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.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

DivX Plus HD for Handbrake

All trademarks acknowledged in this post.

Some time ago, I bought a TV that will play video files from a USB drive, as long as they comply with the DivX+ HD standard.  My preferred tool for transcoding videos is Handbrake, and this has built in profiles for many devices, but I searched in vain for a profile for DivX+ HD.

Finding specifications for the standard, I entered them into Handbrake, saved the profile and started transcoding.  It works.  If you enter the below text into your favourite text editor, save it as DivX_HD.plist and import it as a profile into Handbrake, you should have similar success.

Note: only use Handbrake to make back up copies of media that you already own, if your local laws permit this.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
<plist version="1.0">
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>AC3 (ffmpeg)</string>
                <string>MP3 (lame)</string>
                <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <string>MKV file</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <true />
        <string>The best compromise of high quality video and compatibility with the Divx Plus HD standard.</string>
        <string>Divx HD</string>
        <string>H.264 (x264)</string>
        <string>Same as source</string>
        <false />
        <false />
        <false />
        <true />

Monday, 22 September 2014

Thought for the day: humanity

I often find myself asking why, as someone who is more of a peacemaker than anything else, I find myself seriously practising martial arts. I am reminded on a regular basis, however, that humans have the ability to create conflict where none existed previously, to develop a deep-seated hatred of someone who has done nothing to deserve that hatred, and to cause unspeakable suffering if they feel they are justified in doing so.

Maybe I've witnessed too much hatred, bigotry, violence and cruelty in my time, and maybe it has changed me. I've noticed that, when people make a genuine effort to listen and understand each other, their fear, hatred and anger are no longer seen as necessary. There was a time when I spent many hours listening to people in distress, some of whom had already decided I would be the last person to hear from them. I guess that experience affects everyone in a different way.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Journey to Nowhere

On my way to work, I encounter, briefly, many other drivers on the road.  I am astounded by how many of them drive above the speed limit; in fact, many of them seem to regard the road as a private racetrack.

I try to understand before I form an opinion, so I imagine all kinds of reasons for the speed at which they drive.  If someone in the car is seriously ill, needing urgent medical attention, their rush to that destination is understandable.  Maybe they really have to be somewhere at a certain time?  I can never know their routine, so that may also be understandable.  The thought came to me that, for whatever reason, every one of them has their mind fixed on their destination, and wants the journey to end as quickly as possible.

In the early days of my employment, I thought in much the same way.  Inner concerns about getting to the office on time saw me switching my view between the road ahead and the clock on the dashboard.  Sometimes this was interspersed with thoughts about something that had happened the day before, how it might affect me during the current day, and often a wish that it would not happen again.  Occasionally, my focus would drift to how I have less time to spend with family and friends.  At work, I became preoccupied with what I would do at the end of my working day, or what was in store for me later.

If our mind is not focused on the present moment while we are travelling, or when we reach our destination, then are we really present in the moment, during the journey, or at the journey's end?  If thoughts of what has been and what might be cloud our minds, then we are not truly present.  In effect, our journey has been one to a place where we are not.  The drivers speeding along the carriageway, caught up in their thoughts of the day ahead, regarding their journey as a waste of time, have managed to make it exactly that.

As I drove to work this morning, I brought my focus to the journey.  For a large part of the duration, I have the mountains to my left and, to my right, the sea.  I travel through tunnels, and pass by many other structures built by human hands which, when I truly think of them, are wondrous feats of engineering.  I pass many small towns and villages, and wonder what life is like for the people who live there.  I think of my mode of transport.  In modern times, my car is regarded as nothing special.  What would people a hundred, or even fifty, years ago think of this machine I am piloting?  I could so easily miss all of this, if my focus were not on the present moment.

I arrived at the office with a smile on my face.

Throughout my day, I hear so many people who are not truly present in a conversation.  They are simply thinking of what they will say next, and not really listening to the other participants.  How much they miss by acting this way!  At work, too, it could be argued that we work for the money we receive in exchange for our labours.  We spend many hours there, though.  Should those hours be wasted, wishing we were somewhere else?  Maybe such thoughts condition us to work with the mindset that we would rather not work.  I have found that I am much more effective when the greater part of my concentration is on the task at hand.

I must take this attitude with the study of martial arts, too.  Am I learning wing chun to defend myself from attack, or to increase my grade for the sake of my ego?  Maybe a bit of both.  How about I learn wing chun to learn wing chun?  Rather than lamenting my lack of progress towards an abstract concept of perceived fighting ability or rank, shouldn't I just be absorbed in the learning process?  Everything else will come in time.

It's easy to imagine that such a way of thinking is alien to us.  We are so accustomed to our regrets over past mistakes or anxieties about the future that we find it difficult to cast them aside and just focus on the present.  Such focus seems to be beyond our ability, and yet this is probably the default mode of operation for children.  As a child, it is likely that you cared little about the past and worried even less about the future.  More likely, you had the ability to fully absorb yourself in whatever you were doing.

Call it mindfulness, if you like.  It's simply an ability to be fully in the present.