Monday, March 10, 2014

Cosmic Exhilaration and Anxiety

I don't remember a lot from my childhood. Perhaps not a lot has happened then or maybe I choose not to remember. Many of us don't have full recollections, only memories of memories; it is how the mind forms and matures. One of the few memories in sight and sound I do retain is of Carl Sagan on his "Ship of the Imagination" exploring a starry space to the sounds of the opening theme of Cosmos. I did not understand much, perhaps nothing at all, but I do remember a sense of wonder, sincerity and a subtle urgent importance.

Years later, I have re-watched, or perhaps watched for the first time, the entire series, this time as an adult. Watching it has touched me deeply, perhaps especially with the half buried memories of it and with understanding and a framing of many contexts I could not do earlier (it is, after all, dubbed "A Personal Voyage"). Each time I play the opening theme in my mind I can still sense that feeling of wonder that was there, a special kind of innocence I strove to preserve, not always successfully.

I have been in the US these past few weeks as part of an assignment from work and so was fortunate enough to watch live the newly made Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It will take decades to see how the present series affects the children and teenagers growing with it today. The times and the generations have changed, and I cannot say if the medium and the way the message was chosen to be delivered are the best for the current audience (I'll need to ask my nephews). But as part of the 'older' generation, who can't really avoid the comparison (the first episode in particular, it seemed, carries with in it more than a subtle homage for Sagan and the original series) I think it was very well done and look forward for the next episodes. Tyson is perfect for the job and I think Sagan would have been proud.

Funny enough though, as eagerly as I was waiting for Cosmos to air throughout the trip, my day started in church. I am not a christian or any sort of theist for that matter, though, again, my childhood had some affect on me in this matter. Still, I have a strange fascination with churches. Whenever I'm abroad I dedicate a few minutes to sit quietly in a church or a cathedral (New York's St. Patrick's is a favorite of mine), watch the people around and try to absorb the atmosphere. Today (Sunday) I decided to attend an actual service so I put on my least travel weary clothes (one dresses up for Sunday, or so I heard) and went to a church in Brooklyn. I wanted a taste of an actual gospel immersed service, passionate choir, heated sermon and a devout congregation as I imagined it.

And this is also what I had received: friendly, open and welcoming people, thundering music (yes, a joyous noise), a not too long a sermon that was not illogical (for the most part) and a unique experience to take with me and reflect upon. Oh, and also a two hour long panic attack; being in a large hall surrounded by hundreds of people is not easy for an agoraphobic. Yes, I have anxiety (and related depression) issues.

What brought that up, though, is the Scott Stossel article from The Atlantic, that I only fully read today. It is indeed long, but it is also something I could have almost as easily have written myself, with the exception of a few points:
1. I have not been formally diagnosed or treated.
2. I have not taken any medications to deal with it.
3. I don't drink, so that can't numb me.
4. I never met the Kennedys.

How does it all come together? Stossel concludes his story and say that maybe anxiety also has its positive sides, that without it he would have been a different person with a different life. Personally, I think the 'tortured artist' image is far more romanticized than it ought to be, and that there are moments I would do quite a lot to be just a normal, anxiety free (or reduced) kind of a guy. Would I be different? Yes, but isn't that also kind of the point? To try to make yourself better? More free?

As I'm writing this I can still hear the echoes of that opening theme of the original Cosmos. I am tired, tomorrow is my last day in New York, and I already feel the sleep deprivation caused headache. But I am also reassured that I am still on that personal voyage, that I know what I am not (a theist, among other things) though I can appreciate what comes with it and its costs; and that I am still anxious for the road ahead.

I highly recommend the original Cosmos (available on DVDs and probably unofficialy on YouTube)

And the new series (It is Past time to get going again)

And some good old gospel/soul music: Mahalia Jackson - Trouble of the World

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Boltzmann Brain walks into a bar

Have you ever pondered what it would feel like to fall into a black hole? Or wondered, as you observe a black cat turn the same corner twice, whether reality is really all it's cracked up to be? If consciousness involves such high innate latency (around 100ms), how do musicians play so perfectly, without a seeming conscious effort? How much can we really know about the world and ourselves and how much do we have to assume in order to begin to contemplate answering these questions?

An observable Cat {Wikipedia}

These and other questions were discussed at this year's FQXi (The Foundational Questions Institute) conference on the physic of information, held at the impossibly distracting Vieques Island (Puerto Rico). As a layman who's been exposed to a few snippets of it, I can regrettably say I understand very little of what was discussed. Quantum Physics, a known buzzword, now commonly weaved into the vocabulary of charlatans and quacks, is a mystery. As the great Richard Feynman put it, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't". And yet, it seems to be governing our existence in scales and ways we can barely imagine and produce ridiculously accurate test results.

The title of this post references an issue within physics about the possible emergence, through quantum fluctuations (in which particles seemingly spontaneously come in and out of existence), of something so complex as a brain, with its own unique thought patterns (see Wikipedia here and more advanced stuff here). This is similar, to some extant, to the idea of a room full of monkeys that randomly type the entirety of Hamlet. While extremely unlikely, it's not impossible that over a great length of time (longer than the average queue at the local post office, some say), such an endeavor can be completed. In this year's conference, however, it's been suggested that the underlying physics may not be so supportive of the emanation of floating disembodied brains in the vastness of space after all.

Whether we are brains-in-a-vat, souls trapped inside a frail body, a part of the greater consciousness of the universe or simply our bodies, we need to make sure to include in our basic assumptions, other than that that we can make sense of the world, that we want to. As we live and die we affect one another in more than the observable way. But sometimes, it seems, it would be easier to understand quantum physics than to understand your next door neighbor.

On the music front, and not completely unrelated, I've been listening to quite a bit of Johnny Flynn, whom I mentioned before. Flynn is about to start a big tour encompassing the US, Canada and Europe in support of his latest album, Country Mile (recommended).

Johnny Flynn - Einstein's Idea {from Country Mile}

Johnny Flynn - The Ghost of O'Donahue (Live)

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Find Your Spot

This was a hell of a year for me. As in hellish, really bad. As the years progress you are expected to be wiser and more experienced. What is the nature of this mystic wisdom that is supposed to accumulate as time passes you by? I'm not sure.

They say that the basis of wisdom is "I do not know" or at least the recognition of that fact. If that is true, then I am wise indeed. I have re-learnt several important lessons this year (that I will probably revisit next year as well thanks to my amazing memory). One of them is the importance of context, how lack of information or the reliance on false and misleading presumptions can lead to cognitive and emotional errors and mishaps. The view of the world and its people is always partial and to judge according to this partial knowledge is to inevitably err. And yet, additional data will never be quite enough for a full and comprehensive picture. It is always limited to and based on your own flawed perspective.

What do I do then? If gathering additional data alone can't help, what will?
Patience. Empathy. Imagination. Compassion. Constant learning and developing. Interaction. Challenge. Being aware of the tendency to judge and jump into conclusions and instead trying to be open minded and perceptive.

The coming year will bring many changes and challenges: a new flat, possibly a new job, a possible trip abroad with its own opportunities, maybe even a new iOS (yeah, haven't upgraded yet). Looking back, I think I've acquired some important tools of thinking and skepticism this year, and I hope to put them to good use.

I can't say I'm optimistic. I know where I live and what some of my limitations are. But in the end, my life is my own (another important lesson I've failed to internalize). It is for me to choose how to use it.

It is past time I do.


I was going to write something a little different about music in this post, before I got carried away with the pseudo resolutions. I was listening to a recording of a concert by Nils Frahm on Youtube the other day. I got to it by the seeming randomness of life - one of Youtube's suggestions based on my previous listens.

The concert is made of several pieces and it was only in the second or so pieces that I got hooked or turned on. Frahm, it seemed to me, plays the piano with a sort of a strike, almost a hammering (though it's quite possibly the poor audio I had). It was an interesting technique, but somehow by that particular piece it had changed. I felt oddly connected, like I knew what he was trying to say and how. The technique seemed to flow and it wasn't hammering at all; it was a mode of music and feeling.

Today I listened to the same concert again and I wasn't able to pinpoint exactly where and when I got hooked. I still felt the music and enjoyed it, but the experience was different.

So what is it that gets us hooked on some of the times and not the others? The way we listen, open ourselves to it? The environment and technical parameters? Our state of mind? Is this the upside of jumping to conclusions that might have ended quite differently had I gave my first listen today instead of that other day? Will I now on future listens always look for that point in the track when I thought and felt "yes, this is it" (and thus ignore, to some degree, the present)?

What are we shutting our eyes to when we're looking for that one thing?

Take a listen. See if you can find that spot that works for you.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

Nils Frahm - Live @La Route du Rock 2011

Nils Frahm's web page and twitter.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Also, there were aliens.

Do you know how it's like when it's 02:30 am, you're waking up from another dream where you were going to die horribly and the house is almost too quiet for comfort? And then, just as you think it's safe to go back and fight your way back into sleep, there's that creaking on the roof that kinda sounds like human steps except the weight distribution is a little off? Or the feeling you get when you close the window that maybe there's someone on the outside looking in?

Oh, it's just me then.

The universe is stranger than we give it credit though. Even the slim parts we can explain with science (some would say especially those parts). The trick may be to keep calm and nod at the nice monster under the bed. Maybe it was you who have disturbed her dreams?

You can also use a soundtrack that is written with these unmentionable occurrences in mind. Take a listen to Blitz//Berlin (formerly Theset), a Canadian quartet of supposed human beings, making soundtracks, for movies and those deeply disturbing moments at night, inspired and laced with punk and hip-hop.

Pleasant dreams.

Blitz//Berlin - Drink {MP3}
Blitz//Berlin - Outside {MP3}

Blitz//Berlin is on Facebook & Twitter.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

And It's Alright

My chest hurts. It's probably nothing. Stress. Anxiety. There is much to be anxious about these days.
I try my usual tricks to help me relax, to calm down just a little.

I venture into the imaginary world that I pay a monthly upkeep to access, but I can't find myself there anymore. There are echoes, traces of who I once was, but I'm not there anymore.

I try to write, to create a world of my own. There is so much to tell and paint, so few words. I write a paragraph, then stop. Try another, then pause and stare at the waiting cursor. I know the story but I don't know how to reach it. I am lost to it. Without me it cannot be told, and I am silent.

I turn to look for friends, companions, acquaintances, but I cannot reach them. I am lost.

I try to look inside myself, but there is nothing. Only emptiness, a riddled past, an ever stretching present and a cloudy future. I try to break away from the selfish pain and the gnawing anxiety but it's as though I am trying to leave this body behind. They are too much a part of me by now.

Finally, I turn to music. It has always been there for me. I can still hear it, still listen, though my attention span is declining in favor of the pain and dread in my rib cage. And I am so tired.

But it still works, it's still a lifeline out of this place and, for a short time, out of this existence.

I listen and remember I am still alive, I still hunger, I still dream.

I know it's not going to be alright, but for a few minutes I can believe.

"And It's Alright" by Peter Broderick (from Home)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

How I came to love Amanda Palmer

I admit, I still don't know her well. I'm familiar with some of her Dresden Dolls material and some of her more recent work. I was deterred by her looks and her voice, the musical style didn't speak to me; I didn't connect. In a way, I didn't believe, I thought it was all show.
When I heard she was dating and later married Neil Gaiman, I thought she was the lucky one, that he was Her catch.

But I was so wrong. All I had to do was listen, read her words and look into her eyes and heart. She's been working tirelessly for her music, her art, her fans and her loved ones. She is fighting, in ever original and inspiring ways, against bullying and for a greater understanding and harmony between people. And when you feel her passion you know she'll get there, she'll reach every lonely despondent youth, every couple who's forgotten their initial spark.

She once met a random teenager and encouraged him to write beautiful music. She cancelled a tour to be with an ailing friend. She is revolutionizing crowd funding and contact with fans as any indie - true indie - artist can, promoting the slogan 'We are the media'.

And she means it.

She is not perfect. I don't like all her songs. There is something about her that is disquieting. But I cannot help but love her. She's not perfect-  she's human and true and I can feel her message and know that I'm not alone in my pain, that there is a kinship shared by everyone. That, perhaps, there is still hope.

P.S. - Neil is the lucky one.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - The Bed Song
Amanda Palmer's website and twitter.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"... But one day I'll be free"

It's true I am out of touch. In part, I wish to escape the dreary reality I was born into and be elsewhere, anywhere, but in the here and now. Music used to allow me such a method of traveling without moving (too much - even this poor body can attempt his own version of a dance on occasion). But I seemed to have hardened my skin in the past few years, raising new barriers to keep the world out and looking deeper within. So it now takes a more conscious effort to open up and listen, and consequently, to feel. But I can't hide anymore. And though the pain is ever present, it may have some positive uses to it yet.

But I will take things in measure. Life, and the people we meet, need to be appreciated. Every person has a story to tell, a unique voice, a point of view. The world is full of wonder and terror and we know nothing except this very moment. We may be wrong, we may be right, but that in itself doesn't matter as much as the respect and love we give our fellow travelers. And if that sounds like a load of new age BS, well, maybe it is. Meaning, as pretty much everything, is in the eye of the beholder.

Marika Hackman (taken from a Bristol Couch session)

Marika Hackman is a beautiful British artist I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a few days ago. As always, the music speaks for itself, and it carries that slightly haunting-mysterious air about it that I find so intriguing and appealing. It evokes that feeling of distant memories and dreams long gone, of scenes and experiences you're not sure were ever real, but are true just the same. Recording these clips in a dark tunnel adds its share as well.

Marika Hackman - Bath is Black {from the upcoming That Iron Taste mini album}

Marika Hackman - Mountain Spines {from the upcoming That Iron Taste mini album}

Check Marika Hackman on tour and on her website:

Marika Hackman w/ Ethan Johns UK Dates 

1st Feb – Brighton – Unitarian Church
2nd Feb – Brighton – South Street Theatre
4th Feb – Bristol – Colston Hall 
2 5th Feb – Cardiff – The Gate Arts Centre
6th Feb – Exeter – Phoenix 
7th Feb – Nottingham – Glee Club Studio
9th Feb – Sheffield – The Lantern Theatre
10th Feb – Birmingham – Glee Club
11th Feb – Norwich – Arts Centre
13th Feb – Liverpool – The Capstone Theatre
14th Feb – Stockton – The Georgian Theatre
15th Feb – Kendal – Brewery Arts Centre
16th Feb – Edinburgh – The Pleasance Theatre
18th Feb – Manchester – Sacred Trinity
19th Feb – Leeds – Brudenell
25th Feb – London – Purcell Rooms 

Marika Hackman Headline UK Tour

28th Feb  – Brighton – Komedia
1st March – Bristol – Louisiana
2nd march – Manchester – The Castle
3rd March – Edinburgh – Electric Circus
4th March – Newcastle – Think Tank
                                           6th March – London – Sebright Arms

Be sure to also check out Bristol Couch on Youtube for some lovely outdoorsy folk clips, including one featuring Marika Hackman.