Friday, October 29, 2010

Post #176...In which Ben says "making plans" a lot

I'm a plan maker. I make plans. I call people, set up things to do and places to go, and then end up fingers crossed hoping that people actually show up. Sometimes people bail on me, sometimes they don't.

In my plan making madness, I often have fits of inspired thought. The other day I was thinking about making some plans when it occured to me that I was stressing out about making plans with this person, and they had never made plans with me. Suddenly I realized that so few of the people I hang out with are plan makers. There's a few here and there and I tend to hang out with those people fairly regularily, but a lot of my friends seem to be loafers. They don't make plans with me, they simply wait until I make plans with them otherwise we just never hang out.

Am I being ridiculous here? All I really expect is that we can share the load of making plans. I will start by making the plans and then you will make the plans for the next time we hang out. Why can't we just do that? That way we both feel equally involved in the planning process and we're both expressing interest in each other instead of feeling somewhat desperate at times.

People who make plans seem to be the people with the most friends. I have a friend who's a highly effective plan maker and he knows more people than I can possibly imagine. Maybe I'm just destined to be a plan maker who makes plans and reaps some of the benefits of plan making.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Some Philosophy About Neurons

What's going on in my head? I can make guesses, assumptions, and analyses, but when it comes down to it I really don't know what's going on. There is so much that happens in there that I don't get.

This has a lot to do with how the brain works. The brain works using huge networks of neurons which are like little decision making cells. In the simplest terms, neurons take input from other neurons then either pass it on or stops the signal. If a neuron fires, it causes some kind of effect somewhere in the body.

Neurons work a bit like having your finger on the trigger of a gun while driving down a bumpy dirt road (just wait...). At any moment, a bump could cause the trigger to shift in a way that causes the gun to fire. You can make this more likely to happen by putting pressure on the trigger. Then it takes a smaller bump to cause the gun to fire accidentally. You can also take your figure off the trigger which makes accidental firing less likely. This kind of action is useful because it doesn't require the kind of information that neurons transfer to be very complicated, all they have to do is fire or not. At the same time, it allows neurons to make decisions based on an infinite number of inputs, generating networks of cells capable of making complex decisions very quickly.

There's a catch to this though. In the same way that you'd never know if it was your shaky hands or the bumpy road that caused the gun to fire, you can never tell why a particular neuron has fired. All you can tell is if a neuron has fired or not, not why it fired. This has some implications for us in the world of conscious thought.

It means we can never really know why we're thinking things. We can know that looking at old photographs makes us happy, but we can only guess as to what it is about old photographs that makes us happy. We can identify the effect, but the cause is hidden behind a shroud, totally unknowable, which is a bit scary.

So how am I supposed to know who I am and how I work?

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Friend of a Friend

I was talking with somebody recently about an experience they had on Facebook. They added an friend who they'd lost touch with and went to this person's wall. Upon arriving at the person's wall in the interest of leaving a post, they discovered that the person had some words on their wall that this person was not expecting (not unlike a few of the words that occasionally find their way into my posts. "I remember them being different" was the general sentiment.

I'm hung up on this situation. Not because it's about language, but just because of the reaction. We live in a culture of three second attention spans and relationships so shallow you couldn't skip a stone across them. What then makes us think that we actually know people? What makes us think that others have lost their power to surprise us?

You can get a read on a person pretty quickly. I have a friend who can have a general idea of what anyone's going to do in about 2 conversations. I'm not quite that good but I can have a profile of you in about 3-5 encounters. Even then though, you shouldn't expect that you have the person pegged that quickly. People get married and continue to learn things about each other for years. It's kind of silly to expect any different of a friend who you spend way less time knowing.

I feel like I'm meandering around the point a bit. The point is this. It's a bit naive to think you have someone pegged. People can always surprise. It's part of what makes us human.

Friday, October 22, 2010

An Interview (or Questions I wish people would Ask Me)

Last night I took some time to sit down and catch up with a man I've know for my entire life, but seem to have lost touch with more recently. We took some time to have a drink and talk about a few things. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Ben, what's your deal?

laughs That's kind of an open ended question, where should I start?

Wherever you want. It's an interview with yourself after all...

Yeah, but the whole point of interviewing myself is so that I don't have to seem pushy...

Ok, what's new in your life?

...because that's so much less open ended. What's new in my life? Well, I picked a new profession of choice for the next six months.

What's that all about?

I discovered recently that I lower my expectations for what career to partake in about every six months. In first year it was possibly medicine, then dentistry, then it was nursing, then it was biology research.

What's this half-year's choice?


laughs Seriously?

Yes, seriously. I was thinking about something that a guest at House Famous said about law . He was recounting the story of how he ended up at law school, and was saying that he tried his hand at a couple of LSAT questions and found he was pretty well suited to that kind of thinking so he borrowed some money, took a prep-course, and ended up in law school. So I was thinking about this one day and though "why not?", mostly because the LSAT contains no information, it's all about thinking and reasoning instead of knowing content. I went to indigo and bought a book, and now I'm looking at writing it in February, depending on how things go.

Are you going to take a class?

They cost like...$1000 so I probably won't consider it unless I'm still pretty serious about this whole thing in a couple of weeks.

Whatever happened to your plans for a music career?

They're still there but I've got so much else on my plate right now that it's hard to find a spare moment to work on that stuff.

What are you doing music wise right now?

I started taking guitar lessons, which is going really well. It's not just guitar lessons, there's a lot of improvising and music theory in it as well so it's there to kind of expand my music vocabulary. I've been feeling really limited in terms of what I can express on an instrument so hopefully this will help me.

What happened to your grand "one song a week" project

It was a spectacular failure. I write songs very slowly, and I need to be in the mood to write, so trying to put out one song per week just wasn't going to happen.

So you just choose not to push yourself creatively?

Sort of...there's a tension there between what I want to do and what I can do. I want to write more music and sometimes goal setting helps me to do that (like during RPM 08) but then sometimes it just makes me bitter about having to output creatively. Somewhere in between accepting how I am and pushing myself to do better, there's a sweet spot where I'm most effective as an artist.

You write about your faith sometimes, without ever really getting specific. What's going on there?

I don't like that phrase "My faith". Faith makes it sound like it's some kind of thing I think about sometimes and then just forget about it the rest of the time. It's so much more than that. For me it translates into a lot of thinking about how Christianity works in North American society where we have so few needs and everything is made a shit-load more complicated by how much leisure time we have.

Ok, so forget "faith". What effects does Christianity or Christ have on your life?

It's so hard to talk about faith without saying something cliche....

What do you mean?

The question, "What effects does Christ have on your life?" initiates this kind of gag reflex. I don't know if it's my inner hipster hating things that get said a lot or what but that's what I think. I suppose I should answer the question though. To me it's so complicated it's hard to comment on. When you get down to it, Christ is all about love and loving those around you and the God who created all of you. But that's so complicated when we live in a society where people are independent. Oftentimes people don't see the need for or the importance of love, and so this entire ideology or way of living becomes this unnecessary set of rules for them and they totally miss out. In the meantime, we manage to fuck it up and distort it in every way possible. Everyone has a story about how they've been burned by the church or by someone who claimed to be a follower of Christ, and it just makes everyone even more wary of those who claim to be followers of Christ.

It sounds like that's something that upsets you a lot...people distorting Christ

It bothers me that no one sees anything wrong with that. It bothers me that there are people in the church who engage in destructive and manipulative social practices like gossiping and venting, and see no problem with it. It also bothers me that people think that they can identify the problems of others better than others can. Jesus says right there in the gospels "Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother's eye". That's what we are. We're a bunch of log eyed fools sometimes. I honestly wonder what God is doing with us at times.

I'd love to hear more about this but I think we're getting near to the end of our space. Any last words?

Not really. I'm terrible with endings.

Until next time then...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Reverse Psychology

Why do I like things? Broad enough question, I know. What I mean to say is, why do I do what I do?

I was thinking about this today while watching the Social Network again with some other people (Give me something engaging and I’ll get completely wrapped up in it. Give me something that I’ve seen already and you’ve given me 2 hours to sit and think). What are my motivations for doing things? I like to argue with people. Sit down and tell me something, anything, it could be about a sports team, a movie, a current event, a lifestyle choice, and I can almost guarantee you that I will disagree with you. I don’t like what you’ve just said even though, five seconds ago, I didn’t have an opinion on it.

This stunning realization while watching the movie gave me time to skim brief life choices. I determined that the real reason I like plant biology is because in High School, a girl I liked told me she hated plant biology so I decided that I would like it. Why am I interested in evolutionary and ecological biology? Because everyone else at my school said they liked life science. What was my first reaction? Fuck them, I like the other stuff. I didn’t have an opinion about it before but now that there’s someone to argue with, I’ll go to town with it. Recommend a band to me and you’d have been better of telling me that they really suck.

Does this apply to my relationship? No. Does this apply to my faith? Yes. I don’t really get it. How did this happen, and what am I supposed to do here? Do I embrace the fact that my first response to everyone is to give them the finger or do I try and change this? I’m not really making decisions for me anymore, I’m being some kind of reactionary jackass.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Big Ideas

I just watched The Social Network this week and it's got me thinking about ideas. The movie is about the creation of Facebook and all of its associated controversy, but it's also about a big idea. Facebook was essentially a really great idea that had fantastic implementation, but even if the implementation had been terrible, it still probably would have taken off given the right set of circumstances.

Ideas are contagious. Inception explored this in pretty great detail but it's true. If you have one good idea, it can spread like wildfire and its value can be worth anything. Ghandi's great idea of non-violence got him the independence of an entire country. Mark Zuckerberg's idea of a network where people can share everything with only their friends got him a 25 Billion Dollar company. Both ideas were very valuable, but for different reasons.

I think our society needs to focus more on new ideas. Too often we're stifled by the learning process which encourages us to learn from the ideas of others. Can you imagine what would happen if instead of memorizing lists of facts, we came up with ideas and then were guided along the process of forming them into something complete?

Album Review: Sufjan Stevens-All Delighted People EP

If anyone else in the universe made an EP it would contain 4-6 songs totaling no more than 25 minutes in length. Sufjan Stevens doesn't really follow those kinds of conventions. Here we have an EP that's 60 minutes long (52 minutes if you don't count the alternate version of the title track) containing 8 (or 7 depending on who's counting) songs, and enough production to count this is something more like a full release.

I almost wonder if Sufjan called this an EP because it doesn't have the cohesiveness of his earlier material. All Delighted People plays a bit like a show with a main act and then a much quiter, more downbeat backing band. The main event here is the title track "All Delighted People" which has Sufjan experimenting with the long form song once again. Some people might be confused by this since the longest song Sufjan has released to date is "Detroit" which clocks in at 8 minutes, but Sufjan released a song on the compilation "Dark Was The Night" last year that was 10 minutes long and experimented with similar long forms, and on his last tour he showed off a song called "Majesty Snowbird" which is also long form. "All Delighted People" plays like an emotional roller coaster starting off quietly, building to a frenzied climax about halfway through before dropping into another quiet section, only to build up to a crescendo at the end. It's well worth the 11:38 it takes to listen to.

Then you would think that that would be the end of it, but All Delighted People continues with 5 beautifully quiet numbers exhibiting some beautiful melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Sufjan probably could have called these an EP and everyone would have been happy but here they are almost as an afterthought to "All Delighted People". They are definitely not second rate songs though.

The album ends with its longest track (I know, right?) "Djohoriah" which plays out a bit like "Sister". It's got a very very long instrumental component at the beginning, with the "Song" at the end, but it's such a well moving song that I haven't yet noticed its length while listening to it. It's 17 minutes long but makes really good background music without getting annoying and repetitive.

Sufjan's come out of retirement, and this EP (which isn't his main work for this year) shows an artist who's evolved, but still has a gift for melody.

Friday, October 1, 2010

On University

I went on a field trip last week and spent a lot of time meeting new people. Something that seems to come up a lot in conversations with new people is "What do you want to do with your life?". This weekend I heard the answer "I have no idea" more times than I can count. What's the deal?

My great uncle got his university degree back in the 60's (he had a master's in Social Work), and when he got his degree, he had all sorts of job opportunities lined up at his door begging him to come work for them. When I heard this story from somebody else I just laughed because times have changed so much. When you get to the end of university now you're scraping around for any kind of career opportunity because the job market is flooded with value-less bachelor's degrees. Everyone looks at you with the same basic attitude. You're just another person with a university degree and unless you're some kind of demigod over achiever, no one's going to woo you into anything.

And you can peg the overachievers for being the problem, because they're so easy to get mad at. Nothing they do goes wrong, and they have the kind of life that people love to hate, success in everything. But it's not the overachievers that are the problem. The problem is that we're all overachievers.

Somewhere back in the 80's we all decided that if you didn't go to university you were "stupid" and so, not wanting to be labeled, we all started gunning for university. We worked away in high school with hopes of attending a fine academic institution to study a subject that we really have no intrest in but don't admit that because we wouldn't want to be called stupid. Because so many of us did this, university became something that it wasn't before. It used to be a specific institution for people to gain specialized training for specific roles in society. Now it's a catch all.

And now, standing on the edge of the end of my university career, I'm wondering if I should just quit now and give this whole mode of thinking the finger. I'd make more money after college anyways.

Album Review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World-Various Artists

There's a couple of Sufjan albums that I need to review shortly but before I get to them I need to clear out my backlog of reviews, thus we come to the odd man out in my reviews this year, a soundtrack.

I should probably tell you right off the bat that I LOVED this movie. I saw it twice before it went out of theatres (which happened in 2 weeks) so I am somewhat biased towards Scott Pilgrim related things. That being said, after the fuzzy feelings wore off, I came to a couple of harsh realities about this soundtrack.

It's composed 50% good stuff and then the other 50% is music that fits with scenes in the film but falls flat as a track on an album. Let me discuss both seperately.

The Good Stuff: Lots of new music was written by some pretty big bands for this movie. Beck wrote a number of songs that serve as the tracks for Scott's in movie band Sex Bob-Omb, Metric finished a track to sub in for another band, and Broken Social Scene wrote some of the shortest songs ever written for "Crash and The Boys". The original music that's here is great. I complements the movie really well and sounds pretty decent on its own. As far as non-original tracks go, there's some good stuff in here from Plumtree (an old band from Halifax that no one had ever heard of), Frank Black, and Beachwood Sparks.

The Flat Stuff: These are topical songs "Teenage Dream", "O Katrina", "Sleazy Bed Track"...the list goes on. There's about 8 or 9 tracks on here that don't fit at all with the rest of the music on the album and seem to fight it at every turn.

It's kind of a shame that this soundtrack couldn't be better. The good stuff that's here is absolutely perfect but it gets interrupted every three songs by something that doesn't fit at all. My advice is to buy the good tracks individually on itunes instead of grabbing the whole album.