Thursday, 31 July 2014

Context is All

So I've been thinking quite a bit lately about how some things only work to their full effect because of certain bits of shared context in which they're viewed. They have merits in and of themselves, but a significant portion of the reason for them being the way they are, and consequently an important point for fully appreciating them, lies in their adherence to or subversion of certain expectations which people have of them or elements of them.

A potential example would be the opening of this blog post. It's fairly normal taken by itself, but could be viewed as odd in the context of me not having blogged for about five months. Seems like maybe I should've gone "Oh hey, looks like I haven't blogged here for a while, blah blah here's an excuse blah" instead of just going straight to my content as though I was still doing this relatively regularly like used to be normal. But I generally prefer to act like things are normal and hope that everyone else will follow on likewise 'cause they don't want to make a fuss. All the same I remain conscious that my apology for a lengthy absence may be conspicuous for its absence. And of course then I've maybe even subverted that a bit by posting on facebook that I find it really hard to title my blog posts, thereby indirectly announcing that I just wrote one.
Anyway, that's a fairly obvious example, requiring no more context than just looking at the dates on my posts. But other contexts are potentially more easily missed or lost over time. I'm talking about stories, specifically retellings of stories.

So the big example which always comes to mind, which originally led me onto this train of thought, is fairy tales and other similar children's stories. It's pretty popular lately to retell well-known tales with some odd twist. An example from when I was younger was a little book called The Stinky Cheese Man, an obvious parody of the Gingerbread Man. A more recent and well-known one would be Shrek, which plays around with all sorts of standard expectations of fairytales (Ogres are stupid and evil, the princess marries the handsome prince whose moral standing is automatically equal to his level of physical attractiveness, and so on and so forth). It's a very effective subversion of the standard tropes. The thing I wonder about though, is this: Now, Shrek is just a pretty popular children's film. Parents are likely to show their children things like Shrek, because they're often more interesting than the more traditional stories they parody. The issue though, is what if the parents consequently don't share those original stories with the children? Then the children won't get the full point of the parody, because they don't really know the thing it's a parody of.
Of course, I'm not a parent, so I can't speak from experience on points like this, but I have to wonder how much it's true.

Naturally, a similar principle can apply to things which become dated, with contemporary references or social commentary. This includes a specific issue I think I've mentioned before in a blog post - Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, a parody of Victorian gothic melodrama novels, has lost a certain amount of its impact on audiences since most people don't read those any more. Another would be Dante's Divine Comedy, where the people Dante meets on his tour of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven include a lot of contemporary figures, or historical ones who were well known at the time, whereas now we need extensive explanatory notes to tell us who they are and we still don't get the full point of it because they're just random historical figures we're reading about - they're not a part of our own personal context of the world around us.
Other cases would be changes of values - anything from medieval times will entail a much greater emphasis on religion than most people experience nowadays, and relatedly moral codes of conduct, honour, law, etc. Reading them now, we don't understand why certain things were so significant then. However much authors may try to couch things in more contemporary terms to ease our comprehension of the people, their way of life differs wildly from ours in places.

There is a potential upside to this, though. While it's disappointing that some highly amusing comedy will become inaccessible to future generations, it's heartening to think that the reason for this is that the societal problems they satirise will become far less prevalent. For example, the comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me derives a large portion of its humour from pointing out the ridiculous nature of and flaws in racist views of the world. If in the future people become more generally tolerant of other races instead of being prejudiced against them they won't understand what is being mocked because it won't be a significant part of their culture. Similarly, while I can't think of specific examples, I'm sure there's a fair amount of comedy mocking misogyny, homophobia, etc.

On the other hand, judging by how relevant some of the humour in G&S still is today, it might take a while to reach that point. On the other other hand, that process may well be speeded up somewhat by the proliferation of the internet exposing so many people to each others views on a daily basis. Even if many of those views are insane.

I don't really have a single big, unifying conclusion to close this out. These were just a bunch of thoughts I had and maybe you found them interesting or maybe no-one even read them.

Monday, 3 March 2014

A Maze of Memories

So I do a lot of shows. And in doing these shows, I have gained something of a reputation for always knowing all the music and all my lines by about the first rehearsal. This is something of an exaggeration, though I do tend to learn my stuff pretty quickly, and then I don't tend to forget it, so if I do the same show again within a couple of years or so, I'll probably still remember most of it.

But that's not particularly interesting as far as I'm concerned. It's useful, sure, but what I actually find interesting is the point which occurred to me when I was thinking about this after a couple of people had been going on about how I knew everything perfectly so quickly (And I was feeling slightly embarassed by how much they were going on about it, so I was kind of looking for a way to downplay my abilities in this regard).
The point which occurred to me is that contrary to what people might expect, I don't learn all this stuff by really focusing on it, going oveer it a bunch to deliberately memorise it quickly. I mostly learn it by accident - and in fact, in the past, when I was less used to it, I would genuinely surprise myself by reciting things word for word which I hadn't realised I'd memorised. For example the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet - I studied the play for A-level English Lit, and at some point the words "To be, or not to be" came up in a conversation, as they do, that being the bit people remember; and to my surprise, I proceeded to recite almost the entire thing from memory. I then deliberately memorised the last couple of lines which had eluded me, but the majority of it just went into my head in the few times I'd read it for school. I also vaguely recall a conversation wherein on being given the first line of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I was able to recite about half a page before running out of steam.

Stuff just goes into my memory without me realising. It's like my memory is a hotel, but things never check in, they just go straight to their rooms, and only fill in the paperwork if I chase them down about it. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but it made me think of another point about my memory which actually is sort of illustrated by the means by which I've just randomly arrived at it. My memory is a bit like Wikipedia without a search bar - you know, where you start at one article, click on something interesting linked from it, then something interesting linked from that, and so on until you're somewhere apparently completely unrelated? I can do that sometimes. But there's no helpful index. So sometimes I'll be able to recall random esoteric details of things because someone brought up a related point and I could click the hypothetical link in my brain. But if you just asked me about those details, I wouldn't necessarily be able to give them to you because I don't know what page they're on and there isn't an effective search function. The example I always give for this is that I distinctly remember having a conversation with a friend on some subject, and repeating to him possibly word for word something he had said on the same subject two years previously. But I wouldn't be able to just recall at any random moment what it was he said all those years ago. It only came to mind then because we were having a conversation about the subject in question or a related one. And if we were to have that conversation again, I wouldn't be at all surprised if I still remembered it. However I can't remember it now, because I don't remember what the conversation was about, so I don't have the link, as it were.

So yeah. My memory and means of learning things is kind of weird, but impressively effective a lot of the time. Maybe I should try to go the whole hog and get myself a mind-palace. Although that would then require me to circumvent my usual habit of just absorbing information incidentally. On the other hand, given I apparently memorise things really well without trying, maybe if I did try I'd have like the most amazing memory ever or something.

Anyway, ironically given I originally started thinking about this in trying to find a way to downplay my ability at memorising things, it has turned into a lot of somewhat boasty words about me, so maybe I should stop before I inflate my head too much.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


So I was thinking about how we as people are influenced by the media we consume. Not in the sense of "Oh, watching violent movies/playing violent video games makes people violent!" That's rubbish. But it is true, or at least it certainly can be true, that we choose to try and emulate certain characters; we adopt principles of fictional organisations; we gain our outlooks on certain things from their portrayals; and we take emotional support and guidance from quotations which resonate with us.

The last one of those is the one I'm really focused on, and indeed the others can a lot of the time be considered subdivisions of this more general case of people being influenced by their media.
I've always been very partial to a good quotation. There's a great appeal for me in the way that a particularly euphonious or distinctively fitting phrasing can lend additional weight to a thought, so that we are, colloquially, 'hit' by it, rather than simply registering it. I always tend to pick out quotes like that, which appeal to me, and I have an excellent recall of them when I find them relevant.

I'm hardly alone in this, I know. There's a reason facebook has a 'Favourite Quotations' section on the profile. Though that always gave me difficulties. Favourite quotations of what sort? Emotional solace in times of hardship? Inspiring? Funny? Just plain cool? Shock value? I like different quotes because they evoke different emotions, but how do I choose favourites between those emotions? Bless you, it all depends! Context is all.
Anyway, yes, quotes appeal to more people than just me. By a neat coincidence, last week while I was thinkking about writing this blog post, I saw a video all about quotes. I would particularly draw attention to what she says at 2:38 - "Quotes are so much more than just words. They're these little talismans that remind you that somebody at some point in time felt the way that you feel, and found a good way to express it." That's a pretty good quote in and of itself. Or at least it's a good quote for someone who likes quotes, which as I'm pointing out at great length, I do.

Which leads me on to another little point, which is of course that anyone, whether they want to be any kind of writer or performer, or if they merely want to be an expressive and articulate human being, will find themselves searching for the right way to turn a phrase to make it quotable. Not out of a narcissistic desire to be quoted - at least, not only for that reason - but because they want their words to hold that significance for them. Of course, while I imagine just about anyone would agree that a good quote has a certain ring to it, a certain rhythm, and so on, no two people would be likely to agree on exactly what constitutes those things. What is eminently quotable to one person may be banal and meaningless to another. Still, we try. In fact, that particular tendency I suspect is engendered to a greater extent in this day and age by the widespread proliferation of facebook and twitter. While obviously the primary purpose of a status or tweet is generally to get a piece of information to people who may be interested in it, depending on the information in question, there can be a great desire to couch it in the nicest phrasing you can think of at the time. Though surprisingly, looking for examples of this I got back to last March before I found one on my own facebook: "Now facebook is offering to translate comments which are in English in case I don't understand them. Sadly I don't think there's an option which will allow me to understand facebook."
It's not even that good an example. I'm sure I've said more quotable things than that on the internet. I distinctly remember occasions when I've read back over things I said months previously and been pleased with my own ability to turn a phrase. And on the flip-side of course, I named this blog after something my friend said on hers, because I found it quotable.

OK, so. Finally, getting back to the point I originally brought up at the start of the post. The way people are influenced by things in media, like quotes. It's very definitely a thing. I imagine I could talk about that for a while, but I feel like the best way of demonstrating my point is simply to give some possible examples of it.
So here goes, off the top of my head. 

Quotes which people consuming the relevant media might well take into their own personal philosophy and outlook on life. Quotes people might choose to live by, to a lesser or greater extent:

"To love another person is to see the face of God."

"No day but today."

"Live your life in a moment, and then live forever. Don't fade away."

"Each moment hesitated is a moment wasted of life."

"If you love, love without reservation. If you fight, fight without fear."

"Never surrender dreams."

"Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust, and ashes, and forgot."

"The irrational, the emotional, the whimsical... These are the stamp of humanity which makes reason a civilising force."

(A note: I don't personally try to live by all these different quotes, but I would be somewhat surprised if at there wasn't at least one person in the world choosing to live by each of them)

I could do similarly for other categories. Quotes people use to maintain their confidence in their abilities ("We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty."); to remind them that everyone else experiences the same confusing problems ("The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world."), or at least comparable ones ("Every person I know is pretty poorly constructed."); as reminders of how best to deal with frustrating situations ("To argue with one who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."), or sad and confusing ones ("Cheer up. Have an ice-cream."). Or quotes they just keep on recall because they're the perfect expression of feelings and opinions they already had ("Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is just a place.")

I think you take my point. Quotes are amazing things. They can get us through bad times OK, and good times better. They can help us with how we approach various situations. They can make us laugh, and cry tears of joy. They can set our resolve, or temper it with reason and feeling. They can inspire us to be better, and remind us that we're already pretty great.

Tho' much is taken, much abides, and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved Earth and Heav'n; that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Omnia Mutantur, Nihil Interit

A wonderful latin phrase I picked up from Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

I was just realising the other day a significant reason why I feel awkward in certain conversations. It's not just that I'm somewhat socially awkward by nature and that sometimes I have to (or forget to) remind myself of standard conversational practices and the like. It's that in starting a conversation I'm liable to be faced with the questions "How are you?" And "What have you been up to since I last saw you?"
Ubiquitous and simple questions, but ones which stump me somewhat, leading to a non-committal "Alright" and "Nothing much". I realise they're somewhat standard small talk things and so lack of detail in a response is acceptable, but on the other hand the second one may well lead into a whole conversation which I then feel I can't add to, because I feel I have nothing really to add to it. It's the unfortunate feeling of "I have no life."

But, on further examination, that seems somewhat irrational. I do things in between the times that I see people. Admittedly I don't necessarily do the things I really should be doing, and that's a significant element of my recalcitrance, avoiding the subject for fear that they will judge me (Or perhaps because I'm already judging myself), but it's not like between rehearsals I just sit in a darkened room doing absolutely nothing. I do things. Of course then a further problem which I can throw out is that I may feel they will not be of interest to the people I'm talking to, and/or that they will require a bit too much explanation before I could reach any kind of point. But while all these issues I've been bringing up certainly have bearing on the basic problem, they are none of them in my opinion the biggest culprit of this.

The big problem is not that I'm not doing things, it's not that I'm not doing the right things, it's not that I'm not doing interesting things. The problem is that I'm mostly doing the same things. Part of why I feel like my activities won't be interesting to people is because while obviously I still enjoy them or I'd stop doing them, they're not exactly fresh and new. They're things I've been doing for a while. They're normal. Standard. Known. Part of the status quo. Which leads me to the feeling that the status quo is bad (Not the band Status Quo, they were decent enough as far as I know). I don't feel like there's that much I can say about my activities because I'll have said it before (This also is why I sometimes feel more able to talk to people I've only recently met - I know it's all still new to them). I need to get away from my own personal status quo and do different things. It doesn't take too much variation for me to suddenly feel like I have things I could talk to people about, but it's one of these things which is easy enough to do as soon as you remember it's a good idea.

And of course, moving back towards my title, change can be a scary thing for many people, myself included. But then, I'm not saying I have to uproot my entire life, give up all my hobbies and replace all my stuff in order to have valid topics of conversation again. I'm just saying I need to do something a little bit different every now and then, introduce a little variety, maybe change little things by degrees. And if some of the changes don't work for me, I can go back to how I already do things. That in itself is something I'd be able to talk about, and it's not like my previous approaches to things will vanish once I alter them in the slightest possible way. Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. OK, to be honest I'm trying to shoehorn this title in now when it's not actually that relevant to what I had to say, but it's a nice phrase and I couldn't think of something more fitting, so whatever. I'll go with it.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Random thoughts on Coping with Unreasonable Problems

So, among other things, humanity is known to be pretty great at adapting to things. Different conditions and so on. It's one of our very useful traits which has helped lead to us being the dominant species on the planet. Come to think of it, I already wrote a blog post a while back which I guess kind of touched on this point, talking about how people remain themselves, and remain people, even in severely straitened circumstances. In general it's a significant human trait. On the one hand when confronted with an inhospitable environment we can devise tools and stuff to make it more hospitable to us, and on the other, a lot of stuff we can just get used to, mentally adjust to the state of affairs.

I'm just wondering if in some cases this could be considered a bad thing.
Specifically the second one. I'm not going to go on some rant about how technology is bad and we should never have come down from the trees in the first place. I'm all for the manipulation of our environment to make it suitably hospitable. But our ability to mentally adjust to things I think may sometimes lead to us putting up with things we probably shouldn't.

My main example, the thing which largely prompted this line of thought, though in some respects it's not such a great example, is my laptop. The machine on which I am right now typing this blog post. My laptop is in the midst of the throes of an incredibly slow death. And I do mean sloooooooow. It started acting up ages ago, which is somewhat my point.
My latest tribulations with it have revolved around the s key. It doesn't work as it should. I have to be quite forceful to get it to work at all, usually, and then sometimes it'll give me multiple sss instead of just one. As I put it on facebook, "I have to make an effort to achieve the middle ground between peech impediment and ssnake impresssion." This is frustrating when typing but I can deal with it. For passwords containing an s, I may put my mouse over where I'm up to in typing so I can tell if I've eventually gotten one s or several. The big issue is of course videogames, WASD being a fairly standard control system. For a while I just put up with it, and got somewhat used to hitting the s key in the precise way that still worked most of the time. But it got worse, so looking for a solution, I levered up the key. Didn't find a solution, but left it like that for a while and played like that, and I was surprised at how quickly I grew accustomed to hitting the little thing usually under the key rather than the key itself. But, still wanting a better alternative, I then switched to keeping the controls in the same configuration of keys, but all shifted foru to the right. And again, once I got used to having my hand in a different place, I rapidly got used to it, to the point that trying to switch back actually briefly confused me.
Now, I am not saying this is bad. I mean, I shouldn't really have to do it, because I should really have a fully functioning keyboard. But given that I have this problem, it's handy that I can switch fairly easily to a viable alternative. On the other hand, I should maybe find some sort of computer-fix-y shop place and have them take a look at it. That might be a more sensible solution in the long term, especially given that my laptop also endures some weird audio bugs, probably faulty USB ports, the casing is a bit cracked, at some point some part of the hard disk got corrupted making it take about 10 hours to fail to complete a backup, screwing up some files and breaking the webcam (Though that one I eventually managed to fix); and sometimes when I start it up again after hibernating the screen either stays completely black so I have no choice but to switch it off and on again by the power button, or more commonly just without the backlight or some such thing so I end up having to peer in ridiculously closely to distinguish the mouse cursor from the background so I can tell it to restart.
All these are things I've managed to get used to. But I shouldn't really have had to get used to them, and if I didn't have this ability to cope with such problems, I would have more impetus to actually get them fixed. As it is, until recently, I never really gave it enough thought to realise "Oh hey, my laptop's actully pretty ****ed up now, isn't it?"

On the other hand it's really good that it allows me to deal with the issue of my laptop not actually being that good (To the point where the first thing I do after restarting it is open task manager to end all unnecessary processes in the hopes of bleeding a few more precious frames per second out of my video games), because I can't afford to get a new one. On the other hand, I suppose if I couldn't deal so well with that, maybe that impetus would carry over into my attempts to find a job.

And I'm sure there must be other examples of things like this. Problems you can deal with, but probably shouldn't have to, and so maybe it'd help if you couldn't deal with them because then you'd bother to fix them.

I don't know really. I just had these thoughts and wanted to write them down.