The Diffusion of Knowledge

I\’ve moved to my mother\’s house now. I\’ve brought a car loaded with the most essential boxes – and an entire roomful left behind for my next trip to Cornwall. And that\’s after getting rid of everything I could possibly bear to.

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Getting rid was very very hard. I was sorting books and finding that for every two I put in the giveaway pile there were at least ten in the keep pile. Slowly I did manage to reverse this, mainly by forcing myself to decide really quickly and not think about it again. I allowed that if I needed a book before it left the house, I could keep it. Or if it was a book I needed for research or I loved rereading it.  Rules help when your cognitive centres are feeling overwhelmed – they delegate the decision-making to the past.

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It was really painful to invite in the people from the online secondhand bookshop and let them take their pick and then cart the rest down to the charity shops. I felt as sad as if I was saying goodbye to friends – at the same time as growling at myself for being such a sentimental idiot. People are important, things are not. Yes, even books are things. They\’re not really friends. I knew all this intellectually – but clearly not emotionally.

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And then there\’s the little matter of finally admitting that you are not going to learn Ancient Greek or really crack proper classical Latin, rather than the much easier medieval Latin I needed at Uni.

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A breakthrough came when I made the rule that I couldn\’t keep any worthy non-fiction tomes I was going to get around to reading one day. There were a lot of those, mostly unread.

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The problem was how knowledge diffuses. Or the problem is that it doesn\’t.

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Let me explain. Firstly, for any of you who didn\’t like science, diffusion is something chemicals do. Specifically they like to move from where there are a lot of them to where there are only a few, so they end up evenly spread. Rather like English people on a train.

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Or if you drop some ink into a glass of water, you can see it starting as a dark ribbon and then spreading out and thinning until all the water is coloured pale blue. You don\’t have to stir it or heat it, though that speeds it up. Diffusion happens naturally.

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So surely this should work for knowledge as well?

When I was at Uni, like most students I was subconsciously certain that just having the books in my presence in my room, stacked around my bed, meant that the knowledge concentrated in the books would diffuse painlessly and effortlessly into my brain where there was a notable lack of the stuff.

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In other words, no work necessary. I certainly didn\’t have to actually read the books. The knowledge would simply float mysteriously across.

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Decades later I was still deep down convinced of this. Hence the titanic struggle to get rid of all the heavy tomes on worthy subjects that I\’d acquired on the (hidden) assumption that I would get better educated by magic without actually having to do anything.

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Finally I had to admit I wasn\’t going to read them and improve myself. I hadn\’t in 30 years and the sad fact was, I never would. It was an enormous relief to do it, even though that useful diffusion effect I\’d been counting on, hadn\’t worked at all. My ignorance was no less, but the vague background guilt was suddenly gone.

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Go on, try it!

 

I don\’t believe it!

 

\"WAY

 

 

Something weird is going on here. My sitting room is now empty of furniture except an ugly melamine coffee table, but absolutely full of things I want to get rid of. Boxes and boxes and bags and bags of books went down to the various charity shops popping up all over Truro – which was the world capital of charity shops when we first moved here and may well be so again. Clearly Cameron\’s Double Dip is having the (predictable) effect of killing off the small traders and the interesting little shops that Truro has been full of recently. Recessions always benefit the big corporations because they have more… ah… fat.

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I\’m mostly giving it away. Maybe I could get some money for some of the things like my son\’s Playmobil collection, but I don\’t have the time or the patience to go through all that. Yes, I know eBay, yadda yadda… Maybe if I was an experienced eBay trader but not now when I\’m working to a tight deadline and have already spent what feels like months sorting and clearing. Also the postage charge restrictions means you can\’t really sell anything big or heavy that way. Or, put more accurately, I don\’t know how you do it, don\’t know who to ask and don\’t trust what Google might tell me about it (I\’ve made that mistake before).

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So. Gradually, wa-a-ay too slowly, my house is emptying, ready to be sold. And my weight is also slowly going down.

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Hang on. Back up. Did you get that? My weight is going down. Yes, I\’ve also come off sugar thanks to a horribly scary article in New Scientist a few weeks ago, linking sugar with Alzheimer\’s. As the Daily Mail has ignored the story, I\’m assuming it must be true. I\’ve been following some of the very odd suggestions in \”Six weeks to OMG\”, by Venice Fulton, the latest hot weight-loss book.  But that\’s not what\’s amazing.

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What\’s amazing is that it has not been a struggle. As my vast mob of possessions flows out the door it seems as if my body is finally willing to let go of my fat. True, when you stop eating sugar, after a week or two of feeling awful, you do suddenly stop physically craving the stuff and are less likely to find yourself in a robot-binge.

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What\’s happened now is different from that. There are no mental cravings. I\’m not lingering longingly in the enticingly stocked biscuit aisles of M & S any more, I\’m not struggling to pass ice cream freezers, I\’m not even hankering after chocolate. I had some on Saturday and… and… I DIDN\’T LIKE THE TASTE VERY MUCH!

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This is incredible. It\’s a miracle! Since I turned 13 I have been struggling with my eating problems and my tendency to eat everything not nailed down. I\’ve written an entire book of poetry about it, after all! Coincidentally – maybe – my book and thing collection has also been building since then.

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Now it may be that there is a mystical link between the stuff you have in storage and the fat you\’re storing on your belly, which is my body\’s favourite place to stash calories. Maybe the Feng Shui people are right and letting go of stuff means that your energy can flow better. Maybe it\’s just that my body has reached some mysterious threshold… I don\’t know. OK, yes, maybe it\’s the Six Weeks to OMG book – but I\’ve done low-carb diets before and struggled mentally all the way, even after my body had completely come off sugar, the heroin of foodstuffs. That\’s why I still need to lose weight.

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Just because the two things – clear out plus weightloss – are happening together, doesn\’t mean one caused the other. But it\’s really weird nonetheless. And very encouraging. That skip is going to be FULL.

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One Hundred Possessions, here I come!

One Hundred Possessions

I\’m in a state somewhere between shock, grief and pure annoyance with myself. My heart\’s pounding, I\’m feeling sick. Why?

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I\’m getting rid of my books. Some of them I\’ve sold to an online secondhand bookshop, the rest I\’m taking to charity shops. I\’m in shock at how many I\’ve got, how many I haven\’t even managed to read yet and how heavy they are. I\’m feeling grief because I feel like I\’m betraying my friends.

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And I\’m really annoyed with myself because after all, these are just things. They\’re not people. They\’re not really my friends. As my youngest son scathingly told me: \”They don\’t have souls. They\’re bits of squashed wood with writing on.\”

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It\’s been a really exhausting few weeks, I haven\’t touched my blog nor got on with writing a book that\’s already overdue because I\’m so overwhelmed at trying to give away, get rid of  or dump all the stuff in my house. That\’s so I can sell it, escape from mortgage, loan and responsibility and move back to London. The reason for this upheaval? So I can help look after my mother who has dementia and lives in a London house still stuffed with… stuff. I come from a family of stuffaholics, in fact. And although my mother can no longer remember why she owns the stuff she has, she is extremely against the idea of letting go of any of it.

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I have spent my whole life trying very hard not to be like her – yet here I am, in a house stuffed with stuff, dithering about whether I dare get rid of… anything.

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And I\’m nowhere near finished. Not even halfway. I\’m doing the books first on the grounds that if you start with the hardest job, the rest seems easier. It\’s more than three decades since I left home and the stuff has just mounted and mounted. I have cleared one attic and another awaits, looming above my puny efforts like an avalanche of… toys, books, old accounts, old martial arts kit, duvets, rugs, old clothes, Christmas ornaments… more toys, unfinished sewing projects, camping equipment… Just thinking about it makes me feel faint and weak.

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Somewhere recently I read about these Buddhist monks who are allowed just 100 possessions. I\’m not sure who they are – I haven\’t got round to consulting that great oracle, Google – but the idea has caught my imagination and my exhausted commonsense, the part of me that growls, \”Will you for the love of Mike just dump it all in the skip and get on with your life!\”

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Think about it. Just one hundred possessions. In total. Think how easy it would be to move. How little space you\’d need to store it all. Could it be done? Seriously?