the reading project going forward

•31 December 2019 • 2 Comments

As a child, my eyes were always bigger than my stomach, both literally and figuratively. I was, and still am, the sort who will never get their money’s worth at an all you can eat buffet, and my list of projects is always longer than the available time will allow, regardless of the time scale I set for them. And, as I have been experiencing over the past few weeks, regardless of the severity of the pruning of those lists.

On this last day of 2019, I thought I would take the traditional approach and reflect on the current reading project, my third over the past three years. In 2017, I read the Sir Richard Burton translation of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, and in 2018 (and into the early part of 2019) I read the complete fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. (I will admit that I still have one or two collections of essays on the bedside table.)

For 2019, I set myself the project of starting at the beginning of human literature and working my way through chronologically, just to see how far I could get. In retrospect, I can only describe this as a project defined by the sheer spectacular scale of its foolishness and naïveté.

This is not to say that I’ve given up, as I haven’t, but I have realized that I need to take a step back and be a bit more cautious and prudent in my planning.

I’ve talked about a few of the issues impacting this project in previous posts, but in the end of calendar spirit of reprising and reflection, the main issue was my ignorance at the volume of what the Sumerians had written.

They were prolific scribes and writing as they did on clay tablets, we have a goodly amount of what they had written, though sometimes only in fragments. Not all of what we have has been translated, and despite my first paragraph above, I don’t have the time to learn how to read cuneiform and ancient Sumerian.

I am becoming intrigued by the Sumerians, a people whose language is unrelated to any other language. I have come to the realization that to understand what the Sumerians are writing, I need to have a deeper appreciation of who the Sumerians were, and so part of the project will be reading what we currently know of the history and culture of ancient Sumer.

And so, as was inevitable in retrospect, the project has expanded beyond merely reading, but to developing the wider context of the people whose stories and proverbs I am reading. Their myths and the stories of their gods. The day to day life in their great cities, to the extent to which we have developed a picture of this. The facts and theories of their origin and how this might have impacted the stories they told, gathered around their hearths at night.

And looking forward, I can see how this will impact this project going forward. Because after Sumer and Akkad and their successors, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, I will make my way to Egypt, in all of its extensive glory.

In a deeper sense, I’m happy to have been so wrong about the extent of this project. I have always held the belief that our distant ancestors were capable of, and accomplished, much more than we sometimes give them credit for, and the widening and overwhelming scale of this project is just one more demonstration of this.

reflections and the arbitrariness of time

•28 December 2019 • 1 Comment

A few weeks ago, I wrote about encounters with old files and some reflections that arose from those encounters, including the impetus to finish some of these old projects.

As though the universe is making sure that I understand the message, I am experiencing an interesting confluence, with the near simultaneous end of two unconnected cycles: one is the calendar (Gregorian) year and the other is reaching the end of the current volume of my journal.

The end of the calendar year is by its nature of time of reflection; we look back over the year that’s coming to its end and we look forward into the year that is at its beginning.

The reason I mention in the title the arbitrariness of time, is that tying this reflection to the Gregorian year is somewhat arbitrary. The calendar cycle is natural, considering the motion of the Earth around the Sun, but there is no reason that reflection in the midst of the (northern hemisphere) winter is more natural than reflection in the middle of our summer.

Beyond this, we as humans have multiple different calendar years, beyond the Gregorian year is which natural to me solely I think due to its familiarity. It is the calendar I have always known.

Beyond the Gregorian year, which is the year just coming to its end, I also have the academic year, which in England runs from late September through June. Others have different academic years, and we each have our rituals of reflection at the ends of those years.

Though it is not tied to calendar or academic years, another cycle in my life is my journal cycle. I keep a daily journal and have for more than 22 years now. The gathering of ideas as one journal comes to an end and the planning of things to do in the next journal cycle, is another one of these moments for reflection.

Each of these cycles is at its core arbitrary and each of them provokes the same question: why wait until the end of the year, the end of the cycle, to start the work of the next cycle. Why not start today?

And this is what the universe seems to be saying to me, and this is the voice I find myself listening to.

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?