(Post-Holocaust-Day) Brain Dump

Here’s a little experiment. Can I just write a blog post without planning it, researching, re-thinking several times and then editing for a month?

It’s nearly eighteen months since I wrote a post here, and it feels incumbent (though not really) upon me to explain myself. Why the silence for so long? Well, it’s essentially for two closely related reasons:

First up, I’ve become – what’s the word? not exactly cynical – stoical, deeply yet relatively comfortably pessimistic. I wrote this blog with a kind of humanitarian redemptive hope. I wanted to help the world change direction, to bounce, from the descent into ignorance, political corruption and global destruction. I wrote about how drug addicts often have to hit rock bottom before they see the way back up to the light, and I hoped that might extend to humanity. There is little evidence for that, and, having recognised my motivated reasoning (like a good critical thinker should), it seemed dangerous to share my pessimism for the potential harm it might do any particular reader.

It’s not a reason to give up fighting for change, and certainly not a reason to commit suicide, as I feared was the worst case scenario of someone reading my dark view of humanity’s future. But it’s hard to express the complicated reasons for that. Trying to do so as simply as possible: our life is the only opportunity we have for pleasure, and life is capable of delivering the most astonishing joy; there is nothing to gain, therefore, even in the absence of pleasure, in removing that potential – permanently – unless every possible route to recovery has been explored. The sad fact is that most people who commit suicide do so from a depressive episode, which itself dulls their appreciation of the opportunities available, and massively exaggerates their judgement of how much they have tried. How many times must it be the case that going for a walk, or deciding to phone someone, or a million-and-one other small acts, could have saved someone’s life and led to their happy future, but they thought they’d tried everything and were at the end of the road? Often just a commitment to patience, waiting to see if next week is a bit better, or next year, can be the way out.

I speak from experience. I’ve been suicidal at times, and I’ve counselled several suicidal clients who recovered. But this realisation that humanity may not be destined for sunlit uplands didn’t bring back my late-twenties doldrums, not quite. For one thing, the fate of humanity isn’t a singular condition. While heinous crimes, brutal wars, enslavement, all manner of ills, might continue, even worsen in some instances, there are other conditions, other lives, that can be transformed for the good, and are being so transformed right now. For another, although I was irrationally optimistic in the past, it’s very difficult to make a confident assessment of how things will pan out. Some of those positive changes might be enormous, lifting countless lives out of ignorance and suffering.

We forget how terrible the world was just a short while ago, and are bombarded with bad news every day, which – while I do not mean to make light of the attrocities currently underway in many parts of the world – do not compare. I was reminded two days ago by the annual arrival of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A mere twenty years before I was born, something in the region of a million Jews – men, women and children – were ousted from their homes all across Eastern Europe, by an official order to congregate on the village green or in the town square, bring warm clothing, food and identity papers. Often a local police officer would organise and oversee this exodus, and the non-Jewish local community, often already deeply antisemitic and lately encouraged by Nazi propaganda, would enthusiastically take part.

The innocents were marched off, not to yet another Jewish exile, but a pre-dug trench in the woods, where they were stripped naked, forced to line up, and shot. The locals, having watched the spectacle or themselves pulled the trigger, would return to claim the empty houses and belongings of their murdered neighbours.

Hitler and the German Command were astonished that this slaughter of the Jews was progressing so swimmingly and began to think slaughtering every last one might actually be possible. They were, however, concerned that the small band of ordinary Germans sent off to orchestrate this were rapidly going insane with the enormous guilt, and that news was bound to get out to the world at large eventually, so set to to devise a more efficient mode of despatch for millions more.

Sometimes, remembering things like that can help us in our lives now, assuming we’re relatively free of suffering or threat. Rather than bringing only negative emotions (which it certainly brings), it can also bring an acute awareness of being alive and free, of the opportunities of a walk, or writing a poem, or singing a song, or indulging in some act of kindness to oneself or others. It might encourage us to engage in political action, protest or charity.

As ever, I also find my Buddhist take-away a real help: acceptance, remembering that the cause of suffering is essentially our grasping attitude to pleasure, our own pleasure, and our fear and avoidance of pain. We must cry when our tears come, learn to trust our body’s natural ways of dumping loss and stress, and be patient in the absence of happiness, even in the absence of its promise. Not desiring anything that is not presently the case is the root of deeper satisfaction. All efforts in that direction seem to bring benefit. It is also of great benefit to remember several wise iterations of the fact that happiness comes from compassion and helping others.

All the relevant cliches come to mind at this point – today is the first day of the rest of your life … YOLO (you only live once) … smile and the whole world smiles with you … – but I won’t insult your intelligence. The current cliche is just a fact: “the world is in crisis.” It certainly is. Climate crisis. Capitalist crisis. Economic crisis. Threats from nuclear proliferation, biological warfare, military use of AI, and the insidious spread of totalitarianism, fascism in its various forms. Western democracy is increasingly just a downright lie. The private sector is increasingly in control of all our futures, and its bottom line, in case you haven’t noticed yet, isn’t how happy it makes its customers, just how happy it can con them into thinking it’s making them.

The politicians have largely sold their souls to big business, which has no soul, just enormous tracts of land and piles of cash. Trump is back on the trail, ready to make America even greater than last time. Britain continues to be the biggest international crime scene, laundering oligarch’s money and investing our representatives’ fortunes in offshore tax havens. It’s what Brexit was about.

But we only have one life, that is also true. Indeed, we only have this moment, and, in it, the opportunity to make the next a little better or worse.

Well, I did it. Minimal planning and editing. I’m not sure what to make of it. But please look after yourself and each other.

P.S. There’s another reason I’ve not blogged in a while, a much more mundane one, but probably also related. I’ve got into another project that has taken precedent over my rambles here, developing a music notation system and accompanying computer program that will, hopefully, make it easier for non-geniuses like me to read and write music without spending a decade pracising, learning complicated theory and repeating endless scales. It’s related, because one day it will be too late to make a difference.

And, finally, WordPress has become a bloody nightmare, so when I blog again, it might have to be on another platform.

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The Enchanted Spinney

Today I traveled back in time.

I was already feeling nostalgic, having visited a friend I hadn’t seen for 34 years. Although we met in Oxford, he now lives in the north part of Leeds, West Yorkshire, which just happens to be very close to where I grew up from the age of six to sixteen, the village of Shadwell.

I’d driven the 15 miles to see him and, on the way back, began to wonder about taking a short detour to my old stomping ground, but I was tired after our long catch-up and decided to leave that for another day.

Back home, as the evening drew on, I went there virtually on Google Street View. I dragged the little man over Main Street and found myself traveling about half a century into the past.

My past. My half century. It’s hard to believe.

The Google Time Machine dropped me right between St. Paul’s Church, whose graveyard I used to traverse on the short walk to school, and Shadwell County Primary itself. I remember being frightened, on dark winter days, of the graves and what they might conceal, then, on summer days, playing there happily enough (although, one time, I climbed and fell out of a tree there; I could have died; imagine falling to one’s death in a graveyard).

These sorts of places, however, I will have to visit physically, as the Google Time Car doesn’t go along church paths. I may find the tree I fell out of. I don’t know why I would want to, but I do. It may be harmless vanity, perhaps, or further effort toward becoming familiar – if not comfortable – with the fact of my own mortality, which perhaps first impinged on my young mind on that twice-daily commute.

I wandered digitally eastwards, looking for the old sweet shop that was owned by the parents of a girl I used to play with in the school playground. Angela was a plump, plain girl, sometimes not entirely fragrant, and regularly got bullied. I was too introvert to notice much playground politics, and we made friends. She enjoyed being a horse, running around with me in train, connected by a skipping-rope for reins (and shared social discomfort), presumably saying, “Gee-up” and “Whoa there!” I may have had an eye to the more important politics of favourable deals at the sweet shop, but I don’t think it worked.

I didn’t identify the shop. Google’s ability to warp time is limited. But I was amazed to see the bus terminus was still a short distance from there, where my sister and I sometimes sat upstairs on a double-decker gorging on chocolate bars as we waited for the bus to set off to Moortown or Leeds. We liked to pretend we were talking to each other in a foreign language to see what response we got from the other passengers, or perhaps just to feel special. As an adult, I’ve occasionally heard children do this on a bus. We probably sounded equally convincing.

I continued my investigation of times past by turning left into Ash Hill Lane, where I went to Beverley’s birthday party. I – around seven or eight – was in love with Beverley, or so I may have thought. Once, being driven in the car through a town called Beverley, according to family tales oft repeated since, I am supposed to have cried out, “Stop the car, I want to get out and kiss the ground!” I know kids say stupid things, but obviously this is either entirely apocryphal or the family didn’t recognise my precocious grasp of irony.

A few houses further along was Christopher’s house. Christopher and I used to call on each other to play out on our bikes. My vanity is such that I remember little of our friendship other than the time he complimented me for being able to cycle fast and whistle at the same time. We were zipping down the slopes and – partly through momentum – up the rises in the Spinney.

At the end of his road, as I clicked the little chevron, I wondered what I would find beyond the crossroads. I’m pretty sure more damn houses. I was pretty sure I’d seen a new housing estate there in earlier excursions – virtual or real – this isn’t the first time I’ve gone back home.

This was the setting – probably now buried by new builds – for one of my strongest and best-loved childhood memories. We dumped our bikes and walked along the dirt-track. The houses and their neat new lawns gave way to ancient fields with seas of wheat and barley dancing in the summer sun.

The countryside was a stone’s throw from our front doors and there were miles and miles of it to explore in coming years. Beyond the fields deep woods brooded and crystal becks ran.

I was captivated by the wind revealing its form in the golden waves. Pulling a stalk, dissecting it, tasting the sap. I was fascinated by small details – the miniature forest of moss on a log or the iridescence of a sparkling beetle. Yet here Christopher and I proceeded to set fire to our least-loved Airfix planes to enact terrible crashes in the tractor tracks. Boys will be boys.

I was astonished and delighted to see that the lane in fact continues to this day into dirt-track. A real-life visit is in order. I’m not sure what all this memory-lane stuff is about, but perhaps I need to find out.

Ash Hill Lane

Reality was maleable, multi-layered, back then. On the one hand, I was just a kid playing in the streets. On the other – of course, nobody knew this – I was Second Officer in a secret military ship (my house), which the gas hobs in the kitchen and other “ordinary household objects” secretly controlled. Some kind of mind-warp allowed this stealth craft to dock undetected in the street after long ocean voyages, to battle unknown evils out there in the world: maybe as far away as Wike or Bardsey. The driveway was my secret gangway, and down it I would ride, on what appeared to any observer to be an ordinary kid’s bike. Little did they know the awesome nuclear power hidden within its architecture. My sister pretended her bike was a horse, but then girls will be girls.

I continued up the hill, where once (riding down carelessly) I hit the curb and fell off my first bike. I was carried home covered in blood by a neighbour. This wasn’t far from the spot – on what was mostly still a building-site at the time – where I accidentally stood on a plastic sachet and was blinded by the oil that burst out into my face.

And there was the Mother Ship, our old/new house. I remember our first visit, when the lawn was still a jumble of stone. Some strangers seem to have moved in; I don’t understand it; their cars are on the drive. You turn your back for four and a half decades…?

There are too many memories to relate, obviously, and, as I write this, more are coming back all the time. Are the memories getting stronger, rather than fading? Am I entering that place some old people go, Back When. Will it someday be little glimpses of the present that break through my default retrospection?

I looked out for Joanna’s house. I was in love with Joanna. Not like Beverley. Proper in love. One day, in her dad’s tool shed, Joanna and I secretly showed each other things you mustn’t unless you’re definitely going to get married.

I sauntered around another corner to the old fish-and-chip shop, which is still there and still a fish-and-chip shop, another remarkable survivor, even with a mention on Wikipedia. And there’s that extraordinary bus-stop opposite, exquisitely particular. It is, of course, perfectly ordinary. Bus-stops I used to stand at, how can they elicit such nostalgia?

And from there along Gateland Lane – these names are like old friends – forgoing a trip to see where Julie lived, with whom I liked to pretend everyone else was in love, and past Ruth’s house, with whom I was briefly in love…

But I went that way to find the Spinney. Whenever I think of Shadwell, I think of the Spinney. It’s a strange little squarish wood, standing like a dark castle in the landscape, foreboding yet enticing. The trees grow along a complex of undulating ridges around deep hollows, something I don’t remember seeing anywhere else. Since the little track along its western edge is called Colliers Lane, perhaps the odd topography is due to open-cast mining. Whatever the cause, it lent great opportunity for imaginative play.

The Spinney had a reputation for acts of youthful vandalism, or worse. The big kids left broken and burned things in the hollows and decorated the tree trunks with rebellious signs. One time we found a decapitated chicken. We implicated Satanists, probably just to scare ourselves.

We used to ride our bikes for hours round there. It always seemed ancient, strangely permanent, an island of dependable inscrutability, its undulations riding the waves of time. It is, I am happy to say, still there. Or it was when the Google Car last went by.

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Publishing my Pieces on SoundCloud

First of all, apologies to anyone who followed the notification to a new post only to find it password protected. This was me not realising that the password-protected setting on WordPress doesn’t make a post automatically private; indeed, it even sends out notifications to everyone. The post was about my music notation system, in development, which I wanted to share just with one confidante. It’s still in development, but don’t hold your breath.

Anyway, as you can probably guess from the title of the post, I’ve set up my account at SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/lettersquash. After a bit of deliberation, I decided to use the same nickname as I do here, as I’m starting to make lettersquash stick most places online now. Besides, there are a few other John Freestones on SoundCloud and at least one I know of who publishes his stuff on YouTube.

Me about 20 years ago. I still look just as good though. ;D

I hope you enjoy the songs and instrumental pieces. The five I’ve uploaded so far aren’t my best work, exactly, but they’re probably the best in terms of a balance between quality of composition, playing and recording.

I have two or three – maybe more – pieces I hope to include later, but they are more difficult to play, and I’m very out of practice. Some of those already uploaded I will probably replace when I polish them up again.

I’m not sure what to do with a bunch of others, but I should upload them somewhere just for my peace of mind (as they’re kind of precious to me and just on local drives). Some are recordings of me playing my 3/4-size Spanish guitar or piano in the early ’70s, with a single mic plugged into a standard cassette tape recorder. Once I’d practised a new song, I’d add it to the end. By the time I thought about saving a digital copy, about 40 years later, the recording had degraded enormously, so they’re just for my own nostalgic enjoyment (or to remind me how they go so I can redo them if I feel any are worth re-recording).

I’ve been intending to upload my music for some time. I did upload several pieces to another site many years ago, but I deleted them again. It was one of those sites for putting you in touch with other musicians, and I’d given up on the idea of playing in bands, or of ever performing again. I hardly played an instrument anymore.

As I described recently, that all changed again with the removal of my Mum’s old piano from the lounge to the hallway, where I don’t worry about disturbing the neighbours anymore. I’m re-learning to read music, practising various classical pieces and working on a few of my own compositions, and now I’ve started getting to grips with my guitars again. So, hopefully, I should have some brand new recordings to upload to my account before too long.

I also need to brush up on my recording-engineer skills. I was still using tape cassettes when I left off, albeit in a 4-track machine. I set up a digital studio on an old computer years ago, but I’ve hardly used it.

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Life Hack, Music Hack

(I’m writing shorter posts now, by the way: no more than 1,500 words each.)

Life Hack

In writing about myself last time I identified a problem that I’m trying to solve, which is that I get obsessed with particular hobbies – music, programming, writing, researching, camping, etc. – and I keep doing the same thing for too long. I get bored with it, but keep pushing myself, because it was so enjoyable, and then I suddenly switch to another. This leaves long periods in between pursuits, so I forget where I got to, making progress frustrating and inefficient.

I noticed it again in relation to music when I began re-learning to play the piano. I’m now practising fairly regularly, but I lose a lot of ground if I leave it even a few days between sessions, so I really don’t want to go off it and get obsessed with something else.

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Duck Wrangling

In loving memory of John Brand

When I was a teenager, I wrote a song, To Watch the Clouds, that goes:

A man may take a little time off
To feel the colour of the sky
To watch the clouds go by

Sometimes he's taken to a hilltop
Sometimes he feels he could fly
The god of gravity sighs

Life is what you make it
So please don't you waste it
Don't watch the clouds go by
Until the clouds run dry

It’s a warning I largely failed to heed. I still watch the clouds. Most mornings, I lie in bed drinking coffee and gaze out the window for an hour or more over the rooftops, thinking my thoughts. I was always getting told off for it at school too (gazing out the window, I mean, not lying in bed drinking coffee).

Luckily, my clouds haven’t run dry yet, but, as I approach 60, I feel an increasing need to catch up with things undone. The pandemic is adding a little impetus. As Mum used to remind me, you only live once.

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Arguing with Idiots: Sceptical Outreach during a Global Pandemic

I have an addiction: I go on YouTube quite a lot, doing what my late friend, John Brand used to call, “arguing with idiots.” He always advised against this. “You should never argue with idiots,” he’d say, “it just confuses them.”

They’re probably not generally idiots (although some clearly are), they just say idiotic things, but I’ll come to that in a moment. And they probably need confusing. Confusion is a good thing. Avoiding confusion (avoiding cognitive dissonance) is why they say idiotic things, as will be demonstrated later. Continue reading

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Natural Consciousness: (Part 2) Being

man holding a hammer

I think; therefore it’s time I returned to my series on consciousness.

Part 1, “Emptiness”, was mainly anecdotal, sharing what I think I’ve concluded from my experience of meditation. I suggested that the idea of “pure awareness” is an illusion, and instead that awareness is an interaction with an object.

I ended with this:

Witnessing necessarily involves an object. All talk of “the witness” in this metaphysical context may be utter nonsense. Of course, something is certainly witnessing. I hope to delve a little more into what we might reasonably consider that to be in future posts.

I was denying that we have a non-physical mind that witnesses our life. My intention in this series is to approach the difficult task of grasping a materialist explanation of consciousness. I am trying to make sense of the idea that what is witnessing our life, the “I”, the “self” is simply the physical brain-body system.

This causes much difficulty, not because it is illogical or because the evidence points elsewhere, but because human cultures ubiquitously deny it, and we all grew up within a human culture. It is difficult to see beyond what we take for granted. Indeed, our language does not easily encapsulate the idea of conscious matter. Presumably it was so for most of human history: mind, we say, is what animates, knows, thinks, speaks, in a world that is otherwise dead.

Dennett remarks that consciousness is the new élan vital, that was thought to make the difference between life and non-life. Now we’ve got used to the twin facts that there is a fuzzy line between them and that we define life with arbitrary conditions, we puzzle similarly about consciousness.

So, people can accept that they are physical entities, but repeatedly insist that consciousness is a mystery, because they imagine it to be non-physical. They say it must be non-physical, although they seem rarely to consider what that means, by what attributes something “non-physical” can be identified. They simply have an unspoken rule that matter cannot be conscious – it is essentially part of their definition of matter.

The difficulty, of course, is what David Chalmers famously called “the hard problem of consciousness”, which is to explain how (and why) the brain performs the feat of creating subjective experience. I am suggesting that the reason is simple: we refuse to accept that we, as physical matter, could possibly experience the brute fact of our being. Losing the notion that we are a ghost in the machine – easier said than done – is what allows us to feel our physical reality, whereupon the mystery begins to dissolve. Continue reading

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Bruce Lipton’s ‘Biology of Belief’ – Annotated with facts: the final summing up

This deserves reblogging, especially now. It’s Yakaru’s summary of his incisive critique of Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief.

Spirituality is No Excuse

I have noticed an up-tick in people looking for information on Bruce Lipton and I assume this must have something to do with the Coronavirus and COVID-19. A brief check and I see that indeed is contributing his ideas to the discussion. Clearly many people are trying to figure out there is any merit to his claim that you can use thoughts to “control your biology”, so I will offer a brief summing up of my exhaustive 77 post review of his book The Biology of Belief.

Sadly, Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief fails entirely, and in the most ridiculous manner, to provide any support for his claims. It is baffling that someone with a Ph.D in biology can get so much basic factual information in his chosen field so wrong. Worse, the way he constructs his argument doesn’t connect up with the case he is trying…

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English Turkeys Vote for Another Five Years of Christmas

Well, there you go. I said it, didn’t I. England is full of cretins, easier to herd than a flock of sheep. Cluck at them for a couple of weeks about how oven-ready they are, how lovely it’ll feel to be hung, stuffed with nuts and baked on a medium heat for five years, their carcass finally dumped on the lawn for the starlings to peck at, and the English turkeys will gobble up all their tasty sound-bites and pop themselves in the microwave.

selective focus photo of red turkey head Continue reading

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Are Brexiteers Stupid?

man person people emotions

Yes. On the whole, it appears so. At least, they were stupid enough to be duped by some very clever people who don’t care about them. Of course, lots of people are stupid, most people, and some of them are Remainers.

I blame the parents…or, rather, previous governments using education (…education, education) as a political football. We allowed education in this country to be degraded and abused for decades. Deliberately or otherwise, we’ve been dumbed down. Continue reading

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