Scribbles On A Page

(Originally published 4th July, 2007)

The Written Word. Have you ever stopped to wonder about how what are essentially random squiggles on a page or a computer screen can suddenly take on so much meaning?

I’ve been guilty over the years of taking reading for granted. After all, I started reading when I was about four. Some of my earliest memories at school are of asking my teacher how to spell a particular dinosaur name and then looking at the word she gave me back and saying, “no, that’s not spelled right.” I didn’t know how to spell the word, but I recognised when it was spelled incorrectly. I knew what the squiggles meant, even if I couldn’t remember how to create them myself.

These days, I’m forever reading and writing. I’ve had material published. I read stuff every day, whether it be old fashioned dead-tree books, or stuff that’s purely electronic on the Internet. I take it as much for granted as I do breathing or walking. About a decade ago, I even did a speed reading course at work, and managed to get my reading speed up to about 900+ words per minute.

But recently, I’ve been forced to consider the whole process of reading. My son’s struggling with his reading at school and I’m trying to find ways to help him out. I’ve even gone so far as to write a sight words computer program for him, so that we can practice his basic words and hopefully start to make things a little easier for him.

It’s made me stop and think about what it is that I do so much about. How do I see the words written in front of me and instinctively know what it is that the author is trying to say?

Part of it is memory – I see a word and my subconscious mind remembers how to pronounce the word and even what it means. It does this so fast that I don’t even realise what it’s doing. I just recognise the word, understand what it means and just get on with the next thing.

But there’s more to it than that. Somewhere along the line, lost in the sands of time, someone decided that creating particular shaped squiggles on a page was a good idea. Writing things down isn’t particularly new – after all, the ancient Egyptians are well-known for their hieroglyphics. But somewhere along the line, someone decided to simplify the whole letter thing and we eventually ended up with the alphabet as we know it today.

The thing that gets me is who decided that the letters we write down and read back were to be shaped the way they are? Why are there 26 letters in the alphabet we use in English, and a distinct lack of accent symbols, whereas other languages and cultures use more? Heck, some cultures use a form of written symbology that doesn’t even come close to resembling the alphabet that this piece is written in. You only have to look at scripts like Chinese, Japanese or Thai to recognise that different cultures put their emphasis on the written word in different areas.

It doesn’t take much to destroy the meaning of the written word either. Try reading something in a language that you don’t understand. If your only language is English, then reading something written in a language like French, German or Spanish is going to confuse you. You might be able to recognise some words as similar to the English ones, but much of it’s going to look like gibberish. If you move away from the alphabet that we’re familiar with and look at something like Cyrillic or Arabic, then it really is going to look just like scribbles on a page. And yet, there are people who can interpret those same squiggles and extract meaningful information from them.

Why is any given word spelled the way it is? How did that particular combination of letters come to be instilled with a special meaning, so that when other people see it written down, they understand what the author was trying to say. Who decides these things and why did they do it in the first place?

As Stephen King said in his autobiography, On Writing, writing is a form of telepathy – it’s the transferring of ideas from one human mind to another freed from the boundaries of space and time.

This all blows my mind. The ultimate arbitrariness of the written word fascinates me. It all reinforces to me the concept that all systems are arbitrary, as Serge Kahili King once wrote. All it takes for a particular set of squiggles to gain or lose meaning is the ability of the reader to be able to recognise and interpret the shapes that they see. What might be unintelligible nonsense to one person might be a beautifully profound piece of poetry to someone else.

To me, that’s a wonderful thing.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

(Originally published 7th June, 2007)

Ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, werewolves and all the things that just go bump in the night. What is it about horror stories that keeps us going back for more?

Since ancient times, people have been telling each other scary stories – or at least stories with scary elements in them – so there’s got to be some part of the human psyche that is attracted to those sorts of things. Plenty of myths and legends have a supernatural element to them, with all sorts of mystical creatures that wanted to destroy the hero of the story, only to be vanquished by the end of the tale.

Even in modern times, horror novels and movies remain popular, with new titles coming out all the time. People like Steven King, Dean Koontz and Wes Craven have made careers out of trying to scare people.

So, what’s the attraction? Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to things that are going to give us the creeps, or in some cases, even give us nightmares?

Well, I think some of it’s got to do with the physical reactions our bodies generate when faced with a scary experience. When something spooks us, adrenaline and a bunch of other hormones are injected into our bloodstreams and our hearts start to race. It’s a rush, pure and simple. It’s the same reason why roller coasters and extreme sports are popular – it gives people a chance to get a natural high from all the chemicals that are circulating in their blood.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. On a deeper level, I think we need scary stories to help us face our shadows. Every one of us has a dark corner of our psyche where we hide all the things that we don’t want to face. It might not be particularly big in the greater scheme of things, but everyone’s got some situation or thing that fills them with dread every time they encounter them – or perhaps even think about it.

Horror stories allow us a safer way to go into the darker reaches of our minds and explore the darkness. It brings some light into those corners where we normally fear to tread. They give us a way to explore our own mortality vicariously through the lives of the characters on the screen.

Going even further than that, I think there’s plenty of life lessons that can be learned from horror stories. In just about every case, the hero of the story will overcome the evil forces by summoning their courage and dealing with the problem head on. For a lot of us, we don’t do that with our fears. We bury them and try to pretend they don’t exist, thereby giving a lot of power to those things to come back and scare the bejeezus out of us the next time. But if we face those fears and make a different decision about them, then we’re going to be able to overcome them and lead a healthier, happier life in the long run.

Courage can come from the strangest places. It doesn’t have to be a big, grandiose deal. It’s just the point at which we decide to take back the personal power that we had previously surrendered to something that used to scare us. Once we make that decision and face the dark parts of our minds, the power those things had drains away and we find that our lives get better. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

So, maybe it’s time to embrace the darkness within. Go watch a horror movie and keep an eye out for a chance to kick whatever scares you in the nuts.

We Don’t Need Another Hero… Or Do We?

(Originally published 23rd May, 2007)

Is the world now bereft of heroes or do they still exist to show us the way? Are there people still out there who epitomise the essence of the hero archetype?

It seems that every time we turn on the news, we’re inundated with just how bad the world is at the moment. We’re constantly being bombarded with stories about death, war, famine, global warming and all sorts of other catastrophes that make life on Earth somewhat of a living hell.

Sometimes I wonder if all the doom and gloom is only causing us to nose dive into an endlessly self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we concentrate on the negative things in the world, the more likely we are to encounter them.

It seems to me that the world now is in need of some old-school heroes, people who can inspire the general populace and turn the world around again.

In the strictest sense, a hero is someone who goes on some sort of journey and learns some new ways of dealing with the world. The journey need not be a physical one, but can instead be an intellectual or spiritual one. The main criteria is that they learn to look at the world differently and in the end, they use their new knowledge to help their communities improve.

It seems to me that we’ve lost a lot of the community spirit that used to exist – or perhaps it’s just changed shape. Whereas before we used to have a lot of local community groups and neighbours used to spend a lot more time together, these days people spend to find like minded groups of people to spend their time with. It might be things like church or sporting groups, or increasingly, you’re seeing online communities form with people with similar interests all around the world joining together.

But the other thing you’re seeing a lot of these days is endless squabbling and flamewars. People argue and fight over the most ridiculous things. They often don’t even stop to think before they start typing and don’t bother to even consider what the other person is saying.

It seems to me that we need now, more than ever, a new breed of heroes to come and inspire people to make their lives better. I’m not talking necessarily about superheroes or pulp heroes – although perhaps they might work to some extent – but simply people who can find a way to start changing the mindset of the general populace.

Changing the way you look at the world is hard enough. Changing the way that other people look at it is even harder, particularly when people have trouble realising that their own thinking needs to change. I think most of us would normally believe that there’s nothing wrong with our current way of thinking and would react harshly to anyone who would suggest otherwise. I think that’s why we need some new heroes who lead by example, and just believe in what they are doing so much that people automatically want to emulate them and their way of thinking.

Now, it doesn’t matter if those heroes are real people or not. People can learn just as much from fictional examples as they do from real life ones. After all, the subconscious mind really can’t tell fantasy from reality anyway. But what we need are characters that people will want to emulate in their own lives, and in doing so, will make their own lives better.

Heroes don’t do what they do to change the world. They often just do it to make their own lives better and in the process, inspire other people to do the same. That just makes things better for everyone in the long term.

Maybe all the world needs right now is a big, healthy dose of positive inspiration. Something to think about anyway…

The Power Of Questions

(Originally published 9th May, 2007)

How do people come up with certain ideas? What makes them think about things in a way that lets them come up with the answers? How do people learn new things in general, whether they be a small child or someone in the twilight of their lives?

The answer is actually quite simple: they ask questions.

Questions are perhaps one of the most fundamental building blocks of human communication. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat in a group of people and just observed the interplay between the people involved, but you can pretty much guarantee that what’s going to be happening most of the time is everyone who’s actively involved will be asking questions, listening to the answers and then coming up with related thoughts. Others will then ask questions and from there, the conversation naturally flows.

But, oddly enough, questions are incredibly powerful things. You see, by simply asking a question, it focuses your mind on the topic at hand and immediately reduces your mental focus on anything else around. By asking the right questions, it helps your mind focus on creative solutions to the problems at hand.

A classic example is during the Apollo 13 moonshot. After an explosion in the capsule’s service module left the crew with dwindling oxygen supplies, the engineers back on Earth were presented with every piece of equipment that the astronauts had at their disposal and were asked how the astronauts could rig something that would make it possible for them to get back home again. Through the combined genius of the people involved, they were able to come up with a solution and the three men made it home safely.

What would have happened if they the people on the ground hadn’t asked what could be done? What if they had instantly gone into a blame-hunting mode and asking who was responsible for the problem? Would the three astronauts have perished in space?

Questions focus our thoughts. It’s as simple as that. The sorts of questions that you ask yourself constantly can have a dramatic effect on your thinking. If you’re stuck in an emotional rut and you’re constantly asking yourself why this sort of thing keeps happening to you all the time, you’re keeping your mind focused on the problem and how big it seems. All you’re really going to do is make it seem all that much bigger.

But as soon as you start asking how you can get out of the situation that you’re in, you’ll find that things can start to change. Answers to the new questions will start to appear, often extremely quickly and if you take action and follow through on those answers, you can turn things around and make a new life for yourself.

Strangely enough, even the tone of question can have a major impact on the answers you’re going to get. A question asked with a stern, angry tone of voice is going to get a very different response that if it was asked with a happy, carefree tone, even though the words might end up being the same. The intent of the question itself is as much a part of the question as the words themselves, because it helps focus people’s minds in a particular way.

So, if you’re not getting the answers you need in any area of your life, perhaps it’s time for you to start asking the questions differently, or perhaps, it’s time to start asking a completely different set of questions altogether. If you’re having a rough trot, start asking how you can make things better. If you’re actually in a good spot, ask how you can sustain the position that you’re in for as long as possible.

It’s like the old saying goes, “Ask, and ye shall receive.”

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

(Originally published 4th May, 2007)

Where do ideas come from? When I’m writing, what part of me comes up with the words to type?

Sometimes, it feels as though there’s someone else trapped inside my brain, trying to find an opening to come out and be heard. There might be something in that, too. In her book, The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson recommends giving free rein to the little voice in your head and having a whole question and answer session with it, in order to try to uncover where some of your emotional land mines are. I’ve tried it, and it does seem to work to some extent. Once you get stuff out in the open, it loses its potency.

Michael Domeyko Rowland once said that we often repress emotions and it’s like holding a beach ball underwater. It wants to float to the surface and be released, but over time, we hold it down, repressing it because we think that facing that emotion is going to be too hard or too painful. In the process, we tie up a lot of extra emotional energy and end up making ourselves sick in the process.

Are our thoughts the same thing? Do we already possess and know all the things that we need in order to get us through life and if we’d just shut up for a second and let that stuff out, we’d find that life is actually a whole lot easier than we thought?

I know that in the past I’ve had times when I’ve been able to instantly recall all sorts of knowledge at exactly the right time, and then wondered where the hell it came from. It always freaks me out a little when it happens, because it shows me that there’s more to my mind than the stuff I can consciously recall easily.

What else is trapped in our minds that we don’t let out? I’ve heard that some people believe that we never really forget anything – that, under the right circumstances – we can recall everything we’ve ever experienced. You hear of people going under hypnosis and being able to remember all sorts of details about things that they’ve forgotten completely in their normal waking world.

Are we so afraid of succeeding that we subconsciously block certain information from our conscious minds in order to fail? It seems a little weird at first, but there are times when I do think that’s precisely what we do. We downplay our own abilities and knowledge, so that we don’t have to worry about making other people jealous, or so that we don’t have to worry about what they might think of us. If we keep our mouths shut, then we won’t upset anyone and we won’t get into trouble.

Strange thing is, that sort of behaviour is remarkably self-limiting. It holds us back and strangles our creativity. It stops us from reaching our full potential in whatever it is we’re trying to do.

So friends, maybe it’s time for all of us to stop getting in our own way and to let out some of the stuff that’s welling up inside us all the time. After all, once you give your imagination its head, it can often come up with some truly magnificent ideas. If even one of those ideas improves your own life or the life of someone else, then it will have been worth the effort.

Lest We Forget

(Originally published 25th April, 2007)

Today, in Australia, is Anzac Day. More than just a public holiday, it’s a time when the nation remembers the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who have found and died in the wars of the 20th Century.

On this day in 1915, the first wave of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. They were there under the overall command of the British, who were trying to smash their way through to capture Istanbul. Young men who had gone off to war thinking they were going to have a grand old adventure were suddenly thrust into a hellish and largely pointless situation.

Over the next eight months, over 8,000 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders would die at Gallipoli. In the end, the Commonwealth forces abandoned their positions, having achieved nothing in the way over military significance.

By the end of the Great War, over 60,000 Australians had died. In terms of men killed as a percentage of the country’s population, Australia suffered the highest casualty rate of the war.

It had a profound effect on what was still a young nation. As early as 1916, people back home were already holding commemorative services to remember those who had been killed in action. By the 1920s, Anzac Day services and parades were being held around the country to honour those who had served and to remember those who had died.

As the 20th Century wore on and more servicemen and women went off to fight in a collection of wars around the world, Anzac Day expanded to remember those as well. Over 100,000 Australians have died in military actions since Gallipoli. Anzac Day gets bigger every year, with more and more people turning out to remember the fallen. For me, that’s a wonderful thing, because more and more people are really taking this seriously.

But who are these men and women who have died in combat? Are they just names on a roll of honour?

There’s a little room in the World War II wing of the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra that commemorates the Australian soldiers who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Sandakan Death March in Borneo. But rather than just listing their names, the military id photos of every man – all 1,787 of them – are posted up on the wall, from floor to ceiling. None of the photos are particularly good. Every one of them shows a man who looks bored or even numb. They stare straight into the camera without a smile or often without any expression on their face at all.

For me, it’s one of the most chilling things I’ve ever experienced. Standing in that room and looking at those faces, I realised that every single one of them died under terrible conditions and it touched me deeply. Their lives had been snuffed out, and with them, their memories, experiences and dreams. None of those guys ever came home from war. Sometimes I wonder if they knew they weren’t that when those photos were taken. It’s a lot more personal than just a list of names. Looking into the eyes of those guys almost lets them talk to you personally.

I know that every time I go into that room, I can’t help but be reminded of how much of a senseless waste of human life a war really is. It might – eventually – stop injustice and bring change for the better, but at what cost? The people who make the decisions go to war don’t see the real cost to those who actually have to put themselves in harm’s way. All they see is the abstracted figures and it’s too impersonal.

Even a list of names of the casualties doesn’t hammer home the cost. It doesn’t say anything about who these people were and what else they contributed to the world. It doesn’t say anything about the loved ones and friends they left behind and the emptiness that their deaths must have caused. It doesn’t bring home the fact that the world is now a little bit poorer because these guy aren’t with us any more.

Too often I can’t help but wonder why. I can’t help but think that all those deaths really did mean nothing. But as the guys from Carbon Leaf sing in “The War Was In Color”:

What good did it do?
Well hopefully for you,
A world without war,
A life full of color.

Wars create pain, massive amounts of it. It might be emotional pain on the part of those who lost relatives and friends. But on a larger scale, wars create financial and humanitarian pain for both the winners and the losers.

And pain is one of the biggest motivators in human existence. The human mind is designed to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Wars ultimately change the minds of the human race and drive us to realise that such activities are ultimately pointless and need to stop. Sometimes it takes death and destruction on a mind-blowing scale to make that happen, because some people are just too stupid or too proud – or both – to look at things any other way.

So on days like Anzac Day, I urge you to remember those who have fallen. Not in an abstract way, but a personal one. Find their names. Even better, find their photos and look into their eyes. But more than anything else, honour their spirits, so that they won’t be forgotten.

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning.
We will remember them

Lest we forget

It’s A Confidence Thing

(Originally published 18th April, 2007)

Have you ever watched someone who’s really good at something do whatever it is that they do? It doesn’t matter what it is that they do, they all have something in common with one another: they all believe that they can do whatever it is that they’re trying to do.

Confidence is something that’s been on my mind a fair bit of late. I’ve been examining my own life and trying to improve on some of the things that I’ve done in the past. Basically, I want to increase the good stuff in my life and reduce the things that haven’t been so successful for me.

One thing that I’ve realised is that things go better when I believe that I can do whatever it is that I’m attempting. If I’m plagued with doubts and fears, then I become self conscious, I over-compensate and end up making more mistakes. Either that, or I’m so paralysed by fears that I don’t even know how to start tackling the problem. But once I start to believe that I can actually do something and internalise that belief, that’s when things start to go right and I begin to make progress on my goals.

It’s the belief thing that’s caught my attention recently. The more I believe that I can do something, the easier it is for me to achieve. Basically, it’s a matter of confidence.

There’s that old saying that practice makes perfect. Sometimes you’ll find that people can pick up something naturally and start to excel at it without much practice at all. Other times, you’ll see people practicing for years and eventually mastering whatever it is their doing. What’s the difference between these sorts of people? Basically, I think it’s just a matter of how fast the person starts to believe that they can do it.

Perhaps a common mistake is that we set our sights too high to start with, and then give up too quickly when we fail. Not everyone’s going to be able to smash a world record on their first attempt. Even those people who end up smashing the world records have to start with a much smaller goal in mind.

And that’s the trick, people: don’t try to achieve everything, all at once. Start with a much smaller goal and use it to build up some confidence in what you’re trying to do. Once you’ve mastered the small stuff, you can then work on trusting yourself with something bigger. Push your boundaries out a little further each time you try something, and over time, you’ll end up being able to handle a lot more than you ever thought possible. If you try to take on too much too early, all you’ll end up doing is overwhelming yourself.

Now, I realise that this is probably self-obvious, but there are times — especially when you’re struggling to achieve something huge — when this really isn’t that obvious at all. All you can see is this huge mountain that you need to climb and it’s too big. But if once you grok that you only need to climb it one step at a time, it gets a whole lot easier to deal with.

Marcus Garvey once said, “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.” Wise words. Master the small things and soon you’ll find that the big things are just a collection of small things to conquer.

So, when you set out to achieve something, just believe enough to get you one step closer to the goal. Do that enough times, and you’ll already have developed enough confidence to finish.

Round And Round The Mountain

(Originally published 11th April, 2007)

Ever wondered why you seem to keep on experiencing the same sorts of events over and over? Or when you get out of one relationship with someone, you end up back in a relationship with someone just like the one you had trouble with last time?

It’s often struck me as kinda funny the way life works. Just when you think you’re finally over the pain of the last mistake you made, something happens which triggers off a massive explosion of emotion that brings all that old pain right back to the surface, as though it never left. I’ve done it, and I’ve been on the receiving end of someone else’s explosion. Believe me, that’s not much fun either.

So, why does it happen? Why do we torture ourselves with hanging onto this old baggage, only to have to come up at the worst possible time and screw things up for us when things are starting to look good?

Basically, it’s because we haven’t managed to learn the lesson that we were supposed to learn the last time. In our lives, we make certain decisions along the way that might not be beneficial to us. Sure, they might work out OK in the short term, but they might not be any good for us in the bigger scheme of things. We make our decisions based on thoughts and feelings that we have, ones that we hold to be true.

But sometimes, those thoughts might not be true at all. They might fit the facts as we know them, but often we’re filling in the blanks with stuff that we just make up. A lot of the time, it may not have any basis in reality at all. Because of that, we can end up making bad decisions and that can have a negative impact on our lives. If we continue to hold those same thoughts as the truth, then we’ll continue to make the same basic decisions over and over again, often with the same bad results.

So, what’s the answer? I guess it’s to become aware of when you’re going around the mountain again. If you find that you’re trapped in what looks like your own personal version of Groundhog Day, then it’s basically the universe smacking you upside the head and trying to get you to change your mind about something. The best thing to do in situations like that to take a long hard look at what you’re thinking and feeling and start looking for alternatives.

Often there’s going to be one. Sometimes you’ll see the alternative straight away and you’ll be able to make a better decision and get past the problem quickly. Other times, you’re going to need to have the universe clobber you a few more times before things become clear. Every time we fail and make the same mistakes that we made last time, it’s an opportunity to learn a new way to approach the problem. Make some new, more beneficial decisions and you’re life will change for the better.

We often find that we attract the same sorts of people into our lives, so that we can get another opportunity to learn the right way to do something. Sometimes we attract the people who can show us where we’re going wrong, so that we can make better choices and get rid of some of the emotional baggage that we’ve been carrying around for years that’s been – deep down – making us miserable. Once we finally jettison that baggage, we experience real freedom and life becomes a lot easier all round.

So, the next time you find yourself going around the mountain again, sit down and take a look at the scenery. Maybe you’ll spot a new trail to take that will lead you down in the valley.

Strengthening Connections

(Originally posted 4th April, 2007)

My writing last week about the global consciousness got me thinking. If we run with the idea that we do form part of a giant, worldwide neural network, then what part do each of us play in the global net?

The purpose of each node in an artificial neural network is to process the information coming in, and then pass the results onto another node further down the line. Now, each node has a bunch of different input values, and part of the way that the network works is that different weights are given to each of the inputs, meaning that some sources of information are given more credence in the calculations than others.

It’s the same for us humans. Each of us puts different amount of weight on what comes into our minds, depending on the source of the information. We’re more likely to take something more seriously if it comes from a friend or a trusted teacher than if it comes from someone we’ve never met.

Credibility is an important thing in the modern world; if you can prove your worth to other people, they’re more likely to take you seriously and use the things you say and do more often in whatever it is that they’re doing. In some respects, it’s a measure of our worth to the network as a whole. The more people who take notice of what you do and benefit from it, the more credibility you have.

So, how do we go about getting more credibility? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Just do whatever it is that you want to do, simply because you enjoy doing it. It doesn’t really matter what you do – whether it be writing, fishing, darning socks, painting pictures, telling stories or whatever – so long as you put your heart into it and continue to try to improve the quality of your work, your credibility in that field is going to go up.

Now, that takes courage in some cases. Most of us are plagued by doubts and fears that somehow we’re not good enough, or even as good as the people who are already working in that particular field. Thing is though, most people are plagued with the same doubts when they start out, and it’s only through continued practice that they come to believe that they’re actually any good at whatever it is that they’re doing.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re good at some really obscure area or thing, you’re going to become a household name. But there will always be people who will come to admire whatever it is that you’re doing, provided that you just keep on doing it and trying to get better at it. Eventually, people may even start paying you for whatever it is that you’re doing, which gives you even more credibility, because now you’re a “professional”.

Most of us don’t put our hearts into what we’re doing. It’s kind of bizarre, but continuing on working on improving the quality of what we’re doing takes time and effort and often can be a whole lot of hard work. There are plenty of times when we begin to wonder if it’s actually worthwhile putting in the effort, especially when we don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it. But if we keep our eyes on whatever it is we’re trying to achieve in the long run, we’ll find that other people will start to take more notice of us, and our level of influence in the global consciousness will continue to rise. Eventually, if we get good enough, we may even become a household name after all.

It’s like Robin Williams said in Dead Poet’s Society, “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make you lives extraordinary.” Put the effort into whatever it is you love doing and find a way to pass that information on to other people and you’ll find that your level of satisfaction in life will automatically start to increase. Other people will start to take you more seriously and you’ll find that you’ll be contributing more to the global neural network in no time.

And that’s got to be a good thing, right?

We’re All In This Together

(Originally posted 28th March, 2007)

The late Douglas Adams, in his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, joked that the Earth was really just a giant computer that was crunching through the numbers to try to come up with the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Had it not been destroyed by the Vogons, it would have come up with it as well.

People have often talked about the “global consciousness”, as a sort of buzzword for a larger group mind. Some people – particularly the New Age types – have even talked about things like a planetary intelligence, something that links us all together.

Years ago, when I was taking a machine learning course as part of my Master’s degree, we were learning about artificial neural networks, computer programs modelled on the way the human brain works. Apparently they can be highly useful and adaptable little things, learning how to understand a particular problem space, and then being able to take a bunch of assorted inputs and make sense of them based on what they’ve learned in training. Don’t ask me how; while I understand the concepts behind them, I still don’t understand how they work.

The concept intrigued me. I started to wonder if someone could build different artificial neural networks to do different things and string them together. For example, build one to handle visual inputs, another to handle tactile inputs, a third to turn a bunch of tactile and visual cues into spatial information and so on. Then, once you’d trained each individual part successfully, I figured that if you connected up the outputs from one trained network to the inputs of another trained network, you could get it doing some seriously clever things.

So, one afternoon during the break in the lecture, I asked my lecturer if anyone had built a neural network of neural networks. He looked at me oddly for a second and said, “it’d just be a neural network.” That concept floored me, but I quickly realised he was right; a collection of joined neural nets is just a single, large neural net, one that has the ability to do a much cleverer job than each individual subnet. It’s a very fractal thing.

Recently, I got to thinking about the human brain and how it processes information. Data comes into the brain through the various sensory organs and is processed in a variety of different ways. Each person then converts that information into something that they share with other people in different ways. It can be as simple as having a conversation about the weather over coffee, or it might be as complicated as a Nobel Prize winning physics thesis or a United Nations declaration on something or other. Each of us has one of the best neural networks that have ever existed, and it sits right inside out heads.

That’s when the words of my old machine learning lecturer came back to me: a neural network of neural networks is just a neural network.

Suddenly, I realised that there was such a thing as a global consciousness. Every single one of us contributes daily to the world-wide intelligence. Each one of us takes in some information, processes it and then passes that information on to other people so that they can do things with it as well.

With the advent of things like the Internet, each individual person has the ability to influence a much larger number of other people, thereby allowing more information to pass quicker and be processed by a much larger portion of the population than was possible even fifteen or twenty years ago. We’re all part of a single, enormous neural network.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the global intelligence is a product of some divine being or anything like that. I’m not even saying that it exists for any particular reason other than it just evolved that way. I’m just pointing out that it actually does exist, at least from a particular point of view.

So, maybe old Doug wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Maybe the Earth is just some sort of giant computer, trying to work something out.