebrities. If they notice us, if they follow us on Twitter, if they sleep with us, we feel validated, connected to the beautiful people like Gatsby when he holds Daisy in his arms. Have a look at any of pop-star Harry Styles’ tweets and the desperate tweets his fans send him, begging him to follow them, and you get a snapshot of all the lonely young people looking for love in the wrong places.

We seek love through substance-abuse. Heroin, Russell Brand wrote, fills a hole in people, and ‘transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave…A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb.’ Alcoholics are also seeking love. There is nothing more boring than an alcoholic, because they desperately want to connect with you, with everyone, they just don’t know how to do it. Alcoholism, the Russian writer Vladislav Zubok recently suggested, can stem from a misdirected desire for togetherness and unity. And then, when the drunk fails to connect, their mood rapidly turns ugly. They lurch from eros to thanatos, from trying to bond to shoving the world away.

We seek love through food. I sat in a McDonalds yesterday at 5pm, sucking on a chocolate milkshake like a baby pacifier, and watched various overweight Londoners lumber in and order their Happy Meals, for their first dinner of the evening. They were seeking a brief good feeling from their trays of sugars and carbohydrates. I do the same. McDonalds’ adverts even try to sell themselves as the nation’s social glue, bringing together alienated family-members and different races and generations. Their slogan now is ‘We all have McDonalds in common’. Really? Are you saying the only thing we now have in common is Big Macs and fries? My God, it’s worse than I thought.

We seek love through technology. We constantly scan our smart-phone screens to see if anyone has Liked us. We have invented an app for everything, except feeling loved. Scientists tried – in the 1970s, they developed a computer programme called ELIZA, which tried to give people the feeling of being understood and accepted. There was briefly an idea to have ELIZA machines on every street corner, to hear our pain. It hasn’t quite taken off yet.

We seek love through sex. We give our bodies to strangers to get the experience of being held for a few minutes in silence. We pay someone to hold us.  Or we get the simulacrum of sex off the internet, without any of the messy intimacy. Can it be long before they start selling vibrating empathic robots to stroke our hair and tell us we’re worth it?

We seek love through therapy. We pay someone to give us unconditional acceptance, which the psychologist Carl Rogers said is the key ingredient in the therapeutic relationship. But is it really unconditional if you’re paying for it? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often accused of missing out this crucial dynamic of the loving therapeutic relationship, but the grandfather of CBT, Albert Ellis, emphasised the central importance of Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and Unconditional Other Acceptance. Who or what gives us the power to accept ourselves unconditionally? Apparently, we have the power. We can simply choose to accept and love ourselves, through some Nietzschean act of self-acceptance. It doesn’t sound that easy.

Deeper still, perhaps, are Buddhism’s various techniques and practices for cultivating loving-kindness. We develop the practice of observing ourselves, with all our flaws, and not judging or condemning ourselves – because, after all, ‘you’ don’t really exist at all, so there is nothing to hate (and also nothing to love).

And then there is the weird idea of grace – the idea that, sometimes in life when we are particularly lost, God lifts us up, tells us it’s OK, and puts us on our feet again. Without earning it or deserving it, we have a sudden sense of our creator’s limitless love for us, a sense of reunion with Him after a long exile. Such moments are incredibly healing. After long wandering in a desert, you find a hip-flask of water on you, which never runs out. We feel replenished in our ability to love other people too, to care about strangers, rather than merely tolerate them.

Greek philosophy also talks about learning to trust the God Within, rather than scrabbling around in externals in a desperate attempt to feel loved. But in Stoicism, learning to trust the God Within involves solitary ascetic training and logical Socratic dialectic. It means obeying the dictates of the cold and impersonal Logos. In Positive Psychology, the search for happiness likewise involves endless strenuous exercises – keeping a Gratitude Journal, savouring a raisin, cultivating your strengths, perfecting your Duchenne smile. I don’t know if that really heals the wound we all feel, of not feeling entirely lovable. It seems more like a solitary workout regime in the gym.  You scored 7 on the gratitude scale – keep going!

In Plato, there is more of a sense of connecting to the Divine through love. But in Platonic philosophy, both ‘love’ and ‘the divine’ are abstract intellectual concepts. To me, love is not a work-out regime, or an abstract concept. It’s a relationship. Love is a father sweeping up his child into his arms when she runs to meet him.

But if you believe in a God who loves, who intervenes, who sometimes sweeps you up in his arms, then you are left with the troubling question of why He sometimes doesn’t. Why is there so much pain in the world? Why do His children feel so unloved and alone? I think of that woman walking through the empty street at dawn, sobbing, and wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often. Then again, why didn’t I?


In other news:

A new ‘wireless philosophy‘ project from Yale and MIT.

The History of Philosophy podcast from KCL looks at Islamic philosophy’s ideas on music.

One of the weirder corners of American religion has come to light in the media this week – the ‘Christian Domestic Discipline‘ scene, or Holy Spanking. I’m not sure if this is a real thing or a send-up.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association asks why the decline of religion has not led to moral chaos.

In the Independent, Paul Mason looks at how and why revolution is sweeping through BRIC countries despite their rapid economic growth.

Meanwhile Martin Wolf gives a grim picture of how austerity policies have failed in the UK, in the New York Review of Books.

Tomorrow I wrote the cover story for the Telegraph Weekend – have a look and a laugh at the photo.

This week’s column was partly inspired by a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace, by Philip Yancey, which I’m reading at the moment. A great book, which also inspired a U2 song. Watch an interview with Yancey here

Some book reviews. First, Tariq Ali reviews a new book on the bitchy side of Sir Isaiah Berlin. The Economist reviews a new book by a French writer who went to live in a shed next to Lake Baikal (no, not for tax reasons). And in the LA Review of Books, a review of Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’, and the end of the dream of a psycho-pharmalogical utopia. Tao Lin also wrote a collection of poetry called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, by the way – one of the few instances I’ve come across of CBT influencing the arts.

Finally, it was very sad to hear about James Gandolfini’s death. The Sopranos is my all-time favourite TV show – I even considered writing a book about it last year, which gave me the excuse to spend most of August re-watching episodes. The show was about so many things, but particularly about the scarcity of love and the imperfection of families. Many of the characters love each other – Tony and Uncle Junior, for example, or Tony and Christopher. But their love gets lost under power, resentment and cruelty.

There’s no grace in The Sopranos – the two priests who appear are both weak and corrupt. Instead, the characters try everything from yoga to Prozac to psychoanalysis to search for fulfillment. I always thought Dr Melfi, the most famous therapist in literature, was a bit rubbish for waiting until Series 3 to offer CBT for Tony’s panic attacks, and the show itself is simplistically Freudian in making Tony’s mother such an out-and-out villain (unlike every other character). Still, what a show. Here’s the best article I’ve read on it, by Peter Buskind in Vanity Fair, which includes some amazing photos by Annie Liebovitz, like the one below.

See you next week,


Pills, Thrills and Corruption

The New York Review of Books has a good article in the last issue about the financial ties between US academic psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry, and the misinformation, bad research and lies that are propagated as a consequence of these ties.

It points out:

Of the 170 contributors to the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), ninety-five had financial ties to drug companies, including all of the contributors to the sections on mood disorders and schizophrenia. Perhaps most important, many members of the standing committees of experts that advise the FDA on drug approvals also have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

It starts off the article with the example of Dr Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital:

Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.

In June, Senator Grassley on the US Senate Finance Committee revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007.

Another example is Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, chair of Emory University’s department of psychiatry and, along with Schatzberg, coeditor of the influential Textbook of Psychopharmacology.

Nemeroff was the principal investigator on a five-year $3.95 million National Institute of Mental Health grant—of which $1.35 million went to Emory for overhead—to study several drugs made by GlaxoSmithKline. To comply with university and government regulations, he was required to disclose to Emory income from GlaxoSmithKline, and Emory was required to report amounts over $10,000 per year to the National Institutes of Health, along with assurances that the conflict of interest would be managed or eliminated.

But according to Senator Grassley, who compared Emory’s records with those from the company, Nemeroff failed to disclose approximately $500,000 he received from GlaxoSmithKline for giving dozens of talks promoting the company’s drugs. In June 2004, a year into the grant, Emory conducted its own investigation of Nemeroff’s activities, and found multiple violations of its policies. Nemeroff responded by assuring Emory in a memorandum, “In view of the NIMH/Emory/GSK grant, I shall limit my consulting to GSK to under $10,000/year and I have informed GSK of this policy.” Yet that same year, he received $171,031 from the company, while he reported to Emory just $9,999—a dollar shy of the $10,000 threshold for reporting to the National Institutes of Health.

The author, Marcia Angell, says:

No one knows the total amount provided by drug companies to physicians, but I estimate from the annual reports of the top nine US drug companies that it comes to tens of billions of dollars a year. By such means, the pharmaceutical industry has gained enormous control over how doctors evaluate and use its own products. Its extensive ties to physicians, particularly senior faculty at prestigious medical schools, affect the results of research, the way medicine is practiced, and even the definition of what constitutes a disease.

The result of this capture of US psychiatric academia by Big Pharma US consumers are lied to, with academic studies of pharmaceuticals often skewed to get a positive result:

Many drugs that are assumed to be effective are probably little better than placebos, but there is no way to know because negative results are hidden. One clue was provided six years ago by four researchers who, using the Freedom of Information Act, obtained FDA reviews of every placebo-controlled clinical trial submitted for initial approval of the six most widely used antidepressant drugs approved between 1987 and 1999—Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Serzone, and Effexor. They found that on average, placebos were 80 percent as effective as the drugs. The difference between drug and placebo was so small that it was unlikely to be of any clinical significance. The results were much the same for all six drugs: all were equally ineffective. But because favorable results were published and unfavorable results buried (in this case, within the FDA), the public and the medical profession believed these drugs were potent antidepressants.

Big Pharma and academic psychiatry is increasingly getting busted for this corruption. Senator Grassley on the US Senate Finance Committee has exposed several academics for mis-reporting their financial ties to Pharma, and several investigative journalists have also covered cases where Big Pharma has admitted lying about the effects of drugs. Melody Peterson of the New York Times, for example, has followed the example of Neurontin, made by Pfizer:

Neurontin, which was initially approved only for a very narrow use—to treat epilepsy when other drugs failed to control seizures. By paying academic experts to put their names on articles extolling Neurontin for other uses—bipolar disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, hot flashes, migraines, tension headaches, and more—and by funding conferences at which these uses were promoted, the manufacturer was able to parlay the drug into a blockbuster, with sales of $2.7 billion in 2003. The following year, in a case covered extensively by Petersen for the Times, Pfizer pleaded guilty to illegal marketing and agreed to pay $430 million to resolve the criminal and civil charges against it.

It’s an excellent piece, though it ends by bigging up a book by Christopher Lane called Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became A Sickness. This book argues that social anxiety was invented by Big Pharma in the 1990s to sell anti-social anxiety drugs. Big Pharma, Lane argues, was essentially medicalizing normal shyness.

It’s certainly true that Big Pharma saw a great opportunity with social phobia, and marketed the hell out of it. Nonetheless, as someone who was diagnosed with social anxiety, and who knows many other people who have suffered from it, I can assure Lane that it is a real condition, one that is extremely life-inhibiting and unpleasant, and worthy of treatment. I say that as someone who never took drugs for the condition, who never saw drug marketing about the condition, and who overcame it without the use of drugs.

It is a real and serious condition, but the stigma in talking about it is quite great, and of course people who suffer from it avoid the public spotlight, so I can well believe it is widely unreported and the real number of sufferers from the condition is greater than we may realize. That’s not to say we should all pop beta-blockers. Far from it.

Oh the transhumanity!

The best way to understand the present is to read science fiction. Only sci-fi writers are dreaming far enough into the future to tell us where we are in the present.

The news increasingly reads like science fiction. In South Korea, a company called RNL Bio received the first-ever commercial order for cloning. An American woman paid the company $50,000 to clone her dead pit-bull terrier, Booger.

Meanwhile, in the US, the world’s greatest scientists and futurists met to decide how science could best help the human race over the next 20 years. One of them, the scientist and futurist Ray Kurzweil, declared that in the next fifteen years, humanity itself was going to go through an upgrade, thanks to the emerging science of nanotechnology.

“We’ll have intelligent nanobots go into our brains through the capillaries and interact directly with our biological neurons,” Kurzweil told BBC News. The nanobots, he said, would “make us smarter, remember things better and automatically go into full emergent virtual reality environments through the nervous system”.
Kurzweil is talking about something called transhumanism. Never mind communism, fascism, or any of those other 20th century –isms. The –ism that’s going to cause all the debate this century is transhumanism.
The phrase ‘transhumanism’ was first coined in the 1950s by Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, who defined it as “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for human nature”.
The term was developed in the 1960s and 70s by thinkers like FM 2030– an Iranian called F.M Esfandiary who changed his name to FM-2030 because he put himself into cyrogenic freezing until that date, when he hopes to celebrate his 100th birthday. FM-2030 celebrated the powers of new technology to alter humanity itself, and enable us to speed up evolution and become post-humans.
FM-2030 was a sci-fi writer as well as futurist thinker (the two terms are fairly interchangeable) and other sci-fi writers, such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, helped develop the dream of transhumanism in novels of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) or Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), which introduced the public to ideas of artificial intelligence, cyberspace and nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology, or engineering at the molecular level, gets transhumanists particularly excited. Nanotech scientists like Eric Drexler claim that we are at the brink of a new technological breakthrough, similar in scope and significance to man’s breakthrough to the industrial age.
Where that age enabled us to construct bridges, railway lines, even airplanes and rockets, the diamond age will enable us to construct machines at the molecular level, with far less waste and pollution, so that we can command matter to do exactly what we want it to do.
We’ll soon be able to use nanotechnology, Drexler believes, to get all the energy we need from solar power; to make 99% of illnesses easily cured by specially-designed nanobot anti-bodies that will hunt down specific viruses in our blood and kill them; to augment our reflexes, our concentration, even our intelligence, with nano-implants in our bodies and brains.
The US government has already become excited about the possibilities this raises for their military, with nanotech assemblers making weapons much more easily, and cyber-soldiers running on the latest upgrades to make them quicker and more resilient in the field of battle. And if the robogrunts lose a limb, as so many soldiers have in Iraq, well, nanotechnology and biotechnology can manufacture new ones, even better and stronger than the originals.
And couldn’t nanobots be the ultimate weapon, an invisible intelligence designed to infiltrate and destroy your enemy’s information systems, including their brains? Thus, in the sci-fi book The Diamond Age, the cities of the future are all defended by nano-barriers, which search out and destroy any alien nanobots found trying to enter the city’s biosphere.
But the transhumanists are far more ambitious in their dreams than simply making better soldiers or weapons. They dream of rising above our natural limits, enabling out evolution into higher beings, becoming supermen. They dream even of immortality, attained either by learning how to replace all broken down organs with artificial ones, or even by downloading human personality into cyberspace, becoming pure consciousness, separated finally from the tyranny of matter.
All sounds pretty groovy, hey? Well, there are a few sceptics. Francis Fukuyama, for example, thinks transhumanism is “the most dangerous idea facing humanity”. Why so? He believes that new technology is in danger of destroying the idea of our common humanity, the idea that we are all human and therefore all worthy of the same dignity and respect.
In the future, Fukuyama worries, some of us might become more than human, might become post-human. The new technology will inevitably be more available to rich individuals or rich societies, so might create a “genetic overclass”.

At the moment, the rich have some obvious advantages over the poor, but there is still the “genetic lottery” of nature, whereby a kid born in the ghettos might be favoured with genius by nature, while the son of a millionaire might be a complete dufus. But the transhuman age would cancel out such a lottery, because the children of the rich would be genetically designed, and their personalities would be augmented by nano-implants, by chemical performance-enhancers, by biorobotic surgery.

The poor would argue this was giving the rich an unfair advantage – posthumanity should be the right of every human. The rich would argue that it is their right to give their children every advantage they can. And so the argument over transhumanity would assume roughly the contours of the contemporary debate over public schools – let’s not forget that one of the earliest visions of transhumanity, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is set at Eton College.
But Etonians, while they might feel it is their right to rule the world, are often bumbling buffoons – think of Boris Johnson, hardly a superman. But what if the rich elite really were qualitatively smarter, faster, healthier, what if they became a different species altogether?
This is the freaky scenario imagined by William Gibson in his cyberpunk novel, Count Zero, where the heroine meets the richest man in the world, a man whose body lies in a chemical vat while his consciousness exists as a multiple hologram, controlling a sprawling corporate empire: “she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human”.
In fact, a controversial report from Bruce Charlton, a professor in evolutionary psychology at Newcastle University, recently suggested that “higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes”. Needless to say, it provoked a shit-storm, implying that the upper classes were upper class not just through convention, but through biology…
If we no longer share a common humanity, then society, as Fukuyama pointed out, would likely become “far more hierarchical”, with the working class, or microserfs, either imported from less technologically developed countries, or specially engineered to be hard-working yet docile.
In fact, would there still be a shared society anymore? Or would society break up into discrete tribes, ruled by their own moral codes, and their own technical abilities? This is the future foreseen by Neal Stephenson in his book The Diamond Age, where the ruling tribe are the Neo-Victorians, who recreate the starch Puritanism and the engineering prowess of our 19th century ancestors.
But all this seems a long way away. Or does it? You begin to see it played out in culture and politics already. The hit films of the summer are Iron Man (pictured), about a man with a weak heart who turns himself into a superman through robotic engineering; and Speed Racer, about a racer who mystically fuses with his racing car.
As Time noted in an insightful article: “Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the first two big movies of the summer season are about men fusing with their machines. And instead of being conquered or corrupted by their ambitions, the new machine men triumph.”
Adverts are likewise growingly influenced by transhumanist dreams. The adverts for the new Puma football boots showing on TV at the moment show the football of the future, where athletes have become robotically enhanced and superhumanly skilled.

And indeed, these sort of futurist fantasies are playing out in real life. Oscar Pistorius, an amputee athlete who runs with specially designed blades for feet, has just won his landmark law suit to be able to compete in the Olympics this summer. The International Association of Athletics Federation tried to prevent him from doing so, because they claimed he had an unfair advantage over ordinary humans. Pistorius is no longer referred to as disabled. Now, he’s ‘augmented’.

The truth is, we are all transhuman already. I wear contact lenses, and have a metal pole in my leg where I broke it five years ago. I take omega tablets to enhance my brain power. I am considering getting laser corrective eye surgery. I tutor a boy whose mother gives him Ritalin to enhance his powers of attentiveness. Plastic surgery has become a normal part of our civilization, as has neuropharmacology such as Prozac or Lithium, or biotechnologically-manufactured drugs like the anti-cancer drug Herseptin.

One worries that an age where we can construct humanity will leave us without any dreams of man’s connection to a spirit world or divinity. We will be little more than computers, easily replicable, easily disposable. The dream of the ghost in the machine will fade, and we will be left in what Goethe called “a dismal atheist half-darkness, in which the earth with all her shapes, the heaven with all its celestial bodies disappeared”.

But don’t worry. Our dreams of magic and spirits will come with us, they will mutate and adapt to the transhuman age. In fact, what you see in a lot of contemporary sci-fi is a fusion of futuristic technology with animist ideas of spirits, gods and invisible powers from the pre-modern world. Think of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or The Matrix, or the anime film Ghost In The Shell. Even in the future, we are still likely to be “haunted by the ghosts of dead religion” as Max Weber put it. Call it techno-animism.


Dial H for Happiness

I’ve just finished reading Philip K Dick’s masterpiece, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Such a beautiful work. I find myself getting more and more into science fiction, because, as I’ve said before, we are increasingly living in a world where ethics and technology are mixing in strange ways that only sci-fi writers have really considered.

Dick’s novel, for example, considers the future of mood management. The characters in his novel all possess special mood diallers, or happiness machines, which connect directly to their brains, so that they can dial up various moods at will: 341, for ‘Long Deserved Peace’. 888, for ‘The Desire To Watch Anything On TV’. 38, for ‘A Positive Sense of the Limitless Possibilities Rising Up in the Future’.

The characters grow dependent on this mood dialler. They schedule their moods for the day. Except for the main character’s wife, who for some reason chooses to dial ‘Bleak Depression’, just because it feels more real to her.

Fantasy, of course, and yet civilization is increasingly enabled by mood management, via Prozac, Valium, Lithium, Cipramil, Olanzipine, beta-blockers, alcohol, caffeine, high sugar products, tobacco etc etc. These are, in many ways, mood diallers, that help us manage our moods to get through the complex daily demands of advanced civilization.

Is it somehow ‘fake’ to artificially manage our moods with external stimulants? If we invented a cerebral device that could dial our moods, would we be somehow cheating our nature if we fixed the dial on H for Happiness?

I asked Lord Layard this, the so-called ‘Happiness Czar’ for the British government. He thought that if a perfect drug was invented that made us all happy, then we should take it and the government should provide it. ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number’, even if it involved us all walking around in happiness headsets, receiving little electrical jolts of bliss every few seconds.

As for me…I still harbour an outdated and no doubt reactionary belief in the human soul, in the idea of the soul’s journey towards self-realization of its own divinity. That means I believe that, sometimes, unhappiness is not meaningless. It is our soul telling us to change how we live, to deepen our self-awareness.

That was certainly my experience of anxiety – it was the soul telling me my psyche was out of balance, that I needed to worry less what others thought of me, and learn to accept myself. If I’d just dialled ‘Deep Self-Acceptance’, then I would never have learnt that lesson for myself, and I would end up utterly dependent on my mood machine for self-acceptance. So I wouldn’t really have accepted myself at all, I’d have accepted the new, upgraded and artificial version of me.