Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Problems With Yahoo! Groups

Richard May headshot by Richard May

What's most disconcerting to me is receiving my own messages from Yahoo! Groups, before I've sent them or even written them! I guess that Yahoo's services are getting somewhat random temporally; Maybe Yahoo is harnessing entropy to save money.

Some of the Yahoo! Groups messages actually disappear, vanishing like information lost by Hawking radiation from black holes. The information/energy actually re-emerges in other brane worlds, as Yahoo! Groups advertisements. You may have noticed that no matter how bad Yahoo's services become, the ads always work just fine.

Some of the Yahoo's ads in our brane world apparently run on reconfigured bits of information lost in message disappearances in other brane world or parallel universes.



Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Haiku

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

"From ancient times, those with a feeling for refinement […] find joy in knowing the truth and insight of things" (Haikai Ronshu, Collected Haiku Theories by Basho). What Basho, the great haiku master, observed centuries ago, is still true in our days.

The haiku is a miniature masterpiece of immediate perception, a snapshot of life (what Shiki calls shasei). The haiku must be perceived through intuition and enjoyed, not understood or explained. It conveys its meaning through concrete images that speak for themselves. There is an enormous power hidden behind apparently insignificant particulars, no word is superfluous in the haiku.

The haiku poet conveys images without intervening, without being affected by emotions. He must be receptive. Otsuji says that the haiku poet must be sincere and humble at the same time and surrender to his own experience, and that in this experience "the poet's nature and environment are one", and any dualism between subject and object, or art and life, disappears.

Basho says that "there is no subject whatever that is not fit for hokku", as the haiku poet discovers and perceives a whole world in particulars the common man doesn't notice. "In the sound of the frog leaping from the bank overgrown with wild grass, a haikai is heard. There is the seen; there is the heard. Where there is hokku as the poet has felt it, there is poetic truth." (Haikai Ronshu).

Everyone is a potential haiku poet, and yet most people are blinded by convention, tradition, or the routine of daily life, and are unable to perceive the higher order of reality behind appearances. The haiku poet is gifted and trains his giftedness and the sharpness of his senses daily, trying to "grasp" his experiences, which are always "funded" experiences, as well as the magic of the moment. The haiku poet must also be curious, regress to an almost childlike state in his discovery and perception of the world, that is to say, discover the world without preconceptions and prejudices, "as it is" (sono mama). Haiku "happen", they are not constructed or elaborated, they are "an act of intuition or vision" (Herbert Read), an act of enlightenment or satori, as it is called in the Zen religion. Their function is to open the reader's eyes, not to make him think rationally.

Let's take for example one of Basho's most famous haiku:

Listen! A frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!
The pond could be the ultimate truth, God, eternity, it becomes a transcendental symbol that goes beyond the limits of words.

Significantly, many haiku masters were pilgrims who wandered through the world "picking up" moments of life.

Haiku are not limited by time or space because they convey universal experiences. We enjoy Basho as if he were a contemporary poet.

A haiku like

On a withered bow
A crow alone is perching;
Autumn evening now
is revealing and delightful today as it was centuries ago with its simple, basic elements of object, time, and space.

In spite of the universality and simplicity of the images it conveys, it is not easy to write a good haiku. Basho calls the haiku poet who creates ten haiku in his lifetime a master,i which reminds us somehow of Ezra Pound's remark in "A Few Don'ts by an Imagist" ii: "It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous work."

Truly good haiku are unforgettable, not because of their breath-like shortness, but because they change your life, like a sudden revelation.

Historically, the haiku developed from renga to haikai (haikai no renga, a form of comical renga) to hokku to haiku. In the Heian court life (8-12th cent.), the long choka gradually lost in popularity to the short tanka, which then developed into the renga. Its starting triplet, the hokku, was always composed by the most distinguished poet of the group. Basho made it an independent poetic form, the haiku.

Today the haiku has established itself as a 5-7-5-syllable poetic form, although in English it is not compulsory to adhere to this rule. Attempts to change this structure have been made, but have not been successful.

Usually, the "wist" happens at the fifth or twelfth syllable (at the end of the first or of the second line), offering the haiku a sense of balance and symmetry. Yet the haiku can be perfectly balanced and crystallized without this turning.

Attempts have also been made to reform the haiku by omitting the traditional season word or seasonal reference. These attempts have also been unsuccessful in themselves, although they have developed into a new form of poetry, the senryu. The haiku itself though has retained its seasonal reference, which makes it so unique.

Haiku can also be combined to form a longer poem, the rensaku, and so can tanka.

The haiku makes use of quite common words, again a trait it shares with the Imagists of the Western world: "To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the merely decorative word." Significantly, Basho says: "In the poetry of haikai ordinary words are used", adding that the true merit of poetry is "to correct ordinary words".

The haiku is perfectly structured and formed in its simplicity, if we believe what Louis Danz has said: "Form is that kind of organization to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken." iiiIt is perfect as it is, "inevitable", as Basho puts it. Any change or "polishing" would ruin the effect. If we changed the crow to a crane in the above mentioned haiku by Basho, for example, the haiku would be spoiled.

The haiku also has a rhythm of its own that is unique and manifests itself as the pulsation the poet feels when he has the revelation that urges him to write a haiku. To render this rhythm in the language into which a haiku is translated is of fundamental importance, as in the following example:

Brushing the leaves, fell
A white camellia blossom
Into the dark well.

Sometimes words are also rhymed, as in this example, in order to "complete the circle" and create a perfect, encompassing whole. Rhyme is unsuited to the Japanese language, but in English it can help to achieve the original elegance.

Alliteration is also a quite common technique used in haiku, and can be of different kindsiv, the most popular and easily recognizable being the initial alliteration:

A falling flower, thought I,
Fluttering back to the branch "
Was a butterfly.

Finding the technique that most appropriately conveys the original image when translating a Japanese haiku is not an easy task. It is up to the translator to find the most suitable technique, sometimes also employing personal devices and tricks. Which tricks should be used, also depends on the target language. The above mentioned techniques refer mainly to the English language.

There are a few rules the haiku poet has to comply with in order to write a haiku.

The main "still valid … rule is the season word (kigo).

Similes or metaphors should be avoided. Associations, comparisons or contrasts should be implicit, not explained.

In her Haiku Primer, Betty Drevniok mentions several interesting techniques for writing a good haiku, for example the techniques of sense-switching, narrowing focus, double entendre, word play, pun, paradox, and the technique of the improbable word.

Other rules that should be taken into consideration when writing a haiku are that a haiku should never be a complete sentence in itself, but rather consist of sentence fragments (with a cutting at the end of the first or of the second line, as mentioned above), that it should be written in the present tense, possibly avoiding the use of personal pronouns, gerunds, and adverbs. Articles and even prepositions are also often omitted. If the haiku holds together without the preposition, it is probably better to leave it out. Punctuation is often also considered unnecessary. Sometimes its omission is a deliberate means to create ambiguity.

Images can evoke simple rustic seclusion or poverty (sabi), classical elegant distinctiveness (shuburni), romantic beauty (wabi), or mysterious solitude (yugen), or anything else which is not too complicated or abstruse.

These rules are particularly important for aspirant haiku poets who still need some directives. As Basho said, rules have to be learnt and forgotten again. This is particularly valid for the haiku.

Some haiku written by the masters:

Basho (1644-1694):

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

The air shimmers.
Whitish flight
Of an unknown insect.

Buson (1716 … 1783):

Sleep on horseback,
The far moon in a continuing dream,
Steam of roasting tea.

A whale!
Down it goes, and more and more
up goes its tail!

Issa (1763 … 1827):

A sudden shower falls -
and naked I am riding
on a naked horse!

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this -
and it passes by.

Shiki Masaoka (1867 … 1902):

A lightning flash:
between the forest trees
I have seen water.

I want to sleep
Swat the flies
Softly, please.


by Maria Faverio


There is more to dawn
than coffee and a cigarette,
or newspapers
hitting the doorstep …

time to pick up
spilled visions,
remembering that life
is on loan,

delete the messages
on the answering machine
and breathe.


At the sky's edge,
a shower of thunderbolts,
a Noh play on a cracked stage …
lovers who discover
each other's face.


Scarecrows drenched with rain,
corpses piled up on the field …
dancing party of crows.


Yasuda K., The Japanese Haiku, 1991 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

Britton, D., A Haiku Journey, 1974 Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London

Ueda Mokoto, Matsuo Basho, 1982 Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London

Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966 Penguin Books

Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Hoffmann Y., 1990 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

Taneda Santoka, Mountain Tasting, translated by John Stevens, 1989 Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo

A Chime of Windbells, translated by Harold Stewart, 1978 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo

A Net of Fireflies, translated by Harold Stewart, 1972 Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo


i He himself wrote about one thousand. We can categorize Basho's haiku into the following periods: 1. Haiku as Pastime (1662-72); 2. Technique of Surprising Comparison (1673-80); In Search of Identity (1681-85); 4. Manifestation of Sabi (1686-91); 5. Last Phase (1692-94).

ii Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. I (October … March, 1912-1913), p.200

iii The Psychologist Looks at Art, London, Longman, 1937, p.78

iv Initial, stressed, syllable, oblique, buried, and crossed alliteration


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cosmic Coincidences?

by Fred Vaughan

Fred Vaughan

There seem always to be these nearly insurmountable epistemological traps and barriers to overcome. We seem always to be peering down the wrong end of telescopes, until very occasionally by some accident of fate, we run off yelling "Eureka! Eureka!" like demented hippies in the backwoods of California. Our various highly evolved linguistic and mathematical skills get applied primarily to justifying the particular inanity that happens to be in vogue — never with actually changing paradigms. There seem always to be mathematical mappings of what is known of the unknowable depths of our universe to the shallow waters of our intellectual wading preference, but the veracity of such mappings are warranted no more than formal propriety justifies aphorisms depicted in poesy.

Consider what we know of our universe with regard to its composition as a very diffuse but impure hydrogenous plasma. Yes, as surely as to a first approximation we ourselves are mere bags of salt water, the universe is a hydrogenous plasma, both being pretty damn good approximations! With only this much firmly in our grasp, we must resist urges to charge off like rabid string theorists to find the big end of some telescope, waving at cameras and grabbing microphones as they go!

How diffuse? About 10-25 grams per cubic meter. So in sifting through a cubic meter or so of universal debris at random you might find an odd proton, an electron to neutralize the concoction, and by-product neutrinos all whizzing about at significant fractions of the speed of light. The most obvious decomposition of this plasma being that apparently on large scales everywhere in the universe it is 76 percent hydrogen nuclei and 24 percent helium nuclei (by mass such that there are about twelve hydrogen nuclei per each helium) with mere traces of other isotopes.

At high temperatures helium nuclei are formed from hydrogen nuclei by nuclear fusion. (Of course at even higher temperatures protons which comprise the nucleus of hydrogen can be created from neutrons, and positrons, with neutrinos and associated "opposites" dashing about, but let us ignore third tier observations.) All nuclear reactions are reversible with equilibrium percentages of each product determined by temperature. Those of us who still accept the conservation of energy — notice that most cosmologists do not — insist that if the 24 percent helium did indeed derive from primordially pure hydrogen plasma, then the energy released would not be totally lost. This caveat holds to the extent that the universe is a closed system, which it would seem to this author to be by definition. This radiant energy, however thermalized, must therefore still be present somewhere in the universe.

Now if you go through the calculations, and they are very straight-forward, you will find that the amount of radiation energy released per cubic centimeter is precisely the amount of energy invested in the microwave background radiation. All fashionable cosmological theories take this to be a mere coincidence. They tell us that the facts of annihilation associated with an unknowable primordial imbalance in matter and antimatter right after a miracle happened resulted in that glut of energy which today is viewed as some sort of perversely understood "fact" of the universe supposedly in reality being only 3 degrees Kelvin rather than the many orders of magnitude higher temperatures observed everywhere we look! According to these theories the energy balance coincidence is just a strange happenstance of our being here now rather than somewhere somewhat similar a billion years ago or hence! With such a perspective my confusion might have been avoided. But I don't have it!

So how "bright" should it be if this coincidental amount of radiation that we all agree is actually out there is actually out there? Well, let's think about that: On average every hundred cubic meters or so of the universe contains evidence of these reactions having taken place. From our observation point the intensity from each reaction is diminished as 1/r2 where r is the distance to each occurrence. We arrive at Olbers paradox with the number of cubic meters increasing as the square of the distance, r2. Thus, we get to the crux of the paradox when we combine these two effects for the entire universe. But of course modern cosmology resolves such difficulties by demanding a finite universe of radius Ro = 1/Ho where Ho is Hubble's constant. So we end up with a modest(?) intensity given by:

Equation 1
So a finite universe and a justifying Bang are made for each other. But if the redshift-distance relation is accepted as mere fact rather than some grandiose deduction from conjecture, to the accuracy of precise observations the relation is characterized by r = Ro ln (z+1), which theorists will tell you corresponds to an "Einstein-de Sitter Universe." Here we have distance given by the natural log of redshift, z, plus one, all divided by Hubble's constant. The effect of redshift is to reduce the frequency of radiation, thereby reducing its intensity by the factor 1/(z+1) = e− r/Ro. So that in an infinite universe we would have:
Equation 2
Thus, identical facts can be used to justify opposite theories if you're into that.

Of course cosmology involves a mass of observations concerning a broad scope of concepts, all of which must be understood in such a way that they agree before any comprehensive theory will ever even approach some sort of validity. But, as with the preceding, there seem to be more ways of looking at each fact than initially meets the eye. Einstein's gravitation equations don't address the obvious possibilities of gravitational energy suffering the depredation by redshifting while being propagated. Why not? Nor, of course, should "Newton's iron sphere theorem" be taken as having any relevance once one realizes that the metaphor does not hold for a closed universe for which there is no inside-outside surface. Here too, therefore, observed gravitational effects of finite universes cosmologists favor can be matched or bettered by virtually identical ones involving indefinite extension.

Are these mere cosmic coincidences? I don't think so.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Another Trapezoidal Puzzle

Albert Frank Headshot by Albert Frank

This puzzle is similar to the last year's trapezoidal puzzle but better.

Dissect the following trapezoid into four trapezoidal pieces of the same size and shape:


The solution will be provided at a later time whether you need it or not :)


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Nature of Nature Understanding Nature

Richard May headshot by Richard May

As individual members of our species have genetically-based cognitive limits on what they are capable of understanding, there is no reason to suppose that species don't also have asymptotic cognitive limits. Chimps and gorillas have no facility with the equations of Newtonian mechanics and there are no homo sapiens theoretical physicists with IQs between 90 - 110.

"The search[for physical laws and particles may] be over for now, placed on hold for the next civilization with the temerity to believe that people, pawns in the ultimate chess game, are smart enough to figure out the rules," George Johnson, "Why is Fundamental Physics so Messy?" WIRED magazine, February, 2007.

It may not be a matter of a civilization, i.e., culture, with the "temerity to believe", a feature of some human religions not of science, that people are smart enough to figure out the rules of the universe. Actually being neuro-biologically more intelligent may be required to do the next level of physics. Another species with a more highly evolved higher brain structure and higher genetically-based cognitive limits may be required to achieve the next major theoretical synthesis.

Even ordinary human occupations have cognitive thresholds and so may there be species-specific cognitive thresholds for the theoretical tasks required to ascend to the next level of a perhaps infinite regress of 'ultimate truths' about the universe. It is the ultimate anthropocentric hubris to presume that the Protagorian dictum "Man(as his brain is currently evolved)is the measure of all things" necessarily applies to fundamental understanding of Nature herself!



Monday, January 22, 2007

Mnemonics and Blindfold Chess

by Staffan A. Svensson


Mnemonics can be defined as "a technique of improving the efficiency of the memory"1. It sometimes means "a system to develop or improve the memory"2, implying a specific set of routines to achieve this improvement, but the first and wider definition is the one used here.

The goal of this article is to briefly describe what mnemonic techniques are and a few ideas regarding how they might be used when playing chess blindfolded. The research has consisted of articles and e-mail exchanges with the very competent blindfold player Hindemburg Melao Jr.

Footnotes are used exclusively to indicate sources or cross-references; a chess player is referred to as "he". Thanks to Andreas Gunnarsson, Eliot Hearst and Hindemburg Melao Jr.

What is mnemonics?

The memory processes

Memory if often divided into four major processes, and I will use these categories to help explain my view of what mnemonics are.

Attention and selection — what you notice; you choose (consciously and/or unconsciously) what to focus on.

Encoding — what you have chosen to focus on is changed, encoded, into the things to be remembered.

Storage — how you hold on to the information; some memories fade faster, others slower.

Retrieval — recalling what you have previously stored.

Some mnemonic guidelines you know from your common sense. For example: with regards to attention you need to focus. When it comes to encoding you need to keep it as simple as possible. What is the most effective way of storing (visually, audially, kinesthetically, etc.) differs somewhat between persons. The variant you use spontaneously is probably a good clue. Retrieval depends not only on how well the memory is stored, but also on what you have to do to remind yourself of it (for example, sometimes you forget why you walked into the kitchen, but you know that you can do the walk over again and it will probably come back to you).

Mnemonics builds on this and lets you be more efficient in how you use your memory. It is basically just a continuation of the common sense, taken to a level many people do not bother with because they normally do not need it in their everyday life. It is all built on principles natural to us, simply because these are the ones we do best.

The role of mnemonics in the different memory processes

To improve the attention and selection process you can practice concentration, both intensity and stamina (some form of meditation is often used to achieve this3). In this process we also include everything that has to do with creating an environment suitable for concentration. This includes external factors such as avoiding any disturbances and being given new information in a way that is clear and that you are comfortable with. It also includes internal factors such as being in good health, rested, relaxed and without any feeling of (negative) stress or pressure. In this process is also something seldom mentioned: the question of what you are supposed to pay attention to. The reason this is so rarely included in any mnemonic guides is of course that it is very subject specific.

Just to be clear: mnemonics means the deliberate use of ways to improve these factors. We can all concentrate more or less and what we do without having to actually think about it is not included in mnemonics. It is true that continuous use of mnemonic techniques will incorporate these into your normal thinking. However, when that happens, they are no longer mnemonics.

The encoding process is where you find all the famous mnemonic tricks that make up so much of the self-help literature on this subject4. So how can we make this process as effective as possible? We start by making the information we must remember as simple and logical as possible.

By organizing the information we lessen the amount to be remembered. We do this by distilling from our sources what we actually have to remember, we look for patterns and we decide how much of what we have left that actually has to be memorized. Not all of the original information needs to be encoded, you just need enough to remind you. Once you have found the memorized cues, you can often take it from there and remember the rest. So how do we encode what we have left?

Because we are different, the methods most effective to us differ as well. But there are still some general principles that seem to apply to practically everyone. One of those is that it is easier to imagine something concrete. A concept or anything else abstract is transferred into something concrete, which is remembered (concrete means you are able to sense it; see it, hear it, smell it...). In this and the other encoding situations imagination plays a big part.

Another basic concept is that it is always easier to remember something that has a clear connection to something you already know. Association with something familiar gives you a specific place to put the new stuff, a place where it is easy to find later. In order to make the associations as rich and effectual as possible, it helps to use all senses. Not just see an image but think about what it sounds like or what it smells like, or anything you might imagine. It is also good to attach some form of emotion or mood (if that doesn't come by itself); an emotional event is easier to remember than one you don't really care about.

A note about automatic encoding (also called "chunking"): In practically all aspects of life we use what is called implicit knowledge to automate tasks we perform regularly. For example, you do not have to think about how to walk, how to talk or how to read. It comes automatically. As mentioned above, this kind of simplification of input is not included in the term mnemonics.

Storage itself is not subject to mnemonic techniques, but the result of the other processes.

The retrieval is, because it is the decoding process, inevitably linked to the encoding process. Whatever you have associated with the memorized information is your key, so that is what you use in finding it again. If there is still something you cannot remember, the only thing you can do is search for it.

If you have something "on the tip of your tongue", that is if you know you have the information but cannot access it, you can in a limited way still look for cues. If it is a specific word, like a name, you can look for it by trying to start the word with the letters of the alphabet, one by one. Hopefully you will be reminded while trying the correct letter.

This sort of retrieval help, which is really just a form of systematic search, is only the last resort and not very effective. When developing the mnemonic techniques, all the work goes into the attention and selection and encoding process (in other words the input processes).

How can mnemonics be utilized in blindfold chess?

Remembering one board

Some parts of mnemonics are always present, no matter if you use a specific system or not. They are the ones in the attention/selection process. You have to be focused and you have to pay attention to only the game. All the factors regarding focus and concentration mentioned above apply.

In the encoding process the simplifying of information is always there, mostly spontaneously. This is what has been called "chunking" of information. This is necessary if you are to handle all the information needed to play a chess game, but since it is automatic, it is not included in mnemonics. (It is possible to focus on this part of the process while playing, but that counteracts itself since the goal is to have less to focus on, not more.)

Chess players don't remember a position piece by piece, as a non-chess player would be forced to. They see relationships between squares, pieces, pawn structures, open files, and so on. The better the player, the more efficient the chunking of the information of what the board looks like, and the more elaborate the associations of squares, pieces and piece configurations. For someone who doesn't play much chess, playing blindfolded sounds like an enormous mnemonic effort, but it is much simpler for someone who has the tools for it. Being a good player means having an efficient set of tools.

When it comes down to it, remembering the game, as in remembering all the moves in their correct order, is not the same thing as being able to "take in" more or less the entire board at once. This kind of comprehension is required because it is the only thing you have to go on to calculate your next move; just remembering what piece moved where is not enough. If you have enough knowledge and skill at playing the game with a board that you can plan moves without it, then remembering what you did is not a problem. It is then not much information to remember. This means that playing blindfolded is not really a question of having a good memory, is it about being able to comprehend the position enough to be able to plan your next move. In a way all players use this ability more or less even when they have a board in front of them; while planning ahead, they envision pieces moving and watch for what kind of position the moves lead to.

In blindfold playing, there is a skill level below which the information gets too complicated for the brain to process. Master blindfold player Reuben Fine (1914-93) has written he believed that knight odds level is required to play one game blindfolded, while master level is necessary to play more than one game 5. As people differ in there working memory capacity, the required level probably correlates with both size and configuration of that capacity, as well as with ability to concentrate. Examining this and getting more information about at what level of chess skill blindfold playing is possible would make interesting research but I have found no more information than the above cited article.

There have been suggestions how to remember chess games even if you are not a competent player. Dominic O'Brian has suggested using a variant of the Journey method6. He gives the different pieces personalities and the Knight so becomes Sir Lancelot of the round table, the Queen is Elisabeth II etc. Then algebraic notation itself is made able to visualize. Each square is turned into initials by changing the number into a letter, c3 becomes CC (represented in his example by Charlie Chaplin) and f6 FS (Frank Sinatra). The different images are then associated with each other and stationed along the mnemonic itinerary. This way of memorizing results only in recollection of moves in their correct order. It does not relay any relationships between pieces, which means that no matter how many games you remember, it will not improve your playing.

We come to the conclusion that some general parts of mnemonics, more specifically the ones you can benefit from in any type of situation, help if you want to play blindfolded. More specific tools, such as the systems found in many books, do not.

Remembering more than one board

Let us assume a person can play one blindfold game of chess. How can he go about if he wants to play more than one game simultaneously?

Playing more than one board could be seen as doing the exact same thing as with a single board, but with the amount of information to be remembered multiplied with the number of boards played. It could also be seen as two different and separate activities, playing (comprehending) one board and remembering the others.

In the first alternative the skill level required must be significantly higher than when playing only one board. In the second alternative, the player uses the same way of playing the single board as he has done when playing only one game. The factor added is to put the other board or boards aside and recall it for the next move; that is, simply remembering something enough to be able to recall it later. I say "simply" because this process does not require this board to be available to plan moves or strategies, it just has to be stored. The issue of being able to use the board for planning moves is still only needed for one board at a time. The other boards are stored, ready to be picked up again and played, and this storing is the area of the type of mnemonics featured in popular mnemonic systems (a number of which are listed in the Appendix). In reality, however, you will not find anyone using exclusively one of these two alternatives. They represent only the extremes of a spectrum.

The more you use a mnemonic technique, the more automatic it gets. You simply get better at doing it as you chunk the steps involved better and better and eventually it gets fully automated. A good example of an automated process is the way you read. You probably do not have to think about what the letters or even the words mean, as you were once forced to. But it is not as simple as that, and rechunking happens many times during the learning process. What is to be chunked changes as comprehension of it improves, and comprehension improves when the new chunks are organized. I will not try to explain these developments, but I will look at where mnemonics can be applied.

When you recall something you start with one detail and that detail reminds you of another, and then another, and soon you have more or less the complete memory. And even if some detail is missing you can probably find more than one path of association to remind you of it once the others are in place. Accepting this model of our memory we get two places where mnemonics can do their thing: helping us find the first clue, the "key," and helping associate the pieces of information so that the key will lead to all the rest.

The associations between the information involved in a chess position are always more or less spontaneous, since the moves follow a specific plan and this binds them together. The best way to help a player to improve is probably just to remind him of the basic guidelines of mnemonic associations and let him do the specifics (I say this because personally adapted mnemonics are always the best, and I am careful not to try to improve on the spontaneous by applying a general model). The guidelines, described briefly in the first part of this article, are: use your imagination, look for patterns, use all your senses, associate with something familiar, use concrete images. All these rules apply also when remembering the key bit of information, but as this is a more straightforward memorizing, mnemonics can here be given a larger and more elaborate role. For this, one can use any of the systems described in a number of books on mnemonics and memory.

Making the boards distinct

The most common problem described in simultaneous playing is that of mixing up the boards. If you only play two boards then this will not be a problem since you will be working on one of them at any given point in time. But how do you keep the boards separated when playing ten boards or more? By making them different.

A common technique is using different openings to separate boards. When playing twelve games, the blindfold player use one opening on four of the games, another one the next four and play black on the last four (or some similar system)7. Some people think that the memory used by blindfold players is built up by a memory bank of "normal" positions. This, they conclude, would make the game easier to remember if it did not include any unexpected strategy or odd moves. If they try these in order to make the player forget the game easier, the effect becomes the opposite: that game is immediately singled out from the others and thus easier to remember8.

In this way it is a matter of time before games become distinct enough from each other that there is no chance of mixing them up. The problem is the player must at all times have the distinctiveness of the games clear enough, even if only one or two pieces separate them. This kind of situation not only lends itself to mnemonic systems but to a particular type of system called "loci". Loci means place and the system consists basically of positioning that to be remembered in different surroundings already familiar to you. In your mind you already know your way around many locations, separate not only in space and time but also with regards to the feelings you associate with them; these locations can be used when profiling boards. The way the locis are used must depend on how the game is already comprehended and remembered by each player, but here are just a few suggestions:

If the game resembles a normal game in the way it is envisioned, why not play one game at your kitchen table, one at your favorite chess club, one in the park. Use familiar places and odd places, even imaginary places. If your view of the game is more of a story unfolding then let it play out before you on different stages. There are no rules when it comes to this and weirder is often better. Another way to approach it is to imagine familiar historical personalities as opponents, why not Napoleon or Sun Tzu (author of "The Art of War").

I am unfortunately not a good enough chess player to test these ideas in practise so their utility is so far not much more than a guess. However, some prominent blindfold players have been able to perform tricks worthy of any mnemonic expert9, so there are very likely already quite a few productive ways to use these systems. My humble suggestions above will of course not work for everyone, but my hope is that it will help someone.

Appendix - Common mnemonic systems

Below are a list of the most popular mnemonic systems. It is easy to see that many of these are variations on the same themes and they often overlap. There are many good books describing these and the way they can be used. The names used are the most common according to the many sources I have checked when compiling this list.

Link — you link together each thing to be remembered in an often-absurd story.

Substitute word or phrase (also called Keyword) - if the thing to be remembered is not easily visualized you substitute it for something else.

Number/rhyme (Pegword) — use something that rhymes with the number, for example 1 = bun, 2 = shoe. This is then used to get a numbered list by associating a shoe with something you know is item number two on a list.

Number/shape — instead of using something that rhymes you use something that looks similar to the number. 1 becomes a stick or a candle, 2 becomes a swan etc.

Major (Figure Alphabet, Phonetic Alphabet) — each number is represented with one or more consonant sounds. 1 = d or t, 2 = n, 3 = m, 4 = r. The number 43214 becomes for example "reminder" (r-m-n-d-r).

Alphabet — some image is connected to each letter instead of number, usually representing something that starts with that letter. A = ape, B = Bee, C = Sea etc.

Loci — the images to be remembered is placed in a certain location (= loci). For this you use a real building or route you are familiar with, either real or imagined. When memorizing or recalling you imagine walking the same route.

Journey — an extended loci system that often includes travelling between known locis. Sometimes denotes the same system as loci.

Roman room — once again thing placed in a location, usually a room, this time not in any specific order.


1 Webster's Third New International Dictionary — Unabridged

2 The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition

3 O'Brian, D. 2001, Lär dig minnas (Swedish translation of Learn to Remember).

4 The most common mnemonic systems of this kind are listed in the Appendix.

5 Fine, R. 1965. The psychology of blindfold chess. An introspective account. Acta Psychologica. 24: 352-370.

6 O'Brian, D. 2001.

7 Binet, A. 1966. "Mnemonic virtuosity: a study of chess players." Genetic Psychology Monographs. 74: 127-162.

Cleveland, A. A. (1907)." The psychology of chess." American Journal of Psychology. 18, 269-308. Fine, R. 1965.

Personal e-mail exchange with Hindemburg Melao Jr.

8 Fine, R. 1965.

9 Cleveland, A. A. (1907).


Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Promised Land

Fred Vaughan headshot by Fred Vaughan

After the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union and the Israeli - Palestinian resolution quite a few years ago now, I was reminded of the stupidity of concepts such as manifest destiny; fifty-four-forty-or-fight; the Little Big Horn; the Promised Land; the Bay of Pigs; the taking of Europe by Cromagnons from Neanderthals; Catholic Croatia, Serbian and Muslim Bosnian hatreds; Somalia; the genocidal war in Rwanda; the Sudan; now Afghanistan and Iraq, etc.. All involved an absurd but universal notion that "This land is my land!" and anyone else is an interloper. Having been (or supposing that it was their destiny to be!) in control of a particular hunk of land at a particular time since their racial memory began constituted in all such cases a perpetuated sacred responsibility to re-take the land whenever there was the slightest provocation or vulnerability of the current occupant at whatever cost is required in terms of human life. All these persistent grudges have guaranteed generations of genocide and poverty, especially in the "old world" where many still extent races of men have at one time or another been born into more or less legitimate control of some appreciable piece of soil. And why? Even as I propose to doubt the inevitability of such chaos it almost seems even to me to be the only reasonable conduct of history. But of course even the apparent reasonability of this insanity springs from my racial memory and the fact that we have not yet broken our umbilical with "Mother Earth," our linkage with "Land of Israel," "This land is my land from sea to shining sea," etc.. We limit our "ethnicity" to encompass only a limited group by our religion, color, political ties, etc. but then we glue this label onto the land even though the land may be shared by many groups. Ultimately (one might hope!) our vision could be improved to include all associated people and all indigenous species of the region. From religious protectorates associated with "The Land" sprang governments to control (optimistically for their own survival) the people that occupied the land.

Governments are born of a particular people but have always been instituted as being over all the people in a region and are, thereby, bounded artificially by that region rather than that people that is their legitimate bound, but the land does not obey laws, the requirement for all encompassing laws throughout a region can only be to assure the security of the government of the one people from internal attack at the hands of the disenfranchised peoples, not in any inclusive sense of wanting everyone to be equal sharers of the bounty of the region or to protect all from outside attack. Governments implicitly condone an ethnic "purging" of the land by occupation. Oh, yes, the disenfranchised whether they remain or flee as refugees still (and then to an even greater and much fantasized degree) "love" their homelands, only giving up control of them in desperation, hoping and scheming to someday "take" them back. Islam raises this to another level: Any region once occupied by Muslims must be secured and retaken if lost by the Mother of All Battles -- Jahad!

But individuals only inhabit the land for a generation and collectively such mortals constitute a people. So why can only one ethnic group peacefully occupy any hunk of land at any one time? Why do we so naturally focus on such narrow windows of geography and history? Why don't we squint our eyes temporally to blur our historic vision as we do our spatial vision when we look at a piece of art to perceive the layout independent of the details. Why is continuous sequential control over contiguous square miles throughout historically short periods so profoundly more glorious than contemporaneous control of non-contiguous (or even non-geometrical) areas throughout a much larger interval? (The Jews accomplished this feat amazingly well until it appeared obvious that real estate itself was also important. Did ownership itself distort that vision?) On large enough time scales interrupted control is simply contemporaneous control like timesharing in a multitasking computer system where the multitasking allows several jobs to share resources during the same appreciable interval on the same computer even though on a microscopic scale each was only individually in control of the machine (or "a" machine on an interconnected network) during separated short intervals of time. Why can human beings who have mastered such multitasking schemes not "get it"?.

Radio and TV signals and starlight all pass through every infinitesimal region of our atmosphere at the very same time without solely possessing it (although, of course, the property rights of waveband regions are being bitterly contested just as claim jumper grabbed at mining rights, but again, only by money grubbing interests and governments). In fact there are on the order of 10 billion times more quanta of light than matter in our universe and they crisscross every cubic centimeter of all space with none demanding ownership to pass.

Looking West from the back porch on the house on "my" farm of 27 years, I "loved" the land, not just my farm land but the whole setting as far as the eye could see to the Olympic mountains. My neighbor to the North looked South and "loved" the land, not just his land, but my land as far as his eye can see to Mount Rainier. In a very real sense, we "own" our own perspectives -- all of it! -- and sometimes confuse that for all the land we see, like Lot in the Old testament. Clearly, Lot did not actually own the "well-watered plains of Jordan" he had claimed -- probably much to the chagrin of his wife!

We raised race horses on our farm until a few years back, controlling their destinies in the long haul, but on a day-to-day basis, they had their own hierarchy. We could not change it other than get rid of a horse if it became too destructive like God might have sent a lightning bolt or turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt to effect a similar correction process in Old Testament days. Or we could banish them to a remote paddock or send them to the track as a God might have sent a man to war, or sell them as slave owners sold their slaves "down river".

Then there were the cats! A tom always ruled our farm with an iron clawed paw; he might originate as the most docile of kittens loved by our children, sleep for virtually three years like a curled up caterpillar as did "Patches The Horrible," but then one day his "destiny" would dawn upon him and the most feared force in the barn cat kingdom would begin a reign of terror without precedent. We could never do anything much about this carnage other than get rid of the aggressor when the carnage irritated us too badly! (Not a bad idea!) Then there were the pigeons, the mice, not to mention the flies, the frogs, and -- us! These stratified kingdoms co-inhabited the same twenty some odd acres for many years. There were disastrous interactions on occasion, as when a horse kicked a person or stepped on a cat, or a person started a vehicle with a cat hiding near the fan belt, or as when Patches bit through my rubber boot when I had attempted to break up a cat fight by stepping into a whirl of fur. But by most any accounting these were pretty minor events in the affairs of the respective kingdoms. But of course we fed the cats including those who couldn't or wouldn't eat the mice and rats (and pigeons!) that ate the oats that the horses should have eaten. And the horses won the races that provided the money to feed their dams and everybody else on the whole damn farm. And it all worked pretty well.

In the United States we have First, Second and even Third World nations. Why can't we acknowledge"..., [these many] nation[s], under God [sic.], indivisible, with liberty and justice for all..."? Let them all exist on the same soil with their own legitimate governments, even unique forms of governments. The United Nations or some hierarchy of nations should be able to accommodate the similarity of mailing addresses and monitor and control the interactions. But in this country at this time it is popular to hate welfare (even?) worse than foreign aid, but they are really the same thing, especially now in our age of the Small World where we search for bin Laden. The war in Iraq is costing the US $9 billion per month according to the nonpartisan government accounting office. In short, the cost of the senseless war in Iraq and paying the interest on the increasing national debt required to support it dwarfs welfare, but a "Christian Nation -- under God" cannot afford help the less fortunate?

I felt very congratulatory to the Israelis and Palestinians on their Peace Accord even though they were each no doubt as oblivious to the sense they were making as the cats and horses on our farm ...

... that we have now sold, after having dispersed the last of our horses, with one of the conditions of sale having been that we "get rid of the cats." That's commerce … and the price we pay for it.

Sadly, since the Palestinian Peace accord Rabin was assassinated by one of his own people for his role in bringing about a new order. Bus bombs and human bombs, and Israeli assassinations and increased occupation continue to appall us all in destroying the peace process. The Serbs and Croats wrecked havoc in the Balkans but were eventually stopped after the genocide. Genocide has killed millions in Africa in the last decade alone. Sunnis killed Shiites in Iraq under Saddam because it was "their land" even though they were out numbered. Now both Sunnis and Shiites slaughter each other in total civil war carnage because (no matter who gets the oil underneath it that is protected by US troops) each side believes Iraq to be "their land". Thousands die every moth in Iraq; just today the news is that 105 have died Baghdad alone.

And it will continue to happen. It has to happen. It will happen to us … unless we learn that "The Promised Land" is not dirt.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Historical Discussion: From Iraq to China

On April 2, 2003 the Guardian, one of England's preeminent journals, published an article by a prominent Indian author, Arundhati Roy. Evoking names from the dawn of civilization, Roy called her essay "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates". It was a scathing, eloquent attack on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it inspired an exchange of letters between the author and others on an e-mail list -- a wide-ranging debate that started with Baghdad and ended with in China, with stops along the way in Japan and Turkey.

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz


The article is so well written. No surprise there. Roy is a fine writer. That's why she won the Booker Prize. But she thrives on controversy... and this article is no exception. Is she right? It's too soon to say. If we succeed in creating a democratic, prosperous Iraq, a new golden age to rival the caliphate of Rashid, Roy's article will be consigned to the dustbin of history. If not, well, her article will be quoted by every future historian.

Sixty years ago, after a long war of unparalleled brutality, the US occupied Japan. The Japanese did not welcome our troops as liberators. If I recall correctly, thousands of Japanese killed themselves rather than live under US rule.

The US occupation lasted several years. Fortunately for all, some bright soul conceived of the idea of using the occupation government as a dumping ground for American socialists and left-wingers, and this idea was followed for the first 2 years, during which time a program of land reform broke up large landowners' holdings. A constitution was drafted, and Japan today is one of the freest, most democratic countries in the world. Instead of retaining control of Japan's economy, or looting it, we transformed it into our biggest economic rival.

In "The mouse that roared," a British comedy film made a few years later, in 1959, a bankrupt country declares war on the US, reasoning that they will be quickly defeated, and then reformed, refinanced and rebuilt. I hope the same happens in real life.

Is Japan a special case?

Thinking about it, I realized that Japan's transformation was not unique. Other countries did the same, albeit less successfully: Turkey under Ataturk, China under the last emperors (their slogan was "learn from the barbarians in order to defeat the barbarians"), Thailand under King Chulalungkorn. What all these countries had in common was they were among the very few never to have been colonized by Europe. Iraq was colonized, and never had a similar transformation, but is one of the most resilient regions in history: Sumer, Assyria. Babylon, the Caliphate, etc..

It's true that Japan learned from Tang dynasty China, but then they shut their doors to the outside world for a thousand years.

Is China a special case?

China was poised at the edge of economic success 700 years ago, but, like Moses, never quite made it to the promised land. The neo-Confucian philosophers of the 13th century should have triggered a scientific renaissance. They didn't. The global voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho in the 15th century should have led to an era of world domination. It didn't. The textile factories of Suzhou in the 16th should have been the vanguard of industrial revolution. They weren't. Why? One possible answer (which I don't totally agree with) is that the Chinese upper class looked down on merchants, commerce and industry instead of nourishing them. Since the Chinese upper class was in part selected by IQ tests (sort of...they emphasized crystallized g), this should be a warning to high-IQ societies.

Communist China, as you say, is a lot like ancient China. I wrote this in 1986 [in Brian's book A World of Villages, page 432]: "In China, as in India, history moves in circles. During the past thirty years, China has undergone radical transformation, but all of China's changes find their roots in China's past. China has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long that even when its people are seeking to break with the past they turn to it for guidance."


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

History Lesson

by Prof. Ed Rehmus

Edward Rehmus by Edward Rehmus


Now that Babylon has fallen, we must move quickly on to that other Arab stronghold: Syria! (Damascus, specifically.) With these important stations of the Ancient World under his belt — see, we've already got the "Future" (albeit the minimal Walt Disney version) — Napoleon is now ready to move on to that uttermost ancient of stations: China!

This game, we know from history, eventually plays out. And of course, even Napoleon knows his empire, though eternal, is not immortal, so he will coast the rest of the way downward to land on a soft pillow in the history books.

Sadly, however, every conqueror leaves a wasteland behind him, having been obliged at times to violate sensible tradition. When this Empire falls, speaking ex nostradamu, the entire world will have become a cesspool.

Now, this being so, the wretched survivors of the 21st Century must deal with reviving the corpse of civilization bequeathed to them. They may have certain advantages, such as science and "libertas in chaos," but since they lack the genius of classical skills, their machine will be lopsided and feckless. Thus will begin to brew new human bacteria and soon thereafter will appear the symptoms of kings and leaders like blisters on the social skin. And then the cycle begins anew, of this disease called monkey mumps.

Edward Rehmus in Paris (1999)
Ed in Paris (1999)


Escalation in Iraq

With the debate over how the US should deal with the current chaos in Iraq and whether or not to escalate the number of troops, it might be interesting to look back at a couple of perspectives of what could have been expected to happen at the time of the invasion by US troops. The next couple of articles will address those insights.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Disciple

by Paul Maxim

French Romantic composer
Vincent d'Indy
(pronounced "Dan - Dee")
worshipped his mentor,
the saintly C├ęsar Franck,
with what might be called
Franck adulation,
D'Indy loved the countryside
so much he dubbed himself
"the French Mountain heir,"
wrote his master's biography,
and quoted snippets of Franck's
music in his own. In fact,
had he only been American,
we would today be calling him
"Yankee Doodle d'Indy."


Friday, January 12, 2007

The Probable Human Future

From An Interview With My Cat

Richard May headshot by Richard May

Time-traveling missiles will be developed that reach their targets before the missiles are launched, preemptively destroying enemies that only exist in quantum-computer-projected probable futures. Nations will then defensively surrender to other nations not yet in existence, based solely upon their own defensive quantum-computer projections centuries into the future.

In the future nuclear holocausts, WMDs and genocide will be environmentally friendly and considered an essential part of any system of renewable resources and/or sustainable ecosystem designed for homo sapiens. In particular it will become possible through advances in quantum computers to reassemble the precise molecular structure of each soldier killed in combat down to the quantum-information level.

The use of emulations, as these 'resurrected' combat-dead warriors will be called, will allow humanity to finally achieve its dream of continual unending warfare, as God intended. It will become the patriotic duty of each citizen who is capable of dying, to die for her corporate state unendingly, not only once, either in combat or of degenerative diseases from environmental toxins and agribusiness foods that are so essential to the profits of the medical-industrial complex.

Alzheimer's and cancer, e.g., will be considered to be demonstrations of great economic patriotism. Archaic geographically based national identities will be transmogrified into corporate identities. One will be a citizen of Microsoft Nation or Coca Cola, e.g., not an American or Canadian.



Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Sonnet

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

The Italian Sonnet

The sonnet is one of the oldest and most distinguished poetry forms, a form that expresses some of the greatest truths of life and death in a relatively simple and straightforward way.

In this paper, I will examine both the Italian (Petrarchan) and the English (Shakespearean) sonnet.

The first sonnets were written by Giacomo Lentino, a Sicilian lawyer who lived at the court of Frederck II, around 1230 — 1240. Soon, the form established itself with Cavalcanti, Dante and Petrarch, to whom the Italian sonnet owes its name.

Maria Faverio and a friend
author and a friend

The Italian sonnet is written in two quatrains and two tercets and follows this rhyme scheme:

First quatrain:
Second quatrain:
First tercet:
Second tercet:

The two quatrains together form an octave, or "piedi", the two tercets a sestet, or "volte".

The first quatrain states a proposition, the second proves it, the first tercet then confirms it and the second draws the conclusion. These rules were established by Guittone of Arezzo, who died in 1294.

There are variations to this scheme, but the scheme presented above is the original one and the most widely used. The most important variation is in the sestet, which can also be rhymed c-d-c, d-c-d.

John Milton (1608-74) also introduced an interesting variation, eliminating the break between the octave and the sestet as required by the original rules.

Originally, the Italian sonnet was meant to be a love lyric, but by the 17th century its possible uses had been extended. Tasso categorizes the sonnets into Love Sonnets, Heroical Sonnets and Sacred and Moral Sonnets.

Milton, for example, wrote political, biographical and autobiographical as well as encomiastic sonnets that were to have a great impact on the Romantics, in particular Wordsworth and Coleridge. Milton is also the first great English poet who contributed some of the most beautiful sonnets to the English language. Five of his sonnets are even written in Italian.

The Italian sonnet is not an easy form for English-speaking poets. Milton, for example, tried to get over what Keats called "pouncing rhymes" by tricks like heavy enjambement. Wordsworth softened the octave by using abbaacca in nearly half of his 500 sonnets. However, he was still able to master the original octave, as the following example shows1 :

London, September 1802
O Friend, I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our Life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! — We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

Many great poets of the past have written at least a few sonnets.

The English Sonnet

The sonnet was brought into English literature in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who both introduced variations to the Italian sonnet. Wyatt's sonnets all ended with a couplet, and Surrey used a pattern of alternately rhymed quatrains, encouraging logical exposition right up to the final couplet and postponing the turn.

Thus the scheme of the English (or Shakespearian) sonnet is as follows:

First quatrain (stave):
Second quatrain:
Third quatrain:
Couplet (gemell):

The three quatrains together form a douzain, the turn comes before the couplet. All lines are iambic pentameters.

The English sonnet became much more popular in English than the Italian form, in particular due to the fact that the English language doesn't have a wide variety of rhymes, which made the Italian sonnet quite difficult.

The couplet also introduced a pleasant novelty to the sonnet, with its epigrammatic nature often contradicting the rest of the sonnet. One of the reasons why the concluding couplet is often witty or paradoxical is due to the fact that obviously two lines cannot make an argued resolution as the Italian sestet did. The couplet doesn't argue, it asserts, after the argument has been developed in the first two quatrains and intensified (or looked at from a different perspective) in the third. This is particularly evident in Shakespeare, as the following sonnet shows:

Sonnet No.94
They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense,
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence:
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die;
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed out-braves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Before the sonnet achieved its full momentum after being introduced by Wyatt and Surrey, however, there was an interval. Then the English sonnet achieved its highest fame in the Elizabethan period in the last two decades of the 16th century. Interestingly, the Elizabethan sonneteers found more inspiration in the French rather than the Italian sonnet. Sonnets had literally thrived in France in the 16th century, while Petrarch had become a writer of the past, although a much respected one. In particular, the French sonnet was more passionate and personal than the Italian sonnet, less conventional, and as such more congenial to the Elizabethans. The first and best Elizabethan sonneteer, Sir Philip Sidney, openly declared that what he wrote was sincere and individual and didn't have anything to do with Petrarch.

His sonnet 34 (in Astrophel and Stella), for instance, is a complex self-examination:

Come, let me write, "And to what end?" To ease
A burthened heart. "How can words ease, which are
The glasses of thy daily-vexing care?"
Oft cruel fights well pictured forth do please.
"Art not ashamed to publish thy disease?"
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare.
"But will not wise men think thy words fond ware?"
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.

"What idler thing than speak and not be heard?"
What harder thing than smart and not to speak?
Peace, foolish wit! With wit my wit is marr'd.
Thus write I, while I doubt to write, and wreak
My harms in ink's poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella's great powers that so confuse my mind.

An interesting variety of the English sonnet was invented by Spenser. The pattern introduced by Spenser blends the quatrains together, thus offering the opportunity for a more closely developed argument and increasing the musicality of the sonnet:

First quatrain:
Second quatrain:
Third quatrain:

The Elizabethans used the sonnet to exhaustion. Most sonnets written in this period were sequences addressed to ladies with fancy names. This overproduction was not regarded positively, and many sonneteers of this period were mocked at for their excessive sentimentality. Matthews for example called the sonnet of this period "a highly neurotic art-form", and Lord Byron remarked in his Journals (17-18 December 1813) that they were "the most puling, petrifying, stupidly platonic compositions" he had ever read.

There were exceptions of course, notably Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, but on the whole the Elizabethan period produced too many over-sentimental sequences of sonnets. Sonneteering seemed to have become a cheap fad. Although Sidney had started this fashion stating that his sonnets were meant to be personal, many of his followers lacked any form of originality.

Shakespeare wrote one hundred and fifty-four sonnets, all of which are unique in the experiences and the power of the images they convey and in their variety of tone reflecting his deep understanding of human mutability.

They begin with seventeen sonnets in which a young man is encouraged to marry in order to perpetuate his beauty. They are then followed by a larger number of sonnets, still addressed to a young man, in which the object of love is seen in an increasingly critical way because of its wantonness and arrogance, and in which the destructive power of time is deeply felt, as we can clearly recognize in sonnet 19:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood,
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet'st,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets:
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime,
O carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen,
Him in thy course untainted to allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet do thy worst, old Time, despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse live ever young.

As the sequence goes on, the conveyed images become deeper and deeper, almost mystical, as in sonnet 94 or 107, the events described wherein have not yet been fully understood.

A significant turn in the sequence sets in when the so-called Dark Lady appears, and lust gives way to familiarity, idealism to cynical bawdiness, a tone which will dominate the sequence until the end.

Donne is another great sonneteer. He abandoned the theme of love so popular in the Elizabethan period altogether, and wrote nineteen powerful sonnets on religious themes, grouped together under the title of Holy Sonnets. Many of these sonnets are introspective, some full of self-contempt and almost hysterical, like sonnet no. 14.

Milton, the other great sonneteer already mentioned in this paper, did not write sonnets about love either, nor did he write a sequence. Milton's sonnets are concerned with a variety of subjects, from public events to the description of important persons.

He strictly abides by the rules of the Petrarchan form in all his sonnets, creating an irregular, "staccato" rhythm in the English language.

In spite of the few exceptions briefly presented above, and some others, like Thomas Gray later in the eighteenth century, the interest for the sonnet was slowly dying in favour of witty, moral and social poems.

In the eighteenth century, some tried sonnets based on Romantic themes, like Thomas Warton and William Bowles, thus introducing a new era of the sonnet. The most prolific and noteworthy poet of this period was Wordsworth. He used the form for two main types of sonnet: "moments of vision", which make up his greatest sonnets, and public events or national issues. His greatest sonnet celebrating moments of vision is "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", a sonnet "written on the roof of a coach, on my way to France", in Wordsworth's own words:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open upon the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Of the other Romantic poets who have tried the sonnet, the best known are Keats and Shelley, but their fame is not due to their sonnets. Of Keats, we will here mention "Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou are", which is said to be Keats's last poem and was written before his departure to Italy and death; of Shelley we will mention "Ozymandias" and "England in 1819".

With the Victorian and Edwardian ages, then, the sonnet became fully re-established, and in particular the sequences about love. It was mainly influenced by the Elizabethan English sonnet and the medieval and Renaissance Italian sonnet.

Some of its most notable examples are Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1847-50), D.G. Rossetti's The House of Life (published 1881) and Robert Bridges's The Growth of Love (1876, with later additions). However, these are not always regarded as truly successful. Elizabeth Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, for example, encompass forty-four sonnets, twenty-five of which contain the word "I" or "me" in the first line, which makes the whole sequence quite egocentric, and Robert Bridges's The Growth of Love is full of Shakespearean plagiarisms.

D.G. Rossetti's best sonnets are those he wrote on works of art rather than the love sonnets contained in The House of Life. His sister Christina was more talented than he and wrote a few most memorable sonnets which display an incredible honesty in her analysis of herself and the world.

The best sonneteer and most notable theorist of the sonnet among the Victorians, however, is Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins called the attention to the importance of using certain tricks or devices in English sonnets to make them less "trifling" as compared to Italian sonnets with their two elisions in every line, and heavy endings or 13 syllables, simple tricks like "the mere gravity of thought", inversion, breaks and pauses, the use of many monosyllables, the weight of the syllables themselves (for example strong or circumflexed), falling (trochaic) rhythm, "outriding" feet (to equal the Italian elisions), as well as Alexandrine lines (used throughout). Of course, he used these devices in his own sonnets, like the Alexandrine line in "Spelt from Sibyl's Leaves", or the falling trochaic rhythm in the following sonnet:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury has shrieked 'no ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Hopkins was a great sonneteer, and it is a pity that his poems remained unknown until 1918.

Of the modern poets, the most distinguished sonnet-writer is W.H. Auden, who, like Hopkins, managed to make something new out of the sonnet and wrote notable sonnets as commentaries on public affairs or famous men and fellow-poets, like the following sonnet on Edward Lear:

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat
Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

In spite of Yvor Winter's announcement of the death of the sonnet, it is to hope that it will find new ways of expression through new poets who may find yet new ways of making something new out of the traditional form, and indeed, this is already happening, as Jacques Roubaud, for instance, has proved with his sonnets, each of which is identified as either a black or white piece in the Japanese game of Go (so in order to read them, you have to know and follow the rules of this game). Although this may obviously go too far for some, it is the proof that the sonnet is still alive.


Cruttwell P., The English Sonnet, London 1966 Longmans

Fuller, J., The Sonnet, London 1972 Methuen & Co. Ltd

Kallich M., Gray J.C., Rodney R.M., A book of the sonnet: poems and criticism , New York 1973 Twayne Publishers

Nye, R., The Faber Book of Sonnets, London — Boston 1976, Faber and Faber

Pretty, Ron, Creating Poetry, 2001 Five Islands Press

Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited with analytic commentary by Stephen Booth New Haven 1977, Yale University Press

Stillman, Frances, The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, 1978 Thames and Hudson, London


1 You will notice, however, that the tercets don't follow the original scheme.



by Ed Rehmus



Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Atheism Defined

by Dan Barker

Dan Barker

Some have raised again the question of the definition of atheism/agnosticism. (Actually, I might have prompted the discussion in a recent email about a talkshow I did on Christian radio.* For about 20 years I have been one of the leading atheists in the US, and I am always asked to define precisely what those words mean.)

Right at the start there is a problem — though it is not a problem created by atheists. Different dictionaries often give different definitions. Dictionaries usually include one or more of these definitions of "atheism":

  1. The denial of the existence of a god. (Or, as [a list participant] puts it, "the belief that there is no god." Or the dogma that god does not exist.)
  2. The disbelief in the existence of a god. (Or some other way to say this, such as "the absence of a belief in god.")
  3. Wickedness. This is usually last, and it is sometimes presented as informal usage. ("Wickedness" or "lack of moral standards" is more often a description of the word "godless" or "godlessness," which is the same as "atheism." And quite an insult.)
Some dictionaries only give one of those definitions, and some give both. Except for #3, both primary definitions are correct, as understood by atheists themselves.

Looking up a word in the dictionary is not the best way to study a topic. How many Christians, for example, would trust the dictionary to explain their religion? (According to some dictionaries, a "Christian" is reasonably defined as a "follower of Christ," and by that definition Adolf Hitler, who was a member of the Catholic Church in good standing and claimed to be doing the will of Christ, was a Christian.)

My understanding and usage of the words "atheism" and "agnosticism" conforms to most atheistic literature, historical and contemporary , such as:

  • Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, by Michael Martin (1992, Temple University Press)
  • Atheism: The Case Against God, by George Smith (1980, Prometheus Books)
  • The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Gordon Stein (1985, Prometheus Books)
  • Atheism, and other addresses, by Joseph Lewis (1941, Freethought Press)
  • What is Atheism? A Short Introduction, by Doug Krueger (1998, Prometheus Books)
  • A Defence of Atheism, by Ernestine Rose (1810 - 1892)
… and others.

I admit that there is some disagreement among atheists, especially among philosophers (surprise, surprise). A few atheists think only Definition 1 is valid (because who would call herself or himself an "atheist" unless they are denying something?). Others think only Definition 2 is valid. And (I think) most of us think both definitions are valid. But those disagreements are not important to the actual question of whether a god exists.

Here's how I see it:

"Atheism" is a lack of belief in a god or gods. General atheism is not a belief — it is the absence of belief. (Corresponding to Definition #2.)
"Theism" is a belief, not a fact. Whether a god exists or not is indeed a question of fact, but "theism" is a belief system. Some theists do claim to know that a god exists, but they are a subset of theists. They all have a belief, whether they claim to know or not.

The prefix "a-" is the privative Greek prefix meaning "without" or "lacking" or "not" in the privative (not negative) sense. The prefix "a-" is not the same as the prefix "anti-".

For example, amoral does not equal immoral. Someone who is apolitical is not opposed to politics. Music that is atonal is not music that is anti-tonal (whatever that would mean).

And an atheist is not (necessarily) an anti-theist.

An a-theist is simply someone who is not a theist. Someone who lacks a belief, for whatever reason. Under this definition, every baby is an atheist. (See Stein, especially, on this point, as well as Rose. Stein goes to great historical lengths to show that this is precisely how atheist writers and activists have defined themselves, despite the general public's insistence that atheism is a belief.)

When it comes to the general question of whether a god exists or not, I am an a-theist in this privative sense. There are so many (perhaps an infinite number) definitions of the word "god" that there is no way anyone could say with confidence that they "know" that none of these gods exist.

However, there is a subset of atheists who do claim to know that a god (or a certain god) does not exist. These correspond to Definition #1, the denial of the existence of a god.

Atheist writers and philosophers have distinguished between these two types of atheism. Michael Martin calls it Negative Atheism (lack of belief) vs. Positive Atheism (denial). George Smith calls it Hard vs. Soft atheism. I call it capital-A "Atheism" vs. lower-case "atheism."

In any event, every positive-hard Atheist is also a negative-soft atheist — those who call ourselves "Atheists" who deny a particular god also lack a belief in any god.

You can be a soft atheist for any number of reasons. Your reasons don't even have to be defensible because you are defending nothing. Some people simply do not believe, and don't care. Some of them give philosophical reasons for their lack of belief. Some give emotional reasons, or political reasons (like the Soviet atheists). Some give social reasons, such as the church's opposition to gay rights or women's rights. Some of these people prefer to call themselves "agnostics" (more below), though they can be defined as lowercase "atheists" because they do not have a belief in a god.

But few of these soft atheists would be comfortable with the label "Atheist" as a description of who they are, like many religious people wear the label of their "Christian" or "Muslim" or "Jewish" faith as a personal identification.

Here's a simple way to test if you are an atheist (lowercase, at least). Ask yourself:

"Is there any 'god,' by any definition of the word 'god,' that I believe exists?"
If you can't answer that question with "Yes," then you are without a belief in a god. You are an atheist. You might prefer the label "agnostic," but I can call you an "atheist." (Calling such a person an "atheist" is not attaching a label — it is simply a description, like if I called you a female, not a "Female" signifying a member of a formal named religious or philosophical group.)

Having said all that, I personally take it a step further. Not only am I a soft atheist in general, I am also a hard Atheist in particular, depending on which god you are talking about. For example, regarding the "God of the revelation" (the Judeo/Christian/Islamic "God"), I am a positive capital-A Atheist. Not only do I lack a belief in such a god, I claim to know with certainty that such a god not only does not exist — it cannot exist. I deny the existence of that particular God. (I won't explain here, but I have good reasons for saying such a thing.) As far as most Christians in America are concerned, since they believe there is only one God, I might as well be labeled a hard "Atheist." The other gods don't matter to them.

So I am both an "atheist" and an "Atheist" depending on the god being discussed.

This means that there are some definitions of the word "god" that are either not clearly enough defined or about which I am insufficiently informed to make a decision. I do not necessarily deny their existence, but I certainly do not claim a belief in their existence. I am without belief, "atheistic," regarding those gods.

Some people confuse soft atheism with agnosticism, and it is easy to see the confusion. In fact, most atheists will claim that they are also agnostic, with no contradiction.

The mistake many make is to treat agnosticism as if it were a kind of halfway house between atheism and theism. But there can be no such thing. You either do, or you do not, have a belief in a god. There is no middle ground.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is simple, and once acknowledged, it erases the apparent conflict.

Atheism/theism addresses BELIEF.

Agnosticism addresses KNOWLEDGE.

You can be both an atheist and an agnostic. They address two different things. They are not mutually exclusive.

Every person who identifies himself or herself as an "agnostic" still has to answer the question: "Do you have a belief in a god?"

If they can't answer "Yes," they are atheistic agnostics.

If they answer "Yes," they are theistic agnostics.

For example, philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal was a theistic agnostic. Pascal said that you cannot know for certain if god exists, but it is safer to believe than not to believe, so he chose to believe in the Catholic God. (I know that is an oversimplification of Pascal's position, but you get the point.) I think Pascal's position is honest, at least. I think there are many Christians in the world who take that position, especially liberal believers: they don't claim certainty, but they value faith.

Agnosticism is not really much of a philosophy. It is a relatively new word, coined by Huxley more for PR purposes than to start a new school of thought. We already had the words "rationalism" and "skepticism." An agnostic is just a rationalist about religion.

An agnostic is a person who chooses not to make a Yes/No judgment about the truth of a proposition when there is insufficient data or reason to make a decision.

You can be an agnostic about UFOs, about the fidelity of your spouse, and about the character of your representative to Congress. But most often agnosticism is applied to the question of the truth of the proposition "God exists."

So … I am an atheistic agnostic about the existence of many defined (and undefined) gods. I don't claim either KNOWLEDGE or BELIEF.

If you think about it, the very notion of "faith" or "belief" requires agnosticism. If you KNOW something is true, you don't need faith. It is only when you lack certainty that you invoke faith.

The word "belief" is often used to signify doubt or uncertainty:

"It is 2 o'clock, I believe." "Let's have faith that Mom will survive the operation."

So in general, a "theist" (a believer in god) is a doubter, an agnostic. I suppose we could say that "Theists" (capital-A godders) are theists who claim to KNOW that a god exists. We could use the word "Gnostic" for this kind of god-worshiper, but that word has a certain historical usage limited to the pre-Constantine Christian mystery cults.

Did you know that the early Christians were called atheists by the Romans? They did not believe in the right gods.

In fact, every believer is an atheist regarding everyone else's god. No Christians believe in the existence of the Norse god Wodin, though they acknowledge that god when they use the word "Wednesday." There are HUNDREDS of gods about which Christians not only lack belief, but about which they positively DENY their existence. (I think they are actually stronger Atheists than I am in that regard.)

The only difference between me and them is that I believe in one less god than they do.

crossed legs drawing

* Indeed this article itself was originally message on an e-mail list.