Alphabets

I have always been intrigued by alphabets, which may go hand-in-hand with my delight at reading dictionaries. Whilst I know learning Latin and Greek until I was sixteen may have been part of this fascination, it extends to an interest in all alphabets from cuneiform to the beautifully fluid scripts of classical Sanskrit and Mandarin Chinese. The seemingly simply identification of certain sounds with certain designs on a piece of paper, carved into stone or cut into clay has given us a means of communication without which we could not have created a meaningful legal system, and without that we could not have developed large societies.

But putting the identification aside, what we have centred are minds upon is in fact, art.

The development of letters, begun crudely and without sophisticated writing materials, has accompanied us on our travels to understand ourselves and the universe around us, and is in essence ‘design with meaning’. Alphabets are all wonderfully creative, with ties to nature and history in every stroke. As we dash off a quick note, or scribble a wayward signature in a hurry to be done with it, I wonder how often we think that we are touching everything we are and everything we know and everything we wish we could be.

Perhaps our alphabets know more about us than we do ourselves.

Time Flies

I recently met my father after thirty or more years estrangement. I don’t think it necessary to go through any of the arguments for the distance but when waiting to board the delayed plane back from Mumbai I wrote the following:

 

Some stories that are written are inked in
Tears if undistinguished arguments and
Unsubstantiated anger, coughing
Out the memories between two stained lands
Where sad indifference has been the rule,
Which swept across the ordered years and left,
Like some brief tyrant’s passion for the cruel,
Silence; painful kisses somehow confessed,
Distance where hugging should be natural
And rejection of complete forgiveness.
So I found my father is paternal
And his conclusions not wholly loveless

There came this time, when two adults stood and stared
Then somehow knew that their two hearts had dared.

We Are Lead By the Past

I remember when reading Thucydides as a teenager studying ancient history how the Greek historian interpreted speeches from his memory and from the recollection of those he had talked to about them and perhaps from fragments others had written down. It was an interesting exercise because reading Pericles and Brasidas and others one quickly saw all the formulae and techniques used by orators then and now: how speeches have a rhythm and build to make certain points, how to entwine into them patriotism, honour and all the any attributes popular with those speaking to soldiery and the general populace.

There are many speeches in Acts of Apostles that are likewise re-interpreted from those who were there who from those who think they knew what was said and even, as with the discussion in the Sanhedrin, made up by the author as to what he thought might have been said. But here there is less evidence that he got it right because the ways in which religious teachers give speeches and how soldiers give them, are different.

As the listeners are often the same one wonders how honour can be two different things? How respect can cross from war to peace? How ethics can be at once a treaty and a strategy?

The soldier and the priest have sometimes in history changed places. This should not surprise us as the offices of state reflect our natures and we are at once a passive and aggressive animal.

More Is Less

I have a friend who knows a good deal about the history of photography who revealed to me that around 1910s the Kodak book of photographic papers had 120 listed papers but by the 1980s when photography had left the preserve of the few and become a mass market experience the number had gone down to 6. This degrading of choice is very interesting in a market where ‘choice’ is bandied about as one of its virtues, and there is a lot of choice, there just isn’t a great deal of value.

The reason I point this out is because I do not actually understand why there should be a decrease in the availability of lots of choices just because something goes mass market, except for the fact that the mass market includes many non-experts and non-enthusiasts and they don’t actually know they are being short changed. The reduction in anything mass produced is only viable in a mass market that is largely ignorant.  After all how many people would know the differences in grains and the variety of results that 120 papers can give over 6 when all they want is the family Christmas photographs.

This is why mass market appeal and art don’t mix, because art always knows the differences. In fact art know 120 papers is not enough.

Choose Your Mafia

I think we all tend to join or make groups. Mostly we view them as benign and for many of us membership is as open as buying a house in the neighborhood, joining a club or graduating from a school or University. For all of us the membership is selective though, limited to a certain number by verity of skill sets, finances, language or any of numerous variables. In fact based on the skill one chooses one will find one is a member of many different kinds of mafia.

The real thing about the mafia is not that they go around hurting or intimidating, it is that not everyone can join. It is an important part of our view of ourselves that we can be selective and indeed that we can be selected. And we may excuse those mafia we belong to because we gained membership by legal and utterly benign means, whether by passing an exam, joining a career path or marrying someone. But the fact that we use and delight to some extent in all these things should not blind us to the fact that we cannot all be members of the same club or set. And that some clubs and sets are seen as being higher attainments than others.

I might not wish to have, I might not planned to have, but I have crowded others out by simply doing what I do.

How To Think

While I am sure that brain research will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves during the course of this century I presume to predict one of its key findings will be the ways in which we are taught to think, that stay with us for our whole lives and become almost second nature. Because as children we learn in order to survive, these ways of thinking bind us to a culture, cement us to a community and become part of our personality.

So automatic are these ways of thinking that we rarely question them and they go far deeper than we may expect; loosed from the realms of eating, drinking, sleeping and finding shelter they prefigure concepts that explain ourselves to each other. Having a name, for example, it utterly unimportant except to give us a place and sew us into the pattern of the community. We constantly need reference points to be able to communicate in our languages and to this extent languages confine us. Language is to our brains what money is to our society, the former is the apparent liberation of our thoughts the latter the freedom of our activity.

But in both there are chains for just as there are more activities we could do if we lived without charging for those activities, so there are thoughts we find hard if not impossible to express in our languages. When we fully understand how the brain makes connections and lays down trains of thought, we may find new ways of thinking.

Running Without Satire

There are those who think Candide is a huge satire poking fun at writers and society at one and the same time. Which, seeing as most great writers have been somehow outside mainstream society, is quite an interesting conceit and once which Voltaire is easily capable of managing. Gulliver’s Travels has long been the bane of English students who have to write the same things about it thousands have written before about how it pokes fun at the foibles of the British.

Less understood would be the advance of a dissertation on the satirical nature of so called’ holy texts’, but if like me you take religions to be commentaries on human nature the idea that the associated holy texts are satirical to some degree naturally follows. This is most easily seen in the way in which  priests can turn stories to humour with ease whether commenting on eating habits by discussing the feeding of the five thousand, or commenting on anger when discussing Moses breaking up his first draft of the ten commandments.

In fact there is so much humour and sub-texts in holy texts that prists are endlessly finding new things to say. Of course they do not talk about satire because they think there is something unerringly ‘true’ in their beliefs, but once the shackle of belief has gone then laughter at the absurd things people believe follows. Human beings are after all animals who have a high opinion of themselves and believe the myths they make-up about themselves. What could be more satirical than that?

Times Don’t Change

When I was last in Mumbai it was Bombay, and there were a lot of beggars on the streets. Not only did they flock around Westerners and the rich when they walked in the streets it was noticeable how they haunted the traffic lights and swarmed out when they were red and the cars stopped, tapping on windows and standing looking in with their hands out.

So when I saw hardly one beggar on the streets this year I thought that this must be the economic miracle that was India and the beggars’ children and grandchildren must have been employed with the new wave of jobs in the country and fewer people were as poor as they had been thirty odd years ago. That is of course, my optimism that human beings might have grown up in the intervening years which is a facile hope.

The beggars were rounded up some time ago and taken against their will to places outside of Mumbai, places from which they tried to escape and little wonder because I can hardly imagine they were either salubrious or well equipped. It is depressing how easily leaders default to the tyrannical position even in the world’s most populous democracy.

Maybe they think India is too populous for democracy?

Publishing On Demand

Having been part of the new wave of self-publishing for over a year now, and run the gamut of marketing techniques, joined about every social networking site I thought might be sensible and done a certain amount of work purely for the number crunching than for the direct relevance, I have realised there is one important, overriding task that faces the self-published author that they must address with everything they write.

The first thing to remember is that the revolution happening in publishing puts the writer in command of their own work thereby taking the role of authorship back to the days before  editors and publishing houses dominated and craftsmen and women produced their own work. The revolution though, is one of delivery, just as Caxton’s press, it is not one of content.

Any writer living at any time has to make sure their written work is the very best they can produce, this will not always mean it is good writing or even worth reading. It simply means that the focus of any writer is the quality of the written work. Everything else follows from that. The very best marketing strategy any writer has is that they enthuse readers with their artistry because readers always recommend books they enjoy.

The Internet won’t sell any more books for you than Blake sold making his by hand, or printing presses enabled people to do through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All it does is give your excellence a showcase and if you are not excellent enough you will fail.

Mumbai

I recently had the pleasure to sit in the Willingdon Club with relatives by a golf course on a balmy evening outdoors in the hot month of may in Mumbai. The club was built by the British and it is based on the clubs you find in London. I was told of an even more exclusive club in Mumbai which still only allowed Europeans to join even after Independence, for quite a while.

The fact of clubs does not aggravate me, they can be places of stillness in busy cities, places of study with wonderful libraries and places of work with a high level of the same strata of society joining. But I do wonder at the exclusivity and hoops one has to go through to join these places and what benefit it imparts but a transient sense of belonging and having made it in society. For all their elegance of style I am minded that these places are repositories if immense backwardness in our thinking.

At the Willingdon only children of past members may join. I won’t be applying. Not because I don’t want to be a member of a club that would have me, but because I don’t think these places should exist as they do, for exclusivity is just a synonym for prejudice.

The People . . .

. . . over at Galaxy Zoo have some six hundred suggestions from me on various galaxies and whether they show rings, are merging with each other and so forth as part of an international effort to have amateurs be part of the screening process. I haven’t been there much this year but got a little note about a new hush-hush programme which I tried to join though the coding needs a little bit of brushing up. From what I have seen of it, it looks fascinating but I am not allowed to tell you anything more as the email said they are keeping it on ice until the end of this month.

However as a general idea I think involving the world in projects like this is marvelous. No matter what your educational background if you have an interest you can get involved. I think that not only serves the purposes of life-long learning, but engages the public in practical science. In much the same way as the project to watch the seasons and chart the times of first flowering in the UK has shown a change in weather patterns over the past twenty years.

I will never crack a theory or write the answer to an equation, but I feel closer to those who do using my eyes to help their work.

Lying Is An Art

There is a long discussion going on at Linked-In, The economist group about an article on lying in which the demarcation line seems to be drawn by many people that lying is bad, telling the truth good and we always have a choice which to choose. Indeed I now read human beings do not need to lie in order to survive.

This is such a narrow view of what we should term ‘falsehood’ to get rid of pejorative values and the incessant concentration on what one person says to another. The reason for the narrowness of the discussion is the way in which we are condition to make moral judgments, and how we lie to ourselves as to our own estimation of our individual ethical codes.

Lets be straight forward here, human beings could not have survived without lying. To hunt and trap animals you must be able to hide your intentions and you must be able to fool the animal. To win a war you must be able to set ambushes and out-think the enemy and part of that is to mislead the enemy. To do business you must often hide your intentions and always hide the true cost of goods to yourself so you can make a profit without asking the buyer if they think the profit margin is fair.

Our history is one of lying ‘for a cause’. Humanity is full to bursting with such causes.

Blueskin The Cat: The Opening

Blueskin wasn’t bothered by thoughts of an after-life. He couldn’t spell reincarnation and hadn’t even heard of India where the people believed in such things.
What did bother him for a moment was the awful memory of being strangled to death in a hanging and the loss of his beautiful blue waistcoat with the pearl buttons that had been his pride and joy as a highwayman. He remembered the sound of the drum roll and a great cheer from the crowd as his body dropped and the rope tightened around his neck.
He looked down at his chest and was even more bothered to see fur had grown all over him.
Fur?
Black fur with a definite blue sheen?
One, two, three, four paws?
Paws?
His chin was touching the dirty floor. He must be lying on his stomach. He glanced around at the casks lining the walls, wooden boxes stacked on top of each other and coal in a large pile. This was a cellar. How had he got into a cellar from the scaffold? Had they carried him in here and dumped him on his stomach ready to be carted away to the lime grave as soon as they were ready? He had fooled them. He was still alive. He could still move. He stretched his neck. It didn’t hurt. He tried to smile and felt fur on his lips. Something was wrong. The military had hanged too many men to make a mistake.
There were smells in the air he didn’t recognize. Things he had never smelled before. He licked his nose which he had never been able to do before. He turned round very slowly and watched with fascination as a tail flicked. A cat’s tail. His tail.
His tail!
He was a cat!
A blue-black cat. He scratched his stomach where it itched with his back leg. He sat down and looked at his rump. He could turn his head almost right round. He could see quite well in the dark and heard a few mice scuttling across the stone floor of the cellar. Muscles all over him tensed at their every movement. His mouth filled with saliva when he smelled them and he felt his claws aching to come out and grab them.
He wanted to eat them!
What a ghastly, terrible, catastrophic twist of fate! He jumped onto a box and leapt in a single bound onto the ledge of the barred window. Now he was at street level and could see ladies’ petticoats and mens’ buckled shoes milling around in the square. Gaps appeared in their ranks and suddenly he saw his scaffold! The pads of his front paw lightly touched the bars in his shock.

The Incessant Brain

The twenty first century will be defined by brain research. I know we will find out many other wonderful things about existence but it is to the brain research we will look to finally begin to understand ourselves. To begin to answer the questions as to whether self is a singular aspect of our brains as Cartesians tend to believe, or a grouping of different impulses and activities as Humean’s tend to believe.

We already know so much of our character’s and thoughts are derived from an emotional base put into us before we are three years old. We already know a loving secure childhood is of vital importance to our ability to empathise. We know that the brain has areas that specialise and those can be activated more easily when we are young.

There is a story of a king who wanted to find out what god’s language was and his advisors believed all babies are born with the knowledge but we lose it as we grow up. So he stranded two babies on an island with a deaf mute to look after them and with great pomp sailed to the islands when they were teenagers to hear for the first time the language of heaven. The children could only make the sounds of the wildlife and the sea.

The brain ‘learns’. And in that word is everything we are.

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