Sunday, 23 November 2014

Has Canada become boorish?

At the time of typing up of this entry, the Harper Government is announcing "Road to Mental Readiness"—apparently, "new" funding for war vets' mental health program (a thinly veiled, highly cynical bid for re-election as everyone knows). Given Harper's track record for the treatment of our society's most vulnerable—including and especially—our military's wounded and broken, we can already expect lapsed funding given that Michael Blais (an out-spoken veterans' advocate who has a blog: says right after the announcement that this comes from a government that has fought tooth-and-nail to be recognized in courts that it has no constitutional obligation, no "social contract/covenant", to care for our war vets.

It is bad enough that the Harper Government has had to be shamed into making this announcement.

According to Michael Harris' Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover, Stephen Harper is third generation admirer of all things military. Neither his grandfather nor his father nor Stephen Harper himself have ever gone further than military wannabes—I'd surmise that actually enlisting into active service would break the spell. But one can rightly imagine these Harper men (during wars of their generation) goose-stepping around the house, imposing regimentation on their unfortunate charges, pontificating on the nobility of military service when not actually telling "war stories".


It is truly ironic that a self-avowed military/historical buff would spurn not only our military but also the actual field in which a military force would carry the stick. Here is a quote from Harris' Party of One:

As a politician, this prime minister seems to look out from a kind of intellectual suburbia onto a cosmopolitan world that is poorly understood, uninteresting, and perhaps even unimportant to him except in terms of the economic opportunities it provides. It is his instinctive position. When Harper was a Reform MP, Preston Manning tried to broaden his acolyte's horizons by introducing him to the virgin territory of foreign affairs. Harper balked. "One thing that did surprise me about Stephen as an MP. He had no interest in international stuff," Manning told me. "We simply couldn't get him to travel."

Perhaps it was Harper's parochial bent; perhaps it was a deeply ingrained mistrust of international politics, diplomacy, or leaders with different views than himself. whatever the reason, soon after winning his majority government in 2011, Stephen Harper became the proverbial skunk at the diplomatic garden. (Harris 2014, p.218)

Harper certainly cops a good line that, though hardly ever original, is always peppered with value-laden terms: duty, a strong Canada, an energy superpower, patriotism, etc. But all this comes from a man that Preston Manning says: "Stephen doesn't think words mean very much".

Heaven forbid that an actual big-leaguer like Putin should ever call us out on Harper's rhetoric: Harper has so far been proven an inept leader when it comes to military procurement especially when his rhetoric on the Canadian Arctic has not translated at all into actually producing the ice-breakers to monitor and enforce our claims to not only the Northwest Passage but the North Pole no less.

Harper definitely has "book knowledge" but it seems nothing more than an impressive talent for rote memorization of required reading without much understanding of the real implications and applications of the briefing. As I said: Boorish.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

A case for meaning-based translation

As a linguist I am constantly floored by the genius of the human language. In its un-self-conscious state (ie, without the pressure of translation), all human languages epitomize Leo Tolstoy's opening line in Anna Karenina:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The extremely robust structure of the human language is information-rich—meaning that, if a particular language is structured in such a way as to preclude one way of expression, it will always find a way to express that self-same semantic content/grammatical motive by other means, all this in a meaningfully explicable way.

There is such a thing as an "Anna Karenina Principle", which (in part) states that:

All well-adapted systems are alike, all non-adapted systems experience maladaptation in their own way. (

The use of unconventional English has become the norm in many aboriginal communities especially among those individuals who've never been exposed to "well-adapted systems" to begin with—external factors such as abject poverty, lack of sustainable role models (both literary* and social role models), unresponsive institutions (school, families, society, church, government programs, criminal justice and health services, etc.): any single one of these factors would have a heavy toll on anyone so, as a complex, it is a wonder that anyone even survives.

*I mean here not just the written word but also the oral traditions.

Linguistic competence (in any language), then, is a serviceable measure of potential for thriving or suffering. A well-articulated expression of need (either by the translator or "client(s)" (for lack of a better term)) is often the single most important determining factor of a given outcome. As an advocate for Inuit rights and language (in general, human rights), I've always seen my role as a translator/interpreter as an ethical imperative.

Having a broad base of awareness and knowledge of the human experience (literary, technical, philosophical, cultural, etc.) is a fine and good thing, but it is often not enough without a workable conceptual framework behind it. What I have found that seems to work beautifully (at least for me) is the notion of Jungian archetypes, which, at the end of the day, is really about cultivating semiotics sensitivity.

Semiotics is the science of interpreting signs within a constellation of factors that determine the meaning(s) of a sign. The beauty of signs is that they are not language-specific but productively open to anyone who bothers to acquire the perspective with which to receive and interpret them.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a learning experience of a group of professional interpreters who specialize in medical interpreting (Inuktitut and English). Many did not know all the medical terminology we touched upon, but does that mean they didn't know what they were doing? Au contraire! Some had worked for years as medical interpreters and their knowledge was impressive (both in Inuktitut and English).

Where I saw issues arise was in the quality of (the Inuktitut) teaching material and assessment tools which consisted almost entirely of word lists (ie, with no thought given to context, description and definition) and unrelated comprehensive tests. The students did much better, on the main, in the English portion where they could actually demonstrate their knowledge and understanding at the conceptual and practical levels.

In one particular instance, we spent an afternoon talking about blood types and some students had knowledge not covered in the material, and offered knowledge of the concepts more detailed than the material itself. But this did not guarantee any opportunity to demonstrate that working knowledge in the Inuktitut final exam where the only reference to the concept itself was in the isolated word "blood group". Some got the translation right but many (even the ones who had offered details about the concepts in the classroom) literally translated the phrase. -I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts, in the English version of the final exam, they got the answer down pat.

The opportunity to engage the students thoughtfully, creatively and linguistically in a learning experience is a glaring, gnawing absence in most aboriginal classrooms. Prescriptive methods such as the so-called "whole language" approach where labeling of concrete, physical objects have preponderance over the interior realities of being human, and rote memorization of (spelling of) words in isolation without reference to how these concepts are actually used meaningfully in text, conversation nor even in the arts, make up the whole of academic careers and therefore social experience of its victims.

As an instructor of adult learners I'm trying my small part to "leave the world better than I find it" by advocating for reviewing and reforming the teaching and assessment tools. The notion of re-enforcement of the English and Inuktitut portions of teaching materials is a rare luxury afforded almost uniquely to interpreter/translator programs. It is with that in mind that I've started on a mock-up demonstration by slightly modifying and varying questions and/or possible answers in the quizzes and final exams into the Inuktitut portion.

I think it'll work. It is, after all, a practical example of "meaning-based" translation.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Prescription eye wear

I've been wearing eye glasses for a long time. I've reached a point now where I have to look over my glasses to see or read normal text. But, I'm somewhat loathed to admit that I need bifocals the same way that I wouldn't try yogurt and cheese cake for a long time ('yogurt' is just a wrong sequence of letters and a cheese cake is just 'unnatural').

I'm also unsuited to be a hunter because I'm so prone to be lured into my own private world without much effort. My walks back and forth between work and home are 99% absent-minded, so compelling are some ideas and thoughts I miss people waving at me or saying hi 'til it's way too late.

I recently bought a digital camera, and I have found it's like my eye glasses in many ways. It catches things I was completely oblivious to when I took the picture: people doing things that I didn't see. Here is one that illustrates perfectly what I mean:


Saturday, 1 November 2014

"There is no inner circle. Just a dot"

I started reading Michael Harris' book, Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover. The title of this entry is taken from a pollster Harris quotes in the opening pages of the book.

Now, as a person suspicious of Harper, one would think I'd devour the book almost uncritically. What Harris does have to say about Harper actually makes sense in that what we now consider typically Harper is traced back to his earliest days as a public figure (even the behind the scenes stints he served as a hand for Deb Grey and Preston Manning).

The man is odd.

As an odd-ball myself I do not want to be seen as too unkind to a fellow misfit (Grotius said that even our enemies are yet human and, according to natural justice, "the Rules of Charity reach farther than those of Right"). But the guy is defined by his "enemies", and there is something freakishly pathological about people who connive and plot to better their enemies for the simple of bettering them. There is no vision, no guiding principles, just visceral will to redress for real and perceived slights and vindictive meanness about the man.

I just read an article on Huffington Post website that Harper has been completely silent on the issue of anti-Muslim sentiments in the wake of the attacks on Canadian soldiers in Quebec and Ottawa ( This is totally in line with Harper's modus operandi. His track record with the treatment of Canadian war vets, of aboriginals, of the poor, of our social and environmental protections would suggest his dismissive view of Canadian Muslims is merely coincidental.

The writings of Grotius have at some level lurked behind Canada's place in the world if not outright recognized as such. There is a long tradition of brokering between enemies and backdoor diplomacy, and this attitude is not merely a characteristic of "liberal elitism" but the defining characteristic of all governments of note both Liberal and Conservative especially after WWII. Canada's causes have always been vetted through a system of world-class diplomatic corps and many of them have anticipated and influenced policies of the world. I need not really supply examples only that we compare that with the distinctly severe isolationism that has characterised Harper's tenure in the PMO.

I've been keeping track of posted comments sections in the media outlets that I frequent and have noticed in articles and columns that do not really draw controversy upon Harper himself the level of "support" seems invariably low (or quiet) while the more controversial the story is the incidence of "the best prime minister Canada has ever had" shoots right up. Is the coincidence? I think not. The media monitoring machinery under Harper has burgeoned. While there are real supporters like the guy whose hot rod was built by Jesus Himself, there are many more that diverge little from the central messaging: "the best PM ever".

This phrase is rather meaningless but powerful. It is the sort of the kind that one is exposed to in successful advertising campaigns: "Premier bath is the best bath I ever gave to myself..."

Am I one of those "h8ers"? I don't think I am. I can even concede honestly that Harper represents a big section of our society (top 40s, easy-going, kind of shallow). Harper rather represents a failure of sorts of our education system. No matter how you cut it, it really is a sad and despairing indictment. It needn't be that way; it is not genetic.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Living ironically

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

In all the years of being a reader and thinker I have come to realize that old Navajo adage: All is beautiful. Now, I don't have any clue whether the Book of Genesis is older than the Navajo conclusion that 'all is beautiful', only that when G*d had created the universe He beheld His creation and thought that "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31).

Over the past few weeks I've been thinking quite a lot about ugliness and beauty of the universe, or, more precisely, whether I am myself beautiful or ugly. According to the vehement advocacy of one (the doctrine of eternal punishment) I am utterly without hope (unless I'm somehow capable of attaining the impossible—ie, live a life without sin); according to another view, I'm "created in the image of G*d" (Gen. 1:27) and that my purpose in life is to try and awake and actualize that dignity.

Without denying either conclusion, I philosophically, psychologically and spiritually lean to the latter as the more realistic doctrine (what an ugly word: doctrine). I do not mean that I have a "get out of jail free" card, only that I'm a living, breathing, reflecting, learning entity and, therefore, necessarily incomplete 'til the end of my days, if even then.

I'm re-reading the great David Berlinski's book, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Ever the master of irony, his "wise but twinkling eyes" (to quote Roger Waters) dictate to his considerable talent for well-crafted phrases:

If science stands opposed to religion, it is not because of anything contained in either the premises or the conclusions of the great scientific theories. They do not mention a word about God. They do not treat of any faith beyond the one that they themselves demand. They compel no ritual beyond the usual rituals of academic life, and these involve nothing more than the worship of what is widely worshipped. Confident assertions by scientists that in the privacy of their chambers they have demonstrated that God does not exist have nothing to do with science, and even less to do with God's existence. (Preface, p. xiv)

A bit further down (the very next page) he continues:

These splendid artifacts of the human imagination have made the world more mysterious than it ever was. We know better than we did what we do not know and have not grasped. We do not know how the universe began. We do not know why it is there. Charles Darwin talked speculatively of life emerging from a "warm little pond." The pond is gone. We have little idea how life emerged, and cannot with assurance say that it did. We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the human brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found. (ibid, p. xv)

Living life ironically is a willingness to admit that we are capable of knowing only little and that what we know little of is not only open to interpretation and contradiction but that there is also a world of difference between knowing and being.

Berlinski makes it abundantly clear—as Socrates, Lao Tsu, the Hebrew prophets, and Christ Himself did before him—that merely knowing something is not enough and what is demanded of us is:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Contrast this fundamentally insightful meditation, again, with what Berlinski writes about these men of action and certainty of destiny:

Richard Dawkins accepts Stalin as a frank atheist, and so a liability of the sort that every family admits, but he is at least sympathetic to the thesis that Hitler's religious sentiments as a Catholic were sincere. Why stop at Hitler? No doubt some members of the SS took communion after an especially arduous day in the field murdering elderly Jewish women, and with vengeful Russian armies approaching Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the Third Reich's machinery of extermination and had supervised the desecration of churches and synagogues from one end of Europe to the other, confessed to an associate that he was persuaded of the existence of the Higher Power. The death of Franklin Roosevelt inspired Joseph Goebbels to similarly pious sentiments. The deathbed conversion is generally regarded as the mark of desperate insincerity. Throughout their careers, these scum acted as if no power was higher than their own. Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it. They might have well been Christian Scientists. (ibid, p. 25-26)

Mind, he is similarly unflattering to the outrages of religious history. In what seems his central premise in the book he asks and answers:

What makes men good?

Nothing. This is the answer of historical experience and a troubled common sense. It is the answer of Christian theology, and finds its expression in the doctrine of original sin.

When Christopher Hitchens asks how much self-respect "must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one's own sin," the only honest answer is that for most of us, self-respect is possible only if the squirming is considerable.

Men are not by nature good. Quite often, quite the contrary. And for this reason they must be restrained, by threats if possible, by force if necessary. "Perhaps," Richard Dawkins speculates, " a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God."

I am under most circumstances the last person on earth to think Richard Dawkins a Pollyanna, but in this case I defer to his description. Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good unpoliced by police? If Dawkins believe they do, he must explain the existence of criminal law, and if he believes they do not, then he must [Berlinski's emphases] explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends. (ibid, p.33-34)

Now, I do not buy into the notion of homo homini lupus—man is wolf to man—(mentioned further down page 34 by Berlinski) but neither am I as pessimistic as Berlinski apparently is in the last couple of passages quoted. I cannot honestly deny nor contest his view of the necessity of law—moral, ethical, legal, physical—but I would only say that "education" (in its broadest sense) is the best insurance against nihilism and anarchy.

Religion, then, is as necessary as any other resource available to humanity. The moral insights in all Holy Scriptures (the family resemblance of all faiths) make up an aspect of the apparatus that allow human beings to derive meaning from the answers of "historical experience" and "troubled common sense" and "Christian theology".

Being of the mind that spiritual "purity" and obsessive need/imperative for ritual "cleanliness" as nothing more than manifestations of clinical OCD, I'm not averse to the notion that secular literary masterpieces (including oral traditions) and documentation of history in good faith—as much as art—are undeniable components of the meaning-making apparatus of the human soul.

Striving for balance and well-roundedness, as much as active efforts of cultivation of spiritual, technical and aesthetic sensitivities, comprise of the comprehensive maturing process of human beings. Are these needs "by nature"? Nope. They seem to arise and emerge from our experience spontaneously peri- and post- self-reflection, thus inexorably leading to Micah 6:8. What seems before judgmental and harsh becomes slowly full of divine wisdom.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Napier's Bones

"Napier's bones" sounds like a religious relic. "Rabdology" (or, the art of casting them bones, if you will) doesn't sound any better.

But Napier's Bones is actually a cool and fascinating calculating device that turns multiplication into addition and division into subtraction. It usually consists of 10 sticks (or columns) each divided into rows which comprise of multiples of the number on the top row, like this:

The 7th bone is highlighted in the image. It starts: 7 x 1 = 7; 7 x 2 = 14; 7 x 3 = 21; etc. The multiples are rendered as single digits divided by a diagonal line.

The use of this calculating device can be a bit tricky in the beginning but figuring it out is 99% of the fun (ie, 'fun' because it actually encourages mathematical thinking and offers up a possibility for some bright mind to explain why it works). In the book, The Joy of Mathematics, by Theoni Pappas, the author herself says that 298 x 7 turns into 165 + 436 but no matter how hard you try and add 165 + 436 to result in 2086 it can only sum up to 601.

It is only by inserting a place-holder zero at the end of the top number: 1650 + 436 does the sum finally equal 2086.

Here is a link that explains in more detail how Napier's Bones work ('s_bones)

I'd also recommend checking this link out: (

Though electronic calculators and computers made devices like Napier's Bones and the slide rule 'obsolete' they are still (and will always be) tremendously valuable as teaching tools. One cannot open up an electronic calculator and see its inner workings. The electronic circuits just don't sweep one up in wonder and delight at the fundamental principles, patterns and properties of numbers that are inherent and immediate in these analog computing devices.

I would encourage Nunavut's elementary and secondary teachers to recruit Napier's Bones and the use of slide rules into their math courses. Who knows, perhaps one or two of their students just might amaze and inspire them; who knows, one of them might actually run the whole gamut themselves and uniquely re-create deeper connections in mathematics, even re-create calculus or engineering principles themselves.


Sunday, 19 October 2014


I love teaching. I love watching people learn and I enjoy the classroom interaction (between student and student, and between teacher and student).

My regular readers will know that I'm an admirer of Lev Vygotsky. I try and apply his psychological insights into my classroom, and try and mix covering the subject matter, exegeses of text, input from the students, and providing couching.

These are adult students so I don't have to pretend anything. When I make a mistake the whole class including me laugh about it. Being open and honest as a matter of course provides the students to not only share with the group without having to feel self-conscious but also provides room to apply their own knowledge in a safe environment. I'm naturally a lover of ideas but I try and make the basic principles of discourse alive while cognizant of the fact that learning is not based on a schedule but is a currency of social interaction.

When one approach is losing the students I try another approach. My analogue of knowledge is not a castle with many rooms but rather a landscape with land marks. These land marks are based on geology (principles and theoretical frameworks) and built up on ideas (the biomass that has the capacity to evolve and even generate original insights).

In this particular case of teaching medical terminology/interpreting, the anatomy and physiology are the geological foundations that scaffold the basic coordinate system which in turn holds the key to latin- and greek- taxonomic principles of medical terms and concepts. The major land marks comprise the skeletal mountain over there, the circulatory hills between muscles and organs, etc.

Granted, the analogy is a bit stretched but it's the organizing principles that act as a mnemonic device where one concept supports another which in turn supports another concept. One memory links up to another memory and the overview informs the learner. Ever the linguist, I try and take every opportunity to point out certain recurring patterns in medical terminology and what the prefixes, roots and suffixes refer to. When the linkages are made by the students themselves with terms in common usage a whole new world is opened up.

Though I try and not underplay the Inuit Language terminology (which, to me, is utterly important), I know that acquiring the skills to unlock and decipher the source scientific concepts reinforces the Inuit Language skills and the students' ability to describe and explain them to themselves and others. The English language is on equal footing with the Inuit Language.

In my line of work I have that fortunate but rare luxury of being able to discourse in one language and when that doesn't seem to be working to revert to another language 'til the students find their bearings again. This approach actually works, and it works beautifully.

The whole point of learning to me is to demystify knowledge and re-enchant the world with informed creativity and wonder. The power to surprise and delight is unlocked. Human dignity is reclaimed.