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.