The Cancer Diaries, part 8

Diseases desperate grown
By desperate appliance are relieved,
Or not at all.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act 4 Sc. 3

Those Kegel exercises sure work. I had my doubts at first, but I stand as living proof they are effective. My pelvic muscles could probably lift a car — well, whenever the doctor tells me I can start lifting things again, that is. And my anus can clench more tightly than a conservative’s when he is confronted by a liberal suggestion to raise the minimum wage to a liveable amount.

It’s been 51 full days since my surgery. I can also count it as:

  • 4,406,400 seconds;
  • 73,440 minutes;
  • 1,224 hours;
  • 7 weeks and 2 days;
  • Approx. 14% of the year.

Funny, though. It seems so much more recent than that. As if it was only last week, not seven. I suppose that’s because every day I am reminded of it in a dozen ways, so it stays fresh in my memory. And being reminded of it, i am also reminded daily of my own mortality. Not morbidly, just that I am still a week away from learning about my condition and future (was the cancer removed or does it still eat away at me? if so, what does my future hold?).

Incontinence is a minor (at its worst) issue, and most of the time doesn’t even arise. Unless, of course, I sneeze. Or fart. Or cough… those explosive actions often (but not always) squeeze out a small drop. Nothing much, but enough to remind me I’ve still some time to go before I am fully recovered. 

But otherwise, not a squirt comes out during my daily activities, and I seldom even think about it. Still, I continue to do my exercises, just in case. And to build towards the day when I have no need for any sort of protection. I did try an experiment a couple of weekends ago of not wearing a pad one day, but it was a bit too optimistic to do it so soon. Maybe I’ll try again in a week or so.

Continue reading “The Cancer Diaries, part 8”

Brandolini’s Law

bullshit meterEver had the frustrating experience trying to correct someone’s obviously un-factual post or meme on Facebook? And found yourself in a swamp of comments all telling you you’re wrong, an idiot, it’s just your opinion, it worked for my friend so it’s true, or you don’t know anything, followed by insults and accusations? Welcome to the backlash from Brandolini’s Law.

According to Wikipedia, Brandolini’s law states that it’s easier to spread bullshit than to debunk it:

Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, is an internet adage which emphasizes the difficulty of debunking bullshit: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

We’ve all seen this in action on Facebook or other social media: someone posts some long-debunked conspiracy meme or some pseudoscience claptrap on their timeline and before you can collect the links from Snopes or other de-bunking sites to counter it, a dozen people have already commented on how right it is or how they agree with it and then sharing it on their own timelines. And by the time you have posted a few links to show it’s claptrap, many more have joined the chorus about how wonderful or truthful it is. Your little finger of truth in the dyke of bullshit cannot hold back the tsunami of acceptance for and agreement with something that you know is intrinsically wrong.

In Plato’s terminology, those who attempt to correct the bullshit, are fighting doxa — opinion, common beliefs without the “underpinning of evidence” — with episteme — true knowledge or understanding. And it’s usually a losing battle because while the former appeals to the heart and head , the latter is “wholly cerebral.” And we all know how effectively social media promotes anti-intellectualism and groupthink. *

Continue reading “Brandolini’s Law”

I Struggle With Milton

Blake's vision of Milton
Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish. 

It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.

And I enjoy reading them all.

So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.

Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.

Continue reading “I Struggle With Milton”

The Penguin Classics Book

Did you know there is a card game played in Japan at the New Year, called uta-garuta, where 100 cards have a full poem on each — traditionally taken from their classical poets — and another 100 have just the final line. Players take turn reading the poem from the deck, while the others race to find its concluding line from the cards with the final lines. I didn’t until I read about it on page 111 of The Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot.

(I think that’s a wonderful game idea and wish someone would do a similar game for Western poets… although I understand that not all western forms fit the card-size restrictions of the game…)

It’s the sort of delightful, fact-and-fun-filled book that encourages browsing to uncover this and so many other tidbits of information about books, their authors, and their culture. I recently added Eliot’s  book to my own library and have spent many hours cheerfully rambling through it. Every page seems to have something to learn and enjoy. It’s the sort of coffee-table-toilet reading book that can suck you in for hours.

The publisher’s description notes,

The Penguin Classics Book covers all the greatest works of fiction, poetry, drama, history, and philosophy in between, this reader’s companion encompasses 500 authors, 1,200 books, and 4,000 years of world literature, from ancient Mesopotamia to World War I. Filled with stories of the series’ UK origin, author biographies, short book summaries and recommendations, and illustrated with historic Penguin Classic covers, The Penguin Classics Book is an entertaining historic look at the earliest chapters of the world’s best-known Classics publisher.

The author, Henry Eliot is, according to the same site, “Creative Editor of Penguin Classics.” The book is an ambitious, well-designed look at the history of one of the world’s most famous publishing imprints: Penguin Classics. The line began in 1946 as a means to make classic literature available to the general public at an affordable price. The books quickly became favourites both for booksellers and academics, and provided a publishing outlet for translators and editors unlike any seen before.

The first title published in the series was a translation of Homer’s Odyssey, and in its first decade, the line had a mere 60 titles to its name. Today, it has some 1,200 titles, covering literature from the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic to modern, international authors. And everything in between: the line has plenty of English-speaking authors, but also translations of works originally written in French, Russian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Norse, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Old English, Greek, Latin, and many more languages. And not just literature: there is poetry, philosophy, biography, history, plays, memoirs, folk tales, and scripture. Four millennia of the written word is here.

For those of us who love reading, this series has provided a wonderful opportunity to open windows into other cultures, other communities. And Eliot’s book is like the exquisite aperitif before the meal.

Eliot’s book draws a somewhat fuzzy line at World War I (including some authors who wrote later, but also missing some like Don Marquis and Marcel Proust who wrote during that period) , which I found a trifle disappointing, since there have been many modern books published in the line since then. I live in hope that a second volume, following from the chronology of the first, will be published. But as I wait, this volume engages me.

Continue reading “The Penguin Classics Book”

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Enough SaidThe title is a phrase I encountered while reading Mark Thompson’s excellent book on political rhetoric, Enough Said: What’s Wrong With the Language of Politics? Thompson’s book is both about the current and historic use of political rhetoric (from Aristotle forward), but also about the role of journalists in covering it. Thompson — a former new editor and executive in the BBC and now with the New York Times — maintains we are in  “a crisis of political language” that comes from a combination of modern media, social media use, and also in the changing way politicians speak (“characterised by lies, spin and demagoguery.”)

The phrase itself was coined by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, in his book on the writings of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Thompson uses it to describe the mindset of suspicion and disbelief in modern journalists towards politicians, and the reverse shared distrust, as well as the public’s suspicion of the media in presenting its content.*

Personally, I believe a strong sense of skepticism and disbelief is necessary for a journalist to see through the spin and the bullshit to the hidden truths and the corruption below the surface. It’s necessary to have a skeptical perspective so as not to be conned by the blandishments and empty assurances of the corporate elite, too. Without skepticism, journalists are vulnerable to piffle in an age where there is so much disinformation and claptrap around.

In a speech given in 2008, Thompson said, 

…proportionate, rational scepticism is healthy and a civic good – as well as being a prime building block of good journalism… the evidence points rather the other way: the less you trust politicians and public institutions, the more likely you are to believe in outré conspiracy theories, not to mention witches and warlocks and so on.
What the evidence points to, I think, is of a large group of the population who feel outside a charmed circle of knowledge and power. Modern public policy is fiendishly complex and debates about it are conducted in a mysterious, technocratic language which – despite the best efforts of the BBC and some of the rest of the media – many people find hard to understand. This by the way may be why, as Onora O’Neill pointed out, the modern mechanisms of accountability, which are riddled with this impenetrable language, have not only failed to arrest the decline in trust but may have accelerated it.

And also in that same speech, he noted,

One of the tasks of a free press is to uncover public malfeasance. The media is right to be alert to it and to pursue and investigate any evidence that it is taking place. But no good – and almost certainly some ill – is served by exaggeration or endlessly crying wolf… However, this does not seem to be one of the main drivers of broader public disillusion…The biggest reason people give is because, in their view, politicians don’t tell the truth. People also think politicians “say what they want people to hear” and they don’t give straight answers – all issues related to the theme of truth telling.

Trust has to be earned by both sides, and is not a right or a given by either. It starts by being honest. Non-critical acceptance of political or corporate blarney by the media leads to the sort of banal, bland coverage (it doesn’t deserve to be called reporting) we get in the ideological media (like PostMedia and Fox “News”) where everything conservative is treated as wonderful and illuminating, and anything done, suggested, or spoken by a liberal or Democrat is vilified regardless of content or context. This reduces their content to a sort of Tarzan-Jane language of simplisticisms: “Them bad. Us good.” This, of course, appeals increasingly to a polarized audience that views complexity and intellectualism with suspicion and hostility.

Little wonder public disillusion with politicians has extended to the media**. We used to expect of our media to be the watchdogs of the greater good; trusted guardians of the public weal to give us truth and fairness. We also expected them to look deeper into issues on our behalf. Now we expect far too many of them to merely regurgitate the party line, shills for the shallow, self-serving ideology of their corporate owners.

Continue reading “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion”

Where is Wat Tyler Now That We Need Him?

Wat Tyler
I was disappointed that the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began with such vigor and hope in 2011, soon petered out  into a sputtering, unfocused political miasma barely a year later. I was even more deeply disappointed that the antifa (anti-fascist) protests, which also seemed to have such promise earlier this year,  lost its momentum and focus by mid-summer, 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement, which looked like it, too, had real strength and direction earlier this year, seems to have withered by the late summer of 2020. 

These are merely the latest popular uprisings and protests against the machinery of the government, against the elite CEOs, billionaires, and lobbyists, and against the social ills that they have enabled to flourish. All of these upheavals are backed by meaningful ideals, and at times naïve optimism, but none seem to have the vertebrae to stand for a long time. There seems no street-level political movement that can last in the face of the growing totalitarianism, racism, misogyny, predatory capitalism, and income inequality in the USA, here, and elsewhere.

Where is Wat Tyler, now that we need him?

Continue reading “Where is Wat Tyler Now That We Need Him?”

Lessons from History

It is common practice to look back and conflate the events of the past with those of the present, seeking parallels, resonance, and answers from previous events that help explain today’s. We learn from others, from their experiences, and we like to find commonalities in our shared experiences, even from our or other’s historic past. We see ourselves reflected in our past and we sometimes mistake that reflection for the reality.

Machiavelli did it in both The Prince and The Discourses, didactically using examples from classical Greek and Roman texts to explore the events, politics, and governance in his contemporary Italian states, and drawing conclusions on his modern events from parallels in the past. That was one of his great achievements: to explore how people behave similarly in similar situations across the ages, and thus extrapolate how we will behave under similar conditions in the future. This is why his books remain relevant today. In The Discourses, he warned in what could be seen as prescient to the current US administration:

Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it.
Discourses on Livy Book I, Ch. 3

It’s a losing battle to argue that the US administration isn’t filled with evil, vicious, self-serving people, because all the evidence points otherwise. But I digress.

Legend, mythology, poetry, and literature in every culture has always provided examples from which to learn. From the earliest stories of Gilgamesh and the Bible to modern novels, we learn that human behaviour has not changed in any dramatic manner, and we can always discover our modern selves in reading about our past. And we may find new ways of seeing events and issues from another perspective. An article in The Atlantic noted,

…beyond providing an introduction to troubling issues, historical fiction can offer the chance, if taught conscientiously, to engage students with multiple perspectives, which are essential to understanding history; to help students comprehend historical patterns and political analogies; and to introduce students to historiography—how history is written and studied…
Humanizing history not only means it’s easier for students to connect the historical dots, research shows that it also encourages empathy. Being told a story via historical fiction helps students identify with the characters’ points of view, and that ability to recognize different outlooks… is an essential historical skill…

If anything, history and literature have show us that humans today remain as greedy, parsimonious, warlike, loving, compassionate, lustful, treacherous, loyal, curious, wise, affectionate, and pigheaded as we were at the dawn of recorded history. This also is why classical philosophy and — some non-supernatural parts of — religion still have relevance today, too: human behaviour has not changed in the millennia since we started writing about it.

Machiavelli wrote,

To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.
The Prince, Ch. 14

Of course, all such comparisons are at least partially epigonic, because despite parallels, changes in cultures and technologies over time have created situations and events that cannot be duplicated nor simply overlaid on the past by mere ideological association. Looking back can offer many lessons, but one must be wary of aligning the past too closely with the present, and confusing allegory and metaphor with current reality. It’s far too easy to make false equivalences or grand generalizations from a cursory knowledge of the past.

Continue reading “Lessons from History”

Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn


ThornYe Olde Shoppe. We’ve all seen the signs like this. Ever wonder why it says “ye” instead of “the”? Me, too, at least way back then. I’ve known the answer a long time now from decades of reading about English, about typography, Chaucer, and about Middle English orthography. Spoiler alert: It was pronounced “the.” Not “ye.”

Thorn evolvedThe “ye” was actually spelled “(thorn)e” — thorn was a letter in the Old and Middle English alphabets that stood for “th.” It started out looking like a lowercase “p” as in the images at the top, but as time went on, it devolved into something that looked more like a “y” (on the left) in German printing (which lacked a thorn in its character set) which got passed back into early Modern English. When printing arrived in England, Caxton used the “y” form of thorn in his books, hence the “ye” in “the olde shoppe…”

Although Latin characters are the basis for most European languages, Latin (itself derived from earlier Etruscan) had only 23 characters in its alphabet, missing several used in other languages including the Germanic and Norse tongues that loaned so many words and sounds to English. To convey these missing sounds and letters, medieval scribes used characters and runes from other alphabets. While Latin was the official language of Christendom, which spread throughout Europe, it had some hiccups in translation.

Latin had no J, U, or W (or any lowercase form, which was also invented in medieval times), so these came from elsewhere into English. I was used for J; J wasn’t even a separate letter until Gian Giorgio Trissino used it in a book in 1524, but it didn’t appear in English books until 1633, and still wasn’t commonly used until around the early 19th century. So there was no Jesus, Joseph, Jehovah, Joshua, or any other character whose name started with a J in the original bibles (Latin or Greek). Those names are the result of translation into later English.

W had been represented in 7th and 8th century Germanic texts as a digraph (VV or uu), but didn’t make its way into English until the 13th century. It still took a century to become standard. Before then, the sound was represented by the rune wynn. U was originally just a stylistic variation on the letter v, used in the middle or end of a word, while the pointed v was used as the first character. Although u was accepted as a separate character as early as 1386, it was only in its lowercase form. The uppercase U was not used in English until the 17th century. 

EthAnother lost symbol for the was the Irish character eth, which also represented ‘th’ but was a slightly longer sound than thorn (try saying thing versus this to hear the difference).

YoghThe letter “y” wasn’t used back in Chaucer’s day, and instead scribes would have used a yogh, looking a bit like the numeral 3,  spelling our “ye” as 3e.  But yogh was flexible. Yogh, which derives from the Hebrew character gimel, was used for more than one letter, depending a bit on context and pronunciation: it could be g, z, w, or y, or sometimes an x or the allophone gh (as in night or knight, although these were not silent as they are now) and the guttural ch in loch or Bach. Yogh suffered from its closeness to the Arabic symbol for number three. Arabic numerals were gaining popularity in Britain around the end of the 14th  and early 15th centuries, and the two symbols conflicted.

By Chaucer’s day, by the way, the Latin I and Y had lost their distinctiveness as sounds in English.

Another lost letter is wynn, which was used for the “w” sound centuries before the letter was finally adopted into English. Several of these lost characters stayed around in English writing until Chaucerian times, but after the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language, and they disappeared from court documents and records. 

Thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh were incorporated into early English because they represented existing sounds not in Latin, but the long s was a typographic affectation for the letter s: style rather than pronunciation, so it had somewhat greater longevity. By Caxton’s time most of these symbols and letters had vanished from printed works, in large part because the printing press and its moveable type were imported from Europe where they didn’t have any of these symbols, so Caxton and others had to make changes to suit the typefaces they had.

Continue reading “Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn”

I Just Don’t Understand Americans

I’ve long been somewhat of a politics/history junkie, and as such I read a lot about both topics, from ancient times to modern; I read about events, wars, issues, personalities, elections, debates, governance, and the philosophy of politics. I read books, newspapers, websites, magazines, social media, and more books. I don’t have cable TV, however, but I do get to several reliable media sites online every day, including BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, Atlantic, Reuters, Spiegel, Agence France Presse, Forbes, Macleans, New York Times, The Star,  Globe & Mail, Slate, and others.* 

So even though I am not an American, I like to think that, for a foreigner, I am reasonably well acquainted with American history, geography, and politics. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat aware, when it’s splashed all over every paper, website, social media, and radio news even in Canada. I try to be well-informed about the events and issues that affect our biggest trading partner and (sometimes uncomfortably close) neighbour because they always affect us here.

But for all my reading and attention, some days I just don’t get Americans. Don’t get me wrong: I have known and loved many Americans over the years; I count quite a few Americans among my friends or at least friendly acquaintances. I’ve worked for them, I’ve travelled with them, had sex with them, I’ve partied with them, played music with them, and danced with them. I’ve sipped tequila with them in a tiny bar tucked away in the hills of central Mexico, and I’ve played wargames and paintball with them. But when it comes to politics, I just don’t get them.

Why would ANYONE have voted for Donald Trump? It was like standing on a train track seeing the light coming towards you at full speed, hearing the whistle warning, and yet staying on the track because you believed it would pass you by and hit someone else.

Come on, folks: it splattered body parts all over the nation. He’s spent almost four years proving he’s a racist, intolerant, lying, narcissist, fake-Christian, barely literate, uneducated, vindictive, nasty clown doing his best to destroy the United States economically, environmentally, socially, and politically. He is shredding your nation’s democracy as we speak, undermining your Constitution, destroying your ability to vote,  and making Vladimir Putin a very happy man. He mishandled the pandemic at the cost millions of jobs, a worse economic collapse than the Great Depression, and more than 170,000 deaths (and rising). He mishandled international trade at the cost millions of jobs and hikes to consumer prices. He alienated every ally in Europe and North America. He has screwed education, tried to sell Puerto Rico, wanted to use atomic bombs on hurricanes, thinks windmills cause cancer, put incompetent sycophants into the Supreme Court, golfed this term more often than most people golf in their entire lives, and played footsie with America’s sworn enemies.

The whole fucking world is laughing at Trump and his blundering, his ineptitude, his unpresidential shenanigans. And they’re looking aghast at the overt fascism being rolled in. Unidentified, armed federal agents kidnapping people off the streets. Children separated from parents and put in cages for years, suffering abuse and sexual assault. Billionaires making billions more because of his tax cuts to the already-rich while workers lose jobs, rights, and benefits. Is this how you want American and its leaders to be perceived?

So who in their right mind would vote for him again? Especially now there’s a reasonable alternative in another candidate (and an excellent choice for VP) who can help the country heal and regain its stature in the world. Not the perfect candidate, sure, but in comparison the two Democrats simply outweigh the incumbents in ethics, morality, humility, public spirit, and intelligence.

Apparently, being in your right mind is not a requirement to vote for Trump or his enablers (Moscow Mitch McConnell, Lindsay “Vlad’s Boy” Graham, and the other crypto-fascists). Voting for any of them would be like asking to be disembowelled right after the executioner had lopped off your arms.  I just don’t get it. Who does that to themselves?

Continue reading “I Just Don’t Understand Americans”