Thursday, 4 October 2012

My travels through time

I'm going to start this week by re-explaining the part that fantasy plays in my life.  I've mentioned it before in this entry on how life ought to be magical.  However it's odd enough that I feel the need to reassert my position. 
I am quite sure that everyone has moments of whimsy in their life, where they imagine that everyone else is a robot or that they a really rather good friends with a tree.  It's just fun silliness and I think most people either disregard these thoughts entirely or enjoy them and move on.  My approach however is much more to cultivate them, to let them develop and play out until my walk to work is enriched by a whole row of tree friends. 
There's a tendency to (often correctly) think that entertaining such thoughts is akin to a kind of madness.  My point of view is that it is a lot more like play, as in the play of a child who gets totally enraptured in the world where their toys are having an important tea party without ever totally abandoning the world where Mum is making dinner downstairs.  I don't think we should be ashamed or worried about entertaining such fantasies as adults, there is a great joy to providing these fun little ideas with just enough belief to give them life.  Nevertheless, bringing up these ideas tends to garner me the type of odd looks which are reserved for the slightly insane.  Hopefully in this entry I can demonstrate why these thoughts are worthwhile and why letting a little bit of madness into your life for the purposes of play can be awesome.

Recently I have had the rather strange sense that I am moving backwards through time.  There are a large number of reasons for this.  In an unconnected series of events, I watched a few silent films, took up swing dance and saw a whole bunch of vintage cars and people dressed in vintage clothes.  The net effect was that my life was suddenly invoking the 1920s and, particularly because so many of these were totally random encounters out on the street, I began to feel as though that period was somehow sneaking up on me.  As though I might wake up one morning to find myself back then.
I was well aware, of course, of the scientific explanation for this.  That a number of events (the film watching and the swing dancing) had flagged those times as important in my head, causing me to much more easily notice these things as I walked the streets.  I say I was aware of this but I want to stress that I took this awareness and very quickly shoved it in a ditch for the simple reason that it was boring.  Instead I made a point of exploring this movement through time which was occurring to me.

I knew I was travelling back through time but I could also see that this wasn't at all like your standard science fiction time travel.  Rather than a sudden switch between two times I was experiencing a slow slosh, an intermingling of the two times until presumably one would completely take over.  This makes a certain amount of sense to me.  We all naturally travel forwards through time, but time is also divided (at least in humanities awareness of it) into fairly distinct periods.  Perhaps those periods had a certain separate existence and, by invoking them as I had, one could shift between them, moving from living a 2010s life into a 1920s one. 
I actually really love both the idea that time periods co-exist after a fashion* and that travelling between them would be a gradual shift, something which happened over the course of years rather than moments.  Both of those are ideas which if I'd simply dismissed my imaginings would never have occurred to me.  I also had a really fun few weeks as I imagined what life in 1920s Edinburgh might be like and what all my computing skills would translate to when I arrived.

Hopefully this has been convincing, but more than that I hope that it didn't come across as defensive.  There would be good reason for it to be, because I believe that the idea to write about this came from a situation where I repeated some of these ideas in company and was misunderstood completely.  However what I really want to do here is evangelise this approach to life.  It seems crazy to me that so many people have so little space in their lives for whimsy and play.  Maturity, whilst it is a perfectly good response in any number of life's situations, starts to stink a little like lack of imagination to me when it is overused.

*[There's actually a possible source for this idea.  Philip K Dick had a bizarre experience where he became aware that the Roman empire never went away, that it was just hidden behind the illusion of this modern life.  He spent many years and hundreds of thousands of words writing about this, through which he explored quite openly the possibilities both that this was all a delusion and that it was all true (and, I would expect, that both those answers could be true at once).]

Sunday, 30 September 2012

How art has failed

Last week was a week off from seriousness, but now that's over with it's time to put my pretentiousness cap back on and dive into the salty waters of Pretending-I-Know-What-The-Hell-I'm-Talking-About.  Today I want to talk about what art ought to be doing for society and why I feel that it is failing in that regard.
I expect that I will mainly be talking about literature here, but I want to make clear that when I say art I mean all of art, from paintings to plays to computer games to films all the way to the cruddiest reality tv show you can think of.  Anything created by people for other people to experience is, for the purposes this entry, art. 

What does it mean when I say 'what art ought to be doing for society?' well, that's a stupidly large question with a number of correct, and possibly conflicting, answers.  However what I mean by it is that art is a dialogue.  Art is a societies way of having a conversation to explain and explore it's problems.  In a crude example, people go to see a film about racism and that helps them to re-assess how they feel about the subject in light of how society (here played by the film) feels about it.  Obviously in more complex examples it can help people to process things like the death of a relative or the impending reality of their own death.  I don't want to give the impression that this is all about big questions however.  Reading a story about even simple life events allows people to live those out in their minds, it is a way of getting experience without any associated risks.  As such, when art represents the current status of society, it is a way for people to experience the full state of that society, with all of its associated complexities and depths, while still staying within their smaller corner of that society.

Within this definition, I think art is failing because the vast majority of it is extremely shallow.  The most populist fare, from reality television to blockbuster movies, tap into very basic emotions in a totally by the numbers way.  While completely shying away from providing any commentary on those emotions.  They simply aren't asking any questions which are of any use to people or, in many cases, aren't asking any questions at all.
Let me be clear, certainly there is art with incredible depth.  In almost every field there is a great wealth of material ready to be tapped, really important things being said in ways which have significance in all of our lives.  However I think the problem here is that there is a definite tendency that the more depth a piece of work has the further it is from being seen by most members of the public and this isn't the way that it has to be at all.  My counter example is clear, Shakespeare and Dickens.  Both of these artists had incredibly important things to say about human nature and the society they lived in.  Both of them also said these things in a way which was, at the time, incredibly popular.  For them their art was a balance between pandering to what the people would enjoy and saying things which would be important for those people to hear. 
This balance is something which, it seems to me, has fallen out of favour in more recent times.  Artists nowadays are often presented with a false choice between producing something trashy and popular or something deep and niche.  This is how I think that is how art has failed its responsibility to society.

So why has this happened?  Personally I feel that it is because we began analysing too deeply what makes art great.  This is fine by itself, but that analysis by necessity takes place in fairly segregated and often academic communities.  Once those communities are in place it's a small leap to see that the newer artists might be tempted to, for the sake of being recognised as great, write just for them.  That means writing using a language which is entirely based around that smaller community and using shorthand which is only understood within that circle. 
I think it is in these smaller communities that things have gone wrong.  I don't think it is impossible for there to be a modern Shakespeare or Dickens, I don't think there is anything about modern society which precludes that possibility (in fact, there are people we could point to and say that perhaps they are fulfilling that role).  However what I do think is happening is that there is now an assumed divide that something is deep or it is populist, never both.  This is a huge mistake.  For me it has always seemed that if an artist is expressing their message in a way which only a studied academic will understand then they are failing in their responsibility.  These smaller communities of commentary and understanding are stealing away the most creative types and best artists.
It is as though there is an assumption that if you aren't well educated or intelligent enough to understand certain points then you are not worthy of those points.  It may be that many people went to see Hamlet without any awareness of the deeper themes or issues which it contended with.  But to argue that they gained no benefit from those themes, that they were wasted on them, that seems to me to be an awful kind of intellectual superiority (not to mention untrue in my opinion).

I suppose this probably all comes from my definition of art as a dialogue.  By that definition it is reasonable to say that if hardly anybody is listening to you, then what you're saying wont be of any importance, whether it's a valuable thing to say or not. 
There are lots of ways to define art, it's intent and the values by which we judge its success and I'm sure there are arguments against what I'm saying here.  However I want to be clear, I'm not suggesting that anything be dumbed down, only that it be translated into a language which is accessible to everybody. 
Ultimately people will probably still be idiots.  The television executives will still commission the reality tv, the guy sat at home will still put it on because it's easy and he will still discuss it over the water cooler at work the next day, adding to its ubiquity.  However if we continually increase the divide towards a situation where products are entirely shallow and vacuous or entirely deep and impenetrable, then we're denying that guy his chance to even begin to dig him out of the hole he's found himself in, and that seems to me like a pity.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Who is my favourite super hero?

Particularly after the extreme seriousness of last week, I'm going to try and provide a little bit of balance to the blog by allowing myself to veer off into a few sillier and more casual directions. With that in mind I thought I'd provide a bit of a break this week by talking about something that kept me up last night. The question of who my favourite super hero is*.

From a very young age I had a great interest in super heroes. There's an old story my godmother loves to tell about me where, as a very young child, I unexpectedly jumped off a wall I'd been walking along and shouted “SuperTed”. Apparently I trusted completely that her instincts would to save my fall (she was thankfully equal to the task). On another occasion I remember hurting my throat quite badly by trying to swallow an entire banana in one go after I incorrectly “figured out” that this must be how Bananaman, who always ate them like that, got his powers to work. However I think these cartoon characters always occupied a slightly smaller place in my heart than the real superheroes, the ones who appeared in comics in America (that mythic land of my childhood). Those ones were so much richer and they had such a vibrant history and unseen past that was extremely enticing to me.

My earliest obsession was with Superman. I'm not sure exactly of the ages, but I would guess that he occupies a place in my life from the age of about four to eight. I remember I had a Superman t-shirt and a duvet cover and pillow (and they were wicked cool, I'd wear that t-shirt now if I could get it in my size). I'm not entirely sure about the details, but I think in my young mind I always understood that I WAS Superman, my having so many items depicting him couldn't just be mere chance. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would grow up and people would recognise me for what I was. I was quite certain that all of his powers were due to me as well, it was a very optimistic and promising imagined world. In that sense I think it is well matched to the hero himself, who is always presented as a symbol of virtue and potential. However I also think it is a fine symbol of the type of young man that I was at the time, supremely confident in my own abilities, trusting all of those around me and with a total faith in the security of my future.

The next focus for my attentions was Judge Dredd. For those of you not aware, Judge Dredd is a policeman in a city of the future. He applies every aspect of the law with a rigid certainty which is often totally unfair on the people he is subjecting to it, but he believes in his city and the order which him and the other judges subject it to. For the first time with Dredd I was able to go out and get the stories for myself, from roughly the ages of eight to thirteen I would often sit in WHsmiths for hours on end reading every comic they had. In Dredd not only had I discovered a world which I could immerse myself in, but I also suddenly had a deeper awareness of all the other things going on under the hood. There were years and years of Dredd stories and in my searching I would occasionally gain a little glimpse at them, at a whole world I wasn't aware of and big impressive events in its past. I never did manage to fill in those gaps but I didn't mind, somehow having my imagination fill them in let them, and Dredd by association, be so much more impressive.
There are all sorts of reasons why I liked Dredd, why he fit well with my life at the time. My Father had a cardiac arrest and was never the same again. I went to a private school and was no longer effortlessly in the top of the class (if I was lucky I was towards the middle). I began to enter my teenage years and the whole world of social pressures and rules which I was poorly equipped to understand. I think these do mirror quite nicely the more hopeless and grim struggle which Dredd's world represented. However I personally prefer to take the view that rather than my enjoying Dredd because of those things, that he came along at as a mirror to them (I'm rather enamoured of this idea that your fictional reality, whatever it consists of, is a microcosm of the macrocosm of you life... or perhaps even the other way around).
Whatever my attraction to him, the fact is that Dredd has some strong associations for me, that he represents in my head a time when my world suddenly became difficult, a thing to be fought against, even when that fight seemed impossible.

The next period of my life probably represented a much wider expansion of my interests, at least as far as comics went. There was one notable stand out though in the form of Batman, who I was probably mildly obsessed with throughout the rest of my teenage years. Through reading him I discovered some brilliant writers and for the first time I felt involved with some of those big events that I'd only heard about in Dredd's world. Batman to me represents the triumph of the normal man. He has no powers handed to him, in fact he had an awful start to life (if you ignore the many silver spoons crammed in his mouth), but he triumphed all the same, becoming a symbol of order and reason in much the same way that Superman symbolised hope and possibility. Batman was the genius polymath that I always half suspected I could be, but he was also dark, he was driven to those things by pain and it didn't ever seem to bring him happiness when he fought for what was right, it was just what he did. I'm struggling to figure out what Batman symbolises for me and my life, perhaps because so many more of those aspects are still with me. I think it is a return to the boundless possibility of my younger self, but a possibility which is now tinged by grim times and hard work. It was around this time that I decided I wanted to be a writer, though I still felt that it would come easy, that I would put pen to paper and be instantly declared a genius. I had no real concept of just how difficult achieving that ambition would be.

What now then? Well through my twenties I gravitated towards more complex super heroes, their worlds filled with drugs and magic and much more complex problems. Often this meant they didn't lend themselves so well to being symbols for me, though they often bore my obsession in much the same way.
However I'm still skirting around the original question which I asked myself, who is my favourite? I have such a well stocked pantheon nowadays that I could (and have) mulled that question backwards and forwards endlessly. There is a sense in which they all, having a particular character and mood, fit for particular situations and places in my life. That there are times when I need to be Batman and others when I need to invoke Dredd to get through the day. Really though, it's Superman, it's got to be Superman. My obsession with him goes back to almost before I could talk and in every other period of life he has always been there, waiting quietly. I in fact did end up being mistaken for him in a way. For much of secondary school my nickname was Superman (because I looked like Clark Kent) and even now people occasionally remark on the similarity. That same optimism has always been there too, that insane certainty that things will work out, that people are good and I can do whatever I turn my hand to. I'm not sure if it's a safe or sensible way to live, having that sense of security at my back, but if the past thirty years have taught me anything it's that life is happier this way.

*[It's probably worth admitting that, somehow, I ended up taking this silly idea rather seriously. I promise that this wasn't planned, I suppose the weight of ideas was just too great this week I'm afraid]

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Figuring out what makes you happy

I have recently been exploring what makes me happy, or perhaps more accurately, I have recently been questioning my own ability to determine what will make me the most happy. One of the big reasons for this is that I have been experimenting with internet dating. There is something about the process of looking through a large number of profiles of potential dates which allowed me to realise a few things.
Firstly, there are clearly a few things which I am attracted to that I wasn't previously aware of. It was only once I had such a large sample size and was exploring that side of myself in such detail that I was able to see them. I think it is clear how this applies back to the topic of this entry, that there are often things which make you happy, foods which you make like, people you may get on well with, activities you may enjoy, that you have no awareness of until you try them (and often until you've tried them at length).
Secondly, I found more and more often I was able to see that I could be happy, I could have a good time, doing a great variety of things. That is, I could see someone and think, 'yes I might like going walking with them' or 'I could enjoy going to the theatre actually' or all manner of other activities. Partially this is because I am a people person and with the right personal accoutrement I could see myself enjoying almost anything. However I think it is also partially an example of just how wide the potential space of my enjoyment is. My point here is that although there is a lot available to me, it is actually surprisingly difficult to rank those things against one another in my mind, especially something like learning to a skill, where it may be difficult and I have no idea how long it will take before it starts to become enjoyable.
Finally, there is a problem whereby it is difficult to ascertain the long terms 'fun' returns on any particular activity. This is especially true of dating, because experience teaches me that someone I get on well with in the short term may end up being a mortal enemy in the middle to long term and often vice versa. I might commit a lot of time to learning to play the piano, but the end result could be either that I have a new relaxing fun activity or that I'm never very good and don't ever come to like it. All of which comes to a head when you balance it against short term activities which I know to be fun (should I watch one more video of a kitten falling over, or make a start on writing my novel?). I tend to think that this category of problem is the reason that most people are quite static in their likes and dislikes. They know that they enjoy science-fiction or long distance running so it doesn't seem worth the cost or risk to attempt to branch out and explore even similar activities.
Hopefully all of this indicates why when I think 'what will make me happy?', I find more and more that question actually poses quite a difficulty.

My instinct, as with most problems, is to see what happens when you take a step back, what the problem looks like when I attempt to look down upon it from a little further away. Honestly from this position it is obvious to me that there is no real difference between how happy it will make you to spend your Friday nights doing martial arts or dancing your pitoot off. That is, they both fulfil some need, but they are interchangeable in doing so. Though people may feel some connection with or attraction to certain activities, I feel that the reality is that other activities would substitute just as well.
The question is then which needs can we best fill to make ourselves happy. Once that is answered, we can find activities and ways of filling our time that suit these in a pretty much paint by numbers fashion. Obviously most of you are probably now thinking that I'm treading old ground and that Maslow's heirarchy of needs suits this purpose rather well. Honestly I was a little worried that it did myself that's one of the reasons that this entry has taken so long. However having looked closely at Maslow's set up I feel that it is inadequate to truly describe a path to happiness. Ideas like self-actualization seem poorly defined and frankly the top end of the hierarchy seems woefully thin to me.
Obviously then it's time for me to try and define my own set of needs. Of course this is sheer arrogance, Maslow was quite a while ago and I'm sure psychologists and their ilk have expanded his ideas significantly since then, but I think it will serve as an interesting personal exercise to try and define them myself. Here then are my list of human needs to achieve happiness:
Novelty – I think the way our culture and society is organised caters to this quite well generally. We get new films, television and gossip on a daily basis and I think in a rudimentary sense, these are enough. However I believe our drive towards new experiences is one of our strongest and most vital and although the daily mush which appears on our screens is enough to fulfil that desire, we can make ourselves so much happier with a diet of richer novel experiences. I think this is one of the main roots of peoples enthusiasms towards holidays, they provide a concentrated burst of fresh input and that is extremely exciting to us.
Social interaction – I've written an entire entry on this and I am sure I will write more. What I want to add to that discussion here is that social interaction can mean any number of things, from dancing, to a deep conversation about the universe, all the way to a water cooler conversation about the weather. The common element which I think is necessary for happiness is for it to be explicit that other people are recognising you as a separate agent, that they show they are aware that you are another full human, like them. This is why some types of interaction do not satisfy this urge, for instance when somebody ignores your input into a conversation in favour of what they want to say. I think it is also why being patronised is so annoying. I'd also guess that it is why people who do not feel they are getting this interaction often act out in very strange ways which ensure they will be recognised and reacted to. Additionally I used to believe that the deeper a conversation the more it satisfied this urge for a social connection. I now no longer believe this, I think that any connection, so long as it has a required level of novelty*, fulfils this need whether it is a two minute conversation or an eight hour one.
Physical activity – There is a lot of research about how physical activity helps to improve our mental state (here's a nice simple run down article). My feeling is that this is because while you are exercising emotions are naturally damped down by the body and that this allows the breaking of what can otherwise be self-perpetuating cycles of depression or anxiety. Whatever the reason (I'm probably wrong) it is clear that exercise is a good thing for us. Having said that I am not entirely convinced that it could be said to contribute to our happiness. I think an argument could be made that this need, above any other, could be subsumed into other categories (that it's effects come from them, not from something inherent to exercise).
Personal action within the world - I'm not sure how clear that term is, but it's the one I've been using in my head for months so I'm afraid you're all stuck with it now too. This originated from my thoughts about Magik (here) but I realised it has an effect in many different areas of life. The fact is we like to feel as though we have some power over the direction of our own lives and when we don't it is extremely frustrating. We can lose this sense of control through any number of ways. Coming to terms with our lack of it is one of the aspects which is most difficult about any personal tragedy. At its worst when we feel powerless against our emotions it leads to all sorts of attempts to take it back, such as cutting or even contemplating suicide. However I think it is a mistake to think of this only in terms of the lack of it. I feel it is noticeable that for even very stable individuals the more that they feel they have a sense of personal action over the events around them, the happier and freer they seem to be. In that sense, it is always worth striving for more of this (yet another reason why picking a book from your bookshelf or the library is a better option than accepting whatever dross is doled out on television that evening).
Achieving excellence – Almost anyone whose ever done anything really well knows how good it feels. Beyond wanting to achieve success and become popular I believe that simply doing a task well is a joy onto itself. One side of this is in the awareness of how much we have personally improved, this gives a sense of progression and accomplishment. The other side is that I believe any skill, when taken to a certain level, enriches and deepens. A master furniture maker may understand and appreciate things about furniture which I don't even understand, and that will naturally add whole new vistas to his enjoyment of the process. I have my suspicions that this extra depth also does something strange to our brains, that once an obsession has taken hold it allows us to reprocess and re-frame events in our lives in a completely different manner. I don't want to get too bogged down just now though, so for now I'll just say that doing things well is fun. Whether it's building an intricate chest of drawers, or playing Pacman, seeing ourselves do well is a powerful feeling.
Achieving flowFlow is a psychology term which I've generally seen explained as being when you are so involved in an activity that your awareness of both yourself and the outside world falls away, leaving only that activity. The classic examples given are dancing and martial arts. In both of these thinking about what to do first and then doing it will likely be too stilted, to be truly proficient you are forced to let yourself react instinctively, through learned responses. Still, I think most human activities can allow this kind of deep involvement and loss of self, even sedentary ones like fishing or intellectual ones like writing, though they may both produce it less often and to a lesser degree. It is fairly known that flow is an extremely enjoyable process to go through, however there seems some argument as to why. As far as I am concerned I tend to think that it is because we spend so much of our time dedicated to our inner dialogue and sense of self, that putting it aside for a few moments is a huge mental relief.
Long term goals – All I mean by this is that we like to be able to see beyond our current horizon. That we have a tendency towards short term thinking and having something more long term (whether, actually, it is in the future or the past) to look at outside of that short term bubble allows us to see ourselves as more permanent and well defined within our worlds. It also provides perspective, allowing us to see beyond local mishaps. Again I think these kinds of goals could be something as simple as a holiday or a bigger task, like learning to play the piano.

That then, is my list of needs. Honestly I learned a lot just from writing those definitions. It concerns me a little that I can't see any specific space up there for either sex or love, both of which I think are fairly central to human lives, but then I'm happy to leave myself at a stage of incompleteness as I think even attempting this list was an act of severe foolishness and arrogance (both admirable qualities in their way).

I expect that I will revisit many of these over the next few months, as nearly all of them warrant their own entry all to themselves.

I thought it was worth taking a paragraph to apologise for the lateness of this new entry (not the best start to the new season). Also to point out that I know this reads like every self help book ever. I suppose my defence is that I think talking about these things in a strictly “this is what I think” way can be helpful and illuminating, even if it is a little silly.

*[when I say novelty what I mean is that a simple: “How's it going?” “Good you?” “Yeah okay” is often not enough for us, as there is no room for either player to act as their own agent]

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Season Two

Without really intending to I disappeared from this blog for a while. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but what was really interesting is that after a while I found I was having all sorts of interesting ideas which I wanted to write about. I apparently need an outlet like this for the growing landscape of my thoughts.
I also realised how important good ideas are to my enjoyment of fiction. I don't mean the clever setting or plot, but that fact that sometimes it is obvious through the course of the story that there is more going on in the author's head beyond just those factors. The Mistborn trilogy (by Brandon Sanderson) which I recently read is an excellent example of this. It is a well plotted and all over a wonderful story, but there are also some really deep themes about faith and loyalty explored throughout the books which struck more of a tone with me than any of that other stuff *. With that in mind I'd like to keep up my practice, keeping my thinking muscles exercised so that they'll show through the tight t-shirt of whatever I choose to write.
Two perfectly good, and perfectly arbitrary, reasons to swallow the embarrassment of failing and get back to posting here.

With that in mind, this is the announcement of season two of my blog. It will be every Thursday as before and with any luck this time I will be able to keep myself from having too many unexpected breaks. As for how long a 'season' will last. I have no idea, most likely it will last for as long as it takes for the world to interfere again or until I temporarily run out of ideas, whichever comes first.

Finally I thought it would be interesting to give a quick sneak peak at some of the ideas which are clamouring to escape my mind in the coming months. Here's a few sneak peaks at a few ideas which are coming up:
- After a few fruitless political arguments, I'm keen to do a piece about why politics and passion get mixed and why they definitely shouldn't be.
- 'Do the hard thing' has become something of a motto of mine in the past year or so. I'm going to explore that idea fully and explain how as society steps into the future it will become ever more important.
- I have a rather strange idea about how the creative people of society have failed us all, leaving us to endure constant re-runs of Britain's got talent and CSI what-have-you.
- I've always been curious about the morality of harming our own creations. That is, having written a story with actual story people in it, why is it okay to let such horrendous things happen to them? I expect this will be an awful mess and, after meandering a little, I will end up claiming that reality isn't really real... sounds like fun to me.
All of that and who knows how much more coming up in season 2 of Mea Tulpa. I'm looking forward to it and I hope you are too.

*[By contrast I recently saw the Avengers film and I was surprised that, though it was really enjoyable, there wasn't actually anything going on under the hood. Although this didn't really detract from the film for me, it did keep it from being an absolute classic in my opinion]

Thursday, 12 July 2012

What will I be thinking?

Despite the similar title this week's entry isn't going to have very much in common with last week's. However, before I give a more direct explanation I'd like to give a little background on where this entry is coming from. Just recently my life has been pretty turbulent. Work, as evidenced by my unreliable entries here, has been very hectic (and promises to continue to be for the next few months). I've fallen behind on a lot of my personal goals, particularly with regards to writing and finally I've had a few somewhat upsetting personal matters. All in all it's led to both my thoughts and actions being a little messy.
As a result of this, I came back to an idea which someone suggested to me a long time ago, that I think about all of my current problems, decisions and circumstances from the perspective of myself in four years time.

This is a similar concept to the one I brought up in the entry on Robert Anton Wilson (that by taking up a different perspective on life, or 'reality tunnel' as he called them, we can learn a great deal). I'm trying to consider everything in my life as though I am me in four years time looking back. The advantages of this should be obvious. Things which upset me now will hardly bother me in a few years time and there are pursuits which I might shy away from in the short term which would be wonderful in the long term (learning a language or instrument for instance), painful experiences may even, taking the long view, seem beneficial.
Obviously doing this is pretty easy in some ways, I can look back to four years in my past and see which things from then still matter to me now. However it is, in the way which many matters of the head are, dangerous and easily usurped. If I want to do something now that would probably be a bad idea in the long term, I may still be able to find an argument that it is a good idea, that the best possible outcome will have turned into a very beneficial one for future me. What this perspective is guaranteed to do though is enforce a certain patience. That is, whatever rash activity I'm planning can easily be done in a couple of week's time without any harm from future me's perspective.
What I want to stress is that actually forcing myself to take this position turned out to be far more valuable than I'd thought. I was already able to intellectually say to myself that painful things happening to me now are nonetheless beneficial, but knowing that in a purely reasoned way didn't seem to help. By playing the part of this future me I was able to feel that fact, to actually take on the benefits of that experience and point out to myself how influential it had been. It's a little like the difference between reading Shakespeare to yourself, seeing how Romeo feels and actually playing Romeo on stage, acting it out to precisely experience those feelings. Perhaps I'm giving myself too much credit, but I'm trying to point out how different it is to think about a situation and to actually feel it.

Having experimented a bit with this point of view I don't actually think it is a good place to live, mentally. There are a great many things from day to day which now-me may very much enjoy but which future-me would have no interest in. I'm sure future-me would prefer I ate only roughage and exercised every day, but that would be a very boring life, a little cake now and then adds spice to life, it makes it more joyful. However I do think this is an excellent tool to have in my psychological toolbox. A way of thinking to bring out whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or worried by my present life. Often I've found that it indicates much more clearly how little of a problem things are than they feel and gives me a good idea of the proper way out of the current situation.

The final thing I want to mention is that, having toyed with this point of view quite a bit recently, I've found that it has altered my perspective quite significantly on a number of issues. It hasn't done this in quite the way I expected however. I haven't thought much more deeply about my future career or the family I may one day have, those things both seem too random and too unpredictable to me. What it's really made me think about a lot more is the games of chance in every day life. That for every two hundred people I meet there may be one who turns into a lifelong friend, making each one of the potentially boring hundred and ninety nine conversations seem much more worthwhile. Equally it's made me consider self improvement as much more of a ongoing and valuable journey. I would like, eventually, to be someone who could be described as charming. That may not be possible, but I believe even more strongly now that socialising is just a matter of practice and pushing yourself. With this in mind, each one of those boring conversations is also a chance to practice, a honing of my skills and an opportunity to try something which, while it may embarrass me in the short term, may turn out to be a new skill I can use.
Both of these ideas apply to all sorts of areas of life and have left me thinking about, not so much where I would like to be in four years, but who I would like to be.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

What was I thinking?

This will only be a brief entry, but it's a subject which I'm truly fascinated about so at some point in the future I may delve further (for this week I've only done the bare minimum of research).
The origin of this idea came when I had a brief course in psychology back at university. Some of the work I did was an essay about experiments done on split brain patients*. That is people who, due to epilepsy, had the connection between the two halves of their brain severed.
In the experiments a different image is presented to each eye of the patient, they are then asked to point to one of a set of images in front of them which they associate with what they're seeing. What happens is that the left hand points to an image connected to what the left eye is seeing and the same for the right hand **. That is, if the left eye sees a car, the left hand will point to a wheel, and if they right eye sees a desk the right hand will point to a computer. This is because each half of the brain is only connected to one eye. The point is that these two halves of the brain, although they can no long communicate with one another, are still both operating as separate entities. It's as though they are two full people in this one body.

That's fascinating enough, but the experiment which really got me was when the left brain (which deals with all of our language) was asked to explain why the right brain had pointed at something. The example given below (* under the section 'false memories') is that the left brain saw a chicken's foot, so pointed to a chicken, and the right brain saw a snowstorm, so pointed to a shovel. Obviously, with no communication, the left brain has no idea what caused the other hand to point at a shovel, but when questioned the subjects would confidently explain that it was to clear out the chicken coop. They would completely believe this reasoning, providing similar examples in other tests. Whenever I read about it in the literature this seems to be treated like an afterthought, a fun little trick which they caught the brain playing on itself, but to me it seems huge.

I've always been a little suspicious of my brain and of the reasons I give for doing things. Here is evidence that, even if we have a decent sounding reason for an action, we may actually not know the real explanation behind it at all.
I realise that most people are pretty confident that, when they take some action, they know why they took it. This may all sound like hand waving rubbish to you, but just for a moment entertain the possibility that it isn't so certain.
There are often times when I will look around as I walk along the street and, finding I have looked around, I will think to myself that the reason I did so was to look at that pretty lady who just walked past. Upon careful examination, if I'm particularly awake, sometimes I catch the fact that I didn't even notice the lady until after I'd turned around. I really looked around because I saw a flash of colour, or because I thought I saw an old friend, or some other reason which is no longer retrievable from the ether. However, in my internal narrative I came up with an explanation for the action after it happened, using the information available to me at the time (just as the split brain patients do).

I used to ponder this idea a lot, thinking about the possibility that perhaps we all live just a split second after the moment. That we are simply observers of our actions who come up with explanations for our actions after the fact.
Clearly this isn't always the case. After all there are certainly times in conversation where I consciously stop myself from saying something, realising that it would offend or upset the person I'm talking to. However it is noticeable, to me at least, that when I'm policing my thoughts like this my repartee is noticeably more stilted and awkward. The times when I'm really enjoying myself and connecting with someone else are precisely the times when I'm not thinking about what I'm saying, when the words come out long before the thoughts which follow.
That is why, nowadays, I tend to think in terms of a thinking brain and a flowing one. The flowing one, like a carefree person, can enter any situation and speak or act easily without worrying, until something knocks the thinking brain into action. However, all my greatest thoughts and achievements came about as a collaboration. Without the thinking brain the flowing one wouldn't ever get anything done.
I suppose nowadays I wonder more about what the right balance is between the two and how to more accurately call upon each brain as and when I have need of it.

* [ is a pretty decent round up of a lot of this research. There is much much more, but that will have to wait for a later entry]

**[confusingly, the left brain is actually in control of the right eye/hand and vice versa because of the way the brain is wired. I'm going to mostly gloss over this here, because although interesting it's not really relevant.]

Friday, 29 June 2012

Shakespeare would have lol'd

I think last week's entry was probably my most successful thus far, at least in terms of the amount of feedback I received. This was awesome, because I like thinking about and discussing these things and I've had quite a few of those conversations over the past week or so. However the flip side was that I was made to feel rather silly. Almost everyone I spoke to pointed out a flaw in my reasoning or a very obvious reference that I'd missed. For instance, I hadn't noticed how relevant 1984 was until it was pointed out to me (luckily just in time) and I only recently got pointed in the direction of Whorfianism, which I'd somehow skipped over entirely. It's a little humiliating, realising how little I know about a subject I've been specifically writing about, but actually, I'm choosing to see this as a positive thing. I think there are many of forms of ignorance that only really go away when you put yourself out there such that people can see how little you know and, for me, this was definitely one of those times. I am now just a little better informed.

In this entry I'm going to build on what I talked about last week to look at how the development of language may be effecting that of society. Interestingly, even last week before I knew about it, I was moving away from Whorfianism (simplifying a little, it says that thoughts and ideas are almost synonymous) and towards a more organisational way of understanding words. That a new word is like a filing cabinet for your head, suddenly you have a new place to put all of the things which fit into some category, say, dogs. This means that not only can you more easily talk about dogs, but you can also relate them to other things in your head with a lot less difficulty. You are saying 'dogs are like wolves' rather than 'these 5 small animals with four legs, which I remember are all quite similar, are like wolves'. Words don't allow thought but they do effect it, allowing it to be much more agile and precise.
In the newspeak of 1984, Orwell suggest that this could be used to limit thought. That by removing certain words you could prevent people from rebelling or even discussing rebellion. Not only is that a singularly negative way of looking at this idea, but I also think it's a little flawed. New words have always come into existence throughout human history so even a limited vocabulary wont stay that way for long*. The process through which this creation of words happens is what I'm going to be mulling over in this week's entry.

An interesting example is the fluidity of language during Shakespeare's time. At this time the printing press was only just starting to have an effect, with more people reading than ever before. This meant that most words had no definite spelling, the first dictionary didn't arrive until 1755 and even the Shakespeare himself had no single way of spelling his name (he himself used several different versions). Of course spelling isn't everything, but what I'm getting at is that there was a tremendous uncertainty in the language and this was a period when many aspects of it underwent tectonic shifts. There was huge scope for new words to come into being. In fact, if we return to Shakespeare, he is often credited with adding over 1700 words to the English language. If we accept that new words, even just a little, alter the way that we arrange things in our head, then it's exciting to think just how big of an effect 1700 new ones might have, just how many new ideas might be suddenly within reach.
Obviously this is a hand wavy theory, there would be no way to prove this. Even if we could easily map the development of language over time, it would be next to impossible to show that it was having any effect. However, if I can persuade you to put down your scientist hats for a minute and just enjoy the idea, it's easy to see how it might do, to get a feel for how big an influence this might have had on the development of human society. There's the old idea of steam engine time, that many inventions simply seemed to have a time, coming into existence at the same time on opposite sides of the world. Perhaps in some small way this, and even larger social changes, are brought about by language.**

The reason I brought up the fluidity of language in Shakespeare's time is because I believe that we are currently in a similar situation. The advent of a huge number of new forms of communication means that we are speaking to each other in an ever increasing number of different ways. Mostly this is through the likes of Facebook, text messages, Twitter, all of which heavily favour brevity. This has led to the modern abbreviations like lol, rofl and wtf ('laugh out loud', 'rolling on the floor laughing' and 'what the fuck?'). These new words allow new ways of speaking, for instance it wouldn't previously have been normal to finish a sentence by stating that you are laughing out loud, even in a purely text format like a letter. Equally these words are still in flux, for example, while there is a clear interpretation of what 'lol' means, there is no consensus on different forms of that word (every source I checked for the title of this post suggested a different form for the past tense). There are also a whole series of emotional additives, in the form of ascii faces such as :), :P and :O (smiley face, cheeky face and shocked face respectively). Though not really words, these are hugely useful and ubiquitous to the point that I genuinely find them useful in determining the intent of a statement (“You are an awful person.” and “You are an awful person :P” read completely differently to me). My point is that I think now, more than at any other time in the past two hundred years, we are on the verge of a huge expansion of the dictionary, of our every day vocabulary.
Of course a lot of these words are quite utilitarian, simply condensing emotions or feelings which were found to be needed. There is a whole other set of words which I would expect to see emerge soon, dealing with how we relate to all of this new technology, with the new concepts and situations which it brings up in our lives.***

When I started this entry, my imagined conclusion was that I would show how potent the current state of language is and then evangelise carefully adding words to lead society in a better direction. I have a tendency to err on the side of optimism and, in retrospect, I think in this case I was doing so to an extreme degree.
The trouble is that words and their meaning (particularly very potent ones) are almost always taken from the control of their original creator long before their meaning has fully taken shape. This makes it entirely impractical to alter the course of human history by intentionally creating words (no matter how attractive that concept might be to a romantic such as myself). Of course that doesn't stop people trying, the best example is in the political sphere, where phrases like 'job creators', 'pro-life' and 'broken Britain' are constantly being coined in an effort to rewire how we see the issues (I don't know if it works, but there sure are a lot of people trying). There's also the whole issue that, assuming we could create popular and carefully crafted words, what would we alter. Even something which seems innocuous, say, a word which makes you see everyone you meet as friendlier and more human, could have all sorts of unplanned knock on effects (devaluing friendships perhaps).
Sadly then, I am backing away entirely from my enthusiasm about social engineering through words. However, I still think that it is incredibly exciting that we live in such a time of change, there is so much potential for society to change in our lifetimes. Additionally, I rather like the idea that there's an opening for a Bard of the 21st century, perhaps our circumstances are crying out for a new Shakespeare, I'd rather like to see what a totally modern Hamlet equivalent might be like.

*[Of course an omnipresent and brutal dystopian police force can put a stop to that process in Orwell's world]

**[I'm taking the idea quite far here, but I like to do that with unprovable but interesting ideas. I just find that, although you're proving nothing, it can be fun to let your mind live in that world for a while and see where you end up]

***[My favourite example of this is 'Eternal September' (the original meaning of which can be seen here), which is used to refer to the ever present nostalgia that users of any internet community feel for the time when they first joined, before all the subsequent people arrived and lowered the quality (a sense which, for anyone who spends a lot of time online, can be hard to shake)]

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Words Beget Words

I love words. Used in the right combination and order they can do all sorts of wonderful or horrible things to my brain. However I've recently been thinking about the greater power they have, the idea that, words don't just allow us to explain our thoughts, they allow us to think them. That they act like little maps, allowing us to link up things and people with ideas and concepts, creating a more complex web than we would ever have arrived at without them.
The first place I encountered this idea was in George Orwell's 1984. He wrote an entire essay detailing how the totalitarian government created the new language of Newspeak specifically to be limited so that not only was there no word for rebellion, but there was no way of even constructing that concept from the existing words. This is essentially the same idea that I am talking about, that without the word for “rebel”, without a way of saying it out loud, we wont even be able to think it internally.
However, I think Orwell has chosen a singularly negative way of interpreting this idea. Indeed the more recent catalyst for this entry was an excellent podcast: Radiolab – Words, which delves into the science behind the idea. This week, using that science as my starting point, I'm going to attempt to show a much more redemptive side to the power of words

The power of new words is that they allow us to express new things. To be able to say “that is a car” rather than “what is this strange horseless chariot of yours?”. However there is real evidence that without the words to express them, we simply aren't able to think certain ideas. The wonderful example from the podcast I linked above can be found here, but in case you don't fancy listening to it, I'll try to put the gist here (if you do listen to it, just skip the next paragraph... they explain it far better than I expect I will).
It started when some researchers found a school with a large number of deaf children, where the teachers didn't know how to sign. Obviously this meant the kids didn't learn much, but it also meant that, because there were so many of them together, they created their own sign language. At first it was really basic, and this is the interesting part, because access to such a limited language allowed the researchers to do some tests with respect to that. They showed a video in which a boy puts his toy in a chest then leaves the room and, while he is gone, his brother takes the toy and hides it under the bed. The children were then asked, when the boy comes back, where will he look for the toy and, surprisingly, they said that he would look under the bed. The exciting implication is that this is because they had no words for think and know, they simply weren't able to infer that the boy didn't know what they now knew.*
It's really fascinating, we can think, albeit a little fuzzily, about what this might mean for someone with very few words. For instance, if the only word I have is “cookie”, then I might point to my mouth and use this word, expecting to taste a cookie soon. When you leave the room to fetch me my cookie, I will have no idea where you have gone. If I have a word for fetch/bring, then I might be able to infer that a cookie is being brought to me, but then, with no word for distance, or even time, I wont know how far the cookie is coming from or how long it will take. Obviously I am taking this to extremes, humans without words aren't simply unable to interact with the world, but looking into the evidence it is shocking how close we are to that state in some ways.
In this study (warning that's a pdf link, so may take a while to load) they demonstrate that even in something as utterly basic and universal as spatial reasoning (in this case figuring out which corner of a box is which) language makes an appreciable difference. Having the words to say this is to the left of that, allows you to recognise these conditions better. Another example, this study demonstrates that there are invariant factors in our understanding of geometry (which aren't effected by language), but they also reference some examples which definitely are. For instance comparing a couple of primitive tribes which were given pictures of shapes to sort, only the tribe which had words for the number of edges on an object ever sorted the pictures with that in mind, the other ignored shape entirely in their organisation.**
It surprises me that these things make such a difference, I would have thought it was reasonable to assume that shape recognition was totally independent of language. It's also worth noting that these studies look at the things which are easy to test, that is, very concrete and easily presentable ideas. More complex concepts may work in the same way or they may not, but it's certainly a lot more interesting to assume that they do.

In the previous section I presented rather a lot of actual hard science to demonstrate that this is happening, what's missing however is any mention of what is causing it, how words effect our thoughts. Science hasn't yet started to describe this, but that doesn't stop me, for the sake of intrigue, making my own attempt to do so.
I choose to think of it as though we have a lot of different nodes in our head, not individual neurons, but perhaps collections of them which make up various concepts or images. In this way we might have a concept of “car” which is a vague idea of what constitutes that type of thing. That would naturally be linked to a collection of images which show us what cars look like, then probably also to a very particular image which we know refers to our own car. What I'm getting at is that, it is these connections which allow us, when thinking (in language or otherwise) to jump between various ideas in an agile and context dependant way (to immediately go from a description 'Andy was in a car' to a reasonably accurate mental image of that scene, with no further description needed).
In this sense what is happening when we learn a new word like “time” is that first we have all of our individual concepts of the passage of time: the sun moving across the sky, the space between setting out to get somewhere and arriving there, the gap between dropping a stone and it hitting the ground. This new word then allows us to link them, to match them up so that rather than having a vague instinctive understanding of each, we can see that in fact they are all the same. I knew what time was before I had the word for it, but learning the word allowed me to better marshal my thoughts, to use the idea in a much more plastic and informative way.
This is what I think new words are doing. They are taking different nodes in our brain and providing a link where before there was none. This then allows us to much more easily leap between those nodes, making that connection not just a vague possibility but a hard wired known fact.

This whole way of understanding language seems to me hugely important. Contrary to Orwell however, I am going to choose to look for the possible benefits to be found here and that is what, over the next few weeks, I will be looking at. Next week I'll go over the changing of language and whether I think it is possible to move it (and so humanity) in a specific direction. The week after I may, if the subject still interests me, look at one particular word and the harm which I think it has done to our society.

*[The scientists also found, when they went back years later, that the language had developed. That the children now knew that the boy would, mistakenly, look for the toy in the chest where he left it. They even found the adults who had contact with these children and their new words, also now understood this fact.]

**[As I was finishing off this entry I came across an excellent visual representation showing how having different words for colours actually effects how you see colour. You can see it on youtube here]

Sunday, 3 June 2012

What to say, what not to say

Recently someone pointed out to me the possibility that I might be causing myself problems with this blog. Specifically that as my career as a writer goes forward someone may find it, causing all my various opinions to bite me in the arse. That writing I've put here, even as a throwaway aside, might come to define me and my future career in a way I hadn't intended. Honestly I had vaguely considered this idea, but not to this extent and I dismissed it without much thought. Still I'm always keen to take on criticism so, I thought, what better way to deal with this than by taking it on directly, right here.

My instinctive reaction to being challenged on this was to reject the idea. That, if some of my opinions put someone off then they simply aren't one of my readers. I enjoy writers who think deeply about controversial issues, I have a huge respect for them and that is the kind of writer I would like to be. It feels antithetical to me to self censor if you want to produce work which actually deals with subjects of any importance.
However, there is something I noticed after I had this reaction. Specifically that it came from a deep gut place which I have come to distrust. That's not to say that my gut is wrong, but that when I have such a strong reaction it normally indicates that, while this is an area where I have quite strong feelings, I also probably haven't thought about it enough for my opinion to be of much worth. That same instinctive sense of right has obstructed me from considering this issue in a more reasoned fashion.
Normally my response on finding such powerful emotions is to, with great care, put those feelings aside and make a concerted attempt (through reading and discussion) to come to a more methodical and reasoned judgement. Then I subsequently try to resolve that judgement with my emotions until I can, hopefully, coalesce these into a more rounded conclusion. In this case though, I'm reticent to do that, because this particular deep well of emotion is clearly linked to my feelings about writing, my respect for writers and my desire to be one of them. I don't want to delve too much into the architecture behind that desire for fear that I might, in doing so, undermine it. That might sound silly, but I feel that there is something inherently irrational in a desire to write. I don't want to challenge it because I recognise that it might collapse under that challenge and, really, well thought out or not, I enjoy the result of those emotions.

This is all well and good, but all I've really said so far about this problem is that, for the sake of my writing, I am prepared to ignore it. I don't think that qualifies as an answer to a question which really deserves one. After all, it is all very well to say that my readers, whoever they end up being, will need to reconcile themselves with my views on religion. However what will more likely happen is that some throwaway comment will, when taken out of context, make me sound like a massive bigot of some sort or other. Whatever other things my writing says, a slip up like that could effectively end up ruining my career before it's even begun (obviously that's assuming I achieve the level of fame such that somebody cares what I think, but let's throw some optimism in with our pessimism here). Clearly then, while I could simply ignore this problem, I probably shouldn't.

This leaves me wanting to preserve the purity of my writing while at the same time avoiding any career ruining mishaps. Honestly I want to keep this blog going, I enjoy having an excuse to think deep thoughts (and somehow, whether it's being reading it or not, I like the fact that anyone could read those thoughts and be influenced by them). Sadly, there I haven't found some grand solution. As it turned out, after some investigating (feel free to point out how wrong I am), it seems it isn't possible to link my name to this blog. In effect, this is anonymous. I'm a little irked by that, I wanted this to be about me putting myself out there and if I'm hidden then I'm doing that in a more limited way, but I think it's a compromise which I'm happy to accept for now.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Religious people should all be scientists

Right off the bat I want to apologise for the shortness of this entry. Honestly the same old work commitments completely put the blog out of my mind until the last minute (well actually they've been putting almost everything out). Anyhow, with some recent progress came free time and with that comes the opportunity to write about a fun little subject I've been thinking about for a while.

Science and religion seem to be seen as opposing influences more and more often these days. These disagreements stem from the fact that either being religious is seen as anathema to logical scientific work or that areas where science disagrees with religions merely demonstrate how dangerous it is. I could make a long winded case showing that this is true, but perhaps it's easier to say that it is, to me, obvious that these two different systems of belief (of living even) are clearly not aligned whereas I think they should be.

This idea came from the fact that again and again I was reading scientists and mathematicians talking about when they truly understood some essential law of nature, it was like contacting something higher. Not necessarily a higher being or power, but a higher sense of order and wonder. There is a great documentary about the mathematician Paul Erdös, N is a number, where he makes this point very eloquently. He completely dedicated his life to maths and the discovery of new ways of understanding it, and he talks about how in maths, on the one hand there are great proofs, which are extremely elegant and beautiful, and on the other there are clumsy, clunky ones. When you see an elegant proof, he says, then you are seeing the one which God has written down in his notebook.

I think if you asked many deeply religious people how to get closest to god, they would probably say you should do his work, preach the word and do kind/charitable acts. However I think what better way is there to be close to God than to see, to rediscover even for yourself, one of the basic rules which he set in place in creating this reality. Surely in the careful balance and elegance of those rules he has left just a small measure of his signature.
I am sure that some would see what I'm saying as heretical, that God told us pray, so we should pray. Honestly though, if you believe in Him, then surely you can see that he left these markers in place in such a way that we could, not only find them again and again, but also that finding them would improve humanity in such a huge and far reaching way.
This then, is my final point. I think there is local charity, feeding, clothing and caring for those who need it, and certainly that is wonderful. Science though is a kind of charity which is just as rarefied. Scientists don't expect great credit (look at Norman Borlaug whose work saved millions from starving... then ask yourself why you've never heard of him). Certainly they also don't expect to get paid great sums. Yet still, scientific advancements are huge force in the improvement of life for all humanity (take modern medicine, mobile phones, electricity, there are any number of examples to choose from).

Surely for any religious person then, by taking part in new discoveries, you are not only helping people in a meek and humble way, but you are also bringing yourself as close to the heart of God's creation, to his very indent upon our universe, as you will ever be able to get. Obviously it's hyperbole to say all religious people should be scientists, still now that I have this perspective I can't think of anything more holy, nor any pursuit which religions ought to be more deeply in favour of.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

What type of civilisation are we?

Rather than starting with a broad overview of my topic this week, I want to start with a more gentle lead in. Recently in the wide ranging scope of my procrastination activities, I noticed something about politics and politicians. It seems that in almost any area where there is a large disagreement, one of the most consistent criticisms which each side uses of the other is that they are being short sighted (here are some Google examples to demonstrate: short sighted Romney, short sighted Obama, short sighted Tories and short sighted Labour). This seems strange to me, as I think it seems reasonable to expect that, within our society, politicians are one of the groups who might be more focussed on the long term. However they are repeatedly accused by one another and by journalists by being just the opposite.
Obviously I don't think these links constitute any sort of proof that politicians are short sighted, but what they do show is that this is something which people care about (enough to generate multiple articles from all sides). This is a problem which, whether it's there or not, we often worry about.*
The thing is I can't get away from the feeling that now, more than ever before, we seriously need to be thinking in the much longer term. There are all manner of problems where, if we keep going at the rate we are, the numbers indicate we will run into serious problems. Whether it's the amount of waste we produce, peak oil and the potential for an oncoming energy crisis, food shortages, global warming, nuclear weapons, it's surprisingly easy to come up with quite a long list and, even if you disagree that some of those are problems, that still leaves quite a few that are. The point about almost all of these issues is that they require massive cooperation not just within countries, but between countries, and additionally often there are short term gains to be had by being the ones who don't act. Taking global warming as an example, I think it is fairly accepted that making a big move towards lower carbon emissions will mean a drop in standard of living for any country which attempts it. That means that if just a few countries act they will be at a disadvantage, the problem can only really be dealt with if everybody acts in unison which, it seems clear to me, will require some pretty seriously long term thinking. The fact is, I don't think we're making especially good progress on any of these problems. This, more than anything, would be my proof that our entire society still has quite a limited view into its own future, we are still thinking in the short term.

It has been my belief for a while that we will soon come into a new way of thinking about the future of our species and our collective civilisation. However I recently stumbled across a video which allowed me to put some names to these ideas. You can find the video here, it's of Dr. Michio Kaku, an American theoretical physicist, answering a particular question (one of a bunch he answered) for a group called Big Think. I'd advise you to watch it yourself, but in case you don't I'll give a brief overview.
Basically he's talking about a way of classifying civilisations called the Kardashev scale. The simple explanation of the scale is that it's a way of talking about alien civilisations far beyond our own, so a type 1 civilisation will harness and control energy on a planetary scale, a type 2 would do it on the scale of entire solar systems and a type 3 would be harnessing energy on the scale of entire galaxies. Mostly it's just a fun science fiction concept, but what Michio Kaku is doing is extending it. He's implying that for a society which uses power on a planetary scale then it will also be a requirement that other aspects of that society also operate on a planetary level, for instance, a single world government or truly worldwide transport system.
He argues that we are slowly metamorphosing into a truly global civilisation, on this scale a type 1. That we are seeing a number of emergent global systems which demonstrate this, for instance, the internet as the first truly global communication network, the European Union as the first move towards a true global economy or rock music as a global musical form (I'm not sure how much I agree with that last one). He also argues that this is happening right when we are faced with a new set of truly global problems, which will require cooperation on an Earth-wide scale to solve. These problems he mentions are pretty much exactly what I was talking about before, these are problems which require a different kind of thinking.

It seems clear to me then, that we are facing our first truly global set of problems as a species, and that we are currently poorly equipped to deal with them. I think you can argue that this is why almost everything we are doing seems so short sighted (because, essentially, it is). All of our current solutions and laws seem mostly tailored to operate on a local scale. Things like subsidies designed to make businesses stay where they are (even when it is less efficient for them to do so). When you start to look at the world as one complete system, almost everything we do seems geared only to help the country which it occurs in (which, if you think about it, is pretty much what you would expect) at the cost of overall efficiency/helping humanity as a whole. What I suppose I'm saying is that we are still, in a strange way, operating as though we are localised tribes. Take pollution for example, movement on worldwide pollution has been slow and awkward, but movement on local pollution (of the kind which used to cause smogs or make people ill) has been fairly widespread and successful. Obviously it seems silly to blame the politicians for this, the real culprits are the public. I believe we, as a people, are still thinking in terms of “our problems” and “their problems, a thinking which is merely reflected by our politics.

I definitely enjoy Michio Kaku's take on this, that as these global problems manifest more and more, so our thinking and problem solving will develop to the level where they can take on that kind of problem. It does seem clear to me that this will be required, before too long. That, eventually, the human race will have to cooperate on a much larger scale or face a long and painful decline. However I also think that we are products of our evolution, that we specifically evolved so that problems for our tribe were a big deal, but problems for the tribe next door were, generally, good news for us. If the guys nearby all die out, that just means better hunting.
Lots of people have theorised that it wont be until we have some outside “other” people to focus on (in fiction, this normally means aliens) that we will actually begin to solve our own problems. Honestly I hate this fix, it's just a way of saying “we are flawed, we can only succeed through that flaw”.
Over one hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution occurred, a huge number of new systems came into place to help account for this sudden restructuring of human society. They were ingenious and wonderful and, in places, they've cause us horrible problems now that we no longer need them, but my point is that, in a pinch, it is our human intelligence and creativity that allowed us to see problems and find ways out of them. This might sound as though I am agreeing with Dr Kaku, however there is one difference. I'm saying that while we will overcome these problems, the solutions, rather than being emergent, will be, as ever, made by our own hands.

[I feel I should briefly apologise for this entry. Due to work commitments it was written pretty late in the week and I didn't take as much time over it as I would've liked (the final argument still feels a little rushed, but I'm out of time to fix it)]

*[There is an argument, one which I've participated in, that the long term thinkers of our society, rather than being politicians, are corporations. Honestly I don't believe this is true at all, I feel like the banking crisis, or the current state of copyright law in the technology sector are both excellent examples which demonstrate that. I'm not going to argue the point here however, as it would likely take an entire blog entry and, unlike attacking politics (as a whole), it would probably involve me getting political and showing my leftist tendencies (something I'm keen to avoid here)]

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Magik, looking back

I feel as though, having written the past four entries on the subject of magik, I ought to attempt to sum this all up before moving on. In case you missed them, I started by talking about my general feelings about magikal practices and why I follow them, over the following three entries I talked about what are, to me, the three central tenants of any such practice: Imagination, Intention and Will. I worry slightly that this set of entries, more than any other I've done, revolve around areas which interest me and only me, if that is the case for you, then sorry about that. Still my original intention was to come to a better understanding of what this subject means to me, what it can and should become and how my relationship with it is particular and personal. I think that I managed that, and in this entry I will try to explain how. However, I promise that after this week I will be moving on to other things.

Why do I do magik? I covered this already in the first entry, but thinking about it for the past months has made me realise that there are other reasons. Mainly, that it is more interesting. That allowing myself the freedom to see the world from an angle where everything is filled with symbols and meaning is wonderful fun. It also has the huge advantage of occasionally stunning me out of the monotony of day to day existence.
I also think that the practice of magik is psychologically useful. That there are lots of habits and mental cul-de-sacs which it is easy to stumble into and difficult to get out of. Magik gives me a way of feeling as though I can much more easily overcome and escape them (and as a result, I think, makes me much more open to recognising that they are there). I'm not saying that it's a quick fix for that type of problem, but rather that it is a fine way of flagging to your unconscious that this is something you consider problematic, which is normally a good first step.

What have I learned? I'm not sure why you would ask this question, but it's one which has become starkly defined for me as I've moved through these weeks. I think the thing which I'd forgotten is why I got interested in magikal matters in the first place.
You see although I've been talking fairly glibly about spells and changes, in actuality the majority of practitioners of magik seem to be very much into it for the mystical side. I think the quote which stuck with me (which, I apologise, I can't find, it came from an excellent podcast I listened to) is that “the ultimate aim of any mystical system is to remove the dividing line between yourself and the world”.
From a young age mystical traditions have always held a deep fascination for me and I've read fairly widely and deeply on the subject. Often they spring from, or make up the basis of, religious organisations (Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, even some of the mystical elements of Christianity and Judaism) and they were all interesting to me. I can't explain exactly why except that I've always felt there are certain things wrong with the way we think, and that we ought to work on fixing them. However the point is that this was my entry point into the much more practical and down to earth magik which I've been talking about here.
This realisation has sparked a whole lot of further reading and investigation, and I expect it will result in a few more in depth entries on mysticism and enlightenment here before too long.

Finally, I've come to see much more clearly that these three things, will, imagination and intention, are important to me in every aspect of my life. I use or refer to them in most important decisions that I make.
You may think this is silly and, I think, being totally honest, it is. Obviously decisions could be based around any number of sets of values and they might still be totally valid. What I realise though, is that this structure, this idea of combining simple steps, is something really valuable to me no matter what the structure itself is. That whether I create successes or failures, having some ideas to hang them on, even if it doesn't entirely make sense, is an excellent tool for staying motivated and keeping a feeling of control for long enough to make progress, whatever that means.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Will, getting things done and why I'm not a great man

Thus far in this series I've been talking about various qualities and how they relate to my practice of magik. In a magikal sense the concept of Will is all about focus, about removing distractions and becoming wholly present in the moment. I don't have a lot to say on that however, but one subject on which I've done a great deal of thinking is that of willpower. The constant struggle to get things done in the face of the ever present potential for procrastination. In this entry I'll try to explain just how important I think this struggle is and what, for me, have been the most effective methods for occasionally gaining the upper hand.

The true exemplars of success in this area are the great persons throughout history. The Mozarts, Da Vincis and Newtons, who seem to achieve far and beyond what is normally available to us mortal men (if you need convincing this is a great example). However, I have one very serious problem with the way that modern society tends to see genius's like these. Taking Mozart as an example, there is a tendency in all the stories about him to talk about his natural brilliance only, as though it occurred in a vacuum. Certainly he had talents and certainly they were great, but by focussing on these we are missing out on a vital part of the story, that he worked hard on developing those talents, that he, in his lifetime, was more involved in music, more dedicated, than most professional musicians alive today.
It has always felt to me that by focussing on the genius of these individuals, and ignoring their many years of dedicated work, we are underselling ourselves. One of my favourite examples of this dedication is the story about Aristotle, that he used to sit reading at night with a metal ball in his lap and a metal basin on the floor, so that if he fell asleep the sound of the ball hitting the basin would wake him, allowing him to continue reading. I want you to take a moment, and just imagine what you could achieve with that level of dedication. The same level of understanding as Newton may not be available to all of us, but the degree of effort which he expended certainly is and with it I am a firm believer that we could all achieve stupendous things.
Allow me to give a silly example. Let's say I want to learn to survive in the jungle. If I spend an hour every week, first taking classes, then later actually flying out into the rainforest and being shown around, then perhaps I might expect that after a year I would do okay on my own out there (I might make it through a week). If I stepped this up to an hour a day of learning, with day long trips out into the Amazon, then it's reasonable to expect that I'd learn to take care of myself a lot better in that year. Finally, if my plane goes down and I am left as the only survivor alone in the middle of the rainforest (for the sake of plausibility, let's allow me to have a couple of guidebooks which say what's poisonous and what isn't), well then probably I will die in a matter of days. However, if I don't, if I survive for a whole six months then I think it's reasonable to expect that I will now be very adept in those conditions, I will have learned vastly more than if I was only taking in chunks of an hour a week. Naturally this is, as I said, a silly example, probably those six months will also leave me with all manner of infected wounds and other nasty injuries. However my point is that in most learning even what we would normally think of as dedicated people aren't coming close to that Aristotle level of commitment (though admittedly, normally their lives don't depend on it). It is almost always possible to work just that little bit harder, to squeeze a few more hours of the day into an activity. *

This idea of potential, this sense that I could, with the right level of hard work, become a successful astrophysicist, or novelist or mathematician, is one I have held to for much of my life. The problem is that it's an extremely dangerous concept. In the first case, because if I can become that astrophysicist, starting with total dedication today, well then, I can just as easily start tomorrow and let myself have a bit of a rest until then. Secondly, if you accept that you have this level of potential, then the sheer breadth of choice is breathtaking and, frankly, a little paralysing. I want to have all three of those occupations I mentioned, all three of them sound like they would be fun to me.

Why all this talk about potential and great men then? What I'm trying to get at is that, by mastering this battle with our inner procrastinator, we can do amazing things. It doesn't even have to be along the lines I've been presenting, putting all our efforts into one area, but I know, with some certainty, that if I'd replaced all the activities in my life which I now, years later, regard as being a waste of my time, with more, shall we say, productive(**) pursuits, then I would have done some remarkable things by now. This is a fight worth winning (or at least, worth losing just a little less) and these grand examples are important because, paralysing though it is, they are a demonstration of the heights to which I believe we could all rise.

I have, I hope, laid out a reasonable case for why you ought to be trying to do these things. Now though,I feel I should force myself to make some pronouncements about how (though I suppose I should qualify them by saying that this is what has worked for me and that, even then, it doesn't always work).
I think willpower is really about three things. The first of these is the realisation of potential, the acceptance that 'oh, I actually can do this'. Obviously this is easy if we're talking about keeping your flat clean, a lot harder if you're talking about becoming a master in some field. Either way, I think it's just hugely helpful to be able to imagine a future world where you can see that you've managed the task.
The second is that you need to have a sense of path, of the route you can take to get to that imagined future place. This path doesn't have to be complicated, just doing a drawing a day, or a week even, for instance, but doing it with the knowledge that each step will take you a small distance closer to the end goal (additionally it also needs to be paired with the knowledge that it will take a long time and that progress will, at times, be slow).
The third thing you need is desire, a real need to do this thing. Getting this going, particularly right at the start, can be tough and normally for me it goes back to my previous blog entry, that I need to understand (or at least examine) my reasons for wanting to follow this path. Too often I've become involved in developing a new skill only to realise that my reasons for doing it aren't in enough to carry me through. For instance I only started because a particular friend was doing it and so, as soon as they stop, so does my desire.
Often I've simply stopped with the first two, or even just the first one, making tiny advances in learning this language or mastering that ability, but in the few places where I have managed to muster all three, the momentum of that is enough that keeping it going is actually a lot less trouble than you might imagine.

I should probably point out, what I'm plotting out above is how to achieve great things, not how to hoover up slightly more often (obviously hoovering could be part of some grander whole of self improvement, but generally it wont be). Honestly, if I had any sort of pronouncements for smaller tasks I would present them, but I don't, if you can figure it out please let me know.
The other slight caveat is that, if you truly want to develop in one area, you probably need to accept that you will be losing in some other area. This could simply mean that you will dump yourself down in front of the tv to watch soap operas less, but in the extreme cases, it may mean being less social or being less successful at work. Going back to Newton, he, and people like him, were powerhouses, they produced huge swaths of work which seem impossible to us, but they were also completely involved in that world and I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that they weren't particularly well rounded.

I want to finish by acknowledging that this felt, to me, a little like I was writing self help at times and that's probably not a good thing. Honestly I think it's the idea of potential and of the amazing plasticity of the human brain which are of interest to me, but as I say, it felt wrong to write an entire entry on willpower without giving some pointers about what I feel are needed to use it successfully. The other reason is of course, I love it when people I know surprise me by creating or doing things which are unexpected and impressive and I'm always a little disappointed by how few of them seem to think they can or should be trying.

*[Personally, I take this idea to extremes. For instance, my feeling is that in the same way that Mozart's brain was wired differently, I tend to believe that with true dedication (listening to, playing, writing music non-stop) I could achieve a similarly new wiring with time. I think it is totally fair to say, however, that with a high enough level of dedication, each of us could achieve a lot more than we do now.]

**[This is a dangerous word because it can be different from person to person, but what I mean is that there are some activities which are gratifying in the short term, and others which you could argue provide more satisfaction in the long term, at the cost of short term pain (learning a language for instance)]

I thought I should just quickly apologise for this entry going up a bit late (due to a deadline at work) and potentially being quite rough around the edges (due to being edited at two in the morning).