In which we read another book on neuroscience and, incredibly, become a world expert. Also spaceships.
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June 2019

How to not go under

In some respects, June has been like the previous months but more so. It’s been all about staying indoors on sunny days, working working working. Not having time to make my own music, or update the website. In other respects, it’s completely different. Much calmer, much less stressful. Much happier, actually. And for that, I have Theories™.

But first, this month: we learn from Adam Savage that every tool is, if you think about it, a hammer. We enjoy some fine Scottish folk, some epic Chinese science fiction, some very silly history. We appreciate one of the better music essay channels on YouTube.

And there’s another big non-fiction book about how the brain works. The previous one I kept going on about, The Brain by David Eagleman, felt to me like a great primer for conceptualising what the brain does and why. But this one is perhaps a bit more controversial.

When it comes to projects on the wish-list, I will (in my imagination) be correcting a Hollywood franchise reboot, and then... actually, producing a lot of things of questionable merit. Probably best that they stay in my imagination.

It’s also been a bumper month for ‘So What Have We Learnt?’ All will be explained...

Projects Which I Would Do If Only There Were 25 Hours In A Day…

Women In Black

So, there’s a new film out at the moment called Men In Black: International. A spin-off of ‘Men In Black’, the hugely successful and ever-so-90s alien investigation romp starring Will Smith (‘Mr Smith’) and Tommy Lee Jones (‘Mr Jones’). This time it has Chris Hemsworth (fine, but blah) and Liam Neeson (fine, but blah).  But it also has Tessa Thompson and Emma Thompson.

I mean. Just imagine if it had been just those two. ‘Ms Thompson’ and ‘Ms Thompson’. And the title as a sly nod to The Woman In Black. Not just as an unthinking gender-swap reboot, but those two actors specifically. Blowing up aliens with wisecracks for 90 minutes.

Can someone please give me a production company? I feel like I’m doing all the heavy lifting here…

A Trace Of February

Idea for a novel about an upper-middle class family squabbling about nothing and having lots of affairs. Lots of very flowery prose. Nothing happens. At the end, we learn that, even though every one of these characters is insufferable, they are still more interesting than everyone else in the world because the author has reduced everyone else in the world to a grotesque cartoon.

There’s a romantic entanglement by the pool.

A tragedy on the beach (not involving any of them, but a fisherman that they all watch drown).

There’s more symoblism than the Bible.

There’s a shocking reveal of incest that was obvious on page 4.

Followed by about 20 years of my appearances as a cynical and misanthropic literary giant on BBC arts review programmes...

Honourable Mentions:

The Viz Cinematic Universe

Hot on the heels of the Marvel epics, we could put some money into a British version, with much loved characters getting their own vehicle films, and then teaming up in big event films. Where Finbar Saunders would meet Roger Melly and Buster Gonad. Or maybe the Beano cimenatic universe. Might be more family friendly...

Dr Who: Back to Medical School

I’m kind of on the fence about this one.

Rock opera on the life of Lord Byron

This is the worst idea, artistically, conceptually, culturally, topically. And that is why I am going to take one for the team. Because then it’s done. And no one else needs to do it.


What if I told you...

The book How Emotions Are Made, by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, is not always an easy read. It’s as technical as you would expect a bestselling popular science book to be, which I’m fine with. But her writing style incorporates two things that I find really off-putting: she spends a lot of time pouring utter scorn on those who subscribe to the big rival academic idea (‘Thankfully, now that we know that Essentialists are dangerous idiots, we can finally see the pure light of reason...’), and she uses her research to push very political points (which I generally agree with, but feel not enough non-neuroscience evidence is included to adequately justify).

Her actual research, though, is fascinating.

Of course, it draws on other people’s work too, so any neuroscientists and psychologists  reading this might not find this particularly new or specific to her work, but this was how I discovered it, so...

This book basically suggests that emotions are not hardwired into our brain: we invent them. In fact, we invent most of what goes on in the brain.

You aren't at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them

Long and complicated science story short... the brain actually receives way too much data for the five (or six or fourteen or however many you classify there as being) senses to build up a picture of what’s going on around you in real time. What it does instead is to guess, and then use the streams of sensory information to verify that guess. Which is much more efficient, and means the brain can react much faster. So tiny amounts of sensory data can trigger whole cascades of memories, which tell us “Sabre-tooth tiger! Run!”

Then again, even though our construction of reality might constantly be tested against our sensory data, it is still our construction. We’re basically living in our own virtual reality.

Hence the clip above of the film The Matrix. Because this research is saying that much of the crazy science fiction in that film is, in the words of Morpheus, ‘ironically, not that far from the truth’. We do all live in The Matrix - a kind of computer simulation of reality that is not actually real and is constructed specifically for us. It’s just that... it wasn’t constructed by computers or aliens, it was constructed by us, both individually and as a species.

There’s lots of other mind-stretchingy stuff in there — highly recommend!


Now there’s no excuse not to hammer in the morning, the evening, and all over this land...

If you’ve read these newsletters before, you’ve probably gathered that I’m a big big Adam Savage fan. I think he’s the most interesting person around when it comes to the the joy of work.

Whether it’s learning how to get things done quicker, how to stay motivated, how to collaborate or how to cope with failure, he’s a fount of knowledge.

His new book, Every Tool's A Hammer, talks a lot about his career as a theatre prop-maker and movie special effects creator, but he’s very good at taking the specifics of physical object-making and applying them to work more generally.

An example is a section on the importance of ‘tolerance’ in your work. Tolerance in the obvious sense, as in tolerating other people and their ideas. But it’s tolerance in the engineering sense of ‘how much do things need to fit together?’ How much wiggle-room should you leave? Does it need to be super-exact, or should you give yourself more tolerance in case you hit something unexpected?

Out now. Also available in tasty new audiobook flavour, read by Mr Savage himself. (This trailer video has a baaaad thumbnail though...)


This is their track ‘Echo’, but I could pick anything really...

On the recommendation of Mr Calum Mitchell, both H and I have been repeat-listening to the works of Scottish folk band Talisk. Just good, solid tunes, really. Enough said.


If you like your space sci-fi biiiiiiig...

The sun is dying, and so humans cover one side of the earth with engines to propel it out of the solar system. Then there’s the whole problem of getting sucked into Jupiter’s orbit. You know, stakes.

Now... I am a terrible person, and I have only been watching this with the sound down (my experiences with the Valerian movie have reminded me of the joys of having great-looking movies on in the background), so I’m not absolutely totally 100% sure what’s going on in this movie.

But it looks amazing.



Stevie Wonder: the studio genius that everyone thought Brian Wilson would become

Polyphonic is a YouTube video essay channel about popular music. Probably the best that I’ve come across that’s done by a music critic (rather than, say, a composer like Nahre Sol). Insightful, in-depth, and free from the beta-male tediousness which seems to have infused pretty much all music journalism for over half a century.

This episode on Stevie Wonder’s run of classic albums is a really good example.



A clip of the Winona Ryder quaker episode

Like Celebrity Lip Sync Battle, this is a simple and really enjoyable comedy premise featuring celebrity guests. Comedians are given lots of alcohol, and then filmed retelling a famous historic story. Then A-List actors perform their renditions line by line.

Drunk people are funny, basically. It doesn’t need to be any more deep or complicated than that.

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Friday 12th July

Every second Friday of the month. Baby.

Dear Diary...

June June June. June juney juney junnity june.

I mean, I hate to be a cliché, but it has just been my favourite weather. Warm, but not too warm. Occasionally pissing down. But... interesting. Great cloudscapes, great light. Everything green.

I feel I should be doing more with it. I should be outside, engaging somehow. But I'm a broken record at the moment: head down, pedal to the metal on paid work every minute that I can (with the exception of the occasional Saturday to write a newsletter). Now that I'm working weekday mornings in an office again, I'm less worried about the cabin fever factor, which is just as well because I’m basically not going out at the moment.

And right now, I don’t have time to do anything on my own music, other than let new ideas gestate. I've actually just given the main James Bell Central website a bit of a facelift in order to reflect this.

But I'm not really doing anything with the James Bell Central social media at the moment. Which... is sort of all my social media.  I used to post daily, but recently I’ve just let that slide. I actually don’t feel like I know how to use it at the moment. I know I've said this before (I made a quip about it last month), but I feel like the model is currently broken. Particularly with Facebook, and I've seen a couple of internet posts in the last few days which have reminded me of this:

Both are blaming the currently shambollocks state of Facebook on old people, but I don't actually feel that's fair. It's Facebook that's the problem. It lets you do too much on it. And if you're not a media professional, your timeline is probably going to look like a mess.

And Twitter. I've taken it off my phone now. And I will still occasionally scroll through it on my desktop computer, but everytime I'm bored and think I'll check it I remember "make sure you step out of it once you start getting sucked into the negative spiral!"  Because however much I just try to follow the 'fluffy puppy ears' accounts, someone will always retweet the next political sewer-explosion. And then everyone will shout about it. Some people I talk to are still having a great Twitter experience. But for me it’s kind of ‘cute animal GIF > giggle > Twitter game > topical politics hot take > abyss of despair’.

And then there’s Instagram. Instagram actually seems to be working. You can’t post links. Its interface is still uncluttered. I’d like to spend more time on it, to be honest. Because I like social media - I think that for all the creepiness and shoutiness it can help people to connect with each other in all sorts of ways. But I just haven’t got into the groove of finding good things to photograph. Right now I see exactly the same things each day, each week, and probably will for the foreseeable. And most of that involves looking at a computer screen.

That said, I know that’s just me being uncreative. I have this tantalising feeling that there’s a way I could use it, from a slightly different angle, that I would really enjoy. Haven’t figured that out yet. Until I do, I think my social media posting is going to be a little sporadic.

One of the reasons why I gradually ground to a halt was because I felt I was using it wrong. I wasn’t really treating it as social media. I was basically treating it as a broadcasting channel. Like a conventional website. It didn’t invite interaction. It was just “here are some things I made... here are some other things I like... here are some gigs I’m going to play...”

However, I’ve realised something. I... actually prefer that. The old conventional website way. And I may at some point change my mind on that, but it all comes down to how I feel about privacy, I suppose. If I’m behind a login wall like Facebook’s (RIP), I’m quite happy being much more personal about the things that I post, and therefore much more social. Also, I think if you’re an artist with a huge public audience and you want to interact with your fans, I can see how it’s a great tool for conversation. I’m obviously not that, but also, as a fan myself, I’m actually more interested in the works that artists love and make than I am in the artists themselves.

So yeah, long story short - hopefully some sort of social media-ing to follow. Maybe on Instagram. I'll keep you posted.

So What Have We Learnt?

Right, well... this is another slightly ranty epic one. I want to go back to the Twitter abyss for a second. Particularly the idea of the ‘negative spiral’. Because for a while recently I felt like I was caught in a major streak of serious bad luck. Bad things just seemed like they kept happening. But then there came a point where I realised: “Oh wait! You’re in a negativity spiral? Remember how this has happened in the past? The more upset you get about bad things happening... the more they happen?”

Which is completely stupid, right? Because your mental attitude can’t stop bad things happening to you, right? How narcissistic do you need to be to believe that the way you think effects how the world outside of you works? You can’t change external reality with your so-called ‘positive thinking’.

But I’m not living in reality. This is the thing that Dr Lisa Feltman Barratt’s book How Emotions Are Made has kept me mulling on. I’m living in a virtual reality that my brain is making moment to moment, that is actually mostly invention. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t based on real external things that my senses are telling me, that are still cross-checked by my sight, smell, sound, experience, logic, etc. But it is so heavily filtered, so heavily processed, only made comprehensible by the conceptual frameworks that I apply to it.

I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that the overall positivity or negativity of my world view dramatically affected my ‘luck’, but I couldn’t begin to explain it. But having read this book, given the complexity and interconnectedness of my constructed reality, is it really not surprising that an angry, bitter, misanthropic world view might make bad things happen to me? And to be clear, it doesn’t dictate ‘which things happen to me’... but it does dictate ‘how bad they are’.

Also to be clear, this is not to remotely imply anything so simplistic as ‘we all get what we deserve in life’ - even people with positive attitudes can still have shitty luck. But I think, over time, it can be possible to at least minimise the negative spiral effect that seems happen as a result of shitty luck. Although I personally find it’s a mistake to try to look for the positive side of everything. It’s exhausting, and maybe even a bit dangerous. That gets you in the jaws of the sabre-tooth tiger, I think. Instead I find it’s about forcing a positive attitude to life overall, specifically by comparing my current situation to ‘how bad things can get’ rather than ‘all the good things I deserve but life has cheated me out of’. Comparing downwards rather than comparing upwards. Like that Steve McQueen line in The Magnificent Seven about the guy who fell out of a ten storey building: “As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far, so good....’”

I think getting ill last year, combined with a big change of lifestyle, made me forget this simple thing of comparing down not up. But since remembering it, life seems to have calmed down so much. Obviously that is ma-hoo-ssively tempting fate. Join me next month when I fall out of a ten storey building...

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the gigs. About life. About the universe. About how to avoid colliding with Jupiter. (I read some of the subtitles...)

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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