Sunday, June 10, 2012

The past exists in our heads alone. I have to keep reminding myself that, especially I as I sit here and watch music videos from my youth. It's funny how I remember, and crave, the nervous excitement I felt walking into a club or gig. The newness, the potential and the unknown were intoxicating. Or so I remember. But here's the thing, there were lots of other emotions, bad ones, that I felt in those situations as well. This ability to self edit the past is called recall bias. It can work both ways, shading what we remember into something better or worse than it actually was. Short of recording our experiences as soon after it happens as possible there's no defence against it. (The Cure's "Inbetween Days" just came on, holy shit this show is pushing my buttons.) Our memories are not a video tape that gets played back exactly the same way every time we access them. (Now it's Elvis Coztello's "Pump it Up"). Memory is more like an old actor whom we wake up and he reenacts the scene as best he can. In light of the bias and inherent inaccuracy of our recall (Edwyn Collins "A Girl Like You", humph I never knew who did that song. Here's to learning things!) the only thing to do is to enjoy the amusment park ride when we end up on a positive memory lane, and go do something new as a distraction when it takes a turn for the dark and distressing. And with that I'm going to now go dance around the lounge room to "I Ran". I'll leave it to you to decide if that's a distraction or celebration. ;)

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Illuminated manuscripts entrance me. I once sat in a tiny park next to a busy arterial road so engrossed in a folio sized book about the Lindisfarne Gospels that I didn’t notice the light was failing until I couldn’t read the text anymore. It had nothing whatever to do with the subject matter of those manuscripts, I’ve never been religious, but for some reason that style of illustration triggers in me a sense of history like nothing else.
Years later my girlfriend, eventually my wife, wrangled a work sponsored trip to VeloCity, the world cycling conference when it was being held in Dublin, Ireland. She asked if I wanted to go along and I struggled for an answer because the cost was prohibitive. The tipping point came when I realised that I could see the Book of Kells.
It’s housed at Trinity College in it’s own special exhibit. It’s a good bit of theatre that exhibit. You walk in through a maze-like set of rooms with the history of the book, the places and history of where it’s been kept covering the walls with text and pictures.
The room in which the book, or rather the pages that are being displayed at that time, resides is dark with down lights shining on a flat glass display case the size of a moderate kitchen table. When I reached that room the display was completely surrounded. The small throng was slowly circling it counter clockwise, there were several other illuminated works to view. I got into the circle and was working my way towards the Kells pages but got more and more annoyed as people would enter the room and rather than get in the queue they would push in right where the Kells pages were.
Realising that I was getting so annoyed that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience anyway, I bailed and went to look at what else there was to see. This mostly consisted of The Long Gallery in which hundreds if not thousands of antique volumes are kept. It was practically empty and it was a bibliophiles absolute nightmare. All those treasures, literally just out of reach protected only by a dusty velvet rope. Well a rope and a guard.
We got to chatting with the guard and at one point I mentioned my frustration in not being able to see the Book of Kells. My wife, being a more practical sort, asked him when was it not busy. He looked at his watch and said “Well, right about now is usually not too bad.”
He was right. I walked in and there was only one other person. I got to stand and gaze at that illuminated piece of history for maybe five minutes undisturbed.
It was different than looking at reproductions even though it was behind glass. Profound. Moving. I think the main difference is that seeing the physical object that was created with so much love and skill so very long ago makes the passage of time real in a way that reproduction cannot. It is essentially different because all those years happened to that actual object right there and because that object is indisputably real then those years are made real too. And in exactly the same way it makes the artist who painted it real.
It’s not mysticism, it’s not metaphysics, but it is emotion, very human emotion. In order to connect with things as abstract as memory and history sometimes we need a real, physical object to remind us of the reality of the past.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Heh, I left the last post on what has to be the lamest cliff-hanger ending of all time.  Did the power go out, or didn't it?  The tension of not knowing must be unBEARable.  :)

Actually, it never went out fully.  We had an 8 hour brown out that went in two stages.  The first happened just after the lights went out and came back on the first time.  I didn't really notice that the voltage had dropped because the lights came back on.  It seemed a little strange when I couldn't get the TV to come back on but we have it plugged into an after market remote switching plug and I figured that was buggered. It seemed a little more strange first time I tried to turn back on a light I'd just turned off and it wouldn't ignite.  The second time was definitely creepy and the third was downright scary.

And then I realised what was going on.  Compact florescent bulbs require a little extra kick of energy to ignite and while there was enough voltage to keep them going there wasn't enough to start them.  Neat.

After about a half hour of that the power dropped noticeably over ten seconds or so and everything went dark.  I thought that was that, full blackout, but then I stepped around the corner and the tiny led night light we leave in the hall was still as bright as ever.  The house was getting just enough power to light one led but no more.  I wonder just how that happens?  How could we end up with a voltage so low that I could probably stick my tongue in a socket and only get a little tingle?  Weird.

Anyway, when it was still out in the morning I called the power company because their website didn't list any power outage in our area.  The guy on the phone was a little dismissive once he knew where I was calling from, it had already been reported.  Full power came back maybe 10 minutes after I hung up.  I could think of that call as a complete waste of time.....or, I could think that I have such a commanding, authoritative phone presence that they fixed it right quick  because of me.  Uh, yeah.....we'll go with that shall we?

Monday, September 19, 2011

My mother is very much on the mend.  She goes home in the next couple of days.  They're still unsure if she's going to have to have an oxygen feed with her at home, but other than that things are looking good.

I've been thinking about how we know stuff.  It seems to me that the distinction between belief and knowledge is getting blurrier or even getting lost outright more and more.  Mind you, this may be an artefact of changes in myself.  To be clear, belief is what a person holds to be true, knowledge is a belief supported by evidence.

Over the last couple of years I've become involved in the skeptic and atheist communities on-line.  I've always been fascinated by science so this is a pretty natural progression.  The fundamental difference this has made in me is that it's focused my attention on what I believe, and more importantly, why I believe what I do.

Skepticism is not cynicism, nor is it disbelief for its own sake.  It concerns a rational, evidenced based epistemology.  The basic tenet is that in order to accept something as true the claim has to be logically consistent and have credible evidence to support it.  The goal is to make one's beliefs and congruent with reality as possible.  To have knowledge rather than beliefs.  You wouldn't think that such a thing would be controversial, and you would be wrong about that.  But that's another story for another time.

Being a skeptic isn't necessarily easy.  Take a look at this list of cognitive biases.  They are all the ways that your brain is programmed to deceive you.  Even being aware of them is not a guarantee that one won't get fooled.  The most insidious one for me is confirmation bias. The only defence is to be very careful when one hears things that agree with an already held belief.

Another key component of skepticism is that one must be willing to change one's beliefs as new evidence comes available.  You wouldn't think that this notion would be controversial either, and again, you'd be wrong.  I've been involved in a discussion about gender stereotypes over the last couple of days.  One participant claimed as a fact that women speak more than men.  I did some research on pubmed and found that there are a couple of recent studies that showed that there isn't any significant differences in word counts between the genders.  The woman making the claim is refusing to acknowledge that her belief might be wrong because she was taught this "fact" in the course of getting a university degree in communications.

Bah, the power just went out.  Oop, and now it's back.  I don't hold much hope it will stay on though.  It's blowing pretty hard out there.  One of the joys of country life is that when the power goes out we lose our water because we pump it out of a bore.   Every time the wind picks up in any serious way we fill a couple of buckets so we can still flush the toilet and we top up the big water filter so we have plenty of drinking water in reserve.  I also put a torch in my pocket a couple of hours ago, just in case.

I better finish up so I can save the battery on the laptop.

The final thing that's necessary to be a skeptic is the ability to say "I don't know." and be comfortable with that.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that here is so much we are still trying to figure out.  We don't know exactly how our brains function for instance.  We've got some good ideas but there's much we still don't know.  In the absence of facts the most rational thing to say is "I don't know." and leave it at that until new information comes along.

The other reason is that there just isn't enough time to research everything.  Not for most folks anyway, certainly not for me.  On topics that I've not had time to look into it's far more practical and honest for me to simply accept my lack of knowledge.  Speculation is fun of course, but that comfort with the unknown means that I never have to be stressed by what I'll find if I'm forced to look into a new subject.

Dang, laptop battery is below half and the the lights are flickering again.  Later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Oh go on, say it.  :)
Ah well, it was a good run, nothing really to say today.

There's something peaceful about writing here knowing that whatever audience I had is long gone.  It feels like when I first started.  So in honour of that:

I'm 13 bars into a composition, and I do mean composition.  I've had three, maybe four, key changes already depending on how I harmonise that last bar of melody.  And none of them are your godawful "play the same thing in the dominant" sort of change.  Almost every motif or melody fragment is a variant of something that's come before.  I'm just now starting the section where everything moves as far away from the original theme as I can get while still being able to justify to myself that it comes from that theme.  (Yah, it's going to be a short thing, maybe 3 minutes max.) I predict key changes aplenty as I reach for notes that are not there in whatever key I happen to be in.  Ol' Bach did this all the time so why can't I? After all, I'm alive.  Him?  Not so much.

Is it any good?  Damned if I know and double damned if I care*.  Will you ever hear it?  Eh, not likely.  No one within any reasonable commute of here has ever heard of this blog.  The plan is that it'll get one public performance and that's it.  And the audience for that will be about equal to the number of people who'll read this.  :)

*Okay, that's a lie, sort of.  I'm not too worried at how well it turns out, but of course I do want it to be as good as possible.  It's just that I'm aware that there's nothing riding on it, if it fails, it fails. I'll just move on and write something else.  If it's turning out pretty good, then I'll re-write and revise until I can't improve it.  Getting older rocks, having more perspective on this sort of thing makes it so much easier.