Sunday, 30 December 2012

Small business solutions

I like thinking about language. I like thinking about it in all kinds of ways as thinking about it is not only my job but also, and more importantly, it is a subject that takes me up (to paraphrase Frye) to the dizzying heights of that dreamed of world (Pink Floyd, high hopes).

The other day I was thinking about the cultural, technical and aesthetic issues of translation that invariably come up in the email of a distribution list of translators at work but are never really alluded to, let alone talked about, explicitly. Again, quoting Pink Floyd's High Hopes:

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

there is always this tension (and I'm not talking about emotional tension though it definitely exists) between literal translation and meaning-based translation that I think we can all acknowledge but never can succinctly articulate. It is complicated...

I was in that blessed state of intellectual free association that I can only describe as being in a zen-like space when a commercial came up (like all commercials, it has come up many times before) when the announcer said something that struck me as odd: why would a postal/courier service talk about "small business solutions"? - is it to justify how other "services" it has to offer subsidize this special kind of service directed only to small businesses? -isn't that somehow ripping off other customers? -small business solutions; how does one translate that into Inuktitut?

I don't have the presumption to tell others how to think and interpret these sorts of things (actually, I do and I do because it's my job) but I highly doubt many translators think about such things; it's a highly politicized affair this ritual of asking for help without appearing to be in need of help. It's highly politicized because it cuts right into the heart of identity politics.

I'm re-reading this book right now written by Edward T Hall called, Beyond Cultural, in relation to another project that I've been asked to review. Hall has many things to say that are completely relevant to my review and great many aspects of my main job, and, though I have some technical issues with what he has to say, he provides insights beautifully and is the only credible source I have for my review. I, personally, think that Hall should be required reading for those who work in fields that touch upon inter-cultural relations. But his work will only work if people are willing and able to talk about and discuss his work seriously even if only as a starting point.

Hall has this concept he calls "extension transference" (an extension is something like tools we use; the language we speak; theories we construct to explain and reconcile our realities):

It is [...] paradoxical that extensional systems - so flexible at first - frequently become quite rigid and difficult to change. Confusion between the extension and processes that have been extended can explain some but not all of this rigidity. Older readers may remember when English teachers tried to convince them that the real language was the written language, of which the spoken language was merely a watered-down, adulterated version...The fact that the written language is a symbolization of a symbolization does not mean that the writing system is not something in its own right, just as mathematics is a system in its own right, independent of computations in the head.
Extensions often permit man to solve problems in satisfactory ways, to evolve and adapt at great speed without changing the basic structure of his body. However, the extension does something else: it permits man to examine and perfect what is inside the head. Once something is externalized, it is possible to look at it, study it, change it, perfect it, and at the same time learn important things about oneself. The full implications of the extension as lesson and extension as mirror have yet to be fully realized.

The extension can also serve as a form of prosthesis when something happens to the processes that lie behind the extension. (pp. 28, 29)

It is precisely the "prosthesis" stage where problems in translation arise. Without a viable cultural context (ie, without first defining what a concept is) phrases like "small business solutions" are seen clearly for what they really are: utterly meaningless phrases a bureaucrat/corporation would say because the meaning is not something that has a physical or factual reality but intended only to convey a vague sense of comfort and familiarity to the target audience - it is merely propaganda in the quick (ie, a slogan).

Havel and Orwell are two famous writers/thinkers who've talked about the effectiveness of such things by pointing out how paradoxically empty these types of memes really are because they're only intended to evoke a visceral reaction (both good and bad, and often at the same time). Memes are, by nature and design, extremely cultural and linguistic specific.

This prosthetic problem can also be seen in the current text-based (internet) society that humanity has achieved (or degraded to). The polarized and polarizing "politics" of our age demands that we either take a left or right position on even the most seemingly insignificant issue. Upon challenging the right (especially - but I have found much to my dismay the so-called progressive left is just as virulent) one hears either the deafening silence of the intellectual wilderness that corporatism (ie, the internet) has bestowed upon us, or extremely angry extistential angst that is prone to lashing out at any perceived threat, never mind the logical and ethical veracity of a well-meaning statement.

The prosthesis problem of extension transference cannot be underestimated nor overstated. It's both a fascinating and perplexing problem to which translators and language specialists especially are called upon to arise. But without awareness of socially-relevant literature to base a collective experience on (especially for Inuit of Nunavut) mass alienation prevails. Inuit are caught in some sort of limbo: its intellectual, linguistic and mythical archetypes have been denigrated and dismissed to such a degree a transition stage is utterly non-existent that any forward steps are negated by sleep-walking back again while the very institutions that are ostensibly set up to avoid mass alienation have the exact effect and affect of gross alienation.

I hope this entry provides more food for thought than confusion; we definitely need a serious discussion for so many reasons.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Principles to live by (part ii)

I know that I've quoted Grotius somewhere but I'm not sure where exactly and am too lazy to seek the quote out. Regardless, Grotius is one of those great thinkers in the family of humanity whose one quote that I've tried to live by:

those who are enemies do not in fact cease to be men (quoted from A History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston, SJ)

I'm an unbashed Americanophile but I have no illusions about the darker side of American imperialism, and am, in fact, greatly disturbed by the recent history especially. Upon reading Chomsky's take on what American corporatism/imperialism has done to the less unfortunate of the world, I have a healthy mistrust and hate for coporatism. But the fact remains: I love the idea of America - its history, its music, its literary traditions, the impulses and ideals of its founding and continuing development.

As a person of anticorporatist sentiment I see no contradiction between loving the idea of America and hating what I'd call its 'infection' and its foul humours in the guise of extremist rightwing that currently stifle its greatness because I have seen the ideal of Grotius insight in my own heart.

I recognize an older strand of thought in Grotius' discourse on international law and political jurisprudence, namely, Socrates' "an unexamined life is not worth living" - another productive source of principles to live by. I take the Socrates quote to mean that we should examine and explore our value systems, things we want for ourselves as guiding principles to living our lives, else we are no better than stimulus-response switches that form the guts of an unthinking machine.

The computer I'm typing on right now is a means of producing great or malificent works but it is itself incapable of thinking and producing the words that I'm now typing; my guitars are likewise capable of producing great beauty but the notes they produce all depend upon my talent and drive. Our lives likewise are largely here by chance but we are the authors of our life-story (though it sometimes seem otherwise).


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Principles to live by

I have it in my head to propose a regular column in one of the local rags here, but not the ambition to actually act upon my idea. I greatly admire what Rene Levesque did when he was with Radio Canada explaining current affairs or talking about his admiration for American political thinkers and as a student of North American history, and that's what I'd like to do if I ever found the energy to get off my ass.

As a regular contributor to the personal exchanges in the community of posters on Huffington Post, I get a little of that satisfaction, and I learn something of myself in how I react to some posts and I learn something new everytime I read Huffington Post (from the articles, opinion pieces and posts from other users). I'd like to think that most of my posts are informed by certain principles but somtimes I don't always say something informative and am easily baited by the rightwing trolls that patrol the website regularly - some of the ignorant and sometimes racist vitriol just demand a response sometimes...

David Berlinski, the subject of my last blog entry here, wrote something that I totally believe in (in talking about why mathematicians obsess over formal proofs and other such seemingly trivial things):

There is elegance of assumption, and a corresponding power to dissolve the chatter of common experience in favour of something more austere and more dignified. (1, 2, 3 Absolute Elementary Mathematics, p. 188)

This is one of the principles I try and live by especially in my work as a linguist and as a commentator of Inuit society and philosophy. It is not always understood by my critics but my obsession with abstract structures and logic systems is (fortunately or unfortunately) stronger than my reactions to those who'd try and hammer down the proverbial nail that sticks out.

I sometimes have mystical experiences in thinking about abstract structures and in the thoughts of the long-dead and others like Berlinski and Eco and many more that I find beautiful to contemplate. This love for the subject seems to be becoming rarer and rarer, and perhaps I'm old school in this regard, but there is something of a comfort to be gotten in the old, familiar things. Else, in timeless things.


Saturday, 15 December 2012

The great David Berlinski

As a connoisseur of popularizers of mathematics and mathematical history, I must say that David Berlinski is right up there at the top of list. He is one of those fascinating people I've never met and would give all my two-month's salary just to sit in on one of his lectures. Clearly the man is an orator who cares about his craft as a writer and a mathematician/philosopher.

I think I have all his published books, books I read and re-read simply because I take great pleasure in reading his words and humour. He writes like the painter/artist Bosch. The flesh and bones of the long dead come back to life in all their humanly glory and foibles not because he describes them in great detail but that he gets to the heart of their original insights - in appealing to their imagined and historically accurate appearance one can see clearly their humanity but in a cerebral, this-is-how-a-great-mind-works kind of way. He does the same thing with equations.

Then, he comes up with gems like:

In the early 1980s, Grothendieck vacated his mathematical career to live alone in a shepherd's hut in the Pyrenees.

The hard, gifted, practical men expressed their appreciation for his genius, took what he had given them, and went right on being hard, gifted, practical men.

They were relieved. (1, 2, 3 Absolutely Elementary Mathematics, 2011, p. 156)

And, after going through a whirl-wind description of a process, he says something like: "[The] Clues have done all that clues can do." (p. 162).

Berlinski has great genius for these things. He should be required reading for junior and senior high school maths curriculum.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

The rights of public employees vs intellectual property

My apologies to my readers for not having posted a while. I just started a job. After many years of being a persona non grata in my own homeland, I totally appreciate this new job and the opportunities to be a contributing member of society again. For those who know me or of me, a political post and the way I tend to think, the way I am do not mix without explosive results. Hopefully that is all behind me now. I think it is; and I'll tell you why:

The nature of our work is such that many of the things we do in our office can be considered 'new' and 'cutting edge' even. In order to implement the mandate of the workplace, everything that everyone in the office does is of that nature. The transition from pre- to a literate society... -this is no hyperbole, believe me. From the technical to the aesthetic, we are trying to meld these aspects together in a more or less seamless manner. Deliberately.

I've actually been intending to post a technical paper in this blog that I did up recently as part of constructing a terminology database. I mean, I don't know whether the thought processes behind the paper are technically feasible (I'm pretty sure they are - just that I'm no computer expert to see clearly why I'd think that).

As a trained linguist, I know the grammatical/phonological structure of the Inuit Language (Inuktut, we call it to make the term inclusive covering all Eskimo-Aleut family) intimately. Many years ago I came up with a way of emptying the contents of the Inuktut grammar completely to bring out the structural aspect of it all. The equation works beautifully to expose the inner workings of the structure.

Focussing only on the medial affixation rules (ontologically, as Duden heavy-weights call it and what re-inspired me to look more closely), there is a way of demonstrating the logical constraints why the grammatical equation would work so beautifully. The internal structure of the Inuktut grammar is no chimera open to human whim and uninformed imagination but one that behaves mathematically with constraint rules that are both rigorous and stable and utterly systemic. Beautiful, is all I can say.

I'm usually not one to claim credit for what I consider to be the heritage and birth right of all humanity, but given the (what I consider) failures of government bureaucracies to do justice to the intellectual and practical possibilities of human development and aspirations - of course, based solely on the already uni-laterally and publicly stated priorities and directions for which bureaucracies are infamous for for glomming onto at whatever cost - I think its worth pointing out that whatever failures may come to pass it is not because Inuit and their language are 'primitive' (demonstrably to the contrary) and not worth our time and effort but that these failures will be due to the 'priorities and directions' already taken even unto lock-stepping over a cliff.

This brings me to the whole point of this blog entry's title: do what we produce in the public workplace (even ones that we've produced before becoming bureaucrats and are only now showing) belong to governments, or are they public domain and open to public discourse?

There are other insights from other fields that have not been applied in the way the thinker now plans to apply them that should also be settled in terms of the question posed in the title of this entry. I will not get into them here simply because they're highly technical and out of respect for the unnamed collaborators. But what  makes the issue different and unique here is the nature of Nunavut itself. The proper word would be 'pressing' for the differences and uniquesness.

And there we have: saying so many words without saying much. At least, not exposing more than is neccesary.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

The phenomenology of being Canadian and not American

Phenomenology, in Husserl's conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This phenomenological ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another. Wikipedia entry on "Phenomenology"

There was a question recently posed by the Canadian edition of Huffington Post basically asking if Canadians were more interested in American politics than Canadian politics. I just watched a documentary by Glenn Gould called, The Idea of the North. For some reason I'm always struck by the cold, wet autumnness of 1970s Canadian films (always that slushy, cold steamed up look of the camera lens capturing the sad, dreary Canadian autumn-winter on grainy film - must be the filming season of Canadian documentary makers at the time).

Anyhoo, I was watching the film and kept thinking about the Huffington question. I think the main difference between American and Canadian experiences is that the Canadian mythology has more to do with a Cartesian outlook rather than the Husserlian one. What I mean is this: Canadian film-making has the wide, open spaces writ large in its films (almost invariably, though Gould was not one for focussing on people to begin with); whereas the American film-makers tend to focus on the personalities of its characters.

There is something of a tendency for an impersonalization of the Canadian experience - an object reality that is Canadian politics, literary bent, film-making: I think, therefore I am. The top soil is thin and not much can grow. The contents of the policy is a conservative take on the immediate now: we've only got so much to spend and no more. The Canadian North, as romanticized as it is by Canadian mythology, is a perfect example of a conservative vision: bare, undeveloped and sadly lagging behind the times by all measures, literally. It is a polite negligence and alienated don't-know-what-to-do-with-it mentality; there is no grand vision here. I guess the primitive Eskimos (themselves an intrusion to the romantic notions of the North) kind of ruin the idyllic notions of the North. Like the unfinished poem of Keats', Hyperion, the Canadian experience was found unoriginal and the author left it there hanging unable to transcend his grief of losing a loved one besides.

In the American experience, besides the persistent classicalism (Greco-Roman - perhaps it's precisely because of this), it is the drama that ensues when strong personalities clash that make up the story. In keeping with the hapless Hyperion analogy, America is Milton's Paradise Lost (ie, the original vision inadvertantly imitated by Keats). Where Keats aimed too high and couldn't quite make the poem work, America recasted the classical vision in Judeo-christian terms and out came a poem that worked beautifully, epically, capturing the substance of humanity in all its glory and infamy.

The differences between the Canadian and American experiences are of a deep phenomenological nature. But both have its possibilities and limitations. Where one was found not quite adequate to capture what it is to be human, the other finds it can renew itself because that is its nature.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sweet and Lowdown

Sweet and Lowdown is a Woody Allen (one of my step-son's favourite film-makers, such a smart kid) boipic of one of the jazz guitar greats, Emmet Ray. Personally, I had never heard of Emmet Ray until last night when I watched the movie with my aippakuluk, but I was blown away by his music. I was also intrigued by Sean Penn's portrayal of Ray, who was a socially awkward, extremely talented, hopelessly honest, guileless artiste with a slight hint of kleptomania and a strong but awkward imperative to compensate. He was completely self-absorbed (but not malicious): he took his dates and friends out to the local dump to shoot rats, or to watch trains - which were his idea of a 'good time'.

In many ways, I immediately identified with Emmet Ray. Not so much the outward person but the personality type. Like Ray, I tend not to relate to people at the personal level and have a hard time appreciating the social rituals of relating at the emotional level, telling personal stories because I know these are particular, dynamic aspects of our personhood. Besides people can be cruel and stereo-type other people using these things. I take comfort at the spiritual level, in partaking in structured stories (movies, music, books, etc.).

There is also an obsessiveness, the need to systemize human experience. My particular thing is I love mathematical structures: of numbers, of music, of language, of philosophical and scientific principles. The human story is ultimately judged (not in a judgemental fashion) by how much or how little it deviates from principles (in far as the limits of these principles are tested and proven). I'm obsessive about politics for two reasons: I love the notions of social justice and personal dignity; I seek order and reason for the political process. I'm not at all impressed by power, fame or money. I'm impressed by how these means are used to noble ends. I get taken up by stories and the narrative this way.

My children also have this trait: my oldest watches all her tv and movies with the subtitles on (the better to read dialogues and partake in the plots, it's a literate thing for her); my son is a great gamer and figures things out not by the written rules but by doing and trying out all possibilities; my youngest and I used to talk ad naseum about the stories she heard and movies she saw. Though I haven't seen nor heard from my youngest in years, I have every faith that she will never lose her spirit.

Already by the age of three and four she was a talented artist. I mean 'artist' in the real sense. I still have her water colour which she entitled "flowers and butterflies" (in my biased opinion it is gorgeous), and her multi-media mural which she called "Snow White and the wicked witch". It is a dynamic retelling of the classic beginning from the bottom right corner with meeting of Snow White and the seven dwarves and culminating with the death of the evil stepmother (a black blob) on the left top corner (she dies on a mountain struck by lightening). In presenting it to me she told me the whole story using the blobs and spots on the mural, and it touched me deeply. She will always be Franklin to my Bear.

My life with my aippakuluk is likewise my humanization story. I love her deeply. Our life together is not perfect - who ever had a perfect life? - but there is something organic, lyrical, real and beautiful about our love. Having gone through both good and bad, I know in my heart I need her spiritually, physically, psychologically, personally. The lichen on the rock - that's how I see our love, our lives together. She brings out the poet in me. Love has no rhyme or reason: it just is. And I've found it in her.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

The paradox of anonymity

As an avid commentor on the Huffington Post I have come to realize that there is a paradox of anonymity. People are by nature skeptical and yet, at the same time, quite uncritical of their ability to cull out the truth. But that is not the paradox I'm talking of here.

I try and be honest of and to myself when I post a comment. But I've seen over the last few months instances where someone writes something and another challenges that person's assertions. Almost invariably, as if by good fortune, that person had the right credentials all along, which sometimes leaves one incredulous going by the choice of vocabulary and level of analysis demonstrated by the comment poster just challenged. - I happen to suffer the same skepticism and uncritical belief in my abilities to see the truth when I see it.

I'm reading a book right now that my aippakuluk ordered for me online. The book is called, Baudolino, by the great Umberto Eco and I must admit that I relish every word ever written by that guy and this Baudolino is no different - I just love the guy's writing. Reading Eco is like drinking a thousand year old single-malt, like the milk of paradise of the Coleridge fame.

But I digress: the main character in the Eco book is named Baudolino, a person with "two major gifts - a talent for learning languages and a skill in telling lies". Eco has a way of spinning yarns around familiar but innocent-sounding adages of the old world, and I doubt that I'd spoil anything by telling you that the Baudolino character is a study of human nature in the guise of the saying about the liar from Crete. Eco is that good.

A couple of days ago, I posted a comment, re: Niel Young asking who Bono was, something to the effect that U2 is a group of great showmanship but anyone with some knowledge of music wouldn't call them muscians and that Mr Young's apparent slight was probably with respect to Bono's tendency for self-righteous prickery. An angry response came into my in-box promptly saying that I know nothing of music and that the Edge had been voted the greatest guitarist sometime ago by the RollingStone magazine.

When I replied back I had to mention that I love U2 as a rock band and that I actually know how to play guitar and a bit of harmonica and know a few musical scales to go with that, and that the Edge has a huge bank of pedals and processors to make the music sound good. It was then that I realized I sound exactly like the posters who just happen to have a degree or specific knowledge of the subject and I gave an audible groan...

The greatness and weakness of anonymous posting (I give my real name, by the way) is like the archetypal mask: it gives the wearer some feeling of safety to be honest, but this cuts both ways; the mask also gives one license to lie without much consequence to worry about.


Monday, 15 October 2012

The importance of 'logic systems' in developed discourse

I'm really grateful and enjoying my new job as a terminologist. I'm learning new things everyday and enjoy the company of and the interaction with my colleagues at the office. I'm not criticizing anyone but trying to point out an abstract process that is largely invisible and underappreciated by even the experts that come up with glossaries that we, at the office, are expected to translate into the Inuit language. This also affects the translators that we have to interact with from time to time in the course of our work.

I was reading the posting of the reader/members of a media website today when I was reminded of something that I think I've written about in this very blog - the importance of logic systems of a developed discourse. A poster, whom I assume is a kid based on what he wrote, said something that was kind of off about politics but I couldn't quite put my finger in it. Then, in a flash of insight, it occurred to me that it's the internal logic system of political analysis that was missing in the poster's thoughts.

Internal logic systems allow for productive and consistent discourse, whether it is science, politics, journalism, etc. What is missing, in my estimation, in much of the Inuktitut in media and translation work is that invisible, underlying logic system that allows for the generation of new and original insights in a given discourse. While Inuit translators are expected to translate such terms as 'abnormal' into Inuktitut, the concept itself is often left undefined in grammatically productive terms or not said explicitly why something is 'abnormal' as per the internal logic system in which the word occurs.

In fact, without knowledge of, say, the Linnaeus taxonomic scheme of the animal kingdom I'd have an extremely hard time trying to come up with productive, non-circular definitions in Inuktitut for animal terms. Some animals have the same name in Inuktitut - most species of sandpipers, say - while some terms in English have same words that in Inuktitut are differentiated (juveniles from adults; four legged from bipedal running). The word for 'speckled' or 'spotted' in Inuktitut changes depending on whether the speckles or spots are on a bare skin, fur or scales of a fish, and whether they are large and few or small and numerous.

Given these facts, the best strategy is to try and find cognates between the two languages (and the logic systems) that will translate the terms more accurately (both ways, especially in Inuit Knowledge discourse). But that is what is frustrating tryng to explain to not only translators but also the experts who take these things for granted or have internalized them so much that they've become invisible.

Mnay a time I've been told - sometimes in my face - that I don't know what the heck I'm talking about because I have a tendency to talk over people (not intentionally, of course) but what I'm actually trying to do is to point out cognates and commonalities between the logic systems of the different languages that the self-same people are talking about exactly, only in different terms.


Saturday, 13 October 2012

A crisis of semiosis (part iii)

This post is just to clarify some of the concepts of semiotics so I'm just posting passages from wikipedia on Umberto Eco that I think will clarify what it is I'm actually referring to in this three part post on A crisis of semiosis.

Eco began seriously developing his ideas on the "open" text and on semiotics, writing many essays on these subjects, and in 1962 he published Opera aperta (translated into English as "The Open Work"). In it, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Literature which limits one's potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line, the closed text, remains the least rewarding, while texts that are the most active between mind and society and life (open texts) are the most lively and best—although valuation terminology is not his primary area of focus. Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather, they operate in the context of utterance. I. A. Richards and others said as much, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfilment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through study of language and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as did theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other). (Wikipedia entry on Umberto Eco)

From the late '50s till the late '60s, before his semiotic turn, Eco engaged in studies on mass media and mass culture, which were published in various newspapers and journals. According to some these studies were influential although he did not develop a full-scale theory in this field. (ibid)

Eco's fiction has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with many translations. His novels are full of subtle, often multilingual, references to literature and history and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns. Eco's work illustrates the concept of intertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works. Eco cites James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges as the two modern authors who have influenced his work the most.

Eco employed his education as a medievalist in his first novel The Name of the Rose (1980), a historical mystery set in a 14th century monastery. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, aided by his assistant Adso, a Benedictine novice, investigates a series of murders at a monastery that is to host an important religious debate. The novel contains many direct or indirect metatextual references to other sources, requiring the detective work of the reader to 'solve'. The title is unexplained in the book. As a symbol, the rose is ubiquitous enough to not confer any single meaning. There is a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, a major influence on Eco, in the blind monk and librarian Jorge of Burgos: Borges, like Jorge, lived a celibate life consecrated to his passion for books, and also went blind in later life. William of Baskerville is a logically-minded Englishman who is a monk and a detective, and his name evokes both Willim of Ockham and Sherlock Holmes (by way of The Hound of the Baskervilles). Several passages describing him are strongly reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's description of Sherlock Holmes.The underlying mystery of the murder is borrowed from the "Arabian Nights". The Name of the Rose was later made into a motion picture starring Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Christain Slater and Ron Perlman which employs the plot rather than the philosophical and historical themes from the novel.

In Foucault's Pendulum (1988), three under-employed editors who work for a minor publishing house decide to amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory. Their conspiracy, which they call "The Plan", is about an immense and intricate plot to take over the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. As the game goes on, the three slowly become obsessed with the details of this plan. The game turns dangerous when outsiders learn of The Plan, and believe that the men have really discovered the secret to regaining the lost treasure of the Templars.

The Island of the Day Before (1994) was Eco's third novel. The book, set in the seventeenth century, is about a man marooned on a ship within sight of an island which he believes is on the other side of the international date-line. The main character is trapped by his inability to swim and instead spends the bulk of the book reminiscing on his life and the adventures that brought him to be marooned.

Baudolino was published in 2000. Baudolino is a knight who saves the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. Claiming to be an accomplished liar, he confides his history, from his childhood as a peasant lad endowed with a vivid imagination, through his role as adopted son of Emperor Frederic Barbarossa, to his mission to visit the mythical realm of Prester John. Throughout his retelling, Baudolino brags of his ability to swindle and tell tall tales, leaving the historian (and the reader) unsure of just how much of his story was a lie.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005) is about Giambattista Bodoni, an old bookseller specializing in antiques who emerges from a coma with only some memories to recover his past.

The Prague Cemetery, Eco's 6th novel, was published in 2010. It is the story of a secret agent who "weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the European Continent." The book is a narrative of the rise of Modern-day antisemitism, by way of the Dreyfus Affair, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other important 19th century events which gave rise to hatred and hostility toward the Jewish people. (ibid)

-The commonality of Eco's novels above is the constructed (but very real) realities built around the moral, ethical, archetypal, cultural and historical landmarks within which the characters exist. Some chracters do well, some collapse under the weight of the logical extremis of their worlds. Eco's writings explore what it is to human inside the human world.


Thursday, 11 October 2012

A crisis of semiosis (part ii)

A crisis of semiosis is a devastating tool in the process of colonialization and assimilationist policy toolbox. Semiosis is the ability to make meaning of the world and the cultural archetypes that make up the fully functioning individual. Taking it away is the first thing the colonializing power does in every instance where it has occurred.

In Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, we see that it is not only applied to the indigenous population but also to the policing and coercive agencies of the colonializing state - wreaking havoc upon both the occupying class and the indigenous population alike.

The crisis of semiosis has been longtime coming to Nunavut. Inuit are not only losing their language but also the foundational archetypes that provide the moral frameworks so necessary for a functioning and viable society. The problem is insideous and getting more so everyday as seen in the growing blatancy in violence.

The crisis of semiosis is something that needs to be explored in not only government but those who work in cross-cultural environments such as teachers and the clergy.


A crisis of semiosis (part i)

Semiotics is the study of signs and their interpretation of the world around us, including cultural signification. Umberto Eco is one of my favourite semioticians what with the novels he's written whose themes center around how people behave in the surround of cultural signs, but he's not the only semiotician (only the very best in my estimation).

Kevin O'Leary is a minor CBC celebrity (this statement just about captures the whole man) who considers himself a rock star among capitalists and he acts as he thinks a celebrity should act. He has a rather dim view of "losers" and an utterly uncritical view of "winners" like Lance Armstrong which he identifies as being like himself. In his estimation these "winners" deserve our admiration though they've clearly got to where they are today by lying, cheating, back-biting, and social-climbing their way to the 'insider' status.

When O'Leary was asked today if Lance Armstrong should admit to lying and cheating he's way into history books, O'Leary said something to the effect that because Armstrong is a corporation he has no obligation to admit to anything, that it's up to the accusers to prove their case - this in the face of overwhelming evidence of methods, means, and complicity that Armstrong surrounded himself.

The crisis of semiosis is the very definition of this behaviour. O'Leary and Armstrong (in fact the whole corporate class) may not be diagnosed 'sociopaths'/'psychopaths' but that they suffer from a crisis of semiosis is undeniable. This is a sad state really because whether willfull or not it points to a certain kind of ignorance of the world around them and the consequences of their actions, all in the name of self-interests and selfishness.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Some good news I wanted to share

After, what seems to me, many years of wandering in a wilderness I finally got regular employment again with the Government of Nunavut as a terminologist (focussing on media and private sector). I want to thank the people who provided me with subcontracting work, Innirvik: they're good people to work with and very professional. And I'd like to thank the people who provided me with references for my new job. I won't mention their names but I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

I'm excited about my new job. It's in a field I love, language and technical analysis; and, it has almost nothing to do with controversial politics which was largely my downfall in the last field I worked in as a policy analyst. I work with a great bunch of people and I like working with them all. I'm still having to figure out the administrative stuff - such as filling out forms to pay the subcommittee members for the section I'm working in to come up with new or standardizing terms, and figuring how to navigate my way through the bureaucracy.

But I love the new challenges of actually analysing Inuktitut terms, coming up with technical solutions of doing the job, and translating the processes into practicalities of working with Inuit elders and other bureaucrats to come up with the best possible solutions to promote and 'modernize' our language. I'm brimming with ideas but I have to keep my enthusiasm in check so as not to go over the people and process that are so key to making a success of the important work.

I've also discovered a new thing. My need for politics and political comment is satisfied in a safe way by a website: where I can interact with political junkies like myself. There I'm learning the art of tolerance and expressing ideas and allowing them to speak for themselves in a marketplace of other peoples ideas and feelings.

I think I'm really learning how to be human; my maturity has long been coming, almost overdue. Finally working with other people also seems to be helping me in my homelife where my sense of partnership is becoming enhanced by the vagaries of work-a-day life. My home is my sanctuary. I hope my aippakuluk will see the differences I'm beginning to feel inside of me.


Monday, 24 September 2012

An apologia for the 'unreasonable' effectiveness of scientific principles

There really are people out there who think science is like any other belief system (ie, usually presented as in 'opposition' to christianity). This is to misunderstand science and off-handedly dismiss its role in the advancements in human knowledge over the three hundred years or so.

There is a wonderful article in the September 2012 issue of Popular Science magazine that features high school inventors that show why science isn't so much a belief system but a framework for understanding how the world works by way of scientific principles open to anyone willing to put in the time to try and understand them.

Among the ten high school students featured in the article, there is 15 year old Jack Andraka of North County High School, Glen Burnie, Maryland who invented an early cancer screening method:

Jack Andraka's pancreatic cancer test is 168 times faster and 400 times more sensitive than current diagnostics. To create his test, he coats filter paper with carbon nanotubes and antibodies. Mesothelin, a protein over-expressed in the blood and urine of pancreatic-cancer patients, binds to the antibodies. That pushes the nanotubes apart and raises the electrical resistance, which doctors can then measure. (p. 54, Popular Science, September 2012)

I'm absolutely sure that Jack, like the others featured in the article, is an examplar of a child prodigy, but his knowledge is not something random, mysterious or even a miracle. He's been able to put together materials, based on their chemical and structural properties (things he took the time to find out), and came up with a better method of diagnosis for pancreatic cancer.

Science is not a belief system like religions are; it is a way of understanding the workings of physical reality whose principles are simple and elegant enough for children to come to understand.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

The difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking

I must admit outright that I have an addiction problem: I'm addicted to posting comments on the Huffington Post (Canadian edition). It was when a response to one of my comments on critical thinking came in that I was forced to think about the difference between 'critical' and 'analytical' thinking.

I said something to the effect that much of what passes for 'higher education' nowadays is actually now nothing more than glorified vocational training, that the diminution of what Northrop Frye calls the 'liberal arts' education has caused this general lack in critical thinking skills. A response to my comment inadvertantly confused the difference between 'critical' thinking with 'analytical' thinking, and it got me thinking.

As a linguist, analytical thinking is very important to me; but, it is critical thinking that is important to me as a political junkie. The difference is subtle but significant.

Analytic thinking is captured quite succinctly by Feynman (in classic Feynman facetiousness) who said that an 'elementary demonstration' has a quality that:

very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence. (cited from a special issue of Discover Magazine, Discover Presents Einstein, 2009)

whereas, 'critical thinking' has some element of a willingness to question one's own and others' statements of opinion in the interest of clarity if not certainty:

Men become [more] civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt. (H. L. Mencken) - editorial addition by me.

Critical thinking is not a necessarily a negative way of looking at things because one can be 'critical' without any cynicism behind it. Socratic dialectics is a perfect example of critical thinking in action. It is based on a set of principles of debate in 'good faith'.

Another way of distinguishing 'critical thinking' and 'analytical thinking' is that the former is an examination of opinions, and the latter is an examination of facts.


Monday, 10 September 2012

Lessons from Hillel the elder

I've always been fascinated by where ideas come from. As a reader for most of my life I consider myself fortunate for having the skill of reading and writing. I think my Inukness has provided me with a solid basis for being a reader/thinker because of the way IQ teaching is such that little or no commentary nor rote memorization is provided to encourage thinking/reasoning and reflection for oneself.

As a reader I've tried to cultivate a wide-ranging base as possible. When an idea grabs my attention I have to try and go to the source directly, and barring that I try and read up on the subject as much as possible. When I was in my religious phase I wasn't satisfied with only the Christian reading of the scriptures, I had to find out what the other religions of monotheism - namely, the Jewish and Muslim readings. I have an inclination for mysticism, and have always had ecstatic experiences and moments of epiphany. Because of my strong passions, it does not surprise me that some would say that I'm a bit insane.

As a mystic, I've sought out the experiences of others considered great in all the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. One of these that I've always admired is called Hillel the elder (c. 110BCE - 10CE). He wasn't just a great Jewish teacher (helping create the ongoing historical discourse on the Mishnah (the compilation of legal opinions and debates) and the Talmud (the oral law of Judaism)) but also a great aphorist who is attributed with such sayings as:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.


If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

The beauty of the Talmudic commentaries is that it is not just about religous insights and commentaries - inlcuding almost every aspect of a Jewish life - but it also includes subject matter that would be considered 'heresy' by the other two monotheistic religions because no question is prohibited, and the seeking of its resolution is always done in good faith if at times cryptic and obstruse in their conclusions.

My admiration of Hillel the elder is that his aphorisms can often be applied not only to matters of faith but to other aspects of a life, including the political. As someone who's interested in the notion of 'self-improvement' - increasingly so with my mature age - I've tried to reflect upon the second Hillel quote: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?

It is an open question that takes a great deal of my time as a political commentator, and something I've tried to be cognizant of as an advocate for Inuit rights in my policy work when I worked in the field. In my natural state I'm really a timid and fearful person (especially in my youth) and it is this type of question that provides me the strength and chutzpah to challenge the 'ruling class' and the sometimes arbitrary and unkind bureaucracy which loom unjustifiably large in our lives.

It has been said that courage is not the absence of fear but doing something or standing up despite the fear. As with almost everything in my life I've tried to resolve my hopes and fears through informed reflection. I may not have always succeeded but it is the best way, in my estimation, to try and transcend my present circumstances.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

The reading of a text (or, the 'inner dialectic')

When Guns&Roses came out with their version of McCartney's song "Live and Let Die", many of the commentators/reviewers of the day were struck by how the emotive delivery of Axel's vocals changed the song completely (in their view) from the original. We were watching this morning a dvd documentary that my aippakuluk bought for us recently called, Pink Floyd: the story of wish you were here, where we heard some old out-takes of the song, "Have a Cigar", first with Roger Waters on the vocals then Roy Harper's version of the same song. Roger's vocals added a decidedly angry edge to the song, while Harper's version (the one that made the cut) sounded more ironical and derisive.

I'm not saying which I liked better in either of the two songs: "Live and Let Die" or "Have a Cigar" but what I'm trying to illustrate about what I wrote in my last blog entry about the 'inner dialectic' is that often the self-same text can be delivered, read, interpreted in more than one way. This is definitely not an original insight (and that is not my point) because poetry is notorious/famous for such openness to interpretation. But what I'm saying is that all text, in the end, has the same feature.

I remember years ago when I was a lay-reader for the church in my hometown where the minister and I were studying a biblical passage where the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane asks if his disciples were armed and they say, yes they have one or two swords with them. He says something to the effect "that is enough", but the minister gave a reading that was entirely different from what I often took the passage to mean (ie, "good; that'll suffice") but a simple change in tone reads the Christ, instead of showing relief, is actually rebuking his disciples for their hypocrisy in claiming a pacifist stand but readily arming themselves in the face of a coming threat. Christ's 'turning the other cheek', though seemingly self-defeating actually saves his disciples' and the gaurds' lives.

One of my criticisms of aboriginal and inner-city public school systems is that the system has decided (though who actually decides these things is never made clear, not taking the system to task has the same effect) that the children in their charge (for real economic or long-standing political reasons) have not the "right stuff" to warrant a viable attempt at education.

I mean, the ability to read and write are not just ends in and of themselves but are actually a means to further ends. Literacy is less about reading and writing but more about the ability to read and interpret the world and ideas in a sense that the meaning of 'literacy' encompasses even the oral traditions, having the ability to partake in satisfying conversations, having the ability to communicate important facts, having the ability to express and articulate our humanity (our hopes and fears and insights, whether in situ and/or beyond). For this to happen, a liberal arts approach is key, even science and maths require this mentality (historic development-based pedagogy) to actually take hold.

Northrop Frye's distinction of "taking a subject" and being "taken up by a subject" seems a rather 'fuzzy' objective for measuring education, but as someone who knows that difference I think it makes a world of difference.


Friday, 7 September 2012

Dialectics and critical thinking

As an advocate for narrative-based education, my views on it are informed by what is called the 'dialectical method'. Among the great practitioners of the method, Socrates is the most famous but there is a long, long tradition of the dialectic method some predating Socrates. A Wikipedia entry says of it:

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method) is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indian and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is dialogue between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter by dialogue, with reasoned arguments. Dialectics is different from debate, wherein the debaters are committed to their points of view, and mean to win the debate, either by persuading the opponent, proving their argument correct, or proving the opponent's argument incorrect – thus, either a judge or a jury must decide who wins the debate. Dialectics is also different from rhetoric, wherein the speaker uses logos, pathos, or ethos to persuade listeners to take their side of the argument.

The Sophists taught aretē (Greek: ἀρετή, quality, excellence) as the highest value, and the determinant of one's actions in life. The Sophists taught artistic quality in oratory (motivation via speech) as a manner of demonstrating one's aretē. Oratory was taught as an art form, used to please and to influence other people via excellent speech; nonetheless, the Sophists taught the pupil to seek aretē in all endeavours, not solely in oratory.
Socrates favoured truth as the highest value, proposing that it could be discovered through reason and logic in discussion: ergo, dialectic. Socrates valued rationality (appealing to logic, not emotion) as the proper means for persuasion, the discovery of truth, and the determinant for one's actions. To Socrates, truth, not aretē, was the greater good, and each person should, above all else, seek truth to guide one's life. Therefore, Socrates opposed the Sophists and their teaching of rhetoric as art and as emotional oratory requiring neither logic nor proof. Different forms of dialectical reasoning have emerged throughout history from the Indosphere (Greater India) and the West (Europe). These forms include the Socratic method, Hindu, Buddhist, Medieval, Hegelian dialectics, Marxist, Talmudic, and Neo-orthodoxy.

Socrates had a real issue with the Sophists so it's not surprising that he regarded plain 'truth' superior and higher than the notion of 'excellence' (Gr. aretē), which, in the hands of the Sophists, became similar to our contemporary notions of strict legalism (ie, the use of clever staging and construction of arguments to get their way - much like unscrupulous lawyers who use technicalities rather than the spirit of the law to win their cases, or disingenuous pollsters/statisticians to try and influence human behaviour or further corporate agenda).

The dialectic method need not be strictly based on dialogue nor authoratative text. In fact, it can be used to formulate ideas and questions for further research or as an 'inner voice' to inform one's analysis and reflections on the reading of a text (interpolation/extrapolation of possible conclusions of any given statement). The most famous practitioner of this form of dialectic is Einstein.

Einstein's insights were often derived from his famous thought-experiments (gedankenexperiment), where he'd play with ideas and statements to test the truthfulness of them. But again, the important feature of this form of inner dialectic is the interpolation/extrapolation aspect rather than carrying a statement in extremis (literally, to the point of death) - which is often daunting to reconstitute into a workable reformulation (and reeks of the Sophistic technique, besides).


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Hem-haw... that's not quite right

Sometimes I read literal Inuktitut translations of newspaper headlines that leave me hemming and hawing: 'no... that's not quite right'. Take the recent NewsNorth headline: Sea Ice Shrinking Fast which came out as Siku Mikillivalliajuq (literally 'ice shrinking').

I mean: sure, the ice can be said to 'shrink' as it melts, but a more precise translation should refer to the trend towards 'melting of multi-year ice': tuvatuqaq auppalliajummarik = 'multi-year ice quickly melting'.

I know it may seem nit-picking on my part, but I say this in the interest of providing as good an information to unilingual Inuit as possible. In terms of climate change discourse (both in the Inuit community and scientific/media) ensuring that translations are as accurate as possible will ensure misunderstanding is minimized (big and small) on all sides. IQ has much to offer because of its 'corporate memory' of climate and biological productivity information going back beyond living memory and this information can serve as part of the baseline data so it's important.

Besides, Inuit youth and younger adult Inuit have a great opportunity to learn 'new' old terms and save them from extinction.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Th Grelling-Nelson paradox

The Grelling-Nelson paradox, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics (2008) is:

A paradox stated by K. Grelling and L. Nelson in 1908. An adjective is called autological if it has the property denoted by itself. Thus the word 'English' is an English word, 'short' is short, and 'polysyllabic' is polysyllabic. If an adjective is not autological, it is heterological. Thus 'German' is not German, 'long' is not long, and 'monosyllabic' is not monosyllabic. What of the word 'heterological' itself? Is it heterological? It must be either autological or heterological. (p. 201)

This, I think, is a similar type of problem in the Godel Proof that says that any axiomatic system will have the capacity to generate undecidable statements, and, the corollary, that the consistency of a formal system containing arithmetic cannot be proved by the said system.

Not being a mathematician, and only as a language analyst, I can say that the Grelling-Nelson paradox is rather Anglocentric, and a superficial one at that. And I've never been able to totally accept Godel's Proof for the simple fact that there are these things called "linguistic accidents" like little, green ideas dream furiously.

The Grelling-Nelson paradox is too highly language-specific to be a real paradox within a formal system. It does not consider the real possibility that a given language may have a completely different grammatical structure such that it invalidates their insights completely. For instance, in mathematics alone, one may denote extremely large and extremely small numbers by way of scientific notation: are these numbers autological or heterological? -the question is totally meaningless. In linguistics, the word 'English' may also be denoted as 'Anglophone'; is the word 'Anglophone' English?

If we accept that the word 'Anglophone' is English - and it means 'the English language' in many linguistics textbooks - how do we use the terms autological vs heterological in any productive way?

Now, the Godel Proof, I've read in many maths books that I own that there is often more than one way of constructing a proof. The great Gauss did it all the time where he'd reformulate a statement and his line of reasoning would come out more beautifully and elegantly than other people's proofs. Selberg did the same thing when he and Paul Erdős had a dispute over a certain proof where he was able to bypass Erdős' insight completely.

In the area of physics, it is said that Feynman had an unconvention take on physics, and as a kid he had his own notational system drastically different than the symbolism of maths.

These things are possible because a purely text-based critique (ie, mistaking the text for conceptual level structures) is just so replete with linguistic and logical pitfalls that are often more apparent than real.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Analytic vs synthetic knowledge

I think one of the great strengths of Inuit Knowledge (IQ) is its ability to synthesize and incorporate new knowledge with the old. It is for this reason, and because of my technical issues with variations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that I've always been reluctant to say "traditional Inuit Knowledge".

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is basically:

the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined as having two versions: (i) the strong version that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories and (ii) the weak version that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behaviour. (Wikipedia entry)

I tend to think that education is the single most influential determinant of one's worldview and behaviour because the notion of "culture" is also influenced by what we've been taught or have become aware of in the course of experiencing life (ie, "education" in its broadest sense including but not limited to school education). The human mind is a wondrous thing, and capable of learning so very much when and if applied the way it can comprehend the subject material. Granted, learning take perseverance and patience.

I take issue with statements that say, because of climate change, IQ is no longer applicable: it takes a while to adjust to new or novel factors but human intelligence always adjusts.

The strength of IQ is Inuti culture's willingness to learn and adapt new things and make it its own. New technology? -Inuit will figure it out and modify it for Inuit purposes. New materials? -Inuit will figure them out and make uses of them. But what I want to point out is:

the intellectual capacity of IQ is such that it will even adapt to new belief systems and incorporate what is new into the archetypal landscape. What I mean is that we, the Inuit, as children have all heard variations of Inuit legends incorporating new facts seamlessly because there is not one set canon (some of the dog-human children of Nuliajuq, for eg, who become the qallunaat and sent off in a boat made of a kamik sole, though I suspect before European contact the story might have been slightly different). The rise of Christianity and the fading away of shamanism is also "justified" by way of story-telling, the same way that unethical behaviour is discouraged by way of scary tales...

Having no set canon for Inuit legends also allow these legends to be used as mnemonic devices for remembering land marks: the Atanarjuat legend has variations in every Inuit community if it exists, the places and situations in the story themselves become incorporated into the local landscape: there is that such-and-such island where Atanarjuat fled... the island is different in every community.

The story is used to help Inuit children remember where that particular island is situated in their area because memory retention is easier/surer if facts are connected to a narrative/story. The story is also remembered by the parents/grandparents and passed on to the children whenever the island is passed by. The ancient Kiviuq legend is a perfect template for this type of remembering; the story itself never ends waiting for new things to be told. The "voice of authority" is not so much in people but in these evolving, adaptable legends.

Most people are unaware of this fact. The power of IQ to synthesize the old with the new is its greatest strength.


Monday, 27 August 2012

The seven deadly sins

I like to think that I'm a spiritual man though I'm not much of a religious man. Dogma of any sort is antithetical to my nature because of my humanistic values and I've tried in my intellectual career to cultivate a critical, comprehending mind. I've tried to emulate the literary, scientific, political and spiritual masters, not to just ape their words, not to romaniticize their characters, but to try and use their principles to gain my own insights, to think my own thoughts.

I've been thinking about this for a while: it is said that there are seven deadly sins - wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. But I think the image of the fallen humanity is not so much a divine judgement (if God is love He is aversed to such unimaginable cruelty) but a prophecy, a warning of our lot if we insist on indulging our hubris (both at the personal and civilization levels):

Hubris (/ˈhjuːbrɪs/), also hybris, from ancient Greek ὕβρις, means extreme pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. (Wikipedia entry)
As far as I can tell, every human society - not just the Judeo-Christian tradition - has a tradition of moral/ethical discourse; as sure as that every language has a grammar. The seven deadly sins are familiar to any mature person no matter what culture or language they come from.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think of such things in religious, moralistic and self-righteous terms. The scientific principle that "there is no free lunch" (ie, the conservation laws) is a sound, foundational principle extendable to other areas of a human life, including our moral/ethical sensibilities: everything that we do has consequences, some good, some bad.

As a connoisseur of well-constructed oratory, I take inspiration from the fruits of classical education, especially the best of American free-thinkers. But it is not just words that capture my imagination but the noble sentiments they embody (ie, the possibilities of human potential).

In his departing speech, Dwight D Eisenhower warned the world of the implications of an imbalanced worldview not informed by decency and reason:

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among people and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology -- global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle -- with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs -- balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage -- balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration. (The whole speech can be read here in this link:

The "hostile ideology" is as much within us as outside of us - as our (the world's) current state of affairs demonstrate so vividly. Liberty and living well and fully are not rights but hard-won rewards of a conscious life requiring vigilance and hard work. Einsenhower warns his compatriots in errily familiar terms:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The hijacking of our political systems by corporatism and the thinly veiled purchasing of our public policy processes is the exact "misplaced power" Einsenhower speaks of. In Canada, under Harper's tenure there has been an accelerated drive to complete this fascist agenda. In the interests of "public safety" and "patriotism" we are fed drivel and I am aghast by the uncritical response by Canadians. David Frum recently called this collective stupor "new-found and sustained nationalism"!

But just look at and into the gap between the promises of Harper and reality (whether the mistreatment of our veterans or arctic sovereignty as a window-dressing exercise) one sees clearly that our public weal is not in the CPC's radar. Corporatism is peopled by entitled spoiled brats (the very embodiment of greed and avarice) whose ineptitude is astounding because its bravado and bombast are untested and unproven.

The English language is increasingly made meaningless because sophistry is mistaken for intelligence, legalism for cleverness (though why we need cleverness in the public discourse is totally beyond any thoughtful person) - ie, bureaucratic euphemisms abound and are assumed by our politicians and other "leaders" as they fluff themselves up with partisan pride. The notions of accountibility and responsibility are murdered everyday as politicians and other "leaders" hide behind the very offices these noble ideals are intended to hold and embody.

The seven deadly sins are not just moralistic abstractions - as we've seen them only in light of subscribers to dogma and pretenders to moral virtues - and we ignore them as superstitions at our peril. Humanists and especially American free-thinkers have been warning us about the secular and personal effects of them since they stood up to tyranny and arbitrary power (which has shifted from the royal and ecclesiastical courts unto corporations and special interest lobbies). But the noble ideals they forwarded are not just givens but most be acquired and worked on everyday else they become dead words, the cruelest of jokes.

I am no mindless convert to sobriety and righteous life; I love sinning, drunken stupor and wanton destruction as much as the next guy, and am totally guilty of them vices. It is with deliberately cultivated humility and full knowledge of my short-comings and vulnerability to slipping back that I assume my endeavour to an austere and reasonable life, not because it's hard but because I cannot face the consequences of my mindless actions any longer. If I seem unduly harsh I hope it's not been frivolous but in the spirit of not suffering fools lightly.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

A postscript on Barton's approach to teaching Mathematics

My readers already know that I suffer little of Barton's half-baked ideas on teaching maths. I don't know that guy from Adam, and I really am not attacking him personally. He just happens to be the one who wrote the book.

But my criticisms are more technical than personal. the fact that they have political implications make a critical analysis even more urgent. Not out of hatred but out of the need for honesty and to better serve the discourse.

To wit: when he brings up the notion of "commutativity" he doesn't do it in a natural way. He says that the arithmetic operations of adding and multiplication are "commutative" but he doesn't really show why the operations of division and subtraction are "non-commutative"; when he talks about the number zero he speaks only of the strange, non-intuitive numerical value of nothingness, and says nothing really of the place-value system of hindu-arabic numbers (101 does not equal 11 does not equal 1001, say); when he talks about the "set" he doesn't get into the historical motives for constructing such a theory (namely, Cantor developed his theorems of transfinite arithmetic to try and put the definition of "irrational numbers" and infinitesmals on a more rigorous analytic foundations). Instead, to Barton and so many others, these are just empty words and not living, breathing, dynamical concepts.

The motives and reasons for such mathematical ways of thinking (ie, commutativity; theory of sets; rational/irrational numbers; etc. etc.) only come about naturally as one comes up against the limitations of what came before. The narrative informs the student, and they are able to follow the lines of reasoning much easier.

Barton talks about transmission teaching and closedness of subject. His confused discourse is a perfect example of that approach.


Writing styles and literary genres

I've been reading this very interesting book on one of the luminaries of Canadian culture, a book by Georges Leroux called, Partita for Glenn Gould (translated by Donald Winkler, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010).

In the book, Leroux talks about Gould's admiration for a Japanese writer named Natsume Soseki whom he quoted often in writing letters to his friends. Leroux writes that Soseki's style of writing was very cerebral and often based almost entirely on the characters' psychological reality rather than a narrative. I was blown away by this, and thought long and hard how Soseki managed to pull it off, then I realized that Gould also admired Kafka greatly, and Kafka's work is likewise often based on the characters' inner reality and sense/emotional impressions more than anything.

Not having had the opportunity to becoming a reader on Soseki and Kafka (though I've read a bit Kafka), I realized this morning that I'm an admirer of a writer of similar persuasion (though, admittedly he may be considered of a lower brow by the more fastidious readers), Arthur C Clarke. I love Clarke, and consider him a great writer (not just a sci-fi writer). His characters' inner realities make up a great deal of the pages he writes.

This writing style may be a bit slow for some tastes, but it provides an excellent space for self-reflection and self-examination and possibilities for identifying oneself with the characters. It also makes one appreciate the more technical aspects of writing and self-dialogue that is quite a technical and aesthetic feat to pull off if one pulls it off well.


Is there a word for "mathematics" in English? (part v)

This is the last entry on this subject because I'm at the end of the Barton book. I may have given the impression that I'm reacting as I read the book. But that's not the case. I've given myself some time to reflect upon what I'm reading before I write here because I love the subject of maths and its philosophical underpinnings (ie, where these ideas come from and how they developed over time) and have been reading up on these subjects for many years.

What I've been critical of is, first of all, the shoddy scholarship of Barton who is clearly a non-specialist nor a very interested one at that, and secondly, because I appreciate the highly political nature in which he talks about these issues (aboriginal-government relations, especially aboriginal education). I'm careful to distinguish between "people" and "governments", especially in a "colonialist" context, because people of influence and power are very often just pawns in a larger system who, in a bigger pond, would have been just small fish. There may be no disingenuous bone in his body. So, I'm criticizing more the fact the ersatz environment in which aboriginal child are expected to grow up in. The dangers of the "blind leading the blind" are very real in this type of context, not just the Maori experience.

Having said that, in the few examples Barton provides, the possibility of miscommunication in a cross-linguistic environment never seems to cross his mind; nor the possibility that "plain-language" explanations may not be the best basis for curriculum development; nor the undertraining/under-resourcing of aboriginal teachers or non-aboriginal specialist teachers teaching aboriginal children, for that matter. I mean, I totally appreciate all teachers in Nunavut and the work they do is noble in my estimation but these possibilities are all too real for Nunavut.

There is also the superficial treatment of profound ideas and insights (both linguistic and mathematical/philosophical). Says Barton in many spots: one language may be so "different" as to make different mathematical worlds possible; one language may be the best and most appropriate language for maths discourse. He smatters half-baked arguments around then in the end states in most definitive terms that his research supports his thesis. What that thesis is is never made clear so I'm wondering if this book was intended for a gullible, uncritical, indoctrinated audience rather than as an honest academic discourse. The whole project seems to be designed to discourage self-reflection, further investigation and political awakening of aboriginal education.

I know this last subject (ie, political awakening) is scary to a lot of people but that is to show mistrust and denial of the basic goodness, rationality and maturity in human nature in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal compatriots (ie, this bogeyman is a myth, as much a "fiction" as maths as the Middle Earth). We need each other, and nobody's going anywhere (ie, no one is getting deported) so let's try and make our institutions more humane and humanizing rather than perpetuate their alienating, dehumanizing aspects with "cultured" parochialisms.

From a John Dewey critical perspective statements like below would never be tolerated:

Children do not need to have 3 follow 2, they do not need to have the 'correct' number of objects to refer to. They can suspend their dependence on reality if that is part of the game. All young children can do mathematics in this very real sense. All older people can too.

A relevant question to be asked is how this ability can be nurtured. How can I go about increasing my ability to think and act mathematically? A likely answer is to practice 'gossiping' with abstractions as often as possible, or, if I'm responsible for young children, to play such abstract games whenever the opportunity arises. (p. 147, The Language of Mathematics)

Even very young children sense when the supervisor/older person/teacher detects, even subconsciously, that something is not quite right in what they just said or offered as a response. This is how language is learned: through trial and error, and most importantly by feedback. This learning "technique" is embedded in the human consciousness. When they are not guided properly after realiizing themselves that they've made a mistake they quickly lose interest because they love playing within and with the rules of the game. When they do not get something out of it (ie, when no wrong or right can be measured or discerned) the reward system become meaningless.

In whatever language, in counting numbers 2 will always be followed by 3. Realiizing this is a great accomplishment for the child; their developing interpretation of the world is re-enforced, or if they got it wrong, they must be made to feel they have the creativity and wherewithal to figure things out (with proper guidance, mind). They love doing this: figuring things out. Anyone who has children know this, and no bureacratic reality nor academic theory will ever change it: their eyes light up, they become effervescent when they've done something right, or figured things "all by themselves". Denying young children the fact that 3 follows 2 in the counting system is to deny their innate intelligence.

Clearly, Mr Barton is a voice of authority in Maori education but like most self-appointed experts on alien cultures he has neglected to mitigate that pomposity and is now dancing like a fool for the world to see.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Is there a word for "mathematics" in English? (part iv)

When one's written extensively enough one sometimes realizes that towards the end of a piece that one has run out of gas - have exhausted one's resources and knowledge of the subject to such a degree that one is running on fumes. By the time Chapter 7 in Barton's The Language of Mathematics has come around he has definitely reached that point.

He claims, with little supporting evidence or arguments (whether historical or operational), that mathematics is like JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth - that profound and wonderful mathematical insights are nothing more than "fictions":

Mathematics is a created world, a world of the human imagination, and, like Middle Earth, we can write about it, film it, become part of it in our minds and emotions. Also like Middle Earth mathematics has been expanded upon by others apart from Tolkien (despite his family's best attempts to preserve copyright)...

...Once we have the number 1 and the number 2, then no mathematical Tolkien could have written anything other than 1 + 1 = 2. Once we construct a circle and its diameter, and then draw a triangle on the diameter to a point on the circumference, it is not just geometric poetic licence that says that the angle at the circumference will be a right angle. And it is not just a muse's whisper that requires that a right-angled triangle to have sides that obey Pythagorean relationship. These things must be so.

The mistake is to think that this situation does not exist for Middle Earth. If you are a hobbit of Middle Earth, and you get yourself into deep trouble with the Forces of Evil, then, in your moment of dire need, lo, the Elves will come to your aid. It cannot be otherwise. For if it were otherwise it would not be Middle Earth!!...

...In the same way, if 1 + 1 does not equal 2, then we are not talking about the world of mathematics, we are in some other world. The number objects 1 and 2 were [emphasis added by me] created into just the relationship embodied by 1 + 1 = 2. That is what mathematics is. Circles and triangles and angles were also [emphasis added by me] created into their relationships.

But when Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he had all the relationships and consequences worked out in advance. As the mathematicians write mathematics, the consequencs of some of their supposed [emphasis added by me] imaginative constructions are still being discovered, many are suspected but not yet proven, and still more are not yet known - or so the hundreds of budding mathematicians hope.  (pp. 121-122)

The sword Barton welds is too big for him. In his supposed anti-Eurocentric discourse on maths, he has squarely put back the Eurocentricism onto maths (rigour analysis vs geometric structures): ask any person unfamiliar with Tolkien's or Jackson's work what a hobbit is, and the more likely response would be a blank stare; ask anyone in the world who can count what 1 + 1 equals to, and the answer would be immediate.

Teach a child "pebble notation" and ask them to arrange and rearrange them into certain geometric shapes and they'd begin to realize that a given "set" cannot be arranged into just any, old shapes but just so. At a slightly more sophisticated level, they'd be able to demonstrate Pythagorean's theorem using only lengths of strings that by "squaring" the lengths of the two shorter sides will always equal the length of the longest one "squared" (or that a2 + b2 = c2 in analytic terms).

The increasing separation of European-style maths (analytic) from their origins (geometric) gives the impression that mathematics is just a word game (as per the abuse Barton wreaks upon the great Wittenstein) with all their wherefores and whatnots, but mathematical proofs are always based upon the foundations of what defines "number" or basic relational/structural aspects of geometric constructs of interest.

When Newton first wrote up his physics and his discourse on optics he hid much of the calculus (analytic) and chose to demonstrate his insights in geometric terms to the Royal Society; the geometric treatment of Einstein's theories of relativity are also simple enough for highschool students to understand and take something from them, though the differential and integral calculus of them are quite difficult.

Mathematics, if taught in a school at all, is never really taught in this way. Rote memorization of multiplication tables, log tables (if it reaches that far) are more the norm. But there is that old chestnut of the youth Gauss burning through the summing of numbers from one to a hundred.

Gauss realized immediately that he could add up the first and last numbers to 101, same thing with 2 and 99, and so on... if this story is based on reality he may have been too young to express this insight in a pat equation but his geometric (mathematical) intuition had never had the chance of being choked off by lesser mortals up to that point, so he visualized a triangular structure (called a partition) and came up with the answer in that brilliant flash of genius (the columns all add up to the same number if you reproduce the original triangle and match it up with the reproduction). That poetic image of the innocent being the vessel of the divine...

Barton is a fool. A dangerous fool, but a fool nonetheless.


Friday, 24 August 2012

The culture of overcompensation

I'm greatly bothered by the rise of Harper (not the person but the idea) and the entitled right-wing extremism that defines his brand of politics in Canada. This culture of overcompensation didn't just arise out of nothing nor is it an accident of history. The sense of entitlement and juvenile outlook is a result of the perversion of the so-called student-centered education experiment.

Ostensibly, if the child is given opportunities to gauge and direct their own learning, then learning should become an incentive. But the great advocate for this democratic approach, John Dewey, said that the teacher should not abdicate responsibility to guide and inform the student through a "meaningful experience". What this meaningful experience is exactly was very specific to Dewey: to promote civil society in a liberal democracy. In this respect he was much like my other hero, Northrop Frye.

A Wikipedia entry on John Dewey says:

Although Dewey is known best for his publications concerning education, he also wrote about many other topics, including experience, nature, art, logic, inquiry, democracy, and ethics.

In his advocacy of democracy, Dewey considered two fundamental elements—schools and civil society—as being major topics needing attention and reconstruction to encourage experimental intelligence and plurality. Dewey asserted that complete democracy was to be obtained not just by extending voting rights but also by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion, accomplished by effective communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt.

In effect he expected a modernization of the classical education approach. Again, from Wikipedia:

...for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.

I discovered Dewey and the American pragmatist movement when I was at Memorial studying linguistics by way of Rorty whose writings on text, meaning and language impressed me greatly(though Dewey impressed me more). I devoured whatever Dewey's writings I could get my hands on, and he was the single most influential thinker in my advocacy for aboriginal education in the years I spent as a policy analyst for Inuit org.s. Not many people knew what the hell I was talking about (crazy bastard), and I was too angry and impatient to try and explain. I should have kept going; I had such hopes for Nunavut then.

The Wikipedia entry continues:

In addition to his ideas regarding what education is and what effect it should have on society, Dewey also had specific notions regarding how education should take place within the classroom. In The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Dewey discusses two major conflicting schools of thought regarding educational pedagogy. The first is centered on the curriculum and focuses almost solely on the subject matter to be taught. Dewey argues that the major flaw in this methodology is the inactivity of the student; within this particular framework, "the child is simply the immature being who is to be matured; he is the superficial being who is to be deepened" (1902, p. 13). He argues that in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge.

At the same time, Dewey was alarmed by many of the "child-centered" excesses of educational-school pedagogues who claimed to be his followers, and he argued that too much reliance on the child could be equally detrimental to the learning process. In this second school of thought, "we must take our stand with the child and our departure from him. It is he and not the subject-matter which determines both quality and quantity of learning" (Dewey, 1902, p. 13-14). According to Dewey, the potential flaw in this line of thinking is that it minimizes the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher.

In order to rectify this dilemma, Dewey advocated for an educational structure that strikes a balance between delivering knowledge while also taking into account the interests and experiences of the student. He notes that "the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction" (Dewey, 1902, p. 16). It is through this reasoning that Dewey became one of the most famous proponents of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. He argued that "if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind" (Dewey, 1916/2009, p. 217-218).

I mean, wow. Who wouldn't want that for their own children?

The book that I've been criticizing in my last few blog entries, The Language of Mathematics, tells me everything that is wrong with the various forms of student-centered teacher education programs. Bill Barton speaks with such definitiveness and certainty, and is actually convincing in some parts. But he has superficial knowledge and little appreciation of mathematics as a historical process and quite selective in his speech. He constructs arguments then "proves" his propositions without telling the whole story. His is not historical development-based pedagogy, but sophistry and thinly veiled intellectual laziness aimed at the uninitiated (the aboriginal student teachers of New Zealand).

This type of teaching style is also evident in Harper and the disingenuous "dogs of war" that make up his core people. They gloss over subjects rather selectively that serve their short-term goals and interests, and show complete disregard for accepted and hard-won "rules of the game". When anything goes, society loses confidence and trust in their own governments and institutions.

Barton says something about the "problem" of Eurocentric maths saying that eastern and non-European traditions are ignored and dismissed as not mathematics. But that is not true. This is an attempt at creating artificial barriers and subconscious resentment. The European tradition of maths, and scholarship in general, always cite extant works including eastern mathematicians and non-european traditions and pay tribute as well-informed scholars demands of them. But the discourse has high standards and is qualitatively different as a human endeavour than what came before: strive for these standards of excellence, I say, rather than resent the "exclusive" club if you want to be part of the discourse. It sometimes seems to be the only democratic institution left: this academic discourse.

But Harper and his ilk clearly do not subscribe to the notion of these standards of excellence. We are watching the destruction of a fragile thing. I'd say that Dewey's alarm and dismay was far-sighted and proving to be well-founded by our culture of overcompensation.

I know many excellent teachers and have had the privilege of working with some of them. I'm not criticizing any of the Nunavut teachers but the lax and haphazard way policy is developed by mandarins in their splendid isolation (ie, those with no experience nor regard for teachers needs). The curriculum will work if given a fighting chance. But it requires training and resources so precious and hard to come by.