Why Bloodless Coop? starts here….

I’m going to answer this poser by splitting it in two – why the name? and why the site? – and I’m hoping they will segue into one another without requiring a textual assault course.

I’ll begin with the name. Names don’t matter in the big scheme of things – this is my band’s desperate mantra – and yet I am drawn very much by sites that project a bit of colour with their particular tag. To be honest, this blog began a bit ass-backward with the name inviting me to find a use for it; poor punnage often finds its way into my songs and humour writing kind of cries out for it, but as it swam in my brain I developed an attachment to it, and began to find some reasons to consign it to a more permanent place. Namely, the blog that then existed, like its putative name, in the waters of my think tank – less swimming than swelling and threatening to burst out if I didn’t relocate it fast. So the reasons:

Firstly, it’s a place. I like the idea of the blog as a place. From the american street to Billmon’s bar to Harry’s Place, (and now I’ve found Utopian Hell) the conceit that these are places you visit with their own particular climate is one I find useful and value.

A nominally geographic description of blogtopia (and the wider net) is a pretty good level of description, for me at least, and one that that allows me to engage a bit more fully with the whole thing – we’re visiting sites for crying out loud, not melding with a concept. The concept of community on the web has got a whole lot better since the approaches have been a bit more embodied with a user-friendly sense of place, and I applaud that. Come visit the coop. See? It almost seems real.

I also find it kind of fun to imagine how various places might fit together – if you could imagine a blog neighbourhood, who would you find on the corner of your street? I’ll come back to that later. Suffice to say that if it were so this would not be near any gleaming megalopolis in the centre of town, infused by traffic and exuding class. You might find it halfway up the hillside, favela style, self made and while a little ugly, undeniably solid. That’s the aspiration, and for better or for worse, that’s the way my mind works.

Secondly, it’s a joke. Again, that’s the way my mind works. Funny is good, and even when you are being serious funny can be good. It might be redundant to claim Bill Hicks as a formative influence (even average Brit-flicks do it) but its true – I got into his stuff about 2 months after he died and he opened my mind to comedy as a weapon, comedy as an eye-opener, comedy as power. Clearly he wasn’t the first, or even best, in any of these senses; I’m even now hopelessly behind in my appreciation of the domain. Just that he got to me first, before Prior, Bruce et al. The best comedy can make my head hurt, see me chew the walls or cry. So comedy should be able to come anywhere.

Third, it points (in palsied jerks) at a political component. Just to spell it out I am happy to be considered left wing, liberal and progressive; I think it is disingenuous to put yourself on the fence when you know where your heart is on many social/political issues. If saying so denies me the moral high ground of saying “I’m a purely independent thinker, and I arrive at every decision on purely logical grounds” then so be it. (Must be a major achievement to have removed yourself from every assumption and bias that the real world [and the human mind] offers and proceed from a disinterested, god-like position – but hey, you said so, so it must be true.)

Having said that I don’t agree with left-wing consensus (there! That was the blogs first real joke) on everything, which is unremarkable, as no reasonable person adopts any stance totally uncritically. Where I differ I would typically argue that my position is more progressive, or aims to be. I’m prepared to be swayed on these things, as with anything, but expect a good few bouts first.

(also on reflection I should add that I freely take all the politics in my diet, rather than having some force fed to me; it may be that if I had to put up with SWP manifestos and cries of ‘splitter!’ I would scale down my affiliation. As it is, I think it fits me fine.)

Fourth, as a credo, it suggests that things should not be taken too seriously on the web. Flaming, pettiness and aggressive behaviour is often documented (and can come from either side of any dichotomy you care to throw up). That the internet has come to be a place for people to argue, persuade, pontificate, rhyme and joke is a good thing, and worth saving. Games of ‘who’s the troll’ are not. If I try keep myself civil, and give open invitation, I hope everyone will keep their game similarly high.

…continues here.

The question of ‘why the blog’ might be answered by coming back to the idea of the blog neighbourhood, a case of definition by comparison.

Of course, it isn’t the case that any blog topography, or blogography (I hope to god I didn’t just coin that) could be straightfowardly mapped onto a 2-D surface. If we were seriously looking for commonalities and differences in multi-dimensional space, I suspect we’d throw up our hands and despair (unless we were serious statisticians, in which case we would be having serious fun. Seriously.). This is as it should be – if this was just Echnide of the Snakes with less feminism (and as if I could write like her) then what would be the point?

But in the spirit of multi-dimensional blogography (ie the spirit of pure geekiness) here are the coordinates you might find me on, if you care to look:

Politics: Sure, progressive as mentioned, probably a heady mix of US UK and international. The reason for US being partly its undoubted pre-eminence in world affairs, partly that my blog-reading is heavily biased that way – if there is a UK Pandagon, then I haven’t found it yet.

Personal: I’ll try to keep this low, and only when relevant. This isn’t a venting system – I have a patient, doting girl all too willing to hear me whine. (In other words, watch this space.)

Comics: Like many blogs I have a strong interest in comics (none of my own due to meeting the devil at the crossroads and selling him my talent for dividends of my soul, which I blew at the dogs). Will link to online content. Will comment on comics and appraise other commentary. Will ponder Dave Sims insanity. Will pay ya soon Harry – just advance me a little more for the sure thing I got in race 2. Be a pal.

Science: As a scientist in training it occupies my mind a lot of the day. While the minutiae of research would bore anyone to tears (I’m misting up as I write this) there are topics that I think would be appropriate for general consumption. I will write up theoretical issues I think are cool (mainly in psychology), practical and ethical issues that I think non-scientists should be more aware of, and obviously science-tinged news is especially fair game.

Canoeing, swimming, killing – no, no killing. But pop culture and recommendations will get a look in. What, I think my taste is good – it must be true!

God bless us every one.

Update

Just put up a link to a pretty average poster I did on ageing and temporal memory.

‘Pretty colours, but damned if I can zoom in and read the text!’

That’s ok with me; there’s no real butter on that bread.

By the way, if anyone is surprised that I’ve changed my speciality, well, tell me about it.

Pediatric Gastroenterology?

Before polymathy pt II: “sweet,sad”… and right? Hell no!

This post will continue and give some temporary closure to the topic I opened up a few posts earlier. Due to a trip 9 time zones away I have been shamefully derelict in my posting here – in part because this behemoth was half done and giving me hell for too long. As anovice, I’m learning that ambitious posts shouldn’t be left hanging until you know you can follow up. Learning….

To recap:

Resisting specialization is to pit yourself against an inevitability, ingrained in the world as deeply as money.

Aiding and abetting this unwelcome proposition is a deeper one: perhaps specialization is intrinsic to how we are able to cope with the world.

‘There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittle the world down to a more manageable size’ Suzan Orlean from ‘The Orchid Thief’, from ‘Adaptation’.

These “sweet,sad insights” that Kaufman finds so compelling are a little awkward. They could imply I’ve been painting myself into an unenviable position – fight culture and human nature – and you can’t be loving those odds.

I’m still taking the odds, and here’s why.

I think on one front we’re being misled. We think that to go places in life it’s vital to be at the top of whatever you do, and doing so requires unswerving dedication. The trouble is that often what counts as an acceptable life goal is driven by what is pumped over our horizons, into our living rooms, and may have rather less to do with what would make us happy, if we were to take stock a little.

On the other front, we have the more intimate sentiment of Orleans statement. I think this is, to an extent, driven by cultural motivations of the sort I’d like to unpack and pull apart (Front A). The idea that if you take more than one road you won’t get far enough along any of them; a sense that destinations matter whilst journeys do not.

But it goes further than this, to the concept of imbuing life with your own essence by choosing a prism through which to view it, a perspective to make sense of the world of, a personal culture within which to value things rather than a multicultural position in which everything is equally well and good and so more or less meaningless. I confess to feeling a strong identity with this, whether it be romantic self-delusion or no. I am sure for myself that the world is so extraordinarily complicated that it is essential to ‘make yourself a world’ in some sense, fashion an umwelt as some kind of starting point for inquiry (which includes re-examination of the central premises when appropriate).

However, I don’t feel that such a personal culture need be so narrow to propel someone into the study of only one thing, or the pursuit of only one kind of excellence (or, closer to my point, content with the pursuit of several competencies). For me it could and should be an outlook, but an outlook that is nonetheless broad. If it is a monoculture it should be wide and reflective.

This needs ending here, for now – I’m going to return to this from time to time to try and flesh things piece by piece. I guess the sign-off point to make is why this position isn’t superficial and obvious. Surely, one might ask, being great at many things is obviously better than being great at one thing? If you can study two things and excel then this outperforms studying one; a trivial point. But I would argue that this, which is pretty much the standing definition of polymathy, is a wonderful ideal to keep in mind. But in the real world we should be equally happy to consider ourselves as adequate, and improving, in a number of areas, even if the girl from your year at a school is top-dog because she’s been pursuing one from day one. I’m not a polymath, but maybe I’ll get there. If not, no regrets: how can you regret casting wide as well as deep?

Note to self

If you insist on playing air drums using a leaky pen, just know that after your rousing 4-tom finish you’ll be opening your eyes to Splatterhouse done in a blue period. Frailty, thy name is water-insoluble!

Before polymathy pt I : Callings are for priests and white rappers, right?

This is the first part of a (probably) 2-post essay on life, whether it happens to you

while you’re busy making other plans and if so whether your plans should have outlined contingencies dealing with that eventuality, perhaps using some kind of worm-hole embedded in the cover-sheet.

I went to a very driven school, and at an early age it drilled into us that distinction could and should be ours. Pragmatic and results orientated, their advice was more “reach for the cash” than “reach for the stars”, with the expectations that we should firstly excel in our exam results, then translate that into real capital, status and regard. This unswerving emphasis was tempered by my family; my mum firmly believed that money did not buy you happiness, and that success in whatever domain made us happy was the right kind of success. Once you found your special purpose you were set.

Despite this rosier formulation (and I thank god I had the mother I did) I spent a large part of my school life, and beyond, filled with misgivings about my future. The thing was, I couldn’t find a special purpose. I didn’t have one thing I was good at, or one thing I loved. There was no use in waiting for one to reveal itself either: my problem was not a dearth of options but an excess leaving me with a paradox of choice.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying I was great at everything. Clearly untrue – at school I sucked at languages (embarrassing when you are mixed race from an obstensibly bilingual background), found visual art totally beyond me and was generally clumsy. I’m also not suggesting that the things I was good at I was great at. My ‘problem’ was being pretty good at a number of things, enjoying them all in various ways, without a particular calling to invest myself in one at the expense of the others. This was a pragmatic and a principled aversion. On the one hand, I couldn’t face doing maths for three continual years and then throw the rest of my life into it. On the other, I didn’t see why anyone should have to do so. Why is it such a good thing to specialize, I wondered- why throw away the nuanced perpective afforded by a wider background?

I call it a problem, and problem it is, in many senses. We all know that from school onwards we need to be showing visible and directional progress if we have a hope of doing anything in our lives. I remember being warned before starting my PhD that if I was not to continue in academia, possessing it would actually be a hindrance as it suggests a lack of direction. Doing something productive isn’t good enough – it needs to be the exact right thing. I think you can see a sense of this in the 1/4 life crisis that’s being documented over the last 3-4 years; while some of this is down to free-riding and a lot more to the unattractive shape of the job market (telemarketing or charity street team representing ‘opportunity’ in the 21st C), I’m certain that people who like me are without a calling find themselves firmly on the pointy bits of a dilemma of choice. And stay there.

The price of happiness

I was having a conversation about politics while in Sweden over the weekend when the topic of citizens salaries came up. I was asked whether this was taken seriously as an issue over in the UK. Not at all, I answered. No, its not considered plausible over here at the moment either, she expanded. I explained that I meant it is not considered plausible, it is not considered, has not entered the zeitgeist in any real way. Citizens salaries are as foreign as sil and saltlakrits.

This is one strand I want to explore over the next couple of months – I certainly don’t have the credentials to claim any authority in matters of macro-economy, but I have some enthusiasm for the topic and I’d like to push the boat out a little bit in terms of what is generally brought to this debate (right wing: large welfare state is intrinsically bad, with reduced independence and freedom; left wing: tendency to drift towards utopianism and rejection of local optima – ‘good enough’ solutions).

Today I just want to link to a beautiful post from a site I’ve never read before, but it hits on one of the key issues more eloquently than I ever could. It touches on themes long noted in the human decision-making literature, about the discrepancy in economic measures of utility and choices about how much things are worth to real people. The clearest example is that the value functions that you can plot to describe the reward got for a reward in resources are not straight but curved – the subjective worth of a resource tails off as the amount becomes greater. More than this, it deals with the battle between two American Dreams, both of which can plausibly be described as Global Dreams on this 21st C ball of mud. Better still, it’s not much longer than this plaudit here. Go check it out.

Where are you when I need you, pithy justification for existence?

I’ve bounced through various sites on the blo-gotohell-sphere for a while now; blogs have replaced Usenet and message-boarding as my preferred mode of venting and inescapable time drain. I’m going to push content of my preferred kind, try and bash this into something of my liking, cut it down to a size that fits me. So far, no comments facilities, and the same tired design, but as I see it style should follow content, while comments utterly depend on it. Hopefully the embryonic beginnings of some essays should pop up in the next week or two, supplemented by links to the hot-shots who could do this in their sleep, and occasional links to those who appear to actually be doing so.