Thinking With Our Telephone Minds


I think a lot about the way we think.

  • How we think
  • What we think
  • When we think
  • Where we think

I even thought about the way that wifie sometimes sounds a little bit frustrated when I forgot things, which made me feel guilty and encouraged me to try those methods that are supposed to improve your memory.

They didn’t.

I considered whether I was simply too lazy to commit things to memory. I wondered some more about what laziness really was. Then I wondered whether wondering about laziness was also a form of work avoidance.

The truth, they say, is all around us, just waiting for us to join up the dots between the different events and happenings in our life. So it was in this case, where a breakthrough did not just happen as I was stepping onto a bus, it was more like the pressure of the meaning of events squashing my awareness into the body of reality until I felt there was no escape from asking my wife this question:

‘How do you find shortcuts when you are walking somewhere?’

A strange kind of question, maybe, but allow me to wind my life back to when I was a child. I have always been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember, and I distinctly recall standing, at age 16, on a cold, flat and misty Romney Marsh arguing with other members of my Army Cadet Force platoon about where we were on the map. They said one place, and I said another – but I could prove it by walking to the end of our sodden sheep field, whereupon a church steeple, currently concealed by a dank and raven-ridden stand of trees, would become visible. I did. It did. They felt depressed. I slipped into a rushy dyke full of water. It was that kind of day.

Several years later and I went off to university, where I learned a rather interesting fact, one that glowered at me like a damp sheep in a wet pasture among the sparkling glories of the further reaches of education, and that was I kept forgetting where the roads went in my university town went. Well, except those I used regularly. It felt strange, because until then I believed that I knew where everything was as reasonably as the next student body. For years this memory kept returning, mostly after my frequent post-student moves to new towns and cities, where I took to keeping a local map in the car at all times. I pondered whether I had fried part of my brain with all that studying, somehow, and yet my map navigation skills remained as good as ever. Eventually, after living for nearly twenty years at either end of one long avenue with too many junctions, out popped the question.

There was more, though, because my wife also hated navigating for me in the car as I could become unreasonably angry in difficult traffic, while she became unreasonably unable to read the map, or even to remember to read it. Yet she always figures out the best bus to take, the most effective shortcut. What was going on? Her answer was to buy a GPS system, a brilliant answer, but then she wanted to switch it off the moment we got back into town while I wanted it to navigate me almost to our parking bay.

The pressure just built up, until I could no longer escape it, all the usual escape routes from thinking had been cut off.

As an aside, there are two kinds of thinking. The first is more a form of pondering through our memory to find something that fits our question, such as what suit or dress to buy, while what I wanted was a question to an answer that I did not yet understand: I needed to frame an answer to call into existence the actual question that I should be asking.

I asked her the question. She looked back at me, like she was wondering whether the biscuits were finally rolling out of my packet. I could see that she could not really answer, so I asked her more directly, how did she visualise the area where she thought there might be a shortcut. She thought, and then what she then described sounded a bit like a map: she could see the route in her mind.

Now I had the stepping-on-the-bus moment of illumination.

I visualise the bit of the world I am interested in as a three-dimensional environment, with something like photographs as entry points. Click the photo, and wander around the mini 3D world within. I always assumed that everyone thought in that way, because is this not what education really teaches us, that we are all essentially the same, that one education system essentially fits all? Take the course, then take the exam. Learn some stuff, then write the stuff down. If you do not fit, then there is something wrong with you, or your IQ is too low.

My next thought was that if she had a more 2D rendering, did this mean she could hold a larger area of the city in her head? Was the amount of data we could process in our heads some kind of constant, and that what we could remember was something to do with how we processed the data?

I asked her to describe where each side road went from my problem avenue. I could keep up as far as the first junction, then as she started describing the next I could feel myself desperately, and too slowly, trying to unfurl my 3D rendering of the next junction. I could not, and she raced ahead, joyously listing where each street headed. I could only cheer, impressed by how fast her mind worked.

I still do not fully understand how she sees the world, I just know it is not the same way that I do. When we are in a place she knows, like a town or mall, she can instantly figure out the best routes to take. When we are in an unknown place or out in the countryside, she struggles, but I can visualise the valleys or the streets and predict where they go.

This is noticeably different from the idea that memory is key, because we both quickly forget stuff that other people seem to be able to hang onto for decades, like people’s names.

And the smartphones?

It goes like this: every smartphone has its own memory and processing capacity, depending on the brand and model, and as humans we can all remember and do stuff that keeps us alive. However, a smartphone typically also has space for an extra memory card, but imagine that instead there were a range of cards available, not just for memory, but we could only choose one card to install.

  • Choosing a memory card would expand our available memory, giving us blindingly good recall but nothing special in how we process the memories. Translators are a bit like this, absorbing and recalling vast amounts of vocabulary.
  • Choosing a RAM chip card would give us blindingly fast processing, but memories that could be easily deleted. I would say this describes my wife, she can load up her memory with what she wants but just as easily delete anything she does not value or wishes to avoid – like remembering to check the map. She does not forget because she is lazy, her memory is more like easily overwritten.
  • Choosing a graphics accelerator card would give us nothing special in the memory department, but we would be able to handle huge systems of data blindingly fast. This is me, and my kind of ‘poor’ memory can never be fixed by repeating someone’s name after meeting them, as there is no direct path to recall single memories, everything is in huge 3D data sets where the flow of the data is more significant than any bit of data.

Back when we were growing in our mother’s tummy, we began to use a certain set of tools in our mind to process the world around us, and have continued to use the same set for all our tasks ever since. Maybe the reason is genetic, maybe it is more subtle, but the only thing that we can be sure is, unless something like a major injury that forces our brain to boot up other, unused parts of the brain to compensate for lost functions, we are stuck with what we are born with. Yes, we can grow our knowledge as well as our skills, and even add fresh ones, but we process everything in exactly the same way, our way. Maybe this has the purpose of giving us as individuals emergency brain capacity in the event of failure and our societies access to different kinds of brains to solve different kinds of problems.

At least I know better now why I cannot remember stuff. It is not a fault, but a sign that another feature exists in its place.

So that is the brain, a better kind of smartphone, where abnormal is actually normal.


Laziness as the Key to Innovation

Getting relaxed

Wiling away our lives in the sun

I believe that one of the most terrible things that we can do to each other is not to understand what we each need. I, for example, have always tended towards that habit of leaving things not done, then trying to fix things at the last minute. That is bad, in many people’s books, criminal in others, rather like my tendency to spend a friday night in a bar drinking beer rather than doing something constructive. I am irretrievably lazy.

But is laziness, or ‘delayed response’ as I languidly prefer to call it, necessarily bad? Has all that swilling turned me into an underperformer at the trough of life? Does society even need the socially pungent at its table, forever forgetting to keep its trotters in its lap, on top of its napkin, or sliding its cutlery to the twenty past four position at the appropriate moment?

As a shy lad I was usually last to hand in my homework, possibly last to even do it, although sensible enough to regularly create situations where I must confront my social problem so that I do not finally shrivel away in a house or apartment alone, dieing and being eaten by rats. In much the same way I joined the Mountaineering Club while at university in order to confront my fear of heights. Or my shyness of heights, as I also like to describe it. Shyness means that if there is a situation where I have to go see someone, I will delay doing so until I can no longer avoid it or the need for it disappears. So we could say that my apparent laziness is really a response to my shyness, hence my use of ‘delayed response’.

My wife, bless her, is much different, she is a planner-actioner, she gets things done, and will even change channels on the TV 15 minutes prior to the start of a program that she wishes to see so in order not to miss it (so I miss the last 5 minutes of my program and get to see 10 minutes of advertising on her chosen channel instead of mine). She is wonderful, but not so innovative.

Consider the situation: we each need to write a 500 word assessment. She will write hers ahead of time, based on what is known, having plenty of time to plan and check references, go to the library, search the internet and pump her acquaintances for the low down on this type of test. I, on the trotter, will wait until the last moment, well past any opportunity to gather suitable materials, forcing myself to be inventive and draw on any resource that is to trotter – but my brain will have to light up like a Christmas tree (or whatever) and burn some essential energy very rapidly.

Do you see the difference? If we are the kind of person who is rarely late, then on those occasions we are then we will quite possibly produce something that is visibly hacked together, or is lacking somewhere. If, on the other hand, we spend our life stepping from one crisis to another, we should start to get skilled at producing something worthwhile from apparently very little. A minimalistic, hermetic response that optimizes what we possess.

If we took a course in doing the long jump, then would this make us athletes? If we took a course in beer tasting, would this make us a suitable candidate for a job at professional brewery? Sadly, no, our body and mind take time and effort to become expert, including the ability to understand what is successful behaviour and what is not.

Conversely, if we do put long term effort into something, then we should reap some changes. OK, not always profitable changes, such as what we might achieve slumped every night in front of the television, but does this mean that if we design an education system to suit a certain kind of mind then we might be missing the creation of benefits that could accrue from training minds in other ways? Whatever, I wish I had considered all this decades ago.

Imagine you are down at your favorite haunt, and some idiot manages to set light to the table next to you, and assuming that you have not been trained for just this kind of incident, what would you do? Too late, decision time is over, if you stopped to think, by now I would be already at the bar asking, hopefully, for a refill.

I wonder if we might make a comparison with the different forms of muscle fibre, and I found this excellent summary on Athlepedia:

Muscle fiber types can be broken down into two main types: slow twitch (Type I) muscle fibers and fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers. Type II fibers can subsequently be broken down into two types: type IIA, which is referred to as “fast twitch oxidative glycolytic”, and type IIX, which is referred to as “fast twitch glycolytic”.  Type I fibers are characterized by low force/power/speed production and high endurance, Type IIX fibers are characterized by high force/power/speed production and low endurance, while Type IIA fall in between the two.

Fast twitch and slow twitch brains, one type functioning optimally in sprint environments and the other in marathons? In which case my wife has the marathon sort – having had only the one job and gaining all the necessary qualifications, while I have the sprint type – having had many jobs and a series of more minor qualifications from a broader range of subjects.

In summary, if you see someone lazing in the sun with a beer in their hand, they may still be doing constructive, training their mind to relax and recuperate before the next time it needs to be engaged under pressure. Or they could be getting plain-old drunk. Who knows.

Wild Wagon Ride

Lublin 14 Wild Horse Ride smallWhen I came to live in Poland in the mid-1990s, there were still a significant number of farms relying on horses for wagon and ploughing duties. Today few remain, and since horse riding is quite a minority activity in comparison to other European countries, the actual number of horses has declined. However, the village museum in Lublin has a small stock of working horses, and on one visit I was lucky enough to view a re-enactment of an uprising event. I have no idea whether the equipment used was accurate to the period, but it was a fun event nonetheless.

Have you ever seen those pictures of racing cars with the car in perfect focus and the background nicely blurred. well, that is the effect I wished to achieve. You can see that the horses have hard, sharp edges, which is easy enough although time consuming to achieve, but you can get the blurred background by using a larger and then a smaller brush, using the larger to first define the color patches, then the smaller brush to blur the edges and get rid of any actual lines.

You can get prints of this on canvas at:

Polish Cottage Interior

Polish Cottage Interior. My abstract view of an inside view of what it used to be like living in a cottage, and commentary on the future for such buildings.

Polish Cottage Interior

Grandmother's cottage interior, in Poland

Dom Babcie

When one drives around the rural areas of Poland it is still common to see old wooden cottages, although there number is decreasing as they are replaced by homes made of cheaper materials, such as concrete blocks. The two issues of most significance are that wooden cottages are expensive to maintain, and most are still owned by people who, in some form or other, have work related to agriculture. In a way it is sad to say, but the future of cottages is often highly dependent on being bought by people with urban work, who can afford to pay the costs of living in rural housing. This drives up the costs of buying homes in the countryside and in villages, making agricultural work more difficult to achieve as a profession.

Since wooden cottages of the types found in Poland can be readily dismantled, it is not uncommon for them to be sold as a kit, ready for you to reassemble on your own land. Sadly, though, many are just allowed to decay until the only solution is demolition, although some are being clad in thermal blocks to continue their life emulating a more modern home.

To purchase a print of this image:

Down in the Market on a Saturday Morning

A market stall, shoppers and stallholder, with the stall loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables.

A small local farmers’ market in Lublin, Poland

This is one of my favorite places in Lublin, where we often go to buy our fresh fruit and vegetables. We used to go more often, but first Ania’s job moved away from the area, then we found a new flat less convenient for shopping there – and yet it still retains its charm for us.

These days we have to drive their, so we normally pop in if we happen top be driving past. Most of the people who shop there tend to be older rather than younger, and more likely to walk there from their apartments nearby. The stallholder used to be mainly farmers, but there has been a shift more to market people buying goods from farms, or farmers mixing homegrown and bought produce.

There are also some other shops there. When I first started going in the mid-1990s these were a standard mix of planned Socialist era shops, such as the plastics goods shop, the metal goods shop, fish shop and the like. Since then some of these have died (like the plastic goods shop) due to the other shops diversifying into their areas.

The original idea for the market when it was created in the late 1960s was to be a small mall of shops with broad ways between them and a small market stall area. Instead, the passages have become choked with stalls selling produce on either side, the shops role is secondary, and the proper stall area has become an area for cheap handbags and clothes.

In the small gaps and corners between the stalls you still see some very old ladies who bring in something like a small bag of peas, some eggs, or a plucked chicken to sell to eke out their pension.

On a rainy day there may be few stalls, on a warm sunny day you might struggle to get through the crowds. We love it!

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