Quick, quick, slow.

21 March, 2013

I have a confession.

I’ve taken too much of your time already and there’s no way to give it back. I can only explain and ask for, not forgiveness, but understanding.

I have been a practicing chronomancer for about five weeks now, or to put it another way, for several centuries. Stealing time from someone always seemed unethical, but the laws of large numbers convinced me that there was nothing wrong with slicing away a second or two from someone. They’d never notice, and with enough seconds then I would be able to do so much more with my life. Read more books. Walk more streets. Dance more dances. Kiss more lips. Experience more of everything. Or hell, just catch up on some TV.

It’s so simple to do these days, there’s no excuse not to do it. In the dim and hazy past, chronomancers slaved for minutes, sometimes months, over hourglasses filled with liquid time.

Now there’s an app for it.

I’d brought my phone on holiday. I needed more time. And there you were…

Dancers are easy targets. Obsessed with timing, with the beat. Stepping in rhythm, feeling the flow and ebb, and if you dance with the right person, and start to drain time at just the right moment… then you can live forever.

We danced in the rain, syncopated drops splashing on our faces. Summer rain, giving way to the fall. You turned, and as you looked away my finger tapped a button, and a second was transferred from you to me. Just one second shared between us forever. Tiny. Miniscule.

Our minute second.

But I made a mistake. I hadn’t reset the phone for the continental time zone. Instead of one second, an hour of concentrated time flowed out over the dance floor. Days spilled into the Spree. So much wasted time. I tried to stop it, to reverse what I had inadvertently done. I could see the time of your life around me. Nothing worked. Time ran out of my hands.

And now here we are.

Time flows fast for you. It’s stopped for me. But one of these years, in a couple of days, maybe we’ll meet again. Just in time.

Soloist

21 March, 2013

The piano was bound tightly to the boat, ropes straining as the small craft beached onto the island. Burly locals unleashed the unused wooden instrument and began the long march into the hills. Hours of sweat and grind brought the piano to the natural amphitheater, a desolate caldera where she waited. People from across the island had come to hear her play, and so she did, long into the night. The moon was high as the last of her audience left for the lights and warmth of the village. But she had not brought the piano here for them. The air was calm, the stars bright and her fingers danced – lost in music – until the glow of dawn brought her exhausted back to the earth.

Cats

21 March, 2013

She hated cats. They were a curse in the castle, tripping her up, making her sneeze, leaving dead rats in her bed. Her only response to the misery they made of her life was to be increasingly cruel to them. She would hit them with brooms, throw them over walls and set the hounds on them. The castle was known to be haunted, and she would tease her brother with ghost stories while waving the head of a cat she had put on a stick. One day she slipped on the stairs and died. Her viciousness kept her soul in the castle, her ghost doomed to walk the halls for eternity.

But she was not alone – all the cats she had ever killed were there too. Their spirits, nine ghostly lives for every cat she had known in life. Ready to torment her forever.

Expectations

21 March, 2013

That first dance, that first night, that moment we clicked. I can still remember the rise and fall of emotions, the pulse of excitement and trepidation. I would move and you would follow effortlessly for we danced the same language. There was no fear of being misunderstood, each motion I made was in response to you, in response to me, in response to you. Deeper and deeper, what we were doing could not be done alone. I could never dance like this without you. You could not dance like this without me. We created something new which in that time, that place, was perfect.

Nervous smiles, a slight unbelieving air. Were we really that good? What just happened? Let’s not jinx this, just dance again. And again. The tempo changed, the mood changed and we changed with it. No longer just ourselves, we were subservient to this thing we had created and could not stop. The dance was all, the dance filled us with joy and inspiration and that memory of why we do this at all. Sheer pleasure. Flow. Bliss. Grins that we couldn’t put away.

But reality was waiting. Lurking in the background, waiting as it always does.

For once that night was over we knew we would meet again and would want to dance that perfect dance once more. That dance which emerged from the unexpected pleasure of connection that we felt. But now that connection was expected, we could see in plain sight that we could be amazing.

And if we could be amazing, then we should be amazing.

And then if we weren’t amazing it meant the magic was gone, and how can a ‘perfectly fine’ second experience compare to what we had? We will try too hard. It will feel forced. Maybe we shouldn’t bother. Maybe we should leave perfection alone.

Of course we danced again. The high of that first experience was too good. I needed that fix and I saw in your eyes that same desire. The crowded floor called to us. The music flowed over us. I took you in my arms and we danced.

It wasn’t the same.

Life Lessons

21 March, 2013

Since storylane is shutting down I thought I’d repost my stories from there. Nothing to do with myths or science, but still…

“It’s not really me though, is it?” I asked Google.

“No, but then you are not really you either. At least, you are not who you were a moment ago, so does it matter that this 13 year old is a construct I created? I based him not only on your memories and the growth structures of your brain’s neural network, but on all those people who had interacted with you up until your 13th birthday.”

He didn’t look like me. When I was 13 digital cameras were rare so I had not been saturated with the idea of what I looked like. I remember one photo and to me, that was what I looked like. Google had found a lot more images to reconstruct me (and probably used some sort of processing on my current looks) so while I am sure it was a more accurate depiction of my younger self it didn’t resonate.

The holoroom we were in was not that big, only a few meters across. Younger me was reading comics and didn’t seem aware of my presence. Robotic dinosaurs were engrossing in a way that an old man from the future clearly wasn’t.

“He wont react until you talk to him.” Google always seemed to know what I was thinking.

“I don’t even know what to say. It’s not real, this won’t change anything. I mean if you had a time machine and I went back to tell myself some life lessons then maybe this would be worth something…”

Google paused for a second before replying.

“We don’t have a time machine. It got stolen by a singing…actually that doesn’t matter. Let’s just say time travel is impossible and leave it at that.”

I can never tell when Google is trying to be funny.

“I know that, I just don’t think I have anything to say. Nothing that makes a difference.”

“That’s OK. It’s just a meme you were tagged with. I can switch off the hologram and you don’t have to record your questions. The socials will understand. Look a new meme is coming in for you already.”

That was good. I couldn’t answer this question – maybe I should work on what life lessons I should tell my 13 year old grandchildren rather than myself. But then what would I know about today that would be useful to them? I still used Google, and hlogged for a hobby. What a relic. 13 year old me shimmered out of existence as the holoroom reset to its defaults.

“OK Google, what’s the next one…”

“It is just this – Tell Any Story.”

That I could do. A story about anything. Anything at all…..hmmmm….

Maybe I’ll just tell a story about robot dinosaurs.

The Lie That Is Art

21 December, 2009

Philosophers have often argued that art is useful because it speaks to an underlying truth. Data can lead to Knowledge which can lead to Understanding – art can help us get there. In his early work Friedrich Nietzsche spoke against this view. Influenced by Schopenhauer (and through him, the Buddhist tradition) he conceived of the world as being a bleak and terrible place. True understanding of this world leads to the realisation that all is suffering, and unlike the Buddhists, Nietzsche didn’t think that the way out was by following the Eightfold path. Instead he turned to the ancient art of the Athenian Playwrights.

Tragedy was an art form much admired in Athens. Aristotle thought it brought catharsis to the people to see such horrors and pathos on the stage. Nietzsche thought that the truth was much more horrible than what was in the Tragedies however. Like a Cthulhic nightmare, reality would drive us mad, but if we glimpsed the real through the safe eyes of art then we can grow as people, cocooned from insanity. By adding plot, character, and most of all reasons for the actions in the plays, the writers give us an easy way in to the chaos that lies behind our lives. We add meaning, but that meaning is a lie, and only exists to help make the truth palatable. By trying to find any other truth than this horror, art is making a mistake and showing yet more lies, without the sobering knowledge of the futility of life behind it. Nietzsche could be a bit of a downer. He also changed his views on art several times, and repudiated the above ideas in his later works.

The concept of the real world being a truly mind altering place was taken up by H.P. Lovecraft and his successors who wrote the Cthulhu mythos. During the early 20th century discoveries were being made that shattered any illusion that Mankind was at the centre of the universe. In the Cthulhu mythos characters realise their unimportance in the grand scheme of things. They are, in effect,  put in a total-perspective-vortex and their feeble simian minds find they cannot cope with the truth. If only they had looked at the truth through the lie of art! How could they be expected to cope with this: our collective existence is a meaningless accident and our time on this world is finite.

And yet, that truth seems rather banal these days. Whatever non-euclidean geometry drove Lovecraftian heroes to the brink of insanity just doesn’t seem as scary today. Has art finally led us to a place where we are comfortable with the meaningless of existence? And how do we tell which part of art is the terrifying truth, and which the comforting lie?

In The Cave

27 November, 2009

There is a cave where people are tied in chains. Their heads are fixed, staring at the back wall, where images appear. There is a fire behind them and in front of the fire pass a series of objects which cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The inhabitants of the cave have lived here all their lives and to them the shadows are all they know of reality. Indeed, were someone to take one of these people and release them from their chains, how would they even comprehend the true nature of what they saw when they were shown the fire, and the shapes that cast the shadows?

The cave is a metaphor that was used by Plato to describe our understanding of the world. For Plato the real world was made up of Forms, ideal versions of objects. He said that philosophers could break away from the chains and, after being disoriented by the truth, understand the way things really are. Once understanding was attained it was incumbent on the philosopher to bring his wisdom back to the people who were still convinced that the shadows were the real world. Aristotle considered the pursuit of philosophical knowledge to be the ultimate happiness. (Spinoza considered it highly ethical too, though perhaps it is not surprising that many philosophers consider their work to be of high moral/social/ethical value…) So how do we break the chains and join Plato in delivering good council to the world, and join Aristotle in his happiness?

While Plato’s Forms have fallen out of favour his metaphor of the cave still applies. We do not see the real world, we live in the virtual reality that is our minds. Our vision is put together not just from photons hitting light receptors in our eyes, but by complex algorithms in our brains that recognise faces, and fill in the blanks in our blind spots. But more than this there are places that our regular senses cannot probe. By my eyes alone I cannot determine the chemical composition of the Sun, or see a virus. Atoms are made of a dense centre and a strange cloud of probabilities and electric charge, all of which are hidden to me, instead I see the shadows on the cave wall.

Fortunately we have some ways of breaking the chains. The development of glass lenses led to the first telescopes being used in the 16th century. By using the properties of the lens to magnify his vision Galileo was able to see the phases of Venus and so prove the Heliocentric model of our solar system. He was also able to see four moons orbiting Jupiter, other worlds that no human before could ever have known.

The glass lens also led to the microscope and visions of tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye. Robert Hooke wrote a best seller published in 1665, which contained his drawings of objects seen through his microscope, including a louse, a fly’s eye, and plant fibres which contained what he called ‘cells’. The Dutch scientist Leeuwenhoek working around the same time was the first to discover micro-organisms and single celled creatures.

In 1800, during some work testing filters to observe sunspots, the astronomer William Herschel placed his thermometer beyond the red end of a rainbow produced by a prism. He was trying to establish the ambient temperature of the room but noticed that even though he could see no light, there was extra heat produced outside of the rainbow. He had discovered infrared light, unseen to human eyes, but detectable by human instruments.

In 1801, Johann Ritter discovered that the light at the other end of the spectrum, again beyond our ability to see, was especially good at darkening silver salts. This was the first detection of ultraviolet light. Within a hundred years the spectrum from X-rays to Radio waves was being studied and as astounding and unsettling as these ideas were, they were brought back to the cave and incorporated into our idea of how the world works. We cannot see them, but we see their effects.

Our instruments can guide us out of the cave, but so too can the stories and results of others who have looked at the fire itself. If you have never looked through a telescope at Saturn, or seen the moons of Jupiter then I would recommend it. But the instruments to see even further can be expensive or rare and not everyone can directly experience the new visions that scientists find every day. Nor could we lay people instantly understand the results of say, the Large Hadron Collider just by looking at the computers in Geneva. In these cases we wait for the natural philosophers to return from looking at reality, confusing at that reality may be, and try to understand through metaphor what we can never see ourselves.