Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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Limits

I don’t typically work from home when I’m writing fiction. Too many distractions which are almost purely mental (as opposed to audible or visual). Reminders of things that need cleaning, fixing, adjustment. Things I’ve put off seemingly forever.

I typically write in coffee shops, sometimes the odd bar. So yes, I am typically more comfortable in a strange place, surrounded by strangers (though to be honest I tend not to seek out locations that are packed), with music that is not my own playing overhead. This may sound odd. After all, what could possibly provide more distraction than that?

I find the hardest variable is music. The last thing I want is to write while music I know is playing. Why? Because if I like a song, then I’ll be focused on it rather than the brittle little fictional world I’m constructing. My foot will inevitably start beating on the floor to the drums. I will anticipate the dynamics, the chorus. Pretty soon lyrics will be passing through my eyes like ticker-tape instead of my characters’ dialogue.

So, though it might seem paradoxical, I prefer the random jukebox that is the playlist of whomever is working at an establishment I’m located in. And you know what? I discovered many years ago that I can write through pretty much any type of music. And the stranger or furthest away from my taste the music is, the easier it is to tune it out. When I’m in a place that isn’t home, with people I don’t know, with music playing that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to listen to, I can more easily fall into that glorious black hole which allows me to sync with the fictional universe on the other side of my consciousness. Continue reading…

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The Pause Button

I don’t believe our identities ever settle, to become static. This isn’t to say that they fly willy-nilly like laundry in a windstorm. There are two great wheels: the one inside of us and the one outside. Both move forward regardless of our individual philosophies.

The outside wheel is time. It is the inevitable movement of progress, the passing-on of events, linking like the teeth of a sprocket on a bicycle chain. Whether we stand still or keep moving, this wheel keeps turning.

The inside wheel is our own development: our learning, the expansion of our comprehension of things, as well as our personal growth. It also keeps moving, again, whether we stand still or move.

Development is growth, and growth is sometimes painful, especially when we suspect we have been travelling on a path which does not intuitively serve our needs any longer. The temptation can be strong to “hit the pause button”; to stop looking at how the outer wheel affects the inner wheel, the learnings contained within their interplay. I’m not sure if it would be fair to call this wilful ignorance, but some would.

I’ve known people, particularly those from school, who seem to have “hit the pause button” at some point in their late teens or early twenties: they dress the same, they obsess about the same music, they ask the same questions they asked at that age – it can seem as if they are exist in a still photo of a past universe. I speculate that they see the larger wheel, the world, turning (one cannot wilfully blind oneself from seeing this), but don’t wish to acknowledge that the inner wheel, identity/personality, still turns and evolves also.

It makes me sad, and yes I realize that is a judgement. I don’t wish to categorize people since we live in a society which already puts such an emphasis on a divisive winners/losers binary. It makes me sad because I have a relational tether to those who are in this way: I know what it’s like. It’s also quite common.

I could speculate all day about whether this is fear-induced, shame-induced, whether (from a psychoanalytically informed perspective) there is a concern about narcissistic rupture at play in this. All I know is that it exists, and that the temptation for some to “keep things the way they are”, regardless that this is kind of impossible, has a strong lure.

 

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Self-Consciousness and Self-Awareness

You’ve been leading recently. Leading yourself forward without hesitating when outward support isn’t there, without looking for the comfort that comes from the insular voice – the insular life – that no longer works.

You are switching gears, between the self-conscious and the self-aware. What’s the difference? Here’s an example to demonstrate:

You’re in a restaurant. You’ve been there before. The food is good – reliable. The service, however, has never been their strong suit. Eclectic, you have politely described it to others. You take your seat and the server takes your drink order. Sure enough, you find yourself waiting a long time for the drink to arrive – 10 minutes pass, 15 minutes. All you really want to do is have a meal and relax and not think about why you have to wait. When your drink comes, they take your food order. You hope the initial delay was just a snag – now that your food order was in the queue, it should go back to normal turnaround. And yet… 10 minutes pass… 15 minutes pass… 20 minutes pass… It was just a sandwich… At the point of exasperation, someone – not your server, but another staff member – brings your sandwich. It’s been nearly 30 minutes. You look down and notice that aside from the sandwich on your plate there isn’t a napkin.

Self-conscious you sighs. You don’t want to make a scene. For all you know the server is overworked or there are problems in the kitchen. You sit there, waiting to get his attention. You’re pissed off, but it’s just a sandwich. You eventually Continue reading

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Health & Illness

There has been a lot of work done over the last few years to bring to the foreground how mental health and well-being affects everyone, from every quadrant of society, regardless of their geography, culture, race, or class. And I say, as both an emerging mental health professional and citizen: bravo.

There is, however, something which bothers me in the midst of this accelerated (but otherwise welcome) media awareness campaign. It is the habitually casual use of the term “mental illness”, rather than “mental health”. There is more than a semantic difference between the two.

“Illness” is a medicalized notion. It correlates to somatic cause and effect: the patient’s body is sick, so the patient must take x to get better. When you have an illness, you take drugs to get better. Illness implies sickness, which implies the prescription of medicine. “Health” is a generalized notion, which may incorporate the taking of medication but certainly also encompasses needs which do not strictly apply to treatment via medication.

When we lump such disparate problems as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, cigarette addiction, and behavioural/emotional anxiety under a catch-all phrase, that term should not imply that everything which falls under its domain be medicalized or seen as a medical problem.

If you fear that you may have a problem which is affecting the quality of your life, slapping the word “illness” on it is needlessly stigmatizing. Illness = something is wrong. And when “illness” comes after “mental”, it can then seem to someone that they are wrong or somehow broken. In other words, the constant use of “mental illness” as a generalized term for discussion actually perpetuates a needless (and ironic) branding upon those who are affected.

Quite frankly, to use “mental health” is to say that someone who feels that something is affecting the quality of their life is not ill. They may not feel well, but they still have agency. It’s well-documented that what may appear to some as “symptoms” of behavioural or emotional disorders are in actuality subconscious attempts by the person affected to become healthy. We can facilitate this quite easily by not stigmatizing the language around mental health with terms that needlessly cast an onerous light on the problem.

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We Seek To Remain Unscathed

The more I read about mutuality – the art of affecting and being affected by another, particularly within the context of a therapeutic environment – the more I realize that the online world is a place (or a thing) which appears to function this way, yet in practice is typically abstinent and unilateral.

With the Internet (as much as I hate using that word so generally) we have a vast infrastructure – insert plumbing/transit/Tower of Babel metaphors – whose sole purpose is the nearly instantaneous transmission of information. Yet, the ways and methods that we — its users, managers, and architects — have managed to communicate with each other have not evolved in-step with the technological state-of-the-art.

This is not to say that we cannot experience mutuality via internet communication, but rather a) current technological interfaces do a better job of anonymizing the personalities of its users rather than accentuating them, and b) the interpersonal efficacy of this technology has not progressed past what was available in 1996, since the advent of full-duplex sound cards. Continue reading

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Renovations

In the attempt to import 400+ pages from Blogger to here (via WordPress), there were several (try over 75) pages whose subject-tags were not properly imported. They became auto-assigned to “Uncategorized”. So, I’ve spent time each day re-categorizing them. They were mostly older posts – a lot from when I started in 2006. That was <checks watch> over five years ago.

The difference between blogging and writing fiction is that with a blog you’re not supposed to correct or revise things past a certain freshness date. It’s a journal: you don’t screw with it. The past is ultimately the past, and if you look like a moron in the past then, perhaps, that’s you being a moron in the past. Contrarily, with fiction, there is no straight jacket: when you look at past writings your lithe reflexes unravel a cloth roll of surgeon’s tools, all necessary for cutting and cleaning what you’ve written, regardless of how brilliant or not brilliant your ideas.

Thus with fiction, sensitivity to the whole is greater than the brilliance of the individual turn of phrase. With blogging, respect for The Record supersedes the ego: you must be careful not to disturb The Record.

And so I unearth and renovate quietly. I open the “Uncategorized”, scan them to make sense of how I should properly re-categorize them. Some I want to delete. Some I do delete (two posts: trust me, they were stupid). Others I begrudgingly leave. Renovation inevitably exposes weaknesses: of thought, of argument. It also lays bare ideas and passions you’d put aside in favour of other pursuits, but which you read today with fascination as if someone else had written them. This is the good thing about writing – fiction, poetry, magazine articles, blogging – no matter what your focus is, if you do it long enough you inevitably have something with which to reflect upon.

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I Don’t Want To Know

As a writer, even though I am not part of any sort of literati, I am still plugged into the lit scene. You need to be if you want to understand the general to-and-fro of any industry you are interested in becoming a part of (same goes for TV, music, theatre, etc..). That said, I must make an admission. I am making this admission because I think there are a lot of people like me out there who feel the same but are reticent to admit it.

Here goes: I don’t take any particular interest in the life of the artist outside of his or her art.

When I read a book, I don’t care if an author comes from the East Coast and studied journalism, had a drug problem and now lives in a shed with a mastiff. It’s not that I don’t care about this author personally, it’s that these facts shouldn’t have anything to do with the book that I am about to read. I should be able to pick up the book, knowing nothing about said author, and be able to read it, enjoy it, be fully affected by it, without substantially missing something due to a lack of familiarity with the author’s biography.

And yet, when you are culturally plugged-in (and by this I mean, you check out industry blogs, trade mags, etc.) there is so much white noise about the artists themselves that it seems divergent from what it is they are supposed to be doing: their work. We can talk about Picasso’s passions, but 100 years from now there will probably only be discussion of his work – your work is the only thing left after you and everyone who knew you has died. And if people are still talking more about you than your work after this point, then I would think the quality of your work was overstated.

Would knowing that Stephen King battled drug addiction offer an insight into some of his writing? Yes. But, my point is that if that insight is necessary in order to fully appreciate a piece of work then there is a problem. The work doesn’t work if you need a biographical cheat sheet to inject context into the material.

I think Bryan Ferry is an fantastic vocalist – and I don’t want to know anything more than that. Nor the details outside a director’s films, nor what inspired the playwright to write her play. I’ve got my own shit going on, thanks very much.

Ephemera is for journalists, fanzines, and those working on their Ph.D. The general public should not feel inadequate if they pick a DVD or book off a shelf, sit down in a theatre, or load a song without being prepared with supplemental information not contained within the medium which contains the work. The work inevitably has to stand up for itself. I write this for two reasons: first, with the likes of the AV Club and traditional print/TV media clamouring to add as much web-based context as possible to every article, there’s a growing sense that – for the everyman – if you aren’t savvy to the smallest details of each artist’s passings and goings, you are nothing but a tourist. Secondly, embracing social media to a claustrophobic degree, we can now read endless commentating on authors reading their work for a live audience!…something no one really asked for outside the publishing companies themselves and perhaps the authors’ parents. Let’s face it: most authors can’t read aloud to save their lives – it’s not their specialty.

There are reasons for digging deeper, but that’s up to the individual. It was interesting to learn more about HP Lovecraft when I reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s quasi-biography of him and his work. What’s funny, however – using that same example – is that when I proceeded to read the two works by Lovecraft contained in that same book, I don’t recall thinking to myself “Ahh – this is where his uncomfortable relationship with women takes shape!”. That’s because the stories were two of his masterpieces, and when you witness a masterpiece, peripheral biographical information is going to gunk-up your enjoyment.

The medium may be the message, but the work contains the words. Outside of this we are left with cultural “bonus features”. Nice to have, but not necessary.

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