Friday, November 28, 2014

When A Martyr Is Not A Martyr

I was all set to inform my readers of the latest Ontario fiscal horror story just now seeing the light of day -- the 'Mars' thing, the building, not the planet -- when I received some fascinating information from a certain "back channel" that I still maintain from my days in The Trade. The Ontario issue can wait (it certainly won't go away) and besides, the incoming information was far more intriguing than the monetary mess Ontario continues to wallow in.

Now, back channels are interesting, and in certain cases essential. The term is useful to describe negotiations that are done on the quiet until more favourable conditions for success come about. Governments and banks use them all the time. More literally, they can be drainage patterns for rice paddies, or even water run-off measures for houses built on sea cliffs.

The back channel for my information I can't really speak about, other than to say I find the data that arrives from time to time to be sometimes useful, sometimes terrifying, or sometimes simply hilarious.*

What recently came in on this channel was an accounting of a subversive technique that was proving to be more than a little effective. Apparently there was a certain area in Iraq that had seen a complete drop in suicide martyrs. Prior to this, it had been an area that was rife with such attacks. How had this occurred?

Long story short, a prestigious Islamic scholar had somehow become convinced that the jihad interpretation of martyrdom as written in the Qur'an was wrong. He (it sure wouldn't have been a she) got in touch with the powers united against ISIS and Al-Qaeda and offered to make this scholarly opinion more well-known.

His argument was simplicity itself, and centered around the difference in Arabic between the passive and active voice. To wit: a martyr must die by being acted upon, and never, ever meet death by his own actions (or her own actions -- in such cases, Islam makes an exception and becomes an equal opportunity employer). 

Then the scholar added a final touch: martyrdom must first occur by the leader submitting to his fate, never an underling. Showing the way to the 72 virgins, as it were. 

When this was all made known to the jihadists by a variety of means, both electronic, written and by word of mouth, there was suddenly a dearth of martyrs, and the number of farmers, labourers and shepherds in the area mysteriously increased. Score one for the greatest weapon of war known -- the effective use of imagination.

See you soon.


*It is not commonly known, but the back channel I use was convinced that North Korea's Kim Jong Un is entranced by the Disney Princesses. Explains a lot. -- L.S.S.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Something For Nothing

Occasionally, when writing these little missives, I have fallen into a trap that is is known as "writer's block." Topic in mind, I prepare to do verbal battle, and nothing comes. A sad state of affairs, and one begins to doubt one's capacity. So Piet Hein's 'Grook' : "If the sun or moon would doubt / They'd immediately go out."

Not good at all. At that point, however, I recalled a teacher friend of mine, one Elizabeth Henderson, who had given a homework  assignment to her class involving oral composition, indicating that the topic could be anything chosen by each class member. One lad, more troublesome than most, said he could think of nothing to speak about.

"Fine, Brett, then that's what you talk about. Nothing."

The class filed out, and my friend was almost automatically assigning a big fat zero to the aforesaid Brett.

Three days later, the class filed back in. Some talks were good, some fair, some not so good. But all had tried, and I knew from experience that oral composition could be trying for students until they figured out that they could talk for a time without being interrupted. Then Brett came to the front and began his speech.

"Nothing" he began, "can come from nothing. So King Lear tells his daughter Cordelia and thereby loses both his kingdom and his mind, as Miss Henderson has taught us. Then there is the concept of nothingness, or nihilism, very important in the area of philosophy. Also, 'no thing' would be no Parliament in Old Scandinavia* and then we have" -- well, he went on, naming all kind of nothings, and finished by looking carefully at the girls in the class as he referred to ears and "sweet nothings."

I gave Brett an A+ with no qualms whatsoever.

I remember asking my friend what happened to this unusual student. A university professor? A motivational speaker? What?

"He joined the army" she replied, "and has had a successful career. We still keep in touch from time to time." 

And now my writer's block has disappeared! In celebration, I conclude with a snippet gleaned from the Internet that has 'nothing' to do with the current topic. Apparently there was a small sexual escapade in a Toronto streetcar that caused a bit of a stir. Two men and a woman were involved in a little ménage a trois, and the thought occurred that somewhere Tennessee Williams was chuckling.

I also wondered if the woman's name was Stella. 

Just asking.


* Brett has it right. In Old Scandinavia, the word for a parliamentary gathering actually is "The Thing". -- Ed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Valuing Value

The physicist Rupert Sheldrake wrote somewhere that "the universe has habits, not laws." Be that as it may, one habit that I and some others have come to like is to gather on every other Thursday at our favourite pub, The Three Q's.* There we discuss things of varying interest ranging from bothersome personal issues to solving, with grace and dispatch, problems besetting the world.

Yesterday, that discussion involved examining the concept of 'value' and the role values play in personal life. The discussion went on for some time, a great many bromides were tossed about, all of which I summed up by stating "Been there. Knew that. Let's move on."

So we did, and then the economist in the group threw into the ring that she knew of something whose value could be discussed in terms of pennies, but also be worth considerably more if regarded in a different light. Guesses were asked for, with the winner to be exempt from paying for the next round of best bitter.

I proffered the written, mailed letter, comforting one who had sustained a loss of one kind or another. Costing very little, yet of much more value to the recipient than the original outlay.

Other suggestions followed, with the best (in my opinion) from Joe, a local farmer that had charmed himself into our circle. He indicated that you would be far ahead from original value if you happened to have in your possession an original King Edward VII tuppence with a mis-spelled "Edwrd" said to be worth thousands.

"Close" said our economist, "but no cigar. You are in the right area, though."

"What do you mean?" said our resident philosopher. He was always rabbiting on about the meaning of things.

"Just this. Currency. Any five, ten or indeed any paper bill is, in one sense, only worth very little in terms of the paper used and its manufacture, but has a much higher value in terms of purchasing power. Agreed?"

"But," I said, "is not that value is determined by the economic output and fiscal intelligence of the country that issued it? Surely that's its true value?"

"Irrelevant in terms of the question posed," she countered. "The paper bill is the perfect example of a double edged value. But being the poser of the question, I recuse myself from the contest, and Joe's answer, the Edwrd tuppence, is the winner."

 Joe quietly smiled, but said no gloating words, causing me to remember the value Albert Einstein's words all too well: "The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits."


* Just in case readers have forgotten, the three Q's are Quips, Quibbles and Quaffs. -- Ed.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Yin Now On A Par With Yang

My good friend Matilda Hatt was in town recently, and, knowing the speaker, we attended a lecture given last night. The presenter, Nora House, was a noted feminist, and while I avoid those with "causes" like the plague, Nora always made her points with deftness and humour.

As an example of the above, she had titled her address, "Three Wise Men -- Are You Serious?"

Nora began her remarks with a quote from the playwright and film director, David Mamet: "The perfect girlfriend: one who makes love until two in the morning, and then turns into a pizza." She went on to stress that she is a good friend of Mr. Mamet, and that she had ripped his comment well out of context -- the line had been used as a 'straw man' to set up a defense of women in films.*

Nora went on to state, however, that girls and women had been viewed as objects for pleasure for millennia, and in all too many parts of the world still were. She wisely avoided a rant at this point, indicating that women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Aung San Suu Kyi, and, more recently, the girl viciously attacked by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai, could do a far better job of making the case for fairer treatment than she could.

No, Nora went on to indicate that real progress was being made. In the past, all too many eighteenth and nineteenth century best-selling novels featured frightened girls rushing down dark corridors shouting "O transport!"** Their only hope lay in the actions of a saviour, always a man.

In the current age, there is none of this; the terror-stricken heroine has been replaced with an arrow launched from the bow of Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games, for those living somewhere in a cave in the Gobi desert) or a powerful spell launched from the wand of Hermione Granger. (Harry Potter -- see parentheses above.) Add into this mix such wildly popular heroines
such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess and the 'Yin' begins to become equal to the 'Yang'.

Nora went on with further examples , but I think the point is made: at least in certain areas of the worlds, women are no more regarded as chattel, as objects there to be servants to the almighty man, and the media reflect this. The concept just needs, in Nora's word, "extension".

As for the concept of feminism, Nora ended her address with some words from Rebecca West: "I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat."



*Mamet's words were allegedly inserted into a TV spot for a pizza delivery outfit. A lawsuit is pending. --Ed.

** Not all novels were so one-sided. Jane Austen's women act decisively (after a learning period) and Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot's brilliant Middlemarch towers over the male protagonists in the novel. But it should be noted that the writer's real name was not George Eliot, but Mary Anne Evans, the publishing world being as it was then. -- L.S.S.