All posts for the month February, 2009

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (X)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien ()
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (/)
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling ()
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (X)
6 The Bible – (/)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (/)
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell (X)
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman ()
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (/)
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott (/)
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (X)
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller ( X)
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (/)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier ()
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien ()
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk (X)
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger (X)
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger ()
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot (/)
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell ()
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald ()
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens (/)
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy ( X)
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (X)
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh (/)
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (X)
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (X)
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (X)
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (X)
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (X)
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens (X)
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis ()
34 Emma – Jane Austen ()
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen (/)
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis (X)
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini ( X)
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres (/)
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden ()
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne (X)
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell (X)
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown ()
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez ()
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving ()
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins ()
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery ()
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (X)
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood ()
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding ()
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan (X)
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel (X)
52 Dune – Frank Herbert ()
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons ()
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (X)
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth ( X)
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon ( )
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (X)
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (X)
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon (/)
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez ()
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (X)
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (X)
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt (X)
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold ( )
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (/ )
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac (X)
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy ()
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding ( )
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (X)
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville (X )
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens (X)
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker ()
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett ()
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson ( X)
75 Ulysses – James Joyce (X)
76 The Inferno – Dante ( /)
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (/)
78 Germinal – Emile Zola ( )
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray ( )
80 Possession – AS Byatt ()
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (X)
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell ()
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker (/)
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro (X )
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert ( /)
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry ( )
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White ()
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom ()
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ()
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton ( )
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (X)
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery ()
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks ()
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams ()
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole ()
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute (X )
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas ( X)
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare (X)
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl ()
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo (/)

(X) = 40 actually read at some time
(/) = others part read / familiar with multiple dramatizatons & commentaries / have copies / may yet read
(..) = Several positively avoided on the strength of popular popularity ;-)

Thanks to Sam at Elizphanian.

Slavoj Zizek writing in 2001 in The Cabinet.

The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.

Thanks to Chris Locke at Mystic Bourgeoisie and his Cluetrain Manifesto “Now there are 50 million bloggers, easy. They still can’t read, but they can type.”

I have this “he doth protest too much” relationship with Chris. I caught the Cluetrain zetitgeist before Chris went anti-mystic. Like clearly he’s right that recognising any value in the mystic could be a slippery slope to new-age twaddle to be avoided and defended against. I shall consider myself chastened on that score. But I do read plenty – even too much.

With so much gloal activity dependent on appearances, the appearance of sanity may be a poor substitute for the real thing, but conversely how in fact do we recognize real sanity / insanity when we experience it ? I shall have to digest the Zizek piece, but it seems fair to recognize and question the apparent insanity in western globalization and the reasons why “Eurotaoismus” (Peter Sloterdijk) is seen as providing a valuable counter-balance. All things in moderation, even reading.

I see that Ant’s second Pirsig documentary installment “On the Road With Robert Pirsig” gets an airing tonight at a reading of ZMM in the Twin Cities, where a couple of local bloggers also picked this up.

A little biographical detail is that the event at the Sean Muda Studio is in the same “Roberts Shoes” building as the flophouse on Chicago and Lake where Pirsig escaped the family home whilst writing the major part of ZMM.

Interesting little blog from Lloyd Budd … associated with AutoMattic / WordPress.

Initially drawn by the Learning by Doing Something Else post, but then couldn’t resist the Starting New Year’s Resolution in February post and the reference to “reading in bars”. Story of my life.

While the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown.
(Re – previous opensource post).

Why am I reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (Edward Gibbon 1776, D  M Low 1960 abridgement, 910 page , 1974 edition by Chatto & Windus) ?

I picked it up from my father’s book-case a couple of years ago because the Neil Hannon / Divine Comedy lyric “Gibbon’s divine decline and fall” from the Noel Coward inspired “I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party” jumped into my head every time I walked passed it on visits to the old home – the cut-glass diction over the tinkling ivories with a stonking dance beat imposing itself - unforgettable.

There is plenty written about the book and its many abridgements – Wikipedia is as good a place to start as any, and the list of “emperors” and Roman timeline  help too. There are also plenty of on-line copies of the full text . The book is credited (no doubt from a very British perspective) with being the first real modern written history, with clear objectivity in quoting sources, as well as clear rhetoric in interpretation, doubt and speculation too. It says at least as much about 1770′s imperial England as it does about “Rome” from 27BC to 1453AD – yes that’s right the 15th Century ! The prose is truly wonderful though, even if many historical errors and speculations have been “corrected” by later scolars and sources.

I’ve read up to page 143 (of 910) so far, the first page of Chapter 15, “The Rise of Christianity”, which Gibbon famously associates with the decline of civilization (as we might have known it) from about 300 AD onwards, though he goes back to cover the old-testament historical perspective to set his scene.

A candid but rational iquiry into the progress and establishment of Christianity may be considered as a very essential part of the history of the Roman empire. While that great body was invaded by open violence, or undermined by slow decay, a pure and humble religion insinuated itself into the minds of men, grew up in silence and obscurity, derived new vigour from opposition, and finally erected the triumphant banner of the cross on the ruins of the Capitol.

[My emphasis - 18th century memetics ... "itself" note, men's minds are simply the medium]. Anyway, the reason I paused to blog about Gibbon was this wonderful passage at the end of Chapter 13 where he is really bemoaning that the rot of the decline has irreversibly set in on all sides, not just in the corruption of power and politics, but in learning, architecture and the arts, and in …. philosophy.

The declining age of learning and of mankind is marked, however, by the rise and rapid progress of the new Platonists. The school of Alexandria silenced those of Athens; and the ancient sects enrolled themselves under the banners of the more fashionable teachers, who recommended their system by the novelty of their method, and the austerity of their manners. Several of these masters, Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius, and Porphyry, were men of profound thought and intense application; but by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labors contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral, natural, and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Platonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle with Plato, on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind. Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy. They flattered themselves that they possessed the secret of disengaging the soul from its corporal prison; claimed a familiar intercourse with demons and spirits; and, by a very singular revolution, converted the study of philosophy into that of magic. The ancient sages had derided the popular superstition; after disguising its extravagance by the thin pretence of allegory, the disciples of Plotinus and Porphyry became its most zealous defenders. As they agreed with the Christians in a few mysterious points of faith, they attacked the remainder of their theological system with all the fury of civil war. The new Platonists would scarcely deserve a place in the history of science, but in that of the church the mention of them will very frequently occur.

[My emphases again]. Divine.

A main thread of my work is that what passes for sense, knowledge and rationality in communication and decision-making with any “what should we do” qualitative, ethical or moral element, is essentially memetic. A western meme that dominates western society and western dominated worlds; a meme that focusses on quantifiable values and discrete objects  than can be compared objectively; memetic because it is such a simple idea that is easy to communicate, understand and apply in Western culture, independent of any inherent value as the basis for the “should” decisions and their outcomes. This is “my agenda”.

Let’s look at one specific meme, not because it illustrates the western objectivity meme particularly, but because it illustrates the basic memetic mechanism. Its relation to the meme in my agenda will become apparent.

ECT (or EST as in Electro-Convulsive / Shock Therapy / Treatment) is a bad thing. The ECT meme, probably so widely held that it prejudices any and all specific decisions concerning ECT ?

99.99% of us have not only no direct (first or even close second hand) experience of ECT, we probably have not seen or heard any reports on specific cases, from either the patient or practitioner perspectives, or any material specifically on the subject, educational or otherwise. Anything we know about ECT is probably from exposure to literary and media dramatizations and media discussion of these.

Ken Kesey’s book, the Milos Foreman film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has a lasting dramatic impression of the process of administering involuntary ECT, though ironically without any discernable after effects on the patient, good or bad. Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” has one key passage describing starkly the technicalities and effects of the involuntary ECT, and the greater part of the book is about the ultimately positive changes in the patient’s psyche. “The Changeling” apparently depicts ECT in a bad light, but I have no direct experience of this film.

Some aspects of the impression of ECT we get from these dramatizations probably fit consonantly well with existing general pre-conceptions such as : Involuntary treatments of any kind and any treatments that cause distress and pain, are generally a bad thing, probably reserved for exceptional, justified and controlled cases. 

An aspect we cannot anchor our impression to, is any real prior knowledge of the psychiatric conditions for which practitioners might prescribe ECT nor the actual effects intended and side-effects expected. For these aspects 99.99% of us have little more to go on than the dramatic source materials and our imagination.

But, for both aspects we have these very few specific cases of dramatized (therefore factually inaccurate in detail) experience from which we draw our most generalized and probably false impression of ECT. And furthermore, this is true independent of the particular agendas or purposes of the persons creating the original dramatizations.

In this day and age we can (if we see this as a sufficiently interesting issue, amongst the multitude of competing interests) put ECT into Google and/or Wikipedia, and see what we can learn. We must bear in mind when we do this, that these are themselves democratically weighted, memetic sources of information, unbalanced in line with the general public perception, unless we spend significant effort filtering for “authoritative” sources.

We should not be surprised that general knowledge of a specific narrow interest subject like ECT is wildly misinformed.  (Which is not to say that ECT is not a bad thing, just that any public impression of it being a bad thing is guaranteed to be misinformed).

Who cares ? Does it matter ? The $64,000 question is whether the general false impression can and should be corrected and if so, specifically how and by whom ? Here of course the agendas and actions of those involved in the specific dramatic sources and those with interest in the specific practices of ECT matter greatly.

 “That ECT is bad, is a false and simplistic impression that could and should be corrected” is simple enough.

 “That ECT is bad, is a false and simplistic impression that could and should be corrected by those who created the false impression.” is however itself a simplistication, necessarily complicated by the need to take into account the memetic process, as well the actions and intentions of the identifiable individuals.

My agenda; Pirsig’s agenda in particular, is that the simplistication of reducing the problem statement to terms of the objects and subjects causally involved is the greater problem in need of correction. Greater in subject areas much wider than the ECT meme, and the interests of potential ECT patients, practitioners and public affected by decisions about those specifically. So wide in fact that all decision-making and governance in society and its institutions is at risk from the objectification meme.

This provides a wonderful opportunity to both test that general thinking and correct a specific misinformation.

Gibson Burrell & Gareth Morgan’s  “Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis” was one of the textbooks  during my masters degree back in 1988 / 91. It was one that I actually read and used significant parts of in my thesis but, as with Peters & Waterman’s “In Search of Excellence”, I didn’t pick-up the references to Pirsig at the time.

(Aside – Organizational Behaviour, the human social behavioural aspects of the management of organizations, became my main subject inspired by the quality of the women in the faculty – Sandra Dawson, Dot Griffiths and Karen Legge – hence my readings of Burrell & Morgan, Quinn & Cameron, Argyris & Schon and more. Karen provided very encouraging feedback on my earliest essays before she left for Lancaster, Dot was my personal tutor throughout the course, later becoming deputy principal and dean of the college, Sandra became my final year thesis research and dissertation supervisor, before moving on to become Dame Sandra Dawson director of Judge Business School, master of Sidney Sussex college, and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.)

Anyway, I find Burrell & Morgan refer to Pirsig under Alternative Realities  in the “Anti-Organization Theory” paradigm, immediately following the “Radical Humanist Paradigm”. They say of Pirsig:

[Carlos Castaneda in "The Teachings of Don Juan" (1970)]  attempts to investigate and understand the world of a Yaqui [Mexican / Arizonan] Indian sorcerer or “man of knowledge”. [He] neatly counterposes alternative  realities and illustrates the impossibility of embracing “non-ordinary” modes within the logic of the scientific ethos which dominates Western culture.

In Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974) similar themes are presented, but they are explored in a radically different way. Whereas in Castaneda’s work the focus is upon the difference in worldview of a Yaqui Indian and a Californian anthropology student trying to get his PhD, in Pirsig’s novel it is upon the struggle between the competing worldviews which exist within the central character’s own psyche. Pirsig describes the way in which “romantic” and “classical” forms of understanding compete for dominance in the protagonist’s attempt to negotiate and define everyday “reality”. Whilst apparently remote in its implications for an academic anti-organization theory, Robert Pirsig’s work, like that of Carlos Castaneda, Theodore Roszak, Charles Reich, Ivan Illich, David Dickson and many others who have addressed similar themes, provides good illustrations of the essential concerns of radical humanist ethos. The struggle is between competing realities and the means by which they can be achieved. The conflict, crudely put, is between the commonly accepted and all too real dominant reality of the functionalist paradigm, and the vision of the radical humanist paradigm.

The bold italic emphasis is mine. Apart from the naming of Burrell & Morgan’s paradigm as “anti-organization”, I would say that’s a pretty good summary – perhaps alternative or post-modern organization is better. Why did I not notice this at the time ? Interesting that in comparing Pirsig with Castaneda, no thought is given to the rhetorical nature of their works, the former being more real than the latter, whose work was largely discredited as almost entirely imaginary synthesis.

Finished Thoreau’s Walden, reading it mainly to and from work on the bus. (I mentioned earlier the coincidence that it was the subject of BBC’s “In Our Time” recently too, just as I had unpacked the book from our recent relocation onto the bed-side cabinet – so a comprehensive re-read was in order.)

A little book that has caused a lot to be written, so I guess any summary of mine I can’t add much. Also a significant amount of inconsistency in the (idyllic) naive and (worldly) wise “lifestyle” advice, so hard to pick out individual points that stand up by themsleves. The message really is know thyself, know the world. A balance of society and solitude, private and social food preparation and eating. As I blogged earlier, a balance of reading the great books, and not reading too much. A balance of immersion in local detail and experience of the foreign; better to travel “for & with” your experiences en-route than to arrive via a “conduit”, etc …

One of my pet subjects the etymology of words with l/f/b/v genes in their roots. Thoreau has a wonderful passage originating from watching frozen ground melting in the spring and pushing forward tiny rivulets of sand to create new structures – which turns into a metaphor for patterns of (designs for) life of all kinds at all levels (physical, biological & mental) and at all scales (from the granularity of individual grains, leaves & thoughts to entire continents, cosmologies & cultures). Taking in the play between the fluid construction of “thaw” and the destructive force of “Thor”, it is a long real and playful etymological, phoenetic and metaphorical – whole world in a grain of sand – riff on leaf / lobe / love / lip / labia / live and many more. Wonderul. Something I may come back to and join up with the r/t/a (arts & crafts) riff from Pirsig … aha, the “rites” of spring.

The focus of this post is this …

The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of their residual statement. Their truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense  The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring. Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit.

While England endeavours to cure the potato-rot, will not endeavour to cure the brain-rot, which prevails so much more widely and fatally ?

[The emphasis on translated is Thoreau's.]

The middle paragraph put me in mind of the Dostoevsky “talking nonsense” passage, but of course this is a statement of the ephemeral nature of objects and the words we presume to define them. That final sentence is a statement of my psyberton agenda … the need for an intellectual revolution.

Ongoing – Lots of eastern references throughout; quotes from the Vedas and the like. Clearly I need to go one step further back in US Pragmatism to Emerson, for whom Thoreau worked for a time. And where is the cross-link with Northrop – he makes three references to Emerson in “The Meeting of East and West” – the final one “… as the Americans Emerson and Thoreau have seen …”; the only indexed reference to Thoreau ?

Reading Thoreau’s “Walden” pretty thoroughly this time around, should be capturing more notes that I am noting mentally, and this is one.

In his chapter entitled “Reading” Thoreau extols the virtues of reading the wisdom of the real classics, widely and in the original (original dead languages) where possible, but balances this with the warning not to let reading replace maximum experience of real life, as you’d expect from one of the founding fathers of US-Pragmatism.

Ironic that the Great Books movement of Chicao University (Adler / Mckeon) should be responsible for rejecting the pragmatism of Dewey, and turning posession of their published collections into a Brittanica-style negative sell. Something no self-respecting family should deprive their kids of. One wonders how many of those editions were read, and read in any way that the educational value of their sources was understood as originally intended ?


Is a line from the wonderfully ironic “The Devil Wears Prada” a film I saw for about the 3rd or 4th time yesterday … just killing time … one of those films that always seems to be showing on some TV channel. I don’t know anything about the original writing behind it, and there is plenty of Hollywood cheese to disguise just how many levels of irony there are within it. The clue is that the subject matter of fashion journalism is about as thin a veneer for real business value as you could conceive … there is a magnificent lecture on the trickle-down from those whose opinions of this stuff matter.

The line “everybody wants to get ahead” is a pretty simple statement of the received wisdom of the Darwinian struggle and the measure of progress … it’s a jungle out there, it’s an arms race, it’s a war on anything you care to mention … just add you own cliche.

The reason the value of the irony struck me was that I had just written a longish post on the “Zeitgeist – Addendum”, in response to gav on MoQ.Discuss. As usual, I have to distance myself from any idea of an “international bankers conspiracy theory” take on why the economic struggle, and its global political consequences are perverse in terms of real human interests. But I have to say the film, despite its rhetoric, is pretty good at identifying alternative models of real value … and the real solution; education, education, education. (The real conspiracy is the objectivist meme, easy value in countable things, about which I’ve said more than enough.)

Of course one reason why this is more and more scary to more and more people, is the mass and pace of global communication. The reality is more apparent to more people, and the pace at which bad decisions can lead to new conflicts, means that urgency is part of the concern. Doomsday scenarios are ever easier to envisage.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having time to acquire any new value for each other. … We have had to agree on a certain set of rules called etiquette and politeness to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war. … we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and … we lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.

Henry David Thoreau, “Walden” (1847)

Thoreau wrote that at a time when he considered the number of penny posts worth a penny that he had ever received, he could count on one hand, and that the recently invented telegraph and shared timekeeping, had no future value beyond the novelty of intercity rail travel. Little did he know. He did know that it was more valuable to build a school or a library than a new bridge.

“Everybody wants to get ahead” is a culturally conditioned meme. What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding ?

Saw Rodney Crowell at the JD in Oslo last night. It was packed-out. Didn’t know anything about him beforehand, but I’d noticed he was supported and backed by Will Kimbrough and Jenny Scheinman. I saw Will just the once before at Norm’s (Cumberland) River Road House just outside Nashville, playing with Tommy Womack. Folks in North Alabama / Tennessee who knew I was a fan of Tommy were forever pointing out his association with Will and with Todd Snider. Loved all three of  ‘em.  Coincidentally, during the first set Will actually mentioned playing with Todd previously at the same Oslo venue.

Both the first Will & Jenny set and the main Rodney, Jenny & Will set were entirey accoustic except for a little keyboard fill – excellent country folk guitar and fiddle with some great poetry.

Great to hear Will do his “Hill Country Girl” again – it stuck in my mind on the only previous occasion. Houston boy Rodney Crowell did really impress too; I’m going to have to listen to more of his stuff – “Sex & Gasoline”, despite the highlight of the evening being when Jenny brought the house down with a solo fiddle virtuoso piece.

It’s a rare treat when an unexpected gig turns out that good.

Sign of the economic times that this is is happening I guess, and an industry in which I have a long personal involvement, not just in the UK, but I thought this comment was an interesting statement of the root problem in globalization.

Where is the humanity in ruining someone’s local environment by building a massive industrial refinery and then bringing in people from around the world to work there?