reflections on EasterCon 1: mosaic novels and the Rashamon moment

•15 April 2017 • Leave a Comment

I need to see Rashamon again.  It’s been too long, and I need to watch it without any of the usual distractions I heap upon myself when I watch a movie I’ve seen before.

I just attended a panel session on the mosaic novel here at EasterCon 2017, and it’s gotten me thinking about the construction of story.   As a very loose definition, a mosaic novel is one composed of a collection of stand alone stories, held together by the glue of a unifying narrative.  A lot of the discussion between the panel and the audience turned on aspects of the definition of what precisely is a mosaic novel, and John Clute, one of the panelists, made the comment that the notion of mosaic novel is fractal.

Having spent some time pondering the issues and examples brought up in the discussion, I can only agree on the fractalness of the definition of mosaic novel, but then I have taken the view that most of these it is/it isn’t definitions of the things we do are of necessity fractal, and this necessary fractalness of things is something I’ll explore elsewhere.

And this is where my desire to see Rashamon again comes from.   Different descriptions of the same event from different points of view, held together by the narrative of trying to understand the event from the tales told by the different witnesses, and I don’t remember enough of the detail to know whether Rashamon can be reasonably considered to be an example of a mosaic story, film though and not novel, even though it isn’t science fiction or fantasy.

Beyond this consideration of whether Rashamon is a reasonable mosaic story is the place that the Rashamon moment has on the list of things I’ve learned as a manager, tying together here things that don’t necessarily need to be tied together.

Up to this point in the writing I’ve done, I’ve tried to tell stories but I haven’t thought much about the structure of the story that I want to tell, or even whether the way I’ve decided to tell the story is a reasonable choice of structure for the story I want to tell.  And this is one of those interesting moments when I feel the floor open up beneath me a bit, as there is a vast amount I know that I don’t know about the structure of story.

We humans have been telling each other stories for as long as we’ve been able to speak to one another, and I suspect that the stories we tell each other structure the way we approach the world in which we live and vice versa, so that the approach we take to coming to understand the world we live in then fundamentally shapes the stories we tell.  And this isn’t the standard if and only if equivalence of statements we get in mathematics.  Rather, this is the snake eating its own tail of a positive feedback loop, where each thing drives change in the other.

And I know there is a temptation for me to resist, and resisting is going to be hard.  I need to resist the temptation to stop telling stories until I’ve spent some time reading about story, learning about story, studying story, because I know what will happen.  I’ll read and learn and study, but write even more slowly than I’m writing now.  And that slowly, I don’t want to write.

And so now, in this gap I have in the things I’m doing, let’s write a bit and see what sort of a story we can start to tell.

those who can, teach.  those who can’t teach, just do.

•2 April 2017 • 2 Comments

I would like to do something strikingly unoriginal and take issue with George Bernhard Shaw.  Specifically, I would like to take issue with Shaw’s quote that ‘He who can, does.  He who cannot, teaches.’  To be fair, I have not gone back and researched the context of Shaw’s quote.  Perhaps he was being sarcastic and didn’t mean what we have all taken the quote to mean.  And it is a quote that many of us have extended, so for instance ‘Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t teach, administrate.’ and so on and so forth.

As faithful readers will know, I think a lot about my teaching, both my teaching of mathematics and my teaching of aikido.  This includes not only teaching in the class room, but also such things as public lectures at the Cafe Scientifique and my attempts to explain bits and pieces of mathematics to friends and colleagues over coffee, not always successfully.

Great teaching is hard.   Inspiring and engaging people, particularly with difficult things, is hard, and many things are difficult the first time we encounter them.  And sometimes the second.  And sometimes the third.   Almost everyone has their story of the great teacher that inspired them, opened a window onto another world that they then assisted in the exploration thereof.  And almost everyone has their story of the bad teacher that shut that window and destroyed their interest in the topic.  As a teacher of mathematics, I have heard more stories of bad mathematics teachers than I can count.

But I don’t think teaching as such has to be hard.   Structuring the material, developing exercises to engage the students, creating the path for the students to take in engaging with the material and then working with the students as they walk that path, these are all things that anyone can learn.  Anyone can be a competent teacher.

But I do strongly feel that there is one thing that any competent teacher needs, whether or not they are a great teacher, and this is a sense of reflection.  This gets back to the main point of discussion in the language of mastery versus the understanding of the student.  As we as teachers explore topics and subjects in greater and greater depth, we increase the distance between ourselves and our students, who are new each year.  

There is also a major difference between being good at something and being good at teaching that something.   And in fact, the better we are at something, the harder it becomes to teach that thing.  This is something that I encounter when talking to people about mathematics.  There are things in mathematics that I don’t remember struggling with, and these are the ones that become difficult to explain.  That I sometimes find difficult to explain.  This is a reflection, I think, of the fact that I never had to pull them apart when I was learning them, and so I don’t know off hand how to pull them apart for someone else.

Or perhaps it’s just been long enough ago that I don’t remember that first pulling of things apart, and so I have to do that over again.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  It is the things we know best that are the most difficult to teach. 

And so this is why I would like to recast Shaw’s quote.  I think it is easier to be good at something than it is to be good at teaching that something to others.  And so I think it’s those who can, who can do the teaching, whereas those who can’t teach, just do the things to do.  But beyond that, I think that it’s not entirely appropriate to refer to those who can’t teach, because I don’t feel there is anyone who can’t teach.  Yes, there are some who don’t teach well, but perhaps somewhat controversially, I think that someone saying they can’t teach is a choice they’re making.

the journey of a thousand miles

•19 March 2017 • Leave a Comment

One of the more frequently repeated lines from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, often given as ‘The journal of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, occurs in Chapter 64.   My favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu is the 1972 translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and they give a slightly different translation, namely ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.’  And I know why this is my favorite translation.  It is the one that mom and dad had on the bookshelf in the den, and so it was the one with which I first became acquainted.

I have always like this line, not merely because of the truth of it, but also because I like wandering around in its depths.  In order to do something, we first have to start something.  If we don’t take that first step, then there is no journey, merely the rumination on the journey yet to be.

But beginnings are only part of the story.  I’m whether I’m interpreting correctly, and in fact I’m fairly confident that I’m not, but I’m also not sure the extent to which it matters.  I remember when I was a younger man, reading Shelley’s Ozymandias for the first time, never having encountered it before, not knowing its connection to history, not knowing the baggage carried by its main character.  I unfortunately can’t remember the interpretation I gave, but I do remember feeling a bit put out at being told I’d not interpreted correctly.  But I don’t want to engage here in a long discussion here about the life that a piece of writing takes on after it leaves its author’s pen.  Perhaps another time.

For me, part of the what I understand from this line in Chapter 64 is more than just taking the first step.  After all, for a journey of a thousand miles, the length of the remaining journey is not significantly diminished by that first step.  There are a lot of steps remaining in the journey, and they are all difficult, and all for different ways.  Taking the first step can be hard, particularly if we have been procrastinating taking that first step.  But the tenth, the hundredth, the ten thousandth steps, these can all be difficult as well.

We can rarely see the whole journey from that first step.  We might carry with us the picture of the shining city on the hill that is our destination, but there is a lot of ground between here and there, and we have no idea of what any of that ground consists of.  Our journey may pale in comparison to Frodo’s but then we don’t have the author on our side.

This happens a lot in the research I do.  I start with a great idea, what I feel at the time is a remarkably prescient insight into the nature of the world, mathematics and reality, only to find that while it is a beautiful idea, it is a false beauty, as there is a mathematical reason why it can’t be made to work.  Not that it’s merely hard or blindingly difficult or more than I or other mortals can do, but actually impossible.  But like misinterpreting a piece of poetry, I’m not sure the extent to which this matters.  We can still learn a lot from all of our journeys, successful or not, by paying attention to the feel of the ground beneath our feet and the wind through the trees.

Another line later in Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching, one much less often quoted, notes that ‘People usually fail when they are on the verge of success. So give as much care to the end as to the beginning; Then there will be no failure.’  And I like this line too, at least as much as the earlier line, because I feel it is the more interesting line.  I have a stack of half or mostly written stories and other projects, all of which deserve the care I gave them when I first started them and brought them into this world.  And so let’s see what we can do with one of them this afternoon.

the parable of rock and gravel and sand 2

•12 March 2017 • Leave a Comment

Since I first wrote about the parable of rock and gravel and sand in a previous post, I’ve continued to ponder on aspects of the parable and I’ve also had a few comments from others.  

My writing friend Sue Thomason in an email made some excellent points, more than I bring out here.  She makes the observation that, like the rocks we find while walking, with fossils and without, so are the parabolic rocks in our lives.  She notes, and this is something that hasn’t left me since I first read it, that sand isn’t just the stuff the fills the space between all the other things.  Sand is also the firmament which supports everything else. 

And so I continue to ponder.  Just looking at my own days, I see that this parable has to be dynamic.  From one day to the next, one week to the next, one month or year to the next, the shape of the mouth of our jars changes, and the volume of our jars changes as well.  Some days, I have the space to do some writing and think some mathematics, do a bit of reading and watch a movie.  But those are rare days.  Other days, the time I have to do things is more limited.

I’ve been keeping track of the things I want to view as my rocks, the things I want to view as important, and I am not doing all of them.  My patient, tolerant colleagues in my writing group have nonetheless given up on ever seeing the novel I started more than ten years ago.  I’m still working on it, and I’ve made one of my daily goals to put down at least 500 new words per day, and I’ve been achieved that goal more days than not.  And Fiona has challenged me to finish it by her birthday, and that’s the current deadline.

I also like Sue’s introduction of a bit of geological reality, that rocks get broken down into gravel and gravel gets broken down into sand, and so things can move of their own volition or because of the action of external forces from one category to another.   Sitting and thinking, I see that even though we can sometimes stretch an analogy more than the analogy can reasonably handle, this bit of geological reality is one for fertile ponderation. 

There are some things in my life that have shifted from rock to gravel or from gravel to sand, and a big part of this is that new things are hard to embed into our lives as business as usual.  New things require some focus and effort, on a day by day basis, to become part of the regular everyday.  For me, aikido is that way.  After almost 20 years, it is just a part of what I do, and it is one of the things I make time for, weekend courses or going to class during the week.  Keeping a daily journal has become a part of what I do.  But for both of these, it took effort to create the habits of doing them as regularly as they require.

As all analogies, this one has flaws.  It’s easy to poke holes and to find areas where the analogy is weaker than others, and that’s to be expected.  An analogy is an approximation, missing out details minor and major.  Overall, I think that pondering this particular analogy brings me value and so I’ll keep pondering.

the legend of Captain Hartley

•26 February 2017 • Leave a Comment

One idea does not a story make.  Having attempted to write many a one idea story, and not yet succeeded, I have learned, truly and deeply, the truth of this statement.   But there are times when an idea comes along that seems to have some legs to run, but which doesn’t have the legs to finish the race.

At the end of last week, Fiona visited the office in the library she’ll soon be moving in to.  In the corner stands an old filing cabinet, and I wrote, It would be cool if there were a locked drawer in that filing cabinet, containing a map to the lost treasure of Captain Hartley.  And yes, I do think it would be cool, because I still not so secretly wish to find the map to a treasure whose value comes in the finding. I loved this sort of story when I was younger, and it’s a storyline that’s never let go its hold of me.

I should say that part of this is trying to create a local legend that doesn’t exist.  Our university library is the Hartley Library.  I have no idea of whether the Hartley for whom the library is named was ever a captain, and in fact I suspect he was an educator and never part of any military organization whatsoever.  But as contrary to fact as it is, I like the idea of the legend of a Captain Hartley.  I like this idea that this Captain Hartley has a secret significant enough to warrant a map.

I spent part of the time driving back from Oxford earlier today thinking about Captain Hartley, and what sort of map he might draw, and what sort of treasure he might hide, and how that map would find its way into a locked filing cabinet drawer in an office in the library. 

I have a file that I keep, of all of the ideas that I’d like to build into stories, and it’s getting long at this point.  Captain Hartley has a place on that list, along with Leavenworth for magic users (a story that I think I’ll never write, given the scale of the genre); pirate Santa (yo ho ho); anything involving Wilma the cat; the person whose job it is to distribute the last few possessions of people about to be executed; rewriting books I read as rewritten from a science fiction point of view, like Incarnations: 50 Indian Lives (which I’m very much enjoying); and ideas that are good enough that I want to save them for myself. 

But I also know that Captain Hartley has now stolen a piece of my attention that he’s not willing to give up.  And so at some point, there will be a story about Captain Hartley, and all I can hope is that, when it’s finally written and when you finally read it, it’s not the story you expected but it’s still a story that you will have enjoyed reading.

a lesson from aikido

•25 February 2017 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about my aikido practice recently, for several different reasons.  One big reason is that I hope to grade for my sandan (third degree black belt) this coming summer, and that is provides an interesting focus.  Both when I’m studenting and when I’m teaching, I find myself paying closer attention to the small details of how I move and how I execute techniques.   This is not to say that I haven’t been paying attention, but the prospect of an upcoming grading does capture the imagination.

A second reason is that I’m not as young as I used to be, and the passage of time seems to be settling into my joints like sand.  I’ve had shoulder issues for a few years now, but the exercise regime that my physiotherapist gave me helps.  There are occasional other issues, such as mild and self diagnosed plantar fasciitis and at the moment, some lower back soreness that I think comes from sleeping on an old mattress.  For this one, there’s nothing to do methinks but take better care of myself, diet and exercise and being mindful when for instance I’m picking up heavy things – so using the legs rather than the back.

But there’s another reason, which is one that’s been kicking around my head for a long time now.  When I graded for shodan more than 10 years ago now, part of the process was the writing on an essay on aikido in every day life.  I went back and read that essay recently, and like what happens when I go back and read anything I’ve written, I wasn’t happy with it.  But the subject of the essay is one that I’ve kept coming back to.

This is particularly true given my current role, where part of what I am tasked with doing is helping to shape the forward direction of the university.  This shaping, like all such shapings, involves change, both changing myself and persuading others to change.  Higher education in the UK, like many aspects of life in the UK, has entered a period of flux, and so what tools does aikido give us to help manage and survive that flux.

Sometimes we practice starting from a strike and sometimes we practice starting from a grab.  When grabbed, it’s always tempting to try and break out of the grab, but among other things this focuses our attention purely on the grab, and this focus is not helpful.

So what I’m thinking about now, and have been for some time, is working within and moving within the constraint of the grab.  A grab imposes constraints on my movement, but only at the point of the grab.  Grab my wrist and you have my wrist, but I can move the rest of me, if I allow myself to make use of that movement.  This is a liberating realization to have, and it becomes more liberating the more I think about it and the more I work movement within the grab into my practice.

If we allow our imagination to roam a bit, we allow our mental definition of grab to expand, picking up not only someone holding onto my wrist or my shoulder, but also the constraints of the job, the needs of others, all the things I have agreed to do and all the things on my list of THINGS TO DO.  And so now, I’m going to prepare myself for the course this afternoon and do a bit of work on one of the things on that list.

the parable of rock and gravel and sand

•5 February 2017 • 2 Comments

I like the parable of rock and gravel and sand.   Briefly, imagine that one’s life is a jar.  The rocks represent the things that are most important.  The gravel, intermediate sized, represent the things of intermediate importance.  And the sand represents all the unimportant grit that fills ones time.  If we start by filling our jar with the unimportant sand, then there is little room for the intermediate gravel and no room for the important rocks.

If on the other hand we start with the important rocks, then we can fit intermediate gravel around the important rocks, and there is still a lot of room for the unimportant sand. 

We can then spend a pleasant evening reflecting on the things in our life that are rocks, the things that are gravel and the things that make up the sand.  This is not a parable original to me.  I don’t remember when or where I first heard it but it’s been with me for a long time.   But I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the parable as it stands, because I think it’s missing something.  As I’ve told it above, this parable is static.

One facet of this missing something is our process of deciding what is rock and what is gravel and what is sand.  One approach is to decide what is most important and make that the rocks, what is least important and make that the sand, and then the gravel is the intermediate stuff that remains.  But I think there is a more honest approach.  This more honest approach is to first conduct a time audit and see how we spend our time.  The things on which we spend the most time, these are the rocks.  The things on which we spend an intermediate amount of time, this is the gravel.  And the sand is the remainder, the small things that fill up the time between all the other things.

Conducting such an audit is an interesting experience, because what we think are the rocks, are not always where we’re spending the bulk of our time.  And this led me to the next point.  Suppose I examine my life and I decide that I’m not happy with my current balance of rock and gravel and sand.  How do I change?  How do I convert gravel to rock and rock to sand, et cetera.

For me, this is the most difficult aspect of this whole parable, this process of change.   Making this parable dynamic rather than static.   And I’m not sure about the whole of the road to making this change.  I know that a first step is to be mindful.  I have been paying more attention to how I spend my time, though the process of converting gravel to rock is as hard as I thought it would be.  And the difficulty is habit.

Habit has an inertia that makes changing its direction difficult.  And habit has a memory of its former life, and it likes to return to its old ways.  So when we try and reshape the jar that is our life, empty out the current mix of rock and gravel and sand, some of that gravel and sand will somehow find its way back in the jar before we have the opportunity to fit in the rocks that we wish to be rocks.   And so there is some learning still to do.