Archive for May, 2012

I realise brevity is something I’m not very good at. I start a blog entry with a few opening lines and the next thing I know I’m up to a thousand words, with no conclusion in sight. I know only the most dedicated follower of the Rivendale Review will stick with me for that long, and that most of what I say is probably lost in a sea of text.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) said: “I write in order to know what I think”. I do this, in my fiction and my blogging. I explore issues that interest me. Writing them down is like tossing ideas against a wall and seeing what sticks. Anything that survives the process of self-editing is probably a fair indication to myself what it is I actually think. But I’m also reminded that Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930), the sinologist and translator of the I Ching said, rather sniffily, that there is always something laboured about the learning of the self taught – and maybe this comes across in my blogging as well.

I was taught a lot about engineering – most of it obsolete now – and to be honest at the grand old age of 51, I could quite happily retire from the day-job because it bores the pants off me. (a little too much honesty there methinks, Michael). Maybe I could write a snappy blog piece on aspects of engineering, for which I’ve had many a worthy guru, but I wouldn’t want to. What interests me, as an undercover mystic for most of my life, is writing increasingly mystical fiction, and exploring the world from a metaphysical angle. Unfortunately neither of these topics have any viable future, financially at least, so I suspect they’ll remain a closet activity even into my old age. Also, while these are clearly subjects that truly animate me, they’re also the subjects for which a teacher has been distinctly lacking.

And I think Wilhelm was right – without a teacher presenting us with those brevity-polished jewels of accepted wisdom, we self-taught adepts have to snuffle like wild boars in the mud, pondering, sifting, sniffing out anything that might polish up into a gem of serviceable wisdom. It makes us slow, ponderous, self-absorbed – and occasionally dangerous.

At the end of a day’s snuffling about in that metaphysical mud, we wild boars may know what it is we think, but we could never explain it in words of one syllable. It also makes our blog entries long and rambling.

Except this one.

And that was hard!

Graeme out.

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It’s a Eurozone thing, the Eurovision song contest, also seasonal. You look about you and realise the hawthorns are in blossom, so it must be late May, and there’s another song contest imminent. I must admit to a complete disconnect with popular entertainment these days and that also goes for this perennial songfest, though I used to be quite a fan. Of course my lack of interest may have something to do with the fact that we embattled Brits haven’t won it since Katrina and Waves sang their “Love shine a light” in 1997. There are two simplistic and “popular” views on our lack of success – one being that we’re simply incapable of coming up with a decent song any more, or everybody else in Europe hates our guts and won’t vote for us. In other words we’re no good, and everybody hates us.

For Pete’s sake Britain, get a grip! How childish is that? We’re as good as anyone else, and this is no time for tantrums. We have the Queen’s Jubilee! We have the Olympics, for pity’s sake! Keep your peckers up! This is our year!

I missed the usual pre-contest hype this time, only catching up on the who-ha in the last week or so – something about a seventy six year old crooner being entrusted with the poisoned chalice of our nation’s pride. On the night of the fest, our guy was first up, and my good lady persuaded me to watch, and I thought, flipping heck, that looks a bit like Englebert Humperdink. And so it was, the legendary singer and heartthrob, still going strong.

Now I must admit I’m not the best judge when it comes to musical matters – I’d be hopeless as an X-Factor judge. When all my mates were listening to “cool” bands with obscure names in the seventies and eighties, and so obviously “with it”, I was naively humming along to the Carpenters and ABBA, and I still do. Personally I enjoyed the Hump’s performance and I didn’t think it was a bad song either. I even harboured a glimmer of hope that we might actually do well with it, but then I’m over fifty.

And we came next to last.

In spite of what the cynics and xenophobes tell us, I’m sure it’s not that the rest of Europe hates our guts, or that we can’t write a decent song any more – because I know we can. It’s perhaps more that the Europe we  thought we knew has changed dramatically since 1997, expanded further east than most of us Brits can imagine. It’s young, dynamic, maybe still a little kitsch and naive, but it’s also unsentimental and unsympathetic to any form of overbearing and corrupt authority. And perhaps our lack of success is down to the fact that we simply don’t get it, fielding songs that might have  been more at home in the Europe of yesteryear.

To finish, here’s the well deserved winning entry by Sweden, sung by Loreen:

In my humble opinion, there was no beating that! And to all those pundits who say Britain should pull out of the contest next year because those Johnny Foreigners  wouldn’t vote for us even if we put Robbie Williams up  as our representative, I say look, listen, swallow your sour grapes, and learn.

But well done to the Hump anyway. I really liked that song – still can’t get it out of my head. But Euphoria’s definitely the word. Wow! Go Sweden!

Graeme out.

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Ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. They’ve gone from the back pages of obscure tech magazines to the impulse buying hotspots of our supermarkets. They’re no longer clunky and butt ugly. They no longer eat batteries. They no longer require a degree in computer science to operate. They’re stylish, and they last for months between charges. And ebooks themselves are no longer the rare, experimental things they once were; most new titles now come in both paper and electronic versions.

I’ve become more comfortable parting with real money for virtual Kindle editions. They’re usually a bit cheaper, but the main attraction for me is I can be reading that book moments after I’ve paid for it online, any time, night or day, rather than having to wait several days for the postman to bring it. It just magically appears via this thing called Amazon Whispernet. I no longer feel conspicuous in the office at lunch time, reading my Kindle. There are several of them around now, and I’m no longer ridiculed as a “gadget man” when I get mine out. And speaking as a writer, I write exclusively in the electronic format these days, because without it, I’d have no readers. You don’t need a publisher to get your book on a Kindle, you see? You can publish it yourself and distribute it worldwide, easily, and for free.

However, for all of my enthusiasm, there’s a downside, and it has to do with the natural life-cycle of a paper book, one that’s reached a balance over the centuries, but which the ebook looks set to wipe out. And I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

With a brand new paper title, we buy it and it we read it, then we hang onto it for a bit, maybe for years, perhaps re-reading it occasionally, or we might lend it out to a friend. Or, if it’s not a book we particularly value and it’s just taking up shelf-room, we may gift it to someone, or pass it on to a jumble sale, or a charity shop. From here it begins life in the second hand market, exchanging hands maybe dozens of times for a fraction of its original cover price, until it eventually falls apart and goes for pulp or landfill.

But even softbacks are surprisingly resilient, persisting in perfectly decent condition for decades. Hardbacks can last centuries. The lifecycle of a paper book can be a long one, during which the book has the potential to touch the hearts and illuminate minds of dozens of people who happen upon it. This is the charm and the romance of a paper book, also the charm and the romance of second hand bookshops where these ancient vessels are traded.

With an electronic text, however, there’s no material content, nothing to be physically traded. Another crucial difference is that, unlike that paper book, which would be labourious to copy, an electronic text can be copied instantly, and as I know from personal experience, pirated with ease. In order to safeguard against this, most new commercial titles come with electronic protection built in – known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which prevents the text from being easily copied and passed on. Publishers argue they have no choice but to do this, otherwise the pirates would have a field day with every new title that came out, seriously damaging the revenue they could expect to earn. But DRM also means that having bought that book, even as its owner, you’re not in control of its destiny.

It’s your book. You paid for it. But its lifecyle now starts and ends with you. You can’t lend it out to someone else. I know someone’s going to tell me this isn’t strictly true, that there is a way with a Kindle edition of re-assigning a title from your Kindle to someone else’s for a limited period – 2 weeks, I think – during which time that book isn’t available to you. But you can only do this once, and 2 weeks isn’t long, and what if you don’t finish the book in time? And what if you don’t want to lend it out, but actually give it away?Sorry. DRM won’t allow you to do that.

It’s not difficult then to imagine a future where there are no paper books any more – no more dog eared copies of our favourite authors to be discovered in the charity shop. These works, securely DRM’d would still only be available, at full price, online. If you wanted something from an author but didn’t want to pay the full cover price for an old book, well,…

You’d have to cross over to the dark side.

Naturally, the hacker community can strip off DRM protection in a jiffy, and crank out freely copyable versions of any book they like. But this is more clearly an illegal act, a deliberate infringement of copyright – in other words piracy. But it could be that this is a crime DRM technology forces upon the book reading, book loving community. Books, as vessels of knowledge and emotion will be lent among friends and they will be resold, and they will be given away, because that has always been their nature, and the restrictions of DRM technology may simply be sufficient to bring out the anarchist in all of us.

What does this mean, I wonder? Will future e-book reading devices have software built in to sniff out suspicious text, remotely delete it, or flag it up to the ebook police? Do they have it already? But it’s such a complex business, staying one step ahead of the hackers – and is it really worth it, financially I mean? Does it not risk making the ebook more expensive than a paper book? With a paper book, you don’t need DRM. In passing a paper book on, you no longer have it. Problem solved.

There’s an argument that says DRM is ultimately self-defeating, and should be discontinued, that its benefits, in terms of restricting piracy, are far outweighed by the draconian restrictions it imposes on legitimate purchasers of the material. But what if the publishers persist with it? Can we imagine a black market in Chik-lit? Or Twilight books, or Harry Potter? Can we imagine our otherwise respectable wives and girlfriends sneaking down back alleys, disguised in trenchcoats and dark glasses to get their pendrives topped up with dodgy holiday reading from lit-hacking kids with shifty expressions – and all the time the threat of incarceration or a crippling fine at the hands of the ebook police? Never has reading sounded so adrenaline pumping and dangerous!

I’m still not sure I like the idea of building up a book collection I cannot see or touch, one I have no power to lend out or sell on as I please. I don’t want to pirate the titles in my book collection, but I feel I should have the right to lend them out or give them away. I’ll also be sad to see the demise of the charity shop’s book section, from where I get most of my fiction these days. Having said all that, as I write, I’m aware I have about twenty books in my pocket right now, books I carry with me everywhere on the Kindle App of my iPod Touch. I take it out, click it on and in a moment I’m flicking through my book collection. Does it really matter that its virtual? What’s more important, a bookcase at home you can run your fingers over, or a library you can carry around in your pocket and browse any time?

This is an interesting period – a period of transition in the book reading and book writing world. The conservative in me wants to urge caution, to charm you with the romantic allure of an old fashioned book, and tell you we should we should all stick to paper while we can. But the progressive in me is fascinated by the potential of the ebook.You can, for example, access the whole of the world’s classical literature for free. Not a single title need elude you.

And for the paid stuff? Well, DRM or not, that Amazon Whispernet is still very seductive!

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Well, there it was. Fated like the rest of things! It was rather awful, but why kick? You couldn’t kick it away. It just went on. Life, like all the rest! On the low dark ceiling of cloud at night red blotches burned and quavered, dappling and swelling and contracting, like burns that give pain. It was the furnaces. At first they fascinated Connie with a sort of horror; she felt she was living underground. Then she got used to them. And in the morning it rained.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

D.H. Lawrence. (1885-1930)

Sorry folks, just thought I’d share that with you. After my post, some time ago, on the nature of written obscenity, I’m re-reading Lady Chatterley. And I’m stunned by its beauty.


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There’s a saying in my home village, that when it comes to certain extended and long established families, if you kick one, they all squeal. It’s a wry comment on the occasional clannishness of rural life, but what if it were true? What if you could take two human beings, stimulate one, and detect a corresponding blip in the mind of the other – even though the other be some distance away and strictly speaking, consciously unaware of the “stumulus” his clan-buddy was receiving?

For a start it would rule out any dubious claims of “psychic ability”, if you could simply point at a print-out on a piece of paper that says conclusively, regardless of what the percipient was consciously feeling, there was a definite unconscious response there, the indelible thumbprint of a real sixth sense.

Well, there’s actually good scientific evidence for taking such a thing seriously, though it’s not generally well known. What’s more it’s evidence that’s been around since the 1960’s, and continues to be replicated in laboratory settings all over the world. The reason it interests me is that it adds to the overall suspicion that our minds are not confined to our brains, that in some way a part of us is able to function independently of the medium of the brain.

For a detailed description of the more recent experiments in this field, I suggest reading Dean Radin’s Entangled Minds. But the gist of it is if you take two people who are emotionally linked in some way – say though blood or close friendship, isolate them from each other, and stimulate the brain of one, say by flashing a light in their eyes, a corresponding part of the remote “twin’s” brain will activate at a rate in tune with the rate of the flashing light the other person can see.

Of course the more remarkable the claim for evidence of what I suppose we must call here “psychical phenomenon”, the more voraciously the professional skeptics will pick holes in the experimental protocols, in search of a more scientistically prosaic explanation. And, as they have since the days of Victorian parlour-medimship, they will either claim incompetence on the part of the investigators, or simply fraud, and when all that fails they will cast unfounded aspersions regarding the investigator’s parentage, sanity, or morals.

But the beauty of this kind of experiment is the ease with which it can be replicated, and by now we have many studies that confirm the results – also it has to be said some that don’t – but generally, statistically, there is a growing consensus that the phenomenon is real, and that it’s worth taking seriously.

But an even more remarkable phenomenon suggests the mind has the ability not only to act beyond the confines of the physical brain but also to see ahead in time. The professional skeptics are in a real flap about this one, but again the evidence in favour is mounting.

The design of this experiment is very simple. The degree of emotional arousal we’re feeling can be detected by measuring things like the electrical resistance of the skin or the dilation of our pupils. Such responses are controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which means we have no conscious control over them. Changes occur when we become aroused or frightened. Such strong emotional responses can be triggered experimentally by flashing up pictures – either erotic or horrific, and interspersing them, randomly with calming or neutral images. If you measure our responses, investigators have found we’re already bracing ourselves before the emotional pictures come up, as if the unconscious mind already knows what kind of picture it’s going to get.

Naturally, this raises all sorts of questions, and not a few doubts, but the evidence thus far is persuasive, that the effect is real, regardless of the philosophical and logical inconsistencies it implies. It suggests the mind can look ahead to a future in which we have already been subjected to a certain experience. In these so called presentiment experiments, the protocol is automatic – the computer presents images randomly, and measures the emotional response. There is no element of guessing on the part of the percipient. He just has to sit and wait for the pictures to come up. Women seem to be better at it than men.

Skeptics object to the idea of precognition or presentiment on philosophical grounds, dismissing it as “logically impossible”, and quoting the so called “intervention paradox”. Precognition of a future event, they say, would indicate that the future already exists, but foreknowledge of it would enable us to intervene, and to avoid that future – as we might reasonably wish to do if what we’ve seen is something unpleasant. But if we change the future, how could we possibly have foreseen it?

It’s an interesting point, but the presentiment studies suggest the future is nowhere near so clear-cut. My own view has always been that the future may be interpreted more as a range of possibilities where the probability of a specific occurrence depends on the attitudes we hold and the steps we take in the present moment. The future is not fixed, but negotiable, within a certain set of constraints.

Returning to our presentiment experiments then, it’s possible that a sensitive percipient might be able to consciously sense that the next picture will be an unpleasant one, and therefore prevent it from appearing. The percipient thus alters his future, based upon the fact that he’d already been there some seconds before and made a conscious choice whether or not to participate in a particular outcome.

There is persuasive anecdotal evidence in support of this – real life accounts of people who have narrowly avoided death from fatal accidents, or in combat situations. This kind of visceral experience has a profound effect upon the psyche, one that renders you less fussy about the experimental protocols and the controls required to test the validity of such a daring hypothesis. For these people the experience is real, and there simply is no intervention paradox. In one possible future they are dead, and in another, they are alive. So it looks like the intervention paradox is false, that it’s based upon an incomplete model of the nature of space and time, and that we need to seriously rethink the nature of our existence within it.

We all have some degree of personal free will, but not all futures are open to us, and some are more likely than others. But it seems we do have a choice in the paths we take, and sometimes we can get a preview of the options.

The idea that we can make a speculative foray into our immediate future suggests the human psyche does not exist at a fixed point in time, but is smeared across a temporal range that spans our past, present and future, so that our awareness, our sense of self is made up of an average of recent past, present and recent future events. And the future is malleable to a degree, because even if the vanguard of our subliminal consciousness has already begun to experience a particular future, it can still be changed if we don’t like it and we are lucky enough to be in tune with our sixth sense at the crucial moment.

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