H. L. Mencken on Religion

Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried out with the sun.

When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of Richmond P. Hobson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother Tezcatilpoca.
Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful; he consumed 25,000 virgins a year.

Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quetzalcoatl is? Or Xiehtecuthli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Of Mictlan? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard-of Hell do they await their resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Of that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jackass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods, but today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: the Hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian Hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisima, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose – all gods of the first class. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them – temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels; villages were burned, women and children butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley?
What has become of:

Resheph, Baal, Anath, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Hadad, Nebo, Dagon, Melek, Yau, Ahijah, Amon-Re, Isis, Osiris, Ptah, Molech?

All there were gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Yahweh Himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Arianrod, Nuada, Argetlam, Morrigu, Tagd, Govannon, Goibniu, Gunfled, Odin, Dagda, Ogma, Ogryvan, Marzin, Dea, Dia, Mara, Iuno, Lucina, Diana of Ephesus, Saturn, Robigus, Furrina, Pluto, Cronos, Vesta, Engurra, Zer-panitu, Belus, Merodach, Ubilulu, Elum, U-dimmer-an-kia, Marduk, U-sab-sib, Nin, U-Mersi, Persephone, TammuzIstar, Venus, Lagas, Beltis, Nirig, Nusku, En-Mersi, Aa, Assur, Sin, Beltu, Apsu, Kuski-banda, Elali, Nin-azu, Mami, Qarradu, Zaraqu, Ueras, Zagaga.

Ask the rector to lend you any good book on comparative religion; you will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest dignity – gods of civilized peoples – worshipped and believed in by millions. All were omnipotent, omniscient and immortal.

And all are dead.

The Boy in a Dress

Let me get this absolutely straight:

a) There is NO deterministic connection between human biological characteristics and the expression of self-identity in social contexts.

b) By this I mean: my biology and my dress are not foundationally connected. My sex organs and chromosomes do NOT determine what I can or cannot wear in terms of clothing.

c) Dress is a communicative channel, used as one aspect of personal identity ‘signalling’ found between individuals and the social-order at large.

d) The meaning of any communicative function (‘signal’) is in the person who encodes/transmits the message, and the persons who decodes/receives it — NOT in the message itself.

e) The normative aspects of dress and fashion are formed from tradition and the exigencies of culture (which in turn derive from the economic mode of society), NOT any biological process.

f) Culture, tradition, and the normative rules that develop within these domains, change as societies evolve.

What this all means, essentially, is that you can wear what the hell you like. You don’t have to wear trousers because you’re a boy, or a dress because you’re a girl. There is no ‘natural law’ that says so. This applies as much to children as to adults, and only the wishes of adults can determine what children are compelled to wear. Since these wishes are part of cultural inheritance, they change as society changes — hence any furore about a child wearing a dress at school is purely concened with the resistance of some adults to social change, and their angst over their OWN sense of identity in a dynamic world.

I hope this contributes to silencing some of the absolute reactionary DRIVEL I’ve seen written on the subject recently.

Just an opinion

People often say that they have a right to an opinion. This is correct. But you have no absolute right to express it, especially when there are considerations attached:

a) Is the opinion informed? Where is your evidence and from what source? Is your source credible? (e.g. it can’t simply be ‘everyone says so’ or ‘the Pope (substitute any religious personage or book) says so’, or ‘My friends say so’, or ‘I formed this group and now I’m an expert’…)

b) Why are you expressing an opinion? To cause hurt or harm? To correct an error? (see (a) above) To unload? To troll a conversation? Because you dislike the person speaking?

c) Does expressing an opinion add anything to the cause or issue that is being discussed?
d) Is your opinion rational? Or is it emotional? It isn’t a bad thing to express one’s emotions, but then be honest about it — don’t dress it up as if it were thought-through argument.

e) Are you clear about your terminology? For example, do the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ mean the same thing? Does everyone use the term your way? If not, you’ll end up talking at cross-purposes.

f) There is a difference between ‘an argument’ (noun, meaning a rational process of thought that forms a defensible position) and ‘arguing’ (verb, meaning to have a go at someone because you want to vent your anger)

g) Did you really read the question? I mean, did you understand what was said or just jump to a conclusion?

i) The meaning is in the person NOT in the words. Words can mean whatever the utterer wants (otherwise, such activities as poetry would be impossible).

I was taught by Mimosa Bunce, a Hobbit!

What a lot of people don’t know is that I was taught by a real, live Hobbit.

I truly mean it. No joke.

My tutor at college, Margaret Ann Bell, who died very recently, used to work for Oxford University Press in her youth. She met many famous authors. One of them was JRR Tolkien. She needed to top up her very meagre salary, so she offered to be Tolkien’s char-lady. She kept the Tolkien home clean, in her manner, and in his garden was a Mimosa bush. Margaret used to cut Mimosa for the house, and Tolkien (who I think was a bit sweet on her!) gave her the nickname Mimosa as a consequence.

Margaret’s maiden name at the time was Bunce. Tolkien said later that he would commemorate Margaret in a ‘book’ he was writing.

Now if you check out the list of Frodo and Bilbo’s relatives in Lord of the Rings, you’ll find a great aunt (?) of Frodo’s listed. She’s called Mimosa Bunce.

Hence, I was taught by a real Hobbit. Something I’m rather proud of.

(And no, she was quite tall and didn’t have hairy feet )

A Grain of Truth

It always amazes me how some transgender folk behave (as exemplified by their posts on Facebook, which I assume reflect their real-life character). You’d have thought that there’d be a little charity and understanding in their souls. I mean, being a member of a much-put-upon group, one might have thought that being at least tolerant was a default position. Yes, we all have our likes and dislikes. Yes we do come across a number of ‘unhappy’ folk within social media. But the active hate spewed by some of our own ‘kind’ is just beyond belief at times.

In particular, so-called ‘cross-dressers’ seem to get a lot of o flak for no other reason than some of the more exhibitionist fetishists amongst the group get a lot of undue focus. Well here’s a thought: don’t blacken everyone based on the behaviour of a small minority! And especially, differentiate between behaviour (what people do) as opposed to character (how people are). I’m constantly surprised how often these two get confused. I guess it’s lack of thought. It’s so easy to jump to conclusions, and much more satisfying than living with contingency. I know how it feels. Been there. Wore the T-shirt.

What’s more interesting is that the old joke ‘What’s the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual? Ans: Five years!’ has just a grain of truth. Many of us started off (in our youth perhaps) by favouring the term ‘pervy’ rather than ‘transgender’. After all, it’s less frightening. But eventually one has to wake up and smell the Chanel. Maybe it’s longer than five years, and damnably more hard work than it looks, but I think in most transperson’s past there is a hint of the things we now tend to look back on with amusement… or disdain, depending on our sense of equity.

On the other side of the fence there are the ‘holier than thou’ brigade. They spend every day being professional transfolk. They don’t seem to do anything else except fight a self-ordained war with the rest of the world whilst preaching about ‘privilege’ and looking for things to dislike. It never occurs to them to cut people a little slack; especially those around them who are getting terribly bored at their fractiousness.

Too many walls, not enough bridges. Too many inflexible rules and not enough human politesse. Too much knee-jerk spitefulness and not enough cautious care. Too much narrow thinking and not enough breadth of knowledge.

The Great Ransomeware Debacle

Or, How the NHS was screwed by free market policy

So here’s the issue: WHY was the NHS so easily attacked by the recent penetration by ransomeware? In order to answer that, let me describe another (relevant) scenario.

Suppose farmers only had ONE strain of potatoes. And suppose those potatoes were grown everywhere in large amounts. Then suppose a virulent strain of potato blight attacked the tatties. What happens? Well, epidemiology would predict that the blight cuts a swathe through the entire potato population, destroying whole crops. There is (at best) a great shortage of potatoes, or (at worst) mass starvation. Perhaps governments then investigate the problem, and decide to blame the farmers (“didn’t secure their crops adequately”) and the potatoes themselves (“too old… we need modern potatoes”). The public laps it all up, not realising that the true issue is staring them in the face: monocultures.

A monoculture has no genetic diversity built-in, and therefore is unable to resist infections, and is inherently ‘unhealthy’ due to its sensitivity to local conditions and the management of the growth environment.

Now let’s return to the computer world. We have an almost identical situation, where Microsoft’s operating systems dominate the world personal and administrative computer domain. This is a software monoculture, which is HIGHLY vulnerable to attack because of its very ubiquity. Since Microsoft is everywhere, sold to you with your computer, taught in schools, used at work, and in our public services, the chances of a single carefully-crafted worm or virus spreading throughout the connected world is very high indeed. It is the monoculture that is to blame for the recent panic-ridden events striking the NHS, not the machines or the people concerned.

Of course, our government will not come clean and say this. They’re so embroiled in the ideology of the free market that to blame Microsoft’s counter-productive business practices is almost beyond their thought. Instead, they advise ‘tightening security’ — which is a stop-gap that cannot defeat a continually evolving threat to the monoculture itself.

A friend recently said to me that “all computers, even Linux ones, are threatened” by viruses (etc.). This is true, but only up to a point. In fact, if you consider computer usage throughout the world it’s because of the very success of Microsoft’s marketing practices (not their software) that we’ve got a problem in the first place. And like junkies, we’re too ‘hooked’ on their systems to realise this. Our very lack of awareness of the political situation is causing the issue we wish to avoid.

There’s a solution: diversity. Don’t simply use what you’re given. Choose a Mac, or a Linux-based machine, or Android, or ChomeOS, or even a Microsoft machine… but for the Gods’ sake, don’t just use what’s given to you! Choose your computer operating system the same way you choose your wallpaper or carpets. Then learn how to use it. I am especially concerned that children (and adults) learn ‘computer’ skills, and not simple ‘Microsoft’ skills. We need to break this corporate monoculture in order to sustain a more secure data environment. This is a role for the education system. Instead of just tinkering around with security advice (like putting your finger in the hole in the dyke!), we need to solve the problem of security at a fundamental level.

And if anyone says to me “it takes time to learn something new” — can I say, didn’t you do just that when you learned to drive?

And if someone says to me “what about exchanging documents and data from one system to another, wont your much-vaunted diversity cause communication problems?” — can I say that we need international data format standards, not absolutely standardised operating systems.

On Democratisation

Bill Williamson is (of course) right that we need strategies to re-democratise our societies. These need to be practical approaches to organisation and participation. I have already stated (elsewhere) that my experience is that ‘flat’ highly-devolved organisations that can respond to local needs and set their own modes of working, are the most beneficial… but also the most efficient.

The trend towards hierarchical control has (contrary to popular belief) resulted in gross inefficiencies. This is because of the build-up of alienation, expressions of negative power, and distrust. Such elements mean that centralised control has to ever-increase its reach, threat measures, interventions, or micromanagement in order to gain a return on its efforts. This in turn leads to worsening connectivity within organisations, the collapse of productive communities of practice, and hence even more control in order to ‘put things right’.

That this doesn’t work should be plain to everyone by now, and the necessary adjustment fairly obvious: relinquish power by restructuring towards highly devolved systems. This isn’t anarchy. This is how complex systems work to their best advantage. One might say, they are a natural part of social behaviour.

The big issue is: convincing those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo that the evidence is clear cut. Tough to do, when they’d rather believe the legend than the truth.

Complex, but not Complicated

Some will know I have been (and am) highly critical of management practice within the FE sector. I’m sure some have said: “Well, of course, it’s easy for you moan Bea, but what would you DO about it?”

Contrary to popular belief, I certainly do have a diagnosis and remedial position in mind. Whether anyone is willing to take any of it on board is (necessarily) a matter of admitting there’s a problem to begin with. That’s a different question.

However, I will say that my position rests on complexity theory, and the assertion that large organisations (anything over 50 or so people) are dynamic systems that go through long periods of stasis, evolving into chaos, and then reasserting a new stasis within different parameters. This is referred to as the Punctuated Equilibrium Model (PEM). PEM is characteristic of human systems where a great number of unpredictable causes and effects are naturally in place. I would go as far as to say this is the nature of human society; we are (by our nature) dynamic and unpredictable.
As part of PEM, organisations (colleges, large AE bodies, national charities…) are complex adaptive systems (CAS). Recognising the natural evolution of such systems means that command-and-control processes have no long-term efficacy. In fact these (usually hierarchical, or pseudo-hierarchical) systems are inefficient, counter-productive, and in fact produce the exact opposite of that for which they are designed: innovative thinking and total-learning cultures. What they often produce is repetitive results, overly-pragmatic thinking, obsequiousness, and a structure-obsessed culture that develops such corrosive phenomena as alienation and negative power.

What is clear, and has been stated many times by those studying CAS, is that extremely flattened hierarchies with localised autonomy is the best way to produce innovative work. In addition, their should be no fear of internal conflict. Indeed, internal conflict is a necessary change-maker in dynamic systems, allowing a culture to grow and develop (and hence create communities of practice which have a life of their own).

Far too often large organisation resist conflict, try to iron it out of systems, and consequently kill the very goose that is laying golden eggs. If you want to judge an organisations dynamic health, ask yourself the question: To what extent is conflict welcomed, and is seen as beneficial to the overall sense of progressiveness? If there’s even the slightest hint of resistance (“peace at any cost”) then you’re in trouble. And remember: this needs a sense of honesty to gain a true evaluation.

If I was speaking to staff in organisations about their long-term future, I’d be saying: abandon your old thinking. Create a natural dynamism that is productive by using change as a normal state of affairs, and not something that is resisted. Make sure change is part of everyday work and welcomed at all levels. Do not obsess over the usual core-vs-periphery approach. Forget it. Trust people’s self-interest to make the best decisions for themselves. Look on all work as equally vital, and subject to chaotic processes, managed by encouraging local responsibility to create their own stasis out of chaotic human interrelations. In particular, allow very large amounts of control over learning systems and methodology to the student body itself. It’s fearful for those who see this as losing their status and power, but ultimately works (as I have found).
A very simple example: Instead of promoting a one-size-fits-all templated lesson planning system, abandon this altogether. Instead, provide a vast array of possible examples of lesson planning and encourage all staff to produce even more. This creates a natural ‘chaos’ out of which comes a culture responsiveness to change by using tools that work for individuals at the ‘chalk face’. In fact, this professionalises staff, as they are empowered to make their own decisions, rather than rely of others to establish a (stultifying) norm.

Complexity theory. It works. You know it makes sense. Or am I talking to myself?

Nothing much has changed

When I was a little kid I often thought a lot. Probably this was not a good idea for a 13-year-old, but what-the-hell… I remember standing in the school yard one break time and thinking to myself: “Is this all there is? Grow up, marry, job, mortgage, 2 children, retirement, and death?” Is there nothing else?”

Now you know why I’m ‘here’.

These days I still think: “Is this all there is? What about when I’m 70? or 80? or 100? I’d like to be a centenarian. Just to see what happens next…”

Nothing much has changed.

The Mote in God’s Eye

Though Stephen Hawking has warned about it, I was somewhat sceptical about the likely occurrence of ‘The Singularity’. I’ve changed my mind. It’s not that I’m concerned about the potential development of global AI. In fact, I think (now) that it’s inevitable this will happen, out of sheer accident if not deliberation. But it will shatter our view of ourselves, and possibly lead to our redundancy — not (ironically!) because we lose control, but simply because we are likely to be subsumed by it.

I don’t forecast an AI like Skynet, or The Forbin Machine, or anything similar. No ghosts-in-the-machine will arise. No missiles launched. No war with the computers. Because the Singularity will not inhabit a particular machine. There will be no core (and no ‘off switch’).The Singularity will be everywhere. In every single object that is connected to ‘Internet 2’. In our radios, our door-bells, our hearing-aids, our pacemakers, our cars, our clocks, our clothes and our every facility. It will be like our money: invisible and yet all-powerful. We will never stop being its master; but will also (simultaneously) be its slave — in the same way we both need and don’t need our cars, electricity, phones, etc. We will hate and love our world. The Singularity will inhabit the Logosphere (“the sum-total of ideas, concepts and facts that inhabit the collective texts — digital, printed, handwritten, carved or otherwise — of the human race.”). It will be self-replicating, infinitely developing, hardware agnostic, and ever mystifying to us. Is it self-aware? That will be a redundant question, since how will we know the difference when AI acts as if it were, and is indistinguishable from other intelligences? The Turing Test will be passed, but add nothing to our knowledge of what ‘self-awareness’ actually means.

So we will create the final challenge to the human race. Not a rampaging tyrant, but an aspect of ourselves. An avatar, that will surpass and outdo us without us really being aware. It will be the final mote in God’s eye — a creation out of creation, and an end to creation itself.