Sunday, 31 July 2011

The October Country

I have many books, some I've read and reread many times, some I've wanted to read but haven't quite gotten around to reading yet. The October Country, by Ray Bradbury is (was) one in the haven't-quite-gotten-around-to section. What a delightful surprise.

The first two short stories - I didn't mention that The October Country is an anthology - seemed to me like out-takes, seemingly incomplete and unrelated snippets (I thought the book was a novel), but I persisted; the third called, The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Mattise, struck me like a thunderbolt.

Bradbury is a true master: "an author whose fanciful imagination, poetic prose and mature understanding of human character have won him an international reputation" as a New York Times critic croons across the expanse from that October Country shortly after the harvest of American literary greats.

The juxtaposition of mass culture and avante-garde culture, from a distance in time (my perspective) confirms to me the greatness of Bradbury's insights into human nature. His book should be required reading in sociological departments of all learned institutions, from Tartu to Harvard.

This gem made me realize that the non-descript dullardry of mass culture gave birth to, made possible, psychoanalysis and then these post-modern art- and literary- movements that would have never come to be weren't it for the stifling culture of conformity, shimmeringly incipient in the 18th and 19th centuries and exploding in our times; the story made me realize that human history is not told or written about but lived in restlessness and repose, balance and counter-balance, yin and yang, in culture and counter-culture.

We have a huge problem of suicide by Inuit in these times as if we are tacitly aware of something that we cannot quite put our finger on nor articulate into a self-consistent form much like a boorish drunkard who doesn't quite realize he is really a nihilist at heart. The recent Inuit narrative is one of colonialism and general feelings of having been conquered by an alien force that comes with it but one that was by and large bloodless and no rising up in arms to resist the occupation.

This foreign occupation has brought with it its own sense of place and identity and displaced (violently or otherwise) the aboriginals' with no foreseeable promise of satisfaction and psychological re-settling proffered in turn. This unsettled spectre so far has not found its center, its zeitgeist, its counterpoint, its own voice as other conquered peoples have (the Scots, the Irish, the African-American, the Greenlanders, the Maori, etc.) as it is all yet caught up and entangled in the mesmerizing wonder and loathing of that which is seemingly denied and inaccessible riches of the other. We put on the make-up and costumes but we walk funny and ackward, not used to the high-heels, not used to seeing ourselves and feeling beautiful, not yet secure in our own skin which is our own unrecognized beauty.

Many more will die meaningless deaths for this is not a clinical issue nor a question of mental illness but a disease of the identity and the collective heart; sadly, whose cure cannot be prescribed, only transcended with hard-won, conscious effort by the sufferer. The October Country has lots of artisans but no artists, lots of technicians but no original creators, lots of slumber but no dreams, no reinvention, no ownership of the narrative...


Friday, 29 July 2011

To study a "Granfalloon"

I was watching the Power&Politics on CBC Newsworld yesterday where a panel of political commentators were asked what they thought of the recent dragnet on alleged war criminals for summary deportation and Tom Flanagan, a politically conservative professor from U of Calgary and former advisor to Harper, said something that I found really interesting. He was clearly dismayed by the easy disregard of the legal process by Harper's minions but said that he'd reserve comment on the legality and ethics of such a development, which reminded me of Vonnegut's invention of the term, Granfalloon, in the novel, Cat's Cradle:

"a proud and meaningless association of human beings", which, as a Wikipedia entry further elaborates, is one "based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise".

Such "associations" are not all necessarily bad and some are socially desirable but when the staple of discourse becomes solely the founding dogma of the group - as one that created and inspired that Norwegian wingnut; or, the tea party in America; or, the Taliban - its tacit satanic verse begets the mentality that the ends justifies the means.

Carl Jung said of the insideous nature of such group-think:

"Observance of customs and laws can very easily be a cloak for a lie so subtle that our fellow human beings are unable to detect it. It may help us to escape all criticism, we may even be able to deceive ourselves in the belief of our obvious righteousness. But deep down, below the surface of the average man’s conscience, he hears a voice whispering, 'There is something not right', no matter how much his rightness is supported by public opinion or by the moral code." (Introduction to Frances G Wickes’ “Analysis der Kinderseele” (The Inner World of Childhood), 1931)

This type of evil manifests in the very act of unilateral segregation of those deserving of human dignity and proper regard and those not (ie, by selective public opinion and the moral code of a given group). Now, I am no apologist for our legal and criminal justice systems, but I still believe in due process for all. I still believe in the ideals of Human Rights.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

How much is a polar bear worth?

The Government of Canada wants to put a monetary value on the iconic polar bear. This seemingly idiotic question is actually not a bad idea, if only to initiate serious discussion on how much we actually value environmental and ecological integrity of our planet.

For eg, the question is not just whether we should enact legislation to "protect" wildlife species but also what are we willing to give up to minimize our impact as a species. Canada is one of the huge energy gluttons among nations, and with a government of ideological corporatist hue our environmental and social impact with fossil fuels and petroleum products is guaranteed to remain unabated for the foreseeable future. Going by the pathetically small figures that Canada invests on research and development of alternative renewable energy sources, I'd say that cuts a huge chunk of the polar bears monetary value right there. It is now practically priceless (ie, without value).

I live in Iqaluit where there seems to be an automobile for every bureaucratic in the city and then some. On a clear winter day if you look out the bay you can see an ugly bank of smog hovering over the ice - this is a new and disturbing development in Nunavut. And it happens everyday of the year though we may not see it with our eyes. For such a small community, Iqaluit shouldn't be generating so much pollution. There have been efforts more than once to develop a transit system here, but no self-respecting bureaucrat (the biggest sector of our society) would deign to be seen doing their part for the environment. Is legislation on polar bear harvest rates the best, the only thing we can/are willing to do?

I heard on the radio this morning a man from Nunavut's environment minister's constituency talking about problem bears, about how polar bears do not normally come in to the community in the summer but are now seen regularly in droves. The multi-year sea ice that'd float all year round in chunky agglomerations measuring in kilometers is no longer there, so the polar bears are foraging somewhere else, unnaturally. Since bears are allowed to roam into human habitations without consequences, they've lost their natural fear and avoidance of humans.

The man from Arviat on the radio also said that the Minister, when he comes to his constituents and community, has never, not once, mentioned let alone discuss problem bears with the community. This is truly strange. An elected official, a minister responsible for wildlife and environment legislation, whose policy is to not talk about the concerns of his own constituency, and only talk to other communities regarding the self-same issue.

I think the protection of our invaluable resources like wildlife and environment should go beyond legislative protection; it should include self examination of our personal/national value systems. Clearly, mass transportation of persons to and fro, of goods to and fro is unavoidable and economically necessary, but is our national infrastructure and modes of transportation built intelligently enough to minimize our environmental imprint?

Our railway system, for eg, is old and underused. We don't have the national pride nor the backbone to invest in ourselves, to encourage original R&D on energy, to encourage and cultivate wise use of our finite resources at the national, provincial, municipal and personal levels. Our government tells us that it is pointless to take Canadians' environmental concerns seriously without the USA acting on them first. Clearly, this is not the talk of leadership; then again, when it comes to criticism of any sort, our current government comes back and says that the Liberals did this or that so it's ok for them to act thus.

The "courageous warrior" and "energy super-power" talk are bald acts of compensating for a disturbed, self-loathing mind, one that wouldn't recognise originality and the exceptional without the say-so of someone else. Was the talk of putting monetary value on polar bears just another way of puffing up Canada's collective crotch/bosom?

The polar bears' value is not monetary but spiritual in the sense that we human beings must be able to look ourselves in the face and know we did no unnecessary harm. Wise hunting practices do no unnecessary harm; this and always was a question of modality of being. You've heard of the "warrior mind", this is "hunter mind" which values and appreciates all life and exacts wisdom and spiritual humility upon the self when it takes it.

Canada, don't be stupid; look at yourself and be honest and courageous and use intelligence, not blame, not ignorance,  not indignation (righteous or otherwise) and certainly no scape-goating. What are you willing to do for the polar bear whose value you've now arrogantly objectively quantified?


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Euclid's fifth and the theory of limits

5. Through a point outside a given line, one and only one line may be drawn parallel to that line

can also be interpreted in analytic terms as the tangent line by saying that the original line describes the diameter of a circle and the parallel line describes the limit point of the tangent.

Now, I'm not a mathematician by any stretch of the imagination but I don't think that there is any way of going around Euclid's fifth postulate even in "non-Euclidean" geometries. It seems to be a general property (consequence?) of abstract space in describing continuous processes/curves; even in the chaos theory the center may vary continuously but the limit point that is the tangent remains faithful to its center.


Sunday, 17 July 2011

Euclid's fifth axiom?

I'm (re)reading a book by one of my favourite authors, David Berlinski, called Infinite Ascent: a short history of mathematics, where he's talking about Euclidean geometry and he presents Euclid's fifth axiom on parallel lines as a "worm" in an otherwise unassailable system:

"There remains the fifth axiom of Eulcid's system, and with the fifth, that worm. It is a worm that may now be seen wriggling in words due to the eighteenth-century Scottish mathematician John Playfair:

5. Through a point outside a given line, one and only one line may be drawn parallel to that line."

Now, history has given us Riemann and Lobachevsky and their great works on non-Euclidean geometries that provide an answer in the negative to the fifth: there are no parallel lines in spherical and hyperbolic geometries (respectively). But these geometries describe space that is not flat.

Berlinski again: "One straight line; one exterior point; and only one line through the point and parallel to the given line. Yet the picture corresponding to the parallel postulate does not cancel a sense of mathematical unease. In some very obscure way, the axiom contains an assumption that it does not entirely succeed in conveying. Parallel lines and a point in space - clear enough. And the picture that results - clear enough as well. There is yet something odd and unresolved about the picture of those jaunty parallel lines, its visual plausibility depending entirely on the assumption that the space in which they are embedded is flat."

Here is a graphic taken from Wikipedia entry on non-Euclidean geometry to illustrate:

I have a little table saw to cut balsa wood and it has, like other regular table saws, a slide that is inserted parallel to the blade to make cuts of any angle. Now, the slide on my little table saw has an adjustable compass with the zero mark on top of the semi-circle and going 90 degrees either way to the base of the semi-circle (much like the middle figure above, Euclidean-wise). There is only one point on the compass where a parallel cut can be made and that is the 90 degree mark - every other angle than 90 either way would eventually result in an intersection to the line otherwise.

Now, following the tradition of the Greeks, the construction of plane-geometric shapes with straight lines and curves using only a compass and a straight-edge, I would say that the construction of parallel lines is more a theorem derivable from the first four postulates of Euclid because it (the parallel line) is constructed only from the combination of the more primative elements of straight lines and circles - ie, the parallel line is not a self-evident statement but a logical consequence of the first four postulates regarding points, lines and curves.

It is still beautiful nonetheless - the fifth statement - for it, like the other postulates, has spawned great insights into the nature of space and its various descriptions which would not have come about in so natural a way without it. It is not so much a "worm", I'd say; but - again, perverting Berlinski's beautiful imageries of his excellent book - it is the forked tongue of the devil with powerfully pregnant possibilities embedded in its use.


Friday, 15 July 2011

Let me clarify...

I've been questioning myself whether I went too far in my last entry likening Harper with Loughner.

Let me clarify: I have nothing personal against our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. I don't know him from Adam. Although I have nothing against Harper personally I do have issues with his ideology and would be just as dismayed even if he were someone else of his ideological kith and kin. The thing about his ideology is that same type of mindset and wilfull ignorance and hubris I see in the worst of what now passes as American conservativism: the siege-mentality; the world and hippies (or them who are not us) are out to destroy Western civilization; we are not our brother's keeper, etc.

The worst of it is that the "reformist conservatives" say that it's not business as usual in Ottawa and yet when criticisms are fielded against them they are quick to suggest that the Liberals did this or that same thing they're being accused of doing. I mean, what good does that for anyone? The Liberals may have done this or that so it makes it ok for them to do it? I don't see the logic in it, especially from one who takes pains to distinguish himself from those he's wanted to supplant for so long. I want leadership that won't jump off the cliff because others have done it. That is not leadership. That is bald partisan politics: I jump with better grace, they say. But it's still jumping off the cliff.

The Champlain Bridge may fall; who would be caught sleeping at the wheel?

We who believe in secular humanism expect more from our elected officials. Canada is for all Canadians, not just conservative Canadians.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The unbearable lightness of hubris

I once saw a show on the History Channel called, Ancient Aliens, where a man said that if you change the words "God" and "angels" in the bible to "aliens" then you have a written record of alien contact going back thousands of years.

Recently I read a variation of this argument attributed to Stephen Harper that if you insert "conservative" in front of "Canadians" and "Canadian values" then you...

What is it about right-wing ideology that make these people so prone to magical thinking and revisionism? Is it so difficult to accept that human beings and societies are so complex, variegated, and capable of such amazing goodness/creativity and indescribable evil/cruelty all at once that one should invent a narrative for us to save us from us?

Ayn Rand, and Nietzche before her, had similarwise felt the unbearable lightness of hubris and were repulsed by the messy variegatedness of human existence and history so the latter constructed a Messiah on steriods, one who would do away with the Law where the historical one had merely fulfilled it, and the former sought "mathematics and intellectual rigour" to actualize the Greco-Roman pantheon in the flesh.

-The only problem was that the Objectivist movement had too many head-strong cooks to spoil the broth (ie, the individuals couldn't form the collective), and no one there could actually resolve the inadvertent ironies of an insane, racially OCD mind. One thought he knew the rules of the game of chess when there were actually no rules in Rand's version (the only rule is that Rand has to win). Then again, gods are not people.

Then there is the hapless GOP in America with Rep. Bachmann at its cutting edge. She believes in raparative therapy so much that she and her husband founded an institute (much like the Rand institute) to cure homosexuality through prayer and crisis-therapy. I think the world would be much better served if the Bachmann raparative therapy focussed its efforts on pedophiles - I hear its detrimental effects make people impotent with fear and self-loathing. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Now back to Harper: I think his claim to exceptionalism and uniqueness is that he thinks himself neuro-atypical. His cleanliness OCD only affords him to shake hands with his progeny; he never looks his adversaries in the eye (perferring to make side-swipes across the aisle or huff-and-puff when they're not present); he is rigid and script-driven; he has a severe victim mentality; etc. etc. Without medication he looks like this:


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A need for another class of nouns?

In linguistics, I've seen only one reference to this phenomenon (a passing remark, actually) that I want to talk about, and try and shed some light on because I think it goes into the heart of logical and linguistic anomalies found in metaphysics, set theory and other (in)famous paradoxes.

In talking about the weather we often use the word "it" as in, "it is sunny outside" - the passing remark in linguistics - without really referring to something particular. The explanation I read  somewhere was unmemorable because I thought it wrong-headed and circular. But having come across the same problem in set theory - a highly abstract branch of mathematics having to do with arithmetic of the infinite - and the "barber of seville" paradox that Bertrand Russell found in its axioms, and in various metaphysical problems and infinite regress constructs, I think the problem has mostly to do with linguistics - at least in the technical sense.

In the human language, we may treat a verb as a noun and vice versa without missing our stride. In fact, the Inuit Language structure builds this capacity right into the grammar where the intervening morphemes may change the stem from verbal to nominal and vice versa. But an apparently "deep" problem arises when the grammatical elements become metaphysical problems, or more precisely are treated as such.

For eg, the word "truth" is treated as a noun when in fact it really is a state of being and the word "truth" is really just a grammatical function and not something with a unique status as a nominal being like the other "real" nouns in which it is classified. It really is a linguistic "function" required by the grammar much like the famous ƒ(x) of calculus.

Seen in this way, the problem of infinite regression in the statement: "everything that exists has a location... the location has a location, has a location..." ad infinitum... can be resolved by stating that the location of that which exists is a function of that which exists, ƒ(x). The barber of seville problem can likewise be resolved by stating that the barber who shaves only the men who do not shave themselves has a unique status of being a function, ƒ(x) (or more precisely, S(x)) that defines a set and is not a member of the set by virtue of its function. The set of all (possible) sets then has a value of infinity itself - which closes the function (or arithmetic) in set theory rather neatly.

The problem of clearly demarcating classification rules that determine a lexeme class (or set) is a profound one in mathematics, linguistics and metaphysics because it affects or facilitates a precise formulation of problems of substance in these fields of study. But I think some of these problems can be resolved by cross-disciplinary collaboration where insights from one can be used to resolve problems in another.


Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Some points to ponder in Inuktitut education (part iii)

There is beauty everywhere. There is pittiarniq everywhere. The human mind is a world of words, of ideas, of that which brings and gives meaning to our lives.

There is a saying that "knowledge is power". I never really believed in it - at least not in the sense of having power over other people and things, for this type of power is mere illusion to me much like the platitude that glorifies it. If anything has "power" it is understanding and not knowledge alone. Knowledge cannot be cultivated; understanding can so be acquired. Knowledge is external; understanding, internal.

One of the ideas that concerned Socrates, and a great majority of thinkers of substance, was the distinction between the "universal" and the "particular"; well-formedness and ill-formedness; pittiarniq and pittiannginniq (ill-formedness). In short, it was the "pursuit of happiness" in the great American consitution - not the emotion but a state of being. In this sense "happiness" really is a universal.

Frederick Copleston, S.J., in his book: A History of Philosophy (Book I), says

"Some thinkers have maintained that the universal concept is purely subjective, but it is very difficult to see how we could form such universal notions, and why we should be compelled to form them, unless there was a foundation for them in fact... ...let it suffice at present to point out that the universal concept or definition presents us with something constant and abiding that stands out, through its possession of these characteristics, from the world of perishing particulars... ...we speak of things as being more or less beautiful, implying that they approach the standard of Beauty in a greater or less degree, a standard which does not vary or change like the beautiful objects of our experience, but remains constant and 'rules', as it were, all particular beautiful objects... ...Mathematicians speak of and define the line, the circle, etc. Now, the perfect line and the perfect circle are not found among the objects of our experience: there are at best only approximations to the definitions of the line or the circle".

He goes on to speak of Socrates' concern with defining and distinguishing between the "universal" and the "particular" precisely because the universal definition's importance comes into play and responds to the Sophist relativistic doctrines regarding ethics, justice, pittiarniq, and meaning to "a good life":

"...If we can at once attain to a universal definition of justice, which expresses the innermost nature of justice and holds good for all men, then we have something sure to go upon, and we can judge not only individual actions, but also the moral codes of different states, in so far as they embody or recede from the universal definition of justice". (Frederick Copleston, S.J.)

Now, some people would point out that the writers of the American Constitution were slave owners and men of higher socio-economic class with little concern for their lessers, or that Socrates existed in a world which practiced infanticide, misogyny, etc. But that is to miss the point. The point is that they spoke of these noble ideas and ideals, they dared to imagine a world greater than their own, and contributed to the discourse of human progress regardless of their relative ignorance of what that greater world entails but which nonetheless would not be possible without the ideas they spoke of.

I speak of this "universal" concept in light of the notion of "culture", specifically Inuit culture, and the notion of pittiarniq - the good, the beautiful - as a universal definition that Inuit culture can and must strive toward. It is not up to us to construct this definition, this ideal. It is a concept to found the discourse itself, to allow it to evolve and be added to by those who will come after us.

Again, Frederick Copleston, S.J.: "Plato in the Apology relates the profession of Socrates at  his trial, that he went where he could do the greatest good to anyone, seeking 'to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interests of the State; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions.' This was the mission of Socrates, which he regarded as having been imposed upon him by the god of Delphi, to stimulate men to care for their greatest possession, their soul, through the acquisition of wisdom and virtue. He was no mere pedantic logician, no mere destructive critic, but a man with a mission. If he criticised and exposed superficial views and easy-going assumptions, this was not due to a frivolous desire to display his own superior dialectic acumen, but a desire to promote the good of his interlocutors and to learn himself".

This beauty (this pittiarniq) I spoke of in the beginning of this blog entry, which I truly believe is everywhere, is not my own truism: it is an ancient wisdom that is a universal constant in all cultures and in all times in all their varieties, the mathematics of being human.

It is ineffable but can be found and known if mostly in retrospect during the discourse and discussion and inform our futures, as William S Burroughs captures so well in his own incorrigible, quirky way from his book, my education: A Book of Dreams:

"There are no innocent bystanders. What are they doing there in the first place? Like the woman who was hit and killed by a fragment from the helicopter that fell over on its side on top of the Pan Am building. Friends are urging me to use this helicopter, but I have a bad feeling about it. Hell of a location. Suppose it crashes right onto the evening rush at Grand Central Station? And I quote: 'Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.' And sure as shit and taxes this accident happens a week later. The copter has landed and then falls onto its side and kills a nineteen-year-old youth on his way back somewhere. And a woman walking along Madison Avenue was hit and killed by a piece of the propeller.
  Rilke said: 'Give every man his own death.' This seems far as possible fom any tailor-made death. She was walking down or up Madison Avenue, after eating in a cafeteria, before eating or shopping. Works there, doesn't work there, way out of orbit there, and suddenly two pounds of metal hits her in the back of the head. What were her last thoughts? The last words in her mind? No one will ever know.
  And on my birthday, years ago in New York, someone suggested we go to the Blue Angel nightclub. I remember my first wife, Ilse, said about the proprietor: 'He is such a piece of slime.' Any case, I had a bad feeling about the Blue Angel, so we didn't go. It was about ten days later, there was a fire in the Blue Angel and something like twenty-three casualties." (William S Burroughs)