Monday, 27 June 2011

What Makes a Memory...

Hi. It's been a while! Did you miss me?  For once, my lack of blog hasn't been due to having nothing to talk about, I'm not actually sure why I've not written anything for a while.  Never mind though, I'm here now!

When you think about it, human memory, and indeed, memories, as strange things. They are real, but yet, somehow not, an incorporeal snapshot of a moment in time.  People tend to think of their memories as being solid, inviolable, not a subject for consideration - we know what we remember, and what we remember, we know. Is that really the case though?

Memory is very subjective - some people have good memories, some bad, most, like me, somewhere in the middle. I should point out at this juncture, I am very aware of the difference between a memory, and something you remember - the two aren't exactly the same.  Think of them as being like two species from the same genus. People like to think of their memories as being absolute - how could they be anything but, the will argue - we know what we have experienced.  A lot of the time, yes, you probably do, but, equally, a lot of your memories will be either faded, partial or flat out wrong, hazed by the distance of time.  How many of you remember your first day at school?  I mean really remember, remember the feelings, the sensations, the whole thing. I can't. I remember what I think my first day at school was like, but I couldn't stand up in court and swear an oath that it was absolutely correct. That said, I can barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday!

The reason this topic has been on my mind recently is because I've noticed that various strange memories from my past are popping up, unbidden, random and generally trivial.  For example, why did my mind decided to pop a memory of the old public conveniences in Dunfermline into my head. What use does that serve?  Similarly, why is it when I think of my late father, the first memory of him which pops up is of us playing tennis when I was about 10?  (You may think that this memory is inspired by Wimbledon, it's not, it doesn't matter when in the year I think of him, at some point the memory of tennis will pop up). I can't remember in any detail my first kiss, something you'd think would be permanently hot-wired to the front of my mind (her name was Lisa, we went to school together, her dad knew my dad, other than that, I remember nothing about it, other than it happened), yet I remember in vivid detail the first time I was able to ride my bike without  stabilisers.  Was learning to ride my bike a more momentous occasion than my first kiss?  I don't think so. If it was though. then surely passing my driving test would eclipse riding my bike? Apparently not, for my memory of my driving test is vague, other than being told I passed.

For the record, the day I learned to ride my bike was, fittingly, the day I did a cycling proficiency thing at primary school. I was in Primary 2, it was a sunny day, and the playground of Townhill Primary had (well, still has) a slope, going from the school building to the bottom wall. I'd tried time and again that day to ride in a nice straight line, turn and  go back and then stop.  The proficiency part of the test, the practical, if you like, took place on a wide stretch of pathway between the main school building and the huts at the back, and I was struggling. As my time to sit, and undoubtedly fail, my cycling proficiency exam drew closer, I remember being actually scared, so, in one last attempt to somehow overcome whatever was going on in my head, I pushed myself along with my feet on the ground, in the manner of an old velocipede from Victorian times.  As I got to the slope something compelled me to lift both feet and I was away, I was freewheeling down the slope, turned and then whatever force coaxed my feet from the ground then prompted me to start peddling. Before I really knew what was happening, I was riding my bike up and down the playground thinking that this was the greatest thing in the world, ever, and would not be equalled, my blonde locks flowing in the summer breeze.  Newly emboldened, I sent back to where the tests were being done, went once round to show I could pedal, turn and brake, and when I got back to the teacher, promptly fell off.  I still got my certificate though, so I guess there was a happy ending!

I still don't know why that one incident has such a lasting grip on my memory, although at least I know why it has been in my head of recent times - one of my former primary school classmates became my FB friend a few days ago, triggering a mini tsunami of memories from those distant, halcyon days. A time where the world seemed a lot different, where summers were long and hot, where the single worst insult anyone could utter was that you had an ugly schoolbag, and where, for some reason, it was considered an absolute anathema to be accused of the heinous crime of kissing a girl!

As so often happens, I start writing these things with no idea, however vague, of how it will end.  Most of the time I'm not even sure what I'm going to write about until I'm half way through, at which point I usually make the fatal mistake of starting to think about it, which just causes problems. So, I will leave you with this - yes, memories are precious, but the memory you are going to make tomorrow - that's the most precious one of all.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

What Makes a Hero

When you picture a hero, what do you see? An actor, maybe, they are certainly often the centre of hero-worship, as are rock stars.  If you are a sporting type, then maybe your hero is your team's star player/striker/quarterback/pitcher/enforcer/whatever.  If that's who you see as a hero, then that's perfectly cool, it's all good, after all, heroism will mean different things to different people.

Many people cite members of the emergency services as heroes. Our police officers, firemen, medical personnel, and they are right. These guys are heroes, as are our (and by our, I mean whatever you, the reader, will define as 'our') military personnel, guys who put their lives in the line hourly, never mind daily.

Those guys are heroes. No doubt. But there is another class of hero.  The ordinary guy (or girl) who, when placed in an extraordinary situation, will go so far above and beyond what could be reasonably expected. I'm not suggesting that these people are more or less heroic than the others already mentioned, that would be very unfair on pretty much everyone, I think once we get to the stage of being a hero, to then try and assign levels of heroism does a terrible disservice to all concerned.

So, what prompted this. I'm watching an award winning docu-drama about 9/11, which focuses on some of the unheralded acts of heroism, the guys who, despite the danger went up the towers to see if they could rescue others. Just ordinary people, doing extraordinary things.  Similarly, during the 7/7 attacks in London, ordinary people went into the flames, put themselves in mortal danger.  In both instances, people are alive today thanks to the actions of those who didn't let the danger they were facing stop them - both civilian and emergency services. In the case of 9/11, sadly many of these heroes paid the ultimate price for their bravery.

When I watch these documentaries, when I read about these stories, it makes me think - if I was in the same situation, would I be able to do the same? I'd like to think I would, but the reality is, I doubt it. I guess in truth, I'd never know unless I was actually thrust into such a circumstance, and you will forgive me for hoping that never happens.

For once, I didn't write something to get to a specific point, I wrote this because I simply wanted to record my admiration and respect for all of those people who show an incalculable degree of courage, of selflessness, of simple human decency, those people who restore ones belief in the positive side of humanity.

I've never dedicated a blog post before, and I doubt very much I will ever do it again, but these simple words, such as they are, are wholly inadequate to express the true measure of heroism inherent in those special few.  So I would dedicate this post to all of the heroes of 9/11, of 7/7, and those who continue to put themselves into the gravest degrees of danger, that the rest of us don't have to.  Sometimes, thank you just doesn't seem to be sufficient, but sadly, it is all we have.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

When all these changes come...

Tomorrow, will see the end of an era, and a bit of a sad day for me. One of my best friends and workmates is leaving for pastures new, just a couple of weeks after another mutual friend left, leaving me the only one of the three remaining. Sad times, but, Mark is off to bigger and better things (as hopefully will I be soon too!), so Bev - good luck in your new gig, it just makes it all the more important that we get OCS finally up and running after what, about a year of talking about it??

Anyway, onto the main parts of the blog.  As I mentioned last time, I was reading a book which had me totally and utterly hooked all the way through. Then I got to the ending. I have to be honest and say that, whilst the book still remains one of my all time favourites, it had exactly the kind of ending I don't like. The ending was somewhat ambiguous, which I do understand, and can see how people may enjoy that, it means that they can try and extrapolate their own continuance of the story.  I, however, am not a fan.

I like the end of my book to be just that - an end. I want to know what happens to the central characters, I want some sense of closure, I guess. Now, I know what you are thinking. "But Stuart, real life isn't like that, life itself doesn't come in chapters, nor does it often tie up all the loose ends at the end of a story".  No arguments from me there, but that is exactly why I want my books to be different! I am aware that life doesn't work the way it does in books/movies/plays/shadow puppetry/mime (as an aside, mime isn't 'art'. Learn the f**king words, that's art!), but when I read, I like to do so to escape from reality for a while, I want to live vicariously through the characters and there situations, and that means I like to know how it ends with no ifs, buts, or maybes!  A simplistic view of literature? Almost certainly, but I can be quite a simplistic person when I want to be!!

I've also been thinking about writing again recently, and I have no idea why. I have the seeds of an idea in my head, but nothing beyond a couple of strapline thoughts. If I thought for a second that I'd see it through I'd try and flesh these thoughts out, because I think I could possibly have the beginnings of a good idea, but me being me, I would go it it hammer and tongs for the first few pages until I ran out of steam, then I'd think "I'll leave it for a few days", those few days would become a week, that week would become two, then a month and before I know it, I've retired and gone senile before another word has been struck.  Maybe I need a writing partner, someone to take my ideas and polish them into something that doesn't suck.  Any volunteers?

I have strange ideas about writing sometimes. For example, I've often thought it would be quite a good laugh to write a script for a Shakespearean themed 'adult entertainment' movie (yes, I know no one watches them for the plot, but that's sort of the point!).
"Forsooth, my lady, for lo, it would give me great delights were you to permit me to issue forth across thy countenance divine"
Yeah, I have too much time on my hands. And I am also aware that, in line with Rule 34, it will already have been done. Frequently. And probably very badly!  Who knows, maybe one day I'll get my act together and write something! I even have some screenwriting software installed (it's called Celtx, and it's very good and most pleasingly, free!), all I need is to find some degree of imagination.

So, if anyone fancies writing something with me, get in touch!

Friday, 10 June 2011

'Playing poker with my soul...'

What makes a good book?  Is a good book one which, when you get to the end, you close it thinking 'that was a good story, I liked that'.  Sure, that would be a definition of a good book.  How about one where you think, upon it's completion 'I learned something from that, cool'.  Yep, no arguments there either.

What, then, makes a great book?  For me, a great book is one which draws me in to the story to such a degree that I start to feel an affinity with one or more of the characters, one which makes me lose all track of time. One where you find yourself deliberately reading more slowly as you become aware that you are approaching the end, because you don't want the story to be over. I'm reading a book at the moment which ticks all of those boxes. I read a lot, I'll get through 20-30 books a year.  That may not seem like a lot to some, but I think it's a decent amount of reading, and I genuinely don't remember the last time I got drawn into a book the way I have with this one. 

Part of what makes it such an engrossing book is the aforementioned affinity I have found with one of the characters.  Despite this being a work of fiction, I have subconsciously found myself drawing parallels with my own life as the characters life is played out in front of me - the death of his father, estrangement from his brother, and of course, his unrequited love for another of the characters. I feel way too much of his pain on that last point, trust me, particularly as it was his own (in)action which caused him to lose the girl he loved. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.  Not the same t-shirt, but one from a related line certainly.

A great book to me, is one which makes you look at yourself and wonder how others see you. What do I mean by that, well, I'll try to explain, but I'm not very good at this sort of thing, but here goes:  

When you start a book, you have no preconceptions about any of the characters - you haven't been introduced to them, you have no idea if they are heroic, villainous, cowardly, anything - all you get to know about the character is what you read as you go on.  It's analogous to meeting someone for the first time and figuring out if you are going to like them. You also get to look at the characters through each other - you get to learn about their interactions, what they truly feel about each other, all of which combines to build up the pictures and abstracts in your head about the sociology of the cast of characters. When that is done well, so well in fact that you find yourself forming some sort of 'bond' (for the want of a better term) with one (or more) of the characters, it may make you wonder what those characters would think of you. Ok, maybe that's just me then, but it does give me pause to think 'I wonder how other people do actually see me...'  Ironically, I'm not sure I would actually want to know the answer.

When I started writing this, I had an idea about getting some stuff off my chest, out of my head, I have one of those strange minds which seems to find it easier to let thoughts go when they are written down, I guess it's part of my strange connection to the written word. I am constantly fascinated by language and it's power.  Sadly, despite this, and despite my reasonable vocabulary, my capacity for writing flowing and silken prose is somewhat restricted. It's why, no matter how much I would like to, I will never be an author.  It manifests itself in other ways too.  I find it very hard to talk about my feelings, to anyone. Every time I try, I wind up over thinking things, and then whatever I had in mind to say, comes out all garbled. By the time I've done that, and then reworded it in my head so it comes out closer to the way I originally intended, it's generally too late, I've made a bit of a mess of things.  This is never truer than when a woman is involved, as I'm sure all my exes will attest, as will any unfortunate soul I have taken a noteworthy liking to and tried to woo. As an aside, no one uses 'woo' as a term for making attempts at exhibiting a courtly desire these days. Sorry, back on track...

So, you will be wondering, dear reader, what the heck I'm talking about. How did all this come together in my  head, and where do books fit in... Well, the part of the book I'm currently completely enthralled with features the protagonist suffer a very very similar fate with his love interest. Obviously, that resonated with me, now more than ever. I will spare you the gory details, but there has been a specific reason for my malaise of a couple of weeks ago, and it was strange to see something which is so utterly personal to me, play out in front of me in the book, in a manner which so closely resembles my recent experiences.  It doesn't take much to thrust me into the throes of introspection, but that certainly did it - seeing, in black and white, a literary depiction of one of my biggest failings, feeling a strange jarring in my mind as I found myself thinking "just say it, for **** sake, why are you skirting around it... Oh. Hold on... that seems eerily familiar!".

Before I got to that chapter, and those pages in that chapter, I was already of the opinion that the book was one of the best I'd read for a while. The more I read, the more inclined I am to say that it's one of the best books I've read ever, and over my life, I've read hundreds.  A book which captures and holds your imagination, which makes you buy into the characters (which are so amazingly well developed), and makes you look at yourself?  That's a very rare thing indeed.

So, my friends, I will leave you with my thought of the day - if you love someone, let them know. Don't skirt around it, don't dress it up in flowery language so that the meaning is diluted, or indeed, lost. In my rare moments of clarity it occurs to me that Occam's Razor doesn't only apply to physics, chemistry etc. It can just as easily apply to language - strip away the words which don't need to be there, which don't contribute to the sentiment you are trying to portray, and what you are left with is the truth.  If only I was able to take my own advice, huh!

Oh, and if you are wondering why this issue is titled as it is, I really couldn't think of a suitable title, I happened to be listening to a song which has that line in it, it's a favourite song, so I thought what the hell.

Until next time folks. Take care.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

We Were Promised Jet-Packs...

Over the past few days I've been reading bits and pieces, nothing of any real consequence (or so I thought) but noticed a pattern forming – a lot of the things I read, or read about, pertained to how people in the past, had a view of the future. For example, for some reason I started reading about 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and it's sequel 2010. Both of those years have, obviously, passed without anything like the levels of technological advancement as postulated in the books (and movies).

I know that they are works of science fiction, not science fact, just as Star Wars were sci-fi, Star Trek, Stargate (I'm starting to notice a trend here!), but it made me think about how people in the past, viewed the future, and how much of what has been written about has actually come to pass. A cursory glance around the internet throws up things like:

CCTV – from '1984' by George Orwell, written in 1949.

Global telecommunication – Mark Twain (yeah, it surprised me too) in 'From the London Times of 1904' which he wrote in 1898.

Communications Satellites – Arthur C Clarke is widely credited as being the 'inventor' of the geosynchronous satellite, which possibly over-eggs the pudding somewhat. In a magazine article called 'Extra Terrestrial Relays', published in 1945 he first postulated the idea, although Hermann Oberth (1920) and Dr John R Pierce (undated) have made similar claims.

iPods – An early reference to what could be considered a video iPod or video phone can be found in HG Wells' 'When the Sleeper Wakes', published in 1899, although I'm sure Bill Gates will claim he thought about it in 1898.

Test Tube Babies – Aldous Huxley's magnum opus 'Brave New World' introduced the idea of a world populated by machines, rather than natural birth.

CD and DVD – EE Smith (no, I'd never heard of him either until I started doing a bit of research for this) introduced a metallic disc (which, in his book was made of platinum alloy) used for storing information in 'Triplanetary', published in 1934.

Robots – The word was famously coined by Karel Kapek (the word is of Czech origin, 'robota' meaning drudgery) in his 1920 book 'Rossum's Universal Robots'

Nanobots – The world of nanotechnology was first seen in a story in Astounding Stories magazine called 'A Menace in Miniature' by Raymond Gallun way back in 1937.

Credit/Debit Cards – A feature of Edward Bellemy's 1888 novel 'Looking Backward' was that money had been eliminated, and in their stead people carried cards which were used to pay for stuff.

There are, of course, many more, some very well known (submarines by Jules Verne, tanks (the shooty kind, not the watery kind) and the atomic bomb, both my HG Wells – he was such an optimist – the iPad and online newspapers, both by Arthur C Clarke, the list goes on), some more obscure.

So, looking around us today, we would see a world full of wonder, full of technological advancement (something I touched on in another blog), yet there is an aspect of 'The Future' which is a common theme to many sci-fi works, namely that the world of tomorrow will be a veritable utopia, where pain, disease and poverty are eradicated. Sadly, this is (thus far anyway) not even close to being the case.

It was an article about child poverty in the UK which actually got me thinking about this. It is estimated that approximately 3.5 million children in the UK live in poverty. 75% of the British children who have serious problems with asthma come from the poorest 10% of the population. Infant mortality rates are much higher amongst families who are living under the breadline, which leads me to wonder how much of an impact the rise of the technological revolution has really had. 

Yes, technology makes life easier – if you can afford to have it. Technology can help us understand the universe, can allow us to break down and examine the human body to it's simplest parts, it can help us talk to someone on the other side of the planet as easily as if they were in the next room, so why is it then, that all the amazing advances in technology, all the understanding we now have of life, the world, everything, how is it that despite all we as a species have achieved, we cannot create a world where children don't go to bed hungry during school holidays because their parents (or, in a number of instances, parent) relies on free school dinners to keep their children fed. 

From a global perspective, is it more important to the world that we spend $300 billion (yes, three hundred billion dollars) on the F-35 Lightning II JSF development project (bear in mind, I am a huge aviation geek!!) when there are already aircraft in the world with very similar capabilities, or we take that money and use it to develop ways of maximising food production in the 3r4d world? And yes, I know that there isn't really a single aircraft which does everything the F-35 L-2 does, but that's neither here nor there.

Is this a naive, massively simplistic view of things? Absolutely, I'm not going to deny that. It's also not a dig at the Pentagon for funding the JSF programme, I used that as merely an example, as it's something I was familiar with, I could find hundreds of examples in pretty much every country on earth. 

Will there ever be the utopian society we have been promised? The cynic (or realist, depending on your point of view) in me says there won't be – human nature being as it is, I doubt we will ever have a society where everyone has what they need to live comfortably, there will always be those who want more.

Technology, ladies and gentlemen, is progressing at an amazing pace. In little over 100 years we have gone from the Wright brothers groundbreaking first flight, to sending people into space with such frequency that it becomes fairly routine. We have gone from wax cylinders to MP3s, from the telegraph to the internet, from thinking that the sun god Sol was responsible for making the sun rise in the morning, to being able to work out what powers the sun's interior. Sadly, we as humans have not made the same development. If we had, if humankind had developed at the same pace technology has, I think we would be a fair few steps closer to Utopia.

Now... where's my jet-pack...