‘Yes, Minister’

Well, “under consideration” means “we’ve lost the file”; “under active consideration” means “we’re trying to find it”.

This is a true British classic which I feel one has to appreciate at its basic level. Beginning with the very first episode, and running through all of the episodes in both of the series (the new one isn’t considered), the characters epitomise some of the inherent contradictions in British society.

Now, Minister, if you are going to promote women just because they’re the best person for the job, you will create a lot of resentment throughout the whole of the Civil Service!

The caustic quips throughout by Bernard and others are absolutely amazing, as is Bernard’s overall concerned nature at the state of the society. Sir Humphrey Appleby is the other character that is always in the minds of everyone, convoluting the procedure and the message both. Meanwhile, he comes across as the very nature of the person taking the piss out of the system, which was no doubt the intent of the writers. Further, Hacker’s attempts at imitating Churchill are especially amusing given the apparent difference in the character of the two notable men. I can’t help but feel that the writers did a superb job of describing from life, a principle which Masaoka Shiki would definitely appreciate.

The ship of state, Bernard, is the only ship that leaks from the top.

The series is worth watching for anyone how wants to understand either the British political system or British life in general. Well worth watching!

Notwithstanding the fact that your proposal could conceivably encompass certain concomitant benefits of a marginal and peripheral relevance, there is a countervailing consideration of infinitely superior magnitude involving your personal complicity and corroborative malfeasance, with a consequence that the taint and stigma of your former associations and diversions could irredeemably and irretrievably invalidate your position and culminate in public revelations and recriminations of a profoundly embarrassing and ultimately indefensible character.

Review: You and Your Research

You and Your Research
You and Your Research by Richard Hamming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I happened onto this by a chance link from Mr Tyler Cowen, and I have to say I’m very happy I did.

This little gem of a text is littered with worthwhile thoughts and good suggestions on how to improve on one’s research — but there is absolutely no reason why the same cannot be applied in any other fields. It’s the meaning behind Mr Hamming’s words here rather than the topical application of them which is more important. He also highlights a number of very good practices along with a lot of (fun) anecdotal history that illustrates his points so much better than a drier delivery might have.

I would absolutely recommend this to everyone.

View all my reviews

‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’, S.M. Wilson

Sean Michael Wilson is a person I have already commented on twice recently, in the posts on The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure. ‘The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts’ is the third book on Japanese martial philosophy that Mr Wilson has transcribed as a graphic novel. The major difference in reading this one and the others was that it was my first introduction to Issai Chozanshi’s major work, unlike the other two which I had previously read in long form.

To begin with, I’ll say that I have now listed the full book form of this as one of the next things to read. That is indicative of how much I enjoyed this piece. But, I suppose, the enterprising reader might wonder why this is so…

I think the main reason comes from the form that the stories take. The demon’s discuss martial arts with each other and their discussions are later exemplified in parables where animals lecture each other. The most skilled in the martial arts is an old cat that we only hear about, but his apprentice is another cat. The parable of the cats is probably the one I appreciated most, partly since cats make for a very good story (as Haruki Murakami has also brought out) but in other ways there is a very good lesson in that story — but I’ll leave it up to the reader to look the story up.

In that and many other ways, I think the idea of having Minamoto Yoshitsune learn all of his secrets and skill from the demons in the forests is a very prescient one. It is a form which made me listen more as I looked at the samurai leaning against trees so that he could better overhear the demons. I wanted to hear the words I saw written, as I saw the young Yoshitsune listen…

And that I think is the greatest strength of something like a graphic novel. The philosophic tradition comes through well and it is in many ways more inspiring than the words on their own. The images add life and sense to the words, and even though Issai Chozanshi’s main treatise is no doubt as compelling even if slightly more difficult to comprehend, I think this was a very good introduction!

‘Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai’, S.M. Wilson

In addition to the ‘The Book of Five Rings’ I described yesterday, Sean Michael Wilson has applied the same treatment to two other philosophical Japanese treatises. One of them, ‘Hagakure’, is the one that I shall comment on today. ‘Hagakure’ (by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) is very much a different book to the one Miyamoto Musashi wrote, but I think the graphic novel/manga approach works here as well.

The story is covered in a way which works very well — the teacher, Tsunemoto-dono, describes events that others have passed on to him as well as ones that he has seen in his own long life. The person listening these stories is a young aspiring samurai. In the course of these stories, the two pass through the relevant bits of a nobleman’s education in how people should behave in everyday lives.

Tsunemoto is an interesting person since many things that he says or reflects upon are somewhat contrary to what people thought at the time (insofar as I understand). To bring one example, his thoughts on the 47 ronin story : the ronin did wrong by waiting a few years since the target of their vengeance could have escaped the vengeance by natural death, or something else could have happened. The ronin should have drawn their swords and charged the house of the enemy without regard to anything else.

In many ways, I think the drawings make the words of the old master live with a new vigour. It is a great pity that not all of the stories from the book are made into graphic stories, but I suppose that it is difficult to think of good ways to turn short thoughtful samurai parables into anything different.

I also appreciated the afterword by the translator, William Scott Wilson. The other version of ‘Hagakure’ I have does not include that or anything alike, so it was a surprise for me to read the alternative meaning of the well-known and quote phrase, ‘The Way of the Samurai lies in death.’

Most of all, I think that Mr Wilson has emphasised the interesting parts of the treatise in the best possible way in this graphic novel — their memorability is far better than before. The phrase that has stayed with me is:

It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance!

‘The Book of Five Rings’, S.M. Wilson

‘The Book of Five Rings’ is a well-known work by the Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Sean Michael Wilson took this work of art and transformed it into a graphic novel, adapting the teachings of Miyamoto to a very different form of art than the original.

I have to say first and foremost that I thought the idea compelling, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. My wish is that it could have included more of the original writings, but I may simply be mistaken in the extent in which they have been adapted. Insofar as there is talk of the drawings complementing the story, this book is a gem.

One of the finest moments, I think, is close to the end of the book, just before the Book of Emptiness, where the last few drawings suggest eventualities but no clear results. However, from what the person in the book — the storyteller, Miyamoto Musashi himself — from what this character has told us, the suggestion is not a very difficult one.

In many ways I think it very difficult to describe a graphic novel, especially one based on a philosophical treatise, in sentences contrary to emotions and thoughts. For the pictures are meant to evoke thoughts and images in the mind, and I think that in this they work better than the classic translation by Thomas Cleary (whose translations are also the basis for this work) since the drawings emphasise the words — the suggestions on how to bear oneself become reality in the provided drawings.

And I think that clarity might be the finest bit of this work. The book is definitely worth a try, even though the approach might seem unconventional to begin with.

Opinion: On Syria & Interventions

The topic at hand these days is Syria, and whether the West should intervene. Given that nearly everyone in the West has already said what they think of these matters, I thought it only proper to describe my own as well. I have tried to base mine on logical reason and thought, which is to say that I have aimed to steer away from using emotions as a guideline on how to act in an instance like this.

My basic claim is that the West (or, at the very least, Europe) should not interfere in the Syrian civil war.

The question of chemical weaponry use in the past (and, potentially, in the future) is irrelevant in a more than a few ways — firstly, the West has used more destructive ammunition against both civilians and military personnel compared to any other denomination of countries. Thereby, a moral justification would first imply the complete renouncement of our own past actions which no political leader has suggested.

Secondly, chemical warfare is separated from ‘normal’/regular warfare by the simple fact that the bullet has been replaced by a gas. For either side, therefore the conflict did not change with the use of chemical weaponry since people died before and will die until the conflict is brought to a resolution. It is artificial to now say that “country’s own citizens are sacrosanct, and we will ensure military protection against further onslaught” when two years have gone by only with the mutterings of  “stop, please, it is not supposed to go like this”.

Now, I’ll come back to the original point and mention that it is not even confirmed that chemical weapons were used. Mind, I think it more likely that they were used — around a ratio of 80-20 for the weapons having been in use. Overall, this is a point that is far easier to determine than the next one while both are incredibly relevant in this matter. Namely, the question of who was the side to use the chemical weaponry.

The convention at present seems to be that the Syrian government ordered a chemical attack against its citizens. Unfortunately, without seeing the “proof” that the US intelligence agencies claim to have, logical reasoning would presuppose that given the following statement, ‘the Syrian government is in a conflict that it is slowly winning against an opposition that is varied in nature’ is true, the conclusion based on that statement would be ‘the Syrian government has nothing to gain by implementing methods that anger the West’.

Thereby, the logical answer to the question ‘Who gains from the apparent use of chemical weaponry in Syria?’ would be ‘the opposition to the Government’.

The opposition has the most to gain through framing the Government as if they had used chemical weaponry. The standpoint that the West would take could easily define the rest of the war as an aerial mop-up of Syrian forces while the opposition expands its power-base through the rest of the country.

Additionally, it is necessary to note that any benefit to the opposition that comes through Western use of force will be inherently against the interests of the West by way of the opposition consisting of a variety of different parties, some of whom are declared Islamist fanatics and al-Qaida allies.

From a Western point of view, I am of the opinion that if the present UK Government declares war on Syria, it will find itself in a far more difficult position for re-election — an important matter for the ruling Coalition. Likewise, a necessary point to consider is that none of the Western governments have considered the provision of military equipment (missiles, plane fuel at mission levels, etc) in their present budgets, implying that war would increase borrowing and lead to further cuts, increased borrowing, or raised taxes.

Any consideration of realpolitik would, therefore, quickly determine that even if there were justifiable moral reasons to support the side which chemical weaponry were used against, there can be no justification for supporting the opposition. There is no need or reason, however, to support Mr Assad’s Government.

In conclusion, therefore, it is apparent that the West should not intervene in the conflict in Syria and has more to lose from intervention than from not the opposite.

‘Siddhartha’, H. Hesse

Mr Hesse (or rather, H Hesse) was a unique writer in many ways. I think he took writing to the very depths of the art it is, and thereby managed to produce books which are as good as they are because they are the portraits of what the innermost reaches of his soul believed.

I have read a few of his works, starting with ‘Siddharta’ and ‘Steppenwolf’ but also including ‘The Journey to the East’. Of these I prefer ‘Siddhartha’ best and ‘The Journey to the East’ comes second. And yet, I have been always unable to finish that book in one go — it has some sort of a block midway through when the characters go mad (metaphorically rather than actually mad) and my concentration on that book lapses and I go on to something else. I think it has happened thrice when I’ve tried to read the book, and I cannot explain it very well. But I think this effect is a good show of how much soul and depth can be found in H Hesse’s works.

And this soul is also present in ‘Siddhartha’. The book was introduced to me as the one with the answers to all the questions there are, and I doubted it very much then. After reading it, I wouldn’t be so sure. I think I might have read it a good five-six times by now, and there is something new in there that waits to be found every time I read it again. It might even be that I enjoy the same passages and thoughts but the way I react to them has changed. The thoughts I get have slightly changed. And the way I understand our Siddhartha’s actions has changed.

Of the characters present, I am amused by Govinda and Vasudeva — and I definitely do not mean that in a bad way. No, I am rather amused by the child-likeness of Govinda while I am impressed by the thoroughness of his search for answers. And I think that the thought of a friendship as deep as between Siddhartha and Govinda talks to me on a level entirely its own. And of Vasudeva, he is a saint, what more can be said… I have often thought how it would feel to be a ferryman while reading his passages, and I do not doubt that in another life it would have been a very good fate. Assuming I had had the skill to appreciate it…

‘Siddhartha’ truly is a book for which I have only praise. Unfortunately I have not tried to read it in German (for it is not as if I read German…) so I have only experienced it in Estonian. For some reason, the style that Hesse employs here does not seem one that can well be brought into line with the English syntax although I have only seen one translation thus far (and that I skimmed briefly and did not read). So, it could be that the language has played some part but maybe not. Hopefully not, and an English read (that I will get around to someday) will be just as good and thought-inspiring.

To finish, I would hope that more people go to take a look at ‘Siddhartha’ for H Hesse did not set his words into line in such a beautiful poetic way for no little reason. He wanted to touch the reader’s soul, and he certainly touched mine. I am sure that if you let him, he’ll do the same to yours.

Gravity in Economics

I was quite surprised to learn today that our trusted friend gravity is also called upon to help in economic theories. Namely, there is a “gravitic model of trade” that predicts trade between two entities based on their size and economic weight, and the distance between the two.

I came upon this concept today when I read a post in Marginal Revolution on how Portugal has a very low economic gravity which is due to its position close to the Eurozone and rather less wealthy Northern African countries while being far away from everything else.

Maybe the best part about this theory for me is that it just fits so nicely into the physical world I know of — it is both simple and yet it carries a lot of weight, and I can really appreciate something like that. Indeed, if one looks at the formula given to calculate this gravitic force, it looks nearly exactly the same as the general formula for gravitational attraction between two objects.

And that, as I said, is something that I really appreciate. Sure, the actual use of the formula is more complex than the standard form but that is only natural — what matters is how something that most people would consider to be a part of hard physics has been brought into economics as well.

I am very much looking forward to the next discovery that I’ll make in line with this one!

Am I a cynic?

I had a very interesting discussion on Saturday with people who kept on insisting that doing things for other people just so they would feel better is a reasonable way of spending time. I, quite naturally, disagreed. I’ll get to the specific examples in a moment, but right now I’ll establish the label that was given to me based on what I said.

Namely, I am supposedly a “cynic”.

To help us with the question of whether I am one, it might make sense to define “cynic” just to be sure we know what we’re discussing. Here goes the Wikipedia version that has probably got quite a bit of it right:

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ apparent motives or ambitions, or a general lack of faith or hope in the human race or in individuals with desires, hopes, opinions, or personal tastes that a cynic perceives as unrealistic or inappropriate, therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. It is a form of jaded negativity, and other times, realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers called the Cynics who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and unmaterialistic way of life.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the negative aspects of Cynic philosophy led to the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. Modern cynicism, as a product of mass society, is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.

That is what Wikipedia says. It is a bit of a mouthful and could probably be expressed in an easier way, but it will suffice for now.

The two specific examples we questioned yesterday were as follows: a) our graduation ceremony is a worthy event, and we should go there; b) marriage reception is an integral part of the ceremony.

My views on those two can be best expressed as follows: a) graduation is a ceremony that does not establish anything of value nor does it grant us anything we would otherwise miss out on, therefore there is no harm in missing said event assuming there is something better that could be done with the time; b) marriage reception is worth it not because of it being an integral part of the ceremony, since marriage is best taken as an institution for an economic and social purpose, but the reception is worth it assuming that people have gone through the trouble of marrying in the first place.

These views were enough to have me labelled as a “cynic”. I disagree, for there is nothing inherently distrustful or hopeless about my attitude — it is rather an expression of a cost-benefit system that evaluates whether an action is worth it or not. If something is worth it, then it should be carried out — which is also incidentally why a reception would nearly always be worth it: as mentioned above, the trouble of organizing things into a marriage would almost definitely ask for a release as a party. The same cost-benefit analysis says that if the time spent on a ceremony as useless as a graduation could be spent on something else that would create value for the people in question then that should be done instead.

So, thus far, nothing cynical — only the best application of one’s time and effort to maximize any outcome from life. I am not sure that every person who reads this will agree with that assessment, but that at least is how I would reason it. For, after all, it is not that I am saying that no one should go to their own graduation — if people find that they can spend their time and effort on something that doesn’t give them anything they cannot find otherwise, then they can obviously go for it. What I am saying is that it is highly unlikely anyone will find me from my own graduation (unless it is by some lucky chance a day off from work) — simply because I will have better things to do with the time.

I will add that in general I follow the good words of Mr Arthur C Clarke — and by that I mean I am not a pessimist about our future. I don’t have the greatest of hopes for humankind but I am of a mind that we will end up somewhere better in time. For the words I speak of are as follows:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”
— sir Arthur C. Clarke

Which is very true. I think there’s a glimpse of hope for us, and I am sure we’ll get there in the end. It just might be that the road will be long and hard.

Another relevant question might be if I have Cynic tendencies, referring to the old Greek school. Now, that might be true although I am not familiar enough with them to actually answer this in detail. Based on a short look into them giving up most of the desires of people, I would have to say no. My philosophical outlook rather tends to welcome and accept desire, so again I seem to have thwarted being labelled a “cynic” in some way or form.

Although I guess that labels don’t really matter as long as there is a coherent thought process working its way in one’s mind…

What do I keep an eye out for these days?

I’ve often lately thought that the newsitems we see daily go very much into the same categories. This category could be summed up as “trouble”, but I would rather call it “life”. The problem with this “life” is that it is nearly always the same.

I’ll expand on this in a bit, but if we assume that a modern person should keep oneself aware of what is going on in the world there is only so much that one can do — for we have established a set of boundary criteria within which we exist. This means there’s a certain amount of news-sites to be visited, and a certain type of blogs to be visited — depending on the exact interests of a person.

The problem with all the information coming out of these news-sites and blogs for me is that it is more or less the same. Take, for example, BBC News: there’s probably some new article around every day which says that we are doing worse, and the Government is doing worse, and people are generally doing worse. How much of this am I supposed to take? Why is there nothing which broadcasts the new heights we can achieve?

Certainly the world is not in a happy spot at present, but I tend to be somewhat more positive about the general state of affairs than “everything is bad”. This needs a certain set of mind though.

This set of mind has brought me to expect a few good essays on people and philosophy and the general state of life (not to be confused with livelihood) every week. The places where I find these are varied, but there are a number of sources that help. For some reason or another, I’ve found that the Australian media is of particular quality here — the Sydney Morning Herald is my favourite publication therein. They have a rather interesting lifestyle section that I try to read every now and then, and I find SMH to be slightly better than the rest of media with regards to politics.

Because when we come down to the basest of levels, a certain awareness of politics must be preserved. I find, however, that the British are going round and round, achieving more or less nothing at present — I could try guessing the news daily, and I would probably get the items half right. There’s more that I am unaware of in Australia which also makes it slightly more interesting, but I get the feeling that there’s more happening there — more happening with a real sense of direction for the place as well. [Not to mention there’s a set of comedians as brilliant as John Clarke and Bryan Dawe who manage to make the politics into a very good performance.]

This is not true at all for Europe as I see it right now, and that probably has made me slightly despondent in looking for reasonable news from the Continent. But that in turn has made me appreciate certain things more: there’s a fair amount of good essays that do relate to people and education and technology, and there’s a certain look into the future with the question “What is coming up for us?”. And this is what I have been looking for — not the downtrodden tune of the news but something that would act as a whetstone for my mind.

I’m afraid though that I haven’t found any good collective place for this type of journalism, so whenever I do find anything it is more due to chance. And, yet, I know that they are out there — and that gives me hope. And that hope gives me the strength to look, and to share, when I can.