Saturday, 17 January 2015

Thought for the day: appearing as a novice

In numerous spheres of my life, I appear to be a novice.  It is apparent that I am not someone who knows nothing, but maybe I am someone who knows very little.  Some may mistake it for modesty, of course.  I sincerely hope it doesn't come across as bumbling incompetence.  What it is, and has always been, is something that I learned at an early age: tell someone that they exhibit more skill than you in the performance of a task, and they will usually help you to do better.

What we are fighting against here is our own ego.  We like to believe that we excel at certain things and, being the social animals that we are, the approval of our peers is important to us.  This tendency does not serve our interests.  The belief that we are highly skilled, even gifted, goes hand in hand with the arrogant notion that we can learn nothing from others.  To seek advice or guidance is seen as a sign of weakness or inadequacy.  So, we take a position where the appearance of mastery, the illusion of mastery, halts our progress.

People with whom I train in martial arts would probably be shocked to learn that I first trained in a combat art at seven years of age.  Similarly, my classmates who are studying towards a Microsoft qualification alongside me might raise an eyebrow, if they knew that I owned my first computer in the early 1980s.  In both cases, they might expect me to be more competent than I appear.  The point is that I seem to be a novice, and I retain the mindset of a novice, so that I may learn from others.

I believe that, at a certain point in our lives, any new knowledge that is acquired will be framed within that which we gained previously.  If I take my knowledge of computers as an example, I have pre-existing ideas and concepts about how computers function.  The user interface has changed over the years, and numerous technologies have been developed, added, or replaced.  In effect, the core of what I know is the same, but the layers of abstraction surrounding that core have changed.

I spent much of my life learning Japanese martial arts and, to my shame, learning to apply them in an unfortunate number of physical encounters.  It was only later, when I read Bruce Lee's Tao of Jeet Kune Do, that I was able to fully make sense of the adaptations I had made to the Japanese arts I had learned.  To be fair, a lot of earlier things I had read in Combat magazine (now discontinued), had more of an effect, but Tao of Jeet Kune Do consolidated that knowledge.

I currently study wing chun, and this is unfamiliar to me.  Even after four years of practice, I question whether I am really picking it up.  What I am learning in that class is being framed within an already existing philosophy, elements of which have been inadvertently passed on to some of the newcomers I have trained with over the years, during my attempts to assist them in getting to grips with wing chun.  It is only after the event that I realise I have corrected someone's wing chun by explaining it using the principles of tai chi, jeet kune do or other previously existing knowledge I have acquired.  Maybe I am a source of confusion, rather than enlightenment.

The whole notion that you can't teach an old dog new tricks is wrong, I believe.  We never stop learning, or having the ability to learn.  The process simply becomes more complicated, for the reasons I have stated.  It is not, on the whole, a bad thing, though.  Some time ago, when I was a jujitsu student, we spent a class sparring.  As a spinning roundhouse kick neared my face, I stepped back out of its range and, as the originator of the kick had his back turned, stepped in and booted him in the backside.  I couldn't tell you where I learned it (examining the movement, Shotokan karate seems to be the likely source), but it happened quickly, automatically and with little conscious thought.

The point is that we may appear to be a novice, and at the same time be capable of innovation, because our previous experience gives us a different perspective.  We should also keep our ego under control, be humble, and realise that we can learn much from others.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Fixing sound problems in Windows 7

One of the most common problems I've had to deal with, on Windows PCs, are issues with device drivers.

I'm going to concentrate on sound issues here, because it is a problem I have come across a number of times, and removing sound drivers is relatively safe.  If you happen to lose any work by removing sound drivers, I take no responsibility for that, nor can I see any reason why it might happen.  Make sure that your computer is connected to the internet throughout this procedure.

We'll go through the process first, and then I'll explain why drivers might fail.

1.  First of all, we have to open the management console by clicking the "Computer" button from our Start menu with the right mouse/trackpad button and selecting "Manage" from the menu that appears.

2.  When the management console appears, we want to select "Device Manager" from the pane on the left.  In the central pane, you will see the hardware that Windows recognises in your PC.  Your sound controller will be under "Sound, video and game controllers".

3.  Click on your sound controller with the right mouse/trackpad button.  From the menu which appears, select "Properties".

4.  Along the top of the properties window, you will see tabs.  Select the one which says "Driver" and then press the button which says "Uninstall".

5.  You will receive a warning that you are about to remove the device from your system.  In this case, we also want to remove the driver software.  In some cases, just removing the device and restarting the computer will work but, in this case, we're going to remove the driver software as well.

6.  When you click the OK button, the process of removing the driver will start.  Windows will then ask if you want to restart the computer.  When restarted, Windows will search for device drivers for your sound controller.  The process may take a long time.

7.  Windows is likely to have installed a standard driver for your sound controller at this point.  You have sound, but the driver may not be making full use of your sound controller's capabilities.  So how do we get the latest driver for our sound controller?  Well, the easiest way is probably by using Driver Booster (available free from  If we start this program, it will check that all the drivers on our system are up to date, so it will potentially improve much more than our sound performance.

When you select "Update All", the program will download updated drivers from the internet, create a restore point and install the drivers.  All of this might take some time.  If you are happy with the way your computer is performing, you may say this is an unnecessary waste of time.  If, however, you want to get the most from your hardware, having the latest drivers installed is highly recommended.

Why is all of this necessary?

I may need to get technical here.  Most PCs, and the hardware in them, ship with vendor-specific device drivers.  These drivers will be updated as long as the manufacturer can make a business case for the updates.  In short, you're covered until the manufacturer wants to sell new hardware.

Now, a number of vendors will ship hardware which is based on roughly the same internal components, and the manufacturer of those components will provide reference drivers for those components.  Those reference drivers are usually updated for longer than vendor-specific drivers.  Windows, with vendor-specific drivers installed, will only look for updates to the vendor-specific drivers.

Why do drivers need to be updated?  Well, to be honest, problems may be found with older versions of these drivers, or manufacturers may find new ways of getting more performance from their hardware.  Sometimes, the problems only become apparent when updates to Windows replace system files which are being used by device drivers.  The upshot is that keeping device drivers up to date may improve the performance and stability of Windows.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Thought for Christmas Day: finding a way through the darkness

It's Christmas, and the day started with me waking from a nightmare.  I'm not going to share the nightmare in such a public sphere, but the meaning of it is important.  We are all subject to negative influences, demons, an inner darkness, or whatever you want to call it.  It can come from within, or it can be external.

The new year will soon be here so, here in the UK at least, we're thinking about new year's resolutions: promises we make in the belief that keeping those promises will lead to a better year.  For me, it's the banishing of the aforementioned inner/outer darkness which is important.  First of all, we must locate the sources of the negative things in our life, whether we have created them ourselves, or had them created for us.  We may notice a pattern of self-sabotage, where our own beliefs and values are holding us back, or we may see that our situation, or the company we keep, is less than ideal.  Letting go of these things may not be easy, but it is essential for our happiness.

Often, it is only when we suffer that we see how things should be different.  Over the last week, I've suffered with back pain, and it has forced me to evaluate my lifestyle.  Knowing what changes should be made is just a start, however: making the changes is potentially more difficult, at least in our minds.

In his book, Instant Calm, Paul Wilson states that we are easily able to walk a plank that is placed on the ground, and will do so repeatedly with equal success.  If we suspend the plank between two tall buildings, however, he suggests that the task suddenly becomes impossible, and the source of this is our imagination.  So it is with making the necessary changes to our lives.  We may make negative predictions about things which could go wrong, and maybe talk ourselves out of making any changes.  Well, maybe the tendency to make negative predictions is the first thing we should tackle.

One of my favourite phrases, as I'm sure I must have said before, is "I'll deal with it."  It's a powerful tool.  The reason it is so powerful is that it calls on past evidence of our ability to deal with things.  It is likely that we have suffered many calamities in our lives, and all the evidence points to us having dealt with the aftermath of what appeared to be a great catastrophe at the time.

Ultimately, we can choose to have this dark cloud hanging over us, or we can take action to remove the cloud.  Staying where we are may be the easy option, but is it the right one?  If you could see what is wrong, it would be foolhardy not to put things right, wouldn't it?

If you're reading this, I hope you're having a good Christmas, if you celebrate the occasion.  If you have plans for the new year which scare you, I salute your plans, because they are likely to bring great changes to your life.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Non-Hollywood Way of Ending a Story

While considering buying a copy of The Chrysalids, I checked online and came across a review which criticises the ending of the novel.  In the comments about the review, the critic further defends his interpretation of Wyndham's classic.  At the lowest points of the exchange, the critic, and some of the other participants, suggest that Wyndham may have been a poor writer.  I haven't read The Chrysalids, but I think I have read enough of the exchange between the parties to understand what is going on.  John Wyndham, to my mind, was not a poor writer; he was, however, British.

I don't like to judge Hollywood films as formulaic or predictable, but it would be dishonest of me to say that I don't think this about the vast majority I have seen.  The tendency to moralise, preach or go for the obvious happy ending makes for a poor film, in my eyes.  Leaving the ending more open, as in Blade Runner or Lost In Translation, for example, makes for a more interesting film.  Actually, Rutger Hauer's "Tears in the Rain" speech in Blade Runner comes dangerously close to ruining the whole film for me.

If you look at British films, particularly those of an earlier vintage, you see leaving things unresolved is a recurring theme.  More recent releases, and I'm looking in the direction of the highly successful films of Richard Curtis as one example, copy the Hollywood trend of tying things off with a neat bow.  If we have a happy ending, or a clear lesson, we may feel satisfied by this.  What if, instead, we are left with a question?

I will never know what John Wyndham's intentions were in writing The Chrysalids, or any of his other works, but then, neither will anyone who reads them.  It concerns me that a lot of reviews seem to read like a psychological evaluation or an examination of an author's character.  What we must never forget is that the most intelligent writers will fill their works of fiction with people who have views which differ from their own.  When one of the protagonists speaks, it is not necessarily to voice the views of the author, and may actually contradict the author's personal beliefs.

I grew up reading books in this way.  There was a time when I would rush to the local newsagent to buy a copy of 2000 AD on a weekly basis.  My favourite strip was Strontium Dog and, much like the stories I came to enjoy in the years since, the reader was often left questioning whether what had happened was right, wrong or morally ambiguous.  Did the good guys win?  Did the bad guys win?  Did anyone actually win?

When I first read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was disappointed by how it all ended.  It seemed to me that the supposed heroes of the story were setting out to protect a way of life, to make sure that things didn't change for them.  You'll notice that I have avoided giving away the ending of The Chrysalids, and I'll do the same for Tolkien's work.  If I took anything from The Lord of the Rings, it was that, however much the characters wanted to resist change, things had changed for them.  I can't see it as a happy ending, nor can I see it as an unhappy ending; it is simply an ending.

Maybe John Wyndham meant the same thing for The Chrysalids.  He is not here to tell us whether there is a political, philosophical or spiritual meaning to the way things pan out in the closing pages of the book.  I have seen many reviews of his work where a reviewer notes Wyndham's views on religion and women's rights.  Well, I'm sorry but, unless he made his thoughts known in separate interviews, we are reading these works and applying our own interpretations.  As previously stated, the best authors will write of viewpoints which contradict their own, to challenge not just themselves, but also the reader.

I'll update this when I have actually read the book.  My aim here was to point out that British literary tradition is somewhat different to the story progression with which we are now more familiar, and it may be that we should view Wyndham's work in this light.  To say that he was a poor writer is doing him a disservice.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Thought for the day: modern music is terrible

I always thought that, as I aged, I'd hear current music and react by complaining how extreme it is or that it lacks any kind of melody.  The reality is that modern music, with few exceptions, bores me.  The contestants on X Factor, technically competent, though not exciting or especially talented performers, are guilty of this.  Actually, some of them enter with a spark of individuality, which is then extinguished by the production team.  I see the music industry collapsing into a mass of mediocrity and banality.

I grew up in a time when, every so often, the major record labels would get a wake up call, because some musical genre emerged right under their noses and shook everything up.  Now, the majors have bought most of the small independent labels, so what we have is music that is safe, commercial, sanitised.

I don't expect everyone to share my musical taste, but it amazes me that I can download sample tracks from 3hive or Fingertips for free, and they blow away what I hear on the radio.  Thankfully, I also know artists like Jennie Vee, Catherine AD and Paul Draper who are still producing music that is anything but boring.

Paul Draper illustrates the point perfectly.  In the late 1990's and into the new millennium, he fronted a band called Mansun.  As is always the case with great bands, it didn't last.  I can still listen to them today, though, and I love their music just as much now as I did when it was first released, if not more.  It doesn't bore me.  Rather tellingly, the Mansun album which most successfully splits opinion amongst fans, Little Kix, is largely the result of unwanted interference from the record label.

The industry needs to be shaken up again; it needs another seismic shift; it needs to stop playing it safe.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Mindfulness: practising kung fu to practise kung fu

I levelled up today, as they say in the modern vernacular: I got to the next grade in wing chun.  Of course, I'm pleased about it, and pleased that other students also got to level up, but for me it was harder than I would have wanted.

A few seconds into demonstrating chum kiu, I was struggling for air.  To explain, for the last few days, I have been affected by a cold or flu virus (I never can tell the difference).  Now I'm not looking for sympathy, nor am I one of those men for whom the world stops moving when I'm ill.  As usual, I'm using today's experience to prove a point, to paint the bigger picture.

Recently, I've been studying mindfulness, and talking to others about mindfulness.  I feel a little uneasy about the term, because it has become something of a marketing gimmick, and what we are talking about could just as easily be described as focus.  Still, mindfulness is how it is currently being described, and I see no good reason to deviate from the trend.

I initially struggled with Thich Nhat Hanh's advice to wash the dishes, just to wash the dishes.  Surely, I thought, we wash the dishes to have clean dishes, but that is not what I read in his book.  Clean dishes are what we have when we have washed the dishes, but not when we are washing them.  His point, as I realised after further reading, was that washing the dishes to have clean dishes is concentrating on some point in the future and missing the experience of the present.

If I had concentrated on making the grade today, I would have put an enormous amount of pressure on myself, and the fact that I did not feel one hundred percent healthy would have shaken my confidence.  On my drive there, however, the venue for the grading may have been my destination, but I was driving somewhere to drive somewhere.  Importantly, when I got there, I was not practising wing chun to pass a grade: I was practising wing chun to practise wing chun.

I often think back to when I started practising kung fu, or even further back to when I wanted to practise kung fu, but had yet to have a lesson.  Why did I want to learn wing chun?  Why do I still want to learn wing chun?  I could tell you that I want to be able to protect myself from harm, if the need ever arises.  I could tell you that I want the sense of accomplishment which comes from progress in a martial art.  I could tell you many things for which I am aiming when I practise wing chun, but those are things towards which I will probably always be striving.

What about now?  How does wing chun affect my life right now?  The answer, again, is that I am practising wing chun to practise wing chun.  If I am not enjoying the present moment, the process of learning, concentrating instead on what may come, I am not making the most of the present moment.  This applies not just to the practice of martial arts, but to everything that we do in the present.  Let concerns about the past or the future invade the present moment, and you are not present in the moment.

Today, I was fully present in the moment.  I wasn't trying to pass a test.  I was simply doing what I was doing, to the best of my ability on the day.  As it happens, that is also the way to pass the test.  Literally translated, kung fu means an achievement gained through hard work.  I passed a test of my kung fu by doing kung fu.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Science vs Spirituality

In modern times, we are accustomed to seeing science and spirituality as fundamentally opposed.  Our thoughts in this direction are possibly guided by the discoveries of Charles Darwin, and the efforts of cosmologists to unravel the mysteries of the universe.  Driven purely by reason and logic, we have largely come to view spiritual matters as misleading superstitions which are counter to rational thought.  Certainly, empty seats in churches show the direction in which we are heading.  Our society has become more secular, more atheistic.

If it is true that science has all the answers, could it be that we are asking the wrong questions?  For what it's worth, I'm in support of a separation of church and state, and my reason is purely that those who govern must be objective, whereas faith and spirituality are essentially subjective.  I would argue, however, that this very objectivity is why scientific research can not provide the answers to all of our questions.

If you were to ask a scientist who you are, they might respond that you are an organic life form, a creature of a species whose superior intellect and adaptability has shaped the world in which we live and, in terms of evolutionary theory, has enabled us to survive far longer than we would otherwise.  They may provide answers beyond the obvious physical description, from the fields of psychology and other social sciences.  Maybe your political allegiance or educational background would contribute towards their answer.  You grew up in a certain environment, a particular culture.  They will tell you facts about yourself.  All of this has value, but is an incomplete picture of you as a human being.

Abraham Maslow, whose work I admire a great deal, developed a hierarchy of needs, which is probably as close as scientific research has come to developing a theory of what makes us happy.  In recent years, a focus on positive psychology, where people are studied for their capacity for happiness, rather than underlying mental health issues.  Of course, the self help industry is still growing, so it would seem we are as far from answers to some questions as we ever were, and possibly more so.

I see my country, and indeed the wider world, falling prey to the cynicism of Neoliberalism.  As we become less focused on the spiritual, our defence against this cynicism weakens.  In the models of capitalism and communism, there is little room for spiritual thought, as they are purely economic models.  Neoliberalism is based on the expectation that people only ever act in their own interests, and science seems to reinforce this view.  What of the human spirit?  Well, here in the UK, there is a small but growing interest in Buddhism, as one example.  Our traditional churches are slowly becoming empty, often closing or being sold for conversion into places of residence, and yet it seems we are still searching for those answers which can not be provided by science.

Maybe I am subject to bias, but it seems that the assumptions of Neoliberalism have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Could we say that people are now more self-centred?  Are people increasingly egocentric?  Like I said, I may be subject to bias, and it could be that I now see people with little care for the implications of their actions for others due to some expectation to see such an outcome.  It is interesting, however, that we have seen a rise in Buddhism, a system of belief founded on the principle that our own self-interest is the root of our suffering.

As I said earlier, spirituality is a deeply subjective and personal matter.  Unfortunately, this sometimes manifests as fundamentalism, and you need only read the news to see the more frightening conclusions of such beliefs.  I'm not sure how the search for our identity, sense of worth, or place can lead to the atrocities committed presently, or in the past, but I'm sure that science is equally unable to determine why this happens.  It is certainly strange that, in a world that is increasingly moving away from spiritual matters, such destructive interpretations of the ancient texts have become so prevalent or, maybe, when we consider that the more moderate interpretations of these spiritual beliefs and traditions are largely derided by the modern world, we should not be surprised by the rise in religious fundamentalism.

My aim is not to answer questions for you, but hopefully to ensure that you are asking those questions in the first place.  It could be that wealth, technological advances, your work, greater health and other benefits of the modern world have made you happy.  If we can use the growth of the self help industry, or the interest in alternative spiritual traditions as scientific evidence, it would seem that we remain unsatisfied by the answers held by science.  I don't believe that either science or spirituality holds all the answers.  I would contend, despite the title I gave to this piece, that both are necessary, and it should not be a choice between one or the other.  When we shut ourselves off in such a way, our ability to learn from others is effectively closed down.

You may have heard of Carl Gustav Jung.  His analytical psychology was based on a combination of science and spiritual enquiry.  Maybe he had a point.

Keep questioning.