WTF is wrong with people these days?

What's wrong with people these days?Into everyone’s life comes the realization that we are not young and in between the time when we were, the world has changed. Not always for the better, either. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude the whole world has gone to shit since the internet arrived.

Aging is not something that, as a culture, we embrace. After all, who wants to be old? Being a senior today is way too often portrayed in the media as being vulnerable, out of touch and cranky, as if we emerged from the chrysalis of middle age into a hunched curmudgeon shuffling along with a walker, incontinence and a squint, grouching about how we miss rotary dial phones.

No, mostly we’re too busy to notice that it’s been a gradual but inexorable slide. We have jobs, hobbies, entertainment, pets, families, and even ukuleles to keep us from noticing the daily drift. We’re forever young as long as we don’t look inward. Then suddenly we look up and WTF? How did things get this way? How did I get this way? It’s like waking up with a start when you hear a door slam in the night.

I was a skeptic from an early age, but of late it seems I shake my head at human follies more often than I nod in appreciation of our accomplishments. But we all have more and more reason to be angry and astounded at human stupidity. Just spend an hour on social media or watching YouTube videos and you’ll be saying “You gotta be kidding!” so often that your Google Home device will start telling you to shut the fork up.

For me – and maybe for many of my readers – when I read headlines and news stories these days, or watch YouTube videos like those above, they are often followed in my head with a simple question: “What’s wrong with people these days?” And it’s not a once-and-a-while thing. It’s several times a day. I mean, just look at these recent stories and headlines and try not to ask yourself that question:

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The slow death of reading

To me, one of the most depressing stories to come out of 2018 was posted in The Guardian, last August. Its headline read, “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound.” Its subhead reads, “When the reading brain skims texts, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings or to perceive beauty. We need a new literacy for the digital age.”

As an avid reader who has a dozen books or so on the go at any time, this is a troubling trend that bodes ill for our collective future and our collective intelligence. We are headed towards a very disparate society of readers and non-readers, literates and non-literates – rather like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi.* The author writes,

Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

The author of the piece, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, wrote a similar article in The Guardian in 2011 that was titled, “Will the speed of online reading deplete our analytic thought?” Given the rising gullibility of people for codswallop and pseudoscience like the anti-vaxxers, gluten-free fads, astrology, homeopathy, flat earth, creationism and Donald Trump, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes!” A lot of online comment (hardly anything that can be called debate) over major issues is reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and ideological platitudes. I blame it on the reduction of deep reading: too many people don’t take time to read and analyze – i.e. to think.

When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.**

One of the most important concepts presented in the first piece is:

My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

In other words, the less we read, the dumber we get. All part of the Great Dumbing Down that the internet and social media in particular have accelerated (it really began with TV replacing print media, but that’s another story). This is echoed in part by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield who said in an interview in the New Scientist that our very brain structures are changing through online activity. And not in a good way.

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Storytelling cubes

You don’t expect Wal Mart to be the source for literary tools, but if you amble into the section crammed with toys, you can pick up a set of Rory’s Story Cubes for just $10 (the base set). Now, I realize these are meant as a creative game for children and/or families (marked ages 8+), but they are actually an ingenious little tool for plot development and ideas in storytelling. And for some exercises in creative thinking.

Wait, you say: they’re just dice with pictures. Can pictures alone make a story? Well, yes: just look at Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: from point to point (I mentioned this in an earlier post) – composed “…entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood.” And on Indigo’s site as, “A book without words, recounting a day in the life of an office worker, told completely in the symbols, icons, and logos of modern life.”

No words at all. But Xu’s book is not so much a story as a rather detailled diary of a day in one person’s life. Get up, dress, go to work, have coffee… it’s not the stuff of high drama. It’s rather mundane once you figure it out.

And reading it is as much an exercise in puzzle solving as anything else. With each line parsed, you translate each symbol into a reasonable syntax and grammar so it makes verbal sense. Sometimes you have to ‘rewrite’ it in your head to make it scan properly in something that approximates English (or whatever your native language is, because one of the points he makes with this book is that the chosen symbols are ‘universal’). In fact, while there is a clear narrative, it’s not that hard to revision it by giving alternate meaning to some of the symbols. There’s a companion volume I recommend you also get if the original intrigues you.

But his point is that we can communicate with something other than words or writing. I agree, albeit not as well or as richly as we can with words.

Anyway, I bought a set of Story Cubes for my grandkids, and snuck one into the cart for myself. Only this month, on a trip to Toronto, did I get a set of the company’s “action” cubes and finally get around to tinkering with them (in part because I started re-examining William Cook’s bizarre, intriguing book, Plotto) and the nature of procedurally-created narrative (here’s an excellent piece about that, by the way…)

First a brief description of the base set: nine six-sided dice, each with a simple, different image engraved on each side (a total of 54 images – you can see them all on Pinterest). There are instructions for three types of games: one person to make up a ‘once upon a time’ story from the results of rolling all nine dice; one person to make up a theme-based story from the dice and one in which multiple players contribute to a collective story.

The packaging copy promises more than ten million combinations, based on the simple calculation of 6^9. That seems a bit over-stated, but perhaps that suggests combinations from the dice being laid out in any order, not simply based on the order of throwing.*

The images on the faces are fairly obvious, but a few might cause some confusion depending on your cultural experiences. The letter “L” inside a box is the British symbol for Learner (as in learning to drive – the company is from England). There’s a scarab beetle, an abacus and what seems a compass rose of sorts (see it in the picture of the package, above). Then there’s that slightly creepy shadow monster (in the topmost picture, far right bottom) and something that may be a demon or dragon (see left image).

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Book collecting: snobbery or reading passion?

The Bibliophiles, 1879, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda, Private Collection. Photo by Christie's/Bridgeman Images
The book has always been a sign of status and refinement; a declaration of self-worth – even for those who hate to read. That’s the lead into a recent piece on Aeon Magazine about book collecting and collectors. It’s also about reading and the snobbery of readers. Fascinating piece.

For me, anyway. Pretty much everything about books and reading fascinates me, from the art to the industry to the neuroscience. I am and always have been a book buyer, proudly taking my place among those “Bookish Fools” referenced in the article’s title. But perhaps from a different part of the podium.

I spent an hour with a painter this week discussing getting a portion of our house repainted. Part of that work involves us moving a lot of books into other rooms. A lot. Many hundreds. Maybe even thousands. Plus the bookshelves. Six large and two small bookcases in the upper hallway alone. And where to put them? One upstairs room is already lined with bookcases and the other rooms have their own, too.

It served to reinforce just how many books we have to think of the time required to unshelve then re-shelve them (in some sort of reasonable order). Many days.

I got two books in the mail yesterday and this morning I ordered another online. Others are somewhere in between, on their way via the post office. I get larger shipments – boxes – from booksellers once or twice a month, plus individual titles. I haunt the local used book stores for more. I still have battered paperbacks I picked up in the 1960s, but most of my personal library is far more recent. That’s because I am mostly a reader. Compulsively, even obsessively, perhaps. But not a fetishist collector as the article describes.

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Revised Chord Wheel

Revised chord wheelI have revised my transposing chord wheel/circle of fifths tool this week. It is now a three-ring version for use by all musicians (ukulele players who want to learn music theory or work on arranging songs especially). You can click on the image on the right to download the PDF.

The outer ring shows the Roman numerals for the key. This lets you see the chords by number – uppercase is major; lowercase is minor. Turn this wheel to the I identifier (capital “i”) above the key on the middle ring. The names in dark blue are some of the chord forms you can use in that position (i.e. I: major, major seventh, ii: minor).

The two inner wheels show the circle of fifths, with notes for the major triads for each key in green, with the relative minors named in blue. Fifths move clockwise; fourths counterclockwise. The middle ring also shows the number of flats (b) and sharps (#) in a key signature.

The inner ring is used for the key a song is in. Turn the key so that letter points to the letter of the key you want to transpose into. The chords shown on the middle ring relate to the new key.

For example, if your song is C-Am-F-G and you want to play it in F, turn the inner ring so C aligns with F on the middle ring. A on the inner ring will align with D (which means Dm since the original was Am), F with Bb and G with C. So the new chords will be F-Dm-Bb-C. And in G it would be G-Em-C-D.

Print the pages, laminate those with the wheels, then cut them out, punch holes in the centres, and push a brass paper fastener through all three. Instructions are more fully described on page four. Page five is a larger version if you want something with bigger type. Print three copies of that page.

Please contact me if you find any mistakes on the wheels. For my chord construction tool (another free download), see this post.

Ukulele Workshop Today

Manitoba HalI just returned from Orangeville where Broadway Music hosted a two-and-a-half hour musical workshop this Saturday by Manitoba Hal today (which will be followed by his concert tonight from 8-11 p.m. – try to attend, if you can: he’s very talented).

Very informative and well worth attending. Interestingly, at least half the participants were my age, and I didn’t see anyone in the classroom under 40. Perhaps you have to be mature in order to really appreciate music this way, not simply as the soundtrack in the background.

Hal spoke to the group about a basic approach to understanding music theory – chords, chord construction, scales and the all-important Circle of Fifths. He also spoke about how to put it all together to both make music and to figure out song arrangements for yourself (something dear to my own heart as I struggle to arrange songs for our local group).

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