Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Art of the Quickie

Jaysus, I've been busy this last week. My Girl and I are looking at buying an apartment - the next Big Step. And yes, I've started looking for rings. Course that's stopped over the last week, which is a bit of a problem, cos MG would like a ring as soon as possible, and she's a little stressed cos it looks like we'll buy an apartment before she gets a ring. Unfortunately the reason the ring has been delayed is because we're looking for somewhere to buy. What a tangled web we weave...

Anyway, this running around meeting mortgage consultants, banks and finance companies, not to mention inspecting apartments and going to auctions, has left me a little brain-dead. I generally need maybe an hour of downtime per day - this may be reading, going all vague while plugged into an iPod (or both) or something that just generally lets my brain wander off on its own for a while. I tend to catch up on brain-wandering time on the weekend, but that's not happened for about a fortnight now, and my work lunchtimes are becoming sacred. I make scary faces at people who approach me, especially if they've got a piece of paper in their hand, and they leave me alone. Unfortunately, my blogging has suffered as a result.

So, between house hunting, ring shopping and the potential job offer I got yesterday, things are a little up in the air. The job call was out of the blue - it was from a very good company in a somewhat interesting area of engineering. Unfortunately I don't know if I want to keep doing engineering. I'm studying psychology part time while I work full time, and I'd really like to move into that area. I think I need direct contact with people I'm helping - that's the aspect that really appeals to me (as well as the biological science aspects). Health psychology looks like an excellent field at this stage - we'll see how it goes. My marks are good enough so far, so I'm hoping I've got a good chance for post-grad study. One major problem I've noted is that I may have to return to the bottom of the ladder as far as position and pay go if I move industries completely.

I'm also waiting for my annual review at my current job to see what they think I'm worth. This should have been done more than two weeks ago. Instead, one of the two directors required to make a decision on these matters has wandered off to Scandanavia for a month, so I'll get an answer in August sometime. This doesn't seem so bad until I say this: I'M THE ONLY PERSON THEY HAVE TO REVIEW. It's a funny little company - there are two directors and me. How hard is it to organise two hours to talk to me, talk to each other, and then let me know what they thought? This sort of thing has been happening more and more lately - another reason the potential job call raises a few issues. Obviously my review has a direct bearing on my conditions under a mortgage, and the associated value of whatever we'd like to purchase.

So, between possibly changing industries and associated pay issues, signing a mortgage and associated deposit and income requirements, actually finding somewhere that makes it worth signing a mortgage, possible job offers with likely pay rises, delayed reviews with unknown decisions on pay reviews, finding a ring and desperately pondering what the hell is going to happen to Harry, I'm pretty much over it.

That wasn't really a quick post, huh? I think I need a drink. Or twelve.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Great Expectation... No, Wait - That's Been Done

So I like Harry Potter. I'm counting down the days until book 7 comes out. Get over it. There are worse things I could be hanging out for. A trend of wearing red and green without something in between. Michael Jordan's next comeback. Michael Jackson's next tour. The apocalypse.

What can I say? I'm excited! Whoa... Better be careful - that felt like a heart flutter. I'm deliciously apprehensive. There's a lightning-shaped twinkle in my eye. I'm constantly contemplating character conundrums. I'm flirting with farcical facts that figure prominently in the paperback palace of my mind. I'm thinking up theories about horcruxes, hippogriffs, Hermione and high heels - I've said too much. You will disregard that last remark. Move to strike. So ordered. Denny Crane.

Is it wrong that I'm excited about the page count? Book 7 looks like being the longest in the series. This is a big deal for me. I read quite fast. I like reading fast - it keeps the sense of pace and action that some books need. The downside, of course, is that books are often over far too quickly. So I read them again. And again. I read books like movies. I've been asked "Why read a book twice? You know what's going to happen." My response: I know that Leo dies at the end of Titanic, but that doesn't stop me leaping around the room yelling "The tard is dead! Arnold, you're a twat! And you almost ruined The Beach for me!" whenever I see his sad little face fade into the depths. Or something like that. Regardless, more pages = more Harry Potter goodness.

Maybe I'm more excited about the story being all wrapped up in a neat little package. I can generally find at least one thing in a book that is worth taking away and thinking about - whether it be storyline technique, characterisation, subject matter, dialogue, whatever. There are very few books that have absolutely nothing to offer. There are many in the Harry Potter series. The series picks a tone that is, strangely enough, reminiscent of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (although you probably couldn't rebuild Dublin from its pages). By not using the first person narrative, but not acting as a completely impartial omnipresent observer, J. K. only goes inside Harry's head. This leads to a narrative somewhere between the first and third person, with the reader learning as Harry learns, a very effective way to keep an interest in the storyline. And no, it's not called a second person narrative. No one likes a smartarse.

The other aspect of the series that has confronted me the most is the development of the story. Sometimes I listen to an musician and think "Why has no one else come up with that?" Some melodies are so simple and obvious, so right, that it makes me shake my head and wonder why it took this long. Mathematicians feel this way when a simple proof is given to a complex problem, especially if the problem has been around for a while. J. K. has a gift for picking ways forward from plot situations that are the most true, and that resonate with readers. This is an incredible talent, and something I aspire to. It's a strange feeling when you reach a state like that, what Aristotle called "flow", even if only in random peaks. You know what to do next - it's obvious. Sometimes it takes trial and error, but when the right course of action presents, you feel awake. It's a lovely warm wet slap in the face, like an espresso. It's a great feeling. Again, something to work towards.

I could go on like this for quite a while, but my lunch break is never long enough, and I still need to reread books 5 and 6 to prep for the big day, so I'll leave it there. But picture me, round at my local bookstore next Saturday morning, rain, hail or, well, rain. This is Melbourne in July, after all. I'll have my free hot chocolate for pre-ordering the book, and I'll be quivering in anticipation next the furry little freak holding the broomstick. Or maybe I'll just be shivering. Melbourne, July, remember? And no, I won't be dressed up. I'm far too dignified for that sort of childish behaviour.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Designing intelligence

Well, mist1 has once again produced an thought-provoking and insightful (and inciteful) comment, whether she meant to or not. So I'm going to run with it.

Mist1 reminisced about her younger, smarter days. Days when she owned a protractor, and probably even knew how to use it. But those days are gone, she said. They've been set adrift on memory bliss, or some other soft focus setting of fond recollection and nostalgia. Probably with 80s music and drum machines as a soundtrack. Possibly Kenny Loggins, maybe even the whole Top Gun CD. But it's gotta be the special edition - we need that "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" goodness. It's a target rich environment, Mav.

But I'm not sure it quite works like that. For me, golf is a wonderful analogy for life. I've played maybe 10 times in my life, and I can remember having a wonderful time doing it. There was one shot in particular that I hit off the 10th at Tarhatuan with a driver I'd borrowed from my dad, that was beautiful - it lazily soared, spinning gently in the breeze, before alighting just off the green as softly as a hummingbird with a sprained ankle.

But then, if I really think about the time I've spent playing golf, I realise that for every great shot there were twenty others that left me searching through trees and bushes trying to find that sneaky little fucker of a ball that had managed to hide itself under a leaf just to see that little vein that starts pulsing in my forehead in situations like that.

High school is a good example of this view. I tend to have a fairly rosy view of how things were. But really, it wasn't all that good. School was easy, yes, but the whole social thing was a bit of a mystery. Still is, to a point. Small talk is something that happens to other people, as far as I'm concerned. When I meet someone I just ask questions. Not in a shallow or facetious way - I really am interested, and it's amazing the things you can find out about crocodile DNA if you ask probing questions to a South African in a hotel bar in Switzerland (true story). Plus, she was hot. Anyway, all those years are a bit glossed over. As T. E. Lawrence noted, the passage of time seems to have bleached out men’s stains. I don't know what he thought about the women.

So why does it seem harder these days? Am I becoming more stupid as I get older? I don't think so. I don't think anyone does. I think it's a trick of the perspective. There are a biological changes in the brain for a few years after birth and in the lead up to death caused by old age (I've studied a bit of developmental psychology - my second degree. I got bored), but for the most part intelligence seems to be fine tuning what you've got once it grows. The MRI scan below shows what happens to an infant's brain if cerebrospinal fluid doesn't drain properly (on the left) - there are case studies of people with this condition (hydrocephalus) showing that mental ability is not necessarily affected by the resultant lack of brain tissue.

So why do other people seem to get thicker as they get older? It seems to be habit rather than biology, and I've got a few ideas of bad habits that people get into.

Lack of interest - this is the biggest one for me. I find it incredibly hard to focus on things if I find them boring. This explains why I'm writing a blog entry instead of the report I'm supposed to be finishing. It's why I want to get out of engineering and into psychology, even though it may mean going back to the bottom of the career pile. It's why Top Gear is a top show, and why Big Brother is abysmal this year. Get thee behind me, Killeen! It's a mental discipline issue, and I seem to be more mental than disciplined these days. Something to work on.

Lack of practice - I can still do times tables off the top of my head, but my addition and subtraction skills are wandering off into the sunset on a palomino. I was best at these when I worked in retail during uni - I could work out the change required in less time than it took me to type the total in to the register. I was quite proud of that - a sneaking little pride that knew that no one else would appreciate or even understand it, but that I treasured anyway, like a secret superpower. I was more than met the eye.

Fear of change - deliberately avoiding new situations. This one really pisses me off. What else is life for? No change = no life. Simple. It's a balance - routines are necessary, but with too much routine you end up believing in the routine and not what it's trying to do. The means but not the end. That path leads ever down into stagnation.

Lack of confidence in their ability to learn - I've done a fair bit of tutoring for primary school and high school kids, and the number of them that don't learn things because they've convinced themselves that it's too hard is just incredible. It usually took about three sessions to break them out of the habit, and then their faces would light up like a mobile phone taken off keylock. They enjoyed learning. I've been heading down this path for a while, now, and one reason I've started to write is to show myself that I can learn new skills, and learn them well. It's a confidence thing.

Really, I don't think people stop being smart - I think they stop using their intelligence creatively (which could be designing a new pump, taking up painting or learning to use html - it's all the same, really). Losing creativity is something that SD has talked about (hyperlink! Woohoo!), and it's something that got far too little focus when I was learning. All I know is what works for me. If I can find something that works for me and other people, I think that's a good thing. And that's what I'm trying to do.

I've got a feeling this won't be one of the entries I'm proudest of - the content's there, but the execution is a bit lacking. But I'm here to learn, so it's all worthwhile. I'm aiming at two entries per week at this stage. It might be only one this week - this one took a fair bit of thinking - but every author interview I've read says that it's more important to get it out and revise than to not get it out at all. Baby steps!