Does everything really happen for a reason?

Ok, what reason is this for?

Ok, what reason is this for?
(Image courtesy of Microsoft clipart)

Given a choice of several phrases that annoy me, pedantic person that I am when it gets down to un-thought-out phrases, this is one of the worst. When something bad happens to someone and they, or someone else attempts to justify it with the well trodden, often well intended, but actually somewhat meaningless phrase “well everything happens for a reason”, I almost want to punch them in the head. Does it really?

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10 things from a 100 years into the future

Yeah so anyway, I was noodling about in my time machine, kind of like a Dr Who in shorts and T-shirt, and without chasing monsters and what not, and I thought there must be a way to bring some of this to you, the people of 2012. Well yeah, and you know, I have the blog in this time period so I might as well use that. Now in order to give you some more context, because you likely won’t believe those opening sentences, lets say a few months ago on Facebook, or one of those social network things, I saw this meme taken from a newspaper article from a hundred years ago, and the interesting “predictions” that it got right. Kind of interesting, check it out. Maybe someone you know wrote it. So I figured it was time for an update. Here is ten things from a hundred years in the future:

Yup, that’s what it looks like.
(Image Source: Microsoft Clip art)

  1. The latest computers which will be called brain noodles, or likely won’t be, will be thousands of times more powerful than todays fitting into something you can barely see in the palm of your hand. In fact it will fit into your hand literally, or in your head, and you’ll communicate with brain waves. You’ll still have to download software updates often, and that will still give some people a headache.
  2. Having gone through a mammoth energy crisis due to the decline in oil, and not enough initial investment in new energy sources, most electricity will be self generated via home generation. Renewable energy units will be not too dissimilar from “Mr Fusion” in Back to the Future, and do clever things with waste disposal. The majority of the rest of the electricity e.g. street lighting, public transport will also be mostly from renewable resources. The amusing thing is that Diapers (nappies for the UK folks), currently an environmental hazard, will oddly generate the most energy. Especially those with a large present in them. Best feed up that child for more free energy.
  3. Cars will fly, sort of. No really they will, but they won’t be called cars. It will allow humans to get closer to the atmosphere to drop ozone destroying gasses there. Sort of. Except they won’t run on Gas (Petrol for the UK folks). It will be something else which I don’t want to name for fear of giving the game away. These vehicles will be more fuel efficient, getting a whole 19.578% miles per gallon more than the average car of now.
  4. Toilet trained cats. No more emptying the cat crapper. If you thought number one on this list sounded impressive, wait until you get a load of how some genius decided he could take no more of his cat dumping a load and not covering it up with that smell stopping litter stuff, YOU HEAR THAT CAT? So he implanted one of those chips into his cat. It could go to the toilet on its own. And even flush the thing. And put on a new toilet roll. And close the bathroom door afterwards. Everyone wanted one, it was like the ipad of cats. You can get an in app purchase, where it will also put the toilet seat down.
  5. Diapers will bio-degrade with activation by chemicals in faeces or urine. This means you have to recycle them quickly, as in point number two above. Um, probably want to make sure that your child gets a regular change every few hours. Oh how we laughed after that long car journey. Well my wife didn’t, it was her turn to clear it up.
  6. Life expectancy will be over 100 with medical advances. Older people get even more patronising to us young folk.
  7. The world will be overpopulated. Well what do you think happens when life expectancy increases? Many people would have died some 30-40 years earlier due to a succession of natural disasters having taken place around the world, thanks in part to how we are happily ignorant to destroying the ozone layer, and generally warming up the world. This sounds contradictory, but the means of feeding people have decreased also, so it is a relative point, and a somewhat depressing one huh?
  8. Which actually means as a follow on from the previous point, that more foods and vegetables will be home grown due to the overpopulation of the world and the need to be able to sustain more of your own resources. You avoided the flooding, but how good is your high rise place now huh?
  9. But on a more positive note, for those survivors who can feed themselves, they can still use the internet version 8.9. Oh that’s not the point I meant. Technologies will allow your own body parts to be regrown via your own cells. You could grow a third leg if you want. Most people don’t do that as it doesn’t allow you to run any faster. And um, growing “the other” third leg is unpredictable, sometimes it is larger, but sometimes smaller.
  10. Music will make a big comeback in peoples lives as the quality will be so good, that the clarity of the instruments being heard give people “funny feelings”. The music of today will sound a bit rough round the edges in comparison. The “youth” will still be listening to “unlistenable nonsense”. The Rolling Stones will still be releasing records. Bob Dylan also, with “the basement tapes 72”.

So there you go. This will be like the a great mayan prophecy to some geek who finds it on the old version of the internet and posts it around on brain noodle book, for his friends to get thirty seconds of amusement out of. Attention spans of the future…. who has them? Anyhoo, I’ve got a robot to chase. Catch you laters…

Lexicon word of the day: gallimaufry.

Is writing without boundaries actually possible?

In the last month or so, I have read comments on a few different blogs pertaining to “writing without boundaries”, or “writing without limits”, which made me think at the time, that this wasn’t the case. I mean really, is writing without boundaries actually possible? What does it mean? Free your mind and be one with the world? There is another dimension? Or is it the case with us humans that we cannot escape some boundaries? For example, we know that wherever we come from, whatever cultural differences we have, one event we cannot escape and we will all experience. The ultimate boundary of death.

Now whether you do or do not believe in an afterlife is besides the point. We will all experience a full stop to this physical body currently inhabited whilst reading this. To add to that, unless you are on acid, you pretty much know where your body stops, and the rest of the world begins. These both apply to our physical being. But writing is an expunging of ideas, words, technique, form, from the mind, into a new form on the page (or screen). Do boundaries exist in the same way? Well much like a Presidential debate, let’s simplify some relatively complex ideas, and divide them into two opposing camps, whilst you the viewer (or reader in this case), sits and considers the possibilities before forgetting about it and heading off for a snack. In one corner we have the “Truly, writing without boundaries”, in the other, the “form or function brings you connection and understanding”. Two category names I just made up.

Let us first consider the possibility of “Truly, writing without boundaries”. To take a simplistic overview, this is simply about letting your mind open up, and see what comes out. Do not worry so much about what anyone thinks, or writing to an agenda. Just get going and see what your mind gives you. What will it cover? Will it be dark, or mystical? Will it be sexual, or perverse? Will it be something different to what you normally write? This last question is important, because writing without boundaries implies different from the norm. You may have been stuck writing 1st person fiction, then a revelation struck and you write 3rd person, in an entirely new (to you) genre.

So perhaps it refers to writing something different to what you normally do. Perhaps it means writing in a new way, pulling ideas you would not normally consider, or that you would, but using them in a different way. Perhaps you create a character, or a character and a scenario, and see where it takes you. In some respects this is comparable to writers who do little planning in terms of story structure. They just see where the story (or their mind), takes them. But do they always reach a destination? Well often yes, and often no. Even an open mind seems to have a closed section.

The alternative view is “form or function brings you connection and understanding”, i.e. no you cannot, boundaries always exist. I tend to subscribe more to this view myself. You see, there is something about language form, something about how for example, stories are structured, that gives it something. Primarily this is, that people can understand it. Our brains are quite structured, they like to process things in a structured manner. If we get something in a random fashion, it tends to slow us down, makes things harder to process or understand. I would relate this to psychedelic writings / songs. Whooooo, are they out there, you know, like way out there? Nope, mostly they are just crap. Most psychedelic stuff isn’t mind bending, it is just nonsense. It makes no sense. It is just meaningless drivel. Writing without boundaries is pretty much the same. There will always be some boundaries, be it in structure, or form, otherwise it brings next to no understanding.

Lets say you are writing a poem, and it covers some wild stuff, some deep seated desires, and some clever references. It may seem out there, especially if it is against your personality, or what you normally write, but it won’t relate to anyone unless you can give some frame of reference, or transition your ideas carefully. The best writing without boundaries is not actually without boundaries, but gives the impression that it is (so it may be cleverly hiding the form). For writing fiction, it is comparable to having an outline prior to writing. It helps to tell you if it works and whether it can be understood.

To conclude, I don’t think writing without boundaries is possible but it is relative to what you consider a boundary to be. If you have been writing under a strict structure, and suddenly you have more freedom to write with different language, or in different genres or contexts, then you may consider this to be a freeing up of boundaries. You may sit and write a poem, and let whatever pops into your mind land on the page. This too may be a freeing up of boundaries. But I would hazard a guess that underneath it, you keep some structure, so people can follow it and understand it. Boundaries, hmmm…

And with that said, all we need now is for some smart arse to wade in with “there are no boundaries other than those we create for ourselves”. To this I say, see above.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts on boundaries as it relates to your writing?

Lexicon word of the day: descry.

“The experiment” – The conclusion thus far

Ok, Ok, I think I found the conclusion down here somewhere…

A few weeks back I was having some fun with blog posts, and conducting a little experiment. In part 1, “The search phrase experiment and what makes a popular blog post“, I posted some musings on what makes a a popular blog post, based on my four or so months blogging. As also experienced by other bloggers, I had received some odd search engine search terms, which led to my site. I was interested in what phrases might prove popular in pulling in viewers, so I added some random popular search terms taken from the Google “hot trends“. I wanted to see if this boosted viewers in any way.

In part 2, I picked up on some points I had missed in the first post, then mused that using popular search terms might not be a benefit at all purely because there will be a lot of sites catering to the popular search phrases, and thus my site will rank low among them. So this time I posted on advertising, sex slang (via a quiz), typing search engine optimisation and looking at the related search terms, and highlighting the 15 most popular blog sites. Would any of these categories work?

So what did happen? Well first I would differentiate between the blogging community, or more specifically, the blogging community on WordPress, who have the reader, the “follow” and “like” functionality, and readers outside of WordPress. This is important, the wordpress community is different because:

  1. The community is likely finding my site via the wordpress search terms / reader, not a search engine, the obvious choice being Google.
  2. Or because I commented on another blog that the person reads (or read), and they decided to look me up.
  3. Or they already follow me.

This is not the same as finding it via a search engine. You may have a blog site via blogger or bloodspot, or some other blogsite, but in those examples, you are out of the wordpress loop. You may just be web searching for something, and found my site, but you are still not in the wordpress loop. Within the wordpress loop, the posts proved relatively popular, given that it was June / July and audiences are down a bit anyway. They drew in a reasonable amount of comments and likes. People are interested, because they too are bloggers and wondered, did the experiment therefore have any effect. Or they wished to make comment on my ideas about what makes a popular post, which looking back, were also largely for readers within the wordpress loop.

So on the one hand the posts did ok, and even gained me a few new followers. The search engine side however… I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I shouldn’t be because it is a result in itself, but there was nothing. That’s right, it added nothing of any significance at all. No bump in viewing stats even on the posting days. In the last 30 days, my top five most popular search engine terms were:

  1. Word association list – I have no idea why that suddenly became the most popular one recently, but it did, linking to some old writing exercise post.
  2. my big fat gypsy wedding – from my old tv vegetable posts, one presumes.
  3. the wire drama – From an alternative take post.
  4. reasons for writing – Nothing springs to mind here ?
  5. rolling stone 500 greatest albums – this one has been consistent on the search stats since I posted on it.

In fact I got more searches via the phrase “VW classic beetle” matching to a “100 word fiction” post from a few weeks ago. I did wonder why this might be, why it seemed to have next to no impact at all. Then someone pointed out to me that the posts having so many links and terms of different types, might register like spam pages, and not rank high in searches. Is that true? I do not know. It sounds feasible. I know Google does a lot of categorisation based on the amount of links which link from somewhere else to your page. But they also have some spam detection which works hand in hand with the page ranking. In that sense I could have created some spam posts.

One other related point, I seem to have a decent number of referrals from “StumbleUpon“. I had no idea what this is until I noticed it in the stats and checked. That one needs more investigation

So to conclude for now, the posts proved relatively interesting to regular readers and one or two new ones, especially within the wordpress loop. Some of my ideas struck similar experiences to other bloggers. The experiment in putting together several different categories of “nonsense”, had no impact on viewers via search engines. This might have been because the pages were categorised as spam. This sounds feasible because none of the nonsense has pulled in even the odd search term viewer after a “something” I used. As a comparison just the words “Fiona Apple” from a list of music I need to catch up with pulled in some views via search engine. I definitely was not the only site with those words on it given she just had a new album out via a major label.

If I was to self publish a novel and needed the blog to partially promote it, some more lessons in website optimisation are required. Assuming I could be bothered to do it, which I probably would. Hmm… maybe the experiment shall continue.

Lexicon word of the day: nubbin.

At which point do I become a writer, an artist, or just myself?

Generic man struggling to put pen to paper – loser… put some personality into it man.

On a warm summers eve, I sat and I pondered. Up in the inter world were blogs of all types, subjects, kinds, looks and descriptions. Some short and sweet, some overwrought like that previous sentence. Some telling truths, some stealing, like the previous sentence, and some just outright lies. I am one of those bloggers. Myself I fancied the truths, at least that is what I tell myself.  If I could find the point where myself ended and the blog began then it would be true. It is a shifting boundary, but that blog is getting closer.

Somewhere in the truths is the conclusion to “the experiment one and two“. Currently it reads as still to write, and cannot be bothered with it right now. Other projects are of interest. Other posts are working their way to the front of my mind. And as the “100 word fiction” from my previous post demonstrates, that can be a strange place to be.

Since I took the decision at the beginnings of this year, to see if I could get back into writing, to see whether a writer would present himself, I have learnt a whole heap of lessons. Some worth a great deal, others sitting haphazardly a top of each other. For example, within the last few days I learnt a lesson or two from Gene Weingarten from just the introduction to his “twenty slices of life” book (my description not his) the fiddler in the subway, a book I featured in a recent poll when deciding what to read next. See, it all fits together somehow. I might just share that lesson someday, but I’ll say this for Gene, he sure can find his way to the heart of the matter, he sure can inject humour where necessary, and he sure can write. He gives hope that there are great writers out there, shows you that you still have a lot to learn, but demonstrates that with a bit of heart and hard work, it is possible.

Crawling out of the lessons pile, with the beaded sweat of struggle, is a recently returning friend called experience. Flying out of the blog starting blocks, and forcefully kicking a gargantuan pile of words until they landed in the seemingly arbitrary, but actually reasoned form of the daily post, I easily flew past the first 100 posts mark. The “writing itch” also reasoned a way out, but soon with a plan for larger hikes to conquer. I realised that as much as I loved the blog, it was becoming like one last topping at the frozen yoghurt store, and taking up far too much time. And I needed to diet. Or rather, I needed to change my diet to incorporate less dessert, and a bit more healthy main course. I was ready to commit more time to some other projects. Ideas were and have been landing like a man trapped in a bus station  waiting for the right bus to get on, only to see the right bus turn up and open it’s doors. I was ready to become a writer. Or a novel writer at least. It dawned on me, had I become a writer of sorts already?

So in pondering, and getting sidetracked with what a long ponder is, I wondered what a writer is. In the past I would have assumed it to be someone who has some written thing published. The dictionary on the Mac operating system defines it as:

“a person who has written something or who writes in a particular way; a person who writes books, stories, or articles as a job or occupation”.

But now you can self publish with books or blog posts. I’ve written some technical manuals for business (albeit published internally), and websites. I suppose I’ve written them in a particular way. I spend time daily writing. So does that mean I’m a writer?

I suspect yes, and this is where it differs from being an author. The Mac kindly defines that as:

“a writer of a book, article, or document; someone who writes books as a profession”.

To which I would simply define it as, “someone who writes and gets paid for the writing”. So I would guess with the careful reasoning of a 15 year old who just remembered he forgot to do his Maths homework, that I am a writer, but not an author. On an ironic technicality, the technical manual writings do not count as I was not paid specifically for them, they were just part of a wider project. Ok, there was maybe more reasoning than the 15 year old. Perhaps more akin to a small monkey deciding whether to eat a banana or an orange, on a hot summer evening. He had discounted eating his faeces earlier, but that was an entirely separate matter.

Much like transitioning via an entirely inappropriate metaphor and simile, to a further pondering. So when am I an artist? I would tend to think of an artist traditionally as a painter (not decorator), or sculptor (not plasterer or dry-waller), but more recently as a creator within an art discipline. But then arguably anyone who attempts something in an artistic discipline would be an artist, no? Is that allowed. Helpfully the Mac dictionary defines it thus:

“a) a person who creates paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby. b) a person who practises or performs any of the creative arts, such as a sculptor, film-maker, actor, or dancer. c) a person skilled at a particular task or occupation: a surgeon who is an artist with the scalpel”.

This definition does not state as such, but I would include writing as a creative art, but presumably on the grounds that you are shaping i.e. creating something new and not just copying, or putting some text into your own words without adding something of substance in some way. Which kind of means I’m adjusting the definition to suit my needs, much like a poker player might use cards to um, er, I don’t have a good metaphor there, so we shall move swiftly along.

I used to write stories when I was younger. I revisited some of those. They were of varying quality but the basis of several was sound, and something that could be revisited. Was that art? I don’t know. I’ve been creating poems, and short fiction on this blog (other projects aside), is that art? To an extent, I am going to say yes to both. Is it art of the highest order? Probably not, but I’ve seen how some paint has been spilt onto canvas and that called art, so I think I’m on pretty sturdy grounds. Or at least California grounds, earthquake country, so I suppose yes, it is all relative.

Somewhere amongst that, much like a dorito chip plunging into a dip whilst we wait for the bbq to heat up, is me. I’m there in various amounts, more often mild or medium heat, but I’m dipping in, double dipping, and scraping up the bowl. And trying other dips. There are several slices of me in the blog, and various degrees of naughtiness. I’ve had comments with other bloggers about disclaimers in posts, and the conclusion was that if one was necessary, that it should go at the end of a piece, leaving the reader free to read and form opinion without expecting “the controversial bit”. This is so your “art”, speech marks appearing necessary still, can breath and be as one, or some such existential nonsense. Or if nothing else, the reader can approach with limited expectations other than those you as the artist, have shaped. I often use one in the middle of my “Monday Haiku” posts but that is partially a running gag, and partially to distinguish two similar but separate sections. Obviously you are free to warn your readers any way you wish, but in my opinion, try to treat the readers with intelligence first, it is good for the art, and soothes your writing soul.

So at some point I think I became a writer, although I’m not sure exactly when. I have yet to become an author, because I feel a specific published piece (larger than a blog post) and available to the public, is a good thing to aim for. I am an artist of sorts, I think some of my fiction counts for that (most of which kind reader, you have not had the opportunity to read), if not one trying to improve and expand, like my waistline would be if I was locked in a sweet shop. And in doing all this, I think I am finding which bits are just me. Call it my voice, the soul of my writing, or something similar, but I’m definitely there. Somewhere. But still I have to question:

What do you consider to be a writer, an artist anywhere do you fit in?

Lexicon word of the day: artily.

What I miss from the UK and what I don’t

Click on the picture to learn more about “Take me back to dear old Blighty”

So, at the moment I’m still in the UK. It is lovely to see my family, but I am missing my wife and son, a lot. I managed my usual Monday Haiku post, which got a little neglected after I published an awards post a couple of hours later. Then I added a post on Tuesday which were some reflections on the recent travel and how routine some of it is. Keeping with that theme I noticed a couple of things that I miss from the UK, and some that I’m happy to miss:

Things I miss

  • Family and friends – Sure I could have moved to get away from them all. I didn’t and often I miss them. I wish we could see each other more often.
  • The Observer (Sunday Newspaper) – I know I can read some of this online, but it isn’t the same as crashing out on the chair working my way through it, usually starting with the sports section, then moving onto the review section. The last edition had an interview with Martin Amis which just felt different reading it in the printed edition. Plus you get Phillip French in film reviews, and numerous other fab columnists like Victoria Coren.
  • Free Health care – Regular readers will know I like an occasional moan at the US healthcare system. Old Blighty has the NHS. It is not perfect, but it pretty much does the job, and leaves you with no debt other than the exorbitant fees charged to park near the hospitals.
  • Decent holidays at work – My last job based in the UK gave me 24 days paid holiday, paid bank holidays, and a sort of flex time where you could work hours up for extra days off. The average holidays in the US is 10 paid days. Enough said.
  • Character of the place – At first thought when on the way back from the airport, I thought lots of the area, the buildings and such, looked a little tired and run down. But at the same time it gives it a lot of character. And of course, there is the history. The architecture is a lot more varied than Southern California. It seems to have a bit more personality inside it’s run down look.
  • Cheaper Supermarket food – Generally speaking, food in the supermarkets is cheaper than in Southern California. Likely because there is only a few big chains, and they like to enter price wars to draw in customers. A loaf of bread isn’t too much over £1, but closer to $4 (£2.60) in Southern California.
  • British Chocolate – In the grand scale of chocolate that exists in my head, Brit chocolate isn’t the best in the world, but the variety and quality of snack bars is much better than the US equivalent. You can get some of it over there, but massively marked up in price. My wife will complain that it is difficult to get a Crunchie bar there.
  • QI, BBC4, and 6music – In media terms, I miss Stephen Fry’s knowledge quiz QI, the seasons of interesting documentaries that BBC4 does, and the different DJs and good music played on 6music. Actually I can get 6music via the net, but I’ve not seen it time delayed so I can listen to the breakfast show in the morning, and not as I’m going to bed. Satellite radio is good in the US, e.g. Sirius XMU, but that also comes with a subscription fee.

Things I’m happy to miss

  • TV Specials 1 – “Gary Barlow: On her majesty’s service” – The advertisement for this which I saw several f**k**g times within the first hour or two of arriving, almost made me pull my ears off. Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber and been commissioned to write a song for the jubilee. That show was about the making of that song. Really? Who gives a f**k???
  • TV Specials 2 – The nations favourite Bee Gees song – Honestly, that was a real show on this past week. I don’t care how much you like the Bee Gees. Why should I care which song the nation thinks is the best one?
  • The Weather – Good old Blighty. I get here, it is almost like Winter. For the first time in months I needed a coat. I think the sun might have gone on its own summer holiday. Guess how long it took to rain? Actually it did good on that score, it was at least 8 hours.
  • Run down and over grown – As you can read above, that also adds some character. But not everywhere. With the UK economy also on leave for a few years, cutbacks have included areas owned by the local authorities getting attention a bit less often. I’m probably generalising here, it is not like that everywhere, and the miserable weather doesn’t help any.
  • Miserable people at shop counters – They tend to force them to smile less in the UK. Many in the UK would claim the US is kind of fake in this way, in that the people of the US are forced to smile, it is not always that they want to. I say to this, I don’t care how fake it is, or whether it is or not. People in the UK might have initial novelty value to visitors with their “honest approach”, but I’d rather see a smile in the shop and some polite attention, than some miserable sod, seeing the day out and waiting to go home.
  • Not enough HD TV, or EPL football – I know, I’m a HD snob now, living in the US. Also I got to see pretty much every Liverpool game on US tv, which I would not get in the UK. Spoilt I am in that regard.
  • English Soaps like Eastenders – I know my wife likes the novelty of Eastenders, when she is in the UK. I used to watch it a lot when I lived here, but managed to ween myself from it, some time before leaving. But now they’ve killed off Pat Butcher. How can I visit “the square” now Pat has gone? US readers, look her up on youtube.

PAAAaaaaat !!!!

So as a surprise to me, there aren’t that many things I’m happy to miss. On the other things, there are lots of things I like about the US as well and would miss if I moved back here. It may be that I’m generally a laid back, positive person, so I don’t get phased by much. The stuff I’m not keen on kind of passes me by. Still cannot help missing some things eh?

Lexicon word of the day: inestimable.