Twelve years of collecting calendars

It was at the end of 2015 that I decided to collect wall calendars. Every year, I promised myself, I would choose a calendar with a theme that I’d never chosen before, and at the end of the year each calendar would be stored permanently in a drawer.

I decided I would do this for at least twelve years, at which point I would have as many calendars as there are months in a year, so it seemed a poetically significant milestone. Then I would decide whether to continue.

Well, this month I purchased my twelfth calendar — a Faeryland theme for 2017 — and so that time has come. How to commemorate it? That is something I’ve planned for a while now.

You may be familiar with the ASMR genre of videos on Youtube. These feature relaxing sounds, typically made by everyday objects, often in some kind of thematic context. For some people these sounds can trigger a pleasant tingling sensation, which is what the term ASMR denotes. But the appeal is broader than that. Many people get some kind of pleasant sensation from ASMR videos, even if it’s more subtle than a bona fide spine tingle.

Personally I don’t have a strong response, and ASMR videos are not a big part of my life. But I do binge on them from time to time, and because such a simple thing can give people such pleasure, I couldn’t not speculate about making one of my own.

Presenting my calendar collection in the form of an ASMR video seemed like a perfect match. I would leaf through the pages one by one, and people could look at the pictures while listening to the sounds that glossy paper makes as it scrapes and bends. (Also, something about the form lends itself to a journey theme, in this case a journey through time. It has to do with the way that watching a good ASMR video feels like being carried.) This idea was already forming three years ago when I published an earlier video about my collection (completely silent), but the time wasn’t right then. It was something to save for the big Twelfth Year Anniversary.

The video I made is below. To watch it, turn off the lights so your senses can focus, put your headphones on (in my experience headphones are essential for all ASMR videos, even if they’re not binaurial), and turn the volume down nice and low.

I am a complete amateur at this. I lack time, experience, equipment, and a quiet home. But if I hear from one person who really enjoys it, I will count that a success. (Sometimes the calendars slip from my control, but I feel that’s a good thing.)

[Here’s a direct link. I’ve put quite a bit of information in the video description, so I recommend watching on Youtube so you can read that. As I say there, the Rob Gonsalves painting “Phenomenon of Floating” (image for April 2015) represents how I hope to make you feel.]

Religious reminiscence: Crucifixion

Filed away in my desk drawer and certain locations on my computer, I still have various items from the days when Christian faith was a part of my identity. These include:

  • Some evangelistic web pages I wrote;
  • Religious discussions from online forums;
  • A notebook for jotting down theological speculations;
  • Various other items.

It’s been a few years since I’ve mentioned my religious past on this blog, but see my 2009 post about the afterlife and my 2011 post about prayer. As I aim to blog on a variety of subjects, now seems a good time to dig into those archives in search of an idea for a new post.

Since Easter wasn’t long ago, why not look at what my thoughts were, when I was a Christian, on the death and resurrection of Christ?

There is more diversity than often admitted, within thoughtful Christian communities, about what the crucifixion of Christ has to do with the reconciliation of sinners and God. Christians agree that the crucifixion was necessary, but there are different explanations for why (the New Testament’s account is largely metaphorical). Unfortunately, certain interpretations are more culturally dominant than others and the fact the discussion exists tends to be obscured. And of course, many people are content to accept the necessity on faith and leave the theologising to others.

The most familiar explanation is that it is an aspect of God’s nature that he literally cannot allow sin to go without its punishment, and that in the death of Christ he reconciles that necessity with the demands of his love by taking the punishment upon himself. We have all been exposed to that idea — not least from the allegories of C. S. Lewis — and there are many who insist on it as a defining article of Christian faith. But in all my years as a Christian, that viewpoint never made any sense to me, and it was never a part of my theology.

A less widespread explanation — but one with its share of advocates — is that the crucifixion was at heart the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. According to this idea, the normal expectation of humanity is to see God as judging and demanding, to be preoccupied with earning God’s acceptance and fearful of his rejection. And so Jesus comes to offer humanity a different view of God: a God who will forgive us even if we crucify him, a God whose love is (quoting Geoff Bullock) “beyond humankind’s capacity to earn it”.

That explanation also never felt like it could be the whole answer — largely because that view of God is clearly not as universal as it makes out — although I could envisage it as part of the answer. Anyway, those were the two competing explanations I found in books,* and, finding them inadequate, I speculated.

One line of thought I followed was that before a person can be healed of their sinful condition and fitted for Heaven, it is necessary to first develop a visceral appreciation of how serious sin is. That is to say, God can no more operate on the soul of someone who is insufficiently horrified by immorality, than a dentist can fix the tooth of someone who won’t open their mouth wide enough. And by bearing in mind the image of Jesus on the cross — the most perfect life ever lived tortured to death for the approval of the crowd — and learning to associate that image with all sin including one’s own seemingly trivial transgressions, it’s possible to put sin into its proper perspective and prepare the human heart to be transformed by God.

The main problem I acknowledged was that this doesn’t explain why some other illustration of the enormity of sin shouldn’t do just as well: why should the crucifixion and only the crucifixion be adequate to elicit the proper level of repulsion? I had no answer to that, but it seemed plausibly on the right track.

A further speculation which unites some of the above ideas is best presented as a metaphor, like the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek mythology. In this account there are two opposing obstacles on the spiritual journey, both of which must be negotiated if one is to make it to Heaven. The first is the danger of thinking our moral imperfections are no big deal — that we are good enough without God’s intervention — which in Christian thought is often looked upon as the ultimate folly. The second is the danger of being so overcome by a sense of our own inadequacy that we imagine God would never accept us, and are afraid to make the approach. Above this landscape — a narrow passage between two opposing and terminal errors — the Cross shines like a lighthouse, warning us at one and the same time not to underestimate sin, but also not to underestimate forgiveness.

That is as good an answer as I ever had. It works pretty well as a metaphor, but (just like every other explanation) not so well under clinical observation. In typical mythological style, the obvious questions — like why one universal lighthouse is better than several smaller ones — can be answered only by appealing to the seductive simplicity of the story. I realised that my answers were inadequate, even in conjunction, but they reinforced the impression that there was an answer to be found. At the end of the day, though, I accepted the idea that the crucifixion was somehow necessary for humans to be fitted for Heaven, even if I didn’t see why.

No religious belief can be understood in isolation, and everything I’ve said relates to topics that are outside the scope of this post (for example, this is not the time to discuss how I understood the identity between Jesus and God). But I think it’s worth saying that I always believed God shares all human suffering — like a divine mirror-touch synaesthete — and that I was absolutely sure no-one’s destiny hinges on ideas they may or may not encounter in this lifetime (as stated in my 2009 post).

We are all shaped by beliefs we no longer hold, and no doubt I wouldn’t be the same person today if I hadn’t in the past been a devoted believer. I am convinced of the value of occasionally discussing our former convictions not to defend nor refute them, but in the same spirit that one might share an old photograph. I hope this reminiscence has contained some thought for everyone to take away, Christians and atheists and all others as well.


* For further reading, see The Plain Man Looks at the Apostle’s Creed by William Barclay. (Also, Power of Your Love — Jesus: The Unexpected God by Geoff Bullock, although that book is irritatingly prone to speculation masquerading as fact.)

Navigating the night sky

Which stars do you recognise when you look up at the night sky, and how do you find them?

I’ve been planning to re-introduce shorter, lighter blog posts on random topics, and one topic that seems fit for that purpose is to describe how I personally find my way around the sky at night. This is not meant as advice on how other people should navigate the sky; it’s just a description of how I do it, and you are welcome to reciprocate in the comments. It is also only a summary and not a guide, so please look things up if you need more information. Bear in mind that I’m in the southern hemisphere.

When the sky is not yet dark and only a few stars are visible, I like to identify those stars as early as I can. This requires being familiar with the shapes formed by only the brightest stars, without relying on dimmer ones for context.

I start by looking for the triangle formed by Sirius, Rigel, and Canopus, which is back-to-back with the triangle formed by Sirius, Rigel and Procyon. All of these stars are among the brightest in the sky, and Sirius is the brightest of all, so once you’ve identified Sirius you know that anything brighter is not a star. The angles between these stars can look quite different depending on whether they’re overhead or near the horizon, but I can usually identify them quickly. (From Sirius, the line to Canopus is longer than the line to Procyon, so I find it helpful to remember that this is the opposite of what you’d expect given that pro- invokes words like prolonged.)

Once I’ve identified Rigel I can easily find Betelgeuse, and thus predict where the belt of Orion will appear even before it is visible (good party trick). If the sky is dark with little light pollution, I also look nearby for the Hyades (a.k.a. the horns of Taurus) and identify Aldebaran.

My usual next step is to follow the zigzag line from Procyon to Sirius to Canopus and then take one more zag to Achernar. Achernar is the only bright star anywhere near its vicinity, so you don’t need much precision to find it. The line of best fit through these four bright stars I have nicknamed the false ecliptic, because if you didn’t know your way around the night sky you might assume they were planets.

We’ll come back to Achernar in a moment, but let’s now turn our attention to the stars of the Southern Cross (featured on the flags of many Southern Hemisphere countries) and the adjacent Pointers. These are easy to find, and not hard to identify individually. The Pointers are Alpha and Beta Centauri (also known as Rigel Kentaurus and Hadar, but I prefer the former names) and the stars of the Southern Cross are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon Crucis. Telling them apart is easy when you know that the sequence from brightest to dimmest proceeds clockwise, and that they are named in that order.

The classic way to find the South Celestial Pole is to draw a line through the long axis of the Southern Cross and another line passing between the Pointers at 90 degrees, and to find the point where those two imaginary lines meet. An alternative method — slightly more accurate but less often practical depending on what clouds and the horizon obsure — is to identify Beta Centauri (the lesser Pointer) and Achernar (which I promised we would return to), and find the point halfway between the two. It’s no bad thing to have two different methods for finding the Pole, because then you can verify one against the other and also use this as an alternative way to find Achernar.

In total, I can point to and name 14 stars in the night sky — Sirius, Rigel, Canopus, Procyon, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Achernar, plus the seven stars of the Pointers and Southern Cross. I’ve never made the effort to memorise any more. It’s perhaps worth noting that I live in a fairly light-polluted city, but spent most of my childhood on a farm with many more stars visible.

That’s about as much as I can say from a personal perspective; most other details are things you can look up. If you have a perspective you’d like to share, it is now your turn.

Some thoughts on synaesthesia

I’ve been planning to post about synaesthesia for some time, not because I have a lot to say, but to share the little I do have. This is part of a plan to write shorter posts about smaller topics, but hopefully more of them.

I’ll assume the reader has some idea of what synaesthesia is. One important aspect is the distinction between projective vs associative synaesthesia, which I first read about here. Usually when people think of synaesthesia, they think of the projective type, in which a literal experience of one sense is triggered by information detected by a different sense. In the associative type — which has less of a ‘wow’ factor and gets less press time — what is triggered is an abstraction rather than a literal sensory experience. It’s the difference between seeing the colour blue and thinking of the colour blue.

I am no synaesthete, as such. But people sometimes make the case that there is a continuum from the average person and a clear-cut synaesthete, and for the associative type I am inclined to believe this. I can certainly point to experiences of my own which might be dubbed ‘sub-synaesthetic’, in which I detect a certain rightness in complementing one sensory experience with the thought of another, even if I can’t say that one triggers the other. My impression is that most people can do the same, to differing degrees.

If you have either true synaesthetic or sub-synaesthetic experiences, please share them in the comments. Below are some of mine.

  • I have long felt that if written Dutch were a colour, it would be hot pink. There is just something inescapably hot pink–ish about written Dutch.
  • I’ve been known to connect music with certain tastes. For example this piece harmonises with the thought of soft toffee from an old-fashioned sweet shop, and this one (Ebb Tide by John Coleman) evokes a glass of chardonnay. Given how French the latter sounds it probably doesn’t surprise much, but there you have it. Other music evokes more complex associations, but that’s outside the scope of this post.
  • Certain vowel sounds seem best complemented by certain colours, if I think about it at all. I’ve long felt the only colour that properly belongs with the eeee vowel (that’s [i] to linguists) is yellow — possibly because yyyyellow — tending through orange to red as more open front vowels are considered. Sometime last year I asked myself whether I could similarly associate colours with the back vowels, and while this required a deliberate effort I found I was able to consider a candidate and say, “Yes, that’s the one”. Here is my sub-synaesthetic (and interpolated) vowel diagram:
    synthvowels
  • That’s all I can think of, but I have a nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something. If so I can always add it later.

Your turn now.

P.S. I used this colour interpolating tool to make the above chart. Note that it has a bug that means it won’t work if the Red value is set to BB, but apart from that it’s a very nice tool.

Nine calendars in my collection

I’ve blogged about my calendar collection before, but since I add a new one every year, it is worth posting an update.

This year, I decided to create a Youtube video showcasing all of the calendars in the collection so far, including the one I recently bought for 2014.

From the video description:

Since 2006, I’ve been keeping a collection of wall calendars: adding one calendar each year and always choosing a theme that I’ve never had before. This video showcases my collection so far, with nine calendars.

There is no sound, which is just as well, because half the time I’d be saying “My knees hurt!” (if less eloquently). The shaky bits toward the end of the video? Sore knees.

I think collections are significant as a form of self-expression. What someone chooses to collect, and how, can say something very deep about them as a person. That’s why sharing our collections can be so interesting.

Please, feel free to be liberal in the comments. You might comment on the collection as a whole, you might describe a collection of your own, you might nominate which calendar is your favourite (mine’s the 2008 one), or you might write something tangential inspired by a particular page. Just imagine: if I were showing you this collection over my dining table, what would you bring to the conversation?

Reflections on prayer

I haven’t believed in God for a number of years now, but acknowledging that we are all shaped by our past, I occasionally like to talk about my former faith on this blog. Today I’d like to focus specifically on the subject of prayer.

I hope we can agree that the description of prayer found in The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett (“frightened people trying to make friends with the bully“) is a long way from the Christian understanding. But while it’s easy to talk about what prayer is not, discussing what it is requires grappling with paradoxes like why an omniscient God would need suggestions from humans. Back in the day I devoted considerable thought to theological questions like that, and I wrote some of those thoughts down in a document that I’m using as the main source for this post.

Prayer, according to what I consider the highest Christian understanding, is not about giving God suggestions. It’s more like tuning an aerial — that is, maintaining and refining the telepathic link between one’s self and God. Because God is understood in terms of moral perfection, and because there is no greater pursuit than to better ourselves morally, the Christian’s greatest aspiration is to think the thoughts of God. The point of prayer is to try to fill the mind with God’s thoughts, in part by putting into words the thoughts one believes to be “godlike” (such as compassionate wishes for other people). Deliberately focusing on godlike thoughts, it is thought, makes the mind more receptive to thoughts that come directly from God: the aerial-tuning analogy works pretty well here.

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Conversation cards

During the long drives on our recent holiday, we entertained ourselves in various ways. Music from various CDs, a few episodes of Astronomy Cast on another CD, and a game or two of The Art Of Conversation. That last item gives me an idea for a blog post.

The Art of Conversation consists of a hundred cards that, between them, contain 300 conversation ideas (yeah, you’re all thinking Monty Python did it first in Meaning of Life, but this is genuine). To play, you leaf through the cards until you find a question you want to ask, then everyone else answers that question, and then it’s the next player’s turn. Concepts of winning, losing, and competing do not exist in any form.

Below is a photograph of four cards from the game. [Update 2014: I’ve taken a new photograph to replace the out-of-focus original.] Underneath I’ll blog in the spirit of the game, by selecting topics from these cards and writing either about that or about something closely related.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here we go: Read the rest of this entry »

Passport renewal

I recently noticed that my passport had expired, so I’m now in the process of having it renewed. Because I don’t drive, a passport is often the most convenient way to prove my identity.

This means that I can finally get rid of my old passport picture, which could, I’ve always thought, easily be entered into a gallery of the world’s worst passport photographs. For a start, my hair was way overdue for a trim back then in 1999, and things were far too hectic to do anything about it.

I offer you a scan of the offending picture. If you’ve got one that’s even less complimentary, you may link to it in the comments. Read the rest of this entry »

Of hats and hot water

While I was at Womadelaide on Sunday, I bought a hat. I’m not much of a hat person but I figure I should have one or two for hot weather. Today I went for a walk with my new hat on, mostly in order to find out if I could wear a hat in public without being overcome by embarrassment. (Also out of an awareness that if I make excuses not to wear it, it’ll never get worn.)

I felt mildly apprehensive, but hopefully there’s not really anything to be embarrassed about in going outside looking like this . . .

hat-front hat-side

In other news, I recently did some investigating into how much milk I like to put in a mug of coffee. Generally I just pour in the milk until the colour looks right, but I wondered what I’d discover if I tried to quantify that as a ratio of so much instant coffee to so much milk.

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Posted in Food, Self. 7 Comments »

Greeting cards

Here’s a blog post idea for you. Look through the greeting cards that people have sent you over the years, and select one that most accurately captures your personality. Then share it with the world.

I’d have to choose this one, which I was given for my 22nd birthday in 1999:

aliencard

Scene: Aliens on spaceship.
Outside: “Make your birthday one of those nutty, irresponsible days when you do anything you want just for the fun of it.”
Inside: “You know, like when we made those guys build stonehenge.”

Another of my favourite birthday cards is below.

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