Sunday, 28 December 2014

The axiom of choice

I have an invisible OCD. I call it 'thinking'. I'm drawn to abstract structures: language, music, ethical discourse as logic systems, mathematical equations and algorithms, architecture—anything, really, that can be derived from a set of first principles.

One of these things that I have obsessed over is called 'set theory' where the 'axiom of choice' resides.

Set theory, among all mathematics, has got to have the ugliest symbolism. If we were to assiduously follow GH Hardy's edict that 'beauty' be the final arbiter of mathematics, the only saving grace of set theory would be the implications of its statements.

In not so many words, the axiom of choices says:

Axiom of Choice Let C be a collection of nonempty sets. Then we can choose a member from each set in that collection. In other words, there exists a function f defined on C with the property that, for each set S in the collection, f(S) is a member of S. (


Eric Schechter of Vanderbilt University (just quoted above) says of "the last great controversy of mathematics" (ie, the axiom of choice) that:

The controversy was over how to interpret the words "choose" and "exists" in the axiom:

  • If we follow the constructivists, and "exist" means "find," then the axiom is false, since we cannot find a choice function for the nonempty subsets of the reals.
  • However, most mathematicians give "exists" a much weaker meaning, and they consider the Axiom to be true: To define f(S), just arbitrarily "pick any member" of S. (ibid)
I, personally, think that the words "choose" and "exist" are merely consequential grammatical elements of the broader vulgate statement of the axiom and adjunct to the main notion of "property"—"...a function f defined on C with the property that..."

This abstract notion of 'property' appears highly flexible and general, yet highly constrained—a given result is never mere whimsy but always derived from a set of rules/operations that do not quarter any exception (else it would not comprise of a set as such).

Mario Livio the author of The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved (2005) writes of this notion of 'property':

The properties that define a group are:

1. Closure. The offspring of any two numbers combined by the operation must itself be a member. In the group of integers, the sum of any two integers is also an integer (e.g., 3 + 5 = 8).
2. Associativity. The operation must be associative—when combining (by the operation) three ordered members, you may combine any two of them first, and the result is the same, unaffected by  way they are bracketed. Addition, for instance, is associative: (5 + 7) + 13 = 25 and 5 + (7 + 13) = 25, where the parentheses, the "punctuation marks" of mathematics, indicate which pair you add first.
3. Identity element. The group has to contain an identity element such that when combined with any member, it leaves the member unchanged. In the group of integers, the identity element is the number zero. For example, 0 + 3 = 3 + 0 = 3.
4. Inverse. For every member in a group there must exist an inverse. When a member is combined with its inverse, it gives the identity element. For the integers, the inverse of any number is the number of the same absolute value, but with the opposite sign: for e.g., the inverse of 4 is -4 and the inverse of -4 is 4; 4 + (-4) = 0 and (-4) + 4 = 0. (Mario Livio, 2005. p. 46)

On a clock calculator (modulo 6), Gauss found that any given prime number has congruence with either 5 or 1 for prime numbers greater than 3. How many rotations are required to obey this congruence is not predictable, but there is an interesting property in that for any twin primes the first must occur at 5 o'clock and the second must occur at the immediately following 1 o'clock.


Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Wretched of the Earth

“Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.”
― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Years ago I was introduced to Franz Fanon's writings (The Wretched of the Earth) by someone who was of that generation trying to "discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." As a self-professed Marxist in a pre-USSR collapse he tried real hard to distinguish himself different from the herd but I think it was more indicative of a certain dissatisfaction with academia (ie, unfulfilled ambitions) than being in a counter-culture; what could not be articulated (conscious or otherwise) expressed itself as being-out-of-place by choice for its own sake, righteous indignation included―righteous indignation especially.

Looking back I don't think he was far off the mark. The terminology was only starting to gel: if the problem was the "establishment" then being "anti-establishmentarian" must be the cure; if the shots were in the dark, the motivations were nonetheless profound.

I think this unwitting profundity was an implicit recognition of how prophetic Eisenhower's Farewell Address really was:

We . . . must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

The only problem was that, being a self-professed Marxist, he could not bring himself to attributing such quintessential insight of the times to come as having been breath life by such a person as Eisenhower.

Now 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 Statehouse, 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 military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (ibid)

Or, perhaps he never recognized the archetypal struggle as such being that he insisted upon the differences in class as the defining factor of it rather than the existential nature (and outcome) of an unexamined value system. It is, after all, a rare thing this making of conscious choice especially when ideology blocks the vista of possibilities in the making of that conscious choice affords.

We do not, as a matter of course, make conscious choices. We instead respond to, react against and/or ignore choices we could have made:

Someone has likened emotions to the red light on the dashboard of a car indicating an engine problem. You can respond to the red light's warning in several ways. You can cover it with a piece of duct tape. "I can't see the light now," you say, "so I don't have to think about the problem." You can smash the light with a hammer. "That'll teach you for glaring in my face!" Or you can respond to the light as the manufacturers intended by looking under the hood and fixing the problem.

You have the same three options in responding to your emotions. You can respond by covering them, ignoring them or stifling them. That is called suppression. You can respond by thoughtlessly lashing out, giving someone a piece of your mind or flying off the handle. I call that indiscriminate expression. Or you can peer inside to see what is going on. That is called acknowledgement. (Neil T Anderson, 2000. pp. 173-174)

Making a conscious choice, then, requires an active and on-going examination of our value systems. This is a very hard thing to do, especially if like me, your handicap is an inherent inability to deal with strong emotions and thus prone to "flying off the handle" to rid of them.

I do not trust myself to make conscious, good choices. That is my cross to bear: most, if not all, of my unfettered thoughtless choices have resulted in "life experiences". Looking back, it's a wonder and a miracle I have survived thus far.

This is what makes me a Christian: I have had to assume the Micah principle (ie, Micah 6: 8 "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.") and submit to the Lord in genuine humility because, on my own, I am truly incapable of making conscious choices without the guidance of the Christ's Gospel. This is my confession, my acknowledgement.

I know that "religion" turns people off. I have no religion; I lost it long ago. I do not go to church; I do not intentionally and unkindly judge people; I do not make public display of "doing good". I seek no status within the community. I'm really not part of the Christian community at all. The Gospel of the Lord is my meditation.

The literature of fishermen, tax collectors, and the generally rejected of the religious community makes me go "wow". There is something divine in that, in realizing that this literature was created by people of the most unlikely pedigree, The Wretched of the Earth.


Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas: the one thing that can be all things to all people

I never liked Christmas much. It is a season of disappointments; a season of darkness, literally and figuratively. No amount of contrived gaudy gaiety can redeem such jet-black night.

As a believer in the Christ as my Lord Savior I see no contradiction, no lack of generosity, no crippling pessimism: it is said that it is darkest before dawn, and what fitting metaphor:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 1-5)

Hanukkah is encapsulated by an acronym that says: A great miracle happened there.

I am no saint. This meditation is what stirs and animates my love—for my kids, my family, those that have touched my life both positively and negatively.

I recently came across Isaiah Berlin (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997). I think I've always sought out those thinkers who have a sense of irony, and what exquisite irony this man weld. If Christ-like irony be the measure of a humble man, Berlin is worthy of our attention:

Certainly no politics are more real than those of academic life, no loves deeper, no hatreds more burning, no principles more sacred. (To Freya Stark, 12 June 1944)

Nobody is so fiercely bureaucratic, or so stern with soldiers and regular civil servants, as the don disguised as temporary government official armed with an indestructible superiority complex. (ibid)

Doesn't that one describe the dullard, Harper, to the tee? (actually, for someone who described his own writings as having so little politics, Berlin cuts rather deeply to the quick and counts certainty a great evil to be rightly and promptly ridiculed)

Here is a personal lesson for me (someone so obviously prone to easy intellectual pride and vanity):

I am a hopeless dilettante about matters of fact really and only good for a column of gossip, if that. (To Walter Turner, 12 June 1945)

Pluralism, which he advocated for mightily and so capably, was often criticized as merely a form of relativism. Rather than pulling a conniption or walking away in disbelief and disappointment, he responded thusly:

Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance – these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible. (‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’ (1950), L 93 [FEL 40])

Unless there is some point at which you are prepared to fight against whatever odds, and whatever the threat may be, not merely to yourself but to anybody, all principles become flexible, all codes melt, and all ends-in-themselves for which we live disappear ... (To Philip Toynbee, 24 January 1958)

What the historian says will, however careful he may be to use purely descriptive language, sooner or later convey his attitude. Detachment is itself a moral position. The use of neutral language (‘Himmler caused many persons to be asphyxiated’) conveys its own ethical tone. (Introduction to ‘Five Essays on Liberty’ (1969) , L 22–3 [FEL xxix])

This final quote in defense of pluralism is what originally caught my eye:

Those, no doubt, are in some way fortunate who have brought themselves, or have been brought by others, to obey some ultimate principle before the bar of which all problems can be brought. Single-minded monists, ruthless fanatics, men possessed by an all-embracing coherent vision do not know the doubts and agonies of those who cannot wholly blind themselves to reality. (ibid. 47 [lv])

I cannot honestly bring myself to believe that the dark hours of the winter solstice as marking the birth of our Savior though I can honestly say that giving gifts to my loved ones brings me sincere joy. This season, however, is full of metaphorical meaning for me. And I am of the belief that no one can sincerely account for one's years to one's self without some measure of objective standard no matter how amorphous, dynamic and vague its resolution.

These nuggets just quoted contrast and gauge how I'd like to measure myself up to the Gospel of my Lord.

Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year,


Sunday, 14 December 2014

"I open my eyes and my eyes are filled"

-the title of this entry is taken from David Berlinski (2009)

Much of the features of the human brain seems to obey the principles of quantum physics: how we see the world (matter) in all its richness of colour (wave-like); how our actions and mental states can be apparently influenced by our notions of past, present and future; etc. Even the way we so effortlessly express and comprehend language has pseudo-quantum physical like features.

In thinking about language I'm always struck by the human mind's ability to take in and express fully-formed and/or spontaneously forming ideas in the act of speaking and listening. This may be just an illusion of timing—I concede this only contingently because whether it be an illusion or not it is a fine and good thing to have. At any rate, the notion of completion (quantum, if you will) seems built-in to our aesthetic/semantic sensibilities such that an incomplete thought always leaves us scrambling to complete it: our "linguistic turn" demands satisfaction.

The morpho-syntactic structure of the Inuit language is highly mathematical where the interaction between phonology and morphology is so beautifully regular that we (those that speak the language) can and do anticipate, and can and do predict the place and manner of articulation the variant will take on depending on the following morpheme—cause apparently follows effect in this case because most of the phonological assimilation rules in the Inuit language are "regressive" (ie, the cause/effect goes backwards).

ani- becomes anijumajunga  "I would like to exit (now)"

pisuk- becomes pisugumajunga  "I would like to (take a) walk"

isiq- becomes isirumajunga  "I would like to enter (now)"

the bold text are examples of "progressive" assimilation (basic form remains [juma] when it follows a root ending in a vowel; /k/ changes to [g] in the second case; /q/ changes to [r] in the third). In all cases, the place of articulation of the initial segment is left unchanged, but the voicing is changed (as is typical of Inuit language assimilation rules)

But, in the case of

pisuktunga  "I am walking"

pisuglanga "let me walk"

the assimilation rules are "regressive"—again, following the general rules of Inuktitut, the place of articulation of the final segment of the root verb (pisuk-) remains unchanged but the change in voicing is affected by the following morphemes ([-tunga] and [-langa]) that differ not only in semantic content but, more importantly, whose initial segments differ in voicing.

This morpho-phonological feature of the Inuit language is not so uniquely strange to the Inuit language. English, to some extent, also has this feature—in fact, all human languages do; the only qualification seems to be that the phonological change be phonetic and not phonemic (ie, have no semantic significance in the change).

In English, the word "miss" ends with a segment /s/:

"I miss her"  -no change in the final /s/ (say it out loud);

but, /s/ becomes [sh] in

"I miss you" (compare it with "I miss her")

This change in /s/ is called "fronting" and it anticipates the following "you" which is articulated relatively close to the lips in comparison to "how" which is pronounced further back in the sound-production apparatus (ie, the mouth as a whole).

The production of speech (and expression/comprehension of thoughts) is largely psychological where the encoding and decoding processes happen too fast for the conscious mind to discern. The currency of speech comprises of idealized quanta of fully formed thoughts. This interplay apparently pays little attention to individual sounds, words and phrases which smear out and bleed into each other forwards and backwards, and this process must be unhindered lest meaningfullness just sort of evaporates—I mean, try and repeat the same word over and over again or stare at an individual word for a while and our mind's eye will just naturally glaze over because there is no real meaning to hold its attention.

The various narratives and semiotic frameworks (ie, our prior experiences) determine our ability to interpret and decode meaning and comprehension/take-away is often idiosyncratic rather than collective: our ability to learn and acquire new frameworks demands it. Collective follows idiosyncratic.

When the process of language acquisition is disrupted in a sustained way—as what happens in inappropriate "pedagogies" like the so-called "whole language" approach—what comes naturally is lost. Whether this is permanent or not, I don't know. It certainly has devastating consequences as histories of "colonialized" peoples bears this out time and again.

I think this disruption can be overcome simply because it is proven time and again that the human mind is extremely resilient and seems to naturally seek ways of transcendence and compensation, after its own way and fashion.

The ability to switch back and forth between various narratives/semiotic frameworks seems to be the key. Intelligence, at the end of the day, is a given. But the more learned and educated a person becomes the more natural and well-oiled the ability to shift intellectual gears become. Exposure to new and well-articulated ideas and experiences facilitates language acquisition; not so much with rote memorization.


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Why 'dialectics' is important to vitality of civilization

The term "dialectics" is defined:

Dialectic (also dialectics and the dialectical method), from Ancient Greek διαλεκτική, is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to European and Indian philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues. The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.

The term dialectics is not synonymous with the term debate. While in theory debaters are not necessarily emotionally invested in their point of view, in practice debaters frequently display an emotional commitment that may cloud rational judgement. Debates are won through a combination of persuading the opponent; proving one's argument correct; or proving the opponent's argument incorrect. Debates do not necessarily require promptly identifying a clear winner or loser; however clear winners are frequently determined by either a judge, jury, or by group consensus. The term dialectics is also not synonymous with the term rhetoric, a method or art of discourse that seeks to persuade, inform, or motivate an audience. (

The Wikipedia entry on Dialectic continues:

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. (ibid)

The Talmudic dialectical method (of Rabbinic Judaism), especially the Avot Tractate, or, "The ethics of the fathers", relies on the four principles of interpretation called, PaRDeS (an acronym of the four levels of exegeses) but it places extreme importance to fidelity to the Holy Scriptures, to not only in what it says but to every stroke and sequential integrity of the actual Hebrew letters:

Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning [emphasis mine]. The Peshat means the plain or contextual meaning of the text. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, and Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a "hint" is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word. (

Ideology and its twin, Dogma, are two demons that ever seek to lull the unwary into dead-ends and they seem to be inherently built-in to any rational discourse especially where definitive answers/solutions are necessarily rare and only hard-won by sheer effort and perseverance. There seems to have been two spectacular instances where the twin demons apparently won in the venerable discourse of scientific thought: the so-called String Theory and Darwinian evolution.

In the Darwinian theory of evolution, the will to monopoly (through no fault of anyone, really) seems to have asserted itself right from the get-go. In David Berlinski's book, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (2009), there is a beautifully crafted passage (is there any other way he writes?) that illustrates this need for dialectical exchange and the consequences when it is ignored (quoted here in its entirety just because no other way is possible):

Together with Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace created the modern theory of evolution. He has been unjustly neglected by history, perhaps because shortly after conceiving his theory, he came to doubt its provenance. Darwin, too, had his doubts. No one reading On the Origins of Species could miss the note of moral anxiety. But Darwin's doubts arose because, considering its consequences, he feared his theory might be true; with Wallace, it was the other way around. Considering its consequences, he suspected his theory might be false.

In an interesting essay published in 1869 and entitled "Sir Charles Lyell on Geological Climates and the Origins of Species," Wallace outlined his sense that evolution was inadequate to explain certain obvious features of the human race. The essay is of great importance. It marks a falling-away in faith on the part of a sensitive biologist previously devoted to ideas he had himself introduced. Certain of "our physical characteristics," he observed, "are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest." These include the human brain, the organs of speech and articulation, the human hand, and the external human form, with its upright posture and bipedal gait. It is only human beings who can rotate their thumb and ring finger in what is called ulnar opposition in order to achieve a grip, a grasp, and degree of torque denied any of the great apes. No other item on Wallace's list has been ticked off against real understanding in evolutionary thought. What remains is fantasy of the sort in which the bipedal gait is assigned to an unrecoverable ancestor wishing to peer (or pee) over tall savannah grasses.

The argument that Wallace made with respect to the human body he made again with respect to the human mind. There it gathers force. Do we understand why alone among the animals, human beings have acquired language? Or a refined and delicate moral system, or art, architecture, music, dance or mathematics? This is a severely abbreviated list. The body of Western literature and philosophy is an extended commentary on human nature, and over the course of more than four thousand years, it has not exhausted its mysteries. "You could not discover the limits of soul," Heraclitus wrote, "not even if you traveled down every road. Such is the depth of its form."

Yet there is no evident distinction, Wallace observed, between the mental powers of the most primitive human being and the most advanced. Raised in England instead of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a native child of the head-hunting Jivaro, destined otherwise for a life spent loping through the jungle, would learn to speak perfect English, and would upon graduation from Oxford or Cambridge have the double advantage of a modern intellectual worldview and a commercially valuable ethnic heritage. He might become a mathematician, he would understand the prevailing moral and social codes perfectly, and for all anyone knows (or could tell), he might find himself a BBC commentator, explaining lucidly the cultural significance of head-hunting and arguing its protection.

From this it follows, Wallace argued, that characteristic human abilities must be latent in primitive man, existing somehow as an unopened gift, the entryway to a world that primitive man does not possess and would not recognize.

But the idea that a biological species might possess latent powers makes no sense in Darwinian terms. It suggests forbidden doctrine that evolutionary  advantages were front-loaded far away and long ago; it is in conflict with the Darwinian principle that useless genes are subject to negative selection pressure and must therefore find themselves draining away into the sands of time.

Wallace identified a frank conflict between his own theory and what seemed to him obvious facts about the solidity and unchangeability of human nature.

The conflict persists; it has not been resolved. (Berlinski, 2009, pp. 157-159)

As if the idiocy of over-extending an incomplete scientific theory into fields not of its purview, and the ill-advised-ness of pontificating and issuing papal bulls prematurely (as the Dawkinses and the Pinkers of this world have done) were not abundantly clear yet, Berlinski continues further down:

Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, the Japanese mathematical biologist Motoo Kimura argued that on the genetic level—the place where mutations take place—most changes are selectively neutral. They do not help an organism survive; they may even be deleterious. A competent mathematician and a fastidious English prose stylist, Kimura was perfectly aware that he was advancing a powerful argument against Darwin's theory of natural selection. "The neutral theory asserts," he wrote in the introduction to his masterpiece, The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution, "that the great majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular level, as revealed by comparative studies of protein and DNA sequences, are caused not by Darwinian selection but by random drift of selectively neutral or nearly neutral mutations." (ibid, p. 194)

Most people who know me, or have read enough entries in this blog, may have already surmised that I'd say: BURNED! to both sides of the Creationists/Evolutionist divide, the right-wing nuts who use social Darwinism to justify their arrested-development of becoming fully human.


Dialectics, then—rather than promising definitive answers—seek to draw in as wide a range and diversity of thought in knowledge acquisition as possible, as long as advocacy is rationally articulated and done in good faith.

Had the theory(ies) of evolution been sifted through the dialectic sieve, people like the Nazis, the Stephen Harpers, the Ayn Rands, the Tea Party militants, the so-called Moral Majority movements of this world may have been proven much less virulent, even peripheral to Western civilization. The United States of America—that brightly shining mansion on the hill—may have been given half a chance to truly be the promise of the suffering humanity rather than the sorry, pathetic husk it has become in pursuit of its manifest destiny, after the image of the military-industrial complex.


A curious case of the "four" (in the Inuit language)

The universe appears to be just one of those things.
-Frank Wilczek

The other day, I was doing an informal presentation on the Inuit language consonant chart to one of my colleagues at the Arctic College in preparation for Inuit Language courses we're simultaneously holding for the next couple of weeks (I'm teaching one of the four classes) when she asked me how I would explain the dialectal variants of the number 4—in some instances, it occurs as "tisamat" and in others as "sitamat".

Rather than giving an unsatisfying "explanation" that it is probably "just one of those things", I decided that I would try looking at it in terms of autosegmental analysis. -I've mentioned "autosegmental phonology" before in this blog which I believe has productive possibilities for the analysis of the Inuit language variations.

Says Wikipedia on autosegmental phonology:

The working hypothesis of autosegmental analysis is that a large part of phonological generalizations can be interpreted as a restructuring or reorganization of the autosegments in a representation. Clear examples of the usefulness of autosegmental analysis came in early work from the detailed study of African tone languages, as well as the study of vowel and nasal harmony systems. (

More specifically, using this gambit:

There are situations in which the rule applies not to a particular value of a feature, but to whatever value the feature has. In these situations, it is necessary to include the presence of the feature, but not to specify its value. (ibid)

I thought some light may be shed on this interesting problem.

How I'd explain the implications of the above insight would be to say that a given word comprises of a series of obligatory slots to which consonants and vowels are assigned. For example, the word for "four" in Inuktitut may be rendered (in highly abstract terms, of course) as comprising of this series of consonants and vowels:

CiCamat—ie, the word is sometimes 'tisamat' and sometimes 'sitamat' depending on how your dialect pronounces the word.

Let me draw your attention to the capitalized "C"s (consonants), where the first consonant is sometimes /t/ and sometimes /s/ while the second consonant slot takes what the first doesn't choose (it comes out as [t] if the first chooses /s/; [s] if the first chooses /t/).

The choice in the expression of the second consonant between the two seems to be psychologically real, and, in fact, it seems to be set in stone: "after thy father, thou may be such but not some other".

I think what is happening here is that the sequence of the first two vowels in the word: the /i/ and the /a/ respectively are exerting some irresistible force in the sequence of this particular slot assignment. I say this because one may have:

sitamat   but not  *satimat


tisamat  but not  *tasimat

In obeying the slot assignments, in fact, one may mispronounce the first two consonants (in this case, change the voicing feature of the consonants in questions while keeping to the vowels as they are) and not lose the meaning:

zidamat  (the hypothetical version of 'sitamat'); and,

dizamat (the hypothetical version of 'tisamat').


Ferdinand de Saussure—and the structuralist school after him—claimed that the production of words in human languages is a completely arbitrary affair:

Saussure posited that linguistic form [ie, a given word] is arbitrary, and therefore that all languages function in a similar fashion. According to Saussure, a language is arbitrary because it is systematic, in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.(


There is something incomplete about this perspective. Having seen that /dog/ may express itself as: qimmiq; chien; dog (or, schweinhund as my friend, Kalman, likes to pepper his speech in mimicking a German accent), Saussure makes a rather vague (and odd) claim that "language is arbitrary because it is systematic" and no less "greater than the sum of it parts". He goes from word to language with little or no intermediary steps in between. That he started from word outward apparently gave him no pause for thought, let alone in treating a given word as having no internal structure at all but fully-formed and permanent.

Language structures do have internal logic systems that interplay elemental phono-morpho-syntax with history and linguistic evolution in highly constrained and rigid ways. Rather.

The analysis of "four" in Inuktitut above instead suggests that these systematic linguistic structures are "information-rich" (ie, greater than the sum of their parts) not only because they are capable of encoding meanings (semantic content) but evolve according to lock-stepped iterative processes, much like how plants grow and evolve or how chemical elements combine to make compounds, each according to the available physical properties of its elements and their unique emergent possibilities when combined a certain way.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Quantum mystery

In semiotics a sign is rarely, if ever, just the sum of its parts. A hunter may know where to go to optimize his/her chances of bagging prey, but there are no guarantees that they will succeed every time. Not having gamed the system (perhaps by intention), the Inuit psyche seems especially open to the probabilistic, the mysterious, in its pristine state.

The word "mystery" as used here is not a weasel (or, all-purpose) word serving some ulterior motivation, but rather a recognition of a state of affairs within one's ken and pondering but currently beyond one's articulation and psychological mastery.

When I was a child I often thought about the nature of infinity having heard of the concept in church as "without beginning or end". The endless fog bank, the lead in the ice that went on forever, etc. I was looking at a boulder underwater and wondered at how long must have that boulder not experienced dryness (literally, forever, in my mind)—certainly not yesterday, nor the countless yesterdays I would be inclined to examine. What about the inside of the boulder itself: has it ever seen the light of day?

When I hit upon the science of classical and quantum physics, my mind (in my mind) was ready to receive their mysteries. Of course, I had preconceived notions of what reality was all about and how it must be just so. But I grew up in a culture that seems to have little use for preconceptions, and a rich metaphoric imagination that even a child knows is metaphoric rather than realistic.

I loved the philosophical discourse of physics if not outright captured by the math—interestingly enough, my restless mind finds calm in the equations for some strange reason: I can look at and ponder the meanings of equations (grammatically and geometrically) and get something akin to spiritual completion. For a long time, I'd talk ad nauseam (literally) about physics to anyone who had the misfortune of being in my presence.

I'd talk about imaginary (or, complex) arithmetic, Lorentz transformation laws, the impossibility of imagining our reality without movement in contrast to the oft-claimed impossibility of seeing the four dimensional space-time. It wasn't so much that people I spoke to understood, but that I worked through and revel in these objects of my obsession: I swear I intuited the Pauli exclusion principle by examining the periodic table of elements before I ever read about the principle itself; that I reconciled the dual nature of particle physics by realizing that we see things in colour.

I read of Michael Faraday and he became my inspiration because I saw how knowledge acquisition in science is more like him than the mathematical prodigies who seem to formulate theorems that come fully-formed and impassive and inscrutable to the human mind: informed imagination, more often than not, precedes articulated formulation.

Every once in a while I'll come across a precious gem of a thought. But my compulsion to insist upon sharing an insight is much diminished and is diminishing still. My ego still asserts its irresistible power but, by and by, it seems to become more comfortable in its own skin. My insights, once gotten, rarely ever expire. I find waiting for the right moment to share is much more satisfying (and mature). I often find that someone else will have come across the same thought, and, often, have better language to articulate them.

About this fact of a maturation process, I have sometimes wondered if Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi is subconsciously influencing/modelling my experience, or whether it is true of all deliberately cultivated minds and would hold true even if I had never read the book.

Ironically, even now, I realize that I still have much work to do on my patience, my ego, my still crippling visceral fear of ignorance. I'm psychologically repulsed by closed minds (including my own, upon reflection), and, it is especially in these moments of existential terror, I turn to Christ, the greatest mystery, the mystery, that is capable of affirming and assuring meaning on an otherwise seemingly meaningless, terrifying existence.


Saturday, 29 November 2014

The illusion of self?

A very close friend of mine recently gave me a book called, The Self Illusion: how the social brain creates identity, written by Bruce Hood (2012).

I've always had an interest in the cognitive sciences whether it be popularized recounting of findings in the science itself, philosophical speculation, linguistics, etc.—I, in fact, tend to regard my spirituality in such terms: ie, it is the whole package of the Judeo-Christian faith (the literary/linguistic structures, the aesthetic appeal of contrasting archetypes, the practical wisdom, reflecting upon the veracity of my Master's Gospel using the principles of PARDES (the Jewish tradition of Scriptural exegesis)—in short, trying to be human to the fullest—all the time trying not to set or delimit my expectations).

Believing that purely literal interpretation (fundamentalism and dogmatic thought) is not only a perversion but utterly ignorant and blasphemous, I do not pretend that the world is only 6000 years old (who did the math anyway?), do not believe in the so-called creationism, take ecclesiastical hierarchies seriously only up to a point, truly believe that G*d can and does speak truth to anyone He wishes, and truly believe that spontaneous rejoicing/ecstasy is a possibility built into the architecture of our being as much as cripplingly dark pessimism (ie, revelation and reception of truth is a matter of perspective and emotive intent).

I've been re-reading David Berlinski's, The Devil's Delusion (2009)—a scathing tour-de-force response to militant atheism—along with the Hood book (which is really an apologia for militant atheism).

The Hood book is highly selective in advancing its arguments (but so is the great Berlinski for that matter). For instance, Hood contends that that "the illusion of self" can be and is demonstrated by brain experiments that examine what is called the "readiness potential":

Prior to most voluntary motor acts, such as pushing a button with a finger, a spike of neural activity occurs in the brain's motor cortex region that is responsible for producing the eventual movement of the finger. This is known as a readiness potential, and it is the forerunner to the cascade of brain activation that actually makes the finger move. Of course, in making a decision, we also experience a conscious intention or free will to initiate the act of pushing the button about a fifth of a second before we actually begin to press the button. But here is the spooky thing. [Californian psychologist, Benjamin] Libet demonstrated that there was a mismatch between when the readiness potential began and the point when the individual experienced the conscious intention to push the button.

One might argue that half a second is hardly a long time but, more recently, researchers using brain imaging have been able to push this boundary back to 7 seconds. They can predict on the basis of brain activity which two buttons a subject will eventually press. This is shocking. As you can imagine, these sorts of findings create havoc for most people. How can we be so out of touch with our bodies? Do we not have conscious control? The whole point about voluntary acts is that we feel both the intention to act and the effort of our agency. We feel there is a moment in time when we have decided to do something, which is followed by the execution of the act. Brain science tells us that, in these experiments, the feeling of intention occurs after the fact. (Hood (2012), pp. 128-129)

The missing premise I see in this line of reasoning is the development of the cerebral cortex—that part of the human brain that epitomizes the evolution of the homo sapiens sapiens—which is said to "censor" our impulses (I, myself, much prefer "edit" to "censor") and activates right before we execute the expression of  a given thought or action. It is telling that, in Hood's book, the index makes no reference to this significant and important area of the human brain. I guess it screws up the whole point of the tome.

I'm not dismissing Hood out of hand. There are many interesting tidbits, already in common knowledge, about the workings of the human brain that he alludes to throughout the book. But like any interesting piece of "scientific" writing, it is necessarily incomplete, and should be assayed in light of all findings and extant scientific/philosophical thought that inform this corpus of knowledge.


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Has Canada become boorish?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 22 November 2014

A case for meaning-based translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Prescription eye wear

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

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

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


Saturday, 1 November 2014

"There is no inner circle. Just a dot"

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

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

The man is odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 26 October 2014

Living ironically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes men good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 25 October 2014

Napier's Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'd also recommend checking this link out: (

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

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


Sunday, 19 October 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Theology: an abomination

I recently had an experience—a negative spiritual experience if you will—that shook me to the very foundations of my yet-naive faith. I've been regularly attending a weekly Bible study group since I moved to Rankin Inlet, and I considered it a sign-from-heaven of sorts that I would meet people who have similar perspective and desire for sanity in our lives. That is, until someone in the group chose to speak about the doctrine of eternal damnation.

His session went relatively well. I mean, as believers in the Gospel of Christ, I do not think any one of us in the group would deny the discourse of our Lord on the serious realities of evil and hell, and the Lord's admonishments against the subtle wiles of fleshly passions and selfish regard: "your sins are forgiven...go and sin no more".

It was the week after that, when someone chose to speak about the doctrine of eternal salvation, that things took a turn to something akin to seeing Yoda's dark side. That the proponent of eternal damnation would emphasize particular words in his selected passages with much gusto (let's say) and that at no point does the Holy Scriptures say that should one ever go back to "boozing, whoring and back-biting!" kind of floored me. I was stunned. And I don't think I was the only one.

Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3: 1-3a:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly.

I'm still in that state of spiritual infancy (am practically a zygote, as it turns out). I must admit that I'm not even averse to the notion that I'm a fool when it comes to the Bible and prone to sin without much effort. But I strive for growth and awareness.

This is why I would not be surprised if someone could tell me and convince me that I am wrong to think that theology is evil (and even satanic). I seem to recall a passage in the bible that basically says that to think we can measure the width, breadth and height of G*d is a grave sin indeed (hubris). But I haven't been able to locate exactly where that is.

AW Tozer, in his sermon titled, Facing the Infinite G*d, writes:

God dwells in a mode of being totally beyond us and wholly above us and infinately removed from us yet when we think about God we are trying to think about someone unlike anything we know. God says, Who am I like? or to whom will you compare me? The answer being, nobody; nobody's like God, nothing's like God. God is like Himself.
You see, friends, theology is what we can learn about God but knowing God is quite something else altogether. Now, anything that I'll say this morning, any intelligent sinner can understand and then go to hell. But eternal life is knowing God and not knowing about God. The difference between a theologian and a saint is that the saint knows God and the theologian knows about God. (

and he continues:

But if you're studying doctrine, you can teach doctrine, and study doctrine and not be a Christian. And I have no doubt that many Bible teachers aren't truly Christians; they only know about God, they are specialists in the Book of Romains [sic] and Ephesians and Hebrews but they don't know the God of Romains nor Ephesians nor Hebrews. And you can go to Bible conferences and you can hear theology--or doctrine as we like to call it--you can hear doctrine, and you can understand the doctrine, and yet not know God at all.

"This is eternal life that they might know (God) Thee", and "know" there means experience. There is a difference between knowing and experiencing. I know about Eisenhower but I have never experienced Eisenhower. I have never see him, I have never shaken hands with him. I have never heard his voice, except over the radio; I have never experienced Eisenhower, and yet I know about Eisenhower. Anything that I can or shall say about God this morning any sinner can get it, if he's intelligent, and yet go to hell in the end. So don't get puffed up if you happen to feel, well, you understand about God's infinitude. That doesn't mean anything to you, unless you have been born of the Spirit and washed in the blood, because over here in the book of First Corinthians we read this: "It is written, Eye hath not seen, nor eye heard, neither has it enter into the heart of man the thing which God hath prepared for him that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his spirit, for the spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so, the things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God."

My recent experience of Yoda's dark side frightened me. My view of these experts in G*d's Word has changed. Has my faith in the Gospel of Christ changed? I don't think so. If anything, it seems to have been renewed and that I have grown from the experience: though the Way, the Truth and the Life is constant and eternal, we (human beings) are all fallible, even fragile. We have our off days and we have our good days.

I have compassion for all of the guys in the Bible study group. But the leadership in these types of fellowships must always consider the possibility of an off day lest the souls in their charge lose faith.


Monday, 13 October 2014


"We are lucky to have a PM who is an expert in so many makes you wonder why we are paying so many people to do jobs Stephen Harper could easily do himself."
-Melvin Argue, in a posted comment in a Post Media article (

One of my favourite authors on mathematics is Charles Seife. He wrote Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. He also wrote another book called, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.

In the intro section of Proofiness he writes:

Our world is now awash in proofiness. Using a few powerful techniques, thousands of people are crafting mathematical falsehoods to get you to swallow untruths. Advertisers forge numbers to get you to buy their products. Politicians fiddle with data to try and get you to reelect them. Pundits and prophets use phony math to get you to believe predictions that never seem to pan out. Businessmen use bogus numerical arguments to steal your money. Pollsters, pretending to listen to what you have to say, use proofiness to tell you what they want you to believe.

Sometimes people use these techniques to try and convince you of frivolous and absurd things. Scientists and others have used proofiness to show that Olympic sprinters will one day break the sound barrier and that there's a mathematical formula that determines who has a perfect butt. There's no limit how absurd proofiness can be. (Proofiness, p.4)

In a word, these people, including Stephan Harper, are willing to "commit sociology" to advance their own interests. They're relying on (counting on) our basic ignorance and fear of anything mathematical to make us behave in ways they'd like us to behave—whether we behave exactly as they want us to or achieve inaction out of frustration or confusion...the house always wins.

That is, the house wins—in this case—if we let it. For the anti-intellectual it is utterly hopeless. The reason, though, all is not hopeless is that we're still capable of thought and honest, critical examination of our basic principles and values of life and then decide what we will do or will not do with a piece of information or fact.

The piece where Melvin Argue is quoted above provides an example of a seemingly relatively harmless politic play (I mean, who really cares which fat-cat gets the contract?). But to regard it as harmless misses a whole complex of public accounting principles, the checks and balances of good governance and even the history of our democratic society where principles of good and responsible government have been used to shed blood and offer up Canadian souls as the ultimate sacrifice. Any one of these reason should suffice to warrant serious investigation or debate in the House of Commons.

But Harper has been able to make a sad mockery of our society and hard-won democratic institutions with (apparently) nary a peep from Canadians and much to the glee of his base, his financiers and the now-bloated media monitoring system he has bought for partisan purposes with Canadian tax dollars.

The oft-used phrase that the Canadian media is biased against Harper's conservative 'values' is a much useful propaganda tool not because the 'leftist media elites' are really against Harper but because the journalistic tradition in Canada has yet a strong bent towards the notion of its civil duties and the belief that an informed citizenry is essential to the vitality of our society as a whole, and Harper does not really make the cut under that system of values.

If there was any authenticity to Harper he wouldn't, shouldn't be mewling every time the system of checks and balances demands solid workmanship to pass his and the PMO's half-baked, anti-democratic ideas that would serve his short-term interests but have long-term detrimental consequences to the Canadian society.

Now, is that the type of character in leadership our 150 years of existence should accept even implicitly?

Our system works and works beautifully. Non-violent, non-coercive and democratic means and institutions are at our disposal. On July 14, 1776 the colonies of the New World issued a declaration against an instituted oligarchy that Harper seems intent on imposing upon the regular citizenry. The Post Media piece should be, must be interpreted as a serious breach and in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which in part says:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.  (


Sunday, 12 October 2014

"Accurate without being true"

As a language scientist, I'd say that my approach to the craft is more in the tradition of 'natural philosophy' (ie, as in Newton defined himself as a 'natural philosopher') than in our modern day notions of what a scientist is. That is to say that I'm less interested in accumulating data-sets, though I appreciate them and am an ironically good analyst, than I am interested in stretching and expanding and reverse-engineering the structures of my craft.

I'm as interested in the science of linguistics as I am in the applied language arts (rhetoric; oratory; poetics; philosophy; politics; etc.). I'm actually an able poet (when inspiration hits me) as I am an analyst; the rhyme and meter fascinate me as much as metaphor and a clever turn of phrase. My belief in the equality of all human languages is a tested and consciously aware conclusion. I've experimented in translation of Western classics, have written poetry in the sonnet form and have created an Inuktitut limerick.

Why am I saying all this?

I have a certain passion for politics.

Harper flummoxes me, irritates me, annoys me, challenges me, fascinates me. His disingenuous, though amateurishly clumsy, treatment of facts in his rhetoric works precisely because his whole milieu is a constructed bubble of demagogic mise-en-scene. He is a blunt little tool and rarely engages in situations where his sole talent would be utterly useless. His fawning audience, his hand-selected cadre of journalists (what we would generously call "publicists"), his immature and unquestioning, spoon-fed cushion of advisers and courtiers give a certain impression of daunting impassiveness.

Any rap star, boy band or Milli Vanelli what-have-yous know these tricks inside out. But we talking about a democracy: our democracy.

One cannot decimate legislation, implement public policy on personal feelings, mix good and sound ideas with bad ones in an omnibus bill for the sole purpose of cheap gotcha politics, and expect sustainability of vision and long-lasting legacy pieces that would attest to your time in the highest office of the land.

When people like Calandra, Del Mastro, Poilieve, etc. stand up in the House and make spectacularly outrageous offenses against our notions of good governance, when costly pieces of legislation are thrown out because they do not meet constitutional standards, when one is seen to favour one region over another, when public announcements do not pan out, when trusted and respected public figure are viciously attacked for speaking out, etc. etc. all of these things add up to not a "master strategist" at work but incompetent indifference the best of which is illustrated by a fictitious character like Joffery from the Game of Thrones and at worse a diva-like third world dictator.

The title of this entry comes from a quote by David McLaughlin (former head of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy) who was commenting on Harper's performance and public statements contrasted against Commissioner Julie Gelfand's recently released report on Canada's greenhouse gas emissions:

He says Harper's statements to the House of Commons are factually accurate in that Canada's overall emissions are currently lower than they were when the Conservatives came to office in 2006 and the economy has grown since then.

A multitude of factors are involved in those lower emissions, notably the global financial crisis that began to bite in 2008 and created a major recession in 2009.

"The economy went off a cliff," said McLaughlin, a former chief of staff to Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney. "The emissions upward path dropped in conjunction with the drop in economic growth. Same thing happened in the U.S."

Harper's response in the Commons, said McLaughlin, "is a classic example of accuracy versus veracity."

"It's accurate without being true — in the sense that it's accurate the numbers show that, but it's not true in showing we're on a path to reducing overall emissions and to meet targets."

Harper is on shakier ground, however, when he claims emissions decreased "thanks to our plan."

Industries are more energy efficient, they've moved away from energy-intensive manufacturing to service industry work, and provincial measures — notably Ontario's move away from coal-fired electricity generation — have also played a major role.

"It's not true that it's on the basis of a series of distinct government actions, at the federal level anyway," McLaughlin said. (

Actually, everything that Harper does and says has always been on "shaky ground"—in an amateurish kind of way. The above quote illustrates this perfectly: he tends to take credit for a certain aspect of a given situation he's had nothing to do with while placing blame upon others for the less flattering aspects of the self-same thing.

What makes it amateurish is that his claims to credit and attribution are provable 'objective' facts rather than attributable to anything he has done or chosen to have not done based on his oft-claimed but rarely demonstrated "set of principles". He is rather like a kid who says he fixed the car because his father let him hold the flashlight while changing the oil.

What really irks me about the demagoguery of Harper is that he's made no effort to actually learn the craft of sophistry, to let us be seduced with his wares if only for a moment. It irks me because it's a glaring statement about the failure of our education system on him and his generation. He has no personality, is not a character, and what is left is a love letter from a creepy Peter Griffin who only nibbled your ear and now your ear feels filthy.


Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ephesians 6:12

When I was a kid I used to have terrifying night terrors about the end of the world. I hated going to church, and my leeriness of attending church persists today. I doubt I'll willingly ever set foot in a church again. As a believer in Christ I really do not see a contradiction: I'm a Christian, psychological anatheist ('anatheism' is defined by Richard Kearney as 'seeking a rebirth of faith after the loss of faith' and it is this and this alone on which I base my self label as anatheist).

After many, many years away from church and *simplistic folk religion I think I finally heard the 'still, small voice'. I think my many years of Asperger's-like obsession with the mathematico-physical sciences played a role in my anatheism. When I read the first few verses of Psalm 19 during the period of dark fear that recently dominated my life my decision to 'seek the rebirth of faith' was set.

*'simplistic' here does not mean the saintly people of simple faith that have always been drawn to Christ but the black-and-white, militantly antagonistic, demonic corporatism of right-wing ideology.

The vulcanization of corporatism in the so-called "christian right" and "islamic fundamentalism" (ie, using G*d's name in vain) is part of the culmination of sectarian violence that currently threatens world peace.

St Paul is clear and could not be clearer: this religiously -driven and -defined unrest is utter evil not because it is a fight of 'good against evil' (all parties to this culmination all seem willing to justify the means to their nefarious ends), but because of unsustainable, historic developments of institutionalized evil (violence, greed, hubris, envy, ignorance, willfulness, etc.): For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

This evil does not start in far-off lands, away from the geographical and ideological divides that delineate 'us from them'. It is a reactionary bomb whose fire is currently consuming all of us. One side is reacting against what they perceive to be historic wrongs; the other side is reacting against what they perceive as threats to long-standing but crumbling power structures.

The rise of people like Harper, Rove and the Koch brothers is mirrored by the rise of a decidedly millennial Islamic fundamentalism. This being the case, the devil we know is not very assuring.

The apocalypse is often portrayed as ultimate fight of good against evil, but that is rather wrong-headed in my view: it is G*d and the Messiah judging human society as violent and evil and intervening to protect the 'remnant'in every instance of G*d intervening in Jewish (and human) history since the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt has always been to protect a remnant, seemingly irrespective of whether the individuals are morally and religiously worthy of salvation, at least to worldly expectations. In the book of Nehemiah, the remnant, after many years of exile, has become ignorant of the Jewish religion and need to be retaught the Book of the Law of Moses during the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

In fact, the remnant in St John's Book of Revelation seems to have little or no active role in the ultimate war. War is already happening when the Christ comes down with His heavenly army to protect His remnant. This makes sense because the Christ and the prophets before Him have always claimed that G*d is not interested in religiosity (and neither in our status within a religious community) but how we treat each other as human beings.


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Plain and simple wins the race

It has always been humanity's experience that plain and simple ideas are the most beautiful. Elegance is beautiful while convoluted agglomerations are ugly.

Not all things of complexity are ugly. Most of the natural phenomena and specialized fields of activity/study tend to achieve a level of complexity but what makes them elegant is that their reality are based on first principles linked by internally consistent logical systems (ie, can be explained and/or described as simple systems or in rationally logical terms).

Some require specific intermediate steps and the right combinations and conditions to achieve full development; some require only specific shapes and geometries. Life processes and chemical compounds are of the former type; the material implements of the Inuit culture are of the latter. I've often been struck by the inherent elegance of Inuit cultural artifacts.

The other day I attended an opening ceremony of a college course where an Inuk woman was talking about and explaining the mechanical and material principles of optimizing the use of a qulliq (Inuit ovoid-shaped lamp) while she prepared the qulliq for lighting. She described the geometry, orientation, and physical properties of the different materials used to make a qulliq, the chemical make up and uses of different types of oil and wick material, and, at the end of her demonstration, she pointed out the calmness that had descended upon the room (even on those who didn't understand her spoken words).

The first principles she described made no appeal to latin or complicated scientific terminologies and yet she was able to achieve something only few and rare species of teachers and mentors can achieve: insight and comprehension. Her style of teaching reminded me of the fable "stone soup":

Stone Soup is an old folk story in which hungry strangers persuade local people of a town to give them food. It is usually told as a lesson in cooperation, especially amid scarcity. In varying traditions, the stone has been replaced with other common inedible objects, and therefore the fable is also known as button soupwood soupnail soup, and axe soup. It is Aarne-Thompson tale type 1548. (

This is Inuit style of teaching par excellence. It involves the student's natural intelligence, linguistic and motor competence and curiosity/imagination; it watches for and celebrates the internal happenings in the student as things (first principles) become clear and lucid enough for the student to gain confidence to try things out and/or innovate.

I try and not give in to the temptations of  romanticizing Inuit culture. My belief and knowledge with respect to Inuit culture and language is that these can more than stand on their own. Its practitioners may not have the language and/or conscious awareness to fully bring out the beauty but it is there nonetheless underlying everything the person utters and does. You may have seen its ineffable reality.

I know someone I care about deeply has seen it, felt it. In her stories of her first experiences of Inuit culture (she was involved with an Inummarik) I can see that spark of imagination. She's also asked questions or made observations that have helped me become more consciously aware of things I had took for granted. Her errors and spot-on observations help me perceive that ineffable beauty more clearly.