an old exercise regarding the things we know

•8 December 2019 • 1 Comment

I am a bit of a collector of interesting things. I keep my lists, going through and pruning them, refining them from time to time, and I’ve spent some time this weekend doing some of this pruning. This is, I suppose, a continuation of last weekend and its exploration of old files.

Something I picked up years ago, whose source I have unfortunately forgotten, is an exercise that reminds us that there are multiple levels of knowing.

As an exercise, whisper to yourself the months of the year as fast as you can. I just did it myself, in round about 4 seconds, and this doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’ve known the months of the year for essentially our whole lives. They are a basic part of our structure of measuring the passage of time.

Now comes the exercise. Whisper to yourself the months of the year, but now in alphabetical order.

Even now, having done this exercise many times over many years, it still takes me considerably longer than the 4-ish seconds for the months in chronological order.

I don’t remember the context in which I first undertook this exercise, but it has become part of what I carry with me whenever I teach, because it illustrates for me a fundamental point. We might know things; we might have access and understanding of particularly facts and bits of knowledge; but we always have to consider the context in which we learned and in which we use that knowledge.

We always think of months chronologically, because months deal with time and time is by its nature chronological. But when we impose a different context, such as the alphabetical context, then we realize we don’t have the access to that knowledge independent of context.

I’ll admit that my favorite variant is alphabetizing the numbers from one to ten, using how they are normally written out as words.

So what lessons can we take from this? In aikido, we have a standard structure to our practice. We alternate sides; we attack in a structured way; and even the clothing we wear during practice and the etiquette that suffuses a practice. All of these are part of the context in which we learn and execute our techniques.

We become aware of this when we practice in an unstructured way, where we don’t restrict the attack and/or we don’t restrict the techniques that can be executed. I always find this free practice to be wildly illuminating, because it’s through such practice that we can this context.

Administratively, we have process and procedure that informs everything we do, and what we sometimes can forget is that while there are external influences and external expectations and requirements that we need to adhere to, much of what we do is our internally developed mechanism for satisfying the requirements we must satisfy, and these are things we can change.

Educationally, this issue of context will often reveal itself both in how we as teachers structure and deliver, and also in what the students expect of us. Changing these expectations requires dedicated attention, and for me, that’s something to consider for next year, as we have almost run through the semester this year.

Experience has taught me that I will keep coming back to this exercise and the depths of consideration through which it takes me.

on things we find

•30 November 2019 • 2 Comments

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing some tidying, mainly of old files on my computer, and it’s been an uncomfortable experience for me as a would-be writer.

I have started a large number of projects that I have never brought to a conclusion, and I’ll admit that the weight of all of them together is becoming – has become – a bit difficult to bear. Most of these are short stories where I’ve pulled together part of a draft but then moved on to the first draft of part of the next story, never going back to finish what I’d started.

I knew that this was a habit that I’d formed over time, but I hadn’t realized the extent of it. (I could give you, dear reader, a number but I’m not sure you’d be believe me. Let it suffice to say, it’s larger than it should be.) One particularly sharp realization was that the novel that all who know me have given up on ever seeing, is almost of voting age; the oldest file I’ve found dates back to February 2002.

And it goes beyond just the writing projects I’ve started. So yes, perhaps part of this whole process will be a moderation of ambition; not taking on the too many things that I also have a tendency to do.

So, yikes.

All the old familiar voices have been joining into my internal chorus. Some of these stories are ones that others have taken the time and effort to comment on, and yet still they sit. I’m not getting any younger. The day job. My capacity for procrastination seems to have reached what can only be described as epic proportions.

I’ve written about procrastination before, but I haven’t really confronted this knack I have for procrastination; it might be fair to say that I keep putting off doing so.

No more. I don’t have the strength or the desire to carry the half completed and barely started anymore. Today is the day I draw a line in the sand. I am too aware that I will slip and that I won’t deal with things while they are in hand, setting them aside to start the slow process of gathering dust. But today I start.

Setting this declaration down in such a (potentially) public way seems to be me to be a strange thing to do; all I can think is that this is where my mind is today, and this is what’s coming through my fingers as I sit down to type.

And there is something that occurs to me. If you’ve taken the time to read this far, please feel free to poke. Ask about the daily word count. Ask about how whether I’ve resubmitted the recently rejected. Ask, if you wish, about the novel.

And now, I have a bit of time and so I’m going to sit down and put down some words. I’ll do some more organizing, as there is always more to be done, lining up the things to be done, but for the next little while, let’s focus some time and attention on the doing.

the reading project: eternal truths

•17 November 2019 • Leave a Comment

I am currently reading Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia but Edmund I Gordon, and I had one of those moments where I realized the commonality of human experience across the whole of recorded (written) human history.

On page 15 of (my edition of) Gordon, we find the proverb: He acquires many things; he must keep close watch over them.

And we are still saying this. We are still talking about being the custodian of our things.

This realization struck a chord in me. Looking back over almost 4000 years of human writings, we find these threads that have persisted for all of that time.

One thing I find interesting is that if we compare the material wealth we have access to in current days, against the material wealth available to even the well to do in ancient Mesopotamia, we have access to more. And yet, to be recorded, this expression must have been kicking around for some time.

There are things that we will never know. One is, who was the first person to formulate this basic idea as an idea worth sharing with others. One worth codifying into a phrase. One worth committing to print. One worth preserving.

And yet, looking around at the world we inhabit today, consumption and acquisition still form a large part of the advertising we find ourselves subject to, and the underlying rules on which our society is built.

So what to do with this realization? One is to look around and ask, what of the things around me are things I actually need, and this is a question I find myself asking often, and not often enough.

I have to admit that I don’t include books in this discussion. I agree with the basic point of view that buying books, owning books and reading books are related but distinct pleasures, and I have a weakness for all three.

But looking around and getting rid of the things around me is only the start. The more important thing to do is to not acquire in the first place, and this reminds me of a science fiction story I once read, about a future capitalist society in which increasing consumption had become required of all citizens, to keep the social bubble inflated.

It’s a story that’s been written more than once, I’m sure.

This post was based on a single proverb and its similarity to modern expressions. As I keep reading, I’ll make notes of other Sumerian proverbs that strike a similar chord, and we’ll see where we find ourselves.

the reading project: Babylonian wisdom literature

•9 November 2019 • Leave a Comment

So, here’s the thing. I set myself a reading project for the year (and some future years), of starting at the beginning of what we humans have written, and to work my way through relatively chronologically until I get to the point of deciding on a different reading project.

I began naively with the Ancient Literature page from Wikipedia and a trip to the University of Southampton library. There, I found Babylonian Wisdom Literature by W G Lambert, first published in 1960, which I have now read.

It was an interesting read, and not only because of the form and structure of the stories. Trees talking to trees and animals conversing in fables, and the occasional distant earlier echo of familiar stories.

This brings lots of questions to my mind, beyond the questions of how to translate the idioms of a dead language. This latter point did come up in the commentary and the translation notes, where Lambert notes from time to time that it is not possible to provide a translation, because essentially we don’t know enough.

There is the problem of the damage that time has wrought to the clay tablets, and we find ourselves lost in the ruined hallways of the Library of Ashurbanipal, where some of these tablets lay until discovered.

My initial view that the history of human writing would be something like a narrow highway, at least at its far distant beginning, was very quickly shattered. And yes, I should have much earlier realized not only the fact of my mistake but also the extent of my mistake.

We have been telling stories for a long time, as long perhaps as we have been human, and we have been recording our stories for as long as we have been able to.

I wonder at times whether by recording our stories, writing them down or filming them, we are doing them some damage. After all, the act of recording introduces a permanence to the recorded version of the story, when perhaps stories are naturally more fluid and changeable.

What might it be like, to be a story, to have a structure, a skeleton that persists over time, with different flesh and skin depending on the needs and knowledge of the teller and their audience. What must it have been like to be a bard, to carry these skeletons from one fire to another, from one village to another, bringing them to life for an evening, for each audience in turn.

And then, by making some marks in clay or drawing symbols in ink on paper, that fluidity disappears. That version of the story becomes the canonical version, or one canonical version among a small group. The canon becomes shackles, preventing the story from roaming.

But now, I find myself with a choice. I can immerse myself in the Sumerians and the Akkadians, or I can be more strictly chronological and venture to Egypt. I think I shall stick with the Sumerians and their kin. I will do some reading around and discover what we know about our distant cousins, and leave the vastness of Egypt for later.

transparent head syndrome

•2 November 2019 • 1 Comment

I first learned about transparent head syndrome during a critique session at the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference, though it is with some significant regret that I cannot remember who first used the term, but it is a term that has rung in my brain ever since.

On the surface, it’s a straightforward syndrome. A writer writes as though they have a transparent head, so that the reader can see not only the words on the page, but also the picture and form of the story that the writer was trying to move from their own brain onto the page.

I’m at present revising an old story, preparing it for its (next) journey out into the world, and I am beginning to realize how tantilizingly labyrinthine transparent head syndrome can be. It all comes down to balance. There are aspects of this particular story, and all other stories, that I am happy to be direct about; to provide up front to the reader, so that they don’t have to work too hard to find them.

But there are other aspects that I think the reader would enjoy working out for themselves, where I leave the trail of breadcrumbs and following them, the reader makes their way out of the forest. Too much of this, I am happy to admit, makes the reading too much work for some readers, and so what I’m struggling with in this particular story is where I want to situate this point of balance.

But transparent head syndrome is much wider. I talk to my students about transparent head syndrome and how best they can express their answers to the questions I’ve asked of them, be these the weekly exercises or the more formal tests and examinations. How much do we need to write, is a common question asked by students, and one answer here is, write enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic, as ultimately unsatisfying as this answer sometimes proves to be.

Usually, I ask my students to write more, because however clear their vision of the solution in their head, they aren’t always bringing this clarity to the page, and ultimately this is what underlies transparent head syndrome: bringing clarity for the reader to the page, without needing to have sight of the author’s hidden internal intentions to make sense of what’s been written.

All of this applies to administration as well, both the writing of policy documents and also to the meetings where we discuss their merits. I have on more than once occasion been in a meeting, only to leave with no clearer an idea of expectations or direction of travel than I had when I entered the meeting room, and on not-rare occasion less of an idea.

I am confident that these are not deliberate attempts to obfuscate, any more than an author attempts to obfuscate the arc of their story. (Which is to say, accidental most of the time, and when not, then with some reason behind it.)

But this extended contemplation of transparent head syndrome is changing how I try and run the meetings that I chair, and how I engage with the meetings I don’t chair. And it is working its way into how I write mathematics, and how I write all of the other things I write, fiction and not.

the story of the dam and the lake

•27 October 2019 • Leave a Comment

I remember the day we moved into the house where I grew up and where my parents still live. My grandparents drove us up there, through what I remember as the outer fringes of a hurricane that came to land.

When we arrived at the house, the first thing I did was to run to the creek I’d been told ran behind the house. It might have been raining, but I do remember the creek, which held a significant place in my childhood.

There was a bend in the creek and in the elbow of the bend, after every major storm, I would find an expanse of sand that called to me. I would go down to the creek and I would build a dam.

It’s an interesting thing to do, to build a dam of sand to block a running creek. The early stages were all undertaken with almost a sense of futility. I would move shovelfuls or buckets of sand, and it would seem that nothing was happening. The movement of the creek would flatten out the sand and the creek would seem to take no notice.

But I would persevere. The sand would gradually build up, and as I moved from the banks of the creek towards the middle, I would be able to give the dam some shape. I never took advantage of the obvious cheat, of filling empty gallon milk jugs with water and using them as part of the structure of the dam.

But as I kept moving the sand, the dam would take shape and the creek would eventually take proper notice.

Once the creek had been stopped, it became a race. I would continue to move sand, bolstering the dam, making it a bit higher and a bit thicker.

But eventually, the inevitability of the creek would win out. The creek would continue to flow and to build behind the dam, and all the dam could do is to stand and try to resist the pressure growing behind it.

There would always come a moment when the dam seemed secure and the small lake behind the dam gleamed beautifully, the sun through the leaves playing on its flat clean surface.

But then would come the moment, that first moment when the lake wins its battle against the dam. A thin trickle of water would make its way over the top of the dam, and despite a bucket or two of sand, the dam would continue its assault and at some point, the dam would concede.

The thin trickle would breach the dam and turn into a torrent, and then the lake would revel in its return to motion. Creeks are not by their nature stationary beasts. They run and they mean to run, and while they can be held in check for a short time, their nature will out.

I’m sure there’s an analogy that can be made with this story of the creek and the dam. As a first part of the 2019 reading project, I’m currently reading Babylonian wisdom literature, and that literature includes conversations between unlikely pairs, and I think the fable of the creek and the dam might be one that they would have considered.

I feel this sometimes, that I am the dam and there is a lake building behind me, and I do wonder sometimes, what will be that first signal that the dam is no longer capable of holding back the lake, and will I be able to step aside and let the lake return to being the stream.

aikido and the art of administration

•20 October 2019 • Leave a Comment

One of the (very many) aspects of aikido that I enjoy is the multiple attack situation. This is exactly what it sounds like: one person being attacked by several people, sometimes armed with bokken or jo or tanto, sometimes unarmed.

Let me unpick the previous paragraph a bit. What could possibly be enjoyable about being in the middle of a group with (gently) nefarious intent? Part of the joy is of course coming out the other side, having successfully dealt with the situation. But part of the joy is the process of learning how to be in that sort of situation and not panic.

I’ve been reading some coaching literature of late, and one idea, memeplex perhaps, is the joy of exploring the ugly zone. The ugly zone is where we practice without being proficient; where we practice without the fluidity we sometimes have; where we practice when we are wanting to learn something we don’t yet know.

For me, every multiple attack practice situation is a trip to the ugly zone, and a trip that I look forward to. I always learn something. And I always walk away smiling.

So what does this have to do with the art of administration? Because there are times that administration resembles a multiple attack situation. Emails come streaming in, each demanding some attention or all attention; people come to the door or drop a phone call, just wanting to have a quick word about something; meetings and the scheduled events of the day. It can be a remarkably interesting mix of the everyday and the unexpected and unplanned for.

So what can aikido teach us about dealing about this dance between the everyday and the unexpected in the life of the administrator?

In one way, I’m not so sure, because I’m not sure what the ugly zone would be for the administrator. One of the issues we sometimes have is that we don’t have the opportunity to practice in controlled but interesting situations, as we might in aikido. So for instance, I have never been part of a practice session for a new committee chair where the awkward and unexpected arises and needs to be dealt with on the spot.

More generally, I haven’t seen a training programme for academic administrators, those coming from the academic side, that deals with the situations in which we often or rarely find ourselves. And so, as sometimes happens with these things, I now have something else to put on the list of things to talk to people about.

But there are other lessons from aikido that are relevant. When I am surrounded by attackers, they cannot all get to me at once. They get into each other’s way, and this sometimes happens with the task of administration. After all, human bandwidth is finite, and we can only pay attention to some many things at once.

There is something that can happen, both in aikido and in administration. This is akin to what happens to a computer when it is running so many processes that it spends all of its effort swapping bytes in and out of its memory. The computer scientists, I’m told, refer to this as thrashing, and it’s a remarkably appropriate term.

I have on occasion found myself administratively thrashing, and I’ve also found myself on occasion thrashing in aikido,

And so, we consider ways to get out of our cycles of thrashing, and that’s difficult. In aikido, we find ourselves surrounded and unable to move. Administratively, we find ourselves in inbox that seem to be exploding and a diary that resembles a brick wall. And this is the question I’m pondering. The only real option seems to be to not start thrashing at all, but what to do when that’s not one of the options available?

how the little green men might defeat us humans 4

•22 September 2019 • Leave a Comment

In the first few parts of this current speculation, the theme I’ve been exploring involves ways in which the little green men might use aspects of us against us. Some of these might involve our sense of the passage of time, and in fact that we sense time as we do.

And some of these might involve how we act towards another. I didn’t follow this line of inquiry all that far, but I have read the claim that we evolved to most comfortably operate in groups of around 200, and that there is some speculation that a careful examination of the data on social media networks might well provide some evidence supporting this claim. I don’t remember where I read these claims, but I have to admit that I do like that we might be able to use social media data to test these sorts of hypotheses, and so we add this to the list of things to do at some point in the future when we have time for exploration.

How might we defend ourselves against this latter sort of exploitation of our innate social tendencies, including our seemingly innate sense of tribe. This is where I find some of the science fiction I watch and read to be hearteningly optimistic. The Federation of Star Trek has left this tribalism behind and we see, by and large, humanity operating as a coherent whole.

How do we get from our current fragmented state to this coherence? This will require of us a degree of reflection that we have not yet demonstrated. I can only hope that we find a way of engaging in this reflection without being forced into it by some disaster, whether it be by our own hands or not. Going back to an earlier speculation, will our impact on the climate bring us to this point of reflection? We are starting, but we do have some long way yet to go.

We can go in a different direction as well. We know that advertising and marketing can be remarkably effective, which we could view as a consequence of our lack of understanding of ourselves. Should we ever make contact with a sentient alien race, would it be necessary to make it illegal to teach the alien race the details of human psychology?

how the little green men might defeat us humans 3

•15 September 2019 • Leave a Comment

In the previous two posts on this theme, I’ve speculated that various aspects of how we experience and understand time might well prove to be our undoing. But there are many others. I’m not sure how deep into the list I’ll go; after all, I don’t want to give too many secrets away.

One aspect of this whole question, and yes I recognize that this is to some extent a reflection on the politics of today, is that we do not yet think of ourselves as a single species. We do not yet think of ourselves as humans first, rather than first identifying with our own particular tribe.

So why is this a weakness that the little green men might exploit? If all the little green men have to do is to divide us into tribes and turn one tribe against another, then how can we come together to face the common enemy?

This is a theme that’s been explored in different ways. There is the classic Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, where not much more is required beyond rumor and turning off some of the lights.

There is also a story, one of those where the idea sticks in the brain like a splinter but the author and title are long forgotten, where a human man undertakes to save humanity by serving with the aliens as an advisor, telling them how to break the human spirit by in fact persuading the aliens to undertake acts that infuriate and unite humanity. And in the end, he realizes that he must sacrifice himself and never be caught, to maintain the illusion that a traitor to humanity remains with the enemy.

I’m reading spy novels at the moment, and the ways in which we divide ourselves into our tribes features heavily, because that is the Cold War and the reverberations of the end of the Cold War that continue to echo through the politics of the day.

This is one of the reasons why I find Star Trek to be a remarkably optimistic show, and I know that I am not alone in this. In all of the seasons of Star Trek, humanity acts as a united whole. Admittedly, in that universe we almost exterminated ourselves through our internal divisions before we found our way, and these internal divisions did give us some of our most memorable characters.