Thursday, 11 February 2010

Inspiration in a bottle

As I sip a cup of strong coffee in order to get by on only four hours of sleep, I am going to appear somewhat hypocritical in my sanctimonious advice on how to cope without chemical aids. The thing is, I'm desperate to avoid a future like this:

Except for the music. I've always wanted the world to turn into a musical.

20% of scientists have been regularly taking Ritalin, Modafinil and other meds in order to improve their alertness so that they can be more productive, according to a voluntary poll. By chemically altering their experience they can make it so that the only thing that matters to them is that big, fat load of maths they have to work with all day, and Facebook fades into insignificance.

I have a bit of a problem with concentration. The more interesting the internet becomes as the years go by, the less work I have managed to do in a single sitting. I have to have the dreaded bells of impending deadlines ringing in my head in order to get anything done nowadays. However, I really don't want to have to pop pills to keep up with everybody else. I have a personal distaste for mind-altering substances because I think they are too passive. I'm really proud that I will get to the end of my dissertation without having to share the credit with lab-created chemical muses.

Recently I have found that one way to fix the concentration problem without resorting to pill-popping or even unplugging the internet is Ommwriter for mac. Ommwriter gives you a serene, snowy backdrop on which to write your essay while ambient music plays in the background. The ambient music and the serene, quiet virtual space focuses my entire experience on writing my essay, and helps me to reflect more deeply on it as well. It's sort of like running away to the Himalayas and becoming a hermit for a while in order to sort your head out, but with all the convenience of the digital age.

The only problem is that Ommwriter doesn't retain the text formats of my half-finished dissertation. So for that I simply use Pages as normal, but I have ambient music playing in the background from still stream radio. One thing I love about ambient music is that it stimulates and relaxes me at the same time, leading to an all-round sense of wellbeing with no come-down that I can tap into whenever I please.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Cheeky Cheeky Bang Bang

We live in a strange time right now. Our massified, consumeristic culture has made it so that our senses are saturated by hedonism and sexuality on a daily basis. I still haven't decided whether to be horrified or enthralled. After all, the way we have mastered the manufacture of transitory pleasures really is incredible. But while I do buy into our sexualised culture as much as any other 22-year old does, I also have a habit of buying into the outrage that surrounds it. I, and I think a lot of other people, like to look back on earlier entertainment cultures as if they were less sexualised than 21st century media.

Nevertheless, sometimes I get a reality check and realise that this might not be an entirely fair assessment. Things used to pass the censors back in the day that would surely never make it today. Check out the S&M love scene in my favourite childhood movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

The one thing that saves this scene from being completely disturbing is that the Baroness of Vulgaria appears to feel neutral or maybe slightly concerned by her husband's attempts to kill her, rather than enthused and aroused by them, so she's probably not actually masochistic. But that's about it. She parades around in fetish wear, while he attacks her with glee, and all the while they are singing about how much they love each other. Stanley Rumm gives an interesting interpretation of this, although his squeamishness regarding the phrase, "casual sex," does lead him to employ an astounding array of awkward euphemisms.

"It’s not outlandish to believe that the Baron married her after falling for her as “a bit of stuff”. Their relationship has always been about “play” (ie. ‘howsyerfather’). They are not capable of having a proper discussion about anything. They’re stuck in “cutesy speak”. As long as she can still make him happy “playing” he can’t broach anything of a serious matter with her.

So if he wants her dead, why not just have her executed?

Have you ever wanted to fight or argue with someone, but they just “wouldn’t let you”? …It’s hard to have that fight when the other person is saying nice things to you and making you dinner and playing with you (in a nice way) all the time. She is the queen of tarts… she got to where she is by using her “female charms”. She seduced the older, powerful man. Now she is stuck in that role but cannot “progress” it to the next level -ie. she cannot be “the mother of the heir”."

I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on video innumerable times as a child, and yet somehow this S&M scene didn't leave me poorly adjusted to the facts of life. If I'm right in thinking that this sort of thing would never be allowed in a children's film today, perhaps that says a lot about the way we over-worry about media content sometimes.

Fish fish fish fish fish fish

For a while now I've been wanting to learn maths. Or rather, I want to learn to think mathematically. I did fine in maths at school but I find that I just cannot think mathematically. I can just about apply the mathematical techniques I was taught at school as long as I have a pen and paper handy, but I'm forgetting a lot of those techniques, and I am therefore becoming increasingly numerically challenged as time wears on.

I felt particularly inspired to learn how to think mathematically after reading A Mathematician's Lament, in which a mathematician by the name of Paul Lockheart argues that teaching children mathematical methods before allowing them to develop mathematical proofs is like teaching children about the names of colours before letting them paint with them. The reason why many people leave school with few numeracy skills even though they may have passed their exams is that we are not being trained in how to think mathematically. We don't have any relationship with numbers and shapes or any desire to puzzle over them.

So I'm incredibly relieved that someone seems to be setting up a blog with the New York Times teaching maths to adults from pre-school level up. "It’s not intended to be remedial. The goal is to give you a better feeling for what math is all about and why it’s so enthralling to those who get it."

The only problem might be, as my physicist boyfriend points out, that maths need to be taught with riddles. You can't just write about it in a blog and thereby give people a new understanding of mathematical thinking. You have to challenge them to create mathematical proofs for themselves.