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Friday, November 18th, 2005

Subject:'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.
Time:9:19 pm.
To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem's perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem's greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

And I deliberately leave the context to last ...
Comments: 11 thoughts share your thoughts.

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

Time:11:04 pm.
Dead asleep on a snagged seat between commitments on a crowded bus when a sudden slam/slip/grab of brakes brought me abruptly fully awake and a woman from a front seat to somehow twist around and slam head-first into the metal farebox.

Others, still standing and clinging desperately onto poles and the top bar, managed -- just -- to retain their balance. Me, it only hurled against the stuffed-full bag resting against the seat in front of me: convenient cushion. The ambulance arrived within minutes ... considering that I had just been leaving from a hospital myself, it was not far at all. In the meantime passengers quickly offered basic first aid, cellphones, general comfort. On her own initiative and choice the woman who had fallen was just starting to get to her feet on her own but no further than to the seat: sharp headache (probably a light concussion) but no open injury, pain under her ribs suggesting possible sprain or possibly even a cracked rib, no neck or back injury: but wisely chose to accept the Roentgen nevertheless, just in case. Our bodies are amazingly resilient; and she, notwithstanding, was very lucky.

Not one person had seen anything. Really! Phones, chatting, general tiredness all around, in my case asleep. We all knew the outline of what had happened and it took only a few seconds for the details to traverse a hundred people and the length of the bus, four cars, impatient, quickly whipping around another trying to turn left and into the bus' lane, a fifth, who realised too late that there would not be enough space to cut off the bus -- and a bus driver who reacted barely in time to avert one accident, and so caused another.

No win for him, here: and it was outside my ability entirely to help him not lose. I wish I had seen something of it, but accident reports demand seeing, not simply knowing ... and in the end the only alteration to my day was that I was half an hour late to my meeting.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

Time:6:37 pm.
Two more talks in a season of talks -- and considering the reputation I am rapidly acquiring as a shit-disturber (for no other reason than that I am fearless in asking the questions that tend to shake the unquestioned foundations ... where I think there is there is some point, that is: for I see no point in questioning what is held as an article of faith): I was asked by a friend, gently, to be kind?

Half-expected in light of the subject matter and in fact it was so: that both sets of analyses were given by hard-core conservatives, high-level advisors within the Reagan and both Bush administrations.

The first, examining the new Iraqi constitution, ranked among the most solid analyses I have yet heard anywhere: underlying issues, what had gone before ... in short, not only solid identification and understanding of the core problem, but with context such as to enable a direction for true, meaningful, and long-term solution. (Yet though the audience recognised and acknowledged the sheer depth of substance and consideration, the speaker still could not resist three liberal digs: petty, against the rest.) I could not even find a question to ask here: building solutions rather than focussing on the faults of others, foundation solid beyond my capacity to pick holes, too much positive potential. It is much better than the three-territory division I had envisioned, glued together by Baghdad as separate territory. For now, suffice it to say that this has a real chance of working; that what has been built here has a real chance of (in time) holding the country together, in peace. I know I will be returning to the substance of this one later, perhaps as part of examining federal policy as product of different approaches to multiculturalism as it applies in three or four different countries. (Iraq certainly, France certainly, one of the immigrant cultures [though I might have to treat the United States and Canada separately], maybe Yugoslavia, any other suggestions for exploration?)

The subject of the second talk was risk assessment and weapons of mass destruction / the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): but it could have more accurately been titled something along the lines of "What We Have To Do To Preserve Our Way Of Life". The first, stated assumption of the talk was that there will always be some young men who turn out "bad" everywhere in the world: how do we minimise the chances that they will harm us? Unspoken assumptions included:
  1. the fundamental "right-ness" and benevolence of the United States and the doctrines it evangelises;
  2. the inherent rationality of those doctrines;
  3. the obligation to educate others into those doctrines, for fear of what someone not educated into those doctrines might do with modern technology;
  4. and thus that anyone who opposes those doctrines is irrational, and anyone who opposes those (non-violent, non-coercive) doctrines is BAD.
This set of assumptions leads logically to the true (if unspoken) question threading its way through the entire talk of how should we limit other countries to protect the United States? (it went without saying that there was no perceived obligation -- or even question -- of considering the inverse) -- as well as a second, quieter thread of a moral and rational superiority that our hands are somehow more trustworthy with these technologies than those of others.

I did not ask a foundation-challenging question here, for the reason stated at the first: I don't challenge another's belief structure. After much hesitation, I finally did ask one of internal consistency, and overtly identified it as of a heretical, "devil's advocate" nature: does the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty actually reduce risk of a nuclear incident?

(Someone else had already asked earlier about the credibility gaps that arise when a nation has the freedom to withdraw from a previously-signed treaty: and eventually the questioner had to bring up the point that other countries besides the traditional "rogue states" had done so ... including the United States itself. To which the answer came that there is a right way and a wrong way to withdraw from treaties ... and the rest of that answer is readily extrapolable.)

To my question, he answered that this was a valid issue, which was why the point was to explain to other nations why the NPT was in their best interest. I really didn't see the value of pursuing it further at that point.

By way of context, I offer here a hypothesis I have slowly been evolving in this blog and in the linked discussion boards, that the actualities of national policy -- or for that matter anything born of a group which shares a common group-identity -- follow the same patterns as the psychology of individuals: in which case how is the United States constitutionally-sanctioned right to bear arms fundamentally different from a sovereign nation's right to arm itself in whatever manner it sees fit?

Two talks by persons of parallel -- perhaps for all intents and voting purposes identical -- politics: yet one constructive, one destructive. One foundationed on a fundamental belief that persons of all races/colours/creeds are trustworthy with high technologies and resources and can potentially work together to build. The other foundationed on a fundamental belief that persons of other races/colours/creeds are always potentially untrustworthy with the same technologies as we need to hold for ourselves to protect ourselves from them.

Which is the true view of conservatism in the United States? Are both? Is either?
Comments: share your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 15th, 2005

Subject:Group self vs. individualism
Time:9:08 pm.
He understood one rule, that waste was death; that what one gave the desert it never gave back, to world's end.

He did what he knew to do, which was to yield nothing.

- C.J.Cherryh, The Faded Sun: Kutath

Communities at the edge of subsistence have communal identity: each person growing up within a structure of understanding from their earliest sense of self-awareness equally an understanding of self-as-group, knowing what is needed and where one fits in; as it was, is, and so shall be. Such a group identity can cede no flexibility, for to experiment is to risk extinction against a pitiless nature; yet similarly such a group identity has no flexibility to adjust to changing external circumstance.

It requires cities to develop individualism, through specialisation and consequent coordinating centralisation: but also individualism to adapt to a changing environment, to adjust for better or for worse ... and, sometimes, to evolve.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Monday, November 14th, 2005

Subject:And if I were to generalise?
Time:9:31 pm.
Back in my minimum wage days (of which there were many!), years before 9/11, one particular job required somehow getting to a location not accessible except by automobile. I had none, so I shared a ride with my work partner, paying my share of the gasoline.

I bit my tongue hard each time I entered the vehicle. Radio on maximum volume, windows open, pedal to the metal. Capable driver, but thoughtless and a speeder besides: I don't think we did less than 160 kph on any one of those freeway stretches (illegal). Although, capable: it was not likely he was going to get us into any accidents. He also happened to be rather thoughtless about his job -- and I, unhappily the senior of the two, was placed in the position of "suggesting" changes, lest the disciplinary arm fall on us both.

He was black, had held a military officer's position in the Sudan, and was a Muslim. He told me directly that if he were ever stopped by the police, he would claim racism. I am white. To this day he thinks I am racist.

And now, the true irony: it so happened I was studying Islam and Islamic history at the time, very much by choice. When he was telling me his stories, I was listening, learning, asking questions (carefully). I don't know how many others would have winced at the Arabic music of his preference -- but my wincing was not at the music (which I found unique and fascinating) but at the painful volume at which it was played. I made the mistake of asking him, carefully, to turn it down.

He turned it off.

And now, a second story, of a second individual, white, who knew, absolutely and beyond the shadow of a doubt, that every negative thing that had ever happened to him and to the country was the fault of Muslims: and further held that all Muslims could never be truly loyal to their country of birth, and thus should be deported out of hand. Perhaps the only reason he had not taken his conviction that one, deadly step forward was because he still respected, not the law, but the practical descent of law. He had been trying very hard to get an innocent person in our small cluster of offices convicted for last year's rash of break-ins -- I had first-hand reason to learn the absolute for-sure innocence, the one time when I came close enough to catching the true culprits to cause them to drop the laptop they were carrying -- and then he additionally tried to assign blame upon me (wrong place, wrong time) when the building manager had finally had enough.

I see the individual, each person separately; and know what I have seen to be of the individual only. It would be very easy to generalise, no doubt there are other individuals out there who share in some of these traits -- but there are also many who don't. I had and have no solution for this specific situation: we parted ways, I don't think we have encountered each other since. I can only recognise that among the diversity that comprises all people, some (of all colours and creeds!) will try to seek advantage they have not earned; and that some people are not all people or even most people.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

Time:10:52 pm.
People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.
- Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes)

Always, I seem to be the only one who has absolutely no desire to repeat any day of my life. Not aversion, just, well, this is a new day: why repeat what is gone? I don't see what is over through sepia-coloured glasses, and so I have no nostalgia in me for what is past. I deal, rather, with the now. Past has made me what I am, future is branched potential. Now is where I exist, where my choices exist. I do value the understanding born of memory and experience, understanding which is the foundation of what I am and of what will be; and which will thus (I hope!) help me to make my choices well in the future, some suggested spectre of consequences past suggesting possible (but not certain!) similar consequences in future given a close-to-identical choice-making environment: but understanding is not clinging to a thing already frozen and drifting away in time.

(It is reported, in the Platonic dialogues and through scraps of information elsewhere, that Socrates had a very poor opinion of reading. He claimed that the ability to read destroyed reliance on memory and consequently memory itself, since one could always look up again what one needed to "remember", thus undercutting the need for memory. And it is true enough that the feats of memory common to many members of illiterate cultures dwarf all our sophisticated information-retrieval systems. After all, why remember, when Blackberry lets us always Google?)

While re-living a memory could readily harden us ever more solidly within its mould: would re-living make the memory itself, positive or negative, any stronger? Weaken it rather, I should think: call it the difference between having and not having. Things never to be had again are re-created in our minds, ultimately to become something they never were; but more: the awareness that something one had deemed permanently inaccessible -- and thus remembered perhaps the more intensely -- has suddenly regained accessibility. Never mind that it is only for one revisiting: the rules have been broken once, and so now carry the possibility of being broken again. Part of the treasure of the moment is its uniqueness: for it to acquire the illusion of accessibility dilutes that uniqueness.

Treasure the memories, the good and the bad ... and know when to release.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

Subject:Play as learning
Time:8:21 pm.
We generally think of play as functionless or else actively escapist: distraction, diversion from the "real" world of work-linked learning: yet unstructured play is no less learning for being less or even non-goal-oriented. In smaller towns, while growing up, sports remain more actively "play" than in the highly-structured leagues and practice schedules common to the fields and rinks of larger cities.

For N. American hockey and baseball at least, one study (to be published in Journal of Sports Sciences) has now found a distinct correlation; with proportionately the most professional male baseball and hockey players -- almost three times as many as would be expected in proportion to male population alone -- coming from places of between 50,000 and 100,000 population: large enough to have the facilities, small enough to allow less-rigidly scheduled access to those facilities, perceived safe enough to allow children to play in the yards and the streets and thus to develop on their own their natural aptitudes -- in play. In contrast, only half as many professional male baseball and hockey players as would otherwise be expected come from larger cities (of above 500,000 population): far below the expected pool of talent.

The same study also shows a link with birth date, with professional athletes much more likely have birth dates in the first half of the year. Two straightforward possibilities here: first that although children and later professional players (at the initial recruitment phases) are sorted by age, children born closer to the beginning of the year will have had almost a year's more physical development than children born toward its end; and second that children born near the beginning of the year in a four-seasons country in the northern hemisphere will have acquired crawling and walking skills by the time summer arrives. (Auzzies and Kiwis: you now have a point of comparison and potential contrast :D)
Comments: share your thoughts.

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

Subject:La vrai France
Time:12:30 pm.
Oh, good.

Let's allow the French-born children of immigrants to grow up within the mythology of being French, one France, all equal under possibility and under the law. Let's take every opportunity to reinforce this mythology that anyone born in France is equal with every other person born in France. (Oh, and France has no ghettos.)

Let's take every opportunity to strip any visible cultural heritage from them at the growing-up stage -- for in France, you are French, yes? (No matter that it just so happens that the only religions affected at their core happen to be non-Christian.) Above all, we don't want their parents to brainwash them into a cultural system that shouldn't be theirs, equal opportunity and all that ... although we can allow them to build private schools if they want, once they have the local community money to build and support them: the second generation is French after all, equal under the law of economics.

After all, no one can say we did not learn from the example of the Canadian aboriginal residential schools.

Let's finally release these second-generation children out of an education severed, made barren of their roots. Let them venture into the working world as equals with every other French-born child raised within the same structure, empty of their own heritage, filled with the natural expectation that they, as much as any native son of France, have with everyone else an equal chance to succeed under the law: for France is secular and colour-blind.

Cover from all the media and let simmer for a few decades. A few odd incidents in a few (not-really French) suburbs are a non-story after all: and it is our patriotic duty to ensure that business and tourists and exchange students recognise that they remain perfectly safe, please do continue to invest your money and to visit? (but just not those parts of the cities).

Then, when the mixing pot begins to boil over, let's impose a law dating from colonial times, enacted specifically for the purpose of subduing native unrest in Algeria; and let's also deport anyone involved who did not have the fortune to be born in la belle France. That ought to demonstrate to the young marginalised second-generation men of African and Muslim descent beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are truly French.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

Subject:Not us
Time:4:46 pm.
O, but we do hold our sacred cows to be sacred indeed. What point, else?

Above all we must never Never NEVER entertain, even in the potential, even in the abstract, the least possibility that what we observe and study in others might possibly apply to ourselves as well: and if any source even suggests otherwise we must deliberately close our eyes lest we see something which challenges our identity-linked truths -- and do our utmost to undermine their credibility as well, lest another, less knowledgeable than us, accidentally encounter them and form a wrong opinion.

Which, of course, is how history repeats.

The stages of genocide, perhaps inextricably linked with religion, nationality, and economics (especially where a reasonably comfortable and established socioeconomic class has been displaced or otherwise eroded and its circumstances worsened), are commonly considered to be:
  1. Classification: in which people are separated into groups classified by some key trait (race, religion, nationality ...): specifying and then exclusively focussing on the key difference, and thus introducing and promoting an "us vs. them" attitude.
  2. Symbolisation: in which the difference used to identify "them" is linked to a symbol or cataloguing system.
  3. Dehumanisation: in which members of one group are likened to animals, vermin or disease; and commonly mythologies or distorted truths are spread about them as well.
  4. Organisation: in which newspapers and radios begin spreading these dehumanising messages, hate groups are organised, and militias are formed, trained, and armed.
  5. Polarisation: in which extremists drive the two groups apart, emphasising "us" vs. "them", "if you are not with us, you are against us"; moderates and those attempting to be neutral are increasingly denounced as unpatriotic or traitors and are actively persecuted. This is usually the point where the killing begins: and instantly the message that spreads is one of kill or be killed.
Thus far, perhaps, we might just recognise (and uncomfortably close upon our porches yet): but there are eight stages in all, and still time to step aside. Yet knowledge implies duty: and by the time we decide -- are willing even to see -- what is happening, it is over?

Why can't we see? Not our problem? Not in our backyard? (and are we so very sure about that?) Too terrifying, too unreal to contemplate? Look in the mirror, at the wolf lurking closely behind your eyes -- and then look closely at what is happening all around you. Why should we think that we, uniquely, are somehow exempt?

But perhaps, just this once, the next two stages we won't have to learn about except in textbooks of ancient history -- leaving us finally free of the need to Deny.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Subject:Conversations, in understanding and in silence
Time:6:24 pm.
As I ran for yet another lecture, running toward me on the sidewalk another: and this time it was I who happened to be on the side visible to the bus driver. Quick exchange of unspoken communication:
  • hand half-raised, glance in his direction: yes?
  • his head shake: no
  • nod of acknowledgement, hand lowered
  • further mutual nod of thanks and acceptance, quirk of smile on both sides.
How many of these unspoken conversations have I had, each and every day? What had it cost me? Complete understanding, not one word spoken -- and the day a little brighter on both sides for it.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

Subject:Free trade
Time:11:25 pm.
The current conventional capitalist wisdom is still that
Freer and fairer trade will lift more human beings out of poverty than all of the assistance programs in the world combined.
- Paul Martin, Prime Minister of Canada
However, the minor problem with establishing a free trade zone of all the Americas is that the participants do have some right to expect it to be a multilateral free trade zone in more than name.

Quite apart from the strong and suddenly sharply visible polarisation between socialist movements and big business; quite apart from Chavez' and a significant percentage of the world's claims that the United States government is fascist and imperialistic (and for the first time in a long time, both polarities now each have a rallying face); quite apart even from knowing that an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FFAA), the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), does exist: any unofficial observer can easily identify multiple instances in which the United States -- and the European Union, and just about every other developed country -- seems to expect free trade to flow in one direction, but subsidies to be allowed to stand in the other.

The wisdom holds firmly that embracing the equation of supply and demand is the path toward a global utopia ... and yet many non-western countries, after an initial externally-enforced shift away from their original multifunctional agriculture in favour of export-oriented monocultures, have for decades and sometimes centuries been firmly locked into fixed single-commodity export economies upon which they are now highly dependent, but upon which they have far too small a share of the world market to be able to exert any real influence. Post-colonial countries whose native agricultures have been overhauled to benefit the then-colonising country are particularly vulnerable: witness, for example, Guyana's irrelevance to the world at large as a rice market, its almost complete inability to influence the price of rice regardless of whether or not it chooses to sell -- and yet 40% of Guyana's foreign exchange revenue comes from its rice exports.

Freer trade in isolation can never alter this equation: but it can reduce the international price of rice further by playing off one small -- or sometimes even not-so-small -- country against the other. Net agricultural and raw resources exporters lose. Net importers of these commodities win.

Refusal to honour existing bilateral and multilateral trade agreements only exacerbates these issues, even among countries that come perhaps as close to approximating parity as perhaps any country can with the sole remaining superpower. The United States has repeatedly defaulted in its commitment to free trade even within the much smaller-scale, three-partner North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The softwood lumber dispute in particular is fast reaching notoriety in Canada. Every avenue of appeal has determined in Canada's favour, that United States tariffs are inappropriately (and under NAFTA, illegally) high: yet the government of the United States refuses to alter the situation. In fact, even after all avenues of appeal have been exhausted and repeated judgements for true free trade have been repeatedly ignored by the United States, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice still tells Canada bluntly that:
I think it's extremely important not to speak in apocalyptic language about this issue. It is an important issue, but it is a trade dispute ... I think the word of the United States has been as good as gold in its international dealings and in its agreements.
- quoted in the Globe and Mail
to which Canadian International Trade Minister Jim Peterson retorts:
We've been off the gold standard for an awful long time in this country. We want to see NAFTA respected.
Yet United States citizens would have no way of realising that there is even an issue here, let alone that perhaps they, even more than their neighbour to the north, stand to benefit directly if the NAFTA rulings were to be followed. Even on CNN and FOX newscasts concerned about the escalating cost of building lumber due to increased demand (eg. as a result of Hurricane Katrina): no mention whatsoever is made of this "trade dispute" ... even though simply abiding by the terms of NAFTA could bring the cost of building lumber in the United States down significantly and quickly. In the face of such deliberate stonewalling, Canadian options -- outside an outright trade war -- are non-existent.

And so we come full circle, back to the free trade-supporting prime minister of a G8 country which has always considered itself more friend than ally to the United States:
The fact is that President Fox, myself, President Bush, all of us believe strongly in the free trade of the Americas. But we know that it's got to be based on rules -- and rules that are listened to.
- Paul Martin
How then to be able to embrace a Free Trade Area of the Americas? How to still believe that, in the question of free trade, the United States is truly acting in good faith?
Comments: share your thoughts.

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Subject:Sympathy, without action?
Time:5:24 pm.
Running from behind for the bus as I have so often run for buses before: traffic signal just against me, sprinting the separating distance against the maybe, counting down the distance in bus-lengths of 12 metres each, five, four, shouting to try to gain the driver's attention, knowing I could not possibly be visible in his mirrors and unable to manoeuvre so I would be.

She was walking toward me, on my side of the road, and as she was in front of the bus she could see both me and it clearly. More importantly, the bus driver could clearly see her, as he could not see me.

She watched me with sympathy, and lifted not a finger to help.

The bus, having finished loading, pulled away.

"Happens all the time," she tells me mournfully, with feeling and intention of kindness -- but I cut her off, not angrily (too used to missing buses to be angry), but matter-of-factly: "Couldn't you have waved at him? He saw you."

Shock. Maybe she was insulted as well, I don't know. Clearly she had never even considered it. It took her a couple of moments: "You are asking me?" And then, when it was clear that I was, we continued each on our way without a single further word, I already thinking about the next thing the day held for me, she -- I don't know.

In that moment, I had transformed the non-action from a quiet act of fellow human being empathy, to well, what are you going to do about it?

Not a responsibility for the other I had placed on her, but an awareness that sympathy by itself is useless: that there was something she could have done, a very easy intervention that would have cost her nothing and would have worked -- and because it was not something which would have there-and-then benefitted her (but not because she had other things on her mind! for she had been watching me, and her first words showed that her mind was on my situation), it had never even entered her radar.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Friday, November 4th, 2005

Subject:On the nature of triggers
Time:4:05 pm.
Every one of us has triggers which cause us to react, often blindly. Not one of us is exempt. The most that can ever be done is to identify those triggers for oneself, to identify from whence they arise: and so, a little, diminish their power -- but it is not a thing that can be done by any other person; and demonstrating their existence by continually and deliberately evoking them tends to make them even more difficult to see.

Knowing those triggers exist, knowing also how easy it is to touch one: is that a good enough reason in itself to provoke? To provoke: just because we know we can?

It is certainly a seductive thing, having identified a trigger in another, knowing that it is within our control to manipulate the other; that in this small way at least, we have utter power over the other. Children study how to exploit their parents from the moment they are born. Siblings and very social children additionally learn how to adapt such exploitation to peers and near-peers. Even as, left to itself, a violin string remains silent, mute: it is a necessary part of growing up, this mutual agitation, in discovering a mutual human harmony. Gradually a détente is reached -- or not, where one makes themself clearly so dominant in the group that there is no longer any need to compromise with the other, to anything except one's own self-satisfaction. Do we justify our own self-gratification in pushing another's buttons by telling ourselves it is for their own good, that we seek to make the other aware that those triggers exist, as a first step to examining and then neutralising? Yet who can decide what is "good" for another person, in their best interests? Outside perspective lends one greater view, at the expense of personal awareness. Knowledge may not always be desirable, nor may it always be the right time to inflict it.

I would say, look in the mirror and identify first what must not be touched in ourselves: yet that for some reason, we avoid like the plague.

Do we deliberately push the triggers of other people, as a way of trying to hide our own?
Comments: share your thoughts.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Subject:Tant pis
Time:8:50 pm.
For all that I promote and actively seek out non-violent resolutions, I can still recognise when violence lurks close beneath an obscuring skin of nominal syncretic secularism, an assumed melting pot of liberté, égalité, fraternité. "Nominal", I say: because the only real contact most non pieds-noirs had with freshly-Parisienned cultures shaped outside the Revolution and Napoléon had been with those who had successfully managed to conceal or altogether erode their differences: Muslims who drank wine, Jews who carefully left their yarmulkes at their homes or their private schools. If my only contact with the diverse ethnicities of France -- and for that matter Europe (for, as with the results of the German election earlier, the hidden tensions again suggest the underlying, waiting rift, in microcosm) -- were through those who had fully and willingly assimilated -- surrendered -- into the dominant culture, I too might have been tempted to name the latest Republic of France a melting pot success.

That assimilation might perhaps not have been as complete as has been held by the prevailing mythology required only a pair of catalytic deaths to illustrate, on a canvas of shattered glass.

Yet to reduce what is erupting out now to a simple question of religion, of anti-Muslim or anti-Jew or anti-anything else that is not pur laine françoise is, again, to avoid the core of the matter: to abrogate any personal responsibility within one's own country by saying yet again, "We are a secular country, it is obviously a religious thing, let them sort it out (and because it is between them, it cannot involve us)." Yet now, for the first time openly (but after many, many incidents buried quietly on the back pages of newspapers, when they were reported at all): it does involve us. The initial symptoms, always, selectively culturally repressive laws, selective heavy unemployment; the initial targets of backlash, when violence of this nature finally erupts into the open, always begin with property and the symbols of authority. Appropriate use of law enforcement personnel and/or military -- which has not yet happened, every person in a position of appropriate responsibility reluctant and borderline terrified to venture into this disturbed hornet's nest -- will certainly resolve the immediate violence. At the very least it will involve arrests. Yet arrests by themselves won't neutralise the lurking violence but will only drive it underground: and the next time, it will be worse.

Mixing pot indeed. Culture, religion, economic marginalisation: held perpetually on the fringes of a system structured over decades, lifetimes, to force away from public view all that is different and thus perceived as potential threat. But this is only one manifestation of what is lurking throughout Europe, what (for the peace!) must keep the crack of a door open to Turkish European Union membership while firmly resisting the actuality: fear of a plentitude of cheap labour all too willing to embrace economic opportunities -- but on their own terms, preserving those elements of personal culture which are perceived as core to personal identity: and that must be unacceptable in a mixing pot society which has already confirmed for itself, through revolution and empire and two world wars, the appropriate appearance of the proper alloy and which fears the change which hovers on its doorstep.Eid al-Fitr
The response of every relatively well-to-do western society in such circumstances has always been to shut its borders officially, but to leave them porous to the half-world of permanently non-citizen residents needed for the labour to maintain its standard of living. If an immigrant is to succeed in such a society, he or she must abandon everything that has been deemed unsuitable, other than equal -- less than equal, against the French measuring rod -- and if what must be abandoned is identity itself, tant pis. Thus tolerance, yes, but only on sufferance: retain any true differences of identity and that tolerance will evaporate the moment it is truly tested. Economic differentials, inviegled with culture and religion and a built-in useful second cultural other that is gradually being forced into a new diaspora, as it gradually becomes apparent that a façade of national tolerance and acceptance does not translate into any national desire for this second ethnic minority to be any less of a target for others, by way of keeping that simmering violence away from us.

France, and the European Union as a whole (and it waits for every other western country as well), is hovering at a crossroads. The choice is clear: preserve what you are at whatever human cost, or accept the hovering tidal wave of change. But make no mistake: either path will destroy something dear to the hearts of some.

Happy Eid al-Fitr.
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Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

Subject:The illusion of consensus
Time:9:42 pm.
Medical consensus as objective compromise is an illusion. Rhetoric is a powerful tool to achieve consensus, in science as in politics. Tom Siegfried tells that "assessing scientific issues using ... politics is a sure way to reach faulty conclusions": which is precisely true! Scientific consensus is not the same as objective data. The second is a series of observations (altered, necessarily, by the presence of the observer); while the first is a collective interpretation of those observations. Scientific theory states that every measuring instrument alters that which it measures. Why should the valuations of scientists be any different?

Scientists and politicians do not play by different rules. Scientists and politicians alike are human, and must be understood in human terms. Evidence may be objective, but under the white coats of those determining its value lie some very human reactions: and so human rules apply to interpretation of evidence. Scientists, no less than politicians, make judgements based on academic opinion, party platform, grant contribution, advertising copy, and opponents' motivations. In science as in politics, there are no points for second place.

Behind each media theory-of-the-hour focus exist several theories capable of explaining observed data: many forced into obscurity solely because they challenge the scientific status quo. Traditionally such obscurity has been easy to accomplish. Papers are or are not accepted to journals and conferences based as much on the reputation of their authors (and of the theories supported by those authors) as on scientific merit. Papers contrary to current scientific canon are less likely to be accepted. Not only is it more difficult to disprove absolutely than to support marginally, but more rigorous testing and stricter p-values are commonly (if unconsciously) demanded of negative papers than of positive ones. Nor does the negative result usually achieve patentable breakthroughs -- and may indeed discourage continued use of the old -- while grant monies, public and private, continue to be contingent on established reputation, as measured by published papers.

Yet editors are human too, as much trapped within their reputations as those seeking to publish revolutionary results: for it is upon the editor that any misstep will rebound. Peer review circumvents the editor's absolute veto by dividing the paper's fate among one to three peer reviewers, selected from among those with established reputations. Certainly those who have accomplished the most and earned a credible reputation would normally be most capable of making the best assessments: were true objectivity possible. Instead, peer review creates only the illusion of objectivity, and adds to it the illusion of objective consensus. It does not grant a paper a more objective review. Yet many medical consensus guidelines are not even peer-reviewed - and so are especially vulnerable to advertisers keeping the journal solvent.

The Internet has changed these rules. One's decisions need no longer be decided by a scientific clique: but one must accept the presence of fallacy as well as potentiality. Much of what is on the Internet is total myth -- but some is not. We risk drowning in information -- but complete suppression of ideas is no longer viable. Except, perhaps, by public opinion: as shaped by the scientific consensus and the media sanction.

In this "free-for-all" environment it becomes one's own responsibility to become a discriminating reader, teaching oneself to evaluate what one reads. Not all debunking is the result of persecution: but one should remember precisely what is meant by "theory." A hypothesis expresses potential results. A theory is a more widely casting hypothesis, proposed as a "best fit" explanation for the observed evidence. It may be developed empirically to explain obtained results, or built on the groundwork of previous theories. Future experiments may support the theory, or they may disprove it. The greater the number of experiments showing support, the more likely the theory becomes: yet it must remain theory, a human explanation for human observation of objective evidence. No experiment can prove, absolutely. It can only provide support for one explanation or another, or, potentially, provide support against existing explanations.

Yet the stakes behind the validity of a scientific theory can indeed be much more serious than sports. Too serious, perhaps, to allow theory to dogmatize into scientific canon on the sole basis of who supports which party, or who stands to gain. Not to take into account a potential worst case scenario, be the person politician or scientist, is nothing less than criminal: but to prepare for the worst is not the same thing as automatically accepting that worst theory as fact. Political rhetoric may not alter scientific evidence, but to assume that scientific evidence interpreted as supporting a specific theory is identical to equating that theory with fact is worse than irresponsible.

Is it not by refusing to acknowledge existing lenses of subjective medical consensus that we most distort our own potential vision?
Comments: share your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Subject:Age of Reason
Time:6:53 pm.
Perhaps we would like to think we live in an Age of Reason, where all our actions are defined by some objective rationality.

And yet yesterday, costumed children were met at a hundred million doors and given candy by total strangers who pretend not to recognise them, and today candles are lit at a hundred million graves.

Two secularised customs, separated by thousands of kilometres and an ocean, linked by a common religious rootstock. And somehow, in this rational-ised world: they still manage to thrive.
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Monday, October 31st, 2005

Subject:Patronage, by any other name
Time:6:54 pm.
There was a time when individual patrons, most commonly among the aristocracy (and the higher-ranked members of the local dominant religion, where such enjoyed the privileges of de facto aristocrats) stepped in to provide funding for artists and scientists: for research that was not practical immediately and might indeed take some time to become practical and/or paying for itself; for creative aspects of humanity that always seem to be valued in the abstract and only rarely in currencies translatable to filling an artist's stomach. The process for establishing oneself under another's patronage could be as simple or as complex as having one's work seen by the future patron. The obligation of the patron was to cover the protegé's basic cost of living, with perhaps a occasional bonus of favour. In return, the scientist or artist was expected to demonstrate loyalty toward the patron, to work toward the patron's ends within their means, and occasionally to come up with an appropriate exhibition or two.

Today the system still exists, sometimes even in its original form: but most often by far the new patrons are corporations and governments, the aim is for much more immediate bottom-line pay-off (in parallel with how much faster the clock seems to be running upon us all), and what is not seen to have any direct fiscal value (eg. most art) is humoured along only insofar as public relations coax out a supplemental profit. Pride of display and pride in encouragement of talent have been thrust out of their place by end results, the sooner/more likely the better. The payment structure itself has morphed into the world of the foundation and the grant, the application a series of flaming hoops so unnecessarily convoluted that an increasing number of research institutions hire -- indeed, have to hire, lest this work take even further away from the core research -- full-time grant writers and researchers, or outsource to a specialised firm, for the specific purpose of finding out what is available and then draughting all the proposals ... and yet the purpose here is the same as it has always been: to get the work being done to be seen by the potential patron.

Whether the funding is private or government, patronage has become a major business ... and are its protegés, the ones around whom the entire system is centred, any better off for the transformation? Are they able to be any more focussed upon their work, without those annoying distractions such as bill collectors or trying to figure out how to pay that month's rent? Are they any more independent of their new patron, be it government programme or private enterprise, than they have ever been?
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Sunday, October 30th, 2005

Time:5:45 pm.
Truly, everything I have touched this past week has tried to let me know that various minor components of the universe are on the lookout for me to flirt with that old teasing concept of "getting ahead": let alone that actual real possibility of finally managing to break even again, possibly even by the end of the year, through the efforts of my own pen. The non-traditional employment had begun to provide small hints that maybe, just maybe, I had finally managed to find a fit that contemporary structure does not allow for (in large part because contemporary structure has a vested interest in remaining as it is, and I have a constant interest in how it could be made better).

And now? Well, first I try to figure out what happened: and in a way I hope it is not simply that elements combined to make the project too successful, too quickly, for this is distrusted in today's world ... and yet I suspect this is exactly what did happen through September/October. Then, after the weekend, explanation, and appeal.

Hope that for once, simple truth is taken at its face value.
Comments: share your thoughts.

Saturday, October 29th, 2005

Subject:Some days, some weeks
Time:5:32 pm.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you've done a line or two
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old black joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows

And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of calvary
To the beach of malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this sacred heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

- Leonard Cohen

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Friday, October 28th, 2005

Subject:When information is replaced by policy
Time:10:35 pm.
Once she had been a finance minister. A few years ago, she had retired into a professorship. Today and the two days before, she had been invited, at a handsome speaker's fee, to discuss the health care system.

The first two days was given us a solid foundation, wherein I discovered much that I had not known previously; and within the new data and new context I began to think of earlier things in different ways.

As the series of talks progressed, it was becoming increasingly obvious that through sheer coincidence the serendipitous mental filing cabinet I had accumulated over the years happened to be the exact complement to her own, fitting into the holes in the structure she presented like a hand into a glove. As I raised these complementary (but sometimes requiring re-assessment) points, it quickly became just as obvious that her purpose in giving these talks was not actually to inform, in the unbiased sense of the word, and certainly not to divert in the slightest from the opinion she had already formed. At some point, learning had been chosen to come to an end: to be replaced by a mutual recognition society of regular mutual invitations to pleasant, mutual reinforcement lunches and dinners. So far as those outside the inner circle went, our presence at these talks was desirable only insofar as we trotted obediently in line with the trail she had already decided upon, based on the only knowledge she would allow herself to consider.

The third day, strict data was quietly replaced by interpretation and foundation was quietly, almost invisibly, replaced by party policy: and of those other outsiders in the listen besides myself, not one seemed to notice.
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