Knowing the Bill and Mary Story

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Involvement can be a wonderful thing.

Some time ago I began an occasional series of images showing a 1950/60s biker, often interacting with a woman I had begun drawing earlier. They are my wife and I, in a way, as we were born in the 50s and 60s and grew up surrounded with images of what was then the present or recent past. My wife rode many times on a bike as a pillion behind her father, and I can ride as well even though I have never had a licence. By the time we met events had led to me letting go all the bikes that I still had, even the one that I resuscitated and heavily modified from a rusty wreck We have never been on a bike together, but why should that limit our participation on the page?

Knowledge is an amazingly infinite thing – and what we know is a microscopic fraction of all that there is to know. Society encourages us to learn more, always more, even though not-much plus not-much is still not-much, so why is ‘more’ important? What drives this need to learn more? Well, I think I have an answer.

Knowledge is considered like the seeds of plants, in that it comes in many forms and should lead to growth and a fresh crop of knowledge. My question is: If we sat on a chair in an otherwise empty room, with a seed in our hand, how would we get that seed to grow to create a fresh crop? Logically, if we refrained from eating the seed, lay on the floor with the seed on our chest then it is conceivable that after we die our decomposing body could result in the seed germinating in our formally mortal remains. Knowledge, like a seed, is not enough, there has to be interactions with non-seed, non-knowledge things to achieve any result.

Now here comes the important part: knowing that an interaction with something else exists is a piece of knowledge in itself, but our memories are limited to a fixed amount of such knowledge. We know that we need soil and water to grow the seeds, but we do not know what else might also achieve the same unless we have learned about that as well. There could be hundreds of ways of getting a crop out of our seeds without using soil and water, but how are we to know when knowledge is infinite and we know such a small fraction of it?

Involvement is a good way of gaining knowledge, but experimenting with the alternatives can lead us to questions about the knowledge we never thought to learn. Placing my wife and I on a motorcycle is one way to create thoughts about our actual relationship, and how it would affect it.

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Dreams Being Made of Broken Things

Broken Things 2 small

One of the things that I wonder about is why in management meetings a lot of people talk about thinking in the box, out of the box, up in a helicopter, down in a submarine, in fact anywhere rather than where it can occur most often – while driving.

In fact I would say that driving was the universally most wasted part of most people’s lives, or sitting on a train, on a bicycle, walking, or however else one might be travelling to or from work, or simply the shops. I even see people doing stupid things, like using their phones while driving, or those managers in their business expresses trying to win in their over-priced cars driving to their over-priced homes to live what is left of their over-priced lives in a manager-ghetto in a site formerly known as a village or small town – wasting that precious time doing anything but think.

By thinking I do not mean that stuff that passes thinking, which is running through one’s memories looking for some answer, and which our education systems excel at most – learning the answers. Even worse is that supposed answer to education of ‘they should be teaching children to solve problems’, but which is precisely what they are doing, solving pre-set problems.

What do you do if there is no known answer yet, and no known way of arriving at the solution? What should we call that? Pre-thinking? Or perhaps just plain old creativity?

When I was  a child I began learn something important about the world, and then, as is the way of things, many years later I came to understand what I had learnt. Remember when we were given some new toy and it was so wonderful and shiny that we were almost afraid that we might scratch its paintwork, and yet the adults around kind of expected us to somehow do something amazing with it without damaging it? Encouraging children to want new toys can be a terrible way of encouraging creativity, because they can either be afraid to damage them or become so accustomed to getting new things that the wanting takes over from creativity.

Now I am not going to whine on here about how better it was in the past – it was not, I remember being there, and we all plotted to escape into our present world. Well, except those so old then that they had realized the world they built did not give them the comforts of youth.

Broken things don’t matter, and because they don’t matter we are free to do with them what we will, even chop them up for firewood, unless they are so old that they have achieved classic status. The midlife of brokenness is our ideal, where we can smash one toy car into another with gay abandon.

The thing about creative thinking is that we need both a time to think it and something to think about, and travelling is a good start as we often consider it a broken time that we should really have more fun with. Creativity is never going to come out of a book, as books are already full of things past; instead it has to come out of our life and the things that are in our hands, or in our heads. The trick then is learning how to fill our hands and heads with broken things, and how to break things so that they become mere material for our further dreams. The knowing the when and the where of breaking takes practice, as it is a skill like any other. The more we fill our lives with nice, finished things, the less space there is for our broken things, less time for the practice.

But is it not sad to be surrounded by broken things? Yes, if we do not want to be creative and would rather sit in a gallery of other people’s work, no if we want our equivalent of an artist’s studio and see the things we have made that never existed before we thought them.

While we travel we have our own time to think through the plans we have for our broken things. For me it might be a composition for a picture, or some function for a program that I am creating in parallel to whatever is working now. Creativity follows a saw-tooth like path, where we build and build until whatever it is gets big, then we look into it for the patterns, and break those big things down into smaller, faster, cheaper things. And so it goes on.

Everything takes practice and time, and creativity requires the kind of time we never used before, otherwise we just continue to keep repeating the old thoughts, the old patterns, in new surroundings they no longer fit.

 

Thinking With Our Telephone Minds

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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.

The God ‘n’ Science Question

213 - Lady of the SeaDon’t worry. I am not about to convert you to anything. Honest.

Cross my beer and hope to fly!

Sometimes, though, although I believe in God, I find that I feel closer to atheists than people from my own religion, and although this should be a ridiculous state of affairs, at least I can safely nip down the bar and have a few with an atheist without any fear that they will start an inappropriate witter about something they have heard and would like to repeat to me about God.

However, it is not the thinking of the Goddy-two-shoes that I wish to discuss here, but that of their direct cousins, the science-purists.

I recently made a comparison of belief in the one true God with the belief in the one true Math, especially as there are people who believe that anything beyond simple math is either magic or a cart load of cow end product. So, there are people who both believe in Math and state that it is an exact science, that one plus one is always two – even though this is often not true. Yes, one apple I buy down the market plus another one apple should, we hope, always equal two apples, but there is also a classic chemistry demonstration where you add one glassful of one liquid to one glassful of a second liquid and end up with less than 2 glassfuls of liquid. OK, it is due to the differences in molecular sizes of the liquid, but the point is that math is not true everywhere all the time, and when we discover it isn’t we have to change something in our understanding to make our belief in maths true again. And that is OK.

One of the many arguments I have heard why belief in any god is untrue is that religious stories are no more than histories and fictional stories. So what, I say, why do they have to be true? I used a story about apples earlier to describe an aspect of maths, but it was not a true, factual description of an actual event as I have never in my life bought any apples from any market. Does my fictional apple buying story prove that Math is not true? No, that would be silly, but so is disregarding any god based on a story about that god or his or her religion.

Science is not the rock-steady fixed thing which education often suggests, there are often no answers, many answers, or incorrect answers later becoming correct answers and vice versa. Up until a couple of centuries ago scientists believed that heat was a fluid and coldness a second fluid (the latter being made up of sharp particles, hence accounting for the ‘sting’ of cold). It was a great theory, something seemingly rock-solid that could be taught. It was only when someone observed a cannon being bored with a blunt tool that it was ‘proved’ that the boring tool could not possibly contain that much heat fluid to keep a cannon hot for days that Science moved on to a new Truth.

The point is that it is hard to arrive at a proof until we first have a belief. In a way, proofs are merely those beliefs that we can prove, or prove sufficiently well to convince people in our time, while scientists are people who have a set of beliefs that they wish to prove and accept both that they may never find their proof or discover proof that disproves their belief.

Belief is the glass we keep in the hope that one day it will be filled with our chosen beverage.

My loss of this feeling of the certainty of school-room science stems from my personal experience of life in research and development. I never could predict what new invention I would make, but every time it happened it rewrote part of my understanding of the world, of science. Life in research is often like standing on water that happens to be able to support you for that brief moment it passes under your feet as it flows from the chaos of the future towards the chaos of the past: science is not fixed, it is a continuity.

To be honest, I believe equally in God, interstellar travel and the continuance of mankind, even though I have proof for none of them. Do we all need to share the same beliefs in some kind of god any more than we share the same tastes in wine, women and song?

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