Blog Musings Nature Philosophy Technology

Limitations in Nature

I was looking up at the moon this evening which is rapidly coming up to the First Quarter and it got me thinking about the notion of limits. The moon is a brilliant teacher of this because it grows larger and smaller but it never goes outside its own limits when it is at its maximum fullness. The same goes for the tides which the moon influences. They ebb and flow, filling up at high tide and emptying at low tide but there is a limit and when it is reached the cycle begins again. Perhaps this time of lockdown is a time of the ebbing of the tide for all of us. The activities of our lives have had to slow down, growth has slowed and perhaps even gone into reverse. There are many who will be struggling.

However before we start back on the road we were on, perhaps we could pause and reflect on what this situation has been telling us. We have as a global culture been in expansion mode for such a long time, perhaps we now need to think about contraction or at least a stabilisation of the seemingly endless expansion. We have learned to harness the vast resources of energy that our planet can provide, a lot of which ultimately was derived from life-processes driven by the sun. We also have learned about generating power from matter as physicists have shown us to be possible. But in a way with all this power at our disposal are we just like the child who discovers that a magnifying glass on a hot day can be fun but also destructive. We use the power generated to plumb the depths of matter even further with giant atom smashing particle accelerators, but for what? To learn more about a potentially more powerful source of energy to harness? Do we need it?

Nature has limits. We know that and the moon shows that. We should start to consider the moon and be less obsessed by the sun. When the natural limits of nature are exceeded there is disease. An overproduction of white bloodcells is the manifested state of leukemia. A tumor is an abnormally large growth. The limits have been exceeded. Cancer is the other name for this disease. And it is something that this lockdown has reminded me of because right now there are people who have loved ones that are ill but whom they can’t see or be with. And this was the case when my nephew was ill over the last four years but due to circumstances I wasn’t really able to do as much as I would have liked to be with my family or help them with their burden. Thankfully the crisis is now in the past but lives have been irrevocably changed. The white bloodcells are back within the limits that correspond to health.

The questions for me though are: will we heed the moon and pull back our activities into the zone of limitation that nature shows us? Can we take a rest from our incessant desire for expansion? Can we continue to contract for a little while until we settle into a natural pattern once again?

Blog Music Musings Nature Technology

Live Streaming During Our Time of Isolation

There seem to be quite a few people, some of whom I know, doing live streaming on-line just now as a means of reaching out while we are in this state of self-imposed (or in some places state-imposed) isolation. This got me thinking that I could myself do something along these lines, however after pondering it I decided that I don’t think this would be worth my while. I already have quite an extensive output on-line which is mainly text-based or pre-recorded audio and I’m not sure that adding further to this in the audiovisual area is really a constructive thing for me to do.

I have however been enjoying a great deal what others have been doing, particularly when it comes to being able just to listen to their broadcasts. I have discovered that a few artists who are themselves great performers have been have been doing live streaming on Twitch and I would recommend that you have a look. These are Danny Berman, AKA Red Rack’em, with his daily Berman Sermon at 2pm and Marjolein Roberston who does a storytelling slot at 8pm everyday. Marjolein also has a Patreon account which you can subscribe to as does Siobhan Wilson who also has been doing live streamed gigs from her home which are absolutely worth subscribing to her Patreon to be able to have a listen to. I also believe that Rachel Sermanni has been doing live streamed broadcasts on her Instagram account which I haven’t yet listened to but I’m sure would be worth checking out.

It is important to help support these talented performers during this time when the usual opportunities for live performance are curtailed. And I also would say it is important to remember the live streaming that Mother Nature has been doing and continues to do during these times. At the moment I am very fortunate to be in relative isolation on an island in the middle of the Thames, so each morning I can go out and observe the flow of the river and the fish and birds that call it their home. To have access to this is a real blessing for me at this time. I hope that everyone reading this is also finding ways to be good to themselves and are managing to cope during these extraordinary circumstances. All the best to you and have a great Easter weekend where ever you are.

Blog Gaelic Technology

Scottish Gaelic Duolingo

Like many other people I signed up for the Scottish Gaelic course on Duolingo when it was released. I’ve found it quite useful as a learner as it contains quite a lot of vocabulary which relates to everyday situations. I wouldn’t say that it teaches the best Gaelic especially when it comes to expressing the past tense but it is good for an complete beginner as long as they realise that they don’t want to rely on it too much.

Also I just finished the whole course at level one today so that was a good milestone which is why I thought I would post this.

If you are doing the course, keep going! And if you aren’t and you want to learn Scottish Gaelic, then what’s stopping you? Tìoraidh an-dràsta!

Blog Cinema Musings Philosophy Technology

Movies and Christian Bale

Last night I went to check out the new movie with Christian Bale called “Le Mans ’66”. I’m not a big fan of car racing nor of Matt Damon I have to admit, but I usually go to Christian Bale films if I can as I think he is an extremely talented actor. The trailers didn’t show his best acting and I was kind of hesitant about going because I didn’t want to go and see him doing something awful (plus the above reasons). However he didn’t disappoint. There was one scene in particular which I thought was really outstanding when he was on the tarmac of the place where they were developing the race car which was an airfield runway. He started to explain to his son about the state of mind he was in when he was racing that allowed him to calculate and judge all the necessary actions to achieve the best lap time and he was describing it as opening up or widening out his awareness so he could see all the seemingly insignificant markers. He delivered this scene with his characteristic focus which made it instantly believable.

Afterwards I was sitting watching the credits roll. Everyone else had left and only the guy cleaning the cinema was left in the room. He probably wanted me to move but didn’t say anything, we merely put up with each other. But at the end of the film I saw that it said that over 15,000 jobs had been supported by the making of the film and I guess you could say that his job was one of them. On the way back home on the bus I couldn’t help thinking that it is kind of crazy in a way that what is essentially just some lights dancing on a screen could have such an impact. I’m not trying to diminish the film industry but really when you think about it that is all it is. That is the final product which keeps the whole machine ticking over. You never actually see any of what is conveyed by the film directly. I’ve never seen Matt Damon in person nor Caitriona Balfe and yet they are instantly recognisable to me. As key members of the cast the film and the process of movie making would appear to revolve around them. All those other people who are involved play their parts too including the other actors but also everyone behind the scenes and the producers who actually bring the project to fruition.

One of the scenes where I got a bit emotional was when Christian Bale’s character slows down to allow his other teammates to catch up with him so they can cross the finish line together. This means he unwittingly forfeits his victory due to some treachery but it is a key moment for me in which the individualism which is so pervasive in film which also is reflected in the society at large is overcome for the sake of the collective (or so it seems). Again how this is conveyed is through something which is altogether illusory but it still stirs something in an individual’s psyche and perhaps others were feeling it too who were watching the movie. I hope so because some of the people in the theatre didn’t appear to be very interested in concern for other people. We all are wrapped up in our own little bubbles. Even a group experience like the movies doesn’t seem very sociable anymore. And a lot of the trailers were for things that featured on streaming services like Netflix and I also saw an advert for Virtual Reality headsets for gaming which really is the apex (so far) of full immersion in a bubble.

The experience of seeing a movie though as I said is really an illusory one. If you could put your head right up to the screen to focus on a small section of it (which you can’t do of course because you would obscure the screen with your own shadow) all you would really see is a flickering range of colours and light and you might see it as interesting but not really anymore than that. It wouldn’t be able to convey any meaning. But when you pull back your view you see the whole picture and the context of that one little flickering part is revealed and there is a sense of meaning. Those same flicking lights are there at that point on the screen but with all the other points around it filled with their own flickering lights it now seems to make sense. However it is just our minds that are making sense of it all because of their close approximation to what we perceive with our eyes in the world around us. It is still no more real and even has a double layer of illusion because the people on that screen are actors. We know that the same person has played many roles before but we are for that moment in the illusion that they are the character they are portraying. It’s another trick which our minds play on us but without this dual illusion we wouldn’t have the huge film industry with all the jobs it creates and all the lives it supports. It’s no wonder that people have some difficulties sometimes distinguishing where reality and fiction begin and end.

I’ve already gone on quite a lot now about the illusion that movies consist of but in this case I have another level to come to terms with in my mind. That is, unlike Matt Damon who I’ve never seen in person, I have seen Christian Bale in person. Not only that but he was also someone I considered to be a really good friend, my best friend in fact. I’m not sure if he thought about me the same way though. We were both at primary school together. We are exactly the same age, well he’s a bit older than me by a few months. Funnily enough I don’t remember the details of our friendship all that much. I posted a picture of us and some other friends in my bio which is also below:

You can see I was standing next to him and bear in mind at this time I still had a quite distinct American accent having recently moved from the States to the UK. I was also good friends with the other kids in the picture. Owen who you see to the right was a neighbour and I hung out with him a lot but you can also see that he’s standing apart from the small group clustered around Christian. It has to be said that even then he had quite a lot of charisma and there was something about him which was quite intense. Although I felt he was my best friend he could also be quite dismissive and I got quite jealous when he would hang out with Marcus and James who were on the opposite side of him from me. At that time I felt like I was a bit of an odd one out and there was something about Christian that I think made us kindred spirits in this regard so I felt quite attached to him. So I was pretty devastated when he suddenly left the school and I never saw him again. This had quite a big impact on me and was probably a pivotal moment in my life as it has been a repeated pattern where I’ve not had any really good lifelong friends with whom I have actually been in regular contact with. I certainly have good friends but they live far away. In a funny way Christian’s life has been a lot like mine in that he moved around a lot and went from the UK to the USA (so the opposite of what I did). However I do wonder how much of the real Christian Bale I actually knew because he was even then an enigma. The only thing I really remember that well about him personally, that is true to him as opposed to being an act, was that he disliked the name Christian and would have preferred to have been called Morgan.

Thinking back to that scene again where he explains to his on-screen son about the state of mind he is in when he is racing, if we could perhaps widen our views, so that instead of looking at the screen but beyond that, to the theatre and the outer world, much like the allegory of the cave in Plato, then we could perhaps see a bigger picture which has its own distinct layer of meaning. And also by extension not just the bigger picture in terms of space but also of time, that is by observing the whole as it changes over time, we also might see that again there is a meaning beyond what we might see if we are just fixated on a particularly narrow band around the short-term.

These experiences I think are what has led me to act and think the way I do and that is also perhaps what people find so disconcerting about me. When I meet people I just see them as people, no more and no less. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or famous or have been deemed important because of their position or rank in a company or organisation. They are just people. And because I think like that people who are impressed by such things, which is really most people, don’t get it or like it very much if I don’t display their same attitude. And this is not anything against them, mostly that is human nature, but my motivations come from a different place and that is just me. And that is also why it happens that I tend to spend about half my time sleeping on a camp bed so my daughter can have more comfort and why I’m happy chatting with a homeless person for 20 minutes and why I feel so angry sometimes about injustices in our society.

I also saw that at the end of the film when the credits rolled almost to the very end that there were special thanks to people in Christian Bale’s family, including names whom I’m assuming are his wife and children. So I hope that he has found his happiness and that his role as a husband and parent are giving him genuine and authentic meaning.

Blog Musings Technology

Social Media

I went to a talk the other day on social media and the guy giving the talk, who was promoting his book, made quite a few negative comments about it, describing some of the dangers and the way in which it has evolved into something which its creators didn’t initially intend. In some ways I could see what he was saying although I try to take a more positive view generally. However after the talk I wrote up an essay which I posted on this website and then shared it through social media. I had really very little response and it made me think “what use is this?” Another thing that the author didn’t mention, although he may have covered it in his book, is the way in which computer learning, that is, so-called artificial intelligence, has developed over the last quarter of a century. He did talk about robots and they are closely linked. However the rise in computer learning is possibly not recognised by a lot of people and its relationship to social media.

When I was at Uni in the 90’s I studied linguistics and I did a module called Introduction to Cognitive Science. At the time the field was relatively new and developing rapidly. I was interested in it because it was a multidisciplinary field which combined many subjects which I was interested in including Linguistics, Neuroscience, Computing, Psychology and a few others. The hot topic was neural nets and how computers could be set up to mimic the way that the brain works by using networking and then utilising the enhanced computing power of the network start to learn in the same way that humans do. Another hot topic was speech recognition and it was still in its early stages. Come forward to our present time and it can be seen that the advances in speech recognition have been remarkable. Siri, Alexa and all the other speech based computer interactions clearly show that. What is not so obvious is how this is achieved. The system “learns” how to recognise your speech patterns and then “learns” what sorts of responses to give. This is not programmed in as such but is independent of human interference and is based on the “learning” made possible by massively increased computing power and memory storage. You might have even interacted with computers whilst thinking they were people if you have used chat based support online. Their responses seem quite natural and relevant and therefore you could be tricked into thinking they are human.

So how does this relate to Social Media. Well although we know that we are communicating with other people through social media it is possible that machine learning is happening based on our interactions with it and that the platform itself has learned in a way to censor the interactions, mainly by its curating of our timelines. You can of course still go and look at someones profile and see all their posts but when you look at your timeline that is not necessarily a representation of all the posts of the people you are wanting to get notifications from. There are ways of changing the settings on this to see posts chronologically but more often than not people don’t use this capability. So if the platform is “learning” from the interactions we have, which also includes the language, because it has the ability to break down the language into chunks it can analyse, then what are we teaching it? And then what responses is it making to the interactions we have with it? I’m now starting to think about this quite carefully. And I have to say I’m starting to think about shying away from social media.