I know I promised to put summaries here of my new posts at Wordpress. Well it didn't work out that way, mainly because by the time I've done what I need to over there, in a library time slot, there's no time left! Anyway I've decided to try to do something about it today.
Here, at least, are links to some of the posts over there:
- A paradox: improving for the worse
- A grumble about the fact that while mobile web access becomes more widespread, mobile web accessibility seems to be deteriorating.
- Imagining the unimaginable
- My attempt at imagining the amazing size of space, by using inch-to-the-mile maps.
- Some thoughts on hearing
- Rehearsing with a very blocked ear; thoughts on how one normally hears in an orchestra in order to blend and play in tune.
- To unashamedly split infinitives
- Why the grammar rules you learnt at school might not always apply.
- Having fun inventing words related to the planet, dwarf planet or ex-planet Pluto.
- The impossibility of silence
- There can be no such thing as silence. A quote from John Cage explaining why, and some brief thoughts about it.
- An excellent find
- A book that I've found in the library, about the evolution of language and music, but not yet read.
- About page
- Says that I've written on, and links to it. It's quite a long About page, so might be worth a look.
- Another new experience
- The experience of leading a concert while my ear was blocked. Educational but not one I want to repeat.
- And the rest is...
- Why counting rests in an orchestra is difficult, and some suggestions for making it easier.
- A cold and a concert
- The experience of playing a concert with a bad cold; thoughts on rationing concentration, saving energy, etc.
- Fun with haiku
- Why I like haiku, and a few haiku about the difficulty of reading .pdf files on the Web.
- Playing with CSS
- A discovery about the CSS editor in Wordpress.
- Up to date!
- Being pleased about having successfully transferred all my posts to the new blog.
Please visit, read, enjoy, comment...! Hope to see you there.
But the discussions and contacts are one of the main purposes of this blog, so I've decided I need to move it elsewhere. Probably that will be wordpress.com, but I'm open to other suggestions. (I've looked at LiveJournal and didn't like it much.)
What I'll probably do is post new articles on the new site, but put links to them here. It'll be a while before I move though; I've not had a chance to try Wordpress out properly yet.
It's a shame to move, but I do want my friends to be able to join in the discussion...! I'll tell you the link once there's something there to see.
A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she'd decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn't the energy for it and the idea foundered.
Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she'd encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: "Well actually... Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I'm not doing it at the moment".
Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you've read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas...
How many of your New Year resolutions took the form "I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day"? Did they succeed?
I very much doubt that they did, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.
Learning, rest and cycles
I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You're always trying to develop and move forwards...
But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn't like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you're definitely ready for a rest... Next day, when you practise some more, you don't want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an "off day". Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot--while you weren't working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards--most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right--your brain set about "reprogramming" itself to achieve what you'd fed into it.
It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That's one reason why it's a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.
I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn't expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day--or even every week. Maybe it's not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.
Solo musicians whom I've met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they're ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn't necessarily the best approach. In fact I'm pretty sure that for any creative activity it's entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I've come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)
I'm interested in a lot of different things--that's probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I'm never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I'll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I'll try to find out what the "professional" approach to it is. I'm interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can't do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I'll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I've immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.
The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there's no time in the last twenty years when I've not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven't been ones of musical inactivity, though: I've had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.
So that's how it seems to work for me. If you're involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I'd love to hear from you.
Ursula le Guin, Changing Planes, Gollancz, 2004This book describes itself as "armchair travel for the mind". It's a kind of travel guide, written by people who have visited interesting places. Only in this case, what's on offer isn't different parts of the country, or different countries, but a whole variety of different worlds and places. Imagine, for example
- a people whose experience of time is not sequential like ours
- a society based entirely on anger and ill temper
- a world in which people routinely overhear their neigbours' dreams at night
- a world where it is permanently the worst kind of commercialised Christmas
- an island population created to live without sleep as a scientific experiment
- a language too complex to be translated, based on words which individually have no meaning
- a world where some people grow wings and can fly, but are ostracized by the rest of society.
We learn later that the method requires "a specific combination of tense misery, indigestion, and boredom" to work, making the airport an ideal place to use it. People relieve the agony by travelling to other "planes", and the book recounts some of their experiences. The stories are highly inventive, diverse, and wonderfully written. Some are reflective, some satirical, some challenging; all immensely readable. It's tempting to quote the whole book. I'll content myself with a few highlights. "Seasons of the Ansarac" describes a world where the "humans" are a migratory species, travelling north every twenty-four years (in our terms) to breed; on their planet this means they breed each spring. In their terms, it takes someone one year to reach adulthood from birth, and their lifespan is about three years (72 of ours). The story describes a typical cycle: people live in the cities during autumn and winter, getting on with their lives and feeling no sense of sexuality. Then comes the urge to migrate; everyone just feels like travelling north. There they form or renew partnerships, and have children; they then migrate back to the cities. By next spring, the children have grown up and it's time for the new generation to migrate north and repeat the cycle... It's hard to express the beauty and sensitivity of the way le Guin paints this unfolding picture. The Ansarac encounter a medically advanced people, who don't see the point of the lifestyle and want to "cure" them:
taken off the departures list. There was no one at the gate to answer questions. The lines at the desks were eight miles long, only slightly shorter than the lines at the toilets. Sita Dulip had eaten a nasty lunch standing up at a dirty plastic counter ... She had long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper, which ... applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania. The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction. She had been sitting for over an hour on a blue plastic chair with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor facing a row of people sitting in blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor, when (as she later said), 'It came to me.'
She had discovered that, by a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere--be anywhere--because she was already between planes.
She found herself in Strupsirts...
The reply is telling:
'They said, "All that will change. You will see. You cannot reason correctly. It is merely an effect of your hormones, yuour genetic programming, which we will correct. Then you will be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns."
Ouch! The most challenging story, "The Island of the Immortals", does not describe a place of eternal youth populated by people who live forever. The truth is far more disturbing. An extremely rare disease can be caught there, wjhich prevents the sufferer from dying, but doesn't prevent ageing--for hundreds of years. A truly horrifying picture. Real, alarming questions in our own world inevitably come to mind: this is a world we have already glimpsed. Suppose medicine could keep someone alive indefinitely, regardless of their condition... Suppose you could be kept alive forever. Would you want to be? The story doesn't explicitly mention these questions at all, yet we're brought powerfully face to face with them. In more humorous vein--but still with a serious point in the end--we hear "Woeful tales from Mahigul", relating a variety of historical incidents. One is of a highly pointless war over a tiny piece of land. A river boundary is involved. One side discovers how to make explosives. This does not, however, lead to the result you'd expect, but to something much more creative. Why not move the river, and hence the boundary?
'We answered, "But will we be free of your irrational and useless behaviour patterns?" '
and the story continues to its logical conclusion... which I will not describe here. All of the stories are as inventive as these. Ursula le Guin's skill is in painting a full and believable picture of each society, or at least as much of it as a tourist might experience. If you liked the quotes, and would like to read something entertaining and inventive, I hope you will give the whole book a try.
Given the highly infectious nature of technologies of destruction, it was inevitable that Meyun should discover explosives as powerful as those of their rival. What was perhaps unusual was that neither city chose to use them as a weapon. As soon as Meyun had the explosives, their army, led by a man in the newly created rank of Sapper General, marched out and blew up the dam across the old bed of the Alon. The river rushed into its former course, and the army marched back to Meyun.
Under their new Supreme Engineer, appointed by the disapointed and vindictive Councilwomen of Huy, the guards marched out and did some sophisticated dynamiting, which, by blocking the old course and deepening access to the new course of the river, led the Alon to flow happily back into the latter.
Henceforth the territorialism of the two city-states was expressed almost entirely in explosions...
The conversationA while ago, I was talking to an acquaintance about radio listening and about what kind of book we liked to read. She turned out to be a big fan of BBC Radio 4's In Our Time, which considers the history of ideas and goes into each of its subjects in some depth. I like it too, but don't often hear it as it clashes with rehearsals for one of my orchestras. It gets to grips properly with some very interesting subject matter. (If you want to hear for yourself, you can download the latest episode here.) We both liked to read factual books--often science ones in my case. I said I don't read very much fiction, and that when I do, it's quite unusual for it to be set in the normal, everyday world. I tend to feel there's quite enough reality happening to me already without inventing more of it. So I find myself reading books like Ella Minnow Pea (see my review), set in a world where letters of the alphabet have been banned, or Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, where everything works (unreliably) by magic. The more inventive the better. (I generally hate crime fiction, since detective novels always seem to involve the same crime and story: murder committed, idiosyncratic detective solves puzzle, murderer caught, end of book. And there's plenty of crime in the news already, which is quite depressing enough, thank you very much.) Anyway my acquaintance said she couldn't see the point of science fiction or fantasy and never read any. I think she saw it as merely escaping into a fantasy world disconnected from reality; it would be more interesting to get to grips with real issues about the real world. So she found it a bit silly, I think. Fairy tales for grown-ups, with no real content. I was quite surprised, since that's not how I see science fiction and fantasy at all. I pointed out that they're all about exploring ideas, and that Terry Pratchett's books are full of erudite references if you look for them...
What do science fiction and fantasy do?There isn't really a clear boundary between science fiction and fantasy. I suppose the best definition is to say that science fiction is generally set in a more technologically advanced version of this world, while fantasy lives in an entirely invented one. Or maybe, to suggest that if a science fiction book keeps annoying you because the science couldn't work, you'd be better off thinking of it as fantasy... But the distinction doesn't really matter here. It seems to me that both genres use freedom of imagination to create freedom of thought. They do this by stretching or altering reality in some way. Yes, this can be done simply for purposes of entertainment and escapism, as in Doctor Who or Star Wars. But if you're interested in ideas, creating an alternative reality can be an excellent way to explore them. This is particularly true for deeper ones about the nature of our existence, our humanity, or society and the world around us. Albert Einstein's thinking was a good example of this. He developed many of his ideas for the theory of relativity through what he called "thought experiments". One of these involved imagining what it would be like to ride on a light wave. That's impossible: nobody can ride a light ware, at the speed of light. But he explored it anyway, gaining deep insights into how the real world works. Einstein's thought experiments were science fiction in miniature, and inventive science fiction at that. An example in philosophy involves the use of a teleporting device. It works in the standard science fiction way: a person is disassembled into atoms at one end, and a perfect copy assembled at the other, complete with the same memories, personality etc. Is the person who comes out at the other end the one who went in? What if a copy is made but the original survives too--who is the real one? Why? We're brought face to face with questions about consciousness and identity. What makes you you? What is a person? Many things are so familiar to us that it's hard to think clearly about them. We're immersed in them. They're the way they've always been. Our thoughts about them form a deeply-ingrained world-view: our society, our own nature, the world around us... It's hard to notice the assumptions we make about these things and question them; we tend to think everything is the only way it can be. What I think science fiction does is to create an alternative viewpoint from which we can stand back and see the world from outside in order to think about it more clearly. It does this in several ways:
- Changing some important aspect of reality, in order to explore its nature or its significance to us.
- Placing human beings in situations which can't exist, to explore more deeply some aspect of human nature as they react to it.
- Inventing a society or world-view very different from our own, in order to highlight our essential human values and why they matter to us.
- Ditto, but in order to highlight and satirise our absurdities and stupidities and why we'd be better off without them.
- Inventing a world in which some aspect of our behaviour or thinking is taken to the extreme, so as to explore the consequences and implications of that behaviour.
Is there a conflict?There are scientists who reject religion. I suppose the most famous of these is Richard Dawkins, who has almost made attacking religion into a religion of his own. And there are religious people who reject science: for example those who treat the Bible utterly literally and insist that the world was created in six days as (supposedly) described in Genesis 1. Cleearly there can be a genuine conflict. Someone who believes God does not exist, and someone who believes God created the world in six days, will never agree with each other. There is a fundamental disagreement between them. But is that the only kind of believer and the only kind of scientist? No--it's an extreme variety of religion and only one kind of scientist. In fact there is no reason why scientific thinking has to reject God, or why religious belief has to reject the scientific understanding the earth's history and of our origins. I think the debate typically takes place between people one of whom understands science but not religion, and the other understands religion but not science. And sometimes, I fear, there are religious people who don't understand religion... though that might be a bit more contentious.
My starting pointIn my first year at university, startled by my first encounter with biblical literalists, I made a conscious decision which I've followed ever since: anything which I believe as a consequence of my religion must be compatible with what I believe as a consequence of science. There is only one reality, whether you're looking at it through religious or scientific eyes. Science and religion both try to discover some truths about it. Truth can't contradict itself; so if they do discover truth, it must be consistent. It's no good to believe during the week that we eveolved by natural selection, only to believe on Sundays that we were specially created out of the blue 6,000 years ago. Science and religion must both live in the same real world. Theology and science must both adapt in response to known evidence, as we make more sense of the world we are in. Otherwise we're disconnecting ourselves from the world and our beliefs are simply attractive ideas which have nothing to do with reality. Do we want reality, or fantasy? I think that if we're basing our lives on it, we should go for reality. Or at least, the closest we can get to reality.
Some misconceptions...A number of misconceptions seem to be lurking in the background whenever science and religion come into conflict. So here are some things I don'tbelieve: ... about religion
- Religion claims infallible truth
- Religion is a set of beliefs
- Scripture is an infallible, divinely dictated book containing those beliefs
- All religious people see it that way, or should do
- All religious people reject science and rational thinking
- Faith is intellectual acceptance of [impossible] ideas despite evidence
- Religious ideas are arbitrary.
- Science claims infallible truth
- Science works by proving things true
- All true scientists are atheists and reject religion
- Science is merely opinion
- Scientists seek to control the world
- Science starts out with a particular view of things, which it then seeks to justify in a biased way.
- Religion and science are based on conflicting "facts" (e.g. the claim that the world was made 6,000 years ago, versus the scientific evidence that it is much older).
Some definitions of my ownTo answer all those misconceptions properly would turn this blog post into quite a long book chapter (last time I checked it was over 1500 words long as it is), so forgive me if I don't do that in detail just yet. Instead, here are some attempted definitions which reflect my approach to it all: RELIGION: Religion is the response of human beings to the divine. THEOLOGY: Theology is the attempt to make sense of that response and produce a logically consistent set of ideas: about the encounter, and about what we're encountering. SCIENCE: Science is the attempt to make sense of the physical world by testing ideas against careful (ideally repeatable) observation. THE BIBLE: The Bible is a set of writings, accumulated over many centuries, providing a record of around two thousand years of religious experience and reflection on it. The experience was that of human nature encountering God and the world; the reflection is influenced by how writers at the time saw the world, and is expressed in many different genres. It should be fairly obvious that the things on my Misconceptions List are incompatible with those ideas. I'm worried about the length of this post so I won't go into that in detail now--maybe in another post if needed. Instead, here are
Some consequencesReligion as a response What is a reasonable response to being loved by someone, or falling in love with them? Is it to come up with a set of rigid beliefs and theories about them, and put all your effort into intellectually accepting those theories? No--your response is "Wow!" or "I want to be with this person" or to love them back or to want to join in with their activities. Similarly with our response to God: it's not a set of ideas, and it probably can't even be put into words because God is so far beyond what our language can describe. But after a while we feel the need to understand what's going on, and that's where theology comes in, so we try to describe it anyway. The beliefs aren't the starting point. Similar and different Theology and scientific theorising are in some ways very similar activities. Both try to make sense of human experience. In the case of science, this is the experience of doing certain experiments and getting certain results; in the case of religion, it's our subjective, yet shared, experience of being conscious beings, of relating to the world, and of relating to what we perceive to be its creator. Science has a distinct advantage in its area, because it deals as much as it can with things which can be made objective and measurable and repeatable. Yet science can't handle God at all, for a very good reason. The only way we can experience God is subjectively, in our consciousness, within ourselves. Yet the whole idea of science is to remove everything subjective and personal as far as we can, in order to be objective and repeatable. It works by letting us stand back from what we are studying. (The physicist Schroedinger expressed this well; I'll try to find the quote.) I believe that good theology must behave in a similar way to good science. It must take account of the real world we live in, and the real evidence we see. Its job is to make sense of the world and our religious experience as they are, not as we say they should be. It's not a matter of taking some pre-existing belief in, say, the infallibility of the Bible and forcing ourselves to believe all the consequences; it's about taking what we see and experience and trying to fit it all together. Also it seems clear to me that neither theology nor science is in a position to claim absolute knowledge of the truth. They're each a search, hoping to get nearer to the truth as they progress. Both need humility and the willingness to change if a new piece of evidence comes in. Their "truths" are always provisional: the best we can come up with so far, but open to change and refinement. The Bible OK, this is the bit which you won't like if you're a fundamentalist... What's special about the Bible is not that "God wrote it", but that it contains all those centuries of experience and reflection. Human nature is universal. God is universal. So, if the biblical writers encountered God, they encountered the same God we do. They sometimes interpreted the encounter differently from us; and sometimes had some odd ideas. For example a lot of the Old Testament assumes that God's love for us must mean God hates our enemies and wants to wipe them out. The idea of God loving them too didn't seem to occur to the writers. Yet even that horrible and blatantly unchristian idea came from the belief that the God they had encountered was a loving one. Just not one whose love extended to other people too... And certain aspects of the encounter are consistent through all those centuries of experience; we connect with them in our experience too. This is all scene-setting, really. I've not even started on basic things like what sort of God I believe in! But I hope it helps you to see my starting point.
A pleaI know that if you're a particular kind of atheist, or a fundamentalist Christian, you'll disagree strongly with what I've written. That's fine--but please respect what I'm doing here: I'm simply setting out my beliefs for some people who've asked about them, and I haven't the energy to launch into heated debate. Gentle disagreement is OK though
|November 2013January 2014|
Artist, photographer and blogger, with ME and an ability to make two dots and a line express almost anything.
Birmingham-based artist with a wicked sense of humour and some very nice pictures
Music teaching, learning and performing
Reflections on all three of those areas, by a clarinettist and music teacher
Sculptures inspired by science and mathematics. Beautiful, impossible, yet real.
My Wordpress blog
Audio illusion: the accelerating metronome
My experience of hearing a metronome apparently speed up as I relaxed after intensely practising some fast music; and a link to a possibly related piece of recent research. Continue reading →
Democracy without general elections
A suggestion for a different and possibly more democratically responsive way of electing governments, while removing some of the undemocratic manipulation that currently takes place. Continue reading →
Twitter does it again!
An unexpected act of kindness on Twitter which will help me to understand a little more Swedish. Continue reading →
A short poem, previously tweeted a couple of days ago. Continue reading →
Discovering Anouar Brahem's music and its unexpected effect on my typing as my fingers tried to dance along with it. Continue reading →