Monday, 12 September 2016

Words for a Thousand Lunchtimes

A friend died a couple of weeks ago. I am vainly attempting to write a eulogy to deliver at his funeral. I sit looking at my pen, at my keyboard, at the quarrelling sparrows on the lawn and my mind is immobile. It refuses to elicit the first words with which to describe this man. Not because there is nothing to say, because there is an abundance; But because of a sincere desire to do the memory of the man due justice. My fingers hover hesitantly over the keys, paralysed by the multitude of suddenly facile and cliched phrases that suggest themselves in such cases. So, I come here, in order to tangentially, obliquely, begin the task by proxy. Perhaps if I fling enough words onto this white rectangle, something will emerge, like a speck of gold in the vast pile of rubble from a mine in promising ground.

I was surprised to be asked by him to speak just a few days before his predicted but untimely death. He wasn't someone I saw often but he was someone with whom I formed an unlikely connection. You come across people in your travels through life and have no idea mostly what their facades hide. A bland affable exterior might elicit profound wisdom regarding the relevance of millennia-old ideas to your life, a curmudgeonly misanthrope could throw your perspective of them completely off balance by letting slip about their weekends volunteering with autistic children. We often do not wear our identities on our faces or demeanours it seems.

So, a chance observation, after a decade of knowing this previously distant man, sparked an unexpected connection that was to last a decade or more of lunchtime conversations. An observation of an article he was reading in New Scientist, which I had read the previous day, opened up a world of discussion and exchange of ideas which I am told he looked forward to immensely and with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
Our conversations ranged from the seemingly magical behaviour of radio waves within metal computer enclosures (his specialist field and one in which he would have unjustly have declined to describe himself as an expert), through religion and the more popular forms of irrationality to the neural basis of consciousness, as revealed by my own, and others' experiences of cognition with respect to the machine that creates it. A contentious conclusion but one I feel is an unavoidable inevitability. I think this may have been the topic of our very last conversation, in fact.
Ours was a particularly materialist universe, the evidence for this having been carefully and systematically examined, for this is the rigour that characterised his thinking.

So, the grumpy old bugger that refused to suffer fools gladly and would bluntly point out inconsistencies in a particular position, softened and became a man of immense curiosity when given the opportunity discuss his ideas without judgement. People really can surprise you if you give them the chance. No longer scratchy and irritated by imprecise opinions, he became wistful and enthusiastic in his examination of them. Many a lunch hour was taken up this way.

Perhaps, this is a lesson I take from this (and as you know, I always like to extrapolate from the individual experience to the general principle when observation suggests I can): Perhaps the grumpy, the spiky, the vague and the seemingly dull, hide deeper treasures which need careful uncovering. Ok, some are just what they at first glance seem and many a time I have suddenly remembered imaginary appointments to escape tedious expounding of irrelevant facts or a stream of poorly constructed opinions. But maybe it is worth persevering.  Maybe some people hide, for reasons of their own. a world of fascination, imagination or experience.

I would suggest it is worth persevering just in case.

I am still no closer to an opening, but I do feel I have freed up the hinges on the gates of my thought somewhat.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Not really sure why...

I write here. I don't do it very often. Hardly ever now in fact. I read a couple of articles entitled "is blogging dead?". Inevitably it was followed by a flurry of articles stating (somewhat self-persuadingly) "Blogging is not dead!" The consensus appears to be that it lives yet but as our attention spans decrease due to tweeting and snapchat, we no longer have the stamina or inclination to read anything longer than a hundred or so characters
Hmm.. not sure. I know my attention span is infinitesimally small these days. But this is for different reasons. In my new world of understanding the concept of cognitive bandwidth, it seems many of us are occupied with thoughts and worries that may be unconscious and my yet still take up bandwidth in our limited brains. This leaves us less for other activities.

In my case, with my brain still not really recovered, and probably now as good as it is going to get, I find so many quirks in the attention circuits that frankly never worked very well. Yep! On any test I take for ADHD, I am right up there at the top. And that's ok. I probably would have been before. It's just more pronounced now as the general amount of resource in there is reduced. So older, more pernicious problems are exaggerated. Never mind. At least it's not boring.

But I would like to be able to read again for more than a paragraph. Reading is, alas, almost an impossibility for me now in any serious sense. (Though not writing, strangely) It's a bit of a handicap to be honest. But there it is. I don't seem to be able to do anything about it. But at least I know my limitations and their implications.
Also of course, there are the ongoing tribulations: I am currently getting divorced, moving house, changing jobs and dealing with the aftermath of my misanthropic grandmother's death. All presumably take up some bandwidth. Those are a lot of the major life events that one sees in lists of such things as "The Most Stressful Things that Can Happen To A Person."

Whatever. Maybe things will improve after it has all settled down, whenever that is.

What has struck me though is the terrible quality of most training materials. In my transition to my new job, there is a lot of "multi-modal material" that is: Slide shows with simultaneous voice-overs and animations. Research would seem to indicate this is impossible for anyone to successfully follow and absorb. Cognitive overload is an inevitability even for a focussed and healthy brain. And I wonder how it is that people have the production of these materials at the centre of their jobs and are so bad at it. Surely someone responsible for imparting information ought to have a grasp of how brains learn (and how they don't!). An understanding of cognitive processes would benefit everyone I think.

So, last night, I walked in glorious English countryside along the banks of a river in which trout were leaping to gobble up stragglers from the vast clouds of mayflies. And I reflected that amongst all this complexity, this interlocking and interdependent system that is nature, runs quite nicely thank-you-very-much without any thought whatsoever. Nature asserts temporary order, it flourishes and returns to chaos. And so it goes on for now as it has done for a few hundred million years.

In amongst the foliage and undergrowth were the remains of an old mill. I have no idea how old this was. Probably early Industrial Revolution age, maybe two hundred years old or so.

Once a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering, this complex and elaborate machine, built at presumably great expense to harvest energy from nature for the purposes of industry was gradually succumbing to the forces of nature. The iron, so long dug from the ground, smelted, refined, worked, is gradually returning to the soil. There is a touch of Ozymandias about such relics, I always feel. Oh, there was no hubris intended in the construction of the mill, merely a wish to facilitate production of some goods or other and possibly to remove the burden of toil from fragile people with their fatigue and limited strength. But eventually it was no longer profitable or competitive with newer advances and it was left for nature to reclaim, which slowly it is doing.

But in the millpond, now just a feature of the river, the fish continue to jump, as they did when the mill was its owner's pride and joy and the mayflies hatch, ascend, mate and die as they did then.

So, with this reflection,  I decided to stop thinking so much and just go with the flow a bit. And I shall hope there are no unanticipated waterfalls on my route downstream.


Monday, 11 April 2016

Who are the Voices in our heads when Reading?

It would appear now that after my hiatus, brought about by unfavourable circumstance, I can now write again here without fear of sinister consequence. I shall not attempt to explain how it came to be that I needed to lay low for a while, but suffice to say that life is very different now to what it was a year ago. My marriage, my home and much of the trappings of middle-class respectability have vanished. It is indeed a new and often uncomfortable chapter in my life with some resultant and happy consolations.

I have missed writing. It is good exercise for the mind and I confess that without it I have felt lesser. Whether it is true or a matter of internal perspective, I felt less articulate and, well, frankly less effective in my communication. It is also interesting to note that to some extent the medium makes the message. Perhaps this is not to be underestimated.
I was with some people at the weekend, for a lovely if rather drunken celebration and they mostly had what would be deemed "Received Pronunciation" English accents. I do not, hailing as I do from an extremely working-class Bristolian family. My accent might be likened, in fact, to that of the animate scarecrow Worzel Gummidge. We discussed quite briefly the drawbacks and advantages of our respective accents; How they dispose people toward us and how they subsequently respond. I feel, personally, in conclusion that I suffer from more of the former consequences than they do. But to dwell on this is not my point here: To hear me speak, you would think me one type of person or one level of intelligence (perhaps) whilst to read my words you would almost certainly believe me to be something altogether different. My West-country burr might imply a number of character traits and tendencies, for instance a liking for cider (which I confess to), a certain slothfulness (arguably correct) and a lower than average intelligence (which I suspect is unlikely to be the case but certainly must remain a possibility to be entertained). Perhaps you might think I own a tractor or have an affinity with cows. Certainly such perceptions must be the result of innate unconscious biases in our individual interpretations of the communication we hear. My written words have no accent.

But putting aside the prejudices of a listener or reader, it does lead to the interesting question of whether we are "different people" in our different modes of expression. Interestingly, research on bilingual people has shown that using each of their different languages to express a set of opinions or thoughts tends to cause them to actually have differences in those opinions or thoughts. The implications of this are that the thoughts themselves are subject to the constraints and influences of the structures of that language. Our language shapes our thoughts. No surprise there then, except the part about the bilingualism.

So, perhaps then the different voices we use when speaking or writing influences the content of mood of our expression too. Perhaps writing in a "voice" different from that of our usual communication medium allows us to be a character different from our usual selves. Maybe my abstention from writing in this manner has caused me to be the other (the actual? Who is to say what this is?) version of me. And indeed, I suddenly find myself to be altered noticeably from who I was when I was talking to colleagues a few hours ago (and oddly perplexed to find this persona actually significantly more comfortable to adopt.)

So, I do wonder how you feel about this? There are many reasons to write here; Seemingly an exercise (generally) without profit but taking some level of concerted effort. For those of you who write, do you feel yourselves shifted into another person for the duration of your writing and for perhaps some period of time afterwards?  Or do you write how you speak, immediately recognisably you?

Incidentally, as an aside, though possibly this is an associated phenomenon, I often wondered in which voice the words we read appear in our heads. If you listen, it is somehow sub-vocal, as in not actually an embodied vocal entity. But intriguingly, reading various poems which should rhyme but which in some dialects do not, it can be shown that the voices in our heads when we read are, if not our own, then at least in the accent of our daily speech. Isn't that fascinating?

Anyway, here I am back, and seemingly, at least from my inner perspective, the better for it.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Goodbye

I can't believe anyone ever comes here to read my waffle, but for complicated reasons, I have decided to retire this blog. Life has taken strange and bizarre twists in recent months and for the sake of myself and others who are or were close to me, I need to be careful what I post online.

I may reappear elsewhere at some point but I shall not be writing here. I would delete this blog altogether if I could download it in its entirety, but the process appears to be unwieldy.

So, thank you for all the comments over the years. I liked writing here because it was good for my brain. But for now, my opinions must remain out of the public view and I must keep a low profile.

Adieu lovely people. Keep the light shining.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Thoughts of Displacement and Continuity Amongst the Foliage

How green everything is outside! Walking to work last week down the leafy lane that is now my 1.6 mile commute, I was struck by just how lush the vegetation is at this time of year. It seems to crowd in on the road from the hedges either side, insisting that you feel its presence and acknowledge your own existence as a part of nature. It is all just so green! And so full of vibrant energy. It's hard not to feel included and uplifted by Nature's enthusiasm at this time of year. Oh, there are flowers too, campions and buttercups and poppies in bloom, all very pretty and occasionally gaudy. But it is the foliage that impresses most upon my consciousness. It fills the world suddenly and like a welcome exuberant visitor entering your hallway, exerts its presence in your life and the places in which you live it.

I quite like being able to walk to work. Oh,. I miss my ten-mile-each-way commute by bicycle, partly because of the cake it allows me to consume with metabolic impunity. But also, I was fortunate for so many years to have a route which many would have gladly ridden for leisure. I miss that immensely and intensely. I shall have to get my fill of two-wheel happiness by more deliberate journeys.

And walking feels so slow. You cover such little ground with every stride. That said, it does therefore give you more occasion for reflection: A tiny cat with beautiful grey ocelot markings popping out of a garden to greet me, a buzzard soaring on a thermal as the morning sun heats some patch of tarmac and causes a column of hot air to rise to dizzying heights, the contained and wobbling muscularity of a lady cyclists bottom in grey lycra as she freewheels down the bumpy lane. Yes, certainly the senses appear keener to  engage with the world and our instincts more responsive to what they encounter.

Oh, I have clouds on my mental horizon certainly. These are strange times and I miss my beautiful garden with its granny-bonnets and whispering black bamboo. But life goes on and no greater reminder of that could there be than the fecundity of verdant nature as Midsummer approaches.

So, with my metaphorical tail held high, though my metaphysical ears only half-mast turned down, I trot happily towards whatever destiny this day holds for me. Perhaps somewhere on my route, I will meet a fellow traveler coming in the other direction but whose eyes and demeanour reveal to me that even from the opposite perspective, they too can see how glorious, despite the setbacks of fate and fortune, existence truly is.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Perplexing Conundrum of Two Happinesses

It's been a while. I haven't had much enthusiasm for writing. I haven't much to say, I suppose, though this has been a tumultuous time in my life. I can't even really remember why I used to write here. except...
Sometimes I write in my van. In the woods, in the rain. I don't really know why.

It always seemed that use of words, in careful and considered combination kept the paths from being overgrown in my mind. To wander along them once in a while in order to reprise and express some thought that had popped into existence earlier is to to keep them open and accessible in order to get to other places of interest. The careful selection of words and phrases to explain exactly and precisely some indistinct meaning seems to be a very helpful analytical process to get at what I am actually feeling.

Life is a bit weird at the moment. I think I can safely say that here, since nobody really comes here much. But I think the key feature of this strange virtual "place" is that someone could. That these words might be read by someone else instills in me a discipline to ensure they are cogent and consistent.

Not that there is necessarily anything of value to read in these words. Just that life is stranger at the moment than it perhaps ever has been, except perhaps when I was in the depths of cognitive incoherence and it was an overwhelming challenge to discern a potato from a banana at the greengrocers.

Well, yes. It is a strange world I inhabit at the moment. All old certainties seem swept away by time's broom, out of the front door with one decisive swish of the bristles to be caught by the wind and scattered into myriad unrecoverable motes, never to be gathered and reconstructed again. No, a new reality lies before me now and I am both terrified and exhilarated by it. But mostly terrified if I am honest.

Enough of the cryptic. As a result of events, I find myself carefully regarding the notion of "happiness" and thinking how unhelpful the term is as a concept. It is not really one idea, but several, the most prominent of which are (and I shamelessly plagiarise Daniel Kahneman for this, since this is where the idea seems to originate) immediate or experiential happiness, which provides us joy in any particular moment, and "life satisfaction" as perhaps we might term it. This latter is what you feel when you regard your life in general terms and what you feel when you examine what you find. This type of "happiness" is enhanced by having goals and achieving, or even working towards them.

The two appear distinct, possibly even disconnected. And the question as to whether they affect each other is moot. I really couldn't say, though I feel somehow the aggregated experience of moment to moment pleasure must surely have a bearing on how satisfied you are with your life in general. And perhaps the ability to experience immediate joy might also be influenced by how comfortable you are in general with your place in the universe.

According to the research, Prof K says, in America, $70,000 is the point at which you stop being measurably miserable. I think this is the best way to term is since we have surmised that to say "become happy" is an ambiguous statement which does not distinguish between the two types of happiness.
Below this figure, life will usually be unsatisfactory. Does this undermine the pleasure of a sunset or a simple piece of crusty bread with butter and jam? Personally I don't think so, though if you are worrying about how to pay for the bread, perhaps. I find it cheaper and more satisfying to make it. That adds to both types of happiness as I get to eat really good bread and also to carry around with me the knowledge and experience to make it repeatably, which makes me feel like I carry something of value all the time I exist.

My famed Chelsea Buns and olive and sundried tomato sourdough. Which is never sour.
I am not sure how to look at the value of each of these two feelings. Life satisfaction must surely be the measure you use when you get near the end of your life and appraise all that you have achieved. How about "all that you have experienced"? Does a succession of happy times make you overall more satisfied with your life? And in which category does looking at thriving descendents in whose development you had a significant hand? Do the rope swings in the woods and subsequent delightful giggling of your children count as an immediate emotional happiness or a component of life satisfaction?

"What are you wittering on about, man!" I fail to hear you exclaim. "Surely it's just a mood thing? You feel happy or you feel sad! Or something in between!" Well, no. I have been thinking about it and I have conclued that it is definitely significantly more complicated than that. As does the esteemed Professor Kahnemann, and many others.

Only.. it is at this point I get a bit confused and have to throw this question out to you. It is a pertinent question: Are we well advised to sacrifice some of what we feel to be life satisfaction for the opportunity to engage in more experiences? Or vice versa? Will it be worth the trade-off? Or will the dread of regret assail us for ever more? Is the fear of regret at potential losses of life satisfaction worth a life of unfulfilled longing for moments of emotional pleasure?

I started writing this in an attempt to explain something to myself: To clarify the factors involved in some of the decisions I have recently made. These are big decisions. Subsequently I am not sure about how my life satisfaction has been potentially diminished in the long term, though admittedly the short term enjoyment of good times with friends has definitely been most incrementally joyful.
I am no closer to an understanding of what there is to be gained by any potential sacrifice.I only know that, for me, the key to both immediate and long term happiness is people; Access to people, interaction with people, connection with people. In this respect, I feel my decision has unquestionably served its purpose.
I think I have arrived at a conclusion of sorts (via several red-herrings perhaps). Albeit, as all conclusions should be, a provisional one: I have to go with the situation where there is a greater opportunity to interact with people. This is clear.

So thank you once again, words. You lead me to a place of, if not clarity (which I feel is always to be distrusted anyway) then at least calm and comfort. Though not necessarily of enlightenment. Maybe  I will, like this fellow, end up where I started, wiser and perhaps happier. Whatever that means.
Seen on a local coffee shop wall and encapsulating a thought I find simultaneous both comforting and disturbing.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

And then Suddenly.....!

Some days, for reasons I could only speculate upon, it is as if a brisk breeze has blown through the mind, flinging open the doors to every room contained therein. It flings around Papers of Significance and blows the dust off seemingly sepia-tinted memories, restoring them to Kodachrome brilliance. And best of all, it whips the covers off Piles of Possibility in overlooked chambers, where ideas and inspirations have been covered up for later perusal and subsequently forgotten as the detritus of daily life gets piled on top. "Is today such a day?" I fail to hear you ask. Yes it is and it feels good to be 100% in possession of one's mind.

I suppose in a mechanism as squishy and inconstant as the human brain, with all its various concentrations of neurotransmitters, hormones and nutrients, it is no surprise that the experience of being conscious can vary so greatly. Given the rudimentary nature of my own cognition over Christmas and New Year, the contrast is somewhat remarkable (inasmuch as I am actually remarking on it here). What could be responsible for such wild swings in the brain's emotional and intellectual performance?

Could it be perhaps the ingestion of lots of fermented vegetables which I am told will "repair" damaged gut fauna after a dose of rather brutal but necessary antibiotics? I confess, this is my latest nutritional discovery and I am impressed with how much tastier vegetables are if you shred them, add spices and leave them in a bowl for the  various bacteria to do their magic. It's an odd thing to be evangelising about but after a couple of weeks, I confess, subjectively that I do feel different, though well-known human heuristics make an objective judgement impossible of course.

Perhaps it is the disciplined resumption of my gym regime, necessary because a chap of my advancing years cannot be too careful, what with testosterone levels dropping year by year and muscle mass declining commensurately. Well not with me, Age, my dear adversary! Not yet anyway. I have dancing to do; Tango in dimly lit bars and elsewhere, energetic lifts to perform with ladies whose weight I must appear to bear without strain or complaint.
Expressing joy through the medium of dance, by flinging someone about.

Or perhaps the Earth, the Galaxy, the Universe, as it rotates, passes through wisps of some kind of field which induces in us inspiration and sprightly spirits? Could that be it perhaps?

Or maybe it is simply that I discovered Pinterest and have subsequently been amassing pallets in my shed in order to construct projects. Indeed, last night I made a beer crate out of planks and it gave me an inordinate amount of satisfaction. A Small thing, but mine own. Next: Pallet Patio Furniture for Summer evenings! Making things seems existentially satisfying.
I made this and I am deeply satisfied as a result.
 Whatever it is, I like it and I wish I could work out what it is so that I could firstly, reproduce it at will on days when the mind is cloudy and slow, and secondly, I could suggest it to others who profess to their own low spirits (recognising that not everyone works the same of course, but knowing some things are almost universally helpful, like chocolate or Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now").

With all the misery and tragedy in the world, societal and personal, perhaps a moment's thought about what lifts us to happier places is something worth trying every now and again. I saw crocuses today.