Saturday, 24 November 2012

Wayland Smith

I was just listening to Leslie Fish's setting of Kipling's poem "The Runes on Weland's Sword," from the book Puck of Pook's Hill. The magic runes foretell the sword's destiny.
A Smith makes me
To betray my Man
In my first fight.
To gather Gold
At the world's end
I am sent.
The Gold I gather
Comes into England
Out of deep Water. 
Like a shining Fish
Then it descends
Into deep Water. 
It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing.
The Gold I gather
A King covets
For an ill use.
The Gold I gather
Is drawn up
Out of deep Water.
Like a shining Fish
Then it descends
Into deep Water.
It is not given
For goods or gear,
But for The Thing.
I see some subtle patterns in the poem.  Notice the last words of the second lines of the stanzas: man, end, England, descend. There is consonance in the "n." In the third line--fight, sent, water, water--there is consonance on the "t." Water almost rhymes with gather, as well. In the third lines of stanzas 3 and 4, 7 and 8, the ending word is water whence gold is drawn up and then descends. Notice the alliteration in first lines, too: gear, gather, gather (again), and given. The similarity of end, sent and descends is also deliberate, I am sure. There is nothing as obvious as rhyme here, but the patterns of sound make each word choice seem inevitable. Fated, one could say.

I don't know about you, but this poem gives me shivers. In that, it suits the story of Wayland Smith, who was seven years wed to a Valkyrie, a chooser of the slain. He was captured and hamstrung by a Swedish king, who forced him to work at the forge. Wayland, despite being crippled, killed the king's two sons and made wonderful, beautiful, but terrible objects from their bones. He raped or seduced (she was drunk at the time) the king's daughter, then he escaped using wings he had built.

Wayland's story was reproduced on the Franks Casket:

He is on the left, at the forge, holding something like a human head in the fire, with a dead body at his feet. He is holding out a cup to a woman. On the left, his brother is catching geese to take their feathers for the wings that Wayland will make.

There is more about him here.

Reading this again, I realized that the Iain Banks book The Use of Weapons is, or contains, an adaptation of the story of Wayland in the character of "the Chairmaker." More than that, I should not say.

Fighter Purchase Review--The F-35 Purchase Must Justify Itself

Finally, some positive steps to resolve the scandal attending the order of F-35 Fighter Jets for the RCAF. There is more background on it here.

At first, things did not look good. After the Auditor-General criticized the purchase, the government defended it. More bad publicity led to the creation of a Commons Committee to consider what to do, but the Committee's name, according to some, showed that its conclusion was foregone, and perhaps forgone*: After all, why name it the "F-35 Secretariat" if it could choose any plane other than an F-35? More bad press, and it was renamed the "National Fighter Procurement Secretariat." Then the Conservatives tried to make its meetings secret. And rush its conclusions.

Now the CBC has an article on the next turn of the worm, turn of the screw, turn of events, titled "Canada to consult allies, competitors to replace CF-18s." Here is the key section:
The agency overseeing the replacement of the country's CF-18s intends to talk to the U.S., Australia and Britain as it conducts a wide-ranging analysis into the future of Canada's fast fighter fleet, defence sources tell The Canadian Press.
That review, which will also include consultation with competitors to the oft-maligned F-35 stealth fighter, will get underway soon and could last several months.
In the House of Commons this week, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said that the air force's statement of requirements — the document that set out what the military says it needs for selected pieces of equipment — will be set aside until an options analysis is completed.
"The options' analysis is a full evaluation of choices, not simply a refresh of the work that was done before," Ambrose told the House of Commons. "That review of options will not be constrained by the previous statement of requirements."
The process usually happens in reverse. The military defines what it needs and then, in conjunction with public works, conducts an analysis of what is out there and how the capability can be filled.
The decision to restart the purchase process is a change from the government's previous vigorous defence of the process and the decision. However reluctantly, it has made the right decision. The decision to talk to Australia is especially interesting. That country has reacted to the delays in producing its F-35's by buying a number of Boeing F-18 "Super Hornets" as well. Canada, of course, has had decades of experience flying F-18's, and the Super Hornet is a substantial and logical upgrade to those planes.

*forgone, meaning done without; foregone, meaning preceding. "A foregone conclusion" is one that is predetermined, but in this case "a forgone conclusion" would be one that is never made.

UPDATE, 1 December 2012: The new Chief of the Defence Staff,  Gen. Tom Lawson, told the Commons Defence Committee that the F-35 is not the only plane that can meet the military's need for stealth. In this, he seems to be contradicting the Defence Minister, Peter MacKay. Here's the meat taken from the CBC story on this:
The military's original statement of requirements for the purchase included some level of stealth capability, but not a particular, "necessary" element of stealth, Lawson said.

Lawson said that while other fighter jets offer an "element" of stealth capability, the F-35 is "better."

But when asked by Liberal defence critic John McKay whether there is only one airplane that can meet the standard of stealth set out in the Canadian military's requirements, Lawson said "no."

"All options are on the table," Lawson told MPs.
I used to live in the Yukon, and remember how the thick sheet of ice that covers the Yukon River during the winter would start to show cracks before breaking up. Hearing General Lawson's words feels similar to seeing cracks in the ice.

UPDATE, 13 December 2012: The government is re-opening the F-35 purchase decision. All options, it says, are on the table.
Officials also said that all fighter jets currently in production or scheduled to be in production will be considered to replace the CF-18s. That includes the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Boeing Super Hornet and others.
The CBC also has an editorial explaining how the high cost of each F-35, coupled with American pressure to buy it, is actually weakening Western defence.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Concession Speeches

                                       But I have spoke
With one that saw him die; who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

                                  Macbeth 1(4):3-8
The best thing about party politics, though good things are few, is the tradition of the concession speech. After a season of self-serving hyperbole and mean-spirited denigration, all leading up to a moment of personal and collective humiliation, a candidate has the opportunity to reverse the damage he has done and restore the honour he has lost.

Mr. Romney provided a number of examples of "damage done" and "honour lost" during his campaign. His "47% speech" insulted almost half of his potential electorate; he later called it "completely wrong"; his promise to be a "pro-life president" by restricting access to abortion arguably put him in the same camp as the anti-abortion extremists in his party, such as Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Paul Ryan; his joke that "No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate" was a nod to lunatic-fringe conspiracists called "birthers," whether or not he agreed with them. His reputation as a businessman, of which he was proud, was blackened (and here).

He had a chance to serve his country by bowing out with grace after the election was lost. On the whole, he took it.

However, historian Scott Farris argues that that this speech does not match the quality of others.
"It was a speech that sounded as if he did not emerge from the election with much respect, let alone affection, for the president.  He sounded as if he really expected to win and was immensely disappointed in the result—even more so than usual.”
Now, if Mr. Romney wished to have the full benefit of the speech, he would have to follow it with a befitting lack of bitterness. Unfortunately, he may not be up to this challenge.

Still, that speech could have been much worse. For example, Canadians will remember this travesty when Jacques Parizeau, the Premier of Quebec, blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for his side's loss in a referendum on his province's independence.

Although Romney's speech could have been worse, it could also have been much better. It could have risen to the level of graciousness that Michael Ignatieff showed after a decisive defeat relegated his once-proud political party to third-party status.

Notice how different Ignatieff's tone is from Romney's, especially in the opening and closing remarks. Shakepeare could have been describing him when he wrote, "Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it." The quotation continues, "he died/As one that had been studied in his death,/To throw away the dearest thing he owed/As ’twere a careless trifle."

Concession speeches are important because an election is a public Rite of Passage. As such, it has a process that leads the celebrants away from normal life, a process that transforms a celebrant from one status to another, and a process that reintegrates the celebrants into normal life again. Arnold van Gennep, the author of Rites of Passage, named these stages: 
I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites.
The concession speech and the acceptance speech that follows it are the postliminal rites of the election ritual. As such, they are as important to do well as any other part of the ritual. Otherwise, a country could remain divided after an election, as the Ivory Coast was divided when both President Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, each refused to concede the election to the other. An alternative ritual eventually brought closure to that election: the French military arrested President Gbagbo and sent him to the International Criminal Court.

Note to self: Van Gennep died in 1957. That means his book Rites of Passage, which I very much enjoyed reading, is public domain in Canada. I should find a way to get it onto Project Gutenberg Canada when I have the time.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Whole Earth Catalog and The Global Village Construction Set

When I was young and impressionable--an entirely different state of being than my current old and impressionable state--I bought a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Younger folk may not know about the importance that catalogues held when I was young and impressionable. Our household, like just about every one else's, received two department store catalogues in the mail, Simpsons-Sears' and Eaton's. These were phone-book-sized tomes that had, it seemed, everything: ladies' underclothing, silver rings with an embedded Tiger's Eye stone, major household appliances, furniture, toys, and so on, all through the material inventory of modern culture. Looking through it carefully, placing bookmarks or dogearing pages, we planned our Christmas Lists, made our Christmas purchases, and laid our plans for future purchases. We received, no doubt, a sense of the multifariousness of our material culture from those books.

In 1968 appeared another catalog, on sale for $5.  It was even bigger than the others, just as varied, and seemed to contain nothing that the other books had. I bought a copy, I don't know when, and it fascinated me. It was called The Whole Earth Catalog and was subtitled Access to Tools. It had mini-reviews on books about building dome houses, classics about the relation of math and design, waterproof fabrics that made safer motorcycle clothing than mere leather, the address for ordering a poster of Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Map, and more. It was like a Sears' or Eaton's catalog but intended for back-to-the-land or urban, free-thinking geeks. You can still find the content on-line, but that misses out the heft of the book, the size of the pages, and the texture and smell of the off-white pages.

One of the TED Talks brought back strong memories of that catalog. The speaker is Marcin Jakubowski, a farmer with a PhD in fusion physics. He, too, is concerned that people have "Access to Tools."

His story is a powerful argument for the value of education. As he says in the video, he found that his attempts to farm were disastrously stymied by the need for heavy equipment that broke and then broke ("and then I was broke, too"), so he designed and built his own equipment.

This being the age of the Internet, he attracted a supportive community that helped to improve his work. It is working towards the goal of inexpensive, local, repairable designs for the "50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts." These are listed on his Open Source Ecology website as "The Global Village Construction Set."

These machines may make their way onto farms in the developed world because of simple economic advantage. A new tractor that can be built for $12,000 in six days of work compares very well with a commercial equivalent for twice the price. I expect that the developing world would be even more receptive to his ideas and inventions. Small businesses in Africa or Brazil could start to provide machines and parts, and machines to make the parts, and machines to power the machines, all for much less than First World companies could do.

Could the effort be shut down by litigation, through patent lawsuits and SLAPP suits? Perhaps, but the bottom-up nature of the effort might make it too hard to shut down. A single company making tractors can be sued into bankruptcy; a thousand companies making a few tractors each, not so easily. Ten thousand farmers making one tractor each for personal use, not at all.

Businessweek has just published an update on the project, and Slashdot is weighing in with comments on it. There has been funding from individuals and a big whack of it from the Shuttleworth Foundation. Jakubowski's farm looks and smells like a shambles, but a turning point may be reached in December, when Jakubowski starts selling copies of one of his machines, a "a DIY compressed-earth brick press":
[he] is hopeful he can turn it into something the farm can sell for $9,000 each. “The closest competitor is $45,000,” he says.
If it goes as planned, he hopes to prove "that the farm can make a profit of $5,000 per day from one of its machines." I hope that he does, and even more on the other forty-nine machines in his Construction Set.

I hope, at any rate, that his dream develops more quickly than another project that I have been following, on and off, for decades: Arcosanti. Like the Construction Set, Arcosanti combines idealism, education, and volunteer labour. Unlike the Construction Set's, its progress has been glacially slow. Any hope that Arcosanti can improve the world is now, I'd have to say, minimal to the point of nonexistant; that the Construction Set will do so is much, much greater.

Hurricane Sandy and Answering Religious Critics

I was reading an interesting Popular Science article that I found through the Ars Technica website: Meet the Climate Change Denier Who Became the Voice of Hurricane Sandy On Wikipedia by Dan Nosowitz. It tells about, and includes quotations from an interview with, Ken Mampel, a Wikipedia editor. This gentleman has a background as a journalistic stringer in Florida but, being currently unemployed, had time to spend documenting Hurricane Sandy. Spend it he did, and liberally: "When I talked to him," Nosowitz writes, "I believe he had slept for maybe 15 hours in the past five days."

Some other contributors, though, found that Mapel was deleting any references to Climate Change or, as it used to be known, Global Warming. Why?
Without my prompting, Ken mentioned that New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg had endorsed Obama for president based on his handling of the hurricane. This is true, and Mampel planned to add this to the Wikipedia entry. "But I don't believe that climate change bullcrap," he said. Bloomberg had specifically mentioned climate change in his endorsement speech, but Mampel wouldn't add that to the Wikipedia entry. That's despite dozens of articles pointing out the connection--not a causation, necessarily, but certainly a connection worth exploring. I myself spoke to a hurricane expert about three hours before I spoke to Mampel who told me that the roughly two-degree increase in the water temperature in the Atlantic could have had a major effect on Hurricane Sandy's strength in the northeast. Mampel doesn't care. He wasn't going to mention climate change.
By Wikipedia standards, he didn't have the right to exclude a major element in the discussion of Hurricane Sandy. This magazine cover sums up the controversy that Mapel would not allow to be mentioned on the page:

One lovely aspect of Wikipedia that its critics often ignore is that you can click on the "Talk" tab of an article to follow the debates about the article's content.

The "Talk" on the page recorded a lively debate that tried to converge on a consensus about if and how Global Warming should be mentioned. The if viewpoint, Mapel's own, was a minority. The how has been resolved by this paragraph under the section "Meterological History":
According to Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "natural variability and weather has provided the perhaps optimal conditions of a hurricane running into extra-tropical conditions to make for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences."[34] Unusually warm ocean surface temperatures contributed to the size and strength of the storm, and the storm lingered due to a strong blocking pattern.[34][35] According to their analysis, global warming is expected to continue to increase ocean surface temperatures and the frequency of blocking patterns in the future.[34][35] Mark Fischetti of Scientific American proposed a more explicit link, arguing that the melting of Arctic ice caused a negative North Atlantic Oscillation, which fueled the expansion of Sandy by pushing the jet stream south.[36]
This is probably enough, given that there is also a link to another Wikipedia article, Meteorological history of Hurricane Sandy, which includes a section on Global Warming.

I am glad that there are critics of Wikipedia who help to keep the project honest. Certainly, some of the comments in the Talk about Hurricane Sandy were aware that the omission of Global Warming from the page was being scrutinized by outside media. However, the community of editors and other contributors came together, spoke civilly, and provided a quick and fairly adequate fix to a problem with the page. On the whole, Wikipedia is a public good.

One slight exception to the "spoke civilly" part was provided by Ken Mampel himself, under his username of Kennvido. Here it is, along with the response.
I can only respond to you with Proverbs 26:4 Kennvido (talk) 13:12, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
As a Christian, what Proverbs 26:4 suggests to me is that you, sir, should be indefinitely blocked from any further contributions to this article. Your behavior is embarrassing to all of us who believe, as did Einstein, both in the scientific method as well as the infinite wonders of God's Creation. The more relevant piece of scripture that comes to mind, is 2 Corinthians 11:19. Garth of the Forest (talk) 23:10, 4 November 2012 (UTC)
Facepalm3.svg Facepalm IRWolfie- (talk) 13:20, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Kennvido your attempt to hide incivility (calling some of us fools) behind the words of the Holy Bible just make your incivility more offensive. I am not going to bother initiating an ANI proceeding but I would support one. NewsAndEventsGuy (talk) 14:29, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
I think it's just Kennvido's poor grasp of WP policies, particularly WP:CONSENSUS. There's no need to start a fuss at ANI ... at least at this point. --Vejvančický (talk | contribs) 14:54, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Agree, I think it was done more for rhetoric than actual incivility (and so I did not take it as such). IRWolfie- (talk) 15:02, 3 November 2012 (UTC)
Proverbs 26:4 reads, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him."

The reference to 2 Corinthians 11:19 is to "For you suffer fools gladly, seeing you yourselves are wise."

The comments under that are an example of "Turning the other cheek."

One interesting but minor lesson from this is that a good way to respond to a religious person who asserts a point with a scriptural reference is to answer back with a scriptural reference. Your opponent certainly cannot say, "you're wrong" to the Holy Word itself.  This rhetorical technique is available to believers and unbelievers alike.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

"Instructions" by Neil Gaiman

My posts have followed the junction between society and technology for a while, so I would like to put in something poetic. My choice is by Neil Gaiman.

If you don't know his name, you may know some of his books, graphic novels, or screenplays. The novel American Gods won the Hugo and Nebula awards. (If you follow the science fiction or fantasy genres, you will know the awards). According to that Wikipedia article, it will be made into a television series for HBO. His children's novels Coraline and Stardust were made into movies. His graphic novel project, The Sandman, grew to ten volumes over seven years of effort. It was a New York Times best-seller, and yet is worth reading.

The only work of Neil Gaiman that has disappointed me was the script he co-wrote for the film Beowulf. The seal of death on that project, as far as I am concerned is that the film's director "did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay." That implies, of course, that anyone who did like the poem, as I do, would hate the screenplay.

What I enjoy in Gaiman is that myth seems to be a language to him, rather than a decoration. He creates new myths and alludes to old ones to speak about human nature and the universe. His poem "Instructions" shows how this works.


by Neil Gaiman
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say "please" before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.
A red metal imp hangs from the green-painted
front door,
as a knocker,
do not touch it; it will bite your fingers.
Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat
However, if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.

From the back garden you will be able to see the wild wood.
The deep well you walk past leads to Winter's realm;
there is another land at the bottom of it.
If you turn around here,
you can walk back, safely;
you will lose no face. I will think no less of you.

Once through the garden you will be in the wood.
The trees are old. Eyes peer from the undergrowth.
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She
may ask for something;
give it to her. She
will point the way to the castle.
Inside it are three princesses.
Do not trust the youngest. Walk on.
In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve
months sit about a fire,
warming their feet, exchanging tales.
They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
You may pick strawberries in December's frost.
Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where
you are going.
The river can be crossed by the ferry. The ferry-
man will take you.
(The answer to his question is this:
If he hands the oar to his passenger, he will be free to
leave the boat.
Only tell him this from a safe distance.)

If an eagle gives you a feather, keep it safe.
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.

Do not be jealous of your sister.
Know that diamonds and roses
are as uncomfortable when they tumble from
one's lips as toads and frogs:
colder, too, and sharper, and they cut.

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
Do not forget your manners.
Do not look back.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).

There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.

When you reach the little house, the place your
journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden gate
you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.
And rest.
One myth alluded to in this poem is a Russian story about a cannibalistic witch, Baba Yaga. In it, the heroine helps a gate, a tree, and a cat who later save her life. It matches even more closely a Norwegian story, "The Giant Who Had No Heart in his Body." (Its full text is here). During his quest, its hero helps a raven, a salmon, and a wolf, and each of them later help him.
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
feed it.
If it tells you that it is dirty,
clean it.
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
If you do this,
When you come back, return the way you came.
Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.
He needs their help because "hearts can be well-hidden." (Truer words were never written). The form of that help is also mentioned.
Ride the wise eagle (you shall not fall).
Ride the silver fish (you will not drown).
Ride the grey wolf (hold tightly to his fur).
These are almost exactly the creatures featured in the Norwegian story.

The Ferryman is Charon. The river he takes you over is the Styx, which separates the living and the dead. He demands payment from those whom he ferries, and is often not to be trusted.

 The twisted oak? The oak was sacred to the gods of sky or thunder throughout ancient Europe: to Zeus in Greece, to Thor in the Northlands. The name of the oak formed part of the name of a druid among the Celts. It carried the sacred mistletoe that still works a kind of magic on New Year's Eve. The woman below the tree must be a wise woman, spirit, or even goddess.

Three princesses, twelve months. Three and its multiples have magic. How many stories (starting with Cinderella) have three princes or princesses?

"Diamonds and roses that tumble from your lips...." I do not know where the tumbling roses come from, but diamonds from the lips feature in James Thurber's book The Thirteen Clocks. I know that Gaiman has read this book because he wrote the introduction in the edition that I have of it and calls it "the best book in the world."
There is a worm at the heart of the tower; that is
why it will not stand.
 In the King Arthur stories, Merlin tells Uther Pendragon something very similar to this. Two dragons sleep under the castle he is trying to build. The dragons emerge, a white dragon and a red, and battle to the death. This is a sign of Uther's own death. However, before he dies, he fathers Arthur.

The "wild wood" is life. It is the wood in which Lancelot lost his mind. It is the wood in which Dante lost his way. It is filled with our collective dreams in Robert Holdstock's excellent novel Mythago Wood. Making our way through this wood demands courage, courtesy, and knowledge.

"Instructions" was first published in the book A Wolf at the Door. In 2010, it was published as an illustrated book.