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Archive for June, 2014

Argument against the human body being the product of intelligent design #234978: lack of progress bars.

I’m bad at a lot of things I’d like to be less bad at. Now, the part where that takes hundreds of hours of effort to make tiny incremental improvements to your skill level, I get. But I’m also painfully aware of the possibility that, after putting hundreds of hours of effort into something, I won’t have achieved anything worth crowing about at the end of it all. That has to be possible as well, right?

My base level of talent at, say, drawing, is so low that, even if I worked really hard at it, to the same degree as other people who’ve practised long enough to get really good (which, let’s face it, is unlikely), I’m not convinced I’d make anything like enough progress for it to be worthwhile. Because that incremental improvement is basically just a rumour at this stage. It’s an urban legend about something that’s happened to other people but never been directly observed.

If I could just watch that progress bar slowly, slowly ticking forward toward my next level-up as I work at it, I wouldn’t keep deciding that my latest pet project is futile and giving up six times as a day.

Again, I’m not objecting to the fact that learning new skills takes a long time and a great deal of effort. Progress is allowed to be slow, and hard work is the most rewarding kind. I’m young enough that it’s not like I don’t have thousands of hours available to try getting good at a few different things, but the suspicion that my achievement level is remaining at precisely zero despite my actions is inescapable.

Just blindly hoping that it’s all going somewhere, anywhere, isn’t enough. My brain needs an XP-counter implant, dammit.

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Other cultures are weird. You know it, I know it, Austin Powers’s dad knows it.

Come on, don’t be coy. There’s no need to worry that the PC brigade are going to come along and make this whole blog illegal under human rights legislation (thank you, Brussels). We’re all friends here, us British and North American folks, with a handful of varied Commonwealth types maybe dropping by from time to time. Sure, we don’t always get along with each other. There are times we confuse each other a bit with our local pronunciations, like when someone from Leicester tries to write to their penpals in Mackinac Island and Natchitoches. But at least we all speak English, like decent, civilised human beings. The people who don’t even do that much, the really foreign ones… well, they have some pretty strange ideas.

And some of them are bad ideas, too. Not just different, but dumb. I mean, it’s fine when they want to eat their own weird food, or sleep for half the afternoon, or run away from some giant angry cows for no reason – that last one probably balances out all the extra sleep, by being the direct opposite of a quiet lie down. But sometimes they do stuff that’s just ridiculous on the face of it.

Like, look at the caste system they have in India. It’s not like social class isn’t a concept much abused in the West, but it’s nothing like the formalisation of the idea that you see over there. You’re born onto a rung on the ladder and you’re stuck there; even if it’s not legally recognised, there’s apparently a widespread social acceptance that this is how things are. The recent rape and murder of two “untouchable” teenage girls is just one incident highlighting the effect that caste has on people’s perceptions of others.

Or look at this Chinese Keqi thing, essentially a form of courtesy taken to extremes. Actually, the author of that article puts it better: “less about being polite to people because you don’t want to hurt their feelings and more about being polite so you don’t look bad”. They’ve taken a benevolent concept and turned it into something unhelpful and egocentric. Being polite to people is obviously basically good, but surely the cultural approach apparently popular in China is objectively worse than, say, Canada’s take on the same subject?

Hopefully the casual xenophobia in my opening paragraphs was broad enough that it’s clear I’m not actually talking about billions of other people as if they were part of a homogeneous mass objectively less awesome than my own. But it’s easy to think this way, when you read about phenomena like these from far outside the cultural context. And it’s not like such culture-specific memes can’t ever be judged on their merits; the death penalty’s a cultural phenomenon of the US which I don’t hesitate to criticise and call barbaric. So why not assess some less harmful but still problematic cultural concepts, like the above, and conclude that other people’s ways of doing things aren’t such a great idea?

It’s probably okay to try it – so long as you remember to finish the thought, and complete the picture. How would somebody who isn’t me, but might read about me and my people in an article online, complete the following paragraph?

You know, those middle class white boys from the south of England have some funny ways of doing things, right? It just seems stupid the way they always…

There are surely any number of ways you could go with that. I’m a prime candidate for falling into thoughtless patterns of behaviour, and letting my biases keep me stuck to damaging ideas, just like any other human. That’s the important thing to understand if you don’t want an interesting cultural comparison exercise to turn into tedious “us and them” blabbering. Someone from outside my bubble could point out any number of things which really ought to make me take a long hard look at myself.

There really are some behaviour patterns, which are the familiar and comfortable norm in other societies, and which those societies would surely be better off adapting or abandoning. The same is unquestionably true of my own, but I’m less able to identify those. I’m too rooted in my own concept of normal. So maybe what we need is some kind of cultural criticism exchange program. Some venue where we tactfully bring up things that seem weird, messed-up, and sub-optimal about each other’s cultures, in a non-judgmental, friendly, constructive way, and all do some learning about how the traditions came to be that way, the possible advantages of attempting to shift them, and so on.

The emphasis does need to be on understanding the role that these cultural oddities play in the societies in which they’re found, and the purpose they serve, so that we’re not attempting to deprive anyone of something meaningful without providing the tools to install an adequate replacement. This is especially true in cases like the ones I’ve talked about here, where someone like me is in danger of delivering condescending lectures to individuals whose country my recent ancestors invaded and basically decided was ours. I don’t want to let imperialism or Western paternalism be any kind of driving force to this… but I would dearly like to encourage Indonesians not to cut their own fingers off as a sign of mourning.

And I want to hear their ideas about the things that are wrong with the stupid way I’m living my life, too, because Christ knows that goes both ways. We badly need some gentle advice from an impartial observer over here. You can start by tearing your hair out over everything we ever think, say, or do about sex. It’d take some truly bewildering cultural narcissism not to recognise how fucked up my people are on that score.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is there something intrinsically offensive about this cosy Westerner telling people he doesn’t know, and whose ways he doesn’t understand and has never experienced, what they’re doing wrong with their lives? Is it more okay if I ladle on enough context, make it clear that I don’t just want other people to be more like me, and acknowledge that I’m in need of this “service” as much as anyone?

2. This should totally be about stealing other people’s great ideas, too, like throwing a party to celebrate a baby’s first laugh. What else is cool like that which we just haven’t figured out we should all be doing?

3. Seriously, what is it with literally every society that’s ever existed and sex? How are we still so far from getting that one right, after all this time? Those bonobos, man, they know what they’re about.

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Here’s one of them “half-assed and barely worth it but at least I’m typing” posts I promised you. Clearly I need to work on the self-promotion at least as much as the writing itself.

The Co-operative Bank has been greatly “troubled” in recent months, to put it euphemistically. There’s been no shortage of opportunity to read about what a nightmare they’ve been having, especially from the BBC.

There have no doubt been some serious management problems which need addressing. Much of the criticism thrown Co-op’s way, even if it has been largely dealt out by superfans of one narrow and specific conception of capitalist economics revelling in apparent vindication of their own ideology, is surely valid.

And yet, for all the public dissection of this failure of the ethical investment model, it does make me wonder why, when HSBC – a bank with a more rigorously capitalist doctrine – made a killing over the course of decades by laundering billions of dollars for drug barons and terrorists, I had to read about it on a comedy website specialising in dick jokes.

After wondering this for a while, I decided I may have just not been paying much attention.

***

So that was just a thought I had in my head, and so I got it out of my head, as per yesterday’s new policy. It’s not much, but it’s a thing. As it wasn’t much, here’s another one.

I don’t know by what piecemeal process something becomes so twisted, distorted, wasteful, counterproductive, and utterly unfit for purpose as the current US healthcare system. I suspect it takes many minds, spread over many different layers of competing bureaucracies, all at differing levels of competence and malevolence, and all failing to communicate with each other meaningfully, acting largely in whatever short-sightedly self-interested way will best keep them afloat in the immediate future without making too many waves.

What’s the purpose behind a healthcare system? Something idealistic and obvious like, I don’t know, making sure people’s health is cared for? Look at the state of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries in the States. That’s not even in the top five.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how things got this bad. Or maybe it’s important to understand so that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes next time. I just know that my gut instinct when I read about shit like this, that inner voice which burns with furious, urgent need, is howling burn it all to the fucking ground.

That’s not “just a metaphor”, by the way. Saying that would make it sound like my anger at this is some momentary thing, that I’ll be thinking more clearly once I’ve calmed down, that sure I’m frustrated but I’m not actually advocating dramatic and severe and complete change in a way that annihilates the status quo.

Possibly the worst part – because it both gives me hope and also makes the whole thing so unbearably tragic – is that the system is filled with well-meaning people working hard to do good. And the structure they’re working in is built in such a way that anxiety, misery, destitution, and immeasurable unnecessary suffering are the direct result of their commendable labours. We’re trying so hard to make it better and it’s still completely fucked.

Now I’ve just made myself sad before bed. I knew this writing words thing was a bad idea.

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Man, this place has been turning into one big, clunky obits column lately. Stay with it though, I’m making a different point this time.

Jay Lake was a widely acclaimed and fairly prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction the year he turned 40, cranked out ten novels and literally hundreds of published short stories, and died today of cancer, just shy of his 50th birthday.

This isn’t another of those “personal reflections on death” posts that I’ve done for beloved pets in the past. I didn’t know Jay at all; my reaction on learning of his death was an “Oh yeah, that guy… I think.” I’ve not read his books; I vaguely recall quite enjoying some of his stories being read to me in the past, but I never explored him enough to call myself a fan. He’s remembered with admiration and respect by people whom I respect and admire. By all accounts he was a great writer and a fine chap, and my thoughts are with his family.

Some of my thoughts, anyway. Other parts of my brain are more self-interestedly and internally directed right now.

***

I’ve been saying for a while now that, whether or not writing is the thing I truly and honestly want to dedicate my life to and try making a career out of, I’m determined to at least give it a go. To spend six months or a year seriously putting the hours in, devoting myself to actually working on this as if it were something I were passionate about, and see where it takes me.

It may not work out, and I may just officially draw a line under it after a brief burst of effort. I might decide, you know what, it’s a fun pastime, there’s some pleasure to be had doodling a few paragraphs of a germ of an idea now and then, but it’s not worth making this The Big Thing. There are other things I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time.

That could be the end result – but at least then I’d have tried. Not even having a go, to see if I could make a success out of it, is what I feel I’d regret most, years or decades down the line.

Sometimes I think this is a more intellectually honest approach to going about finding one’s vocation. Other times, I feel like I’m hedging, downplaying things, in case I try and I fail and I feel embarrassed at how much I talked about committing to my creative dreams from which I’ve now bailed out in shame and ignominy. Eh, I dunno. The point is, wherever it goes, I’m going to try and do this.

Starting, like, now.

***

I’d been putting all this off until after the move. We’ve been waiting months for the solicitors and mortgage underwriters – and all the other hordes of people who apparently need to get involved when you decide you’d like to go and live somewhere else – to get their shit together, and things are definitely making progress. But my plan to wait until I’m all settled into my nice new study, to arrange everything neatly once life has calmed down a bit, and then start working on the stuff I want to achieve with my time on earth, is a bullshit idea and I’ve always known it. This is the broken, backwards logic of people who buy exercise equipment and then start trying to induce in themselves a habit of regular exercise.

Smokers are more likely to quit successfully if they just arbitrarily pick a moment and say “Right, I’m done,” than if they plan for some point in the future after which things are going to change, and imbue that moment with significance (New Year’s Resolutions are the worst, you guys). Well, this is my arbitrarily chosen moment, somewhat inspired by Jay Lake’s passing, in a way that I hope isn’t crass or insensitive to connect to him. I’m not setting myself up as some kind of spiritual successor of his; I’ll consider myself gloriously lucky and undeserving if I ever approach his levels of success and productivity. This isn’t really about him, after all, and the eulogising should be left to those who knew and loved him.

But it so happened that he was the final domino which stirred me to action. Regardless of what prompted it, I think it’s about damn time. I’m convincing myself I’m busy making other plans, and meanwhile life is happening to me. So I’m starting this today. Because it’s not quite as good as yesterday, but it’s better than tomorrow.

***

It’s important to note that I still mostly suck as a writer. I might be able to decide spontaneously that I’m going to start trying hard, but I can’t apply the same resolve to instantly become good. I’ve got a lot of work and a lot of learning to do, and chances are good that the first results anyone will see of this bold, energetic, self-indulgent tirade about committing to this project, will be a few more badly thought-out blog posts a couple of hundred words long, and regular complaints about how I’m tired and everything sucks, none of which will in any way justify all this hot air.

I will be entirely with you as you inevitably ask: “Really, that’s it? You bluster about grabbing your creative energies by the allegorical balls, and this is the output you were so excited about?”

I’m going to write a lot of unremarkable shite, which should have everyone wondering if I wouldn’t be wasting my time less if I were studying for a qualification that might further my accountancy career prospects instead.

I anticipate that I will be asking myself that a lot, over the coming months.

And I’m going to keep writing it anyway.

Because what if I can fight my way through the amateurish quagmire of mediocrity, and make it out to the other side? What if, after putting in enough effort, I could eventually approach that glorious realm, that promised land: the world of being a writer who occasionally stops feeling like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and whose output is total crap only like ninety percent of the time, maybe even eighty-five?

I can’t pass up the chance to at least try reaching for such a beautiful dream.

***

It starts here. I’ve read enough books and articles on procrastination and creativity to know all the tricks and mind-hacks, at least on an intellectual level, and I’ve made enough notes to remind myself of them whenever I fail to put them into practice (which will be always).

I’m going to get myself a notebook, so that I can always be writing wherever. And also, I don’t know, bigger pockets to carry it in, or something. Actually I can probably type on my phone as fast as I can scribble awkwardly on a notebook while hunching over to lean on my knees as I write. Scratch that one.

I’m going to stop letting thoughts go unrecorded, no matter how banal. Following through on the banal is how you nurture your capacity to pour out the barely above average.

I’ve deleted Candy Crush from my phone exactly two days after installing it, because I’ve learned for about the seventh time that I can’t be trusted to use things like that solely for passing idle moments which would not otherwise have been productively spent, without letting them turn into time-sinks of their own. (See also: Kongregate. Or rather, don’t, if you have anything you need to get done ever again.)

I’m going to have a grown-up and useful and awesome conversation with my wife, about adapting our shared daily routine somewhat around my new stupid obsession in a way that suits both of us, because we totally win at being married.

And most importantly of all, I’m going to reward myself for writing all this with a cup of tea and a biscuit right now.

And then I’ll come back and write something else. And so on.

Seeya.

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