Archive for May 2007
I’ve just deleted my account at Twitter, and intend to cut my participation on forums down, even further than I already have. I left The National Midday Sun (TNMS) last year, and the MythBusters fan forum a few months go – two forums that sucked up epic spans of time, but provided little real reward, only an illusory aura of “participation”.
Reboot 9.0 is kicking off, in Copenhagen, tonight: a year ago I was at Reboot 8.0, wondering if I could get a handle on all this Web 2.0 stuff. I came away with an overriding impression, backed up by explicit statements from other bloggers, that Web 2.0 is all about creating more intrusive links between a person and the Internet. This is a double-edged sword, in my opinion.
The first edge is the drive for “personalization”; they will help you get what you want, in the way that you want, so you can make better use of your time and attention. The same information, about your interests and plans, can be used to customise advertising directed at you – something that, it is hoped, advertisers will happily pay more for. It’s an illustration of a universal truth behind any new non-scientific endeavour: follow the money.
The second edge is the drive to put oneself out there, to create the “brand of me”. If you search the Internet for “brand of me”, you can find many examples of how to do this well, but you’ll also note that the practitioners of this are those with something to sell. The most vocal proponent of this approach, that I know of, is Sally Hogshead, blogger and author of Radical Careering, a book which appears to be about careers in general, but seems to me to be focused on “public-facing sales” careers, such as marketing and advertising.
To hear these “brand of me” proponents speak, you would think that everyone needs to be a marketeer, because everyone has something to sell: yourself. This reminds me of something I heard an employer say: “everyone is a salesperson”. (That one got a good laugh at the time.)
I understand there are occasions when such measures are necessary – when looking for a job, for example – but once you are done with that, why keep selling yourself? The stock answer that I’ve heard goes something like “you never stop looking for new work and new challenges, and you need to push your brand message at every possible opportunity”.
This, allegedly, is the way of the future. To reach out to anyone in this attention-starved, noise-saturated world, to survive in a hyper-economy, you need to be faster, louder, and more aggressive, in your drive to make your name known and sell your services. To effectively reap the benefits of personalization, or effectively market yourself, you sacrifice privacy and anonymity, because everyone can see you.
If I look at the steps I have already taken without close examination, and those I plan to take in the next few months, I realise that I have already decided how much personalization I want, and how important the “brand of me” is.
I’m not “dropping off” the Internet. but I am giving up any illusions I may have had about active participation in the “web 2.0 revolution”. My plans are moving from the virtual world back in to the real world. More details will follow in the next few months; not that anyone will notice, since I have not effectively marketed myself or this site. Never mind Second Life; I have a First Life to live. 8)
The screening process, for the FTY720 (fingolimod) drug trial I’ve applied for, has started. It’s not off to a good start: after being told that I had to take a whole day off work, then arranging a day off work, I went in to the Neurology department at St. Vincent’s University Hospital the day before to sign the papers and have a last chat with The Professor. The schedule for the next day, last Thursday? A MRI scan, a chest CT scan, and… that was it. The whole day off is going to come later, with another half-day of eye scans before that, and it might not be a whole day after all. Business as usual in Ireland, then.
It was the first time I’d ever had a CT (CAT) scan), or even seen a modern machine, and it was as quick, painless and cheerful a procedure as one could wish for. The machine itself wasn’t even the “tunnel” I’d seen pictures of, but more of a “ring”, like something out of 50s science fiction. Three minutes and a massive dose of X-Rays later, I was done, without even taking my shoes off.
That was a relief after the MRI, a procedure I’ve undergone twice before, and hardly enjoyed either time. It’s not painful, at least not directly, but halfway through I was brought out for an injection of gadolinium, which enhances the contrast. They were comparing scans from before and after the injection, so I was implored to keep my head still, in an uncomfortable position, for over half an hour in total, including the part where I was injected with a heavy metal.
My head was locked in place anyway, with pads at the sides ensuring that the earplugs did not fit snugly. There is no movement visible from inside the machine’s claustrophobic confines, but I was left under no illusion that huge superconducting magnets were flying around, inches from my nose, with enough liquid helium to turn me into a meat popsicle in seconds. The noise… it was as if HAL9000, Metallica and the Aphex Twin had co-designed a nuclear-powered washing machine that went up to 11.
Did I complain? Well, I am British, and it’s not as if my situation was worse than that of anyone else who needs to lie in a powerful magnetic field and have their protons resonated by a powerful radio transmitter. Never mind that I’ll be back in there every six months for the next two years, at least, and I suspect radiologists might have long memories. Zap.
I’ve heard it said that King Crimson, the band, is “a way of doing things”. I agree, but I would also apply that description to Rush, who have just released Snakes & Arrows. Far Cry is the first single:
Rather than tell you what the overarching theme is – which is not that simple to define – I’ll use the song Armor and Sword to illustrate the way a few well-chosen lyrics open up a world of concepts that lend depth to an album.
The first line also gave the album its name:
The snakes and arrows a child is heir to
Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
According to lyricist Neil Peart, the term “snakes and arrows” was originally a pun on the kids’ game “snakes and ladders”, and part of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? — To die, to sleep, —
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.
This passage has Hamlet questioning his own will to live; is life worth the pain? As used in the song, the “thousand natural shocks” becomes an unnatural “death by a thousand cuts”: the slowest and most painful form of death possible, it has also become a metaphor for the slow degradation or destruction of something held dear against one’s will. By way of contrast, the soliloquy came early in Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Hamlet thought himself in control of his destiny, and “to be or not to be” was a question he could honestly answer.
In the game of Snakes & Ladders (US: Chutes & Ladders), the tumbling of a dice marks your progress up the board, from the bottom to the top, step by step. Your luck can land you on a ladder, sending you upwards quickly, or on a snake, on which you slide downwards. In the worst case, a snake can send you “back to square one”, literally. The lucky player makes it to the top first, winning the game against the rivals.
Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight
In the Old Testament myth, a snake was the reason Adam & Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, and (if you believe the Bible), our existence since that point has been a fight to re-enter that Heaven. It pays to be a “straight Arrow”, but the Snake is still with us, in the form of Sin, laying traps of Temptation to be resisted. In the Snakes & Ladders game, however, your progress is random, determined by the dice, so is there any meaning to be found in the fight to the top?
This is where luck adds an extra layer of meaning: in his album essay, The Game of Snakes & Arrows, Neil explains what happened next. When “Snakes & Arrows” was suggested as a possible album title, Neil went online to check if anyone else had used it, and found that there was once an Indian board game called “Snakes & Arrows”, the ancestor of “Snakes & Ladders” that was adapted by the British from the original.
Also known as Lila or Leela, meaning “play”, it’s a game based on a Hindu concept: the idea that life is a game, and the Universe is a playground for the gods; a puppet theatre in which spontaneous plays are improvised. All this is dharma, the will of the gods, with the random dice the sole deciding factor; I looked for any reference to karma, the idea that a person’s actions can influence their progress up the board, towards their particular heaven, but I found none.
So, if “no one gets to their heaven without a fight”, what are they fighting for? The lesson to be learned from Leela is that Life is a cosmic game, to be enjoyed for as long as it lasts.
The gods are just having fun; why should a human life be any different?
Snakes & Arrows, in its lyrics, casts a soft, sympathetic, yet unrelenting light on the difficulties people create for themselves, in their beliefs and the wars they get into over them. Yet, what we face is not a game; religious fanaticism in all its forms is subjecting our world to “death by a thousand cuts”, the “snakes” are the sins we burden our children with, and the “arrows” are the dangerous ideas we cultivate in them. As children grow into adults, the intellectual weapons can become real weapons, if we cultivate irrationality in them. Is this what we want?
It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
This is not a conventional review, but Snakes & Arrows is not a conventional album. The musicianship is excellent throughout, with Geddy Lee in particularly fine voice and his basswork is as complex as it needs to be, and no more. Neil Peart’s playing is less flashy, more rounded but still precise; Alex Lifeson stretches his playing in to new territories, with the instrumental Hope showing him to be a master of the acoustic 12-string too. There is no shortage of great musicianship in the world today – enough to make me pessimistic about my own work – so I look to bands like Rush for much more than that.
Neil once wrote “the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”, and I agree: hidden depths are revealed in works of art that require the audience to think for themselves; even popular works, such as Star Wars , Desparate Housewives, or the Harry Potter books, benefit from time to dig in and send out shoots in unexpected directions.
I defy any reviewer to fully digest a Rush album in a single listening; if they write their review too soon, it shows in its superficiality. There’s far more to be found in Snakes & Arrows, if you’re prepared to look below the surface gloss.