The Brain of the Beholder

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BrainOver ten years ago I attended a Vipassana meditation course at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. This was an intensive ten-day course, free of charge (donations are of course welcome), where you could learn the art of meditation, and be introduced to some basic Buddhist teachings.

There were some rules however, most notable among them being that you could not talk to, communicate in any way with—or even meet eyes with—anyone else on the course, a discipline known as ‘noble silence’. Simple vegetarian meals were provided, along with basic accommodation. And you had to rise at 4am and meditate about eleven hours a day.

Needless to say, this was hard. At the end of each day there was a short period where you watched, as a group, a video featuring the main teacher of the technique; and at this times I was sharply aware of how easy it would be to fall into a cult mentality; deprived of the normal stimulations of everyday life, one can get obsessive about a wise word and a kind face. As far as I know however, a Vipassana course is a benign and useful way for those wishing to experience a somewhat extreme, but extremely educational, introduction to the beneficial discipline of meditation.

For most of the ten days, I found this discipline extremely difficult, and often physically painful—sitting still for hour upon hour is not an easy thing to do. The mental discipline required was even more difficult. I won’t go into it in detail, but the technique basically involves an awareness of breathing, and a focussing of your mental awareness on small areas of your body, until finally you achieve an uninterrupted ‘flow’ of awareness up and down your body.

After about eight days, I had what you might call an epiphany. Suddenly, I achieved the ability to focus my concentration from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and back again in a smooth flow; a flow that I can only describe as a ‘golden light’ washing up and down my body. After days of struggle, there were no distractions, no intruding thoughts, only total and utter concentration on this one flow of awareness. It was one of the most extraordinary sensations I’ve experienced in my entire life.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it opened my eyes. Not in a ‘I’ve discovered the key to the universe’ kind of way, but in ‘so this explains it’ kind of way. To many people, I imagine, such an experience would have been a religious or spiritually revelatory one. To me, it demonstrated a fundamental truth, and here it is: the brain is capable of the most incredible things, and it requires an intelligent, informed use of the brain to interpret its input.

I was reminded of this entire experience recently when I watched Derren Brown’s television special, ‘The System’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s a 2008 program where Brown, a popular British sceptic and illusionist, presented a ‘system’ for winning on horses that seemed absolutely infallible to what appeared to be a random member of the public. It is only in the later stages of the program that it is revealed that this person is in fact only one of almost 8,000 people that Brown had introduced to his ‘system’, and that by playing the laws of probability, he had focussed on the one person from that entire group who had won five times in a row—and easily convinced her to get horribly in debt because she believed the system was infallible.

As Brown explained, people believe things because they are imprisoned by their own unempirical viewpoint. They don’t think beyond ‘it worked for me’: they accept anecdotal evidence. We all operate within a subjective frame of reference that makes us, as human beings, incredibly susceptible to being conned or avoiding the hard work that is involved in researching the truth. We are all—to paraphrase what P.T. Barnum so memorably said—the suckers that are born every minute.

I’ve often thought about the experience I had on the Vipassana course, and how it could be interpreted. Some would choose to interpret it as a spiritual experience, or even a religious one. Some would choose to dedicate their life to its further exploration. Some would ascribe it to lack of sleep and human contact. Some would recognise similar experiences from drug use. To me, it was a unique insight into the human brain, and what it is capable of—even after just ten days of intensive training. But most would need to assign some kind of meaning to the experience, because that is the thing that humans have always needed to do. We assign meaning to coincidences, despite the bare facts of probability, and we imagine magical forces instead of exploring natural ones. We cling to the easy explanation instead of trying to find the difficult truth. We believe what we want to believe.

We’re a funny old lot. We bet on the horses, fill out lottery coupons, pray at altars, swallow the homepopathy remedies, and all the while we say it works for us. But instead, we should be using the one thing that is the source of all our experience—our brains. They are capable of so much.

You will be happy here – or else


Happy hereDoes anyone else find this kind of advertising completely surreal?

I saw this on the side of a terrace house in Darlinghurst the other day. When did this bizarre cult of personality around real estate agents begin? I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss who the body in a suit is that shows me around a property, and it certainly doesn’t have any bearing and influence on whether I choose to get horrifically in debt by buying it.

I remember the agent who sold us our place tried to give us some kind of ridiculous New Age numerology spiel as part of her hard sell, and after we had a verbal agreement with the owners, she was very embarrassed when I caught her showing another couple around the place behind my back. She then had the gall to pretend we were great friends and gave us a fruit basket.

For some inexplicable reason, real estate agents think they are today’s rockstars. My suburb is plastered with pictures of their grinning faces and ‘quirky’ advertisements. Another one is a gag-inducing parody of a ‘most wanted’ ad complete with pillock holding a name board in prisoner photo style. Yep, that makes me want to trust you.

I suppose real estate agents just believe their own hype. They really think a dump that needs to be bulldozed is a ‘home renovator’s delight’, that wardrobes are actually ‘studios’, or that it’s quite acceptable to pretend someone has made an offer on the house you were interested in, when they haven’t.

Sorry, but you don’t know if I’ll be happy there. Next time a picture of the house interior would be a damn site more useful than your grinning mug, thanks very much. Have a nice day!

The Walking Dead


Walking Dead

Wow. If you’re in any way a zombie fan, check out Series 1 of The Walking Dead. Episodes of this stunning series (based on the comics by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard) left me alternately jumping an inch off the couch in shock, holding back tears and gasping with relief or excitement.

Plot wise, there’s nothing particularly new here—man wakes up in hospital to discover the zombie apocalypse has arrived, survivors band together; the usual zombie tropes—but The Waking Dead cleverly concentrates on the characters and the human drama instead of the gore and the zombie-killing. Not to mention scenes that actually make you feel real sympathy for the zombies and the people they once were. It’s definitely gory however, and sensitive types (my girlfriend among them) should probably steer clear, but if they do they’ll be missing out on some extremely high quality acting, scriptwriting and production.

The Walking Dead does for zombies what the new Battlestar Galactica did for scifi. It’s a frustratingly short series of only 6 episodes, but a 13-episode second series is on the way later this year.

No Junk


If there’s one thing I hate it’s junk mail. Why society hasn’t passed a law forever banning all this waste of paper and resources is a complete mystery to me, but in the meantime, wads of paper litter our street and our mailboxes. In the interest of reducing the flood, here’s my new No Junk Mail sign. Click on the image for a large version you can print, laminate and stick on your mailbox!

Headless Hollow Boardgame Reference Sheets Update

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The years pass, the seasons come and go, the sun god travels in his blazing chariot across the sky, and Universal Head keeps making boardgame summary sheets:

Merchants & MaraudersThis finally looks like the pirate game we’ve all been waiting for—lots of options, variety, plastic pirate ships, combat, trade, naval vessels; even 3D cardboard chests in which to stash your gold. Arrrrrrr!

Road Kill RallyA game that reminds me of many wasted hours playing Carmageddon on my Mac, Road Kill Rally sees players mowing down little old ladies and kids while blasting each other with machine guns and—oh yes—racing to the finish line. What’s not to like?

RattusRats spreading the Black Death throughout Europe in the 14th century—what a fantastic theme! The illustrations and graphic design style are just right for this compact and attractive game of role selection and ravaging plague. This rules summary includes the Pied Piper expansion.

AgricolaRunning a farm in the 17th century: not the most exciting subject for a boardgame, one would think. But this clever Euro-style game is a firm favourite among gamers who like wooden pieces, very little luck, and a complete lack of fancy plastic. I’ve only played it once so far, but for those times when Puerto Rico-style gaming is the thing, it may be time to get to work down on the farm.

Dust TacticsAfter the sad demise of Rackham and AT-43, the field is wide open for Dust Tactics, a miniatures ‘boardgame’ whose alternative-reality WWII was the original melieu for AT-43 before it went sci-fi. I forked out for the ‘premium’ painted edition and the miniatures are very well done. I expected it to be too simple but it surprised me by being a fast and fun game.

Plus, there’s the usual crop of updates as I obsessively creep closer and closer to the ever-moving target of game summary perfection! Enjoy.

Dear Diary …


World didn’t end.

I Don’t *LIKE* to Share


I don’t have, and never will have, a Facebook account. I don’t Twitter. I don’t Digg anything. MySpace is my office here at home where I do my work. I think most of the stuff on YouTube is puerile and the comments are even worse. I don’t want to subscribe to your channel, I don’t ‘like’ you and I don’t want to be your ‘friend’, because I don’t know you yet. I certainly don’t want to be a ‘friend’ of some bloody corporation. I have no interest in telling anyone where I am during the day on Foursquare. I have a Linkedin account because I was told it would help me get work but it just appears to be a the professional equivalent of Facebook—a waste of time.

I do have a blog, obviously…

The world is going nuts over social media, and it bores me to tears. It’s 98% forgettable dross to 2% interesting and worth remembering, and everyone’s all so desperate to be an individual that no one’s an individual anymore (“I’m not!”). The large proportion of human interaction is rapidly becoming analogous to those unfunny ‘joke’ emails that idiots pass on to everyone on their emailing list.

If you do want to sit down, have a beer and talk about something interesting face to face, well then that sounds like a good way to spend some time.

This grumpy rant was inspired by this horrible video that I stumbled across recently. It made me gag. It was was also inspired by the thought that I suppose I should put one of those damn Share buttons on my blog posts.

Garrow’s Law

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Garrows LawJust finished Season Two of the excellent BBC drama Garrow’s Law. My girlfriend and I have been obsessed with English history of late, and it has been gratifying to know a bit about the social situations and historical events that have come up in this excellent legal drama inspired by the life of pioneering 18th century barrister William Garrow. Since the trials are based on real cases that were heard at the Old Bailey, everything from Molly houses to criminal conversation has popped up in the eight episodes of the two seasons.

Andrew Buchan as the interestingly flawed William Garrow and Alun Armstrong as the faithful John Southouse do excellent work, and Lyndsey Marshal, who completely unimpressed in the boring second season of Being Human, is far more convincing here as Lady Sarah Hill.

Highly recommended for those who like to learn something as well as enjoy beautifully scripted, produced and acted drama.

Dust Tactics Review

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Dust Tactics

Oh, no, not another miniatures game?! Well, it’s kind of a boardgame with miniatures really. And I couldn’t resist the pre-painted premium edition. My little review of Dust Tactics over at the Games Paradise blog. Grab my rules summary here.

(Fr)Hacking Bastards


A few weeks ago, I started my working day to discover that two of my sites had been blacklisted by Google, and all of them were redirecting to some ’orrible malware site. Some charming person (it could be anyone from a spotty fifteen-year-old script-kiddy to a big organised operation in Eastern Europe or the Philippines) had seen fit to hack into my server in the US and insert malicious code into my html files.

Congratulations boys. The entire audience of some totally obscure, tiny fan sites could be yours!

Why bother? Yes, I must admit the thought went through my head a few times as I laboriously re-uploaded all the files in all my ten websites, changed all my passwords several times, and went through the painful process of uploading two installations of Bulletin Board software. As did a little imaginary bullet through the head of an imaginary hacker.

It’s incredible isn’t it? No matter how much effort you go into building a snowman, some twerp comes along and kicks it down.

Anyway, I missed a couple of files the first time around and had to go through the whole process again a few days ago, at which point my brain began to leak out my ears and the top of my head explode. Thankfully, my host in the States, Dreamhost, were helpful as always, and this time—fingers crossed—all the sneaky code snippets have been removed. Of course both times I had to go yet through another process to get Google to reassess the sites and take down their warning signs.

So, if I you host any websites, allow me to give you a bit of advice. Number one, use SFTP instead of FTP when uploading files to your server. The latter sends unencrypted code (with helpful pointers like ‘username’ and ‘password’ included) across the netwaves, and can be intercepted, as I so annoyingly found out. The former sends it encrypted. It should be as simple as selecting an option from a drop-down in your FTP client.

Number two, update all your software installations—WordPress, phpBB, whatever. Make sure you have the latest versions, which should have the best security. Get rid of outdated plugins and update the ones you do use.

Number three, change all your passwords and make them harder. Mine had got far too simple over the years, and I was repeating myself. You may have to use some kind of ‘one password’ solution, and you may never actually remember any of them again, but don’t use single, actual words, and throw in some numerals and possibly symbols.

While you’re doing all this, backup all your files so you have clean versions in case anything goes wrong. Hopefully, you will now avoid having to go through the tedious time-wasting rigmarole I’ve been subjected to.

Unbelievable isn’t it? Modern life is making code-monkeys of us all.

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