daily pot-pourri

So many things on my mind, not “in my mind” as I’m not sure where that is. Its place in the cave of my body, or even its existence is proving elusive these days. And not just to me. Philosophers, neuroscientists, bloggers extraordinary seem preoccupied with consciousness, the mind, the brain as never before. A psychologist might conclude that we are living in an age of confusion.

Yet the plethora of stuff that reaches me each day is processed in some way. And what a stimulating mixture there always is.

And for today’s potpourri I will start with the word itself. Probably this is such an arcane metaphor that today’s perfume industry and household aerosol companies no longer deign to use the term. It conjures up to the English a collection of petals to give sweet aromas in ladies bedrooms, and hotel bathrooms. Hmm. What has this to do with my daily admixture of stimuli?

I like the metaphor as it alludes to spice, to bark, to fruits and flowers while implying a fermentation that will last but a few months. And thus for my daily potpourri.

Today’s petals? First an introduction to a book that gives a new mega, macro picture of where the world is heading – not often that you get that! From nation state to market state. A big book by Philip Bobbitt, “The Shield of Achilles”. I have read an intro and leave it to my husband to read the 900 page book and then recommend chapters for me…. Cheat you say? Yes.

I’m all in favour of cheating in this way as my own reading is about to provide a keyhole squint into one of history’s migrations that, at the time, no-one fully appreciated: Isabel Wilkinson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns”, the move north of African Americans. Seems to me that this can give an insight into those migrations that are hidden today amongst the more obvious and shocking war and poverty induced migrations we witness on our screens.

I have just put down the first book that has given me a broad picture of Myanmar’s ethnic peoples, their politics, cultures, religions and geographies. Bertil Lintner’s travels from India through Burma and into China in the mid-80s, “The Land of Jade” is an extraordinary tale that reads like a thriller and yet gives a sophisticated and factual historical account. Current politicians would do well to refrain from simplistic conclusions and interventions in Myanmar through reading this book, highly pertinent for today’s unfolding tragedies.

From the above you would assume I keep my nose buried in a book. But today will include a dhamma discussion in a group with a wonderfully insightful Buddhist nun, some delicious Thai noodles in our market village, a lecture on a Karenni refugee family in the US, and I hope to catch up on the realities of our village changes. The impact of change on the lives of villagers from the global market power is dramatic and scary. More on this perhaps in tomorrow’s potpourri. See you then.

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How do we avoid bumping into each other?

One of the minor mysteries of life preoccupies me whenever I walk down a crowded street. How is it that we politely weave in and out of dozens of people without so much as an elbow touch? We are like birds in the sky. Or are we? Many species fly in formations that are a wonder of the skies. We humans are not so wondrous. Yet we do preserve a similar small, well gauged distance as we pass by each other on the pavement or walk purposefully toward a common destination, each at our own pace.

As I walk down Oxford Street in London or negotiate the ticket office in a crowded railway station I observe that we ‘take-in’ other people, judge distance perfectly and all seemingly done on reflex. Whichever country I am in, and I travel a lot these days, (maybe even too much) I note the self-same phenomenon, whether in a small village or in a busy city’s CBD. How do we do this? Magnetism? A special 8th sense? If so, then our special antennae are hidden unlike those physical tools of other species (think snails here). Or has thought and judgement occurred but with such rapidity that we are quite unconscious of having made any observation.

But we have made numerous observations – we have made and avoided eye contact, noted a sexy figure, the colour of a jacket, the holes in a jumper of a passer-by. Faces may reappear in dreams that we would have sworn we had not noticed at the time. We have assessed class; financial wealth or absence; city, country or suburban style; business grooming or designer stubble; architect or cashier profession – and all in a glance that we are unaware we have made.

This all works when there is some cultural consistency or cultural familiarity on the city’s pavement or on the village street. But what happens when there is a cultural mix of people who do not have that familiarity? Then we naturally become on physical alert. We must be careful not to bump or knock, not to catch an eye, should return a smile, calculate a suitable distance by turning toward or away. And we do not know we are doing any of this, unless we have miscalculated and need to embarrassedly apologise to a stranger for some social infringement that we do not know we have committed.

So I conclude that the way in which we are like the birds of the sky is a “learnt” behaviour. It is one that has to be re-learnt whenever we encounter a mix of human groups mingling together who have not yet internalised the new norms. The mystery remains unsolved. How and why do we learn all this?

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Learn from the young

So today my blog name has changed… For the last couple of years my own name figured in the title, “verity’s serendipitous imaginings”. My daughter rightly thinks this was too confusing and fanciful. So as from today my blog is resurrected from two years of silence and is to be called simply “imaginewell”. Will anyone find this blog now? No matter – it will provide an avenue for my whinging (and hopefully some celebration) so that I don’t have to bore my family and friends in person! The anonymity that can come with the noise of the web will allow at the same time an outlet and privacy.

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Amanda Knox and weird empathy

Amanda raises a difficult question, irrespective of her guilt or innocence.

I remember vividly an incident of a robbery from a child’s locker when I was about 8 years old. The teacher or perhaps head-mistress summoned all children to a meeting and asked who was responsible? Now I, as probably most children, did not even know there had been a theft until this meeting. Yet I still recall the guilt, pain and immediate public embarrassment thinking that perhaps it had been me who had done this. There was a strong wish to confess to something of which I had no knowledge! Weird but real.

Was there a psychological explanation? Did I have wishes to steal from others? I don’t think so. Was I tempted to take things? No, neither were the case. However I was a very unsure child – full of self-criticism – combined with an acute sensitivity and ability to identify and empathise. These factors continued into adult life and later incidents of inadvertent connection with wrong-doers caused pain to them and embarrassment to myself.

I wonder how many others have similar experiences where they feel guilt for something which they have not done.

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Business ethics? Hmm…

Would you give your savings to a stranger you met on the street who gave you a 900 page document describing his venture, new to you and in a country about which you knew nothing? He offers, not promises, to quadruple your money. Surely not. Yet this is how most serious investors proceed without any knowledge whatsoever of the product, the people, the industry or the country.

Why is the subject of business ethics so difficult to fathom? Why has it served to generate prestigious University departments yet been unable to clean-up damaging business behaviours?

Worse: how have ‘business ethics’ managed to proliferate into further areas of study without at the same time illuminating how you and I should invest? But you and I are not Bill and Miranda Gates, nor are we the decision makers as to whether our product is produced in decent conditions or through virtual (or actual) slavery.

It can be argued that ethical investment is involved every time we decide to buy a product from this firm rather than that. I remember not buying South African oranges when sanctions were supposed to change apartheid. We are lobbied to pass judgement on Apple by refusing to buy the latest iPhone for the atrocious working conditions in some of their Chinese component factories.

I still refuse to buy a chicken that has been raised in a cage, nor eggs from caged chickens.

But I cannot refuse to buy goods which have been produced by ‘caged’ men and women, since it is impossible to know all the processes that have together brought a product to market. Too many different businesses, different stages of production, different components originating from far-flung countries, transport and distribution industries that each have their unique working practices about which I can know nothing.

However there is a simple ethical position to hold for the investing shareholder of any enterprise. And you do not need to go to business school for this!

You have an ethical responsibility in any investment you make to know the people, the industry and the product. Without that knowledge you may support wrong and damaging working practices that abuse both workers, environment, communities and finally the customers. Such knowledge is near impossible in today’s world. This ethical demand for knowing can only occur in sufficiently small enterprises.

But this is the best we can do. A privilege available to few, but one well worth seeking when we invest either to own part of a business or when we buy a product.

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Conversation on the web is dying.

TED  “conversations” aim to spread ideas, those worth spreading at least, but are internet conversations real?

Perhaps my most favourite pastime is conversing with intelligent friends about serious matters of mutual concern – we keep a sense of humour but at the same time explore topics that profoundly effect our lives. Better still are those chance conversations with people we meet unexpectedly. These can throw open entire new ways of thinking, provide fascinating tit-bits of information and give perspectives on events that are both novel and illuminating.

The internet offers the promise of widening our networks to bring us meaningful encounters and pertinent conversations. “TED Conversations” appear to provide a forum for just such exchanges. But do they?

I followed with great anticipation a number of conversations on topics dear to my heart – only to find disappointment. The reality is nothing akin to what most of us would consider to be a genuine opportunity to converse.

How can you discuss something with several thousand people? How can you have a conversation that stretches over months, if not years? In kindness we can say that

  • significant points are made with considerable frequency
  • responses are given to particular views
  • there is often general applicability
  • rarely are personal beefs and gripes displayed

BUT these positive features come in two shapes: the first of these is to state an essentially indisputable generalisation. If an individual opinion is propounded – then it tends to be proffered alongside a careful balance of alternative views.

The second is the offering of a personal, psychological or spiritual insight. These generate responses in others of: “me too” or descriptions of additional personal experiences.

In no way do either of these two formats add up to meaningful conversations.

Conversations of course CAN occur without a face-to-face encounter. When two scholars discuss a particular puzzle which preoccupies them both – then an email or letter exchange can be alive, probing and efficient. Two friends who know each other well can converse and discuss via email.

So what do TED conversations actually offer? It seems they make a mockery of true conversation. True conversation occurs in a small group of participants who listen to each other in real time, consider what has been said and respond in a manner such that the discourse moves on to explore issues and to enlighten. In this way our thinking and understanding evolves.

None-the-less I conclude that whilst the web is killing off conversation, it is at the same time awakening the desire for broad and varied real-time conversation with an ever-widening circle of people. The fact that the web is failing at present does not mean that our desire to converse has faded, rather it has stimulated the wish to communicate more widely and more authentically.

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Is “propriety” dead?

Adam Smith had a lot to say about this.

I re-read AS’s Theory of Moral Sentiments – his wonderful discourse – in recent weeks. He shows how all forms of “propriety” form the essence of good relations and respectful co-existence. Our own feelings become the touchstone for understanding others, our empathy becomes the means by which one can get to know an ‘other’ and will in large part be based upon the propriety of their comportment.

Which leads me to Andy Murray and the Wimbledon Men’s Finals. Have our ideas of what is proper, gracious, manly and sportsmanlike changed so much? Do we accept his response to being Runner-up on Centre Court as appropriate to the occasion? He is so choked with tears at losing that he barely acknowledges the silver trophy awarded to the Runner-up. His tears overwhelm and prevent the traditional tribute to the winner, Roger Federer.

His fan-base has been lack-lustre, and for once I accept that the public have understood something about the man that I have not. Tim Henman, for long Britain’s great hope, was always courteous and genuinely appreciative of all his opponents. Perhaps it was this quality that helped endear him to his fans.

Adam Smith emphasised that when we know the situation in which a man is placed – then this does indeed alter our instinctive response of approval or disapproval. We knew the tremendous hopes and expectations that the British public placed on Andy along with the inevitable pressure. But is this enough to excuse such a mean, public display? Is this sufficient cause for us to accept such uncontrolled emotions?

I am coming to believe that courtesy and grace are the core attributes in harmonious human relations – and particularly in most public domains.

It does seem that our 21st Century egotism, our over-weighting of individuality, mean that many virtues of earlier times have been rendered obsolete. We no longer acknowledge the good that was intrinsic to “convention”. By mocking superficial and hypocritical convention we are blinding ourselves to the truths and decencies that are embedded in our social interactions.

Sport has its own conventions, its own corruptions, and together these have the capacity to create celebrities whose games provide our current opium for the crowds. The “celebrity” cocoon is as pernicious for the individual as it is for the public.

Which takes me back to Adam Smith. My take of his Moral Sentiments is that he had an unresolved ambivalence toward the famous. He saw that inevitably they provided models. Yet I do not think he came to a satisfactory conclusion as to whether, on balance, they contributed to the good, or indeed the ill, of society.

Britain in its years of Empire provided a model in so many parts of the world. The good impact of much of the Empire’s works inevitably also contained many shaming features. History is sometimes kind and at times vicious. In the aftermath of Empire we have forgotten its particularities.

The London 2012 Olympics will put Britain on show to the world once again. There will be an immediate response and there will be its aftermath.

It is certain to provide many an interesting spectacle.


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Shutters down – not quite

Today I have been legitimately eaves-dropping.

The tired, controlled voice at the end of the phone had that unmistakable, so understanding, therapist tone. Suspicion which attempts to hide its face is so clear I feel I can touch it. I see the weariness and accrued disappointments that have shaped the defensive ploys that come thick, one after the other. They seem structured to avoid the need for decision and to ward off intrusions into our safe, half-dead space whilst yet providing all necessary courtesies.

What is this cut-off from human relations? Have we been so deafened by the clammer for attention and noise of modern life that we must retreat into our comfort caves?

Blinds and shutters. What marvellous inventions these are. Our weariness and dying hope has just enough latent energy to allow a careful peep between the louvres. We tolerate the intruder’s voice just long enough – could, could, could he just be a welcome arrival?

The phone goes down after a concluding, – “Write to “x”but please be clear that it is not up to me… ”

In my post-call, eaves-dropping reflections I imagine that she then spends a minute before joining the family for Sunday lunch, pondering, “I wonder if….? …I used to believe the right thing comes along at the right time…”

And after lunch is the hope strong enough to remember or is the call is forgotten?

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The Shard is rising

The Shard, to be the tallest building in Europe, is rising across the road from our small London pad. It is a strange symbol. Glass, glass everywhere – vulnerable? Strong? The demise of the British Empire seems to be en-captured in this beautiful design that towers above the grime and exhaust fumes, the crime and hashish fumes pervading London. An exquisite fairy-tale that echoes our dreams.

June mists veil the summit half hiding its splinters (are these part of the design or just an artefact of this stage of the development?). These shards rise proudly, risking danger from man-made madness, into the infinity of the skies.

Our Colonies have splintered. So too Great Britain these days with our shocking extremes of wealth and poverty – past fractures between peoples of different race or religion now take these new forms in this country, certainly in the London Capital. It is a fake nostalgia that encourages a longing for coherence of commonwealth that perhaps never was.

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Fiona Hall is an inspiration…

An article about this wonderful artist in today’s Financial Review Magazine reminds me how special are her creations. The first work of hers that I ever saw has stayed with me in dream images (both day and night) ever since: birds nests made from shredded US dollars.

These images are re-captured for me in Thailand whenever I catch sight of yet another extraordinary, but real, bird’s nest – constructed with its tiny entrance tunnel from beneath into a rotund protected home – a work of natural art.

There is a beauty in watching the birds build, slowly and deliberately, straw by straw. This care and perfection results in each nest becoming a uniquely beautiful temporary home. So too Fiona Hall’s creations. Her painstaking build of each work is derived from deeply felt concerns and needs. There is an aesthetic beauty that results from the conceptual function that is as mysterious as the forms and patterns of nature.

Her description (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_-3d75ZItg) of how her choice of media – (ie her materials: sardine tins, video tape etc.) – have often become obsolete soon after a work is completed is portentous in the case of these birds nests. Here she used the US$ and jokingly said that, “colour was added to the green-back shortly after…”

However perhaps her work was more in tune with the cosmos than she imagined! The shredding of the dollar bills seems to have been prophetic of the 2008 financial disaster. American debt has indeed shredded the dollar. Will the $ now cease to be the world’s reserve currency? Perhaps when future generations look back on the demise of the American Empire – they will take the Birds Nest installation as symbolic.

I conclude that the quasi-meditative, fully devoted and engaged process of creation is the only thing that gives true power and impact to art; and perhaps it is similarly the only way that life can be fully lived.

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