Politicians are poets. (Sort of.)

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Jul 132012

Poetry is often in my mind.  It’s because I used to work in local government.  (The alternative to recalling poetry was to listen to the debates.)

It struck me recently that there are big similarities between poets and politicians.  No, really, there are!  Of course there are differences too.

It is about the way they use words.  Both politicians and poets are very alive to the meaning and sound of words.  They search for words that will echo in our minds, rhythms that will get us hooked.

They are most interested, both poets and politicians, in words with multiple meanings.  They produce words with layers of meaning, connecting with many parts of our minds at one and the same time.  So when Auden says that “One is always real” the reader may think of the number 1, and of oneself, and of being “at one”, and of the One from whom no secrets are hid.

But the two professions seek multiple meanings for different purposes.  The poet wants to evoke as many responses as possible, cramming many thoughts and resonances into a few words.  They make each word work overtime, not just time and a half, but treble or quadruple time.

Politicians, it seems to me, are increasingly concerned to collect words which can mean lots of different things but, at the moment they are uttered, do not mean anything very specific at all.  The advantage is that, when they are challenged at a later date, they can defend:  “Ah yes, I did say that, but what I really meant was …”  And then the strength of their poetry becomes clear.  Their words are so rich in potential meanings that it is almost always possible for them to find a way out.

Politicians of an earlier style would have crammed their words into our ears against the stomach of our sense.  Modern politicians know they must be bland.  They do it by being so full of possible meaning as to be effectively meaningless.

Both poets and politicians are, in a way, a kind of opposites to the Quaker ideal of speaking plainly.  I know which group I would rather listen to.

 Posted by at 13:21

Still carrying her?

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Jul 122012

Two Chinese monks had to make a journey from one monastery to another on a very wet day.  From the moment they left the first monastery the rain poured down and the roads became thick with mud.

As they trudged through a small town they passed a very pretty young girl.  She was standing in a doorway looking sadly out at the mud.  She needed to cross the street to another house and she was afraid her beautiful silk robe would end up filthy.

The older monk spotted her problem, so he went over to the girl, picked her up and carried her quickly over the road.  He set her down in the doorway she wanted, almost dry, and her silk gown free from mud.

The two monks resumed their journey.

Hours later, they reached the other monastery.  They got themselves dried out, said their prayers, ate an evening meal, and laid out their bed-rolls for the night.  As they were doing this the younger monk suddenly said:

“Our religion teaches us that a monk should have nothing to do with women, especially young, very pretty women.  So you really shouldn’t have carried that girl across the road this morning.”

“But I put that girl down hours ago,” said the older monk.  “Why do you still carry her?”


Personally, I find this a very easy lesson to understand, and yet (for me) it is very, very difficult to put into action.  There’s all sort of baggage from the past that I carry around today.  Resentments from long ago that I can’t seem to forget, ancient successes that I indulge in to enjoy remembered happiness.  And it all gets in the way of making progress with current work, and achieving the goals of new projects.

 Posted by at 23:27

Wholesome and Nourishing

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Nov 232011

Many, many years ago (it was in the 1970’s) I applied for an operations research job with a manufacturer of sweets.  (The Americans call it ‘candy’.)  During the selection process – a weekend in a very expensive country house hotel – every table carried dishes of the firm’s products.

I don’t much like sweets so I ignored these.  However, some of the other candidates had sweeter teeth and occasionally someone would ask a fellow candidate to ‘pass the sweets’.  Whenever the word ‘sweets’ was used, in this or any other context, one of the selection staff would intervene and say ‘We don’t make sweets, we manufacture wholesome, nourishing foodstuffs.’

After hearing this mantra a few times, it began to stick in my gullet.  After the whole two days I must have heard it a few dozen times.  Why, I wondered, did they insist on such a cumbersome phrase to refer to their product?  Could it be that they were ashamed of producing something so trivial as candy? Were they trying to suggest that their work was necessary for the survival of the species, and not just offering a bit of fun?

Now, in 2011. I find myself wondering whether the current epidemic of obesity can be traced back to that sickening euphemism: the illusion that candy is a foodstuff.

 Posted by at 13:01

How aware am I?

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Nov 212011

Why am I so determined to make awareness the goal of life?  Well, here are two reasons.

The first reason is that it is the feature that sets people apart from animals.  A lion or a dolphin may be clever and resourceful and, of course, superbly equipped to do what they do, but are they aware of that?

It’s possible for dolphins, perhaps.  We haven’t decoded their chirps and squeaks.  But even if they are aware of their world, their awareness is limited.  Unlike us, they have neither a microscope nor a telescope (two instruments of almost equal hope) let alone a large hadron collider.  So it seems very unlikely that they are aware of synapses and viruses, or quarks and  neutrinos, or galaxies and supernovae.

(Mind you, we don’t know what awareness is impossible for us due to our physical limitations.  We may be missing out on all sorts of dolphinesque treats.)

But if our wide awareness is our unique feature maybe we should develop it as much as we can.

 Posted by at 01:33

Tiff, jay-peg, bit-map, png …

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Oct 082011

I have been preparing some fractal pictures for printing.  They will appear in a local exhibition of local artwork.

I have been getting hot and bothered by the many, mutually-inconsistent layers of software I have had to deal with.  The worst element is the very last bit of the process – the great big print machine at the local print works.  It seems to need an instruction in the graphics file for the dots-per-inch scale.  I think I’ve figured out how to give it the right data, but it took ages of experimenting and trying different packages.

Oddly, the problem is partly caused by the huge number of “features” available at each step of the process.  There are so many options the chances of picking the right combination is not very high.

It is a feature of our current technology that though it gets cleverer, it requires you to know odd little bits about the inner workings if you are to get the result you want.  Maybe it will soon be easier to use, but I’m not very hopeful.

I still remember the sixties, though for various reasons my memory may be unreliable.

There were a lot of programming languages available then.  I think there were at least three – Fortran, Cobol, Algol.  So IBM decided to simplify matters by producing a single language.  It would combine the best features of all the rivals and be a veritable Esperanto of computing.  It would be so good that no one would ever need another language.  We would all speak the same digital tongue.

They called it PL/1.

I remember thinking, at the time, that this implied there would also be PL/2, PL/3 … PL/Aleph-null.

This is Babel, nor am I out of it!

 Posted by at 11:34