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Categories : Personal
Ladies and gentlemen,
After an increasing number of late nights, and a bit of self-evaluation, I have decided that it is time for a Newness Block in March.
Those of you who know me may have heard of the Newness Block, but for the uninitiated, this is the rough idea of how it works:
I have found that I am particularly prone to a modern illness known as Newness. It’s symptoms are a constant dissatisfaction with the old stuff I already have, and an unrelenting desire to get new things.
How can you tell if you’re suffering from Newness?
Some common symptoms are:
1. You are reading multiple books at once. Note, this is not always a sign of Newness, but if you started most of the books because you wanted to try something new, instead of finishing the old ones, you more than likely have Newness. If the unfinished books have been sitting in your pile for more than six months, then you definitely have Newness.
2. You never watch any of your old DVDs, but you keep buying new ones.
3. You never listen to any of your old CDs any more, but you want to keep buying new ones.
4. Despite the fact that your computer/home entertainment/whatever piece of fancy equipment you own is quite adequate, you keep reading up about new and better ones, and will more than likely buy a new one.
5. You go weak at the knees in bookstores over books that look worth reading (despite the bookpile from number 1. sitting at home)
6. You’re constantly checking your RSS list to read the latest new stuff on various webpages that you’re probably only mildly interested in.
7. You haven’t answered all your old emails, but you’re constantly checking to see whether any new ones have come in.
8. Because of 1. through to 7. above, you are a lousy friend who rarely catches up with old acquaintances.
9. Familiar = boring.
Now, I’m all in favour of exploring new things, but sometimes it gets quite ridiculous.
So that’s why I’m running a Newness block for a month. The basic idea with this is to stop all pursuit of new things, and focus on some old things. This means that during March, I will:
1. Unsubscribe from all RSS feeds and email newsletters.
2. Not go visiting any new websites looking for anything.
3. Only go to stores to get things that I know I need. No window shopping, because this just makes me want new stuff.
4. No buying DVDs, CDs or books.
5. Working on unfinished books at home, rather than starting new ones.
6. Only checking my email once a day, if possible.
I might add more things as the month goes on, but those are the main ones. I’ll keep you posted to let you know how it’s going.
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Categories : Christianity, Personal
As the Agatha Christie collection continues to scrape the dregs from the bottom of the huge barrel that is the complete works of Agatha Christie, we seem to be churning through the short stories. I will admit that I’ve never been as big a fan of her short stories as I have of her longer novels. They’re not unenjoyable. But the experience is very short. You start reading, a minute or two into it, things start getting convoluted. At about the seven or eight minute mark, you think you know how it all works, only to be bamboozled by a twist, and then the real ending is unveiled. The end, just on 10 minutes. (Depending on reading speed, of course.)
It’s not quite the same as the dazzling web of red herrings, misdirection and other stuff that can go on in her stories. (However, that said, in a lot of her novels, she would often put the murder at the beginning, and then have 10 or so tedious chapters consisting of suspects being cross-examined until finally the book would pick up pace in the last third.)
Which brings us to Poirot Investigates, which fits perfectly into the 10-minute model I explained above. I’m not sure whether they were intended to be published in a close-together fashion like this, because they have a lot of repetition of key ideas (Poirot boasting, Hastings thinking he’s got it all worked out but getting it completely wrong; Poirot dropping hints that Hastings is an idiot; Hastings getting offended and writing stuff like, “I really think Poirot has too little faith in my abilities” despite the fact we all know he has none). But there’s enough variety in here (it’s not all murders) to make it an enjoyable (but fluffy) read. So I’ll give it a 3 out of 5.
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Categories : Books
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Categories : Personal
Rachel and I, to get the dreaded confession right out in the open, are sling parents. We have a handy little sling called an Ergo Sling (available from here if you’re keen). It’s kind of straps on your back, like a backpack, and you put the baby in.
The benefits, obviously, are that you can have your baby on your back, and have your arms free to do something else (like washing up, playing the piano, carrying the washing to the laundry, etc. etc.) This is especially helpful in a shopping centre, where you might like to use your arms to do something like push a trolley or something like that.
Some parents prefer to do things at the other extreme like just have the traditional baby transporters (like a baby capsule or a stroller), which they then have to lug around (using at least one of their arms) whenever they travel somewhere outside their car. Either way, it involves something big and cumbersome and involving at least one arm.
There has also been a sharp philosophical divide between parents – with the term “marsupial” being used at least once, that I’ve heard of, to refer to people who wear their babies (this comment made by people who go for the traditional baby transporters).
I don’t know yet whether the sling people have yet come up with an insult for the non-sling people, but if I was going to come up with one, it would be “inefficient”. You try washing the dishes with one arm.
Anyway, it seems that one enterprising firm in America has come up with a way of bridging this gap . . . they have created (get this) a car seat that you can sling around your neck.
Yes, not only do you get your hands free, you also get to do your back in as well.
You can observe this curious child-carrier here. I think I’d rather be a marsupial, myself.
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Categories : Babies, Personal
It’s hard to believe it now, but there was actually a time when people in cinemas saw the words “Introducing Whoopi Goldberg” flash up on screen. (Here I was thinking she’d been around for ever.) That time was 1985, and that film was The Color Purple.
You kind of know you’re in for a three-hankie ride, when within the first five minutes of a film, you’ve found out that the 14-year old African-American protagonist Celie (who is played as an adult by Whoopi) has had two kids by her father. When her father then promptly gives her away in marriage to a man who actually came round to marry her sister, you know things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
The film pretty much sets out from there to show how this woman bravely put up with a wife-beating, philandering husband, separation from her sister, no family to speak of, etc. for a period of many years. And finally, after 2 and a half hours, everything is drawn together, and all wrongs are righted.
My main beef with this film is that nearly every single male in the film is either a) adulterous, b) violent towards women, c) misogynistic or d) some combination of the above. Were there no decent African-American men in the early part of the 20th century? There may have been, but they’re nowhere in sight in this film (except perhaps the last 10 minutes, where a little bit of redemption is given, even to these creeps).
Instead, the women absolutely dominate this film (which, considering the state of the guys, is not that hard). The acting is top-notch, and I can certainly see why Whoopi rose to fame. She has to play a character who is introverted, withdrawn and completely shy, until the inevitable moment where she stands on her own two feet and takes her life back.
Overall, this is fairly standard weepie material, but the acting and Steven Spielberg’s direction (this was his first serious film) keep everything anchored and moving along. There’s a couple of scenes in there, which are done really well, and show Spielberg’s hand quite clearly. Certainly, the cinematography and scenery is outstanding.
But, ultimately, the film seems very long, and perhaps not for my half of the population. So I’ll give it 3 1/2 out of 5, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty to argue with me.
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Categories : Film
When this book was written 10 years ago, I have a feeling that author Richard Brodie probably thought that the his topic would catch on a lot more than it actually has. This book is about memetics, a word which, as far as I’m aware, is not largely in the public vocabulary at the moment. Maybe at some date in the future it will be, but it doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon.
So what is memetics? Quite simply, it is the study of memes. What are memes? Well, this is where it gets a bit complicated. A meme is basically an idea or concept that is good at spreading. So, for instance, the latest women’s fashion is a meme, that spreads from one woman to another. A cult or religion would be another example, according to Brodie.
If someone comes up with the concept of a wheel, and successfully passes that on to a stack of other people, the wheel (as a concept, not the physical wheel itself) is a meme that can be passed on.
So what’s the big deal with the fact that ideas and concepts get spread around?
This is where the “Virus of the Mind” concept comes in. According to Brodie, the memes that become the most wide-spread and catch on are not necessarily “good” memes (as in, they’re good ideas or concepts to be spreading) but simply memes that are good spreaders. Thus, for instance, Nazism (which isn’t a good idea) was good at spreading, and thus became a popular meme in its day (at least in Germany).
Thus, because memes can spread, and because most people aren’t aware of the concept of memes (which is why Brodie is writing this book), therefore we are susceptible to picking up all sorts of memes without even trying, because they’re good at spreading. Why do so many people think the goal of life is to make money? Because they’ve been “infected” with the money is important meme. Why do men all wear ties to work? Because we’ve all caught the men wear ties in the workplace meme.
Etc. Also, for Brodie, the ideas are heavily tied in with evolution. Over the milliennia, says the book, as man has evolved, many memes have evolved with him that have been passed down. While they were essential for the survival and replication of his DNA (Brodie says that all evolution revolves, not around the survival of particular species, but just of their DNA) , they’re not necessarily well-suited to the present world.
So memes like fear, sex and food are all ones that instantly appeal to us (because evolution has hard-wired them into our brain), which is why advertising that aims at those emotions works so well.
Also, says the book, religions are just memes that have been particularly good at spreading. By starting with a meme, this is the Absolute Truth, then they become particularly clingy and hard to shake off, regardless of whether they actually are true or not.
So what does a Christian make of a book like this? Obviously, Brodie has a few little things in there that Christians will have to grapple with in some way. Mainly, 1) Religions probably evolved as a way for dominant humans (or some ancient ancestor) to gain power over others (and thus ensure their survival) and 2) no religion can be proved as Absolute Truth, and so therefore, it’s wise to recognise that we’re not actually believing in Absolute Truth, but in a meme that says this belief system is absolute truth.
I think, first off, it’s important to realise that this book highlights an important dimension of apologetics or “defending the faith”, which I think can easily be forgotten by Christians nowadays. Quite simply, Brodie is half-right: you cannot prove Christianity is the absolute truth. However, what he doesn’t point out is that you can’t prove Christianity is the absolute truth if you start from the point of view of a human being.
Which is what this book assumes. Brodie says right up front that this is just a construct, a particular way of viewing the world, not necessarily the way the world actually is (memetics is a meme, in other words). And, of course, in post-modern thinking, everybody just has their own ideas of looking at the world, any of which could be correct or incorrect and so therefore, why not just accept all of them? Or accept none of them?
Ultimately, whether all people realise it or not, as humans, we do have to accept some sort of framework or basis for viewing the world. (So, in that respect, Brodie is quite correct.) For the average Westerner, it is the concept that science is gradually finding out all the answers, and that if you can’t prove it in a lab or observe it regularly in nature, it’s obviously not real. It’s on this basis, that we have the constant “science vs religion” argument.
But step back a minute – the idea that science can find the answers (or, to put it another way, that man’s mind, unaided by any sort of higher power or revelation can determine truth) is just an assumption in itself, isn’t it? After all, time and time again, we’ve seen that man’s minds are pretty limited. We don’t know everything there is to know, we’ve never been everywhere there is to be, we haven’t existed for all time. Actually, we’ve got severe limitations when it comes to the things we can do.
And even if you assume that if a group of human beings got together, that they would be able together to overcome the shortcomings of the individual, history doesn’t seem to be saying so. Groups of people came up with Nazism and genocide. A look around the countries of the world reveal a range of views from “everybody is equal” to “some groups are to be exploited by others”, etc.
We have yet to be able to see the world’s population come up, by itself, with a good working definition of “right and wrong”. We get a few small groups that seem to think it’s okay to do things like drive planes into buildings, and the rest of us would prefer it that they didn’t. But the group driving the planes seemed to think it was the right thing to do. What makes us right and them wrong?
So, ultimately, I reckon starting with human beings is a pretty dud way to build up a view of the world. They make mistakes, they’ve got limits, they can’t agree on something as “simple” as the definition of right and wrong, and even if they could, they seem quite willing to cross the line and do “wrong” things anyway if it suits them.
Which brings us back to the concept of Absolute Truth. Brodie is quite correct: you do have to accept a meme that says, “This belief system is the Absolute Truth against which all others will be judged as correct or incorrect.” But, hey, no matter which way you go, you’re going to have to settle down and accept something as an absolute truth – and I think, for my money, a God who cares about the world, who gives us a purpose to life, and a set standard for right and wrong, is a lot better than leaving it up to human beings. The history books haven’t given me any cause to hope that we’re getting better at creating our own Absolute Truth.
Now, in all fairness to the book, Brodie acknowledges that there is no absolute truth and that everything is a half-truth. However, rather than acknowledging this as a limit of human reasoning, he shows his cards at the end of the book by putting in a chapter on “disinfection”. Brodie wants his readers to know about memes so that, rather than being mindless infected by whatever memes are in vogue at the time (or whatever we’re brought up with, for those of us who are religious), that instead we can step back and really think about what types of memes we’re accepting, and which ones we’re spreading.
His goal, he says, is to create a generation of people that think for themselves rather than being mindlessly programmed.
That’s the end of his book. If you’ve followed my train of thought so far (which, I do apologise, has been quite rambly, because I’m thinking on the fly here), where does this get us? So we recognise that there are lots of ideas floating out there, none of which may be true, and some of which are just spreading because they’re good at spreading? So we should pick and choose our ideas . . . uh . . . how?
On what basis, Richard?
So we recognise that ideas, from a human perspective, are not necessarily true but just things we’ve picked up and then we do what?
There’s only two options, really.
1) We can chuck all ideas as being rubbish and believe in nothing. This will either take us to a crazy fantasy world where everything is true and not true at the same time as long as you don’t think too hard or else it will drive us into deep depression.
2) We have to accept some ideas as being “good” memes to accept and spread.
The first choice is madness and will cause utter worldwide chaos and stupidity (well, I think it would, anyway). The second choice requires us to pick some sort of Absolute Truth.
Richard Brodie, becaue he doesn’t really buy into any religions, has to end his book without addressing the issues because he has no way (from a human perspective) of avoiding the trap of meaninglessness, unless he is willing to accept something as an Absolute.
As a Christian, I don’t have that problem. I may not be able to defend my religion from a human perspective (though there certainly are plenty of compelling evidences out there which go a long way towards showing that Christianity is not just a bunch of made-up stories), but by relying on the absolutes laid down by a loving Creator, I’ve got a) a purpose to life, b) a standard of right and wrong and c) a standard of truth to judge all others.
From a human perspective, I’ve made the leap to accept an Absolute Truth which I cannot prove. But now that I’ve made that leap, and accepted that truth, I’m free from the shifting sands of trying to determine truth from a human perspective. And that’s a good thing, I think.
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Categories : Books, Christianity
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Categories : Personal
And in my own news, I ran another one of my Beethoven concerts today. Which I should probably explain in a bit more detail, because I don’t think I’ve talked about it on my blog before.
A couple of years ago, I wanted to work in the classical music industry, but when applying for various jobs, they all fell through. I came to the conclusion that as long as my resume said “statistician”, I was probably going to have a rough time persuading people at orchestras and opera houses that I was a perfect match for their company.
Which was a bit frustrating, because I definitely felt as if this was something that God was pushing me towards. So that left me with a dilemma: if I couldn’t get a job in the industry, how could I pursue the goal?
Then, finally, I started thinking outside the box and got back to basics. My main interest was in twisting people’s arms to make them listen to classical music. So, did I need a job at an orchestra to do that?
After some thinking, I realised no. All I really needed was some people who I could get to listen to music, and some music for them to listen to. I had a CD collection at home, so that took care of the music. Now all I needed was the people.
So I came up with an idea. I went to Rachel and said, “Hey, what do you think of this? I’d like to invite a bunch of people around from church to sit in our lounge room and listen to classical CDs.”
At which Rach looked at me as if I had rocks in my head. “Who does that? Who goes round to someone’s house and sits there and listens to a CD?”
I thought for a bit. “Umm . . . nobody I know. But that doesn’t mean it’s stupid, does it?”
Rachel wasn’t sure, but very graciously agreed to let me follow my own crazy path on this one.
So I went and invited half a dozen people from church around to listen to some CDs. And this was where the arm-twisting part came in: in preparation, I wrote a detailed outline that laid out exactly how the music we were listening to was broken up (so for instance, I broke it down into sonata form, and described what all the instruments were doing, etc.) Then, next to the section descriptions, I put times, so that people could look at the CD player and see what was happening when.
My theory was that if an audience could have prompts like this to ensure that they didn’t get lost, that they would be able to follow along with the music, understanding the composer’s “train of thought”, so to speak, and not drop off and daydream on the way through.
Amazingly, the first concert went off like a charm. For the first time, this audience of self-confessed musical novices were able to sit through a half-hour Beethoven symphony and follow the whole thing. It was awesome.
At the first concert, the program was Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody (one of the most spectacular orchestra pieces ever written, and certainly one that I’d use to attract audiences to classical music), a Mozart violin concerto, and Beethoven’s First Symphony. Because the first concert went well, I held a second one, and we listened to Beethoven’s Second Symphony. I turned it into the Argyle Street Beethoven series, however, by the third one, our lounge room in our unit was getting pretty tiny, so we ended up at the home of the mother of one of the ladies from our first concert, who very kindly volunteered her beautiful large lounge room.
As well as the sheer joy I get from being able to take people through the music, God worked another major miracle out of this that only confirms my suspicions that music is my future direction. At the beginning of 2006, I came across a book called The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner’s Manual by David Hurwitz (which I shall review on another occasion). This was an amazing book because it was the first book I’d ever come across that was doing the same thing as my Beethoven programme notes! In clear, simple English, David explained how the Mahler symphonies worked and broke them down for a novice audience.
It was outstanding. But after a couple of months, a wild idea came to me. Why shouldn’t I have a crack at seeing if the publishers would consider an expanded version of my Beethoven notes for a book on Beethoven symphonies? Figure that nothing ventured was nothing gained, I shot off an email one day to ask them if they had anybody slated to write a book on the Beethoven symphonies. If they didn’t, I’d written some notes for some music afternoons that described the music, and would they be interested in seeing a sample.
To my utter surprise, they said, “Yeah, why not? Send us in some stuff.” So I sent in a sample of my writing.
Then heard nothing for months.
I assumed that therefore I wouldn’t hear anything from them and that was the end of it . . . but in mid-August, I got an email saying that they wanted to push forward with the book, and that they’d send me a contract.
The catch was, though, that I had two months to write the entire book, and I’d only written rough outlines on four of the symphonies. The other five, I’d written nothing on . . .
But it’s amazing what a book contract does for you. I sat down, and for two months, ate, breathed and slept and Beethoven. I can’t begin to tell you what a slog writing a book is, but the day did come when it was finished and sent in.
And now the waiting game begins for me to get it back and have to edit it, make corrections, etc. (Which I’m sure will be another ordeal – I’m not sure how different it will be from the original concept, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens with it.)
Anyway, after a very long break, this afternoon, I got to hold another music afternoon after a break of just over 9 months. By this stage, we were up to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, so I paired with his Fifth “Emperor” Concerto, which made for an exciting afternoon’s listening.
I think this is probably the best concert I’ve run yet, and the group today seemed to really enjoy themselves. Here’s to the Sixth at some stage in the future.
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Categories : Beethoven, Christianity, Classical Music, Personal
How I ended up at this show is a rather strange story. About six months ago, I suggested to my boss that we should send some football or show tickets to a company that was a very good customer of ours.
The boss suggested that I should go along as well, because that’s how these corporate entertainment things should usually work.
So I asked the guy at this company what he would like to see (thinking he’d come back with something like a football match) and instead he came back and asked if I could get tickets to Little Britain Live.
So that is how, probably five months later, I ended up quite close to the front of a packed Sydney Entertainment Centre, surrounded by cheering fans, to watch a live show based on a television program I’d never seen.
I’d seen enough of the DVD covers and various paraphernalia around the traps to have a fair idea that I’d be in for something politically incorrect. But I don’t think I was quite prepared for where it all ended up.
To start with, I must first of all say that David Walliams and Matt Lucas are undeniably clever guys. The show consisted of two 45-minute halves, each containing short skits (most of them five minutes or so). In each skit, one or both of the guys play some strange character in a part of Britain, as ex-Doctor Who Tom Baker’s voice booms out in a voice-over. So it’s done kind of as if it’s a documentary.
And the set and costume changes were extraordinary. The background were projected onto the wall, and the scene would change seamlessly from one location to the other, with the appropriate real props being pushed on stage. Meanwhile, with barely 30 seconds between scenes, the guys would duck backstage and do what could only be considered lightening-speed costume changes.
But, all that aside, the seediness of the night started to kick in. At first the skits were mildly off-colour, and the characters fairly innocuous (depending on your point of view – some people might find Lou and Andy, pictured above, as derogatory of people with disabilities and those who care for them). But as the night went on, the skits started getting more and more bawdy, climaxing with a skit involved David Walliams playing “Des”, the paedophile children’s camp leader. “Des” asked for a couple of “little boys” from the audience (a middle-aged man and a 22-year-old guy with stage fright) and then proceeded to launch into a rather full-on advance on the 22-year-old that made him even more terrified (maybe he didn’t know what kind of show he was in for either – brave man to be sitting in the front row, that’s for sure). I almost thought it was going to end in a punch-up.
Anyway, the second half couldn’t really sink to those depths again, and so instead just kept up a steadily increasing diet of Little Britain’s four main comedy targets:
2. Drag costumes
3. Fat suits
4. Increasingly explicit homosexual references.
By the time Matt and David stepped out of character during one of their skits to discuss (in no uncertain terms) what Matt liked doing with men in his spare time, it had gone beyond a joke.
It may be that the TV series is milder than this stage show, but I’d be dubious.
1 1/2 out of 5.
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Categories : Theatre