Sunday, August 30, 2009


Jack Aubrey: Mr. Babbington, be so good as to cast the log.

Babbington: Aye, aye, sir. Cast the log it is, sir.

Aubrey: Oh, and Mr. Babbington?

Babbington: Sir?

Aubrey: You might do well to use the very long line…

Friday, August 28, 2009

Patrick O'Brian - the greatest historical novelist of all time

Who would you say is the greatest historical novelist of all time? Novels have not been around that long: a thousand years or so if you think of the Tale of Genji, more if you include sagas and traditional tales like Homer’s Illiad. But the title is still enormous, considering the great flowering of literature in the last thousand years. The title was given by The Times to Patrick O’Brian.
Who the heck is Patrick O’Brian you say? And until 4 years ago I would have said the same thing. I have now read what insiders call the ‘Aubrey-Maturin series’ of 20 books four times. I am just starting the fifth time. (That is why I was glad to learn that there are two English translations of The Tale of Genji – if I wish I can at least re-read it with a different translation and a different nuance).

Patrick O’Brian’s serial masterpiece is set in the heyday of the age of fighting sail in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Britain is fighting a war for her survival against Napoleon’s France and foremost in the struggle is the Royal Navy of the period. The heroes are Jack Aubrey, whose career we follow from lieutenant to master and commander to frigate captain and finally to admiral, and his ‘particular friend’ Doctor Stephen Maturin, physician, naturalist, and spy, who sails with him on most of his adventures.
Now, this is a subject (naval life) and a period (Napoleonic) that I did not feel particularly attracted to. But I am here to tell you that such is O’Brian’s genius that I could not put the books down until I had read the whole series, which took me about 5 months, a book a week. And even more, when I had finished, it wasn’t long before I felt withdrawal symptoms. More on this later.
What is O’Brian’s magic?

These novels are neither Forester nor Marryat, though O’Brian pays the respect due to both. There is adventure and there are battles. The historic furniture and vernacular you can trust absolutely because O’Brian is so steeped in his period but there is also something of his heroine, Jane Austen. He writes with her irony, humour and moral toughness, almost as she might have written of the adventures of her naval brothers. Above all, they are accessible novels, so well written that you settle into each as into a warm bath, knowing you are in good, considerate hands. In evoking so vividly what it was like to be alive then, O’Brian shows by reflection elements of what it is to be alive now, and of how we should live. He achieves that simultaneous dislocation and bridging that is the essence of all imaginative art, and is what distinguishes it from everything else.
From Alan Judd’s review ‘The Winning Post at Last’

From the first opening paragraphs of the first book, you know you are in the hands of a master. The themes are immediately evident: you know there will be authenticity and scholarship, elegance and adventure. You know there will be honour, duty, courage, and friendship. But what strikes you as the guiding light of these themes is O’Brian’s projection of the humanity of his characters in the way he uses humour. Humour is never far away, even in the midst of battle. Never a sarcastic, cynical, negative humour. Always the delightful humour of the portrayal of the characters’ sense of what is right and what is wrong, for the morality of the time. The very fact that they care what is right and what is wrong is endearing and nostalgic to us today, in our age of ‘my way or the highway,’ instant gratification, moral and philosophical poverty.

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s initial meeting almost leads to a duel and the death of one of them. They are attending a musical evening and happen to be seated together. At the end of the first movement Jack turns to his neighbour with a smile:

The words ‘Very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not a half beat ahead’.
Jack Aubrey’s face instantly changed from friendly ingenuous communicative pleasure to an expression of somewhat baffled hostility: he could not but acknowledge he had been beating the time; and although he had certainly done so with perfect accuracy, in itself the thing was wrong. His colour mounted, he fixed his neighbour’s pale eye for a moment, said, ‘I trust…’, and the opening notes of the slow movement cut him short.

We are in the hands of a master but the scholarship and the authenticity never intrude, are always subordinated to the background. The flow of the action and the richness of the characters are ever in the forefront of our mind. We are in the hands of a master but the narrator never intrudes, never do we see his craft - oh here is a bit of character description, oh here we are setting up some tension with an antagonist, oh here is a bit of scholarly research. The narrator is forgotten, as if we are listening to an old, old friend, wise and true, knowledgeable and discerning, in whose presence we relax completely.

As we get to know the characters and life aboard ship, we settle into the surroundings and escape into this other world. That is the only way to describe the feeling, as insiders will agree. The captain’s cabin of HMS Surprise is for us almost a second home, a refuge that we can find when our real home becomes too wearing on the spirit.
It is a world closer to nature, before the industrial devolution. Ships were built by hand of wood and cordage and they were managed by hand and eye, always in a spirit of humility with regard to wind and tide. Great practical skill and knowledge of the sea and the weather were essential. The enemy could always be seen, was never anonymous, and had no great technological advantage. Skill, courage, and fortitude decided the day. And honour. Prisoners were taken and released on parole that they would not take part in the war again until exchanged with the enemies’ prisoners. They were not tortured. A man’s word of honour was everything, and so such practices were possible.

We see, indeed we almost participate in, the great friendship that develops between the main characters, a friendship based on shared hardships and dangers. They would risk their lives for each other and sometimes do. This feeling of comradeship is absent in my life at least, I don’t know about yours, and is another reason why I find a refuge in this old world, in their company.

I hope I have given you a taste of the books. There is such a wealth of beauty and delight to discover in them. I can only warn you of one thing: like all good things, they come to an end.

Image: cover of the second book of the series, a painting by Geoff Hunt

Monday, August 17, 2009

'Sir Nigel'

In The White Company I told you how much I liked Conan Doyle’s wonderful little tale of chivalry set during the wars between England and France in the fourteenth century. I am now reading Sir Nigel which is set slightly earlier and tells us the story of the knight of that name who we met in 'The White Company'.
Conan Doyle, like that great historical writer Patrick O’Brian, is thoroughly steeped in his period and brings vividly to life the notions and morals of those distant times. I thought I would share one such insight with you because it has to do with the notion of the gentleman, which is a popular theme on this blog.
The young Nigel, not yet a knight - a mere squire – yet of noble birth and brought up in the old ways, is travelling to the wars with Aylward, a longbowman and Nigel’s own squire.

That night they slept in a sordid inn, overrun with rats and with fleas, one mile south of the hamlet of Mayfield. Aylward scratched vigorously and cursed with fervour. Nigel lay without movement or sound. To the man who had learned the old rule of chivalry there were no small ills in life. It was beneath the dignity of his soul to stoop to observe them. Cold and heat, hunger and thirst, such things did not exist for the gentleman. The armour of his soul was so complete that it was proof not only against the great ills of life but even against the small ones; so the flea-bitten Nigel lay grimly still while Aylward writhed upon his couch.

Conan Doyle does not expand upon the subject more than that. It is for those who are receptive to take note. How the insight rings true. How petty are most of our discomforts and complaints, and how we undermine the nobility of our spirits by dwelling on them.
Is this not a characteristic of the gentleman that he accepts hardships without complaint, that he accepts what he finds and adapts himself readily to it? His mind is focused on what is required of him as a gentleman, that is, what he must do for honour and for right and for those weaker than himself. And for these reasons he is a natural born leader and is considered of a finer essence by those who can only complain or dwell on petty things.

It is to be regretted if a party of people are together for a whole day without their conversation touching on what is right and wrong and if they take pleasure merely in shallow talk. Confucius

There is no such thing as being a gentleman at important moments; it is at unimportant moments that a man is a gentleman. At important moments he ought to be something better. G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bailout Bubble

In my last post Amy Luft’s question on Answers I said ‘the lack of morality in the financial system has brought us to the brink of disaster.’ I was speaking from the generally accepted viewpoint that the worst of the credit crisis is over. But perhaps the worst is still to come.

My view of the present financial crisis, as conceived by my being a regular reader of certain financial sites, compelled me to move from equities to cash in my retirement plan many weeks ago (since the TSX reached 10,200 and the Dow 9,000). So I was already very sceptical about the strong recovery priced into the market at this level and expected a pullback. But the last few days (just as the mainstream media is getting lathered up about ‘the end of the recession’) I have come across some articles that frankly give me the willies.

First there was this post at Danielle Park's Juggling Dynamite, Risk aversion is back on :

At present levels, the S&P 500 is pricing in a significant earnings rebound for 2010 and emerging markets have been pricing a hearty resumption of western consumption. Both of these assumptions are seriously in doubt.
Today the Singapore Minister of Trade and Industry threw a blanket again on resurgent decoupling hopes, saying there were "few signs of a decisive turnaround in final demand in Singapore's key export markets." (…)
This time, thanks to the massive credit overhang, rate cuts alone are not able to revive the housing sector. Without the housing catalyst to kick-start and lever renewed consumption, growth has a massive headwind.

Danielle includes a clip, ‘Housing Mess is not over’, which gives a sobering update on US housing.

Then it was Marketwatch’s Paul B. Farrell and his article New bull, new bubble, new meltdown by 2012.

Yes, folks, a new bubble cycle is already in motion. You can feel the energy building, the kind that fuelled the meltdowns of 1998, 2000 and 2007. We never resolved the problems fuelling the dot-com insanity. We made matters worse feeding the subprime credit-derivatives disaster with cheap money, Reaganomics ideology and two costly wars. Lessons were never learned, nothing was resolved. Today matters continue deteriorating.
Behind the hoopla, the Wall Street conspiracy has dumped $23.7 trillion new bailout debt on taxpayers. The bill will come due.

What we are seeing is a new market bubble in the making fuelled by bailout-money. Instead of lending, banks are putting the money into the stock market. (I read that 75% of trades since the March low have come from the desks of Goldman Sachs). When this bubble bursts, it will be ugly.

Expect a major house-cleaning, a second American Revolution. We predicted the "Great Depression 2" around 2012. Well, we doubt taxpayers will passively sit one more time, like in the 1930s, in 2000, and the past few years. Next time voters will take a page from the history books about past revolutions in the American Colonies, France and Russia. A perfect storm will erupt in a massive global credit meltdown, bringing down Wall Street and the clandestine $670 trillion shadow central banking system.

But the article that really gave me the willies was this one from Global Research, Entering the greatest depression in history, by Andrew Gavin Marshall.

While there is much talk of a recovery on the horizon, commentators are forgetting some crucial aspects of the financial crisis. The crisis is not simply composed of one bubble, the housing real estate bubble, which has already burst. The crisis has many bubbles, all of which dwarf the housing bubble burst of 2008. Indicators show that the next possible burst is the commercial real estate bubble. However, the main event on the horizon is the “bailout bubble” and the general world debt bubble, which will plunge the world into a Great Depression the likes of which have never before been seen.

Marshall ties together many threads and introduces us to Gerald Celente, head of the Trends Research Institute, the major trend-forecasting agency in the world.

Celente’s forecasts are not to be taken lightly, as he accurately predicted the 1987 stock market crash, the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1998 Russian economic collapse, the 1997 East Asian economic crisis, the 2000 Dot-Com bubble burst, the 2001 recession, the start of a recession in 2007 and the housing market collapse of 2008, among other things.

And what is Gerald Celente predicting will happen in the present financial/economic/moral crisis?

Phantom dollars, printed out of thin air, backed by nothing ... and producing next to nothing ... defines the ‘Bailout Bubble.’ Just as with the other bubbles, so too will this one burst. But unlike Dot-com and Real Estate, when the "Bailout Bubble" pops, neither the President nor the Federal Reserve will have the fiscal fixes or monetary policies available to inflate another.

And just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Guess what? It gets worse:

Given the pattern of governments to parlay egregious failures into mega-failures, the classic trend they follow, when all else fails, is to take their nation to war... While we cannot pinpoint precisely when the 'Bailout Bubble' will burst, we are certain it will. When it does, it should be understood that a major war could follow.

You can watch a video of Gerald Celente embedded in the above article, and at the end of the video there is a selection of related videos.

I know all this has very little to do with my blog about Healing Philosophy, but I felt I had to share it with you since we are facing very challenging times and the more we can all be forewarned the better chance we have of getting through it.

And then again, perhaps it has a lot to do with philosophy and, eventually, healing.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Amy Luft's Question on 'Answers'

Amy Luft is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. She has worked for such organizations as The Associated Press, The Gazette, CTV and Reader’s Digest Canada. This time she has a question for Answers.

What would it take to make people under 30 more interested in serious news issues than in celebrity gossip?

The answer to this question is tied up with the fact that we live in a consumer-driven society rather than a morals-driven society.
Money and politics are the driving forces of society, rather than spiritual, moral values.
The media, especially television, are the expression of these driving forces, perpetuating the status quo of the consumer mentality.
Spirituality and morality have no multi-national companies financing their advertising campaigns.
We do our best to raise our children with moral values, but are we qualified? Do we have the knowledge, the time and the skill? Do we even know the basics about philosophy?
And don't expect our schools to take up the slack. Schools teach many things but they don't teach how to live a moral life.
The lack of morality in the financial system has brought us to the brink of disaster.
The one good thing about the credit crisis is it has placed the spotlight on moral risk and moral hazard.
Perhaps in hindsight it will be considered a turning point, the point when we began to see the need for a morals-driven society.

Experience teaches only the teachable.
It takes wisdom to understand wisdom.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Medicated Cartoon Life, by the Bitter Animator

Browsing regular reader Susan’s links on her blog If you’re going through hell, keep going, I discovered My medicated cartoon life.
The author describes his blog as ‘The ramblings of a bitter animator, living and dealing with depression on Planet Doom.’ This and the cartoon self-portraits immediately let you know you are in the space of a talented artist who obviously has not let depression take away his creativity or his sense of humour.
Further exploration confirms this impression. The bitter animator, a creative director of animation, gives us eloquent and humorous insights into his profession, his life and ultimately our life, illustrated by some of the best and funniest cartoons I have ever seen. Here is an example A project begins:

Things actually start off a little slow. For that first minute or so. But then the true volume of what needs to be done becomes apparent.
It's like an old-fashioned tale of heroes. Like Conan the Barbarian in that film, Conan the Barbarian.
You have people who will help. Assist. Contribute positively. The little magician guy, the thief and the sexy warrior lady.
And then you have some people who live to do everything they can to get in the way. To destroy a project. They are the villains of the piece. James Earl Jones and his henchmen.
And sometimes the odds seem insurmountable.
You may even lose a comrade in the journey.
But unless you take down James Earl Jones in his giant snake form, that project will be absolute cack when it makes it to air. If indeed it ever makes it to air.
A little overdramatic? Yeah. Yes, it is. But, as anyone at the higher end of a production will know, it's not far from the truth. We make the most gentle, silly shows about lovely things happening to lovely characters. And, in doing so, we're forced to become warriors.
I hope I'm the little magician guy. He's the one who lives to tell the tale.

As you can tell, the bitter animator has a heart of gold and a brave one and the skill to tell his journey with compassion and humour. In the same way as he draws a metaphor with Conan, we can all relate to his situation. The superficial visible details are different but the invisible spiritual forces are the same.

The search for meaning is never far from the bitter animator’s thoughts and the reader is rewarded often with little gems of art and insight. My favourite (so far) is this one, What I saw, which I feel beautifully captures one of those Zen moments we have in everyday places:

Tiny specs in space. Lives appearing and then vanishing without a trace and barely a memory. Are they even lives? Is it not just a burst of activity, our thoughts, feelings, desires all just by-products of a system simply to get us moving and procreating?
As key to the Universe as the brief life of a sperm on some hastily grabbed tissue somewhere.
I was thinking this... seeing this, thinking about the nothingness and I knew - this is not a good road of thought to follow. It does not lead to a good place. But, nevertheless, that's what I saw.
Yet, when actually I came to draw it, as empty and pointless as the feeling was I was trying to illustrate, I couldn't help noticing just how beautiful that infinite nothingness around us is. And I can't come even close to capturing it. Maybe, from out there, I would see that rock, that pebble, is beautiful. And, if that's the case, we're all part of it - each of us, one tiny paint stroke that, together, makes up a wonderful canvas.

Thank you, bitter animator, for sharing your astral views with us, your fellow passengers hurtling through space on the great beautiful bus of Planet Doom.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How to add a 'Stumble it!' button to your Blogger blog posts

After the resounding success of my post How to add a social bookmark button to your blog posts, I now present the eagerly awaited and longed for sequel: how to add a Stumble it! button to your Blogger blog posts.
First, go to the StumbleUpon buttons page and choose a button. Then choose ‘Blogger’ and copy the produced code but WITHOUT the first line (beginning and ending with a bracketed ‘p’).
Then, as with the previous ‘AddThis’ button:

1 - Select Layout > Edit HTML
2 - Check the Expand Widget Templates checkbox
3 - Copy and paste the code snippet into the template, right after the (div class='post-footer') tag
4 - Click Save Template

Be sure to back up your template beforehand, in case you accidentally make a complete and total hash of it.

The result will be a beautifully elegant little Stumble it! button at the bottom of your blog posts like the one just below.

What are you waiting for? Stumble it!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

I need Answers!

During a search I fell on Yahoo’s ‘Answers’ page. Looking into it I found a surprisingly vibrant community, and they have a section on Philosophy. Once signed up you can ask a question and get replies from real people. You can also answer other people’s questions. So I have been roaming about the community lately like a philosophic Lone Ranger.
I have had fun giving and reading answers and I am here to tell you that there are some smart cookies amongst the people who contribute. I liked this one in reply to the question ‘What is the key to true happiness?’

The key is under the custody of a contented person. We can borrow it from him freely. He has several such duplicate keys. Even if you do not return the key, he will not bother. He is such a nice person.

And this one in answer to a question from a confused teenager:

Be Aware.Your kindness may be treated as your weakness … still be kind.
Be Aware. Your help to others may go unheeded and unnoticed … still be helpful.
Be Aware. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies … still succeed.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable … still be frank and honest.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow … still be good and do good.
Your forthrightness may be treated as high handedness or insubordination … still be forthright.
Virtues and values of life may mean little for people … still be virtuous.
Your faith in God and Love for Humanity may be taken as orthodoxy and foolishness … still have faith in God.

So if you need an answer, right now, you could do worse than to ask it on Yahoo’s Answers.

Ship's log - September 2009

As I mention in my post I need Answers!, I have been ranging over the philosophic questions and answers to be found at Yahoo’Answers community.
There is a wide range of questions, from the banal to the sublime. But some of the most simple are strangely compelling to answer because they force you to think about what you really believe. How would you answer these questions?

What is the meaning of life?
Why should I want to live?
Is the human being essentially religious?
What are the most important philosophy books to read?
Do you think the world would be a better place if we did not have technology?
Does the past still live in the present?
What do you want out of life?

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond